by Shawn Tucker:
It can be difficult to distinguish what the Lord might be telling you. For my Institute students I call this the BB Principle: is this sensation a heaven-sent Burning in the Bosom or just the result of that afternoon's Bean Burrito. What follows are some practical helps for making that distinction. I will add that this already assumes that you are doing the fundamentals to get personal revelation, including being as obedient as possible, praying and reading your scriptures regularly, searching for answers in the scriptures, in modern revelation, in one's patriarchal blessing, and from trusted people around you, and perhaps going to the temple, fasting, or seeking a priesthood blessing. Even doing all of those things, these tips might be useful.
1. Expect mistakes. I am of the opinion that recognizing answers to prayers is a skill that requires time and practice. It also requires a lot of experience, and some of those experiences include making mistakes. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I felt inspired that we would have a boy. I didn't really care whether we had a boy or a girl, but the notion that we would have a boy was quite strong. I was more than a little surprised when our first child was a girl. I have pondered this experience many times, and now I just chalk it up to making a mistake. I feel fortunate that it wasn't a very serious issue or mistake, but it does help me to see that mistakes are part of the learning process.
One thing I would add is that communication from Heavenly Father seems to come through thoughts and emotions. Sometimes distinguishing those thoughts and emotions is like playing the piano with boxing gloves. Instead of fine distinctions between one finger and another finger, between different inflections of emotion or different qualities of thought, I just have thoughts and emotions. But it does seem to be that over time I can distinguish the qualities of different thoughts and emotions in ways that make it easier to differentiate what is from God and what is not. This is an ongoing learning process, and knowing that mistakes are part of the process is very reassuring.
2. If you don't have to do anything, wait. Sometimes you want an answer to a prayer for a decision that needs to be made. One helpful tip is to neither rush yourself or the Lord. If a decision does not need to be made immediately, then wait. This can allow time for a correct decision to become clear. The problem of course is that waiting can be painful. Uncertainty is painful. Uncertainty is like lifting weights in that you are doing something and it is painful. You want that pain to end—you want a clear answer. Sometimes you want to put the weights down and be finished with the painful uncertainty process perhaps too early. The problem with putting the weights down too early is that you are probably not getting the best answer possible. But a second and perhaps even more important problem is that putting the weights down early will mean that the weights and the waiting have not yet done their job. Lifting weights makes you stronger. Waiting on the Lord and on yourself for the best answer and its confidence to emerge requires patience that makes one stronger and more resilient. Perhaps God doesn't just want to give you an answer, He wants you to gain power and faith that only come from exercising patience.
3. Cherish your revelations enough to write them down. Joseph Smith once commented "... if I now had in my possession, every decision which had been had upon important items of doctrine and duties since the commencement of this work, I would not part with them for any sum of money." He went on to explain that if he had such a record they would help to "decide almost every point of doctrine which might be agitated." Joseph lamented that he did not valued all of the revelation that was received enough to keep a written record of it. Of course Joseph also shows the value of keeping records with all that was written down. Taking time to cherish the answers you get to prayers enough to write them down provides one with a personal collection, almost an individual version of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. Such a collection of answers could not only serve one in the future but may also be helpful for others.
4. Dew and outpourings. Dew and outpourings are two ways of thinking about water from heaven. Dew is the result of water condensation when humid air meets a cold surface. Dew suddenly, almost gracefully appears. Some answers to prayers are like dew; they emerge slowly, unexpectedly. The phrase "line upon line" seems to apply to these answers. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like a full line--it's just a word or phrase. But over time words and phrases become sentences and then paragraphs and before your very understanding a more or less complete answer has finally emerged. But at other times one might feel an outpouring, a sudden flood of ideas and inspiration. Joseph Smith seems to talk about this when he says, "When you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus." Knowing that sometimes answers accrue over time, like dew, while on other occasions revelation may come as a flood that is powerful, unmistakable, and quickly verified can give one an appropriate range of expectations about light and knowledge from God.
5. Varieties of answers. Having a sense of a variety of possible answers to one's prayers can also be very helpful. The Family Home Evening Resource Book has an excellent way of illustrating this. In the chapter on prayer there is a story of a father who was working at home. The father is interrupted several times by his children. The children come with unique problems, and the father provides an appropriate response. Sometimes the father fixes the problem, sometimes he works out a solution with the child, and at other times he merely explains why the situation will not be solved immediately. What is brilliant about the story is how it shows a range of ways that God may answer one's prayers. Sometimes God takes away our problems. Sometimes He explains the purpose and importance of the challenges that we are passing through. Sometimes He proposes a joint solution to whatever we are struggling with. Sometimes He gives us a few ideas or some hints and then lets us figure it out on our own. Sometimes He just gives needed reassurance. Having in mind such a range of possible answers may make it easier for us to discern what the Lord might be saying.
What are some tips that you might add? What have been some things that you have learned about getting answers to prayers? Or what experiences of you had with personal revelation?
Shawn Tucker grew up with amazing parents and five younger, wonderful siblings. He served as a missionary in Chile during the Plebiscite and the first post-dictatorship election. After his mission, he attended BYU, where he married ... you guessed it ... his wife. They both graduated, with Shawn earning a BA in Humanities. Fearing that his BA in Humanities, which is essentially a degree in Jeopardy, would not be sufficient, Shawn completed graduate work in the same ... stuff ... at Florida State University. He currently teaches at Elon University in North Carolina. He and ... you guessed it ... his wife have four great children. Twitter: @MoTabEnquirer. Website: motabenquirer.blogspot.com.
Image credit: RandomDrps (used with permission).