For the bicentennial celebration of the First Vision, President Russell M. Nelson invited us “to think deeply and often about this key question: How do you hear Him?” He then invited us “to take steps to hear him better and more often.” I believe we are receiving revelation from the Holy Ghost all the time, but we too often fail to recognize it. Answering the following questions will help us hear Him better and more often by recognizing the revelation we are already receiving.
Question 1: How does revelation usually come, regularly or occasionally? common or rare?
The first question we need to consider is the frequency with which we can expect to receive personal revelation. Is it something that is meant to be common or rare? The answer may surprise you. Elder David A. Bednar has taught, “As we honor our covenants, we may have the Holy Ghost as our constant companion. We often talk as if hearing the voice of the Lord through His Spirit is a rare event. … If you and I are doing our best and not committing serious transgression, then we can always rely on the Holy Ghost to guide us. Many people seem to believe that inspiration from the Holy Ghost is dramatic, big, and sudden. The truth is the Holy Ghost guides in still, small, and incremental ways over time. You often will not recognize that you are receiving revelation in the moment that you are receiving revelation. Nephi is the perfect example of this model” (Elder David A. Bednar, CES talk Feb. 2020).
This powerful doctrine, that revelation is common, may seem surprising at first, but it is actually taught to us every week in the sacrament prayer. When we take the sacrament, we receive the promise that if we keep our covenant then we will “always have his spirit to be with [us]” (D&C 20:77). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “no man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator” (Teachings p. 328). So, if the Holy Ghost is a revelator, and he is with us all the time, then it implies that we are always receiving revelation. We are literally living in the revelation!
The problem then is not receiving revelation, it is recognizing it when it comes. The prophet Joseph Smith taught that we can notice “the first intimation of the spirit of revelation … when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas … 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” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.151). I wonder if when we stand before the Lord and look back on our lives, we will realize that so many of the thoughts we had, the feelings we experienced, and the impressions we received that we thought were our own were actually from the Holy Ghost. He is guiding us, teaching us, directing us—more than we know. He was with us all the time! The following questions will help us better recognize the revelation we are already receiving.
Question 2: How does revelation usually come, gradually or all at once?
Although there are times when the Lord gives a message suddenly and all at once, the more common pattern in the scriptures is for God to reveal things gradually over time. As the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi explained, “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and … unto him that receiveth I will give more” (2 Nephi 28:30).
As Nephi explained, one reason God reveals this way is to test our faith. He does not reveal the end from the beginning all at once, he usually reveals just enough to take a few steps. Once we have taken those steps in faith, then he reveals more. This inspired process not only tests our faith, but it also strengthens our faith by teaching us to rely on and trust the Lord to guide us, step by step.
Elder David A. Bednar has compared this common form of gradual revelation to a sunrise and has contrasted that with the rarer experience of receiving revelation all at once like a light switch. He explained, “The gradual increase of light radiating from the rising sun is like receiving a message from God ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ (2 Nephi 28:30). Most frequently, revelation comes in small increments over time and is granted according to our desire, worthiness, and preparation. … This pattern of revelation tends to be more common than rare” (Bednar, Ensign May 2011). This pattern is seen in Nephi getting the brass plates, building a ship, and in the unfolding process of the Restoration throughout Church History. (see Elder Bednar video here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media-library/video/2012-01-012-patterns-of-light-spirit-of-revelation?lang=eng)
It is especially important to recognize this pattern of revelation in seeking for a testimony. Elder Bednar has expressed concern that many Church members, particularly the youth, question whether they have a testimony “because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions.” He further explained, “Perhaps as we consider the experiences of Joseph in the Sacred Grove, of Saul on the road to Damascus, and of Alma the Younger, we come to believe something is wrong with or lacking in us if we fall short in our lives of these well-known and spiritually striking examples.” But Elder Bednar assured us that not having these kinds of dramatic spiritual experiences is “quite normal” (Bednar, Ensign May 2011). It is much more common to have our testimonies grow gradually over time rather than come through one big experience.
President Joseph F. Smith shared that his own experience gaining a testimony followed this same pattern. He explained, “When I as a boy first started out in the ministry, I would frequently go out and ask the Lord to show me some marvelous thing, in order that I might receive a testimony. But the Lord withheld marvels from me, and showed me the truth, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, until he made me to know the truth from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, and until doubt and fear had been absolutely purged from me. He did not have to send an angel from the heavens to do this, nor did he have to speak with the trump of an archangel. By the whisperings of the still small voice of the Spirit of the living God, he gave to me the testimony I possess. And by this principle and power he will give to all the children of men a knowledge of the truth that will stay with them . . . And no amount of marvelous manifestations will ever accomplish this.” (President Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine p. 7)
I learned this same lesson in the MTC. As a young missionary, I was practicing inviting people to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. As I practiced, it occurred to me that I had never prayed to know the Book of Mormon was true. I had read it several times but had never thought to pray about it. I became concerned that I might not have a testimony because I had never received a dramatic response to such a prayer. Motivated by this concern, I knelt down by my bed and asked God if the Book of Mormon was true. I expected a response, but not the one I received. The inspired impression that came to my mind and heart that day was this: “Mark, you know the Book of Mormon is true. You’ve always known the Book of Mormon is true. Now, get off your knees and go testify of the Book of Mormon.”
At that moment I realized that my testimony of the Book of Mormon had been coming all along. At my mother’s knee hearing Book of Mormon stories, in personal and family scripture study, in Sunday School and seminary, that testimony had been coming page by page and verse by verse as I studied the Book of Mormon. It came so gradually, like a sunrise, that I can’t pinpoint the moment when I first knew it was true. It feels like I’ve always known. As I have shared that experience, I have had so many people share with me that they experienced the same answer when they prayed about the Book of Mormon. This was how I learned that revelation comes gradually, like a sunrise, not all at once, like a light switch.
Question 3: How does revelation usually come, obviously or subtly? a shout or a whisper?
Everyone knows that the Holy Ghost is often compared to a “still, small voice,” but many still expect spiritual experiences to be dramatic. However, the more common pattern in the scriptures is for the Spirit to be subtle rather than obvious, a whisper rather than a shout.
Elijah learned this lesson on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, and it is here that the Lord dramatically made his presence known in the days of Moses, with thunders and lightnings, fire and smoke, while the whole mountain quaked (Ex. 19:16-18). Perhaps Elijah was expecting the same dramatic revelation when he went up to the same mountain generations later, but he learned a powerful lesson. When he manifested himself to Elijah, “the Lord was not in the earthquake: And … the Lord was not in the fire,” rather the Lord revealed himself through “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Although dramatic revelations happen, the more common form of revelation is the subtle whisperings of the Holy Ghost.
In fact, it is often when we ignore the feelings of the Spirit that the Lord must resort to more dramatic means to get our attention. This was the case when angels appeared to Laman and Lemuel (1 Nephi 3:29), and Alma and the sons of Mosiah (Mosiah 27:11). In rebuking his brothers, Nephi explained, “Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder” (1 Nephi 17:45).
With modern cell phone technology, we can easily see why this would be the case. If you had an important and urgent message you needed to get to someone quickly, the fastest and easiest way to do that would be to call or send a text. Only if they were ignoring your calls or not responding to your texts would you resort to going to their house in person and banging on their door to get their attention. The Lord often speaks to us the same way. Why send an angel if he can send the message simply and quickly through the Holy Ghost? After all, angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost anyway, so the effect is the same (2 Nephi 32:3). (See Elder Bednar video: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media-library/video/2012-01-011-patterns-of-light-discerning-light?lang=eng)
The interesting result of this pattern of subtle revelation is that we can often receive it and not even know it at the time. President Boyd K. Packer shared a beautiful story that illustrates this. When he and his wife were about to travel by train through communist East Germany, the young missionary who had brought them to the train station had the thought to ask them if they had any German money. When they said they didn’t, he ran over and handed them some as their train departed.
Later in their journey, East German officials asked to see their passports. To their surprise, the passport that sister Packer was carrying was considered invalid and the officers could have put her off the train in the middle of the night in communist Germany. Remembering the German money the missionary had given him, Elder Packer placed it in his wife’s passport. When the officers examined it again, they saw the money and decided to keep it rather than punish her. Miraculously, Sister Packer avoided a life-threatening situation because that young missionary had the inspired thought to give them German money. The missionary in the story was Elder David A. Bednar, who did not know that the thought was inspired until 30 years later, when President Packer shared the story! (See Packer, New Era June 2009). This is often the case with revelation, we don’t recognize it for what it is until we look back and see the results (see D&C 6:14-15).
Question 4: How does revelation usually come, by his own voice or by the voice of His servants?
Although revelation often comes to us through independent promptings from the Holy Ghost, a pattern of revelation that is perhaps even more common is when the Spirit confirms something we hear or read from the Lord’s prophets. This is not a lesser form of revelation. As the Lord himself taught, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (DC 1:38).
In fact, this was the way the first revelation of the Restoration was received. Joseph Smith describes that as he read James 1:5, “never before did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again” (JS-H 1:12). This is a perfect description of the Spirit of revelation and is exactly what we can all expect to experience as we study the scriptures. When a verse stands out to us, when a message touches our hearts, when we feel the need to mark a passage, read it again, or act on something it says, these are all potential instances of personal revelation through the Spirit as we study.
Reading the word of God by the Spirit of God to receive personal revelation is how the Lord has always expected us to read scripture. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord explained, “These words are not of men nor of man, but of me … For it is my voice which speaketh them unto you; for they are given by my Spirit unto you, and by my power you can read them … Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice and know my words” (D&C 18:34-36). This means that when we read the Lord’s words by his Spirit, it is as if he is revealing those words directly to us. We can then confidently claim that we have heard his voice and know his words for ourselves.
Not only does this work for scripture, but the same principle applies to the teachings of our modern prophets. When we hear or read their words by the Spirit, we are receiving revelation. The Lord explained this when he taught, “whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4). When we hear the words of the prophets by the Spirit, it is the voice of the Lord to us. It is revelation to our souls. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explained about General Conference, “If we teach by the Spirit and you listen by the Spirit, some one of us will touch on your circumstance, sending a personal prophetic epistle just to you” (Ensign, May 2011).
As we understand these common patterns of revelation, that it usually comes gradually, incrementally, subtly, imperceptibly, and through the words of prophets, then we will realize that revelation from the Spirit is coming to us all the time. Our main responsibility then is not to receive revelation but to recognize and act on the revelation the Lord is already giving us. “What we need is a listening ear” (Clarke, CR Oct. 1948). Then, when he speaks, we can “hear Him” (JS-H 1:17).