Many of us have had experiences where the Holy Ghost made a clear impression. We felt joy or affirmation or peace. For example, maybe while singing a hymn, you felt great love for Jesus and His gifts to you. Maybe you have felt inspired by a talk you heard during conference or a devotional. Maybe you had a sudden insight as you were studying the scriptures or attending a class. Maybe you felt a clear impression to visit a neighbor and found out that he badly needed a visit.
Those are vital and blessed experiences. The tricky question is, how often should we be having such distinct experiences with the Holy Ghost? What does it feel like to have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost?
I worried about that question for many years. I knew that I had great experiences—once in a while. But there were also vast tracts of ordinary life. If I were truly experiencing the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, would I be having a lot more flashes of insight, a lot more kindness and goodness, a lot more revelation?
I worried about that question for years and continued to feel spiritually inferior. Then, one day in a Gospel Principles Sunday School class, a young returned missionary commented on her understanding of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. “I think of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost as like my relationship with my missionary companion. We are together all day every day. And I am blessed by her companionship. But we only sing a song together or share an insight every once in a while. Most of the time she is just there. Then once in a while she speaks up.”
I was thunderstruck! What that young woman said made total sense. We can have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost without having constant Kirtland-Temple-angels-are-here experiences. In fact, if we are seeking to keep our covenants, we should trust that the Holy Ghost will be our constant but gentle companion—only intruding as needed.
So, how do we know if we are on the path of heavenly guidance? Many years ago, Truman Madsen gave an address titled “Twenty Questions.” He tells of a philosophy graduate who called him to ask how he justified his continuing participation in the Church in spite of having a PhD in philosophy and religion. After some discussion, Brother Madsen turned the tables. He asked the inquirer a series of questions to see if his heart and soul had truly been in the Church.
I love Brother Madsen’s questions. Inspired by his list, I have made my own list of ten questions about our experiences with the Holy Ghost.
1. Have you ever felt unexpectedly fresh, new, and happy?
I remember the summer before I departed for my mission, I went to Temple Square with a friend from Institute named Bill who was a convert from Judaism. It was a lovely morning in a beautiful setting. As we walked around Temple Square, I asked, “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?!” We would go a little farther and I would ask the question again. I must have asked the same question five times. Because I was so spiritually immature at the time, I thought that good weather had combined with a general sense of well-being to create this bliss. Now I know better. God’s special messenger was walking arm-in-arm with me, lifting my spirits and filling me with joy. Maybe He was cheering me on in part because of my excitement for going on a mission. Now I seek to be more attentive to such feelings. Have you felt something similar?
2. Have you felt lifted and overwhelmed by music?
I remember being in the mission home (similar to the current MTC) with around a thousand missionaries. We spent long hours listening to talks in crowded rooms. And we were fatigued. Yet, when we stood together and sang one of the great songs of Zion, we were catapulted into the heavens. Ye Elders of Israel. Called to Serve. Armies of Helaman. These are rousing and inspiring songs.
I distinctly remember attending a Messiah sing-in at the old Provo Tabernacle. By luck I was seated in the middle of the different parts. As we sang, I wept with joy. The message and the music filled my soul to overflowing. Sometimes I get a similar experience when we sing a sacrament hymn at church. In Humility Our Savior is especially likely to evoke joy and tears. Have you felt lifted and overwhelmed by music?
3. Have you had flashes of insight?
Have you been reading the scriptures, or pondering, or giving a talk, or leading a lesson and you suddenly had a flash of insight? Maybe you were struck at a connection between ideas that you had never seen before. Maybe if you were in front of a group, you wanted to pause the moment so that you could take notes on the new idea. Have you had such flashes of insight?
A more subtle form of a flash of insight is the discovery experience. Sometimes we hear something new and it just makes sense. There may be no fireworks but there is a sense of rightness or truth. Have you felt that sense of rightness?
4. Are there principles and passages that light you up?
I LOVE God’s great plan of happiness! It is both brilliant and loving! So, when I read Doctrine and Covenants 128:23, I feel amazed. Consider the joy that is evoked in all of nature by God’s great plan of joy and happiness:
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud;
and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King!
And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness.
Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord;
and ye solid rocks weep for joy!
And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together,
and let all the sons of God shout for joy!
And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever!
And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven,
proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor,
and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!
Isn’t that amazing! I also love to talk to anyone who is interested in the ways God’s plan perfectly balances justice and mercy. I never tire of such discussions. Are there principles or passages that reliably light you up?
5. Have you seen God show up in your life?
God does not often make personal appearances in human history. Yet He often arranges circumstances to bless us. Have you noticed? I have made a list of about 200 times when God’s fingerprints were all over the happenings in my life and the life of my family. I am sure there are many more! Yet my list reminds me that He is looking after me. An unwelcome hurricane when we lived in Alabama got us a brand-new roof. A casual conversation with a stranger led to an opportunity to write for Meridian Magazine for decades.
God promises: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88). Where have you seen God show up in your life?
6. Have you felt awe at God’s creations?
Have you ever been amazed by a magnificent landscape, a beautiful sunset, or an extraordinary creature? I have felt all of those. In addition, I have been amazed by the immensity of God’s creation. It’s incredible to consider that “there are about 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way alone. Outside that, there are millions upon millions of other galaxies.” God’s creation is quite incomprehensible!
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1). Have you felt awe at God’s creation?
7. Have you felt intrusive peace?
I remember being away from home attending a conference some years ago. While sitting at dinner in a restaurant with colleagues, I felt a strange intrusion on our sociality. I felt surrounded by peace—almost as if my sweet Nancy had snuck up behind me, surrounded me with my coat, and hugged me.
When I got back to the hotel that evening, I called Nancy. I asked her about her day. She told me that a family came to look at our house that day. We had been trying to sell our home for a year with no success. In a sense, the Spirit reassured me that Heaven was looking after us.
Every once in a while, I have felt something similar while going about my day. It is not always associated with some dramatic change. Sometimes it just seems that our companion, the Holy Ghost, just wants to give us a squeeze. Have you felt that kind of peace?
8. Have you ever just-trusted—and it felt good?
Nancy and I suffered many miscarriages. Eventually we had over 20. After the first few, I got frustrated. We had prayed. We had gotten priesthood blessings. Why did we keep having miscarriages? One day, as another miscarriage threatened, I went out in the backyard and had a stern conversation with Heavenly Father. I told him that he needed to get this stopped. We wanted to have children. And He had power to do miracles.
But something changed over time. At some point, I decided to just trust Heavenly Father. In fact, I decided to thank Him. I didn’t know why it was a blessing to have one miscarriage after another. But I knew that it felt good to trust Him. So, I would say, “Thank you, Father. I don’t know how this will bless us. But I trust you.” And I would feel the warm glow of His satisfaction.
I learned that He doesn’t have to explain His doing to me. I learned to love Francois de la Mothe Fenelon’s prayer: “O Father! give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask. I dare not ask either for crosses or consolations: I simply present myself before Thee, I open my heart to Thee. Behold my needs which I know not myself; see and do according to Thy tender mercy. Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up: I adore all thy purposes without knowing them; I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to Thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will. . . . Amen.” (quoted in Fosdick, Meaning of Prayer, pp. 58-9) Have you felt the sweetness of just trusting Him?
9. Have you felt guided?
I remember when Elder Denzil Harward and I were out tracting as missionaries in Ocala, Florida. One day, when I was ready to head home for dinner, he said, “We need to go visit the people in that trailer park.” I tagged along. We knocked on a door and met lovely people who welcomed us into their home and were baptized a few weeks later.
As he was getting ready for bed one evening, Wilford Woodruff was instructed to move his carriage. He did—reluctantly. During the night, a big windstorm blew over a tree onto the spot where his carriage had been parked.
I don’t usually have those kinds of impressions. Some people do. Have you felt guided to the place God needed you?
10. Has the Spirit given you a profound love and concern for someone?
Joseph taught that “the nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. . . . If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241)
Have you felt a heaven-sent love for another person who may have once been a stranger or an enemy?
There are so many ways that God and His Spirit can reach us. I suspect that each of us has a different profile for connecting with heaven. Maybe none of the above methods work very well for you. What are the ways that God seems to guide your life? I challenge you to make an inventory of God’s messages to you.
Years ago, a good man in our ward came to see me. He said, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt the Spirit in my life. What’s wrong with me? Am I unworthy of God’s guidance?” I was stumped. As a richly emotional person, God speaks to me often and in most of the ways I have described above. On further reflection, I wonder if that good and faithful man—who was also very objective and logical—was most likely to be reached by God guiding his thinking. Maybe he resonates with good sense or solid logic. While some will experience strong emotions, some will receive guidance in other ways that better suit their personalities.
“For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3). When the scripture says that God speaks according to each person’s language, I don’t believe He learns just their national tongue. I think that God customizes His messages to each of us—to our personalities and our preferences. He is determined to reach each of us.
Even as God customizes His messages for us, we must also learn to recognize His meaning. We must discover and cultivate the way that connects us to heaven. As we do this, we will start to realize the many ways that God is reaching out to us.