When writing to the saints at Ephesus, Paul told them that he prayed "that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him" (Ephesians 1:17).
It is the firm belief of all Christian churches that the Bible was written by holy men of God known as prophets and apostles as they received divine inspiration and revelation, but one of the most basic of all modern-day beliefs of mainstream churches is that revelation from God ceased with the death of the apostles.
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that God still reveals His mind and will to man today, just as He did anciently but not just to prophets and apostles but to everyone who believes in Christ. Even anciently, the apostle Paul prayed that God "may give you (the saints themselves) the spirit of wisdom and revelation." While most Christian churches today teach that God "speaks" to us only through the words of the Bible, the LDS Church teaches that each person can and is entitled to receive their own personal revelation direct from God, and millions of Latter-day Saints can testify that they have indeed had this experience frequently.
Yet, at the same time there have been many people who have claimed to receive revelation from God which later proved not to be from Him. There have also been some who have claimed to receive divine inspiration that is contrary to the teachings of the LDS Church and there have been some who have left the Church as a result of having received false revelation. For this reason, the question has often been asked: How can we tell when a revelation is from God and when it is not from Him?
The definition of "revelation" is: "something that is revealed." That means we can receive "revelation" from a teacher, a friend, a co-worker, employer, child, the Bible, a textbook, TV or anyone or anything that reveals to us something we didn't already know. But when we talk about revelation from God we are talking about having information revealed to us that comes from a divine source.
The way we usually receive revealed information from God is not by hearing an actual voice but His words come to us as thoughts, which is how we "hear" the words of spirits. However, there are three kinds of spirits who speak to us. Besides the Spirit of God, our own spirit speaks to us (which is where we talk to ourselves as we think things over and try to make a decision or understand issues). And then there are evil spirits who whisper in our ear seeking to influence our thinking and thereby influence our behavior.
Because the voice of spirits come to us as thoughts, it becomes important to learn how to recognize which spirit is talking to us. In other words, when thoughts enter our mind we need to learn how to distinguish which thoughts are from God, which are from the devil, and which are coming from our own mind.
Since, when someone calls us on the telephone, we can't see them, we can't tell who they are by sight. Even so, if the person calling us is a good, close friend of ours we can immediately tell who's on the other end of the line because we can recognize the unique sound of their voice. And the reason why we are able to do that is because we have talked with them so much that we know their voice when we hear it.
However, unlike words that are spoken with cultural accents or different speech tones, or have other qualities about them that help us distinguish one person from another, the thoughts we have, from whatever source, all "sound" the same. To the untrained mind, one thought "sounds" the same as any other thought and for this reason most people can't tell which spirit they are listening to. But each type of spirit who talks to us does have a unique "voice" of their own and in order to recognize them we can still use the same technique that helps us to recognize the voice of our friends, although we must look for different "sound" qualities.
God is unchanging in His ways but so is Satan and because of this they are both are predictable, not only in what they do but in what they say. Therefore, the "sound" we look for to determine who is speaking to us is not in the tone or accent of their voice but in the message they give us. But in order to recognize which message is coming from which spirit requires us to be familiar with the kinds of messages they each give.
For Christians, the good news is that all we really have to do is be able to recognize God's voice because once we can do that then we don't have to worry about recognizing any other spirit's voice. In that way, if we receive a thought that doesn't come from God then we can ignore it in the same way we might ignore a call from a telephone solicitor.
Yet, while that may sound like a simple solution, to be a Christian means more than just believing in Christ. It means more than merely reading the Bible. It means more than having God be our friend. It means having a close personal, intimate relationship with God where we are God's friend, where we "pal around" with God, going where He goes, doing what He does, and being with Him in everything we do. It means studying His words as contained in the scriptures with the intent to learn about His character, His likes and dislikes, His habits, thoughts, and actions. It's getting inside the mind of God to know why He thinks the way He does.
Being a disciple of Christ means being a follower of Christ, but a follower is someone who doesn't just follow the teachings of Christ but is one who sincerely seeks to be a servant to Christ, a student who longs to be taught the ways of Christ, and an apprentice who is eager to be trained and mentored by Christ. It is when we have that kind of attitude that we will develop a close, personal relationship with God, and when that happens then we will know Him so well that we will have no trouble recognizing His voice when He speaks to us.
And when we have that kind of an association with Christ we won't be concerned about whether a thought has come from God, ourselves, or the devil because the only thing that will matter to us will be to listen for and follow the thoughts that come from God which will be as discernible to us as the voice of any earthly friend.
But there is another benefit to getting to know God. As we diligently seek to learn His ways, we will find ourselves thinking, acting, and feeling as He does. And the closer our relationship to God becomes the more His thoughts become our thoughts and His ways become our ways. This is what it means to become one with the Lord. In this situation, whether a thought comes from God or from us won't matter because they will be one and the same.
But it is those who don't have that kind of close personal relationship with God who are fooled into thinking that a particular thought, inspiration, or revelation is from God when it is not. And since not everyone has that kind of relationship with God then we must take a different approach to knowing which spirit a thought is coming from. The apostle John taught the saints to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
Revelation from God is usually a personal, private message given to a specific individual. Even prophets and apostles receive divine revelation that they very rarely share with others and then only when moved upon by the Spirit to do so and this is the same pattern we should follow. When we receive what we believe to be divine revelation on a particular doctrine, issue, or topic, we should keep it to ourselves because it is a personal communication between us and God that is meant only for our ears.
However, that doesn't mean we can't share the knowledge we have gained from what we feel is divine revelation but we must not go about declaring it to be from God. Instead, we can share it as an opinion of ours. If it is truly from God, time will manifest the truth of it unto us because we will have that revelation confirmed in multiple ways over time. In this way, instead of sounding prideful in talking about our own revelations, we can humbly cite other sources to justify our position.
But if a revelation is not from God then that too will likewise be manifested unto us over time as we discover that it is not in harmony with what God has revealed to His prophets, both ancient and modern. In this way we can "try the spirits" and save ourselves the embarrassment of claiming to have received divine inspiration only to be proven wrong.
But in trying the spirits we have to be honest about finding the truth. The trouble that some people have is that when they have a particular inspiring thought which they consider to be divine in origin they want to interpret every word of God spoken by the prophets in a way that tends to validate their "revelation" while ignoring or dismissing anything that might disprove what they've come to believe.
When this happens, they are not seeking to "try" the spirits but are desperately trying to justify their own position. This kind of attitude is called pride and the sin of pride almost invariably clouds our judgment which then makes us vulnerable to the whisperings of Satan.
But there are other situations where it may not be possible to try the spirits. The first is when we need to make a decision in a relatively short period of time. Take, for example, a person who is applying for a job who receives two offers and seeks inspiration to know which one to accept. A more common situation is where a person is seeking divine inspiration to know what to say or how to handle a difficult situation. And there are many other similar kinds of circumstances where we need God's guidance and knowledge almost immediately because of a pressing problem that can't be put off until we can determine if the thoughts we have are coming from God or not.
Worse yet, in situations like this it is not uncommon that we may not have any thoughts that clearly tell us what to do. When that happens it can feel as though we're leaving it up to chance and nervously hoping that the decision we make is the right one. But for those who have a close personal relationship with God, this kind of situation shouldn't present a problem or cause distress because if we're a friend of God then we can expect Him to be a friend to us.
The apostle James taught "Submit yourselves therefore to Godů draw near to God and he will draw nigh to you" (James 4:7,8). In our day the Lord Himself has told us, "Draw near me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (D&C 88:63).
When we do what God asks of us we can expect Him to do what we ask of Him. When a faithful follower of Christ asks for help they can be assured that God will both hear and answer their prayers. Whether we are given a clear, definitive answer, or merely get a gentle, subtle impression, or even if we receive nothing at all, we can have the assurance that God will direct us to make the right decision if we have asked for His help.
This is no different than when a child asks for something special for Christmas. At the time of making their wishes known, their father may not say anything about it but that doesn't mean he is ignoring their child's request. In fact, very often just the opposite is true. Quietly and secretly, the father goes about getting the desire gift and it isn't until Christmas day that the child finds out that their prayer has been answered. In the same way, our Father in heaven hears our prayers and decides how much to say about it but even when He may not say anything at all that doesn't mean He is ignoring our request.
When we submit ourselves to God, as a child submits themselves to their father, we can be assured that our Father in heaven will always do what is best for us. Therefore, when we don't know whether a particular revelation is from God or not but we don't have time to postpone our action, we must go forth in faith that God is with us, especially when we know that we have been with God. Of course, it should be kept in mind that when those who have not been faithful to God ask for His help they have no firm assurance that He will answer their prayers.
Another type of situation where we don't have time to try the spirits is when we receive a thought or a revelation that seems to contradict what we know to be true or seems illogical. For example, the Lord told Moses "Thou shalt not kill" yet Nephi was commanded to kill Laban. When he was told to commit this act of violence, Nephi understandably hesitated to obey and questioned this command.
On a less dramatic scale, as creatures of habit, we generally take the same route both going to and coming home from work but perhaps one day we might receive an impression to take a different route. When such an idea comes into our mind, our natural inclination would be to question where that thought came from since it might not make sense for us to deviate from our normal routine.
Missionaries often have this kind of an experience. Perhaps they have tracted out a particular street many times and have talked to everyone one on it without any success but then they feel the impression that they should go back and tract out that street one more time. Their natural reaction would be to question such an impression because it doesn't make logical sense to them.
Although there are countless stories told of people receiving similar kinds of communications from God, not every impression we have is from a divine source. There are many people who do things simply on a whim. When an appealing thought comes into their mind they act on it without question. We refer to this kind of person as being impulsive and, in such cases, a person is not being motivated by God but by their own desires. There have been criminal cases where someone has murdered someone else and then later said that they heard a voice from God telling them to do it.
In situations like this the way to recognize whether an impression is from God or not is the same as before - be close to God. The difference between Nephi killing Laban and a psychotic who kills because he thinks that's what God wants him to do is that one was a faithful follower of God and recognized God's voice while the other was not and was easily fooled.
When we are close to God we will recognize His "voice" when the thoughts we have are from Him, even if those thought don't seem logical. But usually this kind of recognition only comes through experience. For example, a new missionary may question a divine thought the first couple of times it happens to them but when they have discovered through experience that these impressions have proven to be true then they quickly learn to recognize the voice of God's Spirit.
Another way to tell if an impression is from God when it doesn't seem logical is that God will keep sending the message to us until we finally accept it. If God wants us to do something that seems out of the ordinary and it is important for us to act on then it becomes His responsibility to convince us to do what we would not do under normal circumstances.
When God has something important he wants us to do He will communicate that message to us in the form of a thought. If we ignore it, especially because it doesn't seem logical, God will send the message to us again but with greater intensity. If we still ignore it, that same thought will be repeated with even greater urgency.
God is literally our Father and He cares for us more than we can currently comprehend. And it is because of His great love for us that He wants to communicate with His children so He can teach us all that He knows and help us to become just like Him.
But for communication to be effective it must be a two-way effort. In order for us to receive inspiration and revelation from God we have to be able to recognize His voice when He speaks and the only sure way to do that is to know God personally. Without having a close, intimate relationship with God we will never be sure if the thoughts we have are coming from ourselves, from Satan, or from God.