In the church we often talk about "the still small voice". That phrase means that the voice of God doesn't come to us as a howling wind, or a thunderous earthquake, or a roaring fire, but rather it comes as quietly as the still night. And when do we hear this still small voice? When we need guidance, correction, instruction, wisdom, and revelation.
But why does He speak so quietly? Why is it so soft in tone and so subdued in volume? If I had something important to declare I wouldn't necessarily shout it out, but I would say it loud enough to be clearly heard. If the Lord wants us to hear Him, especially when it concerns important matters, then why does He speak so quietly that we can barely hear Him?
The Lord explained, "Behold, that which ye hear is as the voice of one crying in the wilderness -- in the wilderness because you can not see him -- my voice, because my voice is Spirit" (D&C 88:66). God speaks to us through the Holy Ghost, who is a ghost, or a spirit. As such, we cannot see Him with our physical eyes, and, when He speaks we cannot hear Him with our physical ears.
Then how does He talk to us?
Our physical body is designed to help us function in this physical world. We see, hear, feel, touch smell and taste only that which is physical. Since the Holy Spirit is not a physical being, we must communicate with Him through non-physical means. This isn't hard to do because we are not entirely made up of our mortal bodies. They are merely a covering for our spirit body. Thus, inside this physical frame dwells a spirit that can see, feel touch, smell, taste, and hear things of a spirit nature.
If that is so, then how does one spirit speak to another if they don't use physical tongues and ears?
The answer is simple: The same way we talk to ourselves. Our thoughts are nothing more than us - a spirit - talking to ourselves. In effect, it's a spirit talking to a spirit. Likewise, when the Holy Ghost speaks, its voice comes to us in the form of a thought. In other words, we hear His voice inside our mind. The Lord told Oliver Cowdery, "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost" (D&C 8:2) And when have you ever heard yourself having loud, thunderous, boisterous, noisy thoughts? Thoughts are small in volume. Thoughts are quiet in tone. And yet we hear them very clearly.
However, that knowledge leads us to ask another very obvious question. How do we know whether the thoughts we have are from the Holy Ghost or from ourselves? The answer is: we don't. And to make matters more complicated, the devil and his angels are spirits, and they also talk to us. Therefore, when we have thoughts, they may be our own, or they may be from the Holy Ghost, or they may be from the devil.
In the church we often talk about following the still small voice, meaning the voice of the Holy Ghost. But we also have great discussions about how we can miss hearing that voice. One explanation I've heard is that when we act in unrighteous ways, the Spirit of God is grieved and withdraws Himself from us. The Lord told Joseph Smith, "And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of hosts" (D&C 1:33). To some, if the Lord's Spirit doesn't strive with an unrepentant man, that means He no longer speaks to them. But the Holy Ghost never stops talking to us. It's His job to talk to us! If He stopped talking to everyone who didn't repent, He couldn't fulfill His mission.
In the church every organization is governed by a committee of three people, consisting of a president and two counselors. The president presides. He's the leader. The organization is governed according to his ideas and directives. He's the one who makes the plans. He's the one who determines what course of action needs to be taken. He's the one who approves or disapproves of everything that goes on in that organization. But what about his counselors? Is their only job to give counsel and advise to the president? Certainly not. Each counselor has specific duties which are assigned to them by the president, to oversee and manage various parts of the organization to make sure it meets the goals of the president.
This is the same way our Father in heaven governs. He is the President. As such, He presides over and directs all that happens. Jesus Christ is His First Counselor, and the Holy Ghost is His Second Counselor. But they do more than just counsel; they have specific duties assigned to them in relationship to carrying out the Father's plan of salvation.
Jesus has the task of providing the atonement and overseeing the church organization. The Holy Ghost has the assignment of bringing people to Christ. To do this, He has to talk to everyone, both the repentant and the unrepentant. To those who don't believe in Christ, He is constantly trying to persuade and direct them to accept the Savior. The fact that most people ignore His voice doesn't stop Him from speaking to them. Can we really imagine the Holy Ghost saying, "Oh what's the use of talking to that person? He won't listen to me. He's a hopeless case. I'm just wasting my time. I'm going to quit trying to get through to him." The Holy Ghost is serious about bringing people to Christ, and He's not going to give up just because someone doesn't listen to Him.
But what happens when someone finally does accepts Christ as their Savior and becomes baptized? Is His mission over? Is He only sent to the unbeliever? If that is the case, then why are we given the gift of the Holy Ghost? The gift of the Holy Ghost is defined as having Him as our constant companion. If that is so, then obviously, once we are baptized, the Holy Ghost is still needed to help bring us to Christ. In fact, after that ordinance has been performed, we need Him more than ever before.
The plan of the Father is to save His children, and Jesus and the Holy Ghost each have their own specific assignments to insure the success of that plan. We know that baptism is necessary for our salvation, but notice that the gift of the Holy Ghost is given almost immediately after this ordinance has been completed. Obviously then, the gift of the Holy Ghost is likewise necessary to our salvation. It isn't enough for the Holy Ghost simply to persuade us to enter the waters of baptism. His assignment to bring us to Christ includes much more than this.
If we think of baptism as the first step on the road to exaltation, then we can see that the Holy Ghost must do more than convince us to take just one step. He must continue to influence us to move onto the next step, and then the next until we measure up to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). Therefore, after baptism He continues speaking to our spirit to give us guidance, comfort, strength, knowledge, understanding and wisdom, for the purpose of encouraging us to become even closer to Christ in our thoughts and actions. Therefore, the Holy Ghost never stops speaking to us. He can't without failing to fulfill His mission.
But will the Holy Ghost remain with us even if we commit sin? The answer is "yes." However that doesn't mean we will always have the gift of the Holy Ghost with us. And it is the gift of the Holy Ghost that helps us to move on to higher levels of spirituality.
Too often we think that being Christ-like means just having the same emotional thoughts and feelings that Christ had - i.e. being kind, patient, loving, forgiving, etc. But being Christ-like consists of much more than this. Jesus held the priesthood of God. Therefore, holding the priesthood is being like Christ. Jesus served a mission. Therefore, serving a mission, or preaching the gospel to others is being like Christ. Jesus studied the scriptures, prayed to His Father, defended righteousness, and resisted evil. Whenever we perform these same acts, we are behaving like Christ. And it is the gifts of the Holy Ghost that help us improve on these kinds of Christ-like attributes.
It is through the gift of the Holy Ghost that prophets speak the word's of God's, and missionaries teach the gospel. It is through the gifts of the Holy Ghost that Stake Presidents, Bishops, and auxiliary leaders are able to help perfect the saints. It is through this gift that parents are able to raise their children in righteousness. It is also through these gifts that the Holy Ghost speaks to each believer in Christ, encouraging them to grow in righteousness, persuading them to improve their spirituality, and revealing truths to increase their knowledge of salvation. All of these things are necessary to achieve exaltation for ourselves and for others.
Then what do the scriptures mean that God's Spirit will not always strive with man? It means that if we move backwards in our spiritual progression, we can lose these additional blessings that come with the gift of the Holy Ghost. Notice in the scripture quoted earlier its said, "And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received" (D&C 1:33, italics added).
We could say that our baptism was just the foundation for the building of a Christ-like life. Once the foundation has been secured, we then can begin to erect our spiritual life upon it, fashioned after the life of Christ. Every righteous act we perform adds a piece to our structure, but when we commit sin, it strikes at the very foundation of our building. The gift of the Holy Ghost, which we receive after baptism (our foundation), aids us in building up our Christ-like life, but when we turn from the ways of God, the gift of helping us build that life stops, because the Holy Ghost first has to go back and help us repair our foundation.
How foolish it would be to continue building when the foundation is crumbling. Likewise, how foolish it would be for the Holy Ghost to continue blessing us with His gifts - i.e., the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, teaching, etc. - when the foundation of faith upon which these gifts are built is falling apart. If someone is reverting back to their old worldly ways, what good does it do them (or anyone else) to receive more light? What good does it do for them to keep even the light which they've already received? Why should the Holy Ghost speak prophetically through them, or guide them in spreading the gospel, or reveal more of the mysteries of heaven if they can't handle what little truth they already have?
However, although sin affects the gifts of the Holy Ghost, it doesn't prevent the Holy Ghost from ever speaking to us. Instead, when people sin, He has to almost go back to square one and speak to them on the level of the unbeliever and persuade them all over again to come back to Christ. So we see that the Holy Ghost never stops speaking to our spirit, no matter what our level of spirituality is.
Another explanation I've heard of why we don't listen to the still small voice is that through our actions we can distance ourselves from the Holy Ghost where we are too far away to hear when He does speak. Personally, I don't think that is an entirely accurate illustration. Then there are others who say that the Holy Ghost is always speaking to us but because of our actions we aren't properly receiving His message, like a radio that isn't tuned to the correct station. I think this explanation comes much closer to the truth, but it misses one important point: We always hear His voice.
A better analogy of why we don't listen when the Holy Ghost speaks is that of a person standing in a room full of people, where everyone is talking at the same time. We have all been in that situation. You can hear everyone, but you listen only to those whom you want to hear. The same is true of our spiritual ears. There are countless voices, both from the spirit world and our physical environment, continually trying to persuade us to do all sorts of things. But in the end we are the ones who choose which voice we want to listen to.
If we could see the Holy Ghost, or identify Him by the sound of His voice, most of us would choose to follow His counsel. Unfortunately, thoughts all have the same tone quality. Therefore, since our mind cannot distinguish one spirit voice from another, there's no way for us to tell where any given thought has come from. Then how do we know which still small voice is from us, the Holy Ghost, or the devil, and whether we should heed its advise or not? The answer is obvious: we don't know. Then how are we suppose to obey the Spirit when it speaks to us if we can't recognize it? The answer is: Because we choose to listen to it.
There is an old proverb that goes, "Birds of a feather flock together." The same is true of people. We associate with those who, for the most part, like the same things we do. For the most part, a sports enthusiast's closest friends will be those who are also sports enthusiasts. The same is true of music lovers, artists, business people, and so on. Although it's perfectly possible for some one who, let's say, loves sports to be close friends with someone who hates sports, still, somewhere in their relationship is a strong common element. It might be a church, club, political, social or civic affiliation, or it might be some other activity or interest. But in almost all cases, there is something which they have in common which binds their friendship together.
However, let's say that an avid sports enthusiast named Albert has a friend named Bill who hates sports. If Albert were to ask Bill to go with him to a ball game, Bill would most likely decline the offer. Why? Because he hates sports. And because of those feelings, Bill won't choose to act upon the words of his friend Albert. But what if Bill does likes sports? In that case, he will gladly accept Albert's invitation.
For the most part, this is how each of us base our decisions on whom we listen to. The reason we choose to follow or not follow the voice of others -- whether they be our friends, advisors, or strangers -- is based in large measure on what we want to do or not do. In other words, we obey, or act upon the suggestion of those things we already have a desire to perform.
For example, if a thief and a judge were friends, and the thief invited the judge to go rob a bank, the judge would most likely refuse to do so. And the reason is that such an action would be inconsistent with the judge's sense of law. In other words, robbing a bank is not something the judge is inclined to do because it goes against his own values and standards. On the other hand, if the judge asked the thief to go to church with him, the thief would probably not go, because going to church is not something the thief is inclined to do. It's contrary to his values and standards.
This is the same reason why we chose to listen or not listen to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. If what He tells us is consistent with our own personal values and standards, then we will be quick to act upon His advice. But if His counsel is different than what we want to do, then we will ignore it. By way of illustration, let's say we see someone in trouble and the Holy Ghost whispers to us, "Help that person." If we already have an inclination to help people, we would then say to ourselves, "That sounds like a good idea. I think I'll go help them." On the other hand, if we tend to put our own interests first, our response might very well be, "I guess I should go help that person, but I can't right now because I've got others things to do. I'm sure someone else will come along and help them."
Since we can't distinguish the voice of the Holy Ghost from our own, then it doesn't make any difference who's thought it is. The reason we listen to the Holy Ghost is because our thinking is similar to His. His thoughts sound so much like ours that we follow them because they seem reasonable to us. Therefore, the way to recognize His voice is to become more in tune with His thinking. And since His mission is to bring us to Christ, then the more Christ-like we become, the more we tend to think like the Holy Ghost. The Lord explained it this way: "Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds may become single to God" (D&C 88:68).
But what about those times when the Holy Ghost prompts us with something that has nothing to do with being morally right or wrong? Many people have testified how the Spirit saved them from disaster by telling them not to get on a particular flight, or to suddenly stop their car. There are times when the Holy Ghost has inspired missionaries to knock on a particular door, or go tract down a certain street. There are other occasions when the Holy Ghost has influenced people to change their job or to find a home. These are what may be called prophetic thoughts. They are thoughts that relate to future events. But how can we prepare ourselves to recognize these type of promptings?
The answer is that when we are drawing close to the Lord, these type of thoughts just "feel" right to us. They may not seem logical or practical at the time, but there is a certain feeling that comes with the thought which makes them seem right. And the reason we have this feeling is because of our relationship with the Holy Ghost. It's like a close, personal friend saying, "Don't go there," and we listen to him, not because his idea agrees with ours, but simply because he is our friend.
And, of course, the opposite is true. The further we get from the Holy Ghost, the less we "feel" His prophetic promptings. Nephi explained this principle to his wayward brothers when he said, "Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. 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" (1 Nephi 17:45, italics added).
No matter what we do, the Holy Ghost always speaks to us, constantly seeking to bring us closer to Christ regardless of our spiritual condition. We always hear His voice. However, it is by our own conscious decision that we decide whether we follow His advice or not. Many times people dismiss His counsel so quickly that they soon forget they even heard it - but they did. The Holy Ghost will always be true to His mission. We can always count on Him to be there for us. It is we who have to learn how to recognize and obey the still small voice when He speaks.