Monday, February 18, 2008

How to Receive and Recognize Answers from God

A reader, Siente, posted a comment on Samoa: Part 9; in Siente’s comment, a number of very good questions were posed which concerned receiving answers from God about religion. I feel that Siente’s questions are so important that I will address them in a post rather than a follow-up comment.

Siente asked, “[Since] there are so many churches out there, and they disagree in some important ways, how can a person know for really [sure] when they are in the right religion?”

Siente’s question is very important “for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). The New Testament also speaks of “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Siente’s comment continued, “…I've thought about this [a lot]. At first, I thought, Well, if a person is in the wrong kind of church, and that person prayed really hard and talked to God [a lot] and stuff, God would maybe tell them that they were in the wrong church, and maybe even tell them which one was the right one.”

Siente, I couldn’t agree with you more. In another time and in another place, a young boy named Joseph Smith had questions similar to yours. He described his experience as follows:

Some time [in my fifteenth year], there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. …Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!”

During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; …still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was…to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.

I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Never 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, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

…I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I…came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.

So…I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of [1820]. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God.

Soon, Joseph was nearly overcome by the dark power of Satan who tried to prevent Joseph from praying to God. But Joseph continued in his efforts to call upon God and found that he was delivered by an approaching light.

…I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. … When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. … I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right…and which I should join.

I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight…. (Joseph Smith—History 1:5, 7, 8, 11--14, 16--19)

Joseph Smith was privileged to speak with God and Jesus Christ, but not until after he was tempted by Satan to stop praying.

Most of us won’t have spiritual experiences as dramatic as Joseph Smith’s, but all of us can receive answers to our prayers. All of us can follow Joseph Smith’s example and “ask of God.”

Answers from God come in various forms. Scriptures speak of men and women and even children hearing the voice of God, receiving inspired dreams and visions, and feeling warmth in their hearts often described as a “burning in the bosom”. Sometimes angels come to deliver messages from God, sometimes prophets are sent with similar messages, and sometimes our answers from God come by the “still, small voice” of the Holy Ghost.

Siente, you expressed a very valid concern in your comment. You said, “But then I thought, no, it [probably] doesn't work like that, [because] if God DID try to talk to the person (or have someone else talk to them, or send some stuff in their way for them to read or whatever), they would [probably] just think it was a test from the devil.”

Just as Satan tried to keep Joseph Smith from praying to God, so will Satan try and keep you from seeking out the truth. But God has given us a clear picture of how He will make us feel when He is trying to communicate with us. The Apostle Paul wrote, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” (Galatians 5:22--23) In other words, if you are feeling God’s Spirit, then you will feel joy, peace, etc.—you will feel good. The devil cannot make you feel at peace. The devil will not give you joy. The devil can only try and confuse you, or try and make you feel darkness, or tempt you to do wrong.

Siente, your concern continued, “And the more someone is really [trying] to follow God, the less likely it is that they are going to pray and ask him if their religion is wrong.”

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I don’t think that most people pray to know if what they are doing is wrong. But those who are sincerely trying to follow God often pray to know if they are doing the right thing. And God will not be offended or angry when His children pray to know if they are living the right way, or attending the right religion or anything like that. Remember what the verse in James said? It said that God will not upbraid those who come to Him seeking wisdom. To upbraid is to scold or chastise; and because God loves His children, He is pleased when they come to Him with questions and problems.

One of my favorite scriptures which concerns your question is, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you…” (Matthew 7:7). I have asked God for many things and He has given me many of the things I have asked for. He is good to His promises.

Furthermore, if we pray with the intent to do God’s will, and not with the intent to merely know God’s will, then God is more likely to answer our prayers. The Apostle James put it this way, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).

Finally, if a friend or anyone else (including me) gives you advice about religion, you are never obligated to simply take that person’s word for it. You can pray to know if what you are hearing or reading is true. One of God’s ancient prophets promised, “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). You may not immediately know all the tiny details, but you can know whether something is true or not by the feelings you get which I described earlier: joy, peace, longsuffering, faith, etc.

If someone’s words or writings are mean-spirited, if they are derogatory toward any religion, then you can know that that person is not speaking or writing by the Spirit of Christ.

Let me finish by saying that I know that God answers our prayers. He answers them in His own time, and in His own way, but He does answer them. If you would like some additional information to any of your questions please visit Mormon.org. Additionally, feel free to post more comments or questions on this blog. Thanks, Siente, for this opportunity to share with you some of my feelings about religion.

I gratefully acknowledge my wonderful wife, Deb, and her helping me outline the thoughts expressed in this post.

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