I was strongly influenced by my Mission President, Halvor Clegg, in my understanding of how the Holy Ghost speaks to humans. First I share an edited list of instructions he gave us about getting answers to questions we had as missionaries. Second some examples of how he lived the teachings. Third some thoughts for how I muddle on through the confusion of current events.

  1. Pray for Inspiration
    1. Continue with the duties of the day, but meditate on the question.
    2. Make a list of the things that come to mind. They can come from many different sources. [You have to do your homework.]
    3. Follow every impression. [Try to overcome your assumptions about what the answer will be.]
  2. Confirm what you receive.
    1. Choose the most logical decision.
    2. Create a relevant yes or no question based on that decision. [Simple, binary answers are the easiest to understand. Remember, this answer is only to the specific question you asked as you asked it. You can’t assume it is generalizable.]
    3. Ask the question: “Is this the answer to my original question?”
  3. This method works for almost all applications
    1. Talks
    2. Lessons
    3. Missionary Discussions
    4. Presentations
    5. Conversations
  4. Don’t forget Free Agency
    1. When another person is involved, remember the Principle of Three.
    2. There must be agreement between you, the other person, and God to get a correct answer. [If all parties aren’t edified, the Spirit isn’t working.]
  5. Develop the Gift of Discernment
    1. It is a gift of the Holy Ghost.
    2. It permits one to understand the truth of what others say and also their motivations. [The homework here requires really paying attention to the other person.]
    3. Knowing the truth and other’s motivations, one can respond correctly.
  6. Be Careful with the Spirit
    1. You must stay focused when you ask a question. If your mind wanders, you may receive an answer, but to whatever you are thinking about in that moment–not your original question.

This list was primarily a reminder of things he taught us both repeatedly in meetings and by example, so I’d like to fill in some of the stories that emphasized what these instructions meant to him.

The Example

Every transfer President Clegg prayed about every single assignment. He learned what he could about the missionaries and the places they were needed. He arranged them the best way he could. He prayed about every single one. He didn’t get yeses to his prayers on several assignments. He tried again. He did this for three full days before he felt the confirmation that the missionaries were assigned as God wanted. As time went on he got to where he could get answers for missionary assignments in a couple of hours, most times, but he had to learn. He had to do his homework, and it wasn’t easy.

This was a common theme of President Clegg’s messages. You have to do your homework. If you don’t do your homework, you won’t get the best answer. You are even likely to mistake a different answer for the one you were seeking. To illustrate this he told us about selecting the missionary who would give the surprise talk at zone conferences. We all had a topic, but no one knew who would speak. As we came in, President Clegg would pray to ask who should speak. As he looked at each of us he would ask, should this missionary speak? He did this until he got a yes. If he let his mind wander and thought, Elder Cannon is a really good missionary, the Spirit might (on a good day) tell him, YES! But that wasn’t the answer to his question. Confusing answers was easy. Getting clear answers was hard.

Getting answers was even harder when multiple people were involved. God respects agency. Answers to prayers will not violate agency. An answer from God will fail if it violates someone’s choice. I don’t remember the stories that went with this, but he talked more than once about promising things in blessings in this context.

Personal revelation trumps instructions from leaders in guiding one’s own actions. I’ll rename it the Overbearing Relative Rule. When someone comes to you, especially someone who is just passing through your life and not really involved day to day, and presumes to tell you what you should do, you nod, smile, and do what’s right. Doing what’s right may mean doing what they say, or it might not. One Seventy came and told all the missionaries: You need to stop doing all these different things to try and meet people to teach and just go door to door all the time until you find people. He also said they shouldn’t give out so many Books of Mormon. After he left, President Clegg said: Keep doing what you are doing. Tracting isn’t effective. We will find money for more Books of Mormon. I’ve sought and received very specific instructions about the things you should be doing as missionaries, and the Spirit still tells me you should be doing that. Furthermore, the instructions of the Seventy go against the general instructions to missionaries to share the gospel in many ways (most of them more effective than door to door), and to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon. So carry on.

Later on President Clegg reacted very differently to another Seventy. When Elder Gene R. Cook came, President Clegg recorded his instructions and repeated them to us almost every mission conference for the rest of his time as mission president: 1. Humble yourself, 2. Repent, and 3. Pray for the Spirit. He modelled for us how Elder Cook put that in practice in everyday interactions. He taught us skills to help us be humble. He taught us the meaning of repentance as an attitude of change more than a list of dos and don’ts. He taught us that the Spirit didn’t wait around for a period of penance, but would come guide us the moment we turned away from sin and toward God.

Revelation for Many

What do these rules mean when you are receiving revelation for many? Particularly the rule of three and the requirement that all be edified for the Spirit to be speaking? Both economic theory and common sense tell us it’s not possible to satisfy everyone’s preferences or desires–not even all the good ones, let alone the bad ones. It’s very hard to edify everyone in a small group, and impossible in a large one. So how should a classroom teacher deal with this problem? a bishop? a Stake President? a Church President? God? Does the Spirit sometimes speak to only part of a group and not apply to other parts of the group? Does God give conflicting instructions to different people? I either fear or rejoice that I think the answer is yes to both of these last questions. When I see people doing stupid things and hurting others because they think they are following God, I try to remember this impossible task that faces each of us–even God. I try to fix the harm I can, speak up for and do the good I can, and have patience with others who I believe are doing their best. That’s how I try to keep going forward.

Jonathan lives in rural Georgia with his wife and three boys, teaching Chemistry and enjoying the good people of his community. He studied Molecular Biology at Brigham Young University, and Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jonathan is passionate about fatherhood, teaching and learning, Mormonism, and dance (he’s much better at the first three), and dabbles in home repairs, various crafts, poetry, music, gardening, and Transhumanism. He has enjoyed many years working in Primary, with Young Adults and Ward Missions in various capacities. He currently enjoys serving in his ward and community however he is able. He posts on whatever interests him at the moment at http://jonathan.metacannon.net/

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