What is Discernment?

Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world.
And also Satan hath sought to deceive you, that he might overthrow you.
Behold, I, the Lord, have looked upon you, and have seen abominations in the church that profess my name.

Behold, verily I say unto you, there are hypocrites among you, who have deceived some, which has given the adversary power; but behold such shall be reclaimed; (D&C 50)

Nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God (Joseph Smith)

How can I tell when my thoughts and feelings are my own, or revelation from God? How can I tell if an emotionally-satisfying narrative or activity is good for my soul, or would lead me away from God?

The answer to both questions is discernment.

Listening Station

This is a radio antenna, coupled with a station.

The antenna exists to make the station sensitive to signals, and the station exists to make sense of the signals that are received by the antenna.

Our hearts are like the antenna, and some people are gifted to be very sensitive- they have very powerful emotional antennae that feel a lot of things more strongly than other people. Signals that are faint to me, are powerful and sometimes even overwhelming to people who are more sensitive.

To be sensitive is neither a good or bad thing. Emotion is part of life, and we as Latter-Day Saints believe that emotion is part of the life that our Heavenly Parents live (Eternal Life). Thanks to Joseph Smith and the scriptures he revealed, we know that Eternal Life has a strong emotional dimension.

The challenge with emotion is to pair the antenna with the station; to discern the signals we are receiving and make sense of them.

Why? Because some emotions lead us to good, and some emotions lead us to self-destructive behavior. In fact, many harmful and spiritually-destructive decisions are supported by very emotionally appealing narratives.

Part of the reason I welcome the adoption of mindfulness teachings and practices among Latter-Day Saints has to do with the value of helping people to understand that we are not our thoughts and feelings. Who we are is a separate question from what we think and feel. In other words, the antenna is not the same thing as the station, and the antenna and station are not the same as the ground they stand on. My thoughts and feelings are things that I experience. They are not me.

Understanding this reality can help us to quiet our hearts and minds, which is a key to receiving authentic revelation.

Stillness: Getting Ourselves Out of the Way

Flannery O’Connor said in her prayer journal,

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

Revelation is not something we can force or fake; generally it’s something that takes place when we push ourselves aside, get out of the way, quiet our hearts and minds. There are times when it’s disruptive like a lightning bolt, but those instances are the exception, not the rule.

Consider this story from President Eyring’s 2006 talk As a Child, where he talks about seeking revelation for an important life decision:

I knew what choice looked most comfortable to me. I knew what outcome I wanted. But I could not see the future. I could not see which choice would lead to which outcome. So the risk of being wrong seemed too great to me.

I prayed, but for hours there seemed to be no answer. Just before dawn, a feeling came over me. More than at any time since I had been a child, I felt like one. My heart and my mind seemed to grow very quiet. There was a peace in that inner stillness.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself praying, “Heavenly Father, it doesn’t matter what I want. I don’t care anymore what I want. I only want that Thy will be done. That is all that I want. Please tell me what to do.”

In that moment I felt as quiet inside as I had ever felt. And the message came, and I was sure who it was from. It was clear what I was to do. I received no promise of the outcome. There was only the assurance that I was a child who had been told what path led to whatever He wanted for me.

Pay attention to his words “Heavenly Father, it doesn’t matter what I want. I don’t care anymore what I want. I only want that Thy will be done. That is all that I want. Please tell me what to do.” This is the state of mind and heart that Flannery O’Connor was seeking when she prayed Please help me to push myself aside. For most of us, this is not our natural state of heart and mind. Notice that in this story from President Eyring, it took him all night of prayer and listening before that experience unfolded.

Look at this recent Facebook post from Sister Michelle Craig, and pay attention to her emphasis on seeking stillness:

This post echoes things that she taught in her October 2019 talk, Spiritual Capacity:

In contrast, the distractions and noise that fill the world and our homes and our lives can make it more difficult to hear His voice. These distractions can so occupy our minds and hearts that we leave no room for the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that most often God reveals Himself “to individuals in private, in their chamber; in the wilderness or fields, and that generally without noise or tumult.”

Satan wants to separate us from God’s voice by keeping us out of those quiet places. If God speaks in a still, small voice, you and I need to draw close to hear Him.

The Spirit and Emotion

Elder Richard G. Scott gave a remarkable talk on the process of revelation, where he said the following:

The inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit can be overcome or masked by strong emotions, such as anger, hate, passion, fear, or pride. When such influences are present, it is like trying to savor the delicate flavor of a grape while eating a jalapeño pepper. Both flavors are present, but one completely overpowers the other. In like manner, strong emotions overcome the delicate promptings of the Holy Spirit.

This contrast between the jalapeño and the grape should help us understand that powerful emotional impulses are probably not the Spirit communicating to us, although sometimes we can have powerful emotional responses to authentic revelation. Elder Bednar’s recent presentation on revelation also addresses this, as he explains that when we are living right, much of our revelation is indistinguishable from ordinary decision-making. For this, I also recommend Sarah Hancock’s podcast on emotional self-reliance, where she discusses how journaling helped her to see God’s involvement in her life over time, after the fact.

God of Order

In a recent talk, Sister Craig adds an essential principle for discerning revelation (italics added).

Recently, I read in the scriptures about another great missionary who obtained his errand from the Lord. Aaron was teaching the king of the Lamanites, who wondered why Aaron’s brother Ammon had not also come to teach him. “And Aaron said unto the king: Behold, the Spirit of the Lord has called him another way.”

The Spirit spoke to my heart: each of us has a different mission to perform, and at times the Spirit may call us in “another way.” There are many ways to build the kingdom of God as covenant-making, covenant-keeping disciples of Jesus Christ. As His faithful disciple, you can receive personal inspiration and revelation, consistent with His commandments, that is tailored to you. You have unique missions and roles to perform in life and will be given unique guidance to fulfill them.

Sister Craig is speaking here about how our life experiences vary, and our paths are unique. And she clearly references covenant-making, covenant-keeping, and commandments. The principle here is that yes, there will be variation in how each of us walk the covenant path, but God will not lead you away from that covenant path.*

*…and here I will add a very strong caveat. In situations where people are unable to walk the covenant path without doing damage to themselves or the church, it is entirely possible that God would lead them away from the church. If someone’s feast-table behavior includes lashing out and throwing things and attacking other people at the table, then of course God has the ability to let them know by revelation or other means that they are excused from the table.

Speaking of order in revelation, President Oaks taught:

“…when one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own stewardship—such as a Church member who claims to have revelation to guide the entire Church or a person who claims to have a revelation to guide another person over whom he or she has no presiding authority according to the order of the Church—you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord.”

We often see people claiming to have received revelation contrary to the teachings of the church. If someone claims to have received revelation contrary to the church’s teachings, then fine, but I would like to see that person’s “portfolio.” If they have received that kind of revelation, then I think it’s fair to assume they must have plenty of examples of revelatory experiences they can point to that demonstrate an ability to distinguish between authentic revelation and their own feelings and perceptions. I would expect to see a long track record of evidences of authentic revelation from their church service and elsewhere.

Discerning Prophets

The scriptures warn of false prophets, and tell us that we can discern them by their fruits. More on that here.

The scriptures also give us other keys for discerning prophets, and one of the main keys is that false prophets are popular; they tells us only what we want to hear, what society finds acceptable. The clash between Jeremiah and the nationalist false prophet Hananiah in Jeremiah 28 is a great case study in this, and in Isaiah 30, the Lord is very blunt about people’s expectations for prophets:

…this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord: which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits… (Isa 30:9-10)

Discerning Souls

One of the more challenging areas of discernment is the discernment of people’s souls. We all know of stories of church leaders who turned out to be indulging in evil behavior in their private lives, and this fact causes a loss of faith among many church members who assume that people’s spiritual status is always evident to people issuing church callings. There are a couple of scriptures that should inform our views of this:

“But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10:37)


Then he left the crowd and came into the house, and his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain for us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The sower of good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are the angels. As they gather the weeds and they are burned in the fire, even so will it be in the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his messengers, and they will gather from his kingdom all the stumbling blocks and those acting without law. They will cast them into a furnace of fire, and there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. (Matthew 13:36-43)

Both of these scriptures explain that good and evil will coexist in the kingdom until the end times, when God will separate the two. This means that it will not always be evident in the church — even among church leaders — who among us has good intentions and who does not.

That said, we do have examples of spiritual discernment in the church. I have experienced it myself. On my mission, I was generally very attentive to the mission rules, but there was a short period of time where I slacked in my obedience. At the end of that time, I had a brief run-in with my mission president, and he told me “Elder Ellsworth, you don’t look so good.” Physically I was fine, so I knew he what he was talking about; he could discern my spiritual status in my countenance. I found some time that day to kneel down and offer a prayer for forgiveness, and to recommit to obey the mission rules. Later that evening, I saw my mission president again and he said “That’s the Elder Ellsworth I know.” He didn’t know anything about my time of disobedience before that day, and he didn’t know about my prayer of repentance. He had simply discerned something “off” in my countenance in the morning, and that it somehow changed during the day.

I have another experience of discernment, when in a period of self-doubt I fasted before a temple recommend interview and it was unmistakably revealed to us that I was worthy to worship in the temple.

But these stories are exceptions in my normal experience in the church. So, why are things sometimes not discerned in the church? President Oaks said that

We do not always receive inspiration or revelation when we request it. Sometimes we are delayed in the receipt of revelation, and sometimes we are left to our own judgment. We cannot force spiritual things. It must be so. Our life’s purpose to obtain experience and to develop faith would be frustrated if our Heavenly Father directed us in every act, even in every important act. We must make decisions and experience the consequences in order to develop self-reliance and faith.

…and that leads to a final principle in discernment.

Jesus taught that “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) This passage seems to indicate that people living in the Spirit are going to sometimes act in surprising and unpredictable ways. I would take this idea further, however, and suggest that authentic revelation is generally not predictable (though there are some exceptions to this). If you cry every time you listen to a piece of music, then what you are feeling is probably not the Spirit. If you consistently cry over a sad memory, that is probably not the Spirit influencing you. Surprise and out-of-the-ordinary are indicators of authentic revelation.

I recently told a story that I had a friend in college who was into physical fitness. One day he told us he had been driving through a neighborhood for a work appointment in the middle of the day and had a (ridiculous) prompting that he needed to get out of his car and do some push-ups. So he pulled over and did some push-ups, right there in front of a house in the neighborhood. A moment later, an elderly man came up to him and asked for help- the man’s wife had fallen down, and they needed help lifting her upright into a comfortable position while they waited for help to arrive. In a moment desperate for help, the man said a quick prayer and then glanced out the window to see my friend doing push-ups in the middle of the neighborhood. As an aside, this story begs the question: why didn’t God just reveal to my friend that there was an elderly couple who needed his help, then point him to their house? For so many of us, God seems to be willing to work within our mental horizons. The fewer mental models we carry that dictate what God can or should or would or would not do, the more possibilities that God can communicate with us.

Discernment by Observation

Another way to discern is to look at the effects that ideas have upon people. When people embrace ideas, what are the effects on personality? Mental health? Ability to engage with the world? Does a set of ideas leave me at peace, poised, and more accepting of reality? Or does that set of ideas leave me in turmoil? Unsettled? Restless? Frantic? When people embrace a particular approach to faith, do we see evidence of the gifts of the spirit in their lives? Do they feel close to God? Are they joyful, even amid adversity? Or when they embrace that approach to faith, do they feel distant from God, hostile toward His ordained servants, and accusatory toward others? Are they constantly reactive and defensive, and dependent upon others for their sense of identity and self worth?

The scriptures offer examples of these contrasts:

Isaiah 48:18 O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea:Isaiah 48:22 There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.
Isaiah 57:19 I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him.Isaiah 57:20 But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
Mormon 5:17 They were once a delightsome people, and they had Christ for their shepherd; yea, they were led even by God the Father.Mormon 5:18 But now, behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.
Alma 27:18 Now was not this exceeding joy? Behold, this is joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness.Alma 14:21 And many such things did they say unto them, gnashing their teeth upon them, and spitting upon them, and saying: How shall we look when we are damned?
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance…Galatians 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies…

Just like we can discern the impact of a food or activity on people’s physical health, the scriptures tell us it is possible to discern the impact of ideas and choices upon the spiritual health of others.

Recommended Resources:

Sister Michelle Craig: Spiritual Capacity

Richard G. Scott: To Acquire Spiritual Guidance

Dallin H. Oaks: Revelation

Elder David A. Bednar: An Evening With a General Authority

Seeking Revelation

4 thoughts on “What is Discernment?”

  1. Thanks for this post. Great insights. I loved the quotes about stillness, and I had never considered the “surprising” side of revelation, but it immediately rang true to me. I often think about how my prayers might be answered (before they are answered) and almost invariably, when I DO get an answer, it’s something I never could have predicted! But somehow exactly what was needed!

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