‘The Candle of the Lord’ — by Elder Boyd K. Packer
Delivered at a Mission Presidents’ Seminar in 1988
Elder Boyd K. Packer discusses how we should prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit of the Lord
I would like to share some things with you about the Spirit, and how we may prepare ourselves to receive it. We do not learn spiritual things in exactly the same way we learn other things that we know, even though such things as reading, listening, and pondering may be used. I have learned that it requires a special attitude both to teach and to learn spiritual things. There are some things you know, or may come to know, that you will find quite difficult to explain to others. I am very certain that it was meant to be that way.
I will share with you an experience I had before I was a General Authority which affected me profoundly. I sat in an airplane next to a man who so strongly expressed his disbelief in God that I bore my testimony to him. “You are wrong, I said, “there is a God. I know He lives!” He protested, “You don’t know. Nobody knows that! You can’t know it!” When I would not agree with him, the man, who was an attorney, asked perhaps the ultimate question on the subject of testimony. “All right,” he said in a sneering, condescending way, “you say you know. Tell me how you know.”
What Does Salt Taste Like?
I felt perhaps, that I had borne my testimony to him unwisely and was at a loss as to what to do. Then something came into my mind. I said to the man, “Let me ask if you know what salt tastes like.” “Of course I do,” was his reply. “When did you taste salt last?” “When I just had dinner here on the airplane.” “You just think you know what salt tastes like,” I said. He insisted, “I know what salt tastes like as well as I know anything.” “If I gave you a cup of salt and a cup of sugar and let you taste them both, could you tell the salt from the sugar?” “Now you are getting silly,” was his reply. “Of course I could tell the difference. I know what salt tastes like. It is an everyday experience.” “Then,” I said, “assuming that I have never tasted salt, explain to me just what it tastes like.” After some thought, he said, “Well, I suppose you could say that it is not sweet and it is not sour.” “You’ve told me what it isn’t, not what it is.” After several attempts, of course, he could not do it. He could not explain, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt. I bore testimony to him once again and said, “I know there is a God. You ridiculed that testimony and said that if I did know, I would be able to tell you exactly how I know. My friend, spiritually speaking, I have tasted salt. I am no more able to tell you in words how this knowledge has come to me than you are able to tell me what salt tastes like. But I say to you again, there is a God! He does live! And just because you don’t know, don’t try to tell me that I don’t know, for I do!” Since that day, I have never been embarrassed or ashamed that I could not explain in words alone everything I know spiritually.
In describing how the Holy Ghost teaches, the Apostle Paul said it this way: “We speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:13–14.) We cannot express spiritual knowledge in words alone. We can, however, with words show another how to prepare for the reception of the Spirit. The spirit itself will help. “For when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Nephi 33:1.) Then when we have a spiritual communication, we can say within ourselves, this is it! This is what is meant by those words in the revelation. We do not have the words (even the scriptures do not have words) which perfectly describe the Spirit. The scriptures generally use the word voice, which does not exactly fit. These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes, nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels, more than one hears.
Once I came to understand this, one verse in the Book of Mormon took on a profound meaning, and my testimony of the book increased immeasurably. It had to do with Laman and Lemuel, who rebelled against Nephi. Nephi rebuked them and said, “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, that ye could not feel his words.” (1 Nephi 17:45). Nephi, in a great, profound sermon of instruction, explained that “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.” (2 Nephi 32:3)
Should an angel appear and talk with you, neither you nor he would be confined to physical sight or sound in order to communicate. For there is that spiritual process, described by the Prophet Joseph Smith, by which pure intelligence can flow into our minds and we can know what we need to know without either the hard work of study or the passage of time, for it is revelation.
The voice of the Spirit is described in the scripture as being neither “loud” nor “harsh.” It is “not a voice of thunder, neither … a voice of a great tumultuous noise.” But rather, “a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper,” and it can “pierce even to the very soul” and “cause [the heart] to burn.” (3 Nephi 11:3; Helaman 5:30; Doctrine and Covenants 85:6–7.) Remember, Elijah found the voice of the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but was a “still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12.)
It Caresses So Gently
The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting or shaking us with a heavy hand. Rather it whispers. It caresses so gently that if we are preoccupied we may not feel it at all. Occasionally it will press just firmly enough for us to pay heed. But most of the time, if we do not heed the gentle feeling, the Spirit will withdraw and wait until we come seeking and listening. I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. And when they do, they are generally for our own instruction, or correction. Unless we are called by proper authority to do so, spiritual experiences do not give us the right to counsel or to correct others. I have come to believe also that it is not wise to continually talk of unusual spiritual experiences. They are to be guarded with care and shared only when the Spirit itself prompts you to use them to the blessing of others.
I heard President Marion G. Romney once counsel mission presidents and their wives. “I do not tell all I know; I have never told my wife all I know, for I found out that if I talked too lightly of sacred things, thereafter the Lord would not trust me.” We are, I believe, to keep these things and ponder them in our hearts, as Luke said Mary did of the divine events that surrounded the birth of Jesus. (See Luke 2:19.)
We Become Taller in Testimony
There is something else to learn. A testimony is not thrust upon you; a testimony grows. We become taller in testimony like we grow taller in physical stature; we hardly know it happens because it comes by growth. It is not wise to wrestle with the revelations with such insistence as to demand immediate answers or blessings to your liking. You cannot force spiritual things. You can no more force the Spirit to respond than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before it’s time. You can create a climate to foster growth, nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: you must await the growth. Do not be impatient to gain great spiritual knowledge. Let it grow, help it grow, but do not force it or you will open the way to be misled.
We are expected to use the light and knowledge we already possess to work out our lives. We should not need a revelation to instruct us to be up and about our duty, for we have been told to do that already in the scriptures; nor should we expect revelation to replace the spiritual or temporal intelligence which we have already received—only to extend it. We must go about our life in an ordinary way, following the routines and rules and regulations that govern life.
Rules and regulations and commandments are valuable protection. Should we stand in need of revealed instruction to alter our course, it will be waiting along the way as we arrive at the point of need. The counsel to be “anxiously engaged” is wise counsel indeed. (See Doctrine and Covenants 58:27.)
Now, do not feel hesitant or ashamed if you do not know everything. Nephi said, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Nephi 11:17.)
There may be more power in your testimony than even you realize. Several years ago I met one of our sons in the mission field in a distant part of the world. He had been there for a year. His first question was this: “Dad, what can I do to grow spiritually? I have tried so hard to grow spiritually and I just haven’t made any progress.” That was his perception: to me it was otherwise. I could hardly believe the maturity, the spiritual growth that he had gained in just one year. He “knew it not” for it had come as growth, not as a startling spiritual experience.
To the Edge of Light
It is not unusual to have a missionary say, “How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would it not be dishonest?” Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man” as the scriptures says, indeed “is the candle of the Lord.” (Proverbs 20:27.)
It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!
The prophet Ether “did prophecy great and marvelous things unto the people, which they did not believe, because they saw them not. “And now, I, Moroni, … would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” (Ether 12:5–6.)
To speak out is the test of your faith
If you will speak with humility and honest intent, the Lord will not leave you alone. The skeptic will say that to bear testimony when you may not know you possess one is to condition yourself; that the response is manufactured. Well, one thing for sure, the skeptic will never know, for he will not meet the requirement of faith, humility, and obedience to qualify him for the visitation of the Spirit. Can you not see that that is where testimony is hidden, protected perfectly from the insincere, from the intellectual, from the mere experimenter, the arrogant, the faithless, the proud? It will not come to them.
Bear testimony of the things that you hope are true, as an act of faith. It is something of an experiment, like the experiment that the prophet Alma proposed to his followers. We begin with faith—not with a perfect knowledge of things. The Spirit and testimony of Christ will come to you for the most part when, and remain with you only if, you share it. In that process is the very essence of the gospel.
Follow the Promptings of the Spirit
Is not this a perfect demonstration of Christianity? You cannot find it, nor keep it, nor enlarge it unless and until you are willing to share it. It is by giving it away freely that it becomes yours. Now, once you receive it, be obedient to the promptings you receive. I learned a sobering lesson as a mission president. I was also a General Authority. I had been prompted several times, for the good of the work, to release one of my counselors. Besides praying about it, I had reasoned that it was the right thing to do. But I did not do it. I feared that it would be spiritually harmful to a man who had given long service to the Church. The Spirit withdrew from me. I could get no promptings on who should be called as a counselor should I release him. It lasted several weeks. My prayers seemed to go no further than the room where I offered them. I tried a number of alternate ways to arrange the work, but to no avail. Finally, I did as I was bidden to do by the Spirit. Immediately, the gift returned! Oh, the exquisite sweetness to have that gift again. You know it, for you have it, the gift of the Holy Ghost. And the brother was not harmed, indeed he was greatly blessed and the work prospered.
Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moroni 7:17.) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light.
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary.
Avoid like a plague those who claim that some great spiritual experience authorizes them to challenge the constituted priesthood authority in the Church. Do not be unsettled if you cannot explain every insinuation of the apostate or every challenge from the enemies who attack the Lord’s church. In due time you will be able to confound the wicked and inspire the honest in heart.
I know by experience too sacred to touch upon that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Gift of the Holy Ghost conferred upon us at our confirmation is a divine gift. The Book of Mormon is true! This is the Lord’s Church! Jesus is the Christ! There presides over us a prophet of God. The day of miracles has not ceased, neither have angels ceased to appear and minister unto man! The spiritual gifts are with the Church. Choice among them is the gift of the Holy Ghost!
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