The Holy Spirit, which is sometimes also called the Holy Ghost, has a number of essential roles to play in our lives. It reveals truth, brings comfort, and can warn us of danger. How does it keep us out of trouble?
Mormons (a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) believe that God gave us commandments—those Mormon rules we’re so famous for—to keep us out of trouble. While they sometimes seem restrictive, they really keep us from making big mistakes that bring unhappiness to ourselves and others.
It didn’t take me long to discover that when I listened to the Holy Spirit, things went well. When I thought I had a better plan and ignored the promptings from the Holy Spirit, things went poorly—and I saw the same results in others.
The Holy Spirit: A Better Way to Make Decisions
Before I became a Mormon, I made every decision either intellectually or emotionally. Emotional decisions were always guesswork, but the intellectual ones were often just guesswork as well. I couldn’t see into the future, so even though I could intellectually reason out what was true or right, I didn’t really know if I was correct.
When I was thinking about becoming a Mormon at age seventeen, however, I was frustrated at having to guess. When I had started searching for a church, I started a new notebook. I love notebooks. On each page I had three columns. The first said, “Things I believe in.” The second said, “Things I don’t believe.” The third said, “Things I’m not sure about.”
Each time I visited a church or read about a religious idea, I’d record the doctrines I learned in one of those columns with a note about where I learned it. Somehow I thought that this would help me find the true church. I had long since decided that there could be only one true church. I thought I had only to find a church that had all the teachings in the first column and none of the teachings in the second.
Of course, once I found a church that had many of my first-column ideas, including some I’d never seen in any church before, I realized the list didn’t help. It told me the Mormons agreed with me on a lot of things, but it didn’t tell me if God agreed with us. My first-column beliefs could be wrong and I was more interested in finding truth than in finding a church that agreed with me on doctrinal issues.
During a youth campout sponsored by the Mormon youth group I’d been attending, my friends and I decided to forego the tent and sleep under the stars. As we snuggled into our sleeping bags, my friend Nola asked me how I felt about the things I’d been learning about Mormonism. I told her it was all interesting, but that I was frustrated because there was no way to know whether or not it was true.
Nola said quietly, “I know what’s true.”
I was startled by the assurance in her voice. I could see that she really did know and I was envious. I wanted to know. I was tired of guessing, tired of trying to be scholarly or emotional about it, tired of not knowing.
“How do you know?”
“You know about Joseph Smith, don’t you?”
Joseph Smith was the first Mormon prophet. At age fourteen, he had also wondered which church was true. He read James 1:5, which said that if you lack wisdom, you can ask God and He will tell you what is true. He took that promise seriously, went into the woods to pray, and received a vision from God and Jesus Christ. This would eventually be followed up, years later, with a visit from an angel who would help him prepare to become the prophet of the restored church.
I did know about Joseph’s vision. I was pretty sure, though, that God and Jesus weren’t going to come and tell me which church to join. Nola agreed.
“You don’t need them to come to you, though, since you aren’t going to restore the gospel. You just need to do what Joseph did. You need to pray.”
She taught me how to pray for answers and how to recognize the answers when they came. Nola explained that the Holy Ghost would bring to me the answers I was seeking. I had never sought those types of answers before. Previous requests could be answered in material ways, such as being able to find a lost item or being kept safe during danger. It took some time for me to recognize the answers that came. Prayer, like everything else worth learning, takes practice. In time, though, I did know with certainty how to recognize the Holy Ghost’s promptings and this allowed me to become a Mormon knowing I was doing what God wanted me to do.
When decisions matter, I no longer guess or make intellectual decisions. I haven’t abandoned my intellect; it is just no longer the last step. Today, I study the issue carefully and think it through both intellectually and emotionally. Then I make a decision. Those were the steps I’d always taken, but now I add a new step. I take the decision to God, and the Holy Spirit confirms that I’ve made the right choice or sends me back to try again.
The Holy Spirit: Having a Mentor
Sometimes, of course, there isn’t time to do all that. Some decisions have to be made on the spot. Then the Holy Spirit can send a quick message to my heart or mind. It has taken practice to learn how to tell the difference between my own thoughts and those put there by the Holy Ghost. I pay close attention to the ideas I have. I note how the thought came to me and what it felt like. Then I monitor the results. After a while, I realized that certain types of impressions always had good results. Those, I knew, came from the Holy Spirit, since the Holy Spirit never gives bad advice, and today, while continuing the monitor and track, I pay attention to the ones I know come from the Holy Ghost.
As a teenager faced with a lot of temptations, I found it helpful to have a mentor along who could see into the future. I couldn’t, but God can. He knows everything, and can warn me of dangers I can’t see myself. When I was with friends and the Holy Spirit said to go home, I learned to do so even when I didn’t see any particular reason for leaving. Often, I learned the next day that I would have been very uncomfortable with the events that followed.
I was fortunate to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost when all my most important decisions were ahead of me. Drugs and alcohol held no appeal for me even before I was Mormon. I’d seen the damage they did to people firsthand. I discovered that the seemingly tame ways the Mormons had fun really were fun. I avoided most of the dangers and drama other teens were facing. As I moved into adulthood, the Holy Spirit helped me to make choices concerning marriage and parenting. When I had career decisions to make, I could ask God which choice He thought I ought to make.
One day, soon after my baptism, I found myself at a party held by one of my high school teachers. The students had been invited to gather there to have pizza before going to a cultural event. The event was required and the party was as well. There was only one other Mormon teenager at the party. She and I were helping the teacher set things up in the kitchen when a student came in and asked if they could bring in beer. The teacher, young and eager to be popular with her students, looked uncomfortable but told them not to let her see it.
My friend and I looked at each other, recognizing that the party was going to get out of hand. The local laws stated that any teenager at a party where alcohol was being served to minors could be arrested even if he or she wasn’t partaking of it. Both of us stood quietly for a moment and then my friend, who had been Mormon all her life and had more experience with the Holy Spirit, motioned me to follow her. The Spirit had instructed her that we should take our pizza and sit outside. If the police came, we could explain we felt uncomfortable but couldn’t leave because we were required to be there, so we’d at least left the house. Although no one did come, we felt more comfortable having our meal away from a party that led to some real problems for some of the students who stayed. This was in the days before cell phones, so we couldn’t call for help. We finished our pizza quickly and then asked to leave for the event early. My friend drove us to the theater, and because we left early, none of the drinkers asked for rides. We waited there for our teacher and our tickets to arrive. At the end of the play, we left quickly. We learned later than one of the students had gotten very drunk and ill at the party, because she hadn’t had the courage to turn down the alcohol.
The Holy Spirit: Helping Us Help Others
Many years ago, I served as the compassionate service leader for my congregation. It was my job to make sure the needs of others in the congregation were met, whether it was bringing in a meal, providing a listening ear, or offering emergency transportation. As part of my role, I checked each day on an elderly woman who lived alone and I took her to the doctor, the pharmacy, and the grocery store each week.
After one medical appointment, she became ill at the pharmacy and asked to be taken home. Since she’d just had a complete checkup, I wasn’t worried. Shopping often wore her out. I bought her something to eat because she was diabetic and felt like her sugars were low and then took her home. I settled her into her favorite chair with food and drink before heading home. I came back twice to check on her, using the key she’d given me, when she didn’t answer. Both times she was sleeping peacefully. She slept deeply and seldom woke up when I checked on her, so I was still not concerned.
That evening I went to a meeting at the church. While chatting with someone before it started, a thought came to my mind that I should check on her again. I ignored it—I’d seen her just an hour ago. It came again. This time, I realized it felt like the Holy Ghost, not a thought. My recognition was followed by a warning to get to her right away, so I left and went to her home.
I found her still not awake, but I felt prompted that this time she was not asleep and that I should call emergency personnel. I did so, and when they arrived, they told me she was in a diabetic coma. They were able to awaken her somewhat, because she hadn’t been unconscious too long. They took her to the hospital, and I went to the church to obtain her daughters’ telephone numbers, since I didn’t have them and couldn’t find them. She recovered from the experience, but I often wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to ignore the prompting I received. I realized that day how much I needed to depend on the Holy Ghost in this church responsibility, not just for myself, but for the well-being of those I was responsible for. I love knowing that the Holy Ghost can let me know when someone needs me.
I like to keep control over my life. It was hard to learn to let go and to let God make the really big choices for me. However, when I look at how things turned out, I realize I could not possibly have planned the life I ended up with. The Holy Spirit often asked me to do things I didn’t want to do because they were hard or out of my comfort zone—and then I loved the way things turned out. I developed new talents and strengths, explored new worlds, and became more than I ever would have had I just traveled on the easier paths I prefer.
The Holy Spirit keeps me out of trouble, but more than that—it is helping me become everything God knows I can be.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.