The voice of the Spirit is described in the scriptures as being neither loud nor harsh, not a voice of thunder, neither a voice of great tumultuous noise, but rather as still and small, of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it can pierce even the very soul and cause the heart to burn. The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting ("How Does The Spirit Speak To Us?", New Era, Feb 2010, from an address to new mission presidents from June 1991).
In the same address he said:
When we experience a spiritual communication, we are wont to say within ourselves, “This is it. Now I understand.”
In these two quotations, it is interesting that Elder Packer does not talk about emotional feelings. I have had plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt the influence of the spirit. And sometimes I have also felt great emotion. It took me some time to realize the difference for me.
I get emotional about a lot of things. I weep at movies. My kids joke that I cry often in church. When I used to travel more, I’d weep at the AT&T commercials they showed on my international flights (and I’d want to call my kids right then). Knowing that I weep easily, I have had to learn to avoid assuming that tears meant spirit.
Elder Packer’s second quotation above is the key for me. “Now I understand.”
I can point to specific times in my life when I have been able to say this. Marking my experience at those times, I’ve come to understand how the spirit speaks to me. Here is one of those experiences:
During my freshman year at BYU, I came to know some of the issues surrounding the prophet Joseph Smith. I had a roommate whose dad was not a friend of the church, and my roommate and I spent a lot of time talking about his concerns. I had by then had enough of my own experience to accept Joseph’s first vision and the Book of Mormon as true. But I was fuzzy on pretty much everything else. As I studied that year, I got more and more concerned about my own testimony.
As the time to put in my missionary papers drew near, I knew I wanted to serve. I resolved, consciously, to put my concerns about Joseph on a shelf, trusting my conviction about the first vision and the Book of Mormon. When I attended the temple for the first time, and subsequently during my time in the LTM (shortly before its re-birth as the MTC), I felt peace there. When I came to the temple for my own endowment, I felt the same peace I’d felt as a child at our family’s sealing.
After my mission, I continued to consider my concerns about the prophet Joseph and the things I could not piece together. I still felt unsettled, but continued onward, trusting what I knew to be true and hoping for resolution of the rest.
This particular moment of enlightenment was not emotional. It was not a booming trumpet that proclaimed the truth. I did not feel a rushing of wind. I did not see a vision. I simply understood what I had not understood moments before.
Update: Please see my second entry in this series, "Once more, with feeling"