Revelation, Truth, and Error: Laws of Detection

Dear Joseph,

I still haven’t got around to changing my world view, as you suggested. But I feel concerned that even if I begin to see God’s hand in my past, I may not recognize it in my future. Some people would suggest that the LDS church is actually the devil’s church. But couldn’t that be said of any religion? I mean, I’m not sure that the devil’s that interested in all of this. I haven’t felt that God’s even that interested in all of this, so why would the devil care?

—Thomas


Dear Thomas,

The first thing to be aware of is that God’s Kingdom is one of perfect order; there are laws that govern everything:

“Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.
“Will I accept of an offering, saith the Lord, that is not made in my name?
“Or will I receive at your hands that which I have not appointed?
“And will I appoint unto you, saith the Lord, except it be by law, even as I and my Father ordained unto you, before the world was?
“I am the Lord thy God; and I give unto you this commandment—that no man shall come unto the Father but by me or by my word, which is my law, saith the Lord” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:8-12, emphasis added).

This concept, that everything the Lord does with regard to us is by law, is crucial to understanding how revelation works because it too is bound by certain laws. I intend to lay before you some of these rules and principles so that you may be aided in perceiving truth from error, which leads me to the second thing you ought to be aware of: the devil is in fact very interested in religion. If you want evidence of this, just look at the several factions and sects of religion throughout the world. God is the author of order; Satan is the author of confusion. There is ultimate truth and a true religion, the Kingdom of God in embryo, but the devil would have such knowledge obscured, and he would prefer to destroy it if he could. Nonetheless, the devil rejoices when he goes on undetected in the world, and sometimes in the church—he laughs when his lies go unperceived.

In fact, that’s really at the core of the laws of Heaven: perceiving truth from error. But let’s be clear on what truth is. If we’re going to understand the mind of the Lord on this subject, we ought to use His definition:

“…Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
“And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24-25).

So there it is, pretty straight forward, with a little reminder that anything that is not true is error, which is the devil’s domain. Truth is the ‘knowledge’ of what was/is/will be—the ways things really are—not the mumbo jumbo we make up to try and explain things.

You might be thinking, “So if the Lord always communicates in truth, all I have to do is make sure that I’m learning true things and it’s of God guaranteed, right?” Right! But it’s not as easy as it sounds. “There are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world. […] And also Satan…” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:2-3). The struggle for humanity is that most people are oblivious to the ‘knowledge’ that would help them detect the false spirits from the spirit of God—the error from the truth. You must know the laws that govern such things if you desire to ‘come unto the Father.’

In The Book of Mormon, we find this statement: “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5, emphasis added). What the devils seek to do then is confuse error for the truth, and they are really, really good at doing just that. And, unfortunately, probably more than at any other time in earth’s history, mankind is worshipping these errors and believing fiction for truth almost ubiquitously. And, even more unfortunately, the devils don’t stop with passing error as truth, they are also ensuring that mankind stomps out the truth when it does pop up. This is not a new campaign—true prophets have always been stoned by the unbelievers—but it’s like a landslide against all things “good[, which are] just and true” in our modern world (Moroni 10:6).

So how do you distinguish what is true from what is error? Note that I use the word error instead of false. I do this to emphasize that just because something is false doesn’t mean that it’s immediately recognized as such. I feel that the word error carries with it a sense of deception. I doubt that the world at large would love to claim that they’re idolizing falsehoods instead of solid truth, but that’s why the false spirits deceive—“it’s a trap!” The devils are out to blind us from finding our way to the glory of God. For those who have not found the truth, the false spirits’ actions are to keep them from the truth; for those who have found the truth, the false spirits’ actions are “calculated to bring disgrace upon the Church of God…” (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [STPJS], 214). Again, we must know the laws that God has instituted to tell his commands from all others.

Law no. 1: The Fruits

The scriptures deliver this message with clarity and great power. Read for yourself:

“Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
“Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”

“For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water….
“Wherefore, take heed… that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
“…The way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
“…Every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
“But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him” (Matthew 7:16-18Moroni 7: 11,14-17, emphasis added).

This is the first law to distinguishing truth from error. If you pray to know if The Book of Mormon is true and your mind is filled with arguments from an anti-Mormon pamphlet saying things like, “The Bible should not be added to,” etc., then I dare you to open to almost any page in The Book of Mormon and ask yourself, “Am I being invited to Christ? Am I being taught to do good?” or better yet, “Am I being persuaded to do evil?” Open The Book of Mormon to 3 Nephi chapter 11 and answer those questions. The fruit of The Book of Mormon can silence all invented arguments in an instant if you just take the effort to seek for the fruit. You can have a perfect knowledge of its truthfulness.

This same test can be applied to a prompting or revelation you receive from the Spirit. If the fruit of the prompting is good (invites to believe in Christ and do good), then you know that the spirit was of God. If the fruit is bad (do evil, don’t believe in Christ, don’t serve God, etc.), then you know that the spirit was not of God but was a false spirit, a spirit in the domain of error.

Law no. 2: Peace vs. Comfort

In a dream given to Brigham Young after the prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Joseph Smith gave Brigham Young this direction:

“Tell the brethren to be humble and faithful and be sure to keep the Spirit of the Lord, that it will lead them aright…. They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits—it will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts, and their whole desire will be to do good” (quoted in Juvenile Instructor, 19 July 1873, 114, emphasis added).

The presence of truth, that which the Spirit of the Lord communicates, will bring peace to our hearts. The devil may bring a convincing argument to your mind, but he cannot imitate peace. He can, however, lull and pacify, or create the feeling of carnal security—something I’d bet most people would term comfort (see 2 Nephi 28:21).

Someone I know recently joined the church once she discovered the truth inside of it. She described to me how that she would wonder about the Gospel and its tenets, which were opposed to her lifestyle choices up to that point, and feel something tell her that she was fine, that there was nothing wrong with her, but that the Gospel was simply false. She said that such a justification would sweep over her and she would feel comfort in her situation. She could receive this comfort over and over. And, importantly, that’s what she needed to do to retain that comfort because It never lasted. She thought her comfort was the answer to her question of whether or not the church was true. It was not until she yielded to the inviting of the Spirit of God, to believe in Christ’s restored Gospel, that she was introduced to true peace. It was a different feeling altogether, and, importantly, it lasted. Truly, she testified to me that “Jesus… said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of [the devil’s] water shall thirst again: […] But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14-15).

When one of the first converts to the church wondered at whether God had answered his prayers concerning the truthfulness of the restored Gospel, God counseled him, saying:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
“Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:22-23, emphasis added).

Law no. 3: Commandment vs. Prophecy

There’s a story from back when the church was just newly arrived in Utah wherein a church member rode on horseback as quickly as he could from his home to the prophet Brigham Young’s residence to tell him an important message. According to the man, an angel had appeared to him with a commandment for Brigham Young. Before he could tell Brigham Young his message, however, Brigham Young told the man to go back and “tell that angel to go to Hell,” since that’s where the angel had came from.

How could Brigham Young have spoken so boldly without even hearing the message? Simply, he knew the laws, and he knew the supposed angel had broken one of those laws, entering the domain of error. The principle here is that when a commandment comes to a person, even if by an angel of light (which Satan can impersonate; see 2 Corinthians 11:14), it must fall within that person’s jurisdiction. Simply put:

“If worthy, we are entitled to receive revelations for ourselves, parents for their children, and members of the Church in their callings. But the right of revelation for others does not extend beyond our own stewardship” (James E. Faust, “Communion with the Holy Spirit,” Ensign, Mar. 2002, 4).

This means that if you, Thomas, walk into a meeting with the missionaries one day having felt prompted to tell one of them that they need to return home as soon as possible, you can know by this law that it is not of God. This message—this command—would have come through the proper channels to reach that missionary. Per the quote above, it would have to have come to his Mission President. Hence the only person in God’s orderly kingdom who can give commandment for the whole world is the person at its head, the living prophet. Read the scriptures and you will see that this pattern is consistent and ancient.

But God can and does give revelatory experiences—prophecies, visions, etc.—to all those who are worthy and prepared. As Joseph Smith taught:

“How do men obtain a knowledge of the glory of God, his perfections and attributes?… By devoting themselves to his service, through prayer and supplication incessantly strengthening their faith in him, until, like Enoch, the brother of Jared, and Moses, they obtain a manifestation of God to themselves” (Lectures on Faith, 2).

An example of the compatibility of concurrent prophecy and commandment of the Lord can be found in the New Testament. Paul was visiting with the saints in Cæsarea before leaving on assignment to Jerusalem. The account then states:

“And as [Paul] tarried there many days, there came down from Judæa a certain prophet, named Agabus.
“And when he was come… he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.
“…And they of that place… besought [Paul] not to go up to Jerusalem.
“Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.
“… [But Paul] would not be persuaded… saying, The will of the Lord be done.
“And after those days [Paul]… went up to Jerusalem.
“[There,] the chief captain came near, and took [Paul], and commanded him to be bound with two chains…” (Acts 21:10-15,22).

Agabus, filled with the Holy Ghost, prophesied a bad ending to Paul’s journey, which came true. Yet Paul knew that the Lord had commanded him to go and face it, and so he went. As an Apostle, Paul was “up the chain of command,” as it were, from Agabus, so that Agabus would not receive a revelation telling Paul what to do. But, unlike Brigham Young, Paul did not tell Agabus to send the spirit that prompted the prophecy to go to Hell. The reason is that Agabus did not receive a command for Paul that would have contradicted Paul’s earlier revelation to go to Jerusalem, but simply prophesied future events. This is a very important distinction, for it can make the difference in one’s understanding and perception of truth and error.

When the Holy Ghost—the spirit of truth itself—inspires prophecy, it follows that the prophecy would be the truth. Had Paul not been bound hand and foot in Jerusalem to fulfill Agabus’ prophecy, it could be well assumed that Agabus was not filled with the Spirit of the Lord, but with some deceiving, false spirit. But how would it be known to Paul that Agabus was full of either the right spirit or a wrong one? Joseph Smith answered the question when writing about a sect of Christianity he called “the Irvingites” who made false prophecies while under the influence of “the spirit,” so called:

“Some will say, ‘try the spirits’ by the word (1 John 4:1). ‘Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.’ (1 John 4:2-3) One of the Irvingites once quoted this passage whilst under the influence of a spirit, and then said, “I confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” And yet these prophecies failed, their Messiah did not come; and the great things spoken of by them have fallen to the ground. What is the matter here? Did not the Apostle [John] speak the truth? Certainly he did—but he spoke [in context] to a people who were under the penalty of death, the moment they embraced Christianity;… [so] this was consequently given as a criterion to the church or churches to which John wrote. But the devil on a certain occasion cried out, “I know thee, who thou art, the Holy One of God”! (Mark 1:24). Here was a frank acknowledgment under other circumstances that Jesus had ‘come in the flesh.’ On another occasion the devil said, “Paul we know, and Jesus we know”—of course, ‘come in the flesh’ (Acts 19:15) No man nor sect of men without the regular constituted authorities, the Priesthood and discerning of spirits, can tell true from false spirits. This power they possessed in the Apostles’ day, but it has departed from the world for ages” (STPJS, 213).

Is it no wonder that I started off this letter by informing you that most all of the world is ‘oblivious to the knowledge’ that could bring them out of darkness and into light? This precious knowledge is bound by the laws of God, which laws are governed by the priesthood as restored by Joseph Smith (another topic for another time!). Suffice it to say that the knowledge I’m now presenting you would not be around without the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith the prophet.

Law no. 4: Test by the Word

When the Spirit of the Lord speaks to us, it is a subtle sensation. As President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught:

“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 and say in our manner and expression, like Samuel of ancient times, ‘Speak [Lord], for thy servant heareth.’” (“The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 53).

As an investigator to the church, Thomas, you may occasionally receive light and truth to your understanding from the Holy Ghost. But when you are baptized and given the gift of the Holy Ghost, you have the right to constant revelation as long as you stand worthy, as opposed to intermittent insights. Your ability to understand the scriptures, and draw out from them the mysteries of God, will be instantly enhanced.

Hopefully by studying some of the material I have given you thus far in this letter, you will be able to begin recognizing the difference between your own thoughts and the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the promptings of a false spirit. When you are governed by correct principles, you can set sail with confidence in the seas of revelation; lose sight of those principles, however, and the devil will seek to capsize you in an instant. Always “have [your revelations] tested by the word of God; [otherwise] …proving that [you love] darkness rather than light, because [your] deeds are evil” (STPJS, 215). Truth by its nature cannot be contradicted, so always “compare your [revelations] with the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets” (Preach My Gospel, 98). If what you receive works against established doctrines and procedures, “[you] should be very wary about accepting it, and [you] should not share it with others” (Gerald N. Lund, “Is It Revelation?” New Era, July 2004).

Nonetheless, the seas of revelation are an exciting place to be, and by and by, as your faith and experience increase, you may have the heavens opened up to you just as the ancient prophets we read about in the Bible.

Law no. 5: Signs and Tokens

No surprise then that with the restoration of God’s priesthood and laws, a revelation has come through the prophet Joseph Smith detailing how to distinguish between good and bad angels. Now, you may be thinking, “Well, good angels wear white and bad angels wear red, right?” If the devils were not trying to deceive us, then yes, it could be that easy. But Satan’s work has always been the work of counterfeit; if he can’t get us to choose evil outright he gets us to choose evil dressed up as good—error disguised as truth.

(One law I do not know, though I assume it is related to belief and faith and the message being delivered, is upon what grounds the economy of Heaven determines to send an angelic minister versus something lighter like the still small voice. It seems self-evident to me, though, that an angel won’t be sent to tell someone that praying is good—there’s enough conscience [Light of Christ] within even an unbaptized person to receive that type of revelation on their own. Likewise, the scriptures are replete with instances of angelic appearances and visions and dreams that are given for strictly portentous communications.)

Now, back to the concept of error disguising itself as truth. As mentioned earlier, the devil can appear as an angel of light, attempting to deceive those who know not the laws. Joseph Smith instructs:

“There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—
“For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
“Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.
“When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.
“If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.
“If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—
“Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.
“If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.
“These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God” (Doctrine and Covenants 129:1-9).

Did you catch the giveaway between good spirits and bad ones? It comes back to the principle of truth. Only the devil or a false spirit will enter the domain of error. In the three examples above of a being appearing in light bearing a message from God, the only one who attempts to do something he cannot do (physically shake hands) is the evil spirit. A spirit attempting to respond to the request that hands be clasped is a deception because it cannot be done. A good spirit would not enter the domain of error, whereas an evil spirit would, outstretching his arm as if he were capable of actually shaking your hand.

Whether it be the spirit of prophecy, a prompting to action by the Holy Ghost, or a message from an angel, the Lord has instituted laws whereby counterfeits may be detected and eliminated. If you have the knowledge, you may even detect a false angel by the color of his hair, or the presence of wings (Angels do not have wings; See STPJS, 162 & 214).

In God’s kingdom of perfect order, there is no room for blame or aspersion. Several years ago I saw an article in a Utah newspaper describing a deranged mother’s slaying of her husband and children. When questioned as to her motives, she responded that she had been told by the spirit of God to do so as a test of her willingness to obey. She believed that at some point her obedience would be proven and her family would be miraculously returned to her. But she was imprisoned instead for the senseless murdering of her family.

Was she justified in her atrocities because she was being obedient, even if the end result seemed non-miraculous? I will state with complete firmness that no man or woman who submits any degree of obedience to a false spirit will find any degree of justification in God’s eyes.

“But what about Abraham?” You might ask. “He followed a command to take his son up and sacrifice him on an alter. Wasn’t that just like this woman who killed her family? Was this her Abrahamic trial?” No it wasn’t. In one case, we find a false spirit at the head; in the other, the spirit of God. That is why it is so important to be able to detect the Lord’s true servants.

If a true messenger of God delivered the message, and I confirmed the truth that the message was of God, I would then have the certain knowledge that it was of God, and not knowing the end from the beginning, I would have faith “accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” just as Abraham had to fulfill the command (Hebrews 11:19).

Abraham: Father of the Faithful

In summary, Thomas, I want you to know that God has established laws whereby every ministration from Him may be known with certainty, ‘as daylight is from the dark night.’ Though these are not all the laws that exist, the principle remains here exemplified that you may gain a knowledge of the truth of all things. You may come to know that The Book of Mormon is true. You may gain a knowledge that what the missionaries just shared with you is true. You may gain a knowledge that Heavenly Father exists as the missionaries have taught He does, and as the scriptures teach He does. You may come to know, as you know that I live having seen me face to face, that the Savior, Jesus Christ, lives. And you may not be deceived.

A knowledge of such things does not negate the need for faith. When you know that Christ lives, then you must give your life to Him. Then if you are asked to deny that Jesus is the Christ or die, what will your faith bring you to do? If you know that The Book of Mormon is true and you are asked to be baptized and to lead your family to the same, what will your faith bring you to do? Jonah tried to sail away from his knowledge. David thought Bathsheba was worth more than his knowledge. But Abraham became known as the father of the faithful because he was true to his knowledge.

Detect the truth, Thomas. Do everything in your power to have a knowledge of the truth. Then ask yourself, “What will I do now?” That will be the measure of your faith.

—Joseph

P.S. I think that I would like to write you another letter soon detailing the differences and relationships between faith, belief, and knowledge since we dipped our toes into it at the end here.

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