One of the most common questions that is asked about the Spirit is how we can tell whether or not a prompting is coming from the Spirit or whether it is simply the product of my own thoughts. The most common answer that is given is that if a thought leads you to do good, follow it. If you feel a prompting to take a treat to a neighbor, whether it comes from the Spirit or oneself is irrelevant because every good thing (or thought) originates from Christ anyway. This answer is simple and true, it seems to remove all questions regarding recognizing the Spirit. However, the question continues to be asked, how can I tell? This is because not all promptings are obviously good or bad. The prompting to visit a widow or help someone with a car problem can be easily attributed to the Spirit, but what about the prompting to go to the grocery store at 2:00 AM? What if you feel like you should return home early from a trip or avoid a trip altogether? What about the promptings to back out of a home purchase before signing the contract or to move to a new city? These kinds of promptings can have major consequences that range from inconvenient to disasterous, yet they are not so easy to judge as good or bad. Going to the store at 2:00 AM isn't inherently good or bad, it's morally neutral. I believe these are the promptings that confuse us and prompt the questions about recognizing the Spirit.
The truth is that voice matters more than message. There is no real pattern (other than the one already mentioned) that you can apply to the prompting to know whether it comes from God. You won't always be able to know by the message, sometimes the only way to know is by the voice that gives it. We must become so familiar with the Lord that we recognize His voice clearly and distinctly from all other voices. This is a process that takes a lot of time and effort.
It reminds me of the story told by Elder Allan F. Packer:
“When I was a young man in high school, one of my passions was American football. I played middle linebacker. The coach worked the team hard, teaching us the basics. We practiced until the skills became natural and automatic. During one play against our biggest rival, I had an experience that has helped me over the years. We were on defense. I knew my assigned opponent, and as the play unfolded, he moved to my right into the line of scrimmage. There was a lot of noise from players and fans. I reacted as the coach had taught us and followed my man into the line, not knowing if he had the ball. To my surprise, I felt the ball partially in my hands. I gave it a tug, but my opponent didn’t let go. As we tugged back and forth, amid all the noise I heard a voice yelling, ‘Packer, tackle him!’ That was enough to bring me to my senses, so I dropped him on the spot.
“I have wondered how I heard that voice above all the other noise. I had become acquainted with the voice of the coach during the practices, and I had learned to trust it. I knew that what he taught worked.
“We need to be acquainted with the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and we need to practice and apply gospel teachings until they become natural and automatic. These promptings become the foundation of our testimonies” (“Finding Strength in Challenging Times!” Ensign or Liahona, May 2009, 17).
In Elder Packer's story, the right action wasn't discernible by an analysis of the many messages being shouted but because he recognized the voice of his coach.
I think that the question "how do I know whether a prompting comes from God or not?" is fundamentally flawed because it focuses on the prompting itself rather than the voice which is the only true way to know. Perhaps it would be more useful to ask, "how can I better recognize the Lord's voice when He speaks to me?"
Answers to this question come much more readily and in abundance, I have a few thoughts in response.
1. Failing doesn't make me a failure
Remembering that the Savior's Atonement means that there is no mistake I can make that He can't fix gives me the freedom to fail without being a failure. "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." How do we honor the freedom Christ purchased with His sacrifice? I think we stand fast in freedom when we replace the fear of ruining things with the faith of trying things. For example, while the prompting to share the gospel or my testimony is obviously good, I have at times wondered whether what I say or how I say it will offend someone and therefore cause negative results. When I understand that Christ can fix any unforeseen consequences, I am free to try to do what's right without having to fear permanent damage. In other words, Christ purchased the freedom to try. To stand fast in that freedom means to not attempt to seek answers by thinking that ought to be obtained by doing. Faith means action and there is no shortcut to recognizing God's voice. It cannot be done by study alone, but also by faith, or action. This means that in the situation I mentioned, I share my testimony and trust that if I fail, God can fix the problems and I can learn a better way to try it next time.
2. Move your feet and keep your ears open.
We must learn to keep walking and continue to listen. Sometimes the answers to our questions are not visible from our current position. We may keep praying for the Lord to tell us which way to go when if we would only take two steps in any direction we would realize that we were standing directly behind a tree and the way to go would become obvious. Sometimes the answer is movement, or a change of position. Too often we fall victim to paralysis by analysis. We can debate all day about what could or couldn't be behind the tree or we could take two steps and know for sure. There is no substitute for work and motion.
“What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of [Heavenly Father’s] trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. As you are sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, one of two things will certainly occur at the appropriate time: either the stupor of thought will come, indicating an improper choice, or the peace or the burning in the bosom will be felt, confirming that your choice was correct. When you are living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you have made the wrong decision.”