For Melinda Ashton, trying to understand and recognize the Holy Ghost has been a decades-long quest. In her remarks at BYU Women’s Conference, Sister Ashton, wife of Brother Brian K. Ashton of the Sunday School general presidency, shared personal experiences and insights to help others do the same.
“It is my prayer that you will leave here today with more hope and faith in your ability to seek and receive direction through the Spirit,” Sister Ashton told the women gathered in the Marriott Center on BYU campus.
Sister Ashton spoke jointly with Sister Linda K. Reeves, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, on the topic “The Holy Ghost: Direction, Correction and Warning” during a breakout session of the annual conference on Thursday, April 28. (See Sister Reeve’s report here.)
Sister Ashton explained that there are foundational truths important to understanding communication with the Holy Ghost. These truths include knowledge that “God is our Father and Jesus Christ our brother and Savior. They love us unconditionally and love us individually and collectively. They are capable of and desirous of communicating with us, and They do so through the Holy Ghost.”
The entire focus and desire of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost is to teach individuals how to become like Them, she said. “Faith is an essential part of our development and progression and is required as we learn to follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost.”
Sister Ashton acknowledged that testimony of eternal truths does not always come easily or all at once. “If you have not come to know these truths deep within your soul, please, for now, just choose to believe. I promise in days or weeks or years to come, as you seek to communicate with your Father and Savior through the Spirit, it will be revealed to you.”
Sister Ashton then related two lessons she learned while seeking personal revelation on whether to marry her husband, Brian. Early in their dating, she realized he was a good man and felt they were a good match. However, because of the importance of the decision, she wanted an irrefutable confirmation from the Lord.
“I would have liked an angel or a vision but felt like an obvious burning in the bosom would probably suffice,” she recalled. “I spent years — five and a half — seeking the kind of confirmation that I wanted, afraid to move forward without it.”
Eventually, “I came to understand that I was expecting the Spirit to confirm what I was feeling in a manner different than how the Spirit generally speaks to me,” she said.
While the Lord does sometimes reveal things to His children through visions and angelic visitations, He most commonly communicates as described in Doctrine and Covenants 8:2, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost,” she explained.
With this new insight, Sister Ashton moved forward. After she became engaged she attended the temple and received a clear answer that she was on the right path. This taught her another lesson: “When you are paralyzed by fear it is difficult, if not impossible, for the Spirit to guide you. You need to be moving. As you exercise faith in a loving Heavenly Father and Savior, They will direct your steps. They can’t direct your steps if you are not stepping.”
Understanding of this principle was further developed as Sister Ashton attended medical school. As she observed her classmates, she noticed that those who were willing to try new things, even at the risk of failing, progressed more rapidly.
For those that hold back due to a lack of confidence, fear of making a mistake or other reasons, Sister Ashton offered the reassurance, “after we have prayerfully prepared, humbled our hearts so that we are willing to accept the Lord’s guidance, and done all we can to be worthy of and seek the guidance of the Spirit and make the best decision we can that is in accordance with the things that we know, we can proceed with faith that the Lord will not allow us to go astray."
That does not mean life will be without mistakes, failures, hardships or trials, Sister Ashton added. “These are all part of the Lord’s plan to be instructed as we learn to understand truth. It does mean that the path we choose will be to our learning, growth and progression.”
To become more like Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, individuals must gain wisdom and experience, Sister Ashton said. “We cannot be directed in all things.”
To illustrate this principle, Sister Ashton used the example of when her children are learning to read. When they ask her how to spell a word, Sister Ashton does not respond with the spelling but will ask, “What do you think?”
“I guide them, but I do not give them the answer because I want them to learn the process and tools of spelling so that they can eventually spell on their own,” she explained.
Similarly, when her children approach her with a problem or a decision to make, she tries to ask questions and help them think about other perspectives and variables. “I realize that in order for them to be able to make good decisions when I’m not around, they need to learn to analyze a situation and apply correct principles.”
Sister Ashton said she sometimes allows her children, when the stakes are low, to make a poor decision so they can learn a principle they can then apply when the stakes are higher. “Our Heavenly Father does the same thing for us,” she said and quoted Doctrine and Covenants 9:7 where the Lord admonishes Oliver Cowdery, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.”
“As we put forth the effort to study, apply truth that we already know, and move forward with faith, the Lord will direct us.”
When Sister Ashton was a teenager, her sister had an experience in which the Lord provided comfort in a very personal and profound way. “I wanted to have that same experience,” Sister Ashton said. “Over several years, I petitioned the Lord for the same experience but to no avail. After each attempt, I would conclude that I wasn’t worthy, the Lord didn’t love me as much or that I lacked the abilities or gifts needed. I didn’t understand the following principle taught by Elder Dallin H. Oaks: ‘We should recognize that the Lord will speak to us through the Spirit in His own time and in His own way.’”
She said that as she looks back over her own life and her sister’s life, she can see the Lord’s wisdom in how He taught each of them. “Even when I don’t understand the Lord’s purposes, my testimony is that our Father and our Savior love us and know us and communicate with us through the Spirit in a way and at a time that will be most beneficial for our personal growth and development. Finally, I have learned in my journey that the Lord knows our needs and the deepest desires of our hearts even better than we do.”