Doing the Right Thing

Mormons believe in revelation. Within limits. Admittedly, what I am about to say is a gross overgeneralization, but I hope that it will provoke some interesting discussion.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a rich tradition of public and private revelation, but in my experience, most members of the Church do not trust in their own ability to receive revelation. Moreover, those who profess to receive revelation often are viewed with skepticism by other members. Given that our history includes lunatics like the Laffertys, such skepticism is not without foundation. Nevertheless, I think we shortchange ourselves through our fear.

While a spiritual counterpart to Linnaeus could undoubtedly identify many classes of revelation — from heavenly visitations to warm feelings to confirmatory thoughts — my sense is that the acceptable boundary of public discourse in the Church usually ends with proclamations like, “I feel good about this decision.” Anything more, and you have said too much. We also believe in divine coincidences, which seem less risky as spiritual events because they can be verified by others. Admittedly, in some instances, saying more would be inappropriate (“throwing pearls before swine”), but I suspect that our circumspection often is motivated by fear of rejection.

Here are three principles that I offer for your consideration:

1. We cannot “fulfill the measure of our creation” — that is, we cannot accomplish the purpose of our life — without ongoing personal revelation. I am not talking merely about a witness that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that we have a prophet at the head of the Church today. To be sure, these are important things to know. They are necessary, but not sufficient. In addition, we need frequent guidance in dealing with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

2. Receiving personal revelation requires practice. While I was on my mission, I discovered (reading Church News, no less) a precept that I have attempted to employ throughout my life, with varying degress of success. It goes like this: if I feel like doing something, and it might benefit someone and will not harm anyone, then I do it. This is a variation on WWJD (a principle first introduced to me through the book In His Steps) and the Golden Rule that seems to me a bit easier to operationalize. No matter what your motivation, however, acting on such precepts requires courage, and not just at the beginning.

3. Learning to receive revelation involves making mistakes. We have this odd notion that people should be able to just do this, but the messages to our heart are noisy. Worldly influences and desires compete with spiritual longings. Sorting those messages out is a lifetime project that requires patience with ourselves and others.

13 comments for “Doing the Right Thing

  1. January 24, 2004 at 2:54 pm

    Hmm… I like this thought, Gordon. One thing you didn’t touch base on is that of two people receiving conflicting personal revelations. An example of this would be the classic “gross vs. net” issue with tithing. I’ve never heard someone say, “I’ve received personal revelation to pay my tithing on…”. Although undoubtedly many people receive personal revelation on such issues, they rarely share it because they feel their neighbor may have a conflicting point-of-view (meaning, the neighbor has possibly received personal revelation that is the opposite). Now granted, personal revelation is, by definition, personal. But it seems to me that every time someone shares personal revelation, there’s this underlying tone of “I received this very specific piece of revelation and you can too, the way I did” rather than “I received this for myself, you can use personal revelation to receive an answer for yourself too”.

  2. January 24, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    This is an important point Gordon. Fallibilism is an essential part of Mormon conceptions of revelation. However I think many of us are uncomfortable with that notion – perhaps because we feel it opens us up to an ethical skepticism. This need not be the case, as the American pragmatists show. But it does seem that both sides in many discussions assume a de facto infallibility towards revelation.

    We all fail in other kinds of knowledge, such as memory. Yet we’d never say that our memory is unreliable. Why then do we feel this need to say personal revelation ought to be so sure? I’ve certainly had some times when I’ve significantly misinterpreted revelation. (I still look back and cringe sometimes) Other times I’ve had things provided amazingly clear. At other times yet I recognize that my “radio tubes” aren’t what they ought to be, requiring a healthy skepticism on my part. (That’s in reference to the famous talk by I believe JFS as I recall) Yet to improve on ones ability to receive revelation one has to risk failure and take that leap of faith. Yes you’ll fail at times, but over time you’ll improve in your ability to discern.

    The problem is that I think many of us want a level of clarity we don’t even have in our own memories. We don’t have this ourselves but then require it of others. It is rather sad.

  3. January 26, 2004 at 12:27 pm

    It has taken me awhile to get back to the computer, but here are a couple of thoughts.

    Bob, “conflicting revelations.” Hmmm, indeed. I guess my knee-jerk reaction would be that there are two possibilities: they are not both receiving revelation, or their cases are distinguishable. Life and revelation are opaque enough that neither of these hypotheses is testable, but I will stick with the idea that God is consistent.

    Clark, interesting comparison of revelation with memory. I like it. How often I have met people who say, “I don’t trust my ability to receive revelation,” or something to that effect. In many instances, they stop trying, and that is sad.

  4. January 26, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    Gordon, thanks for the response. One thing I was trying to hint at but didn’t fully pinpoint: Why is it that, as members of the Church, we often feel uncomfortable when someone shares his/her personal revelation. If a GA shares revelation, we’re all ears. But if it’s your neighbor, sometimes you wish they wouldn’t have told you what they just did. Am I the only one who notices this?

  5. January 26, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    Bob, I think you are right, and maybe the possibility of apparent conflict is one reason for reticence. Just yesterday, a new sister in our ward told a story in sacrament meeting about receiving inspiration on behalf of her son. This was no small prompting, but a vivid instruction that may have saved her son’s life. I believe her. I think such instructions are given frequently to people who are attuned to the Spirit and many mothers are listening on behalf of their children.

    Nevertheless, this type of story is fairly safe. It falls into the category of “divine coincidences” that I mentioned in my main post. That is, this sister had a feeling and the rightness of that feeling could be verified by some observable event. These are important stories, and I value hearing them, but they are stories we could easily tell our non-member friends (some of whom would write them off as “intuition” or, more cynically, “paranoia”).

    The harder stories are those that are not easily verifiable. We don’t tell those as much, and I think we miss out on some great lessons.

  6. Matt J
    January 26, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Regarding Bob’s question about why people aren’t always excited about their neighbors’ revelations.

    One answer: envy. I just finished a very interesting book about Envy, so now I’m thinking envy is the answer to more problems than it probably is.

    Anyway, the author makes the case that envy is most pronounced among almost-equals. Revelation to a GA is not threatening because they have a ‘higher calling’ than most. Those revelations even back up our view that the church is directed by God and make us happier members. But when our neighbor starts receiving revelation, we start asking ‘Why not me?’ To address the threat that we’re not receiving as much revelation as we should, we attack our neighbor as a nut, sometimes getting joy out of making sure our other neighbors know this.

    Now if we were the one receiving the revelation, part of our reluctance to share it would be due to envy-avoidance. We protect ourselves from this same type of attack by our neighbors by keeping quiet.

    This same phenomenon might occur among farmers when one gets a better tractor and produces more than the others, or among neighbors where someone gets rich due to some invention or inheritance.

    This is obviously just one aspect of complex human interaction, but I do believe there’s some truth to it. All of us should be receiving more revelation than we currently are. If we spent more time celebrating these revelations in each other, there may be more of them to benefit everyone’s lives.

  7. January 26, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    Wow, Matt, can you give the name and author of the book you just read? I’m fascinated by this concept just from your comment. I’d be interested to see how envy influences us in other aspects of our lives.

  8. January 26, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    I apologize for commenting so much on my own post, but Matt J’s comment is excellent and prompted some more thoughts about how difficult this problem is. In my original post, I treated the issue as one of revelation deprivation; my “thesis” was that we deprive ourselves of revelations because are afraid of appearing as zealots. Matt J. and Bob both suggest that even if people are receiving revelations, they might be reluctant to relate the experience. We all seem to agree, however, that more revelation disclosure could be beneficial.

    I am interested in Matt J’s notion of “envy avoidance.” This must be a close cousin to humility. Strange how this personal virtue, whatever it is called, can work against the collective good.

    This discussion reminds me of the exchange between Ammon and Aaron in Alma 26: 10-11:

    “And it came to pass that when Ammon had said these words, his brother Aaron rebuked him, saying: Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.

    But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.”

    Unless I am way off base, Ammon is fairly typical of people who have spiritual experiences (they want to share it … they are excited!), and Aaron has a predictable response. Perhaps the most that can be said has already been said by Matt J: this is about a “complex human interaction.” In the end, however, I am left wanting more.

  9. Matt J
    January 26, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour
    by Helmut Schoeck

    I came upon the book through some libertarian’s list of 10 best books. You can find it used through amazon, but it doesn’t look like there are any reviews. A google search did return some reviews though.

    My quick review. The over-arching theme of the book is that the modern socialist welfare state is the result of envy. In one case many ‘have-nots’ are encouraged to manifest their envy, and in another case enough ‘haves’ are riddled by guilt at the possibility that they may provoke envy in others. Another major theme is that a completely egalitarian society (one devoid of envy or reasons to envy) is impossible so rather than placate envy, it should be controlled.

    In general, he claims that envy is not always bad. But society needs to have checks in place to restrict the overly envious. That’s why envy-avoidance plays a big role in the book. He also makes the case that one reason why western economies have done so well is that they overcame the tendency of neighbors to envy and attack the more successful among them. It’s hard for innovators or entrepreneurs to be successful if they fear for their lives because of their success. Either we overcame this tendency, or we got big enough and mobile enough so that innovators could move to a new neighborhood.

    The author examines envy in a wide variety of cases and from different disciplines and I found it very enlightening. But the two themes mentioned above are repeated a wee bit too frequently. The book is over 400 pages and could probably have been cut in half. I do plan to read it again cursorily to get more of the gold nuggets out of it.

  10. Matt J
    January 26, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    Here is a pretty good review of the Envy book:

  11. January 26, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    Gordon, I’ve appreciated all your thoughtful responses. I have something more to say on your BOM quote. That little conversation between Ammon and Aaron may have worked back then but, from what I’ve seen, would almost never work now. Here’s the modern day version:

    Bob: I think that you’re boasting when you say that.

    Gordon: I’m not boasting at all, my joy is…, my heart is…, and I will rejoice in…

    Bob: (Bob just rolls his eyes because he feels like he can’t get through to Gordon and would rather just feel envious and go home and complain to his wife about the situation)

    Although this may not be how it always happens; I feel that, out of envy possibly, we really are too quick to think of someone’s joy as pride instead.

    And you know what? Maybe it is pride sometimes… We’re not always the best judge of sincerity. It does seem rather hard at times to decide whether or not to give someone credit or just blow them off because “you know” he/she is not reliable.

  12. Adam Greenwood
    January 26, 2004 at 10:20 pm

    I’ve had the sort of spiritual experience you’ve mentioned, where you want to burst out sharing with everyone.
    But my most sacred moments, one’s that seemed to me to involve visions and revelations, are ones that I had no desire whatsoever to share, except perhaps with Sara. Like Mary, I kept them and pondered them in my heart. Some things are so sacred and so personal that they are demeaned if they are shared and not understood, and they are of such a nature that they would not be understood. In a sense, it would even profane them to try and talk about then when we ourselves aren’t near the same state of grace we had when we recieved them.

  13. January 27, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    I can’t take credit for the memory analogy. Dennis Potter pointed it out to me, although he was using it for slightly different purposes. But I think it does orient the question fairly well. Rather than asking if we are justified perhaps the onus is the other direction. When are we not justified? It really is a truly great parallel. In more ways than you first think of as well. After all many of us are cursed with a poor memory. Yet by practice we can build it up to be quite good.

    The difficulty is that with memory we have plenty of shared experiences to compare our memory with others. With spiritual experiences there are fewer to share with. Often the most deep and important spiritual experiences occur when alone – which is like trying to remember things when only you were there!

    That’s why I think it is important to do things like home teach and so forth where your opportunities to feel and recognize the spirit are great. That’s also a great value of a mission. Although sadly I think all too many of us (myself included) fall out of the habits within a few years of being home.

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