The scriptures are replete with examples telling us to seek out personal revelation and use scriptural precedent and principles to guide our decisions. Anyone who has sincerely tried to do this over an extended period of time knows that it is easier said than done. How do we distinguish the guidance of the Spirit from a sea of conflicting emotions and ideas? How do we know which scriptural precedent applies to our lives? Even (near) perfect sources–revelation and scripture–suffer from our limitations as (very) imperfect recipients.
I thought of this when I was reading in Alma with my family last week and we got to the familiar story of Captain Moroni and Pahoran. Captain Moroni condemns Pahoran and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t send the necessary reinforcements and supplies, but it turns out Captain Moroni was mistaken and Pahoran was unable (not unwilling) to send the requisite support. Pahoran graciously doesn’t take offense, joins forces with Captain Moroni, and they win the war.
So far so good, but on this reading two particular verses stood out to me for the first time:
19 And now, Moroni, I do joy in receiving your epistle, for I was somewhat worried concerning what we should do, whether it should be just in us to go against our brethren.
20 But ye have said, except they repent the Lord hath commanded you that ye should go against them. (Alma 61:19-20)
The remarkable thing about these two verses is that they show that Pahoran took Captain Moroni’s revelation / scriptural interpretation as persuasive and correct even though Captain Moroni actually got it wrong, to some extent. Here’s the passage the Pahoran seems to be referring to:
30 Behold, I wait for assistance from you; and, except ye do administer unto our relief, behold, I come unto you, even in the land of Zarahemla, and smite you with the sword, insomuch that ye can have no more power to impede the progress of this people in the cause of our freedom.
31 For behold, the Lord will not suffer that ye shall live and wax strong in your iniquities to destroy his righteous people.
32 Behold, can you suppose that the Lord will spare you and come out in judgment against the Lamanites, when it is the tradition of their fathers that has caused their hatred, yea, and it has been redoubled by those who have dissented from us, while your iniquity is for the cause of your love of glory and the vain things of the world?
33 Ye know that ye do transgress the laws of God, and ye do know that ye do trample them under your feet. Behold, the Lord saith unto me: If those whom ye have appointed your governors do not repent of their sins and iniquities, ye shall go up to battle against them.
35 And behold, if ye will not do this I come unto you speedily; for behold, God will not suffer that we should perish with hunger; therefore he will give unto us of your food, even if it must be by the sword. Now see that ye fulfil the word of God. (Alma 60:30-35)
In these verses, Captain Moroni justifies his threat to “smite [Pahoran] with the sword” by invoking personal revelation explicitly (see vs. 33, where he says “the Lord saith unto me”) and implicitly by scripture as well (see vs. 33 and 35 where he references “the laws of God” and “the word of God”). The principles Captain Moroni is citing here are true; indeed, he ends up joining forces with Pahoran and smiting those who sabotaged the Nephite war effort. So, in at least one sense, the revelation and scriptural interpretation are correct.
And yet it’s incontestable that Captain Moroni believed that the revelation he received and the scriptural interpretation he understood applied to Pahoran himself. And in that, at least, he was wrong.
Rather than try to differentiate between Captain Moroni’s technically correct revelation and his incorrect application of that revelation, it might be simpler to say: sometimes folks just get it wrong. That’s certainly true. Sometimes people mistake their own feelings for inspiration, and Captain Moroni was certainly not infallible.
But I think we have good reason not to believe that that’s what happened in this particular case. First, because Pahoran himself was persuaded by the truth of what Captain Moroni said. Second, because Mormon–as editor–deemed the entire exchange worth recording. And lastly, because I find it so instructive as a lesson for us, as we strive to become more adept and discerning at seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Which, by the way, is something that we should all view as an especially high priority given President Nelson’s warning from the April 2018 General Conference in his talk Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives:
But in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost. My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation.
The lesson I take from this story is that even when we are correct about receiving inspiration and even when our understanding of scriptural precedent is accurate, we are still not impervious to error.
This does not mean that we should abandon our efforts to seek and be true to revelation, but it does mean that we should be cautious and wise and always be willing to see revelation we have received in a new light. It also means that we should be less discouraged in those cases where we receive different answers to prayer from someone else, because it teaches us that our answers are to some degree conditioned on our expectations and assumptions. This means that at least some apparently contradictory revelations may, in time, turn out to be compatible once we have corrected for human error.
This in turn, should allow some grace in how we Latter-day Saints treat each other–and other Christians and believers of all faiths–when we find ourselves in disagreement. Pahoran’s gift was not only in rising above any temptation to anger or offense at Moroni’s statement, but in being willing and able to perceive inspiration and truth in someone who, at least temporarily, appeared to be an enemy.
We should take heart from this story, and be faithful and patient as we trust that the Lord will, in time, bring all who hear His voice into perfect unity. If we understand that there are going to be bumps and misunderstandings along the way, that should only deepen our resolve to endure to the end, when all will be revealed and become clear.