Principles that Govern Revelation
Ronald D. Anderson
Brigham Young University–Idaho
November 25, 2003
I am grateful to be here Brothers and Sisters. I would like to share some of my thoughts and feelings about receiving revelation. I will use the scriptures, quotes from the prophets, and my own experience to share my message with you.
First of all, if we were to chart revelation as a continuum, it might look something like this. May I suggest that the most indirect way of receiving revelation is through the Light of Christ, or what the world would call our conscience. Would you turn with me in your scriptures to Moroni 7:16-17. It states,
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for 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.
As we follow the light of Christ we begin to develop what the Apostle Paul calls, “The Fruits of the Spirit.”Galations 5:22-23 lists the fruits of the spirit as love, joy, long suffering, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. As we progress on the continuum we come to the next area called inspiration. Inspiration can come in many ways. Prayer, pure intelligence, common sense, intuition, scriptures, a burning in the bosom, another person, thoughts, and feelings are some examples of how revelation may come. The next area on the continuum is a dream. Dreams happen when we are asleep. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi is an example of one who received revelation through dreams. Our next category is Mechanical Devices. These devices include the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, a Seer Stone, and a staff or rod. A more direct way of receiving revelation is to actually hear a voice. The prophet Samuel is an example of one who heard an audible voice tell him to do something. Our next category is to experience a vision. A vision is both visible and audible. Next is to actually have a visitation. Angels such as Moroni, Peter, James, and John, Moses, and Elijah appearing to the Prophet Joseph Smith are examples of this. The most direct way of receiving revelation from our Heavenly Father is to experience a theophany, that is, to see God face to face. Joseph Smith’s First Vision is an example of this.
Regardless of the way revelation is received, there are some principles hat govern receiving revelation. I would like to share with you 8 principles that govern revelation.
Principle #1 All members of the Church are entitled to receive Revelation.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them. He taught the following,
This principle ought (in its proper place) to be taught, for God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint many know all things as fast as he is able to bear them, for the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor, ‘Know ye the Lord; for all shall know Him (who remain) from the least to the greatest.
All of us are entitled to receive revelation. This is an important point to remember.
Principle #2 You can not force Spiritual things.
President Boyd K. Packer has taught this principle on many different occassions. He has taught the following,
It is not wise to wrestle with the revelations with such insistence as to demand immediate answers or blessings to your liking. You cannot force spiritual things. Such words as compel, coerce, constrain, pressure, demand, do not describe our privileges with the Spirit. You can no more force the Spirit to respond than you can force a bean to sprout, or an egg to hatch before it’s time. You can create a climate to foster growth, nourish, and protect; but you cannot force or compel: you must await the growth. Do not be impatient to gain great spiritual knowledge. Let it grow, help it grow, but do not force it or you will open the way to be misled.
As a religion teacher, there is nothing I would rather be able to do than to flip a switch in my classroom and have the Spirit come into the room. But, it doesn’t work that way. As a class, we can sing, we can pray, we can be reverent, we can be respectful, we can speak one at a time to invite the Spirit, but we cannot force it to come.
Principle #3 The Lord decides where, how, and when Revelation is to come.
If you will turn with me in your scriptures to Doctrine and Covenants 88:68, it states,
Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.
Notice the Lord says that He will answer us in His time, and in His way, not in our time, or in our way.
Principle #4 The Spirit speaks to Spirit.
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that impressions that come to us from the Holy Ghost are more difficult to erase than seeing a vision. He said,
The question frequently arises: ‘Is it necessary for a member of the Council of the Twelve to see the Savior in order to be an apostle?’ It is their privilege to see him if occasion requires, but the Lord has taught that there is a stronger witness than seeing a personage, even of seeing the Son of God in a vision. Impressions on the soul that come from the Holy Ghost are far more significant than a vision. When Spirit speaks to Spirit, the imprint upon the soul is far more difficult to erase. Every member of the Church should have impressions that Jesus is the Son of God indelibly pictured on his soul through the witness of the Holy Ghost.
Speaking of how the Spirit speaks to our Spirits, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the following,
All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies are revealed to us in the abstract, and independent of affinity of this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all; and those revelations which will save our spirits will save our bodies.
The idea that the Spirit communicates to our Spirit as if we had no bodies at all is intriguing. On another occasion, the Prophet Joseph Smith described this process using the word intelligence. He taught the following,
A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) Those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.
When I was a small boy I soon realized that many who bore their testimonies in Sacrament meeting ended up crying. I began to believe that if I had a testimony I should cry too. I remember wanting to cry when I bore my testimony. It wasn’t until later in my life that I learned the following about the relationship between tears and a testimony. Alvin R. Dyer relates the following incident he had with President Spencer W. Kimball.
You don’t have to cry about the gospel to have a testimony! Many times we think that we don’t have a testimony unless a few tears flow. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not necessary or needful for a person to have tears streaming down his face to have a testimony of the gospel. I went to a meeting with Spencer W. Kimball and a man got up and bore his testimony and he cried all the way through it. After the meeting, Brother Kimball called him over and said, ‘Brother, I wish you’d stop crying when you bear your testimony. You don’t have to do that to tell the people you love the Lord.’
President Howard W. Hunter cautioned teachers in the Church Educational System to be careful not to counterfeit the true influence of the Holy Ghost. He taught the following,
Let me offer a word of caution on this subject. I think if we are not careful as professional teachers working in the classroom every day, we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself. I have watched a great many of my brethren over the years and we have shared some rare and unspeakable spiritual experiences together. Those experiences have all been different, each special in its own way, and such sacred moments may or may not be accompanied by tears. Very often they are, but sometimes they are accompanied by total silence. Other times they are accompanied by joy. Always they are accompanied by a great manifestation of the truth, of revelation to the heart. Give your students gospel truth powerfully taught; that is the way to give them a spiritual experience. Let it come naturally and as it will, perhaps with the shedding of tears, but perhaps not. If what you say is the truth, and you say it purely and with honest conviction, those students will feel the spirit of the truth being taught to them and will recognize that inspiration and revelation has come into their hearts. That is how we build faith. That is how we strengthen testimonies–with the power of the word of God taught in purity and with conviction.
These teachings have helped me greatly in my own life and in my teaching as a religion instructor for the past 22 years.
Principle #5 Use your head–Use common sense.
Study it out in your mind. The Lord expects us to use the brain he has given us. He also expects us to know what He has taught through his prophets. He expects us to know what he has already revealed to us about such issues as serving a mission, watching R- rated movies, dating, and sexual purity. He has already given us the answers to questions that might arise concerning these or other issues. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “We never inquire at the hand of God for special revelation only in case of their being no previous revelation to suit the case.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks tells the following story concerning this issue,
The Spirit of the Lord is not likely to give us revelations on matters that are trivial. I once heard a young woman in a testimony meeting praise the spirituality of her husband, indicating that he submitted every question to the Lord. She told how he accompanied her shopping and would not even choose between different brands of canned vegetables without making his selection a matter of prayer. That strikes me as improper. I believe the Lord expects us to use the intelligence and experience he has given us to make these kinds of choices.
Elder Oaks reminds us that there is not always a right and wrong answer to every question we may take to the Lord. He taught,
I suggest that there is not a right and wrong to every question. To many questions, there are only two wrong answers or two right answers. Thus, a person who seeks guidance on which of two different ways he should pursue to get even with a person who has wronged him is not likely to receive a revelation. Neither is a person who seeks guidance on a choice he will never have to make because some future event will intervene, such as a third alternative that is clearly preferable...No answer is likely to come to a person who seeks guidance in choosing between two alternatives that are equally acceptable to the Lord. Thus, there are times when we can serve productively in two different fields of labor. Either answer is right.
We see this doctrine taught in the Doctrine and Covenants in Sections 60-62. If you would turn with me to Doctrine and Covenants 60:5 it states,
But, verily, I will speak unto you concerning your journey unto the land from whence you came. Let there be a craft made, or bought, AS SEEMETH YOU GOOD, IT MATTERETH NOT UNTO ME, and take your journey speedily for the place which is called St. Louis (emphasis added).
Notice the phrase, IT MATTERETH NOT UNTO ME in the following passages. Please turn with me to Doctrine and Covenants 61:22. It reads,
And IT MATTERETH NOT UNTO ME, after a little, if it so be that they fill their mission, whether they go by water or by land; let this be as it is made known unto them according to their judgments hereafter (emphaisis added).
Please turn to Doctrine and Covenants 61:35. It says, “And let them journey together, or two by two, AS SEEMETH THEM GOOD...” (Emphasis added) Please turn to Doctrine and Covenants 62:5. The Lord says,
And then you may return to bear record, yea, even altogether, or two by two, AS SEEMETH YOU GOOD, IT MATTERETH NOT UNTO ME; only be faithful, and declare glad tidings unto the inhabitants of the earth, or among the congregations of the wicked... (emphasis added)
We can see from these passages that sometimes the Lord doesn’t care which choice we make. My favorite quote in this regard is the following one by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He taught,
How do you choose a wife? I’ve heard a lot of young people from Brigham Young University and elsewhere say, ‘I’ve got to get a feeling of inspiration. I’ve got to get some revelation. I’ve got to fast and pray and get the Lord to manifest to me whom I should marry.’ Well, maybe it will be a little shock to you, but never in my life did I ever ask the Lord whom I ought to marry. It never occurred to me to ask him. I went out and found the girl I wanted; she suited me; I evaluated and weighed the proposition, and it just seemed a hundred percent to me as though this ought to be. Now, if I’d done things perfectly, I’d have done some counseling with the Lord, which I didn’t do; but all I did was pray to the Lord and ask for some guidance and direction in connection with the decision that I’d reached. A more perfect thing to have done would have been to counsel with him relative to the decision and get a spiritual confirmation that the conclusion, which I by my agency and faculties had arrived at, was the right one.
President Packer reminds us that the Spirit will give us promptings as we go about our every day duties of life. He taught the following,
Things of the Spirit need not - indeed, should not - require our uninterrupted time and attention. Ordinary work-a-day things occupy most of our attention. And that is as it should be. We are mortal beings living in this physical world. Spiritual things are like leavening. By measure they may be very small, but by influence they affect all that we do.
Principle #6 Revelation is Stewardship Bound.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that that there is stewardship involved in receiving revelation. He said the following, “I will inform you that it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or anyone, to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves...” Elder Dallin H. Oaks further clarifies this doctrine of stewardship in revelation. He taught the following,
We should understand what can be called the principle of ‘stewardship in revelation.’ Our Heavenly Father’s house is a house of order, where his servants are commanded to act in the office in which [they are] appointed (Doctrine and Covenants 107:99). This principle applies to revelation. Only the president of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the Stake President receives revelation for the special guidance of the Stake. The person who receives revelation for the Ward is the Bishop. For a family it is the priesthood leadership of the family. Leaders receive revelation for their own stewardships. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives. But when one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own stewardhship–such as a Church member who claims to have revelation to guide the entire Church or a person who claims to have a revelation to guide another person over whom he or she has no presiding authority according to the order of the Church–you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord. If a revelation is outside the limits of stewardship, you know it is not from the Lord, and you are not bound by it. I have heard of cases where a young man told a young woman she should marry him because he had received a revelation that she was to be his eternal companion. If this is a true revelation, it will be confirmed directly to the woman if she seeks to know. In the meantime, she is under no obligation to heed it. She should seek her own guidance and make up her own mind. The man can receive revelation to guide his own actions but he cannot properly receive revelation to direct hers. She is outside his stewardship.
I have heard that on occasion here at BYU-Idaho a return missionary will take a beautiful young lady to the Idaho Falls temple and proceed to tell her about the dream he had the night before where he was told that this beautiful young lady was to marry him. I do not wish to make light of this scenario as I know that we are treading on sacred ground where eternal marriage is concerned. I only mention it here to teach that this sacred revelation will come to both the young man and the young woman. We should not forget that revelation is stewardship bound.
Principle #7 The Spirit is not bizarre, weird or sensational.
The Church experienced the appearance of false spirits in Kirtland, Ohio shortly after the Gospel was established there. The Prophet Joseph Smith recorded the following,
Soon after the Gospel was established in Kirtland, and during the absence of the authorities of the Church, many false spirits were introduced, many strange visions were seen, and wild, enthusiastic notions were entertained; men ran out of doors under the influence of this spirit, and some of them got upon the stumps of trees and shouted, and all kinds of extravagances were entered into by them; one man pursued a ball that he said he saw flying in the air, until he came to a precipice, when he jumped into the top of a tree, which saved his life; and many ridiculous things were entered into, calculated to bring disgrace upon the Church of God, to cause the Spirit of God to be withdrawn, and to uproot and destroy those glorious principles which had been developed for the salvation of the human family.
False Spirits have manifested themselves from time to time throughout the history of the Church. President Harold B. Lee taught the following,
From the days of Hiram Page (Doctrine and Covenants 28), at different periods there have been manifestations from delusive spirits to members of the Church. Sometimes these have come to men and women who because of transgression become easy prey to the Arch-Deceiver. At other times people who pride themselves on their strict observance of the rules and ordinances and ceremonies of the Church are led astray by false spirits, who exercise an influence so imitative of that which proceeds from a Divine source that even these persons, who think they are ‘the very elect’ find it difficult to discern the essential difference. Satan himself has transformed himself to be apparently ‘an angel of light.’
Let us remember, Brothers and Sisters, that the Spirit is not weird. It makes sense, it tastes good, it just seems to be right.
Principle #8 The Spirit is quiet–it whispers.
It doesn’t shake us, but is a constant flow of communication. It usually comes through our thoughts and feelings. Please turn with me to Doctrine and Covenants 8:2-3. The Lord states,
Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.
President Boyd K. Packer 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.
President Ezra Taft Benson reminds us that dramatic experiences are the exception more than the rule. For most members of the Church, a testimony comes little by little, day by day, as they keep the commandments of God. He taught the following
We must be careful, as we seek to become more and more godlike, that we do not become discouraged and lose hope. Becoming Christ-like is a lifetime pursuit and very often involves growth and change that is slow, almost imperceptible. The scriptures record remarkable accounts of men whose lives changed dramatically in an instant, as it were: Alma the Younger, Paul on the road to Damascus, Enos praying far into the night, King Lamoni. Such astonishing examples of the power to change even those steeped in sin give confidence that the Atonement can reach even those deepest in despair. But we must be cautious as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said ‘were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.’
When I interview the youth of my Ward and I ask them to tell me if their testimony has grown, sometimes they answer that they don’t know if they have a testimony or not. These are some of the best youth in the Church who are keeping the commandments, coming to Church every week, paying their tithing, etc. etc. I remind them that their testimony is growing every day, little by little. Then, I encourage them to bear their testimony. President Packer teaches that it is in the bearing of our testimonies that we find it. He taught the following,
The Holy Ghost communicates with the Spirit through the mind more than through the physical senses. This guidance comes as thoughts, as feelings, through impressions and promptings. It is not always easy to describe inspiration. The scriptures teach us that we may ‘feel’ the words of spiritual communication more than hear them, and see with spiritual rather than with mortal eyes (see 1 Nephi 17:45). The patterns of revelation are not dramatic. The voice of inspiration is a still voice, a small voice. There need be no trance no sanctimonious declaration. It is quieter and simpler than that.
We must remember that revelation is a process. The change of the human soul takes time and effort. We must be patient and allow the Lord to mold us into what he wants us to become. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught the following,
We are born again as we die as pertaining to unrighteousness and when we live as pertaining to the things of the Spirit. But that doesn’t happen in an instant, suddenly. That is a process. Being born again is a gradual thing, except in a few isolated instances that are so miraculous that they get written up in the scriptures. As far as the generality of the members of the Church are concerned, we are born again by degrees, and we are born again to added light and added knowledge and added desires for righteousness as we keep the commandments. As members of the church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the processes of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; and if we chart a course of becoming perfect, and step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed–there is no question whatever about it–we shall gain eternal life. Even though we have spiritual rebirth ahead of us, perfection ahead of us, the full degree of sanctification ahead of us, if we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we’ll continue in exactly that same course.