In response to a comment given during Sunday School about receiving revelation, I heard someone say that if we ever receive revelation that is contrary to the scriptures or words of the prophets than we can know that it isn’t coming from the Lord. I think this kind and concerned leader was worried that some of the Saints in our ward might lend themselves to being deceived. In fact, they even said it’s something they worry about. I have a bit of a tumultuous history with the scriptures and words of the prophets and my initial reaction was to declare that to be false doctrine. But not wanting to just form opinions and live into them, I’ve taken some time this past week to really get into this idea.
The first thing I received was a quick and clear correction. “It’s not false doctrine. Don’t be so quick to reject things just because it doesn’t feel quite right. Sit with it a while and seek further light and knowledge. Be open to being able to include rather than reject or even transcend.” So I started my journey with repentance. Seems I often need to start there, and that’s okay because it’s a good place to start.
Using the scriptures and the words of the prophets as a fail-safe test for whether or not something is coming from the Lord is not false doctrine simply because it’s not doctrine. It is counsel, and in many circumstances it’s very wise counsel. But it is not doctrine. Doctrines are very specific declarations of eternal truths and realities. We really don’t have very many doctrines, and that’s on purpose. We’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go, in really understanding the nature of God and his plan for his children. It’s best if we limit our absolutes a bit in the process.
So, where did this idea come from?
I wasn’t able to find it’s definitive original source, but I think I discovered what made it popular. The church has been holding Face-to-Face events with general leaders for a few years now, both for the youth and young single adults. They’ve been a fantastic opportunity to get to know the Apostles in non-conference settings, where the answers are less rehearsed and the tone less standardized. In 2017 we had two such events in which the brethren were asked a similar question: How can I know the difference between the Holy Ghost and my own thoughts or emotions?
This question keeps coming up because it’s important. The Lord’s church is founded on the rock of revelation. Even President Eyring responded that it is something he still encounters in his own life. This is part of our human experience. On one hand we have our brain, with it’s biases, interpretations, and protectionist modalities. On the other hand we have our heart, with it’s sense of divinity, unity, progression, and willingness to sacrifice. Of course, I’m not talking about our biological organs, but just the idea that there seems to be a duality to our natures, at least in function if not in reality.
How do we know when the divine is speaking or when our own conditioning and temporal desires are kicking in? Each of the Apostles that addressed this question had a slightly different take. Two of them said that we can use the scriptures and the words of the prophets as a guide. One even said, “If we get an impression contrary to the scriptures, to the commandments of God, to the teachings of His leaders, then we know it can’t be coming from the Holy Ghost. The gospel is consistent throughout.” This is probably where the idea came from.
The counsel to rely upon the scriptures and the words of the prophets will almost never be wrong. Are there times when it might be? Let’s go back to my tumultuous relationship with these things. This tumult is not because I struggle with believing their authenticity or righteous intentions. I still believe that coming to scripture with pure intent can open the heavens. My struggle is really more of an expectation which goes unmet. I know that God’s truest nature does not change, that he is full of love and grace. I know that Christ’s doctrine and law of love, the gospel itself, is universal and perfect. But the scriptures and the words of the prophets are anything but consistent.
You could spend lifetimes trying to wordsmith your way into a consistent record, but the reality is humans are just plain inconsistent and a lot of our own weaknesses have made it into scripture and even modern day counsel. No problem, God can take care of all of that, and he even had a few people put that into the record itself as a reminder. But on the surface you have commands to rape and murder juxtaposed with commands to love, sacrifice, and honor virtue. There are many other more nuanced or modern examples as well. You don’t even have to look very hard, but it isn’t important to try to catalog them all.
I don’t have any problems with these inconsistencies because I do see a message that underwrites them all. God will never leave us. He’ll stay in communication even when we’re doing everything wrong and writing about it like he told us to do it. Just as Christ was willing to bear the shame of the world, God will bear the blame of the world, if only to stay close to us. That means God’s love is consistent. And that tastes good.
Are there any times when sticking with the scriptures and the words of the prophets might actually be holding us back? Maybe. I don’t think anyone reading this is planning on using the scriptures as a justification for murdering others in foreign lands in the name of God or country, or at least I hope not. But there are smaller, stiller, moments when being open to receiving direct revelation will help us. It will help us hone our powers of discernment, but may also help us with important decisions.
I’ll refrain from hypothetical examples and share a true story. Shiloh and I struggled financially early in our marriage. I had been studying food storage, but we had no money to stockpile food. Not even one can at a time. So I studied and ended up writing a short book about how to develop a food storage plan and find the best deals. I prayed for years that the Lord would bless us with the wherewithal to build up our food storage. At the time it was still an oft repeated counsel, along with making sure you never go into debt to establish it, so I waited patiently upon the Lord.
One spring, as we again ran out of money and were waiting for Shiloh’s summer job to kick in, I was praying a more specific prayer to know when the Lord might grant us our righteous desires. I had really narrowed in on our plan and we would only need $500 to complete a year’s food supply for our family, two adults, two toddlers, and a baby on the way. The thought came to my mind that perhaps we could put in on a credit card. I dismissed the thought remembering the prophet’s counsel to not go into debt for food storage.
The next day, as I was reviewing the food storage plan and again praying for guidance, Shiloh came into the room and asked if we had the money to be able to get our food storage before we left for the summer job. I told him we didn’t, and he asked if we had room on a credit card. I told him we did, but that we’ve been told we shouldn’t do that. We stared awkwardly at each for a moment and then I said, “Are you feeling like we should anyway?” He said, “Kinda. You?” “Yeah,” I replied. This was the first time in our marriage that we were prayerfully considering not being obedient to prophetic counsel.
We were a little unsure, but once the decision was made we both felt incredibly peaceful. The next day I bought our food storage and we prepared it to be stored at Shiloh’s cousins house because we couldn’t take it with us for the summer. Why did we both feel that it would be okay to use the credit card for this? This was the first time we’d be making a purchase on the credit card that we couldn’t pay off immediately. Why couldn’t we just wait until after the summer to buy it? Surely Shiloh would make enough during the summer for us to be able to do that.
But he didn’t. When we got back after the summer job we had nothing. Our third child was born that summer, and when we returned to Utah the five of us lived on that food storage for eight months. We paid off the credit card within the year, but I had so many questions. Did we really need the food storage? Couldn’t we have gotten church assistance? Couldn’t we have asked family for help? What was I supposed to learn?
I’m still not sure I have all the answers, but I do know this: I learned that the Lord speaks to me. And he speaks to my husband. I learned that he speaks through his prophets, both ancient and modern, and that I am worthy of his attention too. I learned that you don’t reject the words of the scriptures or the prophets, but that you include them and use them to inform and guide you as you seek the Lord personally. After all, that’s why the Lord has given us scripture and prophets. They point us to Christ, and Christ teaches us the things of eternity. The spirit speaks directly to our spirit. There is no other way to learn truth.
Going back to the Face-to-Face, one of the Apostles answered in a different way. He said that he can tell between the Lord’s voice and his own when he feels peace, and that he has learned to discern that peaceful feeling that accompanies true revelation through experience and practice. He also said that the Lord’s revelations will always be consistent with love. The love of God, the love of his servants, and the love of all of God’s children. This answer was my favorite.
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another (3 Nephi 11:29).
And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another (Mosiah 18:21).
The spirit of contention, of opposition, does not come from the Lord. If upon hearing something in the church we feel anything but love, even for the person who said it, we can know that an adjustment in ourselves should be made first prior to further pondering the ideas which pricked us. Once we can view all things with love and understanding, then we can seek to know the mysteries of God. Love is always first.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).
The spirit of fear is also not from the Lord. If upon hearing something in the church, especially in our beloved Sunday School classes, we feel fearful that it might offend someone or mislead someone, we must first work to dispel the fear. Then, if a correction is made, it will be in love and unity. Or, if we feel to comment to the body of Saints on a particular principle because we are feeling worried or fearful for them, it is best to first dispel the fear and worry, so that only faith, hope, and charity will be communicated in our voice.
Revelation for the church will come to the leaders whose stewardship it is to steer that big ship, directly from the Lord and also as they counsel with those they serve. Revelation for families will come to parents, directly from the Lord, or by prophetic counsel, and also as they counsel with their children. Revelation will come to you, directly from the Lord, or by prophetic or family counsel, and also as you counsel with others. All counsel received from others can and should be confirmed through personal revelation. You will not receive revelation for others unless you have a direct stewardship, either as part of the church or your family, and even then the revelation is for the organization, body of Saints, or family as a whole, and not as a top-down command to another individual child of God. Outside of those stewardships, you may receive promptings to counsel with others. You can follow those promptings when inspired, even in disagreement, if you feel you can do so with love and understanding, without contention or fear.
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God (Article of Faith 1:9).
Revelation in the church, in our families, and in our personal lives is alive and well. The counsel to depend upon the scriptures and the prophets is sound. We can use their experiences and guidance to inform our journey back to the Father. They are our helpers. And Christ is the way. We can rely upon the words of his servants, both ancient and modern, while also honing our own discernment of the spirit. The Holy Ghost may whisper to you of something not found in scripture or perhaps different than what we read from the prophets, after all, language is very limiting. This can be totally legitimate revelation. You can know, through the Prince of Peace, that what you are receiving is from the Lord, even when it doesn’t fit with what you already think you know. You can learn how to identify and produce good fruit. The Lord speaks, and he speaks to you.
Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29)