Personal Revelation Part 3: What is revelation and how do we know it is from God?

What is revelation and how do we know it is from God?

Literal Belief:

934072_10153187509001218_2349211320405049142_nThe only way to be constantly guided by the spirit is by keeping oneself pure through obedience to the commandments. If one is disobedient it drives the spirit away. The spirit is oftentimes barely perceptible, so strict heed must be given to the intimations of the spirit.

The devil is cunning and revelation can be received that appears to be from a divine source but can be counterfeit. One must learn to distinguish between real and counterfeit revelation.

If revelation is received that is contrary to the revelations of the church or the Brethren, one can know that it is not of God. It is important to align oneself with the brethren, who are in direct communication with the Lord and can interpret his will for mankind.

“The Spirit of Revelation is in connection with these blessings. 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 by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” – Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 151

“We speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”- 1 Cor 2:13-14

We do not have the words (even the scriptures do not have words) which perfectly describe the Spirit. The scriptures generally use the word voice, which does not exactly fit. These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes, nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels, more than one hears.“- Boyd K. Packer- “The Candle of the Lord”-1983

“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. (No wonder that the Word of Wisdom was revealed to us, for how could the drunkard or the addict feel such a voice?) 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 and say in our manner and expression, like Samuel of ancient times, “Speak [Lord], for thy servant heareth.” (1 Sam. 3:10.)- Boyd K. Packer- “The Candle of the Lord”-1983

“If you’re listening to “rock music”, angry with family, disobeying the Word of Wisdom or getting involved with the “drug cultureyou won’t hear the still small voice.“- Elder Dallin H. Oaks- Multi-Stake Youth Fireside Bellevue, WA 01/23/2016

“Be ever on guard lest you be deceived by inspiration from an unworthy source. You can be given false spiritual messages. There are counterfeit spirits just as there are counterfeit angels. (See Moro. 7:17.) Be careful lest you be deceived, for the devil may come disguised as an angel of light.

The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual. We occasionally find people who receive what they assume to be spiritual promptings from God, when those promptings are either centered in the emotions or are from the adversary.“- Boyd K. Packer- “The Candle of the Lord”-1983

“If something is counterfeit, it means that it resembles the original so closely that it is difficult to distinguish which is the true and which is the false. So it is with counterfeit revelation. On the surface it may feel real. It may appear to be from the Lord. We may even have very strong feelings about what we have received. But this alone is not proof it is from God. Note that President Packer warns that we must ever be on guard against being deceived by our emotions or by revelation from an unworthy source. That suggests that counterfeit revelation is not a rare thing.“- Gerald N. Lund- The Voice of the Lord- Dec 1997

Joseph Smith received a revelation in 1830 that Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Knight Sr., Hiram Page, and Josiah Stowell were to travel to Kingston, Canada to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon.  David Whitmer recounts Joseph’s response when the group failed to achieve their goals as promised in the revelation:

“[David] Whitmer further stated that he and Jacob and John Whitmer were present when Cowdery and Page returned. ‘We asked Joseph,’ he wrote, ‘how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto [Kingston] and sell the copy-right, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking.’ Joseph reportedly enquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and, according to Whitmer, received a revelation that stated, ‘Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.’– Revelation, Manchester Township, Ontario Co., NY, [ca. early] 1830. Featured version, titled “23 Commandment AD 1830,” copied [ca. Mar. 1831] in Revelation Book 1, pp. 30–31

“ Pleaseth me that Oliver CowdereyJoseph Knight Hyram  Page & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing yea  even in securing the <Copy> right & they shall do it with an eye single to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls  unto me Salvation through mine only Begotten Behold I am  God I have spoken it & it is expedient in me Wherefor I say  unto you that ye shall go to Kingston seeking me continually through mine only Begotten & if ye do this ye shall have my  spirit to go with you & ye shall have an addition of all things  which is expedient in me. & I grant unto my servent a privelige  that he may sell <a copyright> through you speaking after the manner of  men for the four Provinces if the People harden not their hearts  against the enticeings of my spirit & my word for Behold it lieth in themselves to their condemnation & or to their salvation  Behold my way is before you & the means I will prepare  & the Blessing I hold in mine own hand & if ye are faithful  I will pour out upon you even as much as ye are able to  Bear & thus it shall be Behold I am the father & it is through mine only begotten which is Jesus Christ your Redeemer amen [p. 31]”- Revelation, Manchester Township, Ontario Co., NY, [ca. early] 1830. Featured version, titled “23 Commandment AD 1830,” copied [ca. Mar. 1831] in Revelation Book 1, pp. 30–31

Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled. They have no such assurance for what they hear from alternate voices.”- Dallin H. Oaks- Alternate Voices- 1989

“Recently, I spoke at the new mission presidents’ seminar and counseled these leaders:

‘Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray. And as you teach your missionaries to focus their eyes on us, teach them to never follow those who think they know more about how to administer the affairs of the Church than … Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ do through the priesthood leaders who have the keys to preside.”– Russell M. Ballard- “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!”- October 2014

“The authorities which the Lord has placed in his Church constitute for the people of the Church, a harbor, a place of refuge, a hitching post, as it were.  No one in this Church will ever go far astray who ties himself securely to the Church Authorities whom the Lord has placed in his Church.  This Church will never go astray; the Quorum of the Twelve will never lead you into bypaths; it never has and never will.  There could be individuals who would falter; there will never be a majority of the Council of the Twelve on the wrong side at any time. The Lord has chosen them; he has given them specific responsibilities. And those people who stand close to them will be safe.  And, conversely, whenever one begins to go his own way in opposition to authority, he is in grave danger.  I would not say that those leaders whom the Lord chooses are necessarily the most brilliant, nor the most highly trained, but they are the chosen, and when chosen of the Lord they are his recognized authority, and the people who stay close to them have safety.” President Spencer W. Kimball, Conference Report, April 1951, p. 104

“Follow your leaders who have been duly ordained and have been publicly sustained, and you will not be led astray.“- Boyd K. Packer- “To Be Learned is Good If…”- Oct 1992

“…But in verse 4 when it says ‘the voice of warning shall be unto all people,’ it concludes with ‘by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.’ More than once the Lord simply says you will need to hear his voice, but you will need to hear his voice from him and from his servants.

I know a few of the reasons why the Lord requires us to listen to mortal servants. One of the reasons is that you and I need a check on our own inspiration occasionally.  We can be mistaken.  We at times, even with real intent and with faith and with careful prayer, may come to wrong conclusions.  Listening to others can provide correction.  It can promote more careful consideration.  I hope you will always remember that there is safety in counsel.” –Elder Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of The Church, “Listen Together,” BYU Fireside, September 4, 1988

“I assure you, however, that the spirit of the Lord will never direct a person to take a position in opposition to the counsel of the Presidency of His Church. Such could not be….”-Marion G. Romney, “Loyalty,” Conference Report (April 1942)

“Inappropriate intellectualism sometimes leads one to testify that he knows the gospel is true but believes the Brethren are just a little out of touch. Out of touch with what? Don’t confuse a decision to abstain from participating in a trend with a lack of awareness about its existence. These Brethren ‘prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good.’ (1 Thes. 5:21.) To accomplish this, they are in constant touch with Him who created this earth and knows the world from beginning to end.

There are some of our members who practice selective obedience. A prophet is not one who displays a smorgasbord of truth from which we are free to pick and choose. However, some members become critical and suggest the prophet should change the menu. A prophet doesn’t take a poll to see which way the wind of public opinion is blowing. He reveals the will of the Lord to us.“- Glenn L. Pace- Follow the Prophet- General Conference April 1989

“To the Officers and Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:..When visions, dreams, tongues, prophecy, impressions or any extraordinary gift or inspiration conveys something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear…But anything at discord with that which comes from God through the head of the Church is not to be received as authoritative or reliable.”-First Presidency Message: “A Warning Voice,” August 1913, in Messages of the First Presidency, comp. James R. Clark (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1970), 4:285, as cited by Harold B. Lee, CR, April 1970, p. 55  

“Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church. He is God’s sole mouthpiece on earth for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true Church. He alone may declare the mind and will of God to his people.”When Are Church Leader’s Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?”- Church News, 31 July 1954, p. 10

“In a recent meeting Elder Bednar was supposedly asked a question by a sister missionary about women and the priesthood. He’s said to have given his own thoughts about the subject and when he concluded, the sister asked a follow up question.  ‘Are there any scriptures that talk about this subject?’ Elder Bednar responded, ‘I am scripture.'”- “I am scripture”

“When Heber J. Grant, whom you have sustained, and I expect will again sustain before this conference is over, issues instruction as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, that word should be scripture to us. It is the word of the Lord Himself through His prophet, and it may be that sometimes that advice is not exactly in accordance with our personal desires. It has never been the business of a prophet of God to tell people what they wanted to hear; it is the business of a prophet, and I imagine it is a very unpleasant business sometimes, to tell the people what the Lord wants them to know and to do, and we who hold the Priesthood should take the Church seriously enough to be obedient to the scriptures.”- Joseph F. Smith (Patriarch of the church), Conference Report, April 1943, pp. 75-77

“…if you will be as faithful and united as the First Presidency and the Twelve are faithful and united, and will follow us as we follow Christ, all will be well with you.“- President Lorenzo Snow- SLC Tabernacle Sep 18, 1898- printed in the Deseret Weekly Vol LVII,Oct 8, 1898

“An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.”Joseph Fielding Smith, Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,Ensign, July 1972, 88

Non-Literal Belief:

Non-literal believers wrestle extensively with not only different ways to recognize personal divine communication, but how to reconcile that personal communication with the words of “prophets, seers, and revelators.”  They tend to believe in modern revelation and that certainly “prophets, seers, and revelators,” can receive revelation but they are less likely to accept it prima facie. Non-literal believers are less likely believe they have a unique gift which entitles them to special communication from the divine. They typically are more interested in aligning their thoughts and actions with Christ than with the “arm of flesh.”

There are a number of ecclesiastical leaders who say that ‘no, there is no red phone to God actually, we stumble through these decisions on our own. We hope for light.’ Patrick talks about this in his books when he quoted Spencer Kimball as saying “I’m a racist and I would have gone to my death defending this policy if something hadn’t happened.” So they are ordinary men and they have their own prejudices and every now and again something radiates through. So if we stop looking at our ecclesiastical leaders as though they were mini-gods, we would do so much better. At the end of the day we are the Church of Christ. We should only follow Christ. Our allegiance and loyalty should only be to Christ, not to intermediaries. Christ was quite firm when he said “do not put your faith in the arm of flesh.” Any flesh. And that includes our ecclesiastical leaders. We’ve gone a little bit wonky from where Christ is. I feel like Christ has been sidelined somewhat and unless we bring him back to the center in our collective life and in our individual lives, this isn’t going to go very well for us.”- Fiona Givens- “Trib Talk: A new Mormon faith crisis? “- Feb 16, 2016

The leaders of the church receive revelation, and we must either take it on trust that it was a revelation, or we must seek out a revelation or an emotional response (i.e. warm fuzzy feeling) that confirms to us that it was a revelation. If we receive anything other than confirmation that the revelation came from God then evidently we have received a false or counterfeit revelation, and we must not be in tune with the spirit enough. This puts the institutional leaders in the role of arbitrators of our own personal experiences; what may have been a spiritual experience and seemed like a revelation to me can be debunked and dismissed by the church as part of Satan’s power over me if it is not in harmony with the Brethren and the already accepted canon of revelation.  By this logic, if my own experience ever contradicts what a leader claims as revelation, I am always in the wrong; I must blindly trust the experiences of leaders over my own experiences.  On the other hand, if I doubt that they have received revelation and feel no obligation to accept it, it is viewed as my personal failure, not a failure of the method of personal revelation. This leaves me with the problem of working out what are the necessary conditions for me to accept something as revelation? How do I escape the revelation circle and discovery for myself what is in fact a revelation and not just hearsay and trust in the experience of others?“-The Enlightenment, Mormonism and Personal Revelation- blog post- Dec 13, 2012

“What will we do when facing such a situation, when we feel – as a spiritual impression, in our hearts and minds, after prayerful pondering – that what our leaders are saying conflicts with what we know of Christ? What do we choose to do? In such instances, we have three basic choices:

  1. Reject our own spiritual feelings as wrong. – That can be done, but if we are wrong in doubting our impressions it will become that much more difficult to recognize promptings in the future.
  2. Side with the prophet despite our own spiritual feelings. – I think this is the most common response but also ,as I will explain below, often the less-perfect response.
  3. Choose to follow what we believe the Savior wants of us. – This is the most difficult for both the individual and the institutional Church, but I believe it is the higher path.”- “Come, Follow Me” v. “Follow the Prophet”- Dec 17, 2015

We Mormons scoff at the idea of infallibility. To us it’s all popish foolishness. And I freely confess, I have long had a negative view of claims of infallibility. To me human beings are inherently mortal and subject to error by very definition. I don’t believe any human can truly be “infallible.”

But what suddenly became clear to me while reading the article is that we Mormons do the very same thing in our religious tradition. We don’t use the word “infallibility,” but we believe and teach the same thing conceptually. And here is my Exhibit A:

The November policy changes were slipped into an electronic manual without fanfare or notice. They immediately faced an absolute storm of criticism, beyond any I can recall ever witnessing in my life in the Church. A week later the Church issued a revision to the policy, which didn’t do much to stem the overwhelming criticism.

So last month during a devotional Elder Russell M. Nelson claimed that the new rules were not an administrative policy, but in fact were a revelation from God to his prophet. In part he said:

And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process.

I was struck by the similar strategic effect of this tack to papal infallibility. Where Pope Benedict used infallibility as a tool to avoid extremely controversial hot-button issues like contraception, this claim of revelation seems a clear attempt to do the very same thing vis-a-vis the policy. The claim of revelation is intended to put the policy beyond rational critique and criticism.

As a good Mormon boy, I’m a believer in modern revelation. But I have a tough time swallowing this as such. We don’t usher in revelations by trying to slip them unnoticed into the handbook. The policy read like the sloppy draftsmanship of a Kirton & McConkie first-year associate, not like the mind and will of Almighty God. And which version did the united spiritual confirmation of the Twelve smile upon, the first or the second?

So we Mormons may be turned off by the hoity-toity latinate term of art ‘infallible.” But we believe the very same thing, just under different names and guises. If the prophet can’t lead us astray, that’s the Mormon way of saying he’s infallible. I hereby repent of ever having a disparaging thought concerning the dogma of infallibility. It turns out my own faith practices the same dogma, just using a different lexicon.”- Kevin Barney- “Infallibility”- By Common Consent Blog Feb 4,2016

Paul Duane: “There is a moment when President Nelson came out saying that this new policy, that the church had about the children of gay people was actually from God, given to the prophet, President Monson.”

Justin Anderson: “Yes he did say that.”

Paul Duane: “He did say those things.”

Justin Anderson: “A few weeks ago, to the entire church in a young adult devotional I was actually attending.”  

Paul Duane: “Do you have any behind the scenes insight as to how that came about?”

Justin Anderson: “Not that one specifically. I wish I did.”  

Paul Duane: “What was going on at church headquarters the next day?”

Justin Anderson:“All hell broke loose. That week, my institute teacher told me that the institute at the University of Utah received record numbers of students coming in wanting to resign from the church because of President Nelson’s remarks about the revelation. They actually have dissolved several congregations in Salt Lake following this and have held emergency conferences with apostles, with the general membership to try to quell the concerns and issues right now.”

Paul Duane: “Do you believe that was a revelation from God?”

Justin Anderson: “Absolutely not.”

Paul Duane: “Why?”

Justin Anderson: “Several reasons.”

Paul Duane: “I mean President Nelson said it was.”

Justin Anderson: “They also said several things in the past were revelation. I believe what he did was blasphemy, to suggest that God had said something when he did not.”

Paul Duane: “When you say that you believe he did not say that, where is that coming from? Is this Justin’s heart speaking or do you have some back room insight there?”

Justin Anderson: “Not only my heart speaking, but we have a set of scriptures in the Mormon church called the Doctrine and Covenants which is Christ telling the church how the church has to run, and the prophet and President Nelson broke many commandments that Christ gave the church in how revelation should be handled. And so I go back to the scriptures and according to what Christ said, that is not a revelation. And so really President Nelson is asking me to follow him or Christ, and so I made my decision.”  

Paul Duane: “That’s very brave of you to say what you’ve said.”

Justin Anderson: “It is. With great hesitancy I say it because of the machine of the Mormon church in Utah and how it’s run.”  

Paul Duane: “Are you afraid of something coming of speaking like this?”

Justin Anderson: “I could be kicked out of my university. I could lose my job. I could lose my housing. I could lose many of my friends, and I could have to start my life entirely over, if they do not like what I’ve said. So it’s not said with ease or comfort.” – Justin Anderson- Political advisor/consultant to the LDS church- “AN INSIDERS VIEW OF THE MORMON POLITICAL MACHINE”- The Paul Duane show Feb 20, 2016

“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”- Thomas Paine- Age of Reason


Some non-believers are open to revelation coming from a divine source but don’t see any proof, while most are very skeptical of the existence of a divine realm, where barely perceptible messages, or even dramatic messages are delivered to those who either have a special gift or special access to the “right” steps needed for access to these divine messages.

What if instead of a supernatural figure named Elohim that lives near Kolob, there are actually more advanced beings in the universe, who are ahead of us on the consciousness scale, who view us like we view a monkey, or a chicken, or an ant? What if instead of a supernatural realm, there is just a more advanced natural realm somewhere? What if those individuals are the ones that seeded life on planet earth? Would they be viewed as “God” to us? Should we be worried about aligning our will with theirs or just be open to the naturalistic possibilities of the origin of life?

What if the connectedness we feel to each other and the “impressions” we receive to help one another are not coming from a divine realm but instead are due to our molecular makeup? We are all made of the same molecules. Quantum Entanglement is the theory that two particles across the universe from one another can be mysteriously linked to each other’s behavior.


“And the thing is, everything I just mentioned is still within the realm of our understanding. As we established earlier, compared to a more evolved level of consciousness, we might be like a three-year-old, a monkey, or an ant… A monkey can’t understand that the Earth is a round planet, let alone that the solar system, galaxy, or universe exists. You could try to explain it to a monkey for years and it wouldn’t be possible. So what are we completely incapable of grasping even if a more intelligent species tried its hardest to explain it to us? Probably almost everything. There are really two options when thinking about the big, big picture: be humble or be absurd.


Ironically, when my thinking reaches the top of this rooted-in-atheism staircase, the notion that something that seems divine to us might exist doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. I’m still totally atheist when it comes to all human-created conceptions of a divine higher force—which all, in my opinion, proclaim far too much certainty. But could a super-advanced force exist? It seems more than likely. Could we have been created by something/someone bigger than us or be living as part of a simulation without realizing it? Sure—I’m a three-year-old, remember, so who am I to say no? To me, complete rational logic tells me to be atheist about all of the Earth’s religions and utterly agnostic about the nature of our existence or the possible existence of a higher being. I don’t arrive there via any form of faith, just by logic.”Religion for the Nonreligious- Tim Urban-  


Non-believers are especially critical of an individual subordinating his or her will or beliefs to other men. Men who have purportedly been given special access to the divine by virtue of their appointments as Priesthood leaders or who have “honed” their message receiving skills over many decades of dedicated church service.

Non-believers observe that when someone claims to receive a message from the divine, through the Holy Ghost, it can be in direct conflict with a message someone else has claimed to receive from the same Holy Ghost. In other words, it has no objective value, just subjective value to the individual receiving it.

The reason so many people are confused between their own thoughts and emotions and spiritual impressions delivered by “the Spirit,” is because they are one and the same. Here is an example I copied from a Facebook comment in a private group- it is unattributed for that reason, but will illustrate the point being made.

“So my husband shared an experience on his mission. He was in _______ at the time. He had a brand new companion that spoke very little of the language. His companion was very sweet, and very excited to have spiritual experiences on his mission. So much so that he had already begun to prepare his homecoming talk even though he was new in the field. It was basically fill in the blank. he was waiting for experiences to fill in. 
One day they met this Korean gentleman. They spoke to him for a few minutes and the man agreed to let them come back. They were both excited and wanted to find a Korean BOM. They didn’t know where they would find one, but one day they found out where one may be located. Unfortunately the book was not labeled so they were not sure if this book was Korean. Another missionary who could not read Korean but had seen a lot of Korean writing stated this was indeed a Korean BOM. Both of them were excited and felt that the Lord had laid out this opportunity for them. It felt inspired.   

So they arrived at the gentleman’s home and they excitedly gave them the BOM. The new missionary could not understand the conversation that my husband was having with this gentleman. He was looking at cues from the both of them to determine what was happening. The Gentleman expressed that it was not a Korean BOM and was slightly offended about the mistake. My husband bore his testimony, and the man became tearful. The man then expressed with tears in his eyes that he felt really bad for both my husband and his companion, and hoped that they would become enlightened to the truth someday. My husband was a little taken back by it.    When they left, his companion excitedly said how strongly he felt the spirit, and he knew that they were guided to see him, and was so happy the spirit testified to the man about the truth of the gospel. This companion had misinterpreted the man’s tears for feeling the spirit, thus the companion felt the spirit. He hadn’t given my husband a chance to explain what went down. The companion’s comments really shook my husband up. It was one of the first big cracks in his testimony, but he shuffled it away for the time being. My husband never told his companion what happened, and that haunts him, as that was likely a testimony builder for his companion.  Has anyone else had similar experiences where the “spirit” was misinterpreted?”  

It is very unhealthy when it is stressed to LDS youth that the most important thing they can do is to live worthily of the spirit by following a prescribed set of steps. They are taught that it will save them from danger and peril and that by committing even the most minute “sin” or infraction it can drive away the Spirit. To non-believers this doesn’t make any sense at all. If the Holy Ghost is indeed real, it seems like when someone is going down the wrong path or choosing incorrectly that would be the time the influence of the Holy Ghost is MOST needed, but instead he flees? This has the effect of creating a scare tactic where members of the church obsess over their behavioral flaws, sometimes agonizing over whether or not they have driven the spirit away. Here is example, from another private Facebook group:

“My 12 yr old daughter had an anxiety attack last night and could not go to sleep. After a little questioning I was able to get her to calm down label what she felt was the problem. Ultimately it boiled down to this:

She said that she keeps feeling like something bad is going to happen to her. She doesn’t know what, but she feels like either someone is going to physically hurt her or kidnap her or something. I made sure to ask her if she was feeling that way because maybe something has happened before to her? We are very open with our kids and talk to them about that kind of stuff. I believe she knows that I am a safe place to open up to if there was. She assured me nothing has happened. Finally she broke open and said this, ” I’m just so confused. I don’t know if the Holy Ghost is trying to warn me of something or if it’s all in my head. We’re taught that Holy Ghost will warn us about bad things happening and now I can’t turn my brain off because all I can think of is bad things happening to me and that it’s the Holy Ghost warning me.”

My heart sank and I realized that I was looking at my 12 yr old self. She is me. I grew up in fear. Fear of a lot of things related to our culture. Of all the things I could pass along to my daughter, this was not one of them I would have chosen. I did my best to ease her fears and told her that although some people may have those promptings, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will. I told her for all the promptings that people have felt warning them of something bad about to happen there are thousands more where things just happen and there was no warning or prompting. I told her that I have had times where I was convinced I was being warned of something but then nothing ever happened. 
We talked a bit more about what the Holy Ghost is and is not. I told her it is most definitely not a crystal ball. Probably not the most uplifting or calming answer I could give her. I’m just curious how some of you would have responded to this situation?”

Let me give you some examples from my own life:

  1. Assigning callings:
    1. I was in a bishopric for several years. Callings were assigned based off need and availability. There was never any confirmatory prayers to see if we were interpreting God’s will correctly. The Bishop asked if anyone felt the decision was wrong, and sometimes adjustments made, but there was not a lot of stress to make sure our needs were aligned correctly with God’s desires. I was very much in favor of this approach and even as a believer, did not feel that we needed God’s input on every assignment made.
    2. I was EQ President and our presidency was assigning Home Teaching companionships. My 1st counselor had his district all setup but was unsure about some of the match ups. He was panicking that maybe he had made assignments that weren’t aligning with God’s will. He expressed more than once that maybe he should retire to a quiet room to pray about it. Even as a believer I remember feeling a little impatient but I allowed him his space. He ended up not praying, and keeping the assignments as is. I relate this experience to illustrate how some people can tie themselves up in knots when they perceive they are taking even one step forward that may not be God’s will, or they are confused whether the uncertainty they feel is self-generated or a prompting of the spirit.
    3. When I had already transitioned from a believer to a non-believer, I was called in with my wife to meet with the Stake President and his counselor. He released me from my calling in the Bishopric and with a big grin on his face called me to the High Council. I refused the calling without elaborating. He had a sour look on his face for minute as he tried to compose his thoughts. He basically said “Well sometimes we have inspiration about things but don’t know all the details in someone’s life.” My first thought was, of course, that this “inspiration” was generated completely on his own and what good is inspiration if it could be so misguided?
  2. Confirmation bias:
    1. One day I sat in the bleachers at my son’s high school baseball game (at an opposing High School) with my then 11 year old. I was already a non-believer at this point. I turned to my left and realized he was no longer sitting by me. I don’t remember him getting up. I kept having this nagging feeling that I should get up and go look for him. I kept ignoring it. Finally, the feeling was so overwhelming, that I got up and went behind the bleachers. There I saw him gleefully playing baseball with several other young boys, in no danger whatsoever. This experience caused me deep reflection. How would I have interpreted this as a believer? If he had indeed been in trouble this would have been a faith promoting experience that I could have shared on Fast Sunday. Since he wasn’t in trouble, obviously the “prompting” was my own creation so I would have just conveniently forgotten about this experience as a believer. This is classic Confirmation Bias. Remember the hits, forget the misses. God wins, always.
  3. “Losing” the spirit:
    1. All Priesthood holders have heard stories about the importance of obedience and following the commandments because what if they were called upon to give someone a blessing and weren’t “worthy” to do so? I’ve had experiences where I’ve engaged in activities that, according to church standards, should drive the spirit away, and I was called upon to give a blessing of healing or comfort. I remember being extremely anxious and worried because I wouldn’t have “the spirit” during the blessing. Interestingly, during the blessing I felt “the spirit” just as strong or stronger than ever. I’ve talked to others individuals who have had the same experience. I remember being confused about the contradiction between what I was taught and the reality I experienced.
  4. Patriarchal blessing:
    1. I had a very interesting experience attending a patriarchal blessing as a non-believer. I went in with an open mind, because in many ways I was still trying to figure things out, and to reconcile how/if the divine acts in our lives. I remember that during the blessing, I kept my eyes open to see what was happening. The patriarch, who was someone I loved and respected, was straining as he uttered words that I could see very clearly were coming from his own mind. I had no doubt about this. Interestingly, the recipient and everyone else present were weeping as they heard these eloquent blessings and promises that were being received from God. It was a very surreal experience. It felt like I was was seeing the man behind the curtain, who didn’t even realize he wasn’t a wizard.

Deserted Island Hypothesis:

“The teachers of religion of all denominations assume an arrogant, dictatorial style, in order to convince their followers that they are in possession of the secrets of Heaven, and have a perfect knowledge of the dogmas, and mode of worship which are alone pleasing to the Deity. This confidence gratifies their vanity, and at the same time tends to promote their interest by frightening their flock from straying into other sheep-folds… All reasoning and judgement is proscribed, and a dove-like innocence, and lamb-like submission are taught as indispensible requisites to obtain the joys of heaven. But Monkish superstition is fast passing away, and all dogmas which will not bear the investigation of reason are in a fair way sinking into neglect and contempt…

What can a Doctor of Divinity, who makes theology the peculiar study of his life, know of his maker, which is not known to the illiterate ploughman? The ploughman knows that there is a God, that he is just and good. What more is necessary?'”- Theophilanthropist, in G. Adolph Koch, Religion of the American Enlightenment (New York: Crowell, 1968), 278, 338

Many non-believers feel that if there is a God who intervenes in our lives, his will and his mandates to humankind should be universally accessible, so that ALL people, regardless of their situation, can know the same things about him. This is what I call the Deserted Island Hypothesis. If an individual were to live his entire life on a deserted island, with no books, and no interaction with other humans, he should have the same ability to access and understand God’s will as anyone else. And if indeed God is accessible, the things he discovers about God and his methods should be the same things that others have discovered about him.

The fact that there are approximately 4200 religions in the world, and many who are “spiritual but not religious,” all with their own conceptions of God that are oftentimes widely disparate and contradictory, is an indication that God’s will is not equally and uniformly accessible. This doesn’t disprove the existence of a divine being or higher force, but it does tell us that either men have created “God” in their own image, or there are elect individuals who have “figured it out.” They have a methodology that when applied, gives them unique access to his will. Certainly most believing Mormons feel they have unique access, primarily through “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators,” and secondarily through the gift of the Holy Ghost. Applying Mormon Math to these beliefs will demonstrate how highly unlikely they actually are.

<– Back to Part 2: A spiritual witness brings us sure knowledge?

–>Continue to Part 4: How do I distinguish my own thoughts from divine inspiration?


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