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Questions Concerning Personal Revelation

         Questions about personal revelation are common when serving a mission; and such questions can certainly plague a missionary who is trying to adjust to an early release from missionary service.  For example, you might have a spiritual confirmation that you gave your mission your best effort one minute; only to be followed the next by an equally strong feeling that you should have hung in there longer and tried harder.  You might be getting mixed messages about whether or not you should apply to return to complete your mission, what college to apply to if any, and where to live while you sort everything out.  Questions about whether or not to marry a particular individual, what career to pursue, and employment decisions will confront most single young adults at some point.  Faithful LDS will seek divine direction regarding all important decisions like these; and some will find the process confusing.

         As most of us realize, receiving personal revelation is a difficult skill to develop.  It can be challenging to sort out whether the feelings and insight we get are coming from the Spirit, from the adversary, or from within ourselves.  It’s also true that spiritual promptings tend to be subtle and can be interrupted by outside factors and/or our state of mind.  As President Packer said, “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”.  (“The Candle of the Lord”, Ensign, January 1983, 3).  And as Elder Richard G Scott taught, there is a good reason the process of receiving personal revelation can be difficult.  “Our Father expects us to learn how to obtain that divine help by exercising faith in Him and in His Holy Son.  Were we to receive inspired guidance just for the asking, we would become weak and ever more dependent on Him.  He knows that essential personal growth will come as we struggle to learn how to be led by the Spirit.”  (Richard G Scott, “To Acquire Spiritual Guidance”, Ensign, November, 2009).

How Inspiration Works and Issues Related to Identifying the Truth

          In terms of how the Spirit works with us, we are told in the Doctrine and Covenants, “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” (D&C 8:2).  The term “mind” used in this and other scripture, seems to refer to intellectual processes in our brain, such as perception, learning, memory, and attitudes, by which we process information.  The term “heart”, when used in scripture, seems to refer to feelings or emotion.  Centers of emotion are, of course, also located in the brain, not the heart.  But the centers in the brain responsible for feelings, and the processes involved by which emotions are created and managed, are quite different from those involved in general intellectual function.  Emotions also have a different impact on how we behave.  It therefore makes sense that general intellectual processes and emotion would be distinguished from each other in scriptural references. The metaphors of heart and mind make this distinction nicely.

         However defined, the point is that the Spirit communicates with us using our natural faculties. That being the case, it’s easy to see how distraction, disease, or any number of natural factors could interfere with this process.  Satan likely also uses these same natural processes when he tempts us.  Perhaps this is part of the reason that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (D&C 6:28).  We can’t assume that feeling strongly about something means that it must be true; nor can we trust something to be true simply because of how much sense it makes intellectually.  Essentially we have these two largely independent internal witnesses to consider when seeking divine direction; and they both need to agree.  These two internal witnesses then need to be checked against the external witness of truth found in scripture; and at times, through priesthood leaders who hold the appropriate keys.  When all three agree, there is good reason to assume that we have the truth.

         For example, an Elder returned from his mission after a little over a year of service.  He was released because of significant depression and anxiety, along with suicidal thoughts.  After a few months at home this Elder prayed for guidance and felt strongly that he should return to complete his mission.  That decision, however, didn’t make sense when he thought about it logically.  He was managing his symptoms much better at home than he had been able to do in the mission field, and he recognized that the probabilities were that he would have the same problems again if he returned.  Furthermore, his Bishop and Stake President both counselled him to consider his mission complete and to move on with his life.  In this case, the Elder’s strong emotional feeling conflicted with his intellectual sense of his situation; and it also conflicted with advice from priesthood leaders holding keys pertaining to his mission call.  The feeling was strong, but obviously misguided.

What if I don’t feel the Spirit like others say they do?

         We can have the Spirit in our work, but we may not feel it.  If a person is praying earnestly for the Spirit; and if that person is basically worthy; it’s reasonable to assume that he or she will absolutely have the Spirit in their righteous endeavors.  On the other hand, it’s quite possible that a person might not be aware of having the Spirit, even when it’s present.  This apparently happened to a group of Lamanites who had faith in the Savior, had been converted, baptized, and had received the Holy Ghost, but “they knew it not” (3 Nephi, 9:20, italics added).  This can happen when we are distracted for any number of reasons, have unrealistic expectations, or simply fail to recognize the presence of the Spirit because we don’t know what to look for.

         There may also be times when we don’t receive inspiration because what we would naturally do, based on our own understanding and experience, is entirely appropriate. This was apparently the case with two early missionaries.  “Wherefore, go ye and preach my gospel, whether to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, it mattereth not, for ye cannot go amiss (D&C 80:3).  When we are doing our best to live the gospel; our desire and intent might mean that the decisions we make on our own initiative will likely be acceptable to the Lord.  Perhaps the absence of requested revelation sometimes isn’t so much a problem as it is evidence of the Lord’s confidence in us.

         Likewise, there may also be times when we are not inspired because what we assume will make a difference will not actually effect the outcome.  For example, if you are teaching the gospel to someone, or in a class setting, and have prayerfully prepared, and are teaching with a prayer in your heart, it’s safe to assume that you will be inspired to say just the right thing (D&C 100:6); or remember the perfect scripture, assuming that doing so would make a difference to whoever you are teaching.  But those being taught may not be open to the Spirit or ready for what is being taught.  Or the “perfect” scripture in your mind might not be the perfect scripture for someone else.  In those cases, there is again, no real need for the inspiration sought; and perhaps a lesson you thought missed the mark might have actually provided a teaching moment for someone else.

         Furthermore, there may also be other times when we are left on our own because acting on our own in a particular situation will help us learn an important lesson; and/or it may be part of the testing experience that life is intended to be (Abraham 3:25).  I remember as a young missionary having the assignment to drive a visiting General Authority to a mission conference. My companion and I hadn’t communicated properly and I thought the conference was to be held in a chapel on the West side of Toronto, Canada; when in fact, it was scheduled for a meeting house on the East side. Before the error became obvious, we had traveled a good ways in the wrong direction in rush hour traffic. As a result, the General Authority, was an hour late for the meeting. One might expect that given the importance of the General Authority’s time; not to mention the time of all the missionaries assembled for the conference, inspiration would have been provided to avoid the mistake.  My companion and I had certainly prayed for help with our responsibilities relative to the conference; but no such luck.  The good news is that this unfortunate incident taught my companion and me an important lesson on planning and communication; not to mention the test of patience it provided for the Mission President and the visiting General Authority.

         For all of these reasons, worthy individuals will not always receive the revelation they seek; which is apparently just as it should be. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught, “The Lord’s way puts limits on how often He will speak to us by His Spirit.  Not understanding this, some have been misled by expecting too much revelation.  We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation” (Dallin H. Oaks, “In His Own Time, in His Own Way”, Ensign, August, 2013).

Why weren’t my prayers for strength and healing during my mission answered?

         God will not do for us what we must do for ourselves.  In some cases, mental health problems involve brain chemistry, or some combination of physiological issues, that make controlling our thoughts impossible.  In most cases, however, even those struggling with significant mental health issues have a degree of control over what they dwell on in their thinking.  Where this is true, God cannot solve the problem without overruling our agency; which He cannot, or at least will not, do (2 Nephi 2:27).  If we consistently choose to think negative, pessimistic thoughts, we will continue to be depressed.  If pornographic thoughts are entertained, encouraged, and relished, addictions will persist.  If we consistently choose to have frightening “what if” thoughts about the bad things that could happen, we will continue to be fearful and anxious.  Anytime any of us consistently make such choices, there is nothing that God can do to solve our problem without overruling our agency in the process. 

         It’s also true that things we earn generally mean more to us than the things we are given; and we grow more by achieving goals on our own than we do when our desires are given to us.  Obviously, there are many things we simply can’t do on our own, or need direction when doing.  Therein is the primary reason why we pray and depend so often on divine assistance. And some of the big ticket items in life, such as redemption and sanctification, are pure gifts from the Savior.  Nevertheless, we can often do more for ourselves than we think.  God often steps in when we truly can go no further on our own; not when we think we have reached our limit.

         In addition, God will only do that which is in our best long-term interest; and at the same time, in the best interest of others.  God’s promise that He will answer our prayers can be trusted absolutely; but the promise comes with fine print that needs to be remembered.  As the Savior pointed out, “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20, italics added).  God may at times permit us to do foolish things when we insist; but He will never do for us or to us something that is not in our long-term best interest.  Elder Richard G. Scott put it this way. “His invitation, ‘Ask, and ye shall receive’ (3 Nephi 27;29) does not assure that you will get what you want.  It does guarantee that, if worthy, you will get what you need, as judged by a Father that loves you perfectly, who wants your eternal happiness even more than do you” (Richard G Scott, “Trust the Lord”, Ensign, November, 1995).

Dr. Gary G. Taylor