One of the interesting things about the LDS Church is our view of how men and women can communicate with God. While we are often characterized as being blind followers of our prophet (the president of the Church), that criticism is unfair. More so than in any other church I have encountered, Latter-day Saints stress the importance of seeking and receiving personal revelation from our Father in Heaven. In other words, we believe that communication between God and His children is a two-way street, and we seek and expect to receive insight, wisdom, knowledge and comfort directly from their heavenly source.
Mormons take quite literally the promises contained in the Bible regarding God’s direct communication with His mortal followers. From Moses’s expressed desire that “all of his people” would be prophets through the Apostle James’s injunction that if any person lacked wisdom, he or she should seek it directly from God, with unwavering faith that He would provide it liberally, we see the Bible as evidence that we are not left to sojourn alone on Earth. Rather, we are promised that through the power of the Holy Ghost, we can expect to receive answers to our worthy prayers.
And the Church puts its money where its mouth is. As a matter of fact, over the nearly 200 years since the Church was first organized, we have history of doubling down on the principle of personal revelation. Some examples:
- We recognize that the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is central to the truthfulness of the Church. If that book is fraudulent, so is the Church. So how do we seek to establish the truthfulness of it? While scholars may engage in efforts of “proof,” the Church itself relies on the promise of the Book of Mormon itself: We ask people to read the Book of Mormon, ponder it, and then pray for the knowledge of whether it is true. The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni promised that if a person does so with real intent, “He will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (See Moroni 10:3-5). In other words, the way we expect people to come into the Church is through personal revelation from God that the message of the Church is true. Millions have followed that prescription and have received precisely that witness.
- Twice a year, we have General Conferences, which are broadcast around the world. In those conferences, our general authorities, usually including the President of the Church, give talks of exhortation, comfort, and guidance. Even though we recognize many of these “General Authorities” as prophets, seers, and revelators, we are not expected to accept their messages at face value. Rather, we are encouraged (“directed” might be the better word) to confirm the truthfulness of those messages through prayer and personal revelation. We are to find out for ourselves whether we are being taught true doctrine.
- The curriculum of the Church (for Sunday School and other classes) has become increasingly decentralized over the years. By that I mean that whereas such curriculum once spelled out in great detail what was to be said in class, newer curriculum is much more general in nature. While suggestions are given for each class, teachers are given wide latitude in how to approach the topic for discussion and are encouraged to focus on the scriptures and pray for guidance with respect to both what and how to teach. “Teaching by the Spirit” is the guiding principle, and the Church trusts (remarkably) that millions of members scattered throughout the world, living in different cultures and speaking different languages, will get pretty much the same answer. In any other church, such an approach would lead to schisms and factions. Amazingly, in the LDS Church it does not. (When members leave, they typically do so alone; except for the early days of the Church, we do not often see groups of members leaving and setting up competing “Mormonisms.”)
The only limits that the Church places on personal revelation is that we believe you can only receive revelation within the scope of your stewardship. For example, while my wife and I are entitled to receive revelation for ourselves and for our children, we do not have the authority to receive revelation for the whole church or even our local congregation. I can receive revelation for how to teach my early morning seminary class, but I have no right to revelation concerning the class next door. That limitation helps to limit dissent, because if some yahoo walks up to my door and tells me how to run my family, I am fully entitled to tell him to stick his “revelation” in his ear. (And, for the record, I have.)
With this emphasis on, and trust in, personal revelation, one properly may ask how we know when we have received it. And that is far from being easily answered. We have some clues from the scriptures that help us understand what we are looking for. The disciples who traveled the road to Emmaeus not realizing their companion was the Savior, later second-guessed themselves, realizing that the burning in their hearts as He spoke should have let them know of His identity. In modern revelation, the Lord references speaking to our minds and our hearts and having “peace” in answer to prayer.
Ultimately, however, the process of recognizing impressions and communications from the Lord is a lifelong endeavor. As we gain familiarity with His voice, we recognize it more easily. Rarely do revelations come in the “burning bush” variety; more often it is received as thoughts or impressions. Mormons believe that communion with our Father in Heaven and the Savior is one of the most central purposes of life. We need to hear, understand, and then implement the will of God in our lives in order to find greater joy for ourselves and our family. In order to draw closer to God, we need to be able to hear His voice as He directs our steps. Without such revelation, we are left wandering in a spiritual wilderness, hoping without expectation that we will stumble over His presence.
So we kneel, we plead, and we listen. And we wait for heavenly guidance to establish our path.