When is the last time you received revelation?
The other night in my studies, I came across this verse:
And in the seventy and ninth year there began to be much strife. But it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi, and many of their brethren who knew concerning the true points of doctrine, having many revelations daily, therefore they did preach unto the people, insomuch that they did put an end to their strife in that same year.
That phrase, “many revelations daily” struck me. It reminded me of a story Elder Hales shared:
Elder [Harold B] Lee asked me, as a newly sustained bishop, if I would join him at a press conference. There, an intense young reporter challenged Elder Lee. He said to him, “You call yourself a prophet. When was the last time you had revelation, and what was it about?” Elder Lee paused, looked directly at him, and responded in a sweet way, “It was yesterday afternoon about three o’clock. We were praying about who should be called as the president of the new stake, and it was made known to us who that individual should be.”
Nephi received many “many revelations daily.” Lehi received “many revelations daily.” And the General Authorities in this dispensation apparently receive “many revelations daily.”
So, take a moment and think. When is the last time you remember receiving revelation? If a reporter or a friend or one of your children were to ask you, what could you say? Has it been a few hours? Days? Years? Ever?
If you take the fast Sunday testimonies as the norm, you would think most members could look back and clearly identify the last time they received revelation. It seems like every week, some brother or sister shares about how they heard or felt a voice urging them to check on their child right at the moment they were about to fall off the second story railing, or to get off the freeway just in time to avoid a fatal car crash, or to visit a sister in the ward right after she got news of her mother’s death. These are the stories you hear all the time in testimony meetings, lesson manuals, and General Conference stories– unmistakably clear impressions, overwhelming feelings of confirmation, and an audible (or almost audible) voice.
These stories are edifying and faith-building experiences. They are evidence that God loves His children, and that miracles have not ceased. But if you are like me, these experiences also feel very foreign to your experiences in life. If asked when the last time you received revelation, you probably don’t have a specific answer. You know that you have a testimony and that you are following the correct path, but you probably can’t identify an exact moment you can point to recently and say, “This is when God spoke to me.”
And maybe when you hear of seemingly everyone around you receiving crystal clear promptings all the time, it can feel pretty discouraging. Why doesn’t God speak to me like He speaks to everyone else? Am I out of tune with the Spirit? Am I just not worthy? Does God even love me? Is He even there?
Fortunately for those of us who feel left out of the “spiritual story” club, this is nothing to worry about. If you have a lack of powerful, defining revelatory moments you can share in Elders Quorum, don’t worry. You don’t have a spiritual disability; in fact, the fact it’s the way God intended. It’s by design. Here are a few principles I have learned to help me understand and apply this:
1. Powerful experiences are not the norm
First, let’s be clear about these powerful experiences that everyone seems to be having: it’s not the norm. And to think that they are, or to give the impression that they are, is to accept or further a distorted perception of the revelatory process. Elder Bednar reminds us that “mighty miracles do occur. However, this pattern of revelation tends to be more rare than common.” Pres. Benson warned in stronger language:
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… much more subtle, much more imperceptible.
Unfortunately, if someone experiences a powerful spiritual prompting that results in some miracle, there’s a good chance they’re going to share it next Fast Sunday. Get a ward big enough, and the whole hour will be filled with “rare” experiences and leave you with the impression that those powerful revelatory experiences are commonplace in the lives of all the members.
2. Powerful experiences should not be the norm
When we do experience these rare, powerful witnesses, we need to be careful. Our Church leaders have warned us that these rare experiences, are not supposed to be shared in public settings but to be treasured in our hearts. Like the contents of our Patriarchal Blessings, they are usually for our benefit only. This counsel to missionaries applies to all:
[Powerful spiritual experiences] should be kept private and discussed only in appropriate situations… Resist the temptation to talk freely about these experiences.
President Boyd K. Packer counseled: “I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. And when they do, they are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction… It is not wise to continually talk of unusual spiritual experiences. They are to be guarded with care and shared only when the Spirit itself prompts you to use them to the blessing of others.”
This isn’t to say that everyone who shares a powerful spiritual experience is doing it for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they share them because it really did have such a powerful impact on their lives and they sincerely want others to feel of the testimony they gained from that experience. And sometimes it’s because the Spirit is actually prompting them to share this experience because someone does need to hear it that day. But too often, the truth is that when someone goes through a powerful spiritual experience, they are likely to share it. And to share it again and again.
3. Focus more on the ordinary, everyday revelatory experiences
Elder Bednar shared this concern about focusing so much on the dramatic spiritual manifestations when they are not the norm that we miss the other 99% of the revelations we receive:
We as members of the Church tend to emphasize marvelous and dramatic spiritual manifestations so much that we may fail to appreciate and may even overlook the customary pattern by which the Holy Ghost accomplishes His work… I have talked with many individuals who question the strength of their personal testimony and underestimate their spiritual capacity because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions.
He quoted Pres. Joseph F Smith, who warned:
Show me Latter-day Saints who have to feed upon miracles, signs and visions in order to keep them steadfast in the Church, and I will show you members … who are not in good standing before God, and who are walking in slippery paths. It is not by marvelous manifestations unto us that we shall be established in the truth.
Ordinary revelation is subtle. It’s almost always extremely quiet. Pres. Packer 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.”
4. Everyone receives revelation differently
It’s also important to recognize that not everyone experiences revelation in the same way. It seems every time someone shares the experience of receiving revelation, they use the word “feel.” That’s a fine word because when the Holy Ghost speaks to your heart, that’s the closest word that approximates the experience. But remember that the heart is not the only medium through which the Spirit communicates. God promises us that He will confirm truth to us “in [our] mind and in [our] heart.”
Revelation comes in more forms than the “burning bosom.” Joseph Smith taught that God often communicates with us through mental, intellectual channels as well:
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… those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God… by learning… and understanding.”
Personally, I don’t think that the mind to heart ratio is always 50/50 for everyone. My mother almost always receives promptings primarily as feelings; I almost always receive inspiration through study and thought. So don’t be worried if you dont’ have the same experience with the Spirit that others do.
5. Unrecognized revelation is still revelation
Since revelation is usually so subtle and seemingly indistinguishable from our own thoughts and feelings, it makes it difficult to distinguish between inspired thoughts and feelings put there by the Spirit of God and those of our own making. So it naturally begs the question, “How do I know if that thought or feeling I had was a revelation from God, or if it was just me?”
If you find yourself asking this question a lot, take comfort– it’s pretty common. In fact, Elder Bednar says it is the most common question asked to him by the young adults of the Church. The short answer to this question is most of the time, you just don’t know. And actually, that’s OK. Here’s Elder Bednar again:
Quit worrying about it. Quit fussing with it. Quit analyzing it. You be a good boy, you be a good girl, you honor your covenants, you keep the commandments, and I promise you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that as you press forward with faith in Christ, your footsteps will be guided. As you open your mouth, it will be filled, and you will be where you need to be, and most of the time, you will not even have any idea how you got there.
– From an address at the MTC, quoted here
What a promise! And what a comfort! To think that if you are obedient, Heavenly Father will often speak to you in your own thoughts and your own feelings. Unrecognized revelation is still revelation, and as we act on that unrecognized revelation, we are still blessed. It reminds me of the righteous Lamanites, who received the Holy Ghost “and they knew it not,” or how Moses managed to come down from conversing with the Lord on Mount Sinai and not realize that his face was shining. As Elder Hales put it, “as faithful children, youth, parents, teachers, and leaders, we may receive personal revelation more frequently than we realize.”
Often, we do not realize it was revelation until well after the fact. Sometimes, we don’t ever realize it at all. All we can do is be obedient to what we know, pay attention to those little miracles, and try and see the pattern of thoughts and feelings that precipitated those miracles.
Do this long enough, and we may come to find out that indeed we are receiving “many revelations daily” after all.