Last week, friend and member of the San Francisco Stake High Council, Matt Mosman, delivered a great talk to the Golden Gate Ward here in San Francisco. With his permission, I share it with you here.
Brother Mosman’s assignment was to talk about testimony—how we share what we know to be true about the nature of our Savior. What I found intriguing was the way Brother Mosman approached the topic of testimony—through personal revelation.
Personal revelation, for Mormons, is a cornerstone tenet in our faith. After all, it is the primary way our Savior makes His will known unto each of us individually. And more importantly, it is incumbent upon us to seek that knowledge of His will for us--not from other humans, but directly from our Savior himself.
As an openly gay Mormon, this facet of our faith has become the foundation of developing a healthy, integrated view of myself as my Father’s son—I am whole, exactly as He made me. I am not “afflicted” or “suffering” or “struggling.” I do not have an illness that requires my soul be mended.
I have, over the years, encountered those who have been convinced otherwise—and tried to convince me otherwise, as well. But when it comes right down to it, living my life by what I understand my Savior’s will for me to be just makes more sense to me than letting someone else’s will run it.
Kudos to Brother Mosman for encouraging all of us within the Mormon faith to understand that seeking our Savior’s will is an individual process, unique to each of us. And for encouraging us to remember that we, as Mormons, don’t hold the market on communication with the divine: “God is no respecter of persons, and loves all His children equally well. He is not a Father who would give a stone to any of His children who ask for bread.”
March 18, 2012
Good morning, brothers and sisters. I'm delighted to be asked to speak in the Golden Gate Ward, which is now my assignment on the high council.
I had the chance to speak with you for a fifth Sunday combined Priesthood and Relief Society a couple of months ago, but it’s actually been quite a long time since I’ve spoken here as a regular part of my high council speaking assignment rotation. For some reason, I seem to keep drawing the Spanish units in our stake. I don’t speak Spanish, so that seems a little odd to me since we probably have six or seven high councilors who do. I asked Bishop Moran about that a few months ago, and he told me that it is in part because I speak slowly, so I’m easy to translate for. To be honest, when he told me that it made me feel a little like some kind of a slow-talking yokel. I think maybe I’m hypersensitive to that, since I grew up in northern Idaho, where you’re always just a little worried that people will find out that deep down you’re a dueling-banjos, Deliverance-type backwoods hick. I think the full name of my high school is something like “The Moscow Idaho Center for Larnin’ Them What Don’t Read Good,” so you can see where my sensitivity comes from.
We've been assigned to speak today about testimony, a topic which could hardly be more important. It may be that the single most important challenge in coming to Christ and being perfected in Him is learning to hear, recognize and follow the voice of the Lord. The ability of individual members of the church to receive instruction and testimony directly from heaven for their lives is central to the gospel plan, and was one of the critical insights to emerge from the Sacred Grove.
I'd like to discuss testimony by talking at some length about personal revelation, which is a core part of testimony, and specifically I’d like to go over some of the basic tenets of our belief in it. I'm trying to sort of get us all on the same page with respect to this important topic. To that end, I'd like to talk briefly about who can obtain revelation, then about the principle of stewardship in revelation, and then I'd like to spend a little more time on just how personal revelation and testimony are received.
To whom can God reveal His truth? We should never delude ourselves into thinking that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are the only people on earth to whom God communicates. It is in fact central to the growth of the kingdom of God on earth to allow for anyone to receive guidance from the Lord -- else how does anyone join this church? Don't they need revelation? Of course they do.
Obviously, our entire church history hinges on the ability of those outside of the church to receive revelation. Our prophets have honored the hand of the Lord in guiding reformers like Martin Luther, and of course young Joseph Smith’s heart was powerfully touched by the Spirit as he was encouraged to pray in the Sacred Grove. It's important to note that at that time he was of course not allied with this church, nor with any other.
We shouldn't think, either, that the only time that anyone outside of this church can receive revealed truth from the Lord is when they are investigating the church. God is no respecter of persons, and loves all His children equally well. He is not a father who would give a stone to any of His children who ask for bread.
I am concerned, sometimes, that we put limits on God: “He would never say this,” or “He would never do that.” As we'll discuss later, it is important to recognize that His ways are not our ways, that He will do whatever "seemeth (Him) good."
It's equally critical to understand that inside of the church, revelation is the province, and even the duty, of all. It is not the particular duty of church leaders. We'll talk about stewardship in a minute, but for now we should note that we not only have the right to personal revelation, we actually owe it to ourselves to seek it and receive it from time to time to guide our lives.
Joseph Smith said: "Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject." This sounds to me like we're obligated to seek out revealed truth, in order to understand our condition and true relation to God.
Now: Before we talk of anything else, we should understand what can be called the principle of "stewardship in revelation." Our Heavenly Father's house is a house of order, where his servants are commanded, in D&C 107, to "act in the office in which [they are] appointed." Only the president of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church. Only the stake president receives revelation for the special guidance of the stake. The person who receives revelation for the ward is the bishop.
Individuals can and do receive revelation to guide their own lives. But if a revelation is outside the limits of their stewardship, you know at least that you are not bound by it. Many of us know of cases where a young man told a young woman she should marry him because he had received a “revelation” that she was to be his eternal companion. Elder Dallin Oaks recently pointed out that if this is a true revelation, it will be confirmed directly to the woman if she seeks to know. In the meantime, he says, she is under no obligation to heed it. She should seek her own guidance and make up her own mind. The man can receive revelation to guide his own actions, but he cannot properly receive revelation to direct hers. She is outside his stewardship. Period.
Now let's discuss now how the Lord reveals His will to us. After the prophet Elijah contended with the priests of Baal, he had to flee for his life from the fury of Jezebel. He was led to a cave on Mount Horeb, where he learned a great deal about personal revelation in this passage from 1 Kings 19: "And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." Elijah evidently recognized this as the voice of the Lord, since in the next verse it tells us, "And it was so, when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering of the cave."
Another example from the scriptures will teach us about personal revelation: In the Book of Mormon Laman and Lemuel rebel against their righteous father and brother at almost every turn. Finally, Nephi is told by the Lord to build a ship, and his brothers not only mocked and ridiculed his efforts, but openly opposed him. Nephi had finally had enough, and in 1 Nephi chapter 17 he berates them, and in the process says something very interesting about personal revelation: "Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time, and he hath spoken to you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words..."
There is an example commonly used in the church about personal revelation that I think has caused us, in some ways at least, more harm than good, and I want to talk about that. It is the experience of Oliver Cowdery with his efforts to translate the Book of Mormon. While he was serving as scribe to the prophet Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver had the desire to also have the gift of translation. The answer to his request is located in Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and I'll want to pay attention to that in a minute. In Section 9, we learn that Oliver had a difficult time with translating, and it is there that we run across the most-used scripture in the church with respect to personal revelation: "But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings."
I've watched this scripture turn, too often in my mind, into something akin to sign-seeking. I want to make sure you understand me correctly: I'm not finding fault with the scripture, I'm saying that our almost obsessive interpretation, or maybe our application, of that scripture doesn't work well. The "burning bosom" becomes for too many members of this church the singular way in which the Lord speaks.
We should make this clear: the Lord will speak whenever He wants, to whom He pleases, He will say whatever fits His purposes, and He will do it in whatever way suits Him. He will speak sometimes in the whirlwind, in the earthquake, in the fire, in the still, small voice, or in the burning bosom.
But, as Elder Boyd K. Packer in particular has been pointing out lately, mostly He will speak to us in promptings. In thoughts and in feelings.
Going back to the Oliver Cowdery story, we learn that he was told this from the beginning: In D&C Section 8, when he asked to be allowed to translate, the Lord gave him this instruction: "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. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation." And even in the "burning bosom" section, remember that Oliver was told what the result would be of that manifestation: "therefore, you shall feel that it is right."
Why am I focusing on thoughts and feelings, on the still small voice of revelation? First, I do it because this is by far the most common form of revelation, the way that the Lord mostly speaks to us. Second, I do it because a singular focus on less subtle, more grand manifestations can harm us. I taught Sunday School for high-school-aged kids for a number of years, and one of the most common issues they faced was simply, "Do I have a testimony?" I've known a number of kids whose entire lives are a testament to their belief, whose every thought and feeling tells them that the church is true, who still wonder... because angels have not been gathering outside their bedroom windows. Let me be clear here with especially the young people of this ward, but really with anyone who wonders about their own testimony: what you have become over time, and what you have come to believe in your heart, are a powerful testimony. You know what they say: you don’t think your way into right living; you live your way into right thinking.
Remember what Oliver was told: "I will tell you in your mind and in your heart...this is the spirit of revelation." We learn this very powerfully in D&C 121, which tells us: "Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven." Dews do not appear suddenly; they form in the right conditions over time. Charity and virtue create the conditions for testimony. The rest is just the passage of time.
As it is in the physical and mental realms, where we simply cannot wake up one morning and run a marathon or turn in a finished PhD thesis, so it is in the spiritual realm: One prayer does not typically bring us spirituality, one grand act of charity does not make us a saint, and one morning of scripture reading does not bring us scripture mastery. But long hours of prayer, coupled with the kind of actions that bring us closer to God, produce over time a deep knowledge that really does "distill upon (our) souls." This knowledge is revelation, just as surely as a visit from a heavenly messenger is.
How could that be, though? How could it be that our missionaries can go out and have with their investigators tangible and sometimes spectacular spiritual experiences, while good young men and young women have the same doctrines “distill on their souls” in less obvious ways? I think there may be a lot of explanations, but I'd like to point out just one with some history:
When the glorious vision of D&C 76 was given, which is the amazing vision of the three degrees of glory, it happens that several men, perhaps as many as a dozen, were present in the room at the time. Sidney Rigdon, the prophet's counselor, actually saw the vision at the same time. Joseph Smith's close friend Philo Dibble recounts the scene as follows:
"Joseph would, at intervals, say: "What do I see?" as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, "I see the same." Presently Sidney would say "what do I see?" and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, "I see the same."
This manner of conversation was repeated at short intervals to the end of the vision, and during the whole time not a word was spoken by any other person. Not a sound nor motion made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney, and it seemed to me that they never moved a joint or limb during the time I was there, which I think was over an hour, and to the end of the vision.
Joseph sat firmly and calmly all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory, but Sidney sat limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag, observing which, Joseph remarked, smilingly, "Sidney is not used to it as I am.""
I think it may be like that for those of us who have been long-time members of the church. Having spent our lives being taught by the Holy Ghost, we are quite used to it. We are like people who have spent our lives in the sun, so its rays are not blinding to us. If we had just crawled out of a spiritual cave, our experience with the spirit would be quite different: the same sun that is warm and comforting to a person who has been out in it, is incredibly bright to the cave-dweller. As it is, though, we recognize the spirit through warmth and comfort and assurance. Elder Packer says about this whole topic: "this burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being." A "warm light" sounds a lot like how I feel all the time with respect to this church.
But this presents us with a problem: if revelation will typically come to us through thoughts and feelings, how am I to know that what I am thinking and feeling is from the Lord, and not just arising from the storm of thoughts and feelings that comprise every day for me? Let me suggest a few simple ways:
First, revelation from God will be in harmony with what you know about God and His gospel. Even when Nephi is compelled to raise Laban's sword against him, it is to support a fundamental gospel principle. In our more mundane experience, we can simply know that we are receiving God's will when it agrees with what we already know of the gospel. I suppose it's possible for the Lord to reveal to a young missionary that he should go home a year early to marry his girlfriend -- like I said earlier, God can do whatever He wants --, but the missionary's starting point should probably be that while it’s possible, it’s not likely that God would reveal such a thing to him.
Second: Probably the best test is: Does this edify me? Am I a better man or woman, girl or boy, because of this? In D&C Section 50 we are told: "That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness." So it's worth asking: Do these thoughts and feelings lead me to do good, and bring me closer to the Lord? Do they bring light and truth, enlightenment and understanding to my mind?
Third, while I suppose it's possible to receive personal revelation that accrues to our personal gain, or glorifies us somehow on this earth, I would wonder about such a thing. There is a difference between the giddiness of having had a course of action "confirmed", in quotes, that benefits us personally, and the warm and calm assurance that the Lord is well pleased with us.
Fourth, experience with the Spirit will teach you when God is speaking to you, and the best way to gain experience is to act. In Exodus 24 when the Israelites get the Ten Commandments and promise to obey God, there is an odd word ordering in their response: “All that you have said we will do and hear.” Wait: do and hear? Not hear and do?
Some biblical scholars say that this is just a scribal error, and of course it’s possible that I’m reading more into it than it deserves. But I prefer the rabbinical explanation: Many rabbis have taught that we can’t really hear what God is saying, or let it sink into our souls and beings, until we have tried to do what God is saying. The practice precedes the belief, and not the other way around. Rabbi Joshua Herschel wrote:
We are asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. We are asked to surpass our needs, to do more than we now understand in order to understand more than we now do.
Finally, the absolute best advice I can give about distinguishing between our personal thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings prompted by the Spirit is: if you want to hear the still, small voice, turn down the noise. Spiritual noise can come from sin, disquiet, anger, contention, tiredness, stress, irreverence, or a hundred other things. All of them get in the way between us and the quiet promptings of the Spirit. President Eyring accurately suggests: our problem is not to get the Lord to speak to us; our problem is to hear.
We talk often in church of things like reading the scriptures, and having fervent prayer. We joke with each other about how scripture reading and prayer are the correct answer to almost every question asked in Sunday School. Why is that, though? Could it be as simple as this: that doing those things is a critical way to calm our inner noise and put us in a position to listen to the still, small voice?
There is a traditional Christian hymn that summarizes, I think, how we need to feel quiet in order to hear the Lord's voice:
"Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire
O still, small voice of calm."
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.