Gordon Monson: Inside the LDS faith, personal revelation should be and is … personal

Inspiration can bless lives, but what about when messages come not from above but from beneath — or within?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

Is there a slipperier foundational concept in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than the one that centers on being guided by the spirit, the one that relies on inspiration and revelation from deity?

The notion that humans can and do gain whispers directly from God, not just for themselves but for others, too, is a …. tough one to nail just right.

Relied on, though, it is.

It can work out fine, at its best, but it also can descend into a distortion, a bastardization, a ruse of religion, at its worst.

As a believer, I’ve seen inspiration bless the lives of everyone involved. Still, that aforementioned bastardization does indeed happen. There are Latter-day Saints, and probably a whole lot of followers of other faiths, who do use supposed communication with God as a means to have their own will done, as a weapon of control.

Let’s back up here and get a running start at this bedrock of Latter-day Saint belief. It is a longtime tenet that individuals can speak to the heavens. They can pray to God and receive specific answers to specific questions regarding important — and even not so important — issues affecting their lives.

Members are encouraged to pray, pray, pray, if they are in need of direction. And stories are told and heard of individuals who are uncertain of which job to take or which school to attend, which subject to study, which suitor to marry, which suitor not to marry, what dog to buy, what friends to make, what road to take, what cake to bake, what cage to shake, and their impressions come.

Tales of inspiration vary greatly, from folks settling on how many children to conceive to what neighborhood to move into to where to find their durn lost car keys. Whether God actually takes the time to instruct in such a detailed manner, or whether he cares at all, while children in Africa are starving and homes are being blown to smithereens in war zones, is for each individual to decide.

Either way, the dependence on that foundational belief is found throughout the faith, its practices at every level, and the way it is led, run and structured.

‘Called’ to serve

Whenever people are “called” to a congregational role by church leaders, as a part of the faith’s lay clergy, it is said that they are chosen via the spirit, via revelation sprinkled upon those doing the calling. That inspiration is used when a stake president (a regional leader) calls someone to become a bishop, or a bishop calls someone to become a deacons quorum president, or a deacons quorum president calls someone to become a counselor or a secretary.

This inspiration is depended on throughout the church, from top to bottom, from prophet and apostles to choir directors and hymnbook coordinators. It’s done through that distilling of information from the heavens above into the mind and heart of whoever is empowered to fill vacancies in Sunday schools and Primaries and Relief Societies and youth programs.

It can be tricky business down on this terrestrial orb, figuring out God’s wishes.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Missionaries with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kneel in prayer in 2020. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson notes how missionaries often pray for guidance in their proselytizing efforts.

Missionaries sometimes say they are guided to a certain neighborhood, a specific house, a particular family or individual as they are out looking for and contacting strangers to teach. Especially when they hit pay dirt, as those strangers become converts.

A missionary I knew in Germany long ago said she and her companion were prompted to go to a specific street at a specific time in a large city. When they arrived there, they met a solitary dignified woman standing on a sidewalk who happened to be visiting family members in the former West Germany for a couple of days from her home in the former East Germany, then under communist rule.

They gave her a Book of Mormon, talked with her for an hour or so, then over the next few weeks mailed her more information. She prayed about what she received, believed all of it, eagerly converted to the faith, quietly taught the rest of her family and they joined, too.

Was that communication from on high or coincidence? The missionary and the new member were convinced it was the former.

Congregations have heard a thousand stories about such occurrences, how in some cases a certain thought or name comes into a church leader’s consciousness when he’s praying and pondering, within his stewardship, about considerations on the table, about whom to call to what position.

Like just about any human endeavor, sometimes decisions are made, calls are extended and they are bang on, right on the money. And sometimes decisions are made, calls are extended, and they are off target enough to be considered wrong.

Does that mean God was dispensing incorrect information or that the receivers were going through the motions, guessing at answers, at whom should do what, or picking from a select group of friends, or blindly reaching, designating it as inspiration and calling it good?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This scene from a Book of Mormon video depicts inhabitants of Zarahemla kneeling and praying to God when their spiritual and governmental leader, King Benjamin, invites them to do so.

It’s a significant question. A fundamental question. A question whose answer can tilt any which way.

And obviously, church callings, some of which require huge amounts of time and effort on the part of the individuals being asked to fill the roles, affect the persons being called more than they affect the one doing the calling.

Again, all by way of alleged inspiration.

Wishful thinking or God’s thinking?

If you want to put your trust in that, when it comes to individual decisions, it’s often well and good, but when it extends to the lives of others, that’s when it can fall somewhere between dicey and dangerous.

Everyone’s heard the anecdotal tale of the young man who informs a potential bride that he has sent a prayer up to God and he was told that she is the one for him. He’s certain of it. But she has received no such revelation. In fact, she thinks not only that he is not the best choice for her, but also that he’s something of a dweeb and a doorknob. Yet the dweeb, the doorknob insists he is being guided by the spirit.

What is that? Divine dissonance?

What about cases when a woman and a man agree that they are inspired to wed, and, two years later, they’re divorced and hating each other, realizing after the fact that they’ve made a horrible mistake?

It happens.

Many a slip ‘twixt the lip and the cup on revelation.

Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to figure what’s coming from the Omnipotent and what’s coming from the … well, someone, somewhere else.

A good rule of thumb is to trust your own feelings on every matter. What message and manna from heaven are falling into your mind and mouth? Do they align with your core beliefs? Do they match what you believe to be true, based on your life experiences or, if you’re of the sort, your scripture study?

Yielding control of the piloting of your own life in matters of spirituality and service, big or small, is the ultimate expression of faith, but only if it’s gracious and good, accurate and agreeable, considerate and congruent with compassion.

And just like all manner of godly communication and pursuit of truth, the seeking of forgiveness, understanding, guidance and inspiration of any kind, it’s primarily between you and You-Know-Who, the Almighty, the Author of All.

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