In an LDS context, the answer to “what is revelation” is fairly simple. Revelation is the guidance and direction to the prophets of the LDS church on policies, procedures, and doctrine. Of course, the members themselves can receive revelation also however this revelation is for personal decisions only and must stay within strict hierarchy boundaries as defined by the current leadership model. This model of revelation is essentially what I was taught 1000 times. It was always very clear cut as if it was set in stone and anything else was an absurdity. The problem though is that the scriptures quite clearly disagree with this model of revelation. To get around this the lessons would always cherry pick quotes or phrases from the scriptures to illustrate a very specific idea. In this way the scriptures could support the current way of defining things and thus everyone would be happy in their scriptural indifference.
Inspiration or Revelation
Revelation in the most basic sense is God reveling a piece of reality that the individual did not possess before. This new knowledge helps us to understand God, our relationship to him, and how we can more fully align ourselves with him. Revelation then is God pulling back the curtain that separates us from him piece by piece until we can fully comprehend his majesty and glory. In the LDS church though, we often mistakenly merge the concepts of inspiration and revelation together and then refer to that under the umbrella term “revelation”. This is almost always incorrect and gives a false impression of what revelation is since scripturally revelation is almost always spectacular in some form and sudden. When we then don’t receive these visions or dreams, we may then conclude that God is not speaking to us. However, God is always guiding us, directing us, and helping us through what is more accurately called inspiration. Inspiration then is a thought or feeling in a certain way, while revelation is an immediate burst of knowledge that you never considered before. Both are available to us at all times, however they serve different purposes and needs.
Joseph Smith was quite clear though that inspiration is a divine help in our lives however it is revelation that we need in order to gain our way back to God.
A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge, for if he does not get knowledge, he will be brought into captivity by some evil power in the other world … Hence it needs revelation to assist us, and give us knowledge of the things of God.Joseph Smith
The Truth of All Things
Since revelation from God is required for us to be saved and return back to him it is important to determine the scope of what we can and cannot get revelation for. This is because if something is required for us and we don’t think God will give us that knowledge then we would of course never seek to ask him about it. The official policy of the LDS church actually makes this pretty clear. You can only receive revelation for yourself or your direct stewardship. This means frankly you shouldn’t bother praying about your struggling neighbor, your aging parents, your coworkers, or your friends since you don’t have any spiritual stewardship over them.
President Dallin H. Oaks, who will be the next President of the LDS church said:
We should understand what can be called the principle of “stewardship in revelation.” … Leaders receive revelation for their own stewardships. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives. But when one person purports to receive revelation for another person outside his or her own stewardship … you can be sure that such revelations are not from the Lord. If a revelation is outside the limits of stewardship, you know it is not from the Lord, and you are not bound by it.Dallin H. Oaks
Certainly, if this claim of “stewardship in revelation” is true then the scriptures should back that up. One of the most quoted scriptures from the Book of Mormon, and one I used almost daily on my mission, was Moroni 10:5, “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things”. This scripture is pretty clear that God can give revelation on “all things”. It certainly doesn’t say revelation on “all things that you have stewardship over”. This means that if someone is teaching something that is not true, God can tell you. If there is something your neighbor needs, God can tell you. If your friend is struggling with something, then God can tell you. If your church is incorrect, then God can tell you.
If President Oaks’ claim about “stewardship in revelation” is true, then why did God answer Joseph’s prayer in the woods when he had no stewardship over the Christian leaders of his day? Why did God give Lehi a vision about his city and his leaders when he had no stewardship over either? Why did God give Abinadi a revelation about his ecclesiastical and civic leaders when he had no stewardship over them? Lastly, why did God give Amos, who wrote the scripture that we love to quote Amos 3:7, a revelation concerning the church of his day when he was an inconsequential sheep herder. They all received revelations outside their stewardships.
I have even seen this “stewardship in revelation” concept to be totally false. My wife and I were selling our home in order to purchase another. We were having a lot of trouble lining things up between the two properties which went on for a number of months. After shopping one evening and while putting groceries in the car an older gentleman came up to us and struck up a conversation. It was a little awkward at first however he told us that God wanted us to hear something. It was then that he told us the sale of our house was not working because we were letting the current buyer become a blockage. I had never seen that man in my entire life however he was incredibly correct for various reasons we really wanted to sell to that one buyer and had worked with him for a while. We cancelled with the buyer and used another which allowed everything to work out quite smoothly. Without this message from God, which was certainly outside the man’s stewardship, things would not have worked out for us and we likely wouldn’t have gotten the home we needed to be in.
A natural response though could be that prophets can receive revelations outside their stewardships while everyone else must abide by their stewardships. If this is the case, then why didn’t the scriptures say that? Why did Moses say in Numbers 11:29, “Would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets”? Does God want everyone to have the spirit of prophecy or only certain people who are the current leaders of the LDS church? This whole concept is actually eternally damaging because it is limiting God to an impossibly small and ever-changing box. The god of that box is essentially the thoughts and whims of the current spiritual leaders. We would quite literally be “carried about with every wind of doctrine”. This strictly means that if my local or general leaders say or do anything then I am not allowed to question that guidance or to ask God for revelations concerning the truthfulness, since anything concerning it would be violating the “stewardship in revelation” principle. This of course makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and is partly why the church is in the state that it is.
Traditions of Men
In a 2015 Fireside meeting, informally referred to as the Boise Rescue, President Oaks and Richard E Turley echoed the words of a 1912 First Presidency Letter which was reprinted in the September 1913 Improvement Era and extensively quoted since then.
When visions, dreams, tongues, prophecy, impressions or any extraordinary gift or inspiration, convey something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear.A Warning Voice, 1912 First Presidency statement
This of course is what any religious organization would say. Listen to us as we have the answers and if you don’t then bad things will happen to you. This idea is as old as man and is very comforting however it of course necessitates that the leaders are infallible and the church itself will never deviate even one degree from what God wants it to. If the leaders did make a mistake or the church as a whole deviated, then God would need to give a revelation which would contradict the official teachings of the church to realign things again. However, according to the doctrines of the church this is not possible because the church can’t deviate. Therefore, the leaders are infallible because the church can’t deviate, and the church can’t deviate because the leaders are infallible. This of course makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and is a circular argument. This logic is also a bit ironic because the LDS church itself was founded by revelation that went against “the decisions of [the church’s] constituted authorities”.
Today people will use a shred of logic and say of course the President of the church can make mistakes however the mistakes will never be “big” mistakes. The thinking then is that this solves the circular argument, however it solves nothing and still makes no sense. Are small deviations from God okay, but “big” ones are not? How exactly is the President of the church capable of making small mistakes, but not “big” ones? The scriptures are clear however that “big” mistakes can happen and certainly did happen. The plain and precious parts of the gospel were removed, which is pretty big. The entire church went into apostasy, which is pretty big. Lehi’s church and scriptures had been perverted to remove Christ, which is pretty big. The Nephites as a whole turned away from God and relied on their own strength, which is pretty big. All the creations of God except Noah and his family were drowned, because of their wickedness, which is pretty big. Big mistakes have happened in the past so it is highly confusing to think that they can’t happen anymore or that the church is somehow immune. God has also said in numerous places, such as D&C 5, and D&C 124:32, that if the church doesn’t fulfill their side of things, then we will be cast out and rejected. Is this an empty threat from God to just jolt us into compliance, or does he really mean it? I think the only logical conclusion to reach is that the church can go off course, its leaders can make bad choices and teach false doctrines, and God can give revelations to readjust things. Anything else is strictly wishful thinking and is not based on the scriptures at all.
Revelation or Emotion?
In the LDS church we very often equate feelings or emotion with the spirit. While the spirit of God can certainly cause emotions, emotions by themselves are not a very good indicator of the spirit. Emotions can also be incredibly easy to manipulate. For instance, movie directors know at specific moments what to show, the music to play, and the specific character dialog all so the audience will feel a certain way. In addition, Bonneville Communications a subsidiary of the LDS church, registered the trademark “HeartSell“, which they defined as their ability to “[evoke] first feeling, then thought“. Getting people to feel a certain way and then act accordingly is not how God works.
The idea that feelings can be equated with the Holy Spirit is pervasive in the church’s teachings. The most prominent example is that of President Benson, who I personally greatly respect for his political work.
We hear the words of the Lord most often by a feeling. If we are humble and sensitive, the Lord will prompt us through our feelings.Ezra Taft Benson
This quote has been used several times in the church however that doesn’t make it true. President Benson’s calling at the time also doesn’t make this quote true. Inspiration is a feeling and certainly God can guide us through feelings however inspiration is not revelation. The words of God have also never come through a feeling in the history of humanity. It is always through a direct burst of knowledge that we get the actual words of God. Revelation is a direct connection to heaven and a burst of knowledge as mentioned by Joseph Smith. In fact, Joseph mentioned that the Holy Ghost itself is intelligence.
This first comforter, or Holy Ghost, has no other effect than pure intelligence.Joseph Smith
Therefore, the idea that the Holy Ghost operates through vague feelings or suggestions, that can easily be manipulated, is totally false. In addition, Joseph defined revelation more fully by describing it as intelligence itself.
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 … And thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith doesn’t mention feelings or emotions at all. He mentions thoughts and intelligence as the avenue to Christ. It is important to understand this principle. If we are experiencing emotions, then we may easily get swayed in a particular direction and think it is of God. In addition, we may not seek for anything more because we think we already have it. This is a damning false doctrine. Why seek for more if you already think you have it all? Scripturally, God never gives vague feelings to prophets in order to guide them. He gives them revelations of knowledge, audible words, or direct visions.
A common misunderstanding is since the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, and peace according to Galatians 5:22, then feeling those are the spirit itself. This is certainly understandable however the fruit of a tree is not the tree itself. However, you would fully expect that after receiving pure intelligence from God then you would feel the fruits of the spirit listed. Therefore, when we receive knowledge or guidance from God it is very natural to feel and share “love, joy, peace”.
Relying on emotions for guidance instead of revelation from God is certainly not new or unique to Mormonism. An incredibly insightful statement was made by the Vice President of BYU, Noel B. Reynolds, in 1981.
Too much of the literature used, seen, and quoted in the Church today is just sentimental trash which is designed to pull our heart strings or to moisten our eyes—but it is not born of true spiritual experience. The tendency of our youth to use sentimental stories in Church talks creates a culture of spiritual misunderstanding in which thinking and learning are discouraged. Because our youth often respond positively to sentimentalism, there is a danger that we might cater to that in the Church instruction more generally…. [Emotional sentimentalism] should never be leaned upon as a substitute for spirituality. Reliance on sentimentality will stunt our own spiritual growth by misleading us and filling our understanding with false experiences.Noel B. Reynolds, BYU Speech, Summer 1981
Relying on emotions alone for spiritual guidance is a disaster waiting to happen and is an almost direct invitation to Satan. It is certainly what is meant in Ephesians 4:14, “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”. If we can easily be swayed in a certain direction based on emotional appeal, then we would be “carried about with every wind of doctrine”.
Joseph Smith understood this when he remarked:
Nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit, when they think they have the spirit of God.Joseph Smith
How can we not be under a false spirit when we are relying on transitory emotions for our guidance?
In the church, and in society in general, we seek to eliminate or greatly diminish anything that is perceived as negative. If we have a problem, we seek a pill to fix it. If someone is bothering us, we seek to block their access. If something about our lives is not better than our neighbors, then we seek someone or something to blame. Of course, this doesn’t explain everyone, however the overall idea generally applies. If we don’t feel good about something, then that feeling is “bad” and we want to make it “good” again. An often-repeated quote from President Benson mentions, “When you do good, you feel good, and that is the Holy Ghost speaking to you”. When we hear statements like this, we equate the Holy Ghost with positive feelings. However negative emotions are much more often a result of revelation from God. If God let me know that my actions would lead to a premature death, I could drown my sorrows in a cheeseburger or figure out a solution to the underlying problem.
The Book of Mormon starts off explaining how Lehi, in 1 Nephi 1:5, was praying “with all his heart” and God opened a vision to him. This vision caused him to “quake and tremble exceedingly”. Quaking and trembling are certainly not positive emotions however these emotions were a result of the truth being revealed to Lehi. Later in Lehi’s journey away from Jerusalem he was given a ball which acted like a compass and led them where God wanted them to go. We are not told the specifics, however one day while inspecting the ball the record mentions:
And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives.1 Nephi 16:27
Whatever was written caused everyone present to quiver in fear. This is not pleasant in the slightest and certainly not traditionally associated with God. However, the ball was given to them by God and the messages were a result of the power of God. There is no reason to think that everything from God is pleasant and eternal sunshine and rainbows. Thinking that since God is love then everything from God must feel like love gives people a false impression and causes them to miss many things from God. In reality almost all the messages in the scriptures are negative messages telling the people that they have deviated from God and need to return. This return to God involves what most would define as negative feelings of humility, and a broken contrite heart.
The Book of Mormon though teaches, in Alma 1, of a false prophet, Nehor, that taught the people that everything was going to be okay, and they didn’t need to fear or tremble. He taught very pleasing things that were easy on the ears. Since this message felt so good many believed it and convinced themselves it was true. This can be contrasted with the negative emotion of sorrow that prophets feel. In 4 Nephi 1:44, the disciples of God began to “sorrow for the sins of the world”. Many had turned away from the righteousness they had known to the wickedness of the world. This sorrow was a result of knowing the truth that the wickedness they were seeking was never going to lead them to the happiness they wanted which is described in Alma 41:10.
Assuming negative feelings are a sign of God’s disapproval or are not even from God in the first place will cut us off from most of the learning opportunities available in this life. According to Mosiah 3:19, we start off life as an enemy to God and have to undergo the painful task of yielding our natural desires to God. This is never an easy task and is frankly unpleasant as times. However, if we shun this task then we would be damning ourselves to forever be separated from God. Just as physical pain is a warning sign of danger, spiritual pain is also a sign that something needs to be taken care of.
Revelation is the most important topic in the gospel since it determines whether we will get everything else correct. However, it may be the most misunderstood topic also. I am not claiming to have a secret key to unlock things however I do know that God does not lie, and he has given us the scriptures to be our guide. The scriptures say that God will reveal the “truth of all things” to us. God didn’t say it would be quick or it would be easy. However, he said he would do it if we asked.
If instead we think that God can’t reveal something to us because we don’t have a stewardship for it, then we will not ask. If we think that God can’t reveal to us whether our church is teaching truth, then we will not ask. If we think that God can’t reveal to us the mysteries of the kingdom, then we will not ask. If we think that God can’t reveal himself to us, then we will not ask.
God is truth and we absolutely need that truth, which is the pure revelation from God, in order to overcome our fallen natures. This revelation is not emotion but “pure intelligence” according to Joseph Smith. It is only through this intelligence that we can overcome the boundaries of our fallen world and understand God enough to come back into his presence. Emotion can easily lead us to the current whims of the day. However pure truth from God will never lead us astray.
Lastly, it is imperative that we not shun painful thoughts or feelings. God reveals to us our deviations from him, and we must face those deviations head on in order to cross the gulf that separates us from him. This is rarely an easy or pleasant task. However, it is eternally worth whatever the cost required. If we think that God is only a god of sunshine and rainbows, then we will miss out on the opportunities for growth that we are asking God for. God loves us more than we can comprehend and has designed everything for our gain. All we have to do is trust in him and seek his guidance with “all [our] heart, might, mind and strength“. This guidance is the revelation we need to overcome this world. I believe that when the veil that separates us from God is removed, we will be shocked to realize how close and willing God was all along.