Mar 3, 2010

Church Leaders' Counsel and the role of Personal Revelation

A talk by Elder Oaks, at Harvard Law School, about the principles of following prophets and how they connect to personal revelation.

From the talk:

Some wonder how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept a modern prophet’s teachings to guide their personal lives, something that is unusual in most religious traditions. Our answer to the charge that Latter-day Saints follow their leaders out of “blind obedience” is this same personal revelation. We respect our leaders and presume inspiration in their leadership of the Church and in their teachings. But we are all privileged and encouraged to confirm their teachings by prayerfully seeking and receiving revelatory confirmation directly from God.

I explain this principle by an analogy from the law. We are all familiar with official use of certified copies of legal documents like a death certificate or an honorable discharge from military duty. The official certificate allows such copies to be accepted as if they were originals. This practice is based on the fact that anyone who doubts the authenticity of the certified copy can verify its authenticity by going to the original. So it is with the prophetic revelations of prophets of God. They are the certifying authorities that their teachings or directions are from God. Anyone who doubts this—and all are invited to ask questions about what is true—can verify the authenticity and content of the message by checking it with the Ultimate Source, by personal revelation. As Joseph Smith taught, “We never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation.”[14]

This concept is something that I think is hard for a lot of members to internalize. I think a lot of people actually think that,to take something that the prophet or apostles (or other speakers in general conference) has said or commanded, and then take that to the Lord yourself to get confirmation, is a form of lack of faith or blasphemy or not "sustaining" our prophet or leaders.

Clearly one cannot read what brother Oaks has said above and still maintain that we are expected to follow the prophets blindly, and that blind obedience will cover any manner of evils that may come from following against our own consciences or uncomfortable feelings. The Lord expects us to Ask when we aren't sure. He wants us to come to him if we are having difficulty understanding a commandment.

Of course (and Skywalker always emphasizes this when we have discussions about prophets' counsel and personal revelation) you have to really Ask. You shouldn't be asking with the attitude of "this can't be true. Give me a different answer or... (I'll leave the church, I won't believe in personal revelation any more etc etc.) " You have to really be ready (and perhaps even expect) that the prophet's counsel will be confirmed by your own personal revelation.

I've had experiences that have made me so confused in the past... I used to believe in blind obedience. I don't think I would have said, back then, that I believed in blind obedience. But when a priesthood leader's counsel conflicted with my own, powerful (and unexpected) personal revelation, I was thrown. At first I thought (I actually thought this) of course the leader's revelation trumps my own. But then I realized... no, actually. With my husband spiritually incapacitated at the time, I was the steward of my family, someone who, clearly, Heavenly Father would counsel in making important decisions. And I had received some very clear revelation. To deny what I felt as possibly false or my own imagination was also to deny anything I had ever received by revelation... including my testimony of the gospel, of the book of Mormon, and of (ironically) prophets' and priesthood leaders' authority and counsel coming from Heavenly Father.

I realized, in my situation, that Heavenly Father had given me an answer. For some reason, whether through his own imperfections or because of his situation or whatever it was (it wasn't my place to judge why), my priesthood leader hadn't received that answer yet. But I HAD, and I was responsible for the information I had received, and the consequences that would come if I did not follow God's will.

It's a tough spot to be in. But I came away from the experience with a lot that I didn't have before... a better knowledge of how God actually works with me. He will give me answers if I want them. It's true that there are situations where faith needs to come before knowledge. But in that case, that's the answer you'd get when you pray... "Have faith, [Nosurfgirl] and do what My Prophet has asked." And the peace that would come along with that answer would allay any fear and doubt until understanding came.

Anyway, that's my spiel... and this whole issue, I have realized, is a big part of why I am the way I am now, to a certain degree. And I have to say that I have gained a lot more real respect for prophets and priesthood leaders in the wake of understanding this. God, through his infinite grace and mercy, allows imperfect people to be His mouthpieces. And through His mercy He can pour out His spirit and counsel through them. Most of the time I find that, in the moment the prophet or leader speaks, I feel the Spirit confirming to me that the words spoken are true, so... no need to ask.

But it is still up to us, to get answers, when we aren't sure.

Anyway... a forum for discussion. I loved Elder Oaks' talk. Go read all of it... very powerful and very enlightening.


David L said...

I spoke with my dad once about this topic, and he explained it in a way that made a lot of sense to me and helped clarify my own thoughts.

To borrow his thoughts: When we receive inspired direction from leaders, our purpose in taking that to the Lord isn't necessarily to confirm the accuracy of the words but rather to gain our own testimony of them.

I'm not sure I really want to (or could) expound on that much, but I think it is a mistake to seek a testimony of the _accuracy_ of prophetic counsel. We accept, in particular, the prophets as mouthpieces for God.

However, asking for our own testimonies of such a principle is not only healthy, but even encouraged. Mary, mother of Jesus, after all asked the angel, "How can this be?" as an expression of faith, not disbelief. Her question was based on a sincere desire for knowledge, and it was put in direct contrast of the question asked by the Father of John the Baptist (whose name escapes me right now). His question, filled with doubt, was answered by making him dumb until John was born.

Here's the sum of it all: _I_ accept _all_ my leaders (and I do mean _all_) as duly appointed representatives of the Lord, and as such, I believe they have the right and privilege of receiving divine inspiration that applies to me. I recognize that they are human and work within that fragile framework, but as a priesthood leader myself, I recognize when the Lord is speaking directly to someone through me and would hesitate to label anything delivered in that spirit as incorrect.

I also recognize my own responsibility to work within the realm of given knowledge, to seek my testimony of those things, and then act accordingly.

I can't say that my own promptings have ever really contradicted inspired direction from leadership, so I won't respond to that particular area. But I will say that when I've been uncomfortable or disagreed with that direction, it is usually because I don't want to do what was asked, I'm being prideful, or some other thing related to me and my life and not related to the instruction (that's not an accusation of you, of course.)

I think part of this whole equation is learning to trust the Lord. A perfect example of this is Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. Certainly that must have hit Abraham the wrong way, especially since Abraham himself was almost sacrificed himself in his youth. But Abraham trusted in the Lord.

In our own lives, I think we let personal feelings and mores interrupt and supersede some of the rich inspirations the Lord would make available to us both through inspired leadership and through our own personal revelation.

NoSurfGirl said...

Yeah... I think I agree with you overall, Dave. I think in almost every circumstance what you have described is true. You gain a testimony of something on your own, you're not necessarily asking because you believe something is true. IT, more like, troubles you... so you go looking for your own testimony.

The only exception I'd put on that are what I wrote about above (and what you said you haven't had the WONDERFUL opportunity to experience yet, ha sorry, sarcasm there) when you end up with personal revelation that conflicts with something a person with priesthood stewardship has over you, feels to be right.

When you get in that situation (and I'd venture to say, particularly if you're woman. Because it kind of makes the situation a little more intimidating even... should I be questioning my priesthood leaders when I don't hold the priesthood?) it's really tough. When you know, clearly and surely, that you have gone about it the right way, when in fact, you went in to it to get a testimony of what you've been asked to do, and instead you get an answer that conflicts with it, what do you do? Whom do you follow?

In my case, after much prayer, I found the answer to be, personal revelation trumped what my bishop was telling me to do. God gave me an answer and He expected me to follow through with what He'd asked me to do.

Maybe this is a rare circumstance, but it happens... and even a small disclaimer like this means, we should be seeking answers ourselves to things that trouble us. At least, that's what I gleaned from my experience, though I'm still in a state of learning. I hope I always remain in that state of... I'm still learning, I'm still seeking answers :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I have also thought a lot about this topic. I just want to share one thing that I found that explains how I feel about this subject. It's from a talk by President James E. Faust in April 1997 conference.

"In my lifetime, there have been very few occasions when I questioned the wisdom and inspiration given by key priesthood leaders. I have always tried to follow their counsel, whether I agreed with it or not. I have come to know that most of the time they were in tune with the Spirit and I was not. The safe course is to sustain our priesthood leaders and let God judge their actions.

"I do not speak of blind obedience, but rather the obedience of faith, which supports and sustains decisions with confidence that they are inspired. I advocate being more in tune with the Spirit so we may feel a confirming witness of the truthfulness of the direction we receive from our priesthood leaders. There is great safety and peace in supporting our priesthood leaders in their decisions."

My own thoughts: I do believe that the safest course is to follow our priesthood leaders. This of course raises the question, what if they lead us astray? We are promised that the president of the church will not be allowed to lead us astray. As far as I know we are not given the same promise for our other priesthood leaders (bishop’s, stake presidents, etc), but we are told (by Elder Faust) that if we follow them we will be safe. I believe that the minute you start looking for exceptions to following your priesthood leaders, you are leaving the door open to be lead astray by your own fault. The great apostasy came about not because the truths were any less true, but because people stopped following their priesthood leaders. Doing this allowed them to receive and interpret revelation any way they saw fit and thus lead themselves and others from the truth. We are taught that the church will never be allowed to go into full apostasy again. But it’s up to each of us personally to protect ourselves from it.

I don’t know whether your situation was a situation where you were directly counseled by your bishop to do a specific thing or you were just given advice by him to aid you in deciding for yourself what to do. But I do know it’s easy to interpret things that priesthood leaders say as meaning different things than they had intended. Perhaps that was the case in your situation, perhaps not. If not and he really did counsel you as your priesthood leader to make a specific decision and you later received revelation to make a different decision, then I think I would say that’s most likely an exception. And even then I wonder what would have happened if you had followed his counsel? President Faust teaches that that is the safe course. Would you have been allowed to be lead astray by your priesthood leader? And if so, would God really hold that against you in the judgment day?

NoSurfGirl said...

"I have come to know that most of the time they were in tune with the Spirit and I was not. The safe course is to sustain our priesthood leaders and let God judge their actions."

I'm glad you gave this quote.

I'd say there's a disclaimer right there... the "most of the time."

And I think I agree that it is usually the safe course to let God judge our priesthood leaders... if they tell us to do something and it leads those who follow astray, it is most certainly on their heads.

But... but but. See, here's the thing. What if some of those who were told something to do that was wrong (a scenario I have never come upon, by the way, as relates to prophets, and don't expect to in my lifetime) were inspired by Heavenly Father NOT to follow? Should they follow the prophet and allow the sin to be on the prophet's head, or would Heavenly Father put some of it on them for not following what He told them to do?

I'm thinking of prophets of old in this case. Thinking about Issac and his wife Rebekah and Jacob and Esau, for instance. Issac, the prophet, wanted to bless the elder son with the birthright, but Rebekah knew that to be wrong and so she (well, it was deception so perhaps not right? But... in the end it accomplished Heavenly Father's purposes) followed what she knew to be right.

... yeah.

I think in most cases following is best. If it's something like an extra earring, something little especially.

I think the reason why my bishop situation was so troubling was that it was actually kind of a life-threatening situation, and Heavenly Father's inspiration to me was part commandment and also part warning. IT was a feeling of, "I've told you what to do. No, I cannot guarantee yours and your daughter's safety if you don't follow what I've said. But it's your choice."

My choice was to keep myself and my daughter safe... and later, much later now, I'm so glad because i wouldn't have the life I have now if I didn't follow God's commandment to me. Looking back it's very clear to me that I did what I was supposed to do. And incidentally, the bishop later apologized to me :)

I don't know that I would have been protected had I gone against what Heavenly Father told me to do. The feeling I got was that He expected me to follow Him. And that meant... going against what the bishop was adamantly (at one point, even angrily) telling me to do.

Like I said... it's tough.

Nathan and Rebecca Scott said...

Interesting discussion. I have never really had this happen as it relates to a priesthood leader giving counsel for something he expected me to do. But I have had one such person tell me things that greatly disturbed me at the time and that I have since come to believe were incorrect doctrines.

I agree with much of what has been said here already. I believe in following church leaders, but not blindly. I think it is extremely important to ask God for confirmation for counsel and information we receive. Many times when church leaders speak, I can feel the Spirit confirming their words to me. But asking in faith and sincerity for our own testimony of something when we are unsure is a good thing to do. Even Nephi prays for confirmation concerning the words of his father that they needed to leave Jerusalem (1 Nephi 2:16). I believe that working to gain our own testimony of the instruction of our leaders is important.

Anonymous said...

The same bishop apologized to me (nosurf's Mom) too.

Sometimes, extremely rarely, when there is an extremely difficult, unusual or emotionally charged situation, even bishops can make mistakes. I don't fear the lightning strike of apostasy for saying is true. Rare, but true.

I would agree that, in almost every case (99.999% of the time), we should follow the counsel of our priesthood leaders. We should seek our own confirmation of counsel received, not from any sense of doubt, but to strengthen or obtain a testimony of the truth. We do not follow blindly, but faitfully.

However, we know that that are some (again, extremely rare) situatiions where an individual does receive legitimate personal revelation that contradicts the counsel given by an immediate priesthood authority. Note that I said "immediate priesthood authority."

In this particular case, it was a life or death situation, and nosurf bore the responsibility of protecting a child.

It was hard, as a parent and grandparent, to try to back off and respect nosurf's right to receive personal revelation about the course of action she needed to take. It took months of prayer and much time in the temple before she knew, for sure, what she needed to do. And she could only do it because she did know, for sure, that her course of action was confirmed by her Heavenly Father.

I am so grateful that nosurf had the spiritual and emotional strength to do what her Heavenly Father told her she needed to do, even with a priesthood leader (angrily) telling her she was wrong.

I am also grateful for the power of the priesthood, the blessing of having the power of God as material and real force in our daily lives.