Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Much Revelation Do You Really Need?

Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants has got to be one of the most well-known passages in Mormon scripture. In it, the Lord chastens Oliver Cowdery for failing to exert himself intellectually in attempting translation of the Book of Mormon. He explains to Oliver that, when seeking revelation, you have to study the question out in your mind, decide what you think, then ask the Lord. If you are right, he will cause your bosom to burn as a confirmation. If you are wrong, you will have a stupor of thought and forget what you had decided.

This pattern for personal revelation is completely ingrained in Mormon culture. Ask any Mormon how revelation works, and they will probably describe this process. But here is the rub, for me. I am pretty familiar with the burning bosom phenomenon, but I really don't think I have ever experienced a stupor of thought. What does that mean for me and Section 9? Well, maybe a couple of things.

First and foremost, I believe Section 9 was delivered to Oliver Cowdery in response to a very specific situation. He was attempting to translate the Book of Mormon, and he had not done the spiritual groundwork. God could not allow Oliver to bumble through on this project. It was too important. So at that time, under those circumstances, a stupor of thought was a critical way to let Oliver know he was on the wrong track. More importantly, it prevented Oliver from including any of his own thoughts in the Book of Mormon. I think the Lord rarely needs to stop us in our tracks like that.

In addition, I think relying on a strict formula for revelation comes dangerously close to seeking for a sign. If I think, ponder, read my scriptures and pray, I get a burning in the bosom or a stupor of thought. It just sounds a little too simple, doesn't it?

One of my favorite talks on personal revelation in Elder Scott's talk, "Recognizing Answers to Prayer" (which I had not remembered discusses sections 6, 8and 9!). In the talk, he discusses when and why the Lord might answer prayers in a certain way. Elder Scott says,

"When He withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with His teachings without prior confirmation. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act. Most often what we have chosen to do is right. He will confirm the correctness of our choices His way."

This statement is much more consistent with my experience with personal revelation. Sometimes I get a feeling that something is right or wrong. Mostly, I feel like I need to try and figure out what to do based upon what I already know, then move ahead. Generally speaking, if I am keeping the commandments, trying to be humble, studying the scriptures and seeking to build Zion (see D&C 6:5-7), how much more revelation do a I really need?

This is not to say that I don't think section 9 is useful, or that the formula does not work. It can and does. But I think the Lord uses the right tool for the situation; and for me, revelation is usually a pretty subtle thing.


  1. I agree that it is important to "try and figure out what to do based upon what we already know, then move ahead." We have to trust that the Lord will stop us if we are seeking to do His will and we are moving in a direction that is not according to His will.

    If we have been baptized at the typical age of 8 and have been seeking to keep the commandments and to do the Lord's will it can be like growing up next to the train tracks. You get used to the train coming by and begin not to notice the noise as much. If someone comes to visit from a quieter part of town, they are very aware of it and it really catches their attention. It may not be the best analogy and it is simple, but that is how I view the gift of the Holy Ghost. We become accustom to it and it just naturally becomes a part of us. We enjoy the peace that comes with living in accordance to God's will and recognize when something doesn't feel quite right. We generally know when we are doing something we shouldn't and try to adjust our behaviors, thoughts, etc. to gain that peace back again.

    It has been my experience that if we do experience the burning of the bosom or the stupor of thought, it is rare and and it is then we are expected to remember that witness we have received and go back to it when we struggle. It is very important to write these type of experiences down because we do forget easily. Remember when Oliver went back to the Lord looking for a further witness?

    22 Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
    23 Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
    24 And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?

    He was told to remember the time when the Lord spoke peace to him about the truth of the things he wanted to know. I have had to rememeber this in my life when things get rough. I go back to the time when I was given an assurance that I was doing the Lord's will and then put my trust in that assurance.

    In my experience with the Lord, the only time that I have had the very "obvious" answers come was when I was in a situation in my life that they had to come or I would not have known what to do at all. I have had to rely on what the Lord has told me to do and it has not been easy but I have trusted in Him. My assurance comes with the peace I feel everyday.

    To me, if we are aligning our will to God, we are receiving personal revelation whether we recognize it or not. The things we say and do are making a difference to others, and we may never even be know it most of the time, but the Lord is using us as an instrument in His hands because we are willing.

  2. Jen: Thanks for the comments. And for including D&C 6:22-24. It is one of my favorite scriptural passages. I think it asks the same question as my somewhat irreverant title. Sometimes a feeling of peace that we are on the right track is all we really need.

  3. Jen,

    There is probably something to be said for "living near the tracks." Perhaps that is some of the explanation for my not being able to decipher answers to prayers.

  4. I like what Michelle said at Keepa regarding "stupor of thought" -- that the unsettled feeling Joseph had, his inability to identify a satisfactory church to join before his first vision, was a stupor of thought. "Stupor" doesn't have to be interpreted only as a near coma-like condition. It can be a numbness, a lack of resolution, a continual rethinking of the problem because we forget that we had decided on an unsatisfactory course of action in a previous round of wrestling with it. When you do reach the right answer, everything falls into place and feels resolved and you no longer have to rethink the same issue. That satisfaction and knowing what to do next is a variation of "bosom burning."

  5. Ardis: Thanks for your comment. I think the idea of Joseph experiencing a stupor of thought prior to the First Vision is interesting, too. Section 9 talks about a stupor that "shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong." I don't think I have had that precise experience. But, that is probably because it was not important that I "forgot the thing which was wrong." The experience you describe (numbness, lack of resolution, uncertainty), and which I have experienced, was enough to keep me thinking and asking.

  6. I had an experience with a stupor of thought. I was getting set to go to school and considering taking the military route. In order to do this I needed to meet with a recruiter who was only in the area on Saturday's. Every week I planned on contacting him on a Saturday. Every Saturday it was completely out of my mind. (By the way, I'm bordeline overboard on being organized in how I run my life, so it was a little out of character for me). After several weeks of this, I felt I was forgetting for a purpose and abandoned taking the military route. My stupor of thought.

    I think more regularly as I try to digest the scriptures and churn through different ways of looking at the same passage of scripture, some ideas stick and are exciting, some vanish within the next moment. I trust I'm riding the wave of knowledge in the correct direction.

  7. Nathan G: Thanks for sharing that experience regarding forgetting about your meetings with the military recruiter. That does sound like what section 9 describes. Personal revelation seems to be a very complex and subtle thing. And don't forget *personal*. I think everyone has to figure out how they receive revelation.


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