One of the most important facets of the LDS church is revelation. We believe that our leaders are privy to revelation for the church as a whole, and that we as members are supposed to seek revelation for our personal lives and our families. In this two-part series, I want to explore the concept of revelation a little deeper.
First, let’s talk about gravel. I have a friend who tells of his experiences spreading gravel. He says they sometimes get a dump truck and make a big pile at one end of the plot of land and spread the gravel from there. The trouble with that is that the farther away from the pile you get, the more difficult gravel distribution becomes. You have to grab your shovelful and walk all the way to the far corner, trying to not spill, and then drop it off and go make the trip again. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t work very well. So, instead, they make a bunch of smaller piles throughout the plot and spread the gravel from them. These regular small piles allow for a more even and efficient job.
We’ll come back to gravel in a minute.
When I hear the word “revelation,” I often think of big huge revelatory experiences: You kneel down to pray in the evening, and suddenly you see a pillar of light exactly over your head and God shows up. “I’m going to give you some revelation now. Do you have a pen?”
There are different varieties of this kind of revelation: you start praying and you hear a voice, as if it were speaking into your ear. You start praying and you see the face of someone you’ve never seen before, and then tomorrow you run into them and realize you’re supposed to marry them.
I’ll call this “pillar of light” revelation. It’s the amazing shock that feels like a “burning in your bosom,” maybe.[ref]See 1 Kings 19:9-12; Helaman 5:30; D&C 85:6.[/ref] These things happen, but I’ll be honest: not really ever to me. These experiences are recorded regularly in church magazines and shared in General Conference. That should tell you something: they’re so uncommon that we make a big deal out of them. We’re not all bosom-burners. God doesn’t need pillars of light very often. In fact, almost never. These revelations are like big huge piles of gravel. Occasionally Joseph Smith or Moses needs a big old pile of gravel. But, most of the time, it’s just better to use regular small piles of gravel spread regularly throughout life.
I’ll call this variety of small-pile experience “everyday revelation” [ref]See this talk by Elder Bednar and this one by Elder Oaks.[/ref] Instead of pillars of light, we get a text message. Or maybe it’s a compliment from a friend, or a piece of advice from a parent that we originally ignored but now rings in our ears like a mosquito. Our heavenly parents want us to hear from them regularly, and they speak to us through scriptures, prayer, prophets, but also through friends, teachers, the environment, coincidences, music, the internet, and video games.[ref]I believe that revelation can come via each thing on this list. I’ll elaborate more on just one: the environment. Elder Eyring (the father of Elder Henry B. Eyring) referred to carbon dating as the “Creator’s revelations written in the rocks” (source). Also, see Alma 30:44: “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”[/ref] God doesn’t need to use the big piles of gravel very often, because in most cases they just wouldn’t get the job done. As Elder Eyring taught, “great faith has a short shelf-life.” We can’t hoard revelation as if it were food storage that never expires.
Everyday revelation is how God speaks to me pretty much in every case. And it also seems to be how this church is led. Early church leader Oliver Cowdery even had to receive “a revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith informing him that he had been receiving revelation.”[ref]Elder Bednar’s The Spirit of Revelation[/ref]. Clearly this wasn’t “pillar of light” revelation. It’s not always easy. As Nathanial Givens so aptly pointed out,
“If revelation is a difficult, murky, and evolving process for ordinary members, why should the actual process be any different for those called as leaders? . . . we all know from our own experiences that it’s never as simple as ordering something from Amazon.”
Obviously church leaders are privy to pillar of light revelation, but there also seems to be a long tradition of everyday revelation:
In 1842, a woman named Sarah Granger Kimball decided to create a women’s society. So, with the help of Eliza R. Snow, she wrote a constitution, and presented the idea to Joseph Smith. He loved the idea, and the Relief Society was born.
In 1843 Heber C. Kimball was chatting with some friends and came up with a crazy idea to start a youth program. Joseph Smith heard about their efforts, endorsed them, and thus began the earliest precursor to the Young Men’s and Young Women’s program.
In 1878 a woman was frustrated with the children running around town while their parents worked. She approached church leaders and made a suggestion, and the Primary was born. Two years later, under the direction of Eliza R. Snow, the program was adopted church wide.
The list goes on and on. The scriptures are full of similar instances of everyday revelation, whether it is Jared telling his Brother what to pray for (Ether 1:34, 36, 38), or any one of the various times in the Bible where women and men approached the prophet with ideas and requests that ended up being the Lord’s will.
So far, I’ve suggested that there is “pillar of light” revelation and “everyday” revelation, and that everyday revelation comes from God through a wide variety of sources. In part two of this two-part series, I’ll touch on three things revelation isn’t: uniform, exclusive, or perfect.