There have been a handful of moments in my life when I’ve realized that common words and phrases in LDS culture have become so familiar that they have lost their original meaning. For example, stake center, FHE, and “without a shadow of a doubt” are such common jargon that Latter-day Saints don’t even think twice about them, let alone consider their original context (ie: “Relief Society” isn’t just the hour of the church block where women meet–it’s a society or community that provides relief!).
Rediscovering General Authority
One of the advantages of life-long immersion in Mormon cultural and doctrinal verbiage is sharing a common point of reference with the hundreds of LDS clients who I’ve seen in my psychotherapy practice over the past two decades. Several years ago, I worked with a woman whom I’ll call “Allison” who taught me something valuable about really examining the true meaning of the Mormon language we use. Allison had come to therapy for help in processing the impact of chronic childhood abuse, neglect, and loss. Part of how she had coped with her trauma was hyper-focusing on being diligent and exactly obedient to the gospel (part of her anxiety disorder and tendency toward scrupulosity). Not surprisingly, she found General Conference to be overwhelming. With every talk came more and more counsel from the Brethren, more suggestions for improvements. She couldn’t take notes fast enough. Couldn’t prioritize them fast enough. She was sure she missed many of them. She wanted to be good, to be worthy, to be obedient, to be loveable.
After one particular session of General Conference, however, Allison came into my office excited to share an insight, a revelation that brought peace to her soul. She had recognized a theme of selflessness and engaging in more service to others in the speakers’ talks. Interestingly, this idea went directly against what she and I had been working on in therapy (one of her recent goals was to serve others less, take better care of herself, honor the impact of her abuse and trauma on her ability to function, and to allow others to serve her). Allison was faced with a spiritual dilemma: Should she follow the counsel of the Brethren and focus on service? Or should she stick to her customized treatment plan developed in partnership with her mental health therapist of several years? As she sought prayerful guidance, she described to me how she received a simple, satisfying, and profound answer:
Not every talk at General Conference was for her! She said something like, “Do you know why General Authorities are called ‘General Authorities’? Because they have general authority and give general counsel.” In that moment, I realized that those words had lost their meaning for me; usually, when I had heard the familiar phrase “General Authority,” I had thought of a seasoned priesthood holder who helped lead the Church. This interpretation isn’t wrong, but Allison had helped me discover a deeper (and more literal) meaning to it. My wise client had shared with me something that resonated with me deeply and would have a healing effect on me throughout the years. She went on, “Local authorities are called ‘local authorities’ because they have local stewardship and give local counsel. I have personal authority and can receive personal revelation and guidance that’s customized to me. My personal revelation and authority tell me that while the message of selfless service is very important, it should not be a specific focus in my life at this time.” It was so simple, and yet it is still one of the most meaningful spiritual “aha’s” of my life. Since that time, I have pondered and studied much about the relationship between general, church-wide counsel and personal spiritual insight.
Do you know why General Authorities are called ‘General Authorities’? Because they have general authority and give general counsel…I have personal authority and can receive personal revelation and guidance that’s customized to me.
Personal Authority as Differentiation
David A. Bednar closed his April 2011, General Conference address with these words: “I declare my apostolic witness that the Father and the Son live. The spirit of revelation…can and does function in our individual lives and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (emphasis added). Human beings simultaneously have the need to be individual and yet also be part of a group. There is a need to have individual revelation for my own life and also to belong to the body of the Church by following the Brethren in their revelation. Thus, we need to consider general revelation for the body of the church and personal revelation given about our own specific path.
Navigating the tension between following your own personal authority to receive specific revelation for your life and heeding the general counsel of the General Authorities is something that many members of the church must wrestle with, especially when they are (seemingly) at odds (Allison had experienced with this, as she initially felt confused about what she perceived to be conflicting pieces of counsel). How we navigate that tension can contribute to or detract from our spiritual growth and our mental health. Negotiating this tension has propelled me to seek and receive personal revelation more diligently in order to resolve the dissonance (which has yet to be entirely resolved). Among the most sacred spiritual experiences I’ve received have been related to this quest to reconcile differences in personal revelation and general revelation for the Church as a whole.
This process of negotiating competing needs and perspectives is similar to the psychological concept of differentiation of self. We are unique individuals and closely connected to others. Our ability to navigate the tension between our desire for individuality and our desire for connection through relationships is called differentiation. It also includes the ability to engage in life from a place of authenticity and integrity. The process of differentiation comes into the forefront in marriage relationships, for example. If one spouse always insists on having things a set way – going to a certain restaurant or making large purchases without consulting the other person, their relationship will become threatened (and possibly even damaged), and their growth as individuals and as a couple will be stunted. This is an example of a low level of differentiation of self. An individual with a higher the level of differentiation of self will be able to identify and “own” his/ her feelings, thoughts, needs, and wants and express them clearly to a partner. She / he will also be able to inquire and hear the perspective of the spouse, even if it differs. Together they can engage in dialogue that is mutually respectful. Some issues may be non-negotiable for one party, while other issues may be more flexible. It is in the push and pull, the marital dance, that differences are expressed and embraced (or tolerated).
If we focus solely on our personal revelation and disregard the general counsel, we are exhibiting a low level of “spiritual differentiation”, like the rigid spouse in the previous example. Conversely, if we apply only general counsel without seeking individual revelation we become like an approval-seeking spouse whose only aim is to please and avoid conflict (also low level of spiritual differentiation). Ironically, without experiencing personal revelation we can never fully be converted. Individuals with a higher level of spiritual differentiation are able to hold the ambiguity and discomfort that arises when general counsel and individual revelation are not in complete alignment.
Individuals with a higher level of spiritual differentiation are able to hold the ambiguity and discomfort that arises when general counsel and individual revelation are not in complete alignment.
A Customized Course
Reflecting on the need to balance general counsel with individual inspiration has given me yet another lens through which to examine my own personal journey. Throughout my life, I haven’t exactly fit the cultural mold of the ideal Mormon woman (Though I think we’d all agree that the ideal woman does not actually exist, the cultural expectations certainly do exist and persist.).
Although I married and started a family at a young age (culturally expected), I also continued my education, went on to graduate school in social work while writing, recording, and producing music (culturally unexpected). My husband and I had two children by the time I graduated with my MSW, and we weren’t sure that we would have more. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted more children (Gasp!). I continued to pursue a music career and a psychotherapy career while also being the primary parent at home. The culture had told me that if I were a “righteous woman,” I would want to stay-at-home with my children and sacrifice any personal aspirations in order to do so. I have no intent of diminishing any women (or men) who choose to make sacrifices to stay home with their children full-time. I come from a family of nine children with a stay-at-home mother whom I love, honor, and admire. It is a wonderful, valid, and respectable choice. But it wasn’t what I felt called to do. I have worked very hard to purposefully craft my careers so I could be in charge of my schedule and be there for key moments in my children’s lives.
Nine years later, my husband and I had our third child. No, we didn’t struggle with infertility. We waited until we wanted another child and we felt inspired to bring another child into our family. A few years later, we had our fourth baby. Around the time we had our last child, I felt a strong yearning to go back to school and earn a doctoral degree. I wasn’t sure how or when or why, but the feelings were strong. I chalked it up to my overachieving nature, my “shiny object” syndrome, or some neurotic need to prove my worth. Though it took the better part of a decade to find a Ph.D. program that was a good fit for me, I had come to know through sincere prayer, that the desire to pursue a doctoral degree was from God and was part of my life’s path.
Looking back on my life, I find great comfort knowing that when my course didn’t look like that of many of the wonderful women around me, it wasn’t because any of us were doing anything wrong. It was instead because we had each accessed our personal authority as stewards of our lives to craft a customized path. I believe that living close to the Spirit helps us to create that path in a way that is consistent with both general counsel and personalized inspiration.
The late President Boyd K. Packer said it beautifully: “[R]evelation is not confined to the prophet. It is shared by the General Authorities. And across the world, local leaders constantly report of the guidance that they receive when they have decisions to make or when needing further light and knowledge… And, of course, each of us, if we will live for it, may be the recipient of spiritual communications for our own personal guidance” (“We Believe All That God Has Revealed,” Ensign, May 1974).
How can you harness the power of General Authority and Personal Authority to create your own unique path?
How have you navigated tensions that arise when general revelation and personal revelation are seemingly discordant?