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?
What a timely article for my life. I recently was faced with a very difficult situation but for me the choice was obvious even though it seemed to fly in the face of “general” counsel. I came across the following in my quest for information and validation. Luckily, things worked out so that the decision was taken out of my hands but I’ve grown and gained the knowledge that you explain so well here. The following quote helped me. I hope others find your article when having to make tough choices.
“Many decisions in our lives are morally or spiritually challenging. We make thoughtful decisions based on what we know about ourselves, our situation and what we have to offer. Not all decisions are happy, but we have the strength to ask for help and guidance and then make a decision that is not only the best, but one we can feel at peace with now and tomorrow.
You have the authority to consider this decision thoughtfully, to make a moral choice, and know that you have done the best for your life and those you care about.”
It’s wonderful that some people can make this leap. I am not there yet. I think my fusion is stuck. I will think on this as I go along. Thanks for adding it.
Dear Julie: I’d like to answer the two questions you raised at the conclusion of your post. Yes, I have encountered a situation where my personal conscience was in conflict with policies/practices put forth by the Church. It involved the Church’s now-abandoned prohibition against Black men holding the priesthood. As a young man, I couldn’t understand what was commonly referred to as “The Negro Doctrine” and, more importantly, the “still, small voice” within me was whispering that the policy was uninspired. I heeded Brigham Young’s warning against accepting statements from General Authorities without seeking personal confirmation.
I prayed and fasted diligently, but no confirmation was forthcoming. In retrospect, the heavens were silent because the now-discredited practice was uninspired. Nevertheless, I found ways to rationalize my painful conscience and remain silent while “good LDS” people raised concerns about the practice. It was spiritually corrosive to my moral foundations, and I’ve felt ashamed for decades over my cowardly inaction. (This whole sordid story is recounted in detail at my blog, mormongrail.com)
I’ve waited for decades for the opportunity for absolution, to rectify my wrongdoing. The Church has given it to me in the form of the new policies toward gays. Once again, we’re being asked to support policies that my conscience tells me are, to put it charitably, misguided. I feel spiritual pain in thinking about the new policies’ effects on my LGBT brothers and sisters, with some choosing suicide in despair. I can’t bear to have their blood on my hands, not this time.
Your second question was how have we navigated our way through this spiritual conundrum?
My response is to carve out a new space for myself within Mormondom as a “conscientious objector.” The Church-owned Deseret News recently featured an article about the importance of respecting “conscientious objection” in our society to policies and practices that violate our conscience. I can only hope the Church respects conscientious objection within its ranks.
The objection can take many forms, from discussing concerns with local leaders to relinquishing one’s temple recommend and resigning from Church callings, as I have done. Some might ask why I don’t merely leave the Church or go inactive? However, conscientious objection is much more effective within the institution, so people can see that “active” members object to the Church’s stance.
In terms of my mental and spiritual health, I feel better than I have in decades.
Curt – I am right there with you. I was in my early teens when the priesthood and temple ban was lifted. But I was already uneasy about it, especially living in the southern US and had black friends.
But it didn’t really hit me until the last few years doing some real digging on the history of this issue – and the wider cultural context. I kept wondering “what would I have done if I were in the situation in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. I had a bad feeling I might have felt bad, but kept my mouth shut. I wondered what I would be asked when at the judgement bar. I get the feeling I am not going to be asked, “did you primarily keep the status quo?” but instead I will be asked, “Did you ask ME what I thought you should do?”
It hit me solidly that “now I have the chance to prove what I would do” as I also see the current policy as an identical situation.
I have let my leadership know that I respect if someone else has a different opinion and will not try and change other people’s minds at church, but I told them I do not support this at all. I am open to the spirit telling me it is of God. As if yet it has not at all.
I am so glad to see you are blogging a bit here at Rational Faiths! I have loved your many posts in some other LDS online magazines, but I am astounded by the pushback to your very important topics you covered.
It does seem to me that the church body is out of wack on the balance between getting revelation/guidance from church leaders and from God himself. I think that the church leadership is partially responsible, but much of the reason is the membership itself wanting (as someone quoted from a Sunday School class), “I just want the brethren to tell me what I have to do and I will follow it.” That just sounds like abdicating all my moral authority to others. That is a very dangerous (and lazy) thing to do from what I see – even to the point of it feeling like, “Isn’t that what we rejected in the war in heaven?”
I so look forward to your next post!
A Happy Hubby, I recognize your handle from the supportive comments you made over at Meridian about my modesty articles. The push back and criticism is just a part of the deal whenever you speak out publicly in a way that challenges the way we have always done things or the way we think about certain policies and practices. Comments like your give me hope and courage to keep speaking up. so, thank you!
I agree that there are some among us who want to be told what to do and they will do it. I think for some it’s abdicating their responsibility, and for others it’s just how they do things. There are so many different personality types and they all have something to contribute. We need good soldiers who do what they are told and not question. We need artisans who will explore emotions and expression that most don’t dare. We need people who will challenge the status quo by asking thoughtful questions. We need revolutionaries and activists. When I “zoom out” I can see the wisdom in having all different approaches come together to try and move each other along as the body of Christ. And the process is so frustrating some times.
I just want to thank you for posting on rational faiths. I recently went to time out for women in Denver and was so happy you and Fiona Givens were listed as frequent speakers in my program. I would go again just to hear you speak. I definitely have a tension between my own personal revelation and the authority of my church leaders. I’m not sure it’s resolvable. I’ve decided part of being a mature adult and member of the church is being able to hold different ideas, including church leader’s in suspension and deciding what to accept or reject by humbly seeking personal revelation. I suffer from anxiety and related so much to your client. Anyways, great post.
Hi Curt, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I like the term “conscientious objector” and I’ll search for that Des News article to learn more. I like the term because it holds open a space to explore and be authentic without becoming polarized and slipping into all or nothing thinking. Thank you for your personal example of how the heavens were shut when you sought for confirmation about the the black’s ban from the priesthood. It is up to each of us to be accountable for our action or inaction. When I was in my teens I had the realization that I and the ONLY one who will have to answer for MY life — not the prophets, apostles, bishops, my parents, family members.
Best to you Curt. Thanks again for your comment.
Laura, thank you so much for commenting here. Yes, the beauty of being a grown up and having agency is the ability to choose what to embrace, what to accept, and what to “hold in suspension” as you so beautifully said. Being able to work with paradox and tension is also part of growth. I’m grateful for your supportive comment and I wish you well in holding the tension and developing patience…