In the first part of this epic two-part series on revelation I discussed the difference between “pillar of light revelation” and “everyday revelation.” Now it’s time to touch on three things revelation isn’t: uniform, exclusive, or perfect.
People experience revelation differently, and people are told different things via revelation. I often come across odd combinations of letters on the internet. One of my favorites is YMMV: Your Mileage May Vary. People use it to say “this is how I see it, but your experience might be different.” The same is true with revelation. Some people hear from God in their heart, others in their mind. Some experience a “still small voice,” others feel a “burning in their bosom.” Some people are moved to tears, but if you’re not, that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t hearing from God. More often than not, for me, revelation comes as a “hmmmm. Okay” or a “wait, are you serious?” or an “oops, probably should’ve done that sooner!” Remember: YMMV.
I often turn to my parents for advice. When I was a child, I worried quite a bit. I desperately wanted to do the “right thing.” And I would regularly be frustrated by my parents’ answers when I asked about specific decisions. They would say things like “Well, what do you think is best?” (I didn’t want a question, I wanted an answer!) or they’d say “I trust your judgment.” The problem was, I didn’t trust my judgment. I wanted them to tell me the right answer and be done with it. But, because they trusted my judgment, my confidence—and my judgment—grew. If they had dictated the correct answer, maybe in the form of unbending rules or absolute unchanging decrees, I never would’ve learned.
This can also be said about teachings of church leaders. I’m going to quote Elder Dallin H. Oaks here:
[I give you an explanation] if you feel you are an exception to what I have said. As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. . . . I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.[ref]You can read the whole talk in the June 2006 Ensign[/ref]
God trusts us an incredible amount. It takes a lot of trust for a parent to rely on this kind of individual and adaptable communication rather than universal decrees. Revelation is proof of God’s trust in us. And we need to acknowledge that trust. Elder Oaks taught the following:
A desire to be led by the Lord is a strength, but it needs to be accompanied by an understanding that our Heavenly Father leaves many decisions for our personal choices. Personal decision making is one of the sources of the growth we are meant to experience in mortality. . . . . We should study things out in our minds, using the reasoning powers our Creator has placed within us. Then we should pray for guidance and act upon it if we receive it. If we do not receive guidance, we should act upon our best judgment.[ref]From his talk “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall” also quoted in Preach My Gospel in the chapter on how to feel the Spirit.[/ref]
So, the first thing revelation isn’t: uniform. It’s also not exclusive. I want to focus for a moment on the lds.org definition of revelation: “Revelation is communication from God to His children.” Revelation is communication from God to His children. It doesn’t say “to the righteous.” It doesn’t say “to the Mormons.” It says “to His children.” This is significant. Mormons, atheists, non Mormons . . . God’s kids can, and do, get revelation.
Joseph Smith taught: “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”[ref]This is one of my favorite Joseph Smith quotes. He speaks of “grand fundamental principles” twice, and both times they are indeed grand and fundamental. Geoff Nelson gives an excellent rundown here.[/ref] Mormons don’t have a monopoly on truth. To paraphrase a leader in a fellow Christian congregation: We must overcome “…our obsession with being right instead of being loving” (see also Luke 11:39, 42). He continues, “The idea of certainty [must] be replaced by the idea that we are most fully alive when we give one another the benefit of the doubt” (Meyers, 125).[ref]The fellow Christian is Robin Meyers, whose book The Underground Church exploded my spiritual mind. You should try it. The quotes came from pages 77 and 125.[/ref]
Revelation (1) isn’t uniform, and (2) it isn’t an exclusive privilege. Finally, revelation isn’t perfect. Since we’re listening for subtle and unique messages, the interpretation process will always include some mistakes, like a game of telephone. We’re simply not there yet, individually or as a Church. Elder Packer stated: “Revelation is a continuous principle in the Church. In one sense the Church is still being organized. As light and knowledge are given, as prophecies are fulfilled and more intelligence is received, another step forward can be taken.”[ref]The Holy Temple, p. 137; see also Articles of Faith 1:9[/ref]
Elder Holland brings this principle to the realm of church leaders and members:
“So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.”[ref]Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe“, April 2012[/ref]
Elder Eyring continues the thought:
“The Lord uses imperfect people…He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth “line upon line, precept upon precept” in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science.”[ref]This quote comes from Henry Eyring, the father of current First Counselor Henry B. Eyring, in his book Reflections of a Scientist, p. 47. It’s also quoted in this Maxwell Institute article[/ref]
I’m no scientist, but I did spend a lot of time playing with Legos when I was a kid. And one of the many valuable life lessons I learned from these Legos is that you build one row at a time. Someone watching might not be able to see what you’re building right off the bat, even if you can. You can see how those few Legos stacked on one another will soon be a castle or a treehouse. Sometimes we think we know what our heavenly parents are building as we’re looking over their shoulder at what they’re up to, and then only later do we realize what they’re really up to. It was St. Augustine who wrote “If you think you understand, it’s not God you’re talking about” (Si comprehends, non set Deus).
I’ll conclude with an idea from a devotional address given by Tyler J. Jarvis, a mathematics professor at BYU. He taught that receiving revelation is all about close enough: “But we cannot let our fear of imperfection, our fear of making a mistake, prevent us from acting on our best approximation. . . . .The Lord doesn’t care about not messing up—not losing what we have. It isn’t enough to preserve what He has given us. He wants us to get up and do something with it.” He then quotes a popular song:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
The professor continues, “Our bells are cracked. But let us ring those bells that still can ring. Stop worrying about your failure to achieve perfection—perfection is not possible in this life. Instead, embrace the light and healing power of Christ that come in through our cracks and imperfections.”
Light–revelation–comes through the cracks. It comes from everyday sources we might not expect, and as we grow to understand how our heavenly parents speak to us, we’ll see their words all around us. They love their kids, and want us to hear from them. They trust us. And that means a lot.