It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between righteousness (that needs no correction) and self-righteousness (that can’t bear or acknowledge the need for correction). Put another way, it’s difficult to confidently consider something personal revelation unless it differs from our own conscience or our own self-justifications or what we would do (even if we are tempted to do otherwise). Yet, the more we live the gospel, the more righteous and godlike we become and the less likely revelation will contradict our own views.
In my experience, this is related to one of the key issues for people who ultimately leave, and it occurs one of three ways:
- They believe their own conscience trumps personal revelation.
- They begin to disbelieve all church level revelation because they see that it is too similar to the conventional wisdom of older generations.
- They haven’t ever experienced personal revelation that contradicted their conscience.
There are many General Conference addresses that focus on testimony development as a gradual process, faith happening almost as if we are unaware until one day we realize we’ve always believed. On some level, I question that such a gradual process is a conversion vs. the crystallization of our own assumptions. While it’s true that change can be gradual, is that form of change truly conversion? Is that the spirit or just being in a comfort zone?
Conversion means change. Only provocative revelation has the power to change. People who haven’t experience a change, either because they didn’t have to or because they rejected the change, haven’t converted. That’s the nature of conversion. We change from one thing to another. If no change is required (#3 above) or the change is rejected (#1 and 2 above), there is no conversion. How do we avoid this problem, though?
According to the first one, we can only feel reasonably confident that we’ve received personal revelation (vs. just the dictates of our own conscience) when what we’ve received contradicts our conscience. The problem is:
- Our conscience is often right. We often say conscience is the light of Christ, a kind of Holy-Ghost lite available to all, not just those who have been confirmed. If we are living the gospel, it’s easy to assume our instincts will only get better and better. That means we will need revelation less and less to pull us back on the straight and narrow. But that also means we may develop over-confidence in our own rightness. To combat this we have to question our assumptions, not when we think we are wrong, but when we think we are right.
- Self-justification kicks in when we are wrong, so we often find reasons to explain our behavior. It’s really tough to distinguish between our justification of what we did (when we don’t understand it) and instructions from a divine source. We should always question our justifications when they are self-serving and make our own actions seem right. Examples:
- A bishop acts on a “gut feeling” about someone that turns out to be completely wrong. It’s much easier to chalk that up to something outside of ourselves (that person was sneaky, there was a hidden circumstance that hasn’t yet come to light) than something inside of ourselves (I have a prejudice, that person reminded me of someone I don’t like, I made a mistake).
- Nephi kills Laban, severing any possibility of a return to Jerusalem. (Justification: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – aka the Spock defense, or “We’ll be led to a promised land”). Laman and Lemuel’s view may have differed (“Our younger brother doesn’t have a vested interest in returning to the land of our inheritance since he won’t inherit anyway”).
It’s pretty hard to distinguish between our own conscience and revelation, but it seems relatively easy to distinguish between someone else’s conscience and our own when the two conflict.
What about when someone claims revelation that contradicts our conscience? All we can do in this case is what Brigham Young suggested: get your own personal revelation. But what if that doesn’t come or your personal revelation contradicts what was stated for the church as a whole? Does that mean the other person’s revelation is their own opinion that they are conflating with revelation? Maybe. The problem is that it’s very easy to dismiss what we want to dismiss, and we may throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The best approach, IMO, is to give someone else’s claimed revelation more than its due in serious consideration. If personal revelation doesn’t come, you have two choices: 1) comply if it’s no big deal, or 2) go your own way on that particular instruction. It’s up to you what you decide to do, and that choice is one you have to own either way. Focusing on the supposed shortfall of the other person is a fruitless exercise that only leads to further self-justification and an increased likelihood of being wrong.
The point of going to church isn’t to hear what we already believe, but to hear what we doubt, what requires faith to believe. We are there to be changed, not to be comforted and made complacent. We should be listening closely at church for whatever jars us. Otherwise, the church doesn’t provide any practical value to us in terms of our spiritual development.
It’s not faith if you’ve gone your whole life never doubting that the church and everything you’ve ever been told by parents or leaders is right. First of all, I doubt there are many people who have been willing to subordinate their every thought to the authority of the community, any community. Faith is knowing that you don’t know and finding enough that compels you to act as if you do anyway. I question the strength of faith that (as some have described) just sort of becomes comfortable over time rather than actually changing our views or challenging our instincts. We don’t value what we don’t have to work to achieve.
Ask yourself: Is it easier to believe or harder to believe? If it’s made easier by your circumstances (your whole family believes, your spouse believes), maybe that’s not faith. Those who have a lot to lose (like blacks before 1978, coffee drinkers, and people whose families are against the church) and still believe, those are the strong ones. That doesn’t mean that nobody else is good enough. But I do think that if someone has never experienced personal revelation that changes their course of action from what they felt was right in the first place, they may not have experienced the conversion process.
Interestingly, many of the people I’ve met over time who are in the “untested faith” category, who grew up believing everything without having done a lot of questioning or working for those beliefs, are often the ones who behaved in the most territorial manner, fearing what lay beyond the borders of orthodoxy. And unfortunately, they are often the ones who fall the hardest when they hit a faith crisis, quickly going from staunch belief to equally strong unbelief, feeling betrayed and in some cases taking little responsibility for their actions as a believer.
- Do you find it easier or harder to believe due to your personal circumstances (family, etc.)?
- Have you received personal revelation that contradicted your conscience? Was it easy or hard to recognize? Was it hard to follow?
- What types of things that you hear at church cause you to question your assumptions? Is that a healthy process or does it make you want to leave?
- Is conversion a gradual process or a mighty change? Defend your answer.
*This is a repost from Wheat & Tares. Unfortunately, much of that discussion degenerated into a back and forth about polygamy. I posit that we would have to be mind-readers to know whether that was truly a “provocative” revelation or something that aligned with self-interest. I prefer to keep the conversation about our own experiences with revelation and conversion.