President G was not my favorite mission president. Little of his advice or influence has left any lasting impression on me over the years. But one particular Zone Conference speech of his stands out as one of the stronger memories of my mission, and in a good way. President G spoke about a certain sister in the mission who had been paired with a companion she didn’t like and who was vocally unhappy about it. Relations in the companionship deteriorated so severely that the exasperated sister finally accosted President G at a conference and let him have it:
President, you say you pick our companions based upon the “inspiration” of the Lord, but it’s obvious to me that I was not meant to be with my companion! Our companionship has been a disaster! You clearly were not inspired when you put the two of us together!
President G then shared with us his response to the sister. It came as something of a surprise to me. I had expected him to drone on and on about how we cannot always know the mind or will of the Lord, that He has plans for us that we wouldn’t necessarily choose ourselves but that are for our benefit, that the Lord gives us challenges that we are meant to overcome … yadda, yadda, yadda. But he didn’t. Instead, he said the following:
Sister, you’ve completely misunderstood what you’ve been taught. When I say that my companionship selection is “inspired,” this doesn’t mean that the Lord literally chose to put the two of you together. All it means is that the Lord has given me the authority to make the decision as to who to put together, and once I make the decision, He recognizes it as authoritative and gives it His stamp of approval.
This was an unexpected answer. So mission companion pairings were “inspired” only in the narrow sense that the Lord recognized the mission president as possessing the proper authority to extend callings, and He therefore effectively “rubber-stamped” the president’s choices as kosher. This was quite a different understanding of “inspiration” than I was used to. It seemingly reduced the meaning of “inspired” to something like “in compliance with proper procedural mechanisms” or “not inconsistent with the Lord’s general rules and regulations for His kingdom.” But to be honest, I actually really liked this explanation, and I still do. And I wonder how broadly this more restrictive notion of “inspiration” should be applied. My inclination is to apply it broadly. Indeed, I wonder whether it wouldn’t make sense to apply it to church callings generally, across the board, in many if not most cases.
I see at least two advantages to this modified understanding of “inspired callings”:
(a). Absolves God of Responsibility. Sometimes churchmembers called to positions of authority do very bad things in the exercise of their callings. This is unfortunate. And it is probably (hopefully) relatively uncommon. But when egregious wrongdoing does occur, many of us feel the need to explain how Horrible Incident X or Awful Decision Y could have happened given the Lord’s apparently direct hand in putting the wrongdoer in a position where he/she could do wrong (and, depending on your theological assumptions, where the Lord “knew” that he/she would do wrong). We might insist that the Lord’s ways are not our own, and that His purposes are opaque. We might construe something catastrophic as constructive, out of seeming necessity. We might be tempted to wrongly blame someone, anyone other than the church authority, out of a desire to avoid confronting the unpleasant consequences of having vested authority in a leader who used it for ill. I have seen all of these reactions, at one time or another.
President G’s revised notion of inspired callings makes all this unnecessary. Rather than having to rationalize the obviously foolish decisions of this or that Church leader as somehow being the literal will of the Lord, and rather than having to engage in the intellectual gymnastics required to portray boneheadedness as brilliance, this modified understanding of “inspired” callings allows us to jettison the whole project. No need to engage in armchair theologizing about the meaning or purpose behind what may be unfortunate, freak events or other people’s bad decisions, and no need to come up with crazy theories about God’s will, or to resign oneself to selective declarations of “It’s a mystery” when one can’t seem to figure out the meaning of it all.
(b). Respects Free Agency. When I was once called as Deacon’s Quorum President, I was asked to select two counselors, and to seek inspiration from the Lord in making my selections. I didn’t. I just picked two of my friends. Trust me, the Lord was not consulted in any way. Were my selections “inspired” by the Lord, even though I didn’t commune with Him, but made my choices based upon more selfish considerations instead? Of course not. But why were my choices as a deacon necessarily qualitatively different than those of other, adult church members who similarly extend callings, ostensibly under inspiration? Seems to me they’re not. And to argue otherwise is to insist that inspiration comes to the caller regardless whether he seeks it, raising the question of whether the caller retains any meaningful sense of agency as he carries out his responsibilities. Not a desirable state of affairs.
Of course, there are some perceived disadvantages to redefining “inspiration” in this way. I say “perceived” because personally, I don’t see the disadvantages, but others seem to:
(c). Some people apparently need to believe that the Lord’s hand is in everything little thing they do. This gives them a heightened sense of meaning. Companionships, church callings, you name it. The Lord has a plan for them, and every decision made, every calling extended, every human interaction resulting from that calling is fraught with potentially cosmic importance. By way of example, consider certain popular attitudes towards mission calls themselves. How many elders believe that they are somehow “meant” to be assigned to a certain mission, “meant” to meet certain investigators, and “meant” to baptize certain new members? I knew more than a few. But I personally never understood this attitude. My mission experiences do not become more meanginful to me when I think about them in this way. In like manner, I don’t need deity micromanaging my daily affairs to find meaning in them. Nor do I need to believe that my church calling is some sort of divinely-mandated “destiny” that only I can perform. I can still magnify my calling without having to believe that it is absolutely crucial to the Lord’s plans that I serve in a specific place, at a specific time.
(d). I know many churchmembers feel more motivated to accept a calling if they think the Lord literally picked it out for them personally. Priesthood leaders are taken more seriously, and greater respect is paid to their decisions and instructions, if members think God personally directs them to extend the invitations they extend. Modifying our notions of inspired callings might disrupt the smooth functioning of the system. But the problem of finding a way to similarly motivate churchmembers to accept callings doesn’t strike me as all that much of a problem. Wouldn’t President G’s notion of “inspiration”, if properly taught, understood and internalized, serve a motivating function just as well? Isn’t it enough to say that God recognizes the priesthood authority of Leader X, and we should therefore respect his decision to give us Calling Y? Do we really need the extra bells and whistles?
Having said all this, I recently got a bit of a reality check. Several months ago, my own Bishop spoke to one of our church classes about the process by which he seeks and receives inspiration for Church callings. I won’t spell out all the details, but suffice it to say he was claiming quite a bit more direct divine involvement than President G claimed for his mission companionship selection. This surprised me, but it probably shouldn’t have. I had become so used to thinking about “inspired callings” in this revised manner, that I had forgotten we usually invoke “inspiration” much more literally.
So I’m left with a number of questions. Maybe you can help me answer them.
1. Can all instances of “inspired callings” in the Church be understood in the same way that President G understood his missionary companionship selection process? If not, in what contexts is it appropriate to apply President G’s understanding, and in what contexts is it not? Mission calls? Mission companionships? Church callings?
2. Does the answer ever “depend” on what the Church leader in question understands the “inspiration” process to be? In other words, if different Church leaders understand their “inspiration” differently, does that difference in understanding reflect an actual difference in what is going on in their respective cases, or does it merely reflect the different assumptions (some of which are must be erroneous) they hold about what the process entails?
3. Assuming there are many cases where we don’t want to adopt my watered-down definition of inspiration, wouldn’t it still be more accurate to say — rather than “Church callings are inspired” — something like “Church callings can be inspired in cases where the caller actually seeks inspiration and manages to interpret it correctly, and we hope they usually are inspired, but we really don’t know” or “Church callings might be inspired, or they might not, but we choose to treat them as if they are, since representing them as inspired improves calling-acceptance rates at the local level and thus keeps the Church running smoothly …” ?
I am not hostile to those who believe that callings (their own, or other peoples) may have been specifically selected by the Lord in this or that case. I can think of at least a couple instances in the lives of people close to me where the perfect calling came at just the right time, and did someone a world of good. There may have been literal divine involvement in those cases. I am, however, suspicious of the claim of literal “inspiration” when invoked as a general rule, across the board, and am a bit perplexed as to why so many of us find this belief so important. In my mind, the disadvantages of believing in it outweigh the advantages.