Acquiring Spiritual Guidance

Elder Scott’s recent General Conference address, To Acquire Spiritual Guidance, begins on a somewhat ironic note. After noting that in times past if one sought guidance they would turn to mentors or advisors, the current technological information overload means turning to others for advice can be a very risky proposition. Rather than bemoaning the death of trust, we should welcome the excuse to turn our eyes upward for inspiration. Elder Scott seems to be saying that human interlocutors will always be inadequate and that we will be better served by seeking to commune with the Lord directly.

That task, Elder Scott admits, can be daunting. Learning to consistently recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit, distinguish them from one’s own impulses and desires, and act courageously to fulfill them are accomplishments that we would be lucky to achieve in a lifetime. However, Elder Scott clearly believes that developing these skills is necessary.

Unwilling to commit to a given regimen of revelatory training, Elder Scott instead offers examples of and incentives for the development of spiritual acuity. He notes the Prophet Joseph Smith’s instruction to John Taylor to begin each day with prayer and then shares two lessons as examples. In the first, a humble Priesthood leader taught a lesson from his heart. The content of the lesson was less memorable than the impression the leader gave of sincere love, desire to serve, and humility. The spirit was present and powerful as this man struggled to express himself within the church. In the second, Elder Scott attended a Sunday School class where the teacher was using the fruits of his education and study to share insights into the lesson. Elder Scott interpreted this act as evidence of pride, of a desire to impress his fellow congregants.

To some degree, the contrast between these two lessons defines one of the more important elements of the church. By keeping his lesson simple and focusing on his testimony of his ministry, the priesthood leader impressed Elder Scott with his sincerity and emotional depth. Although the Sunday School teacher obviously put a lot of time and effort into the lesson, the intellectual approach left Elder Scott irritated and bored. The clash between the emotional and the intellectual is played out throughout the church on any given Sunday. There isn’t any particular resolution to it; I imagine that there were people bored in the priesthood leader’s lesson and enthralled by the Sunday School teacher. Certainly, our teaching would be improved if our teachers always took care to be both intellectually enlightening and emotionally fulfilling. The more important message here is that either course can invite the Spirit.

In the case of both lessons, Elder Scott felt the promptings of the Spirit. He stopped paying attention to his immediate surroundings and started listening to and interacting with the voice of God. While I wouldn’t say that content and comportment are irrelevant in teaching lessons, what is clear in this message is they are not as important for the individual as we may have thought. Lessons, prayers, rituals, and sermons, in this sense, are important only insomuch as they facilitate communion with God through the Spirit. Whether interested or biding his time, Elder Scott felt the Spirit and chose to listen to it instead of the lesson in front of him.

The manner in which Elder Scott recorded his personal inspiration is interesting, perhaps mostly because it follows the pattern that Joseph Smith seemed to follow with his revelations. Once written, the revelation was examined to see if it conformed to the mind and will of God and changes could be made. It speaks to the imperfection of human interlocutors and the willing humility of the Brethren (and any sincere seeker) to keep at revelation until they are certain they have gotten it right. And, much like Joseph Smith, Elder Scott teaches that:

A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus [TPJS, p. 151]

Paying attention to the first promptings is valuable not for the promptings per se, but because it indicates an openness to the process of revelation.

As I said before, the content and context are less important in the reception of revelation, but not unimportant. In launching into a critique of pornography, Elder Scott acknowledges the potentially corrosive effects of pornography on family relations, but he is also at pains to discuss its effect on the soul. He notes that the adversary is at pains to induce “individuals, through temptation, to violate the laws upon which spiritual communication is founded.” The notion is that Satan achieves his goal if “he is able to convince them that they are not able to receive such guidance from the Lord.” The presence or absence of revelation in the life of the individual is presented, in this talk, as the surest means of judging one’s current standing with the Lord.

Returning to those two lessons, the point appears to be that whether or not you are someone who prefers the intellectual or the emotional, putting yourself in the right place at the right time indicates a willingness to receive revelation. The ongoing church-wide debate regarding the superiority of one or the other approach to scripture is shown in this, I think, to be entirely beside the point. Whether you are interested or bored, your involvement in the process seems to be considered sufficient sacrifice for God to honor it with those first intimations of revelation, if such is appropriate. What you do with that appears to be far more important than learning the signs of the times or the facts behind a piece of historical myth. Not that either of those is bad, but they seem to be goals secondary to our involvement in the church.

Finally, it is worth noting that, for those ensnared in pornography or other damaging, compulsive behaviors, Elder Scott’s first advice is to re-establish communication with God. Certainly, other steps are necessary, but it appears that without this, they may be empty or ineffectual. In our church, it seems that revelation is all.

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  1. Nice work, John.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Great work, John. I agree with that endgame analysis.

  3. I felt Elder Scott’s address was amazing on many levels. What was most helpful and interesting to me was the process of RETURNING to the promptings (in his case written down), pondering them, asking if it was correct and was it ALL. He did this more than once. He doesn’t elaborate on what the final end result was of this process except to name it as the “most sacred experience” and that he “received some of the most precious, specific, personal direction one could hope to obtain in this life”. That is profound and encouraging. I want to strive to follow this pattern. As often happens, I felt he was talking directly to me. This talk is exactly what I needed to hear.

  4. Well said!

    This was my favorite talk from conference. In fact, just before I found this post I was on the phone with a young man who is spiritually gifted. I was at the temple with him a few years ago (baptism for the dead) when he received a waking dream/vision regarding a man who had taken his life a few weeks prior. It was a powerful experience for both of us.

    However, he is currently struggling with online pornography. I read to him from this talk. The analogy Elder Scott used of the grape and jalapeno pepper was useful in our discussion. Maybe I should invite him over for grapes and peppers to further illustrate the point.

  5. Great post, John. Thanks.

  6. Thanks, all.

    I agree that that was a powerful moment. I’ve been trying to carry a notebook around with me ever since.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    Awesome, John.

    I totally agree with your analysis, your last paragraph especially. That came through to me, from Elder Scott, as well. ~

  8. Sharon LDS in Tennessee says:

    Personal note:
    Noticing that Bednar most frequently invites the presence of the Holy Ghost, I then experimented by doing so very often throughout the day and for sure before personal devotional study (scriptures/good talks). It made a difference to a measure of 50% better in my ability to hear, understand and sharpened my mind. This was opposed to just normal prayer before….sometimes just “asking for the Spirit…instead of warmly – personally with love, INVITING him to come and enlarge my time. The biggest change though was when inviting him when asking questions and having an increase of desire to be taught, learn, understand, know HOW to apply and serve / minister afterwards….so as to use the info as well as just “get it”.
    Giant increase. Revelation is such a gift. I, too have benefited from keeping notebook and pen ready. The more I practice that, the more I am dictated to. Love it.
    Get much from notes even years earlier on different questions that the current needs. How I know it’s from God a lot of times is that he uses words I never knew spelling or meaning of…or the correct application. One such is exquisite. “My justice is exquisite”. Look that one up.
    I still smile and see how vast and amazingly precise Father can give us the exact answer in few words, at times less words that hold mountains of information!
    Loved Elder Scott of course. We are all so much better off for asking heaven instead of relying on our on recourse of emotionally fret limited opinions of self!
    It’s worth the work to learn how to receive daily.
    It’s worth bazillions….cause we will always get gold nuggets = just for us from a loving Father who was just waiting for us.
    Love to All.

  9. Wow, thanks you guys. Good post.

  10. Wow. Good food for thought. Thanks.

  11. I totally missed Elder Scott’s point that he received relevation during both SS lessons when I heard it originally. I remember thinking he was being a little harsh to the “intellectual” teacher. Now that I have read it I finally saw his bigger point, the one you allude to in this great post. Inspiration can come to us both ways if we are open to it.

    The talk reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Outliers. He made a point of the “10,000” hour rule. I wonder what a dedicated 10,000 hours of sincere prayer would do for my divine communication skills. To quote Scott:

    “What may appear initially to be a daunting task will be much easier to manage over time as you consistently strive to recognize and follow feelings prompted by the Spirit.”

    Maybe time can mean 10,000 hours :-)

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