Conversion or Comfort Zone?

Pay no attention to the cricket . . .

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:

  1. ‎They believe their own conscience trumps personal revelation.
  2. They begin to disbelieve all church level revelation because they see that it is too similar to the conventional wisdom of older generations.
  3. 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?

But how can we tell the difference?

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”).

Even the font gets bigger!

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.

Snuff film or leap of faith.  Time will tell.

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.


  1. Wow. I have a feeling a lot of people are going to disagree with this one.

    Frankly, though, without a handful of spiritual experiences that convinced me to do what I really didn’t want to do, I probably would no longer be a practicing member of the church. One of those experiences in particular directed me to take an action that, previous to the personal revelation, hadn’t been an option (although I’d considered it a few months prior, and disregarded it fairly quickly). On one hand, I didn’t want to do it, but on the other hand I had direct revelation instructing me to take that path. I wouldn’t say it “contradicted my conscience,” but it certainly contradicted my own wishes. The revelation was very easy to recognize. Was it hard to follow? Sure. But I’d been asking God how to move forward, and I couldn’t exactly ignore his advice.

  2. Intelligence—the stuff from which our spirits are made—is light and truth. Personal revelation is generally consistent with my own conscience. Of course there are notable contrary examples in my life, as in scripture. I find it important to be open to those experiences, but even more important to be open to the light my spirit already has.

    It seems to me that most Mormons suffer from under-reliance on our own spirits rather than over-reliance. The danger of extolling contrary-to-conscience-revelation is that it devolves into this: (i) the church espouses a position that is at odds with my spirit, (ii) I automatically accept that as revelation higher than my own, (iii) I spend my emotional energy trying to negate the stirrings of my spirit in favor of the institutional position, (iv) the gap becomes so wide and difficult to reconcile that I throw up my hands and leave the church.

    I think we grow to be like our Heavenly Parents more—and become independent in our spheres of creation more—when we pay careful attention to our own light in communion with Theirs, acknowledge where the institutional church differs from that, and follow the dictates of our conscience going forward.

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    Boy I have so much to say I hardly know where to begin. These are subjects that I’ve done more reflecting on than virtually anything else that is touched on on this blog. I hope to find time to participate a great deal here in the coming couple days, probably tomorrow especially.

  4. Interesting post!

    Occasionally I have received revelation that conflicts with my conscience but it’s rare and I have never felt pressure to comply rather I have understood it to be a lesson, a prompting to consider the implications of compiling with it.

    Commonly I have received revelation to do things I did not want to do and at first I saw it as a test of faith to comply but as time went on I noticed two important things; revelation became clearer and more frequent and I was being led to deconstruct much of what I had built for myself in the material world (which is why I didn’t want to do it) and in it’s place a spiritual relationship with the divine was created that is much more fulfilling than my earlier material creation.

  5. When I was a missionary, we strived to help (an even prayed for) our investigators to experience a trial so as to help show them how the spirit works. Reading that back to myself, that sounds almost counterproductive, but I disagree- I think that in order to be born again in the savior, foundations that would be counterproductive to that (and even solid good foundations) had to be cracked so they could feel that panic thn the peace of the spirit.

    As far as your questions-

    I find it more helpful in believing because I have a familial system with which to discuss and validate/confirm my beliefs.

    Yes, I’ve received difficult revelation- I was opting out of a hard situation, when I was told, rather forcefully in a voice not of my own, “Hold on!” It was a difficult path, but it was so worth it.

    I tend to think more liberally about church doctrine than my brothers and sisters in the ward, and I feel like discussion (albeit without contention) about these subjects is one of the more fulfilling and healthy practices when can partake in at church. A question I almost never ever hear at church is “but why?” Those questions not only open you for further instruction (maybe from someone who knows more than you… Or less, even), and in my opinion, opens your heart for revelation.

    In my opinion, conversion can be either- I’ve seen people think about it for like five minutes, get dunked, then continue in faithful church service, likewise, I’ve seen people dunked and then leave the next Sunday. The same goes for those who have longer conversion processes- some grow in fire, some diminish. But to me, what elder Holland said is true in all cases: “salvation is NOT a cheap experience.” (That guy makes me want to repent by just seeing him on tv, holy cow.) it’s my opinion that in some form or another, people pay the price for conversion- the mormon church, despite the peace it brings, is NOT an easy path to follow. For me, it took a while. For my friend Emilio, it was instantanious. But, both of us had to suffer, in one form or another, to truly understand some doctrines and feel the peace the savior brings.

  6. Lots of food for thought here, Ang. My initial thoughts about the overall issue of conscience vs. natural inclination:

    I draw a distinction between something that is in opposition to my conscience and to something that I don’t want to do. After all, one of our core articles of faith is that we allow everyone to worship according to the dictates of individual conscience. We don’t honor that as well as we should, especially among ourselves within the Church, but that is the foundation of our standards and theology in this sort of discussion.

    If I have a thought or feeling that says I should do something that violates my conscience, I am very wary of doing so – and I have to take a long, serious look at why it might be okay to do it. There are multiple reasons why I still might do it, but I would have to study it out in my mind, find a reason I could accept and then re-examine it in my heart before I would do it – and that is true no matter the source. I believe doing something that violates my conscience without such soul searching is relinquishing my agency in a very real way. If I make a mistake in that arena, I would rather err on the side of my conscience than on the side of violating it.

    If, however, I consider something that I simply don’t want to do, the consideration becomes much easier – based on whether it would violate my conscience to do so and what the impact of my action would be on others.

    In a nutshell, I try to base my actions in these situations on how I believe those actions would “hang” under the two great commandments – and it takes a truly extraordinary situation and what I consider to be indisputable, extraordinary revelation to make me go against those two commandments and/or my conscience (and how I view the two great commandments might be a good definition of my conscience).

  7. I also believe that God speaks to each of us in our own language and according to our own understanding. Therefore, I believe we make a critical mistake when we try to tell someone else how God will speak with her and how conversion will occur for her. I have seen enough different examples in my life that I am loathe ever to say, “This is how it happen in your life.”

    There is a long missionary lesson in that belief, and I think it is critical to change the way we approach some things in that field, but, for the purpose of this thread, I simply will say that conversion happens differently for different people – and the key, imo, is to be open to just about any conversion method (or time table) God might use for any particular individual.

  8. “something that is in opposition to my conscience and to something that I don’t want to do. After all, one of our core articles of faith is that we allow everyone to worship according to the dictates of individual conscience.” This is a great point, Ray. I tend to think that within the church, we consider people outside the church as operating under their conscience, but within our church we are told to operate under the guidance of the spirit instead of focusing on our own conscience. In fact, we seldom talk about conscience.

  9. Great insights Ray — thanks for sharing that.

  10. Angela C., excellent work. Thank you for sharing with us, I really enjoyed reading this.

    “Safety in numbers” may have room to be considered here. It’s a cop-out to what is really being asked here, but I think it helps a lot of people with decisions like this and thus should be weighed. Also:

    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.

    I’ll be remembering that one. If qualified, that’s good stuff (sometimes Church is exactly that for people). You seem to suggest more of the status quo these days.

  11. We teach that conscience is the Light of Christ, which is given to all humans to show us right from wrong. I have never really understood the difference between the Gift of the Holy Ghost and the LIght of Christ, but I have never heard that the Light of Christ can be wrong, or will tell us something different from what the Holy Ghost would tell us.

    If what one means by conscience is something like a rigid Superego (in Freudian terms), then I agree that it is possible for the conscience to tell us something wrong, or something different from what God wants us to do. I.e., if the conscience/superego means what we have previously learned intellectually as a principle and therefore assume is right and wrong. Sort of like Huckleberry Finn’s wrong assumptions that it would be a sin to fail to return a slave to the owner (when he famously reports when he was praying for help to do so, that he found that “you can’t pray a lie”). Huck may have thought it was his “conscience” telling him to return the slave, but I don’t think it was his conscience, it was his wrong assumptions about right and wrong.

    This is probably a matter of semantics–can “personal revelation” contradict “conscience.” I think personal revelation can contradict prior notions of right and wrong, but ultimately I don’t think it can contradict conscience (in its “Light of Christ” meaning).

    It is difficult to know what our conscience (and personal revelation) tells us. From people outside my faith tradition, I have learned that listening to my conscience (and revelation) is very much like “listening” or “following my heart.” That, of course, is not always simple. It does not mean turning off my brain and intellect (or my prior concepts of right and wrong.)

    Personally, I don’t believe there is a guaranteed way to know whether something is from God or not. As Presidents Eyring and Packer have both said, “you can’t force” revelation or the Holy Ghost. We sometimes come “up against walls” (in President Eyring’s words) where we need inspiration and it does not come (or seem to come).

    I do think it is more likely that a decision is right (and from revelation or inspiration) if we listen to a hearts and minds, ask ourselves (I know it sounds trite) what would Jesus do, and determine as best we can whether our proposed course is motivated by real love of God and of others.

  12. “When I was a missionary, we strived to help (an even prayed for) our investigators to experience a trial so as to help show them how the spirit works”

    K Eversole – I must say that comment bothers me quite a bit. It presumes that conversion in and of itself is not a trial, it almost seems to miss the point the article was making. It’s frustrating when I hear missionaries say they know what its like to be a convert because they were “inactive for a few years”. At the end of the day its infinitely easier to return to the faith of your family and your friends than to convert with little or no support from those closest to you. I wish more members had respect for that

  13. Steve Smith says:

    This post begs the question of what exactly is a revelation and how do you know it is a revelation? Is a revelation supposed to be direct speech from God that is sensed in your brain somehow, or perhaps even audibly through your eardrums? Is it simply a strong feeling about something? How do know the strong feeling is coming from outside; that you yourself are not generating the strong feelings and that your interpreting of the strong feeling as a revelation is not just a product of your own confirmation bias? Too many LDS talk of revelation without going into any detail as to what revelation is actually. It is almost as if it is assumed that the audience just knows what is meant by revelation and that it is completely separate from intuition or personal inspiration.

  14. I think revelation can be all of the above (direct speech, audible, or strong feeling). I think part of the point of this post is that revelation can be too easy to confuse with confirmation bias unless:

    1. It’s an incredibly strong revelation, or

    2. It does the opposite of confirming our bias because it leads us another direction entirely.

    Otherwise, at least for me, it’s very difficult to separate confirmation bias from revelation.

  15. I’ve come to believe that when Jesus said things like “signs shall follow them that believe” or “ask and ye shall receive,” he pronouncing a curse as much as a blessing because the promise is that we will get the answers that we are seeking for, even if they are not true. The 116 pages illustrates that. You might call it confirmation bias, but I think the point is that we easily confuse the spirit with our own desires all the time, so we have to be vigilantly humble to be sure that we always recognize the possibility that we might be mistaken. As (I think it was) Brigham Young said, there are many revelations, some come from God, some from the devil, and some from other spirits altogether. Very few people (nobody?) do evil because they believe it is evil and they love evil; most people who do evil do so because they are deceived into thinking that what they are doing is good. So ultimately, I believe, we will be judged not based on whether we were obedient to the revelation that we received, but based on whether we were truly seeking light and knowledge from God. Put differently, we will be judged based on “the desires of our hearts,” and one manifestation of the desires of our hearts is the type of revelation that we are receiving, whether from God or whether from our own subconscious, or whether from a more sinister source. Personally, I believe that perhaps the only way to guard against such false revelations is to always recognize our own unreliability in perfectly perceiving the light of God, and recognize that our faith (or knowledge, if we want to call it that, but it is really faith) is never set, always contingent, and always susceptible to revision as we grow and receive further light and knowledge. In other words, a false revelation is only as dangerous as your belief in it, and if you are willing to let go of what you thought you knew in the past in favor of new light and knowledge, that minimizes the danger. I’ve always loved the metaphor of light on D & C 50: that we receive light, but it is only as we “continue in God” that we will receive “more light” that will grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” I picture it as a sunrise. As the light gets brighter, it reveals that the things that we thought we saw in the shadows when the light first appeared are not really there, and it is the test of faith whether we will accept what we see by the light of the spirit now or whether we will doggedly insist that the things we saw in the shadows are still there because we saw them.

  16. Angela, you ask some great questions here, but I am having some difficulty with some of your basic arguments here. For example:

    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?

    Also, 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.

    This seems to be an argument for invalidating the experience of members born into the church, who have faithfully grown up in the church, and continue to serve faithfully as adults. Or in other words, the gradual and continual confirmation of what our parents and leaders have taught us if of little value, unless we have a crisis of faith of some sorts. I don’t think that is what you really meant, else why all the emphasis on “teach up a child in the way they should go,” etc.

    I think Alma 32 offers us a great example of how gradual change can work in our lives, or even gradual confirmation of a path we have already been placed on, as we move from faith in small and simple things to greater and greater truths.

    I have some other thoughts, but I wanted to react to these first, and I felt, foundational arguments.

  17. I’ve come to find that most people have a really hard time hearing a revelation that goes contrary to their personal desires.

    It has been my most challenging thing as a leader helping people to do things they don’t want to do but will help them to develop spiritually. In many cases I have received revelation to tell them certain things like this. This includes things such as. Spending less on personal toys and giving more to others, spend less time at your job and more time with your family, Forgive that person in the ward who has offended you. I include myself as having a hard time hearing revelation on things that go contrary to my desires.

    I think this one big reason why we need priesthood leaders and prophets and rather than why the Lord can’t just tell us all directly all of the time.

  18. Meldrum the Less says:

    “Yet, the more we live the gospel, the more righteous and godlike we become ..”

    Sounds like the perspective of one who is young or at least young at heart. I think the older I get the worse I gradually get. My wife would agree. Probably crested at about age 45.

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