Humility and the Revelatory Process

Richard Davis is the author of The Liberal Soul:  Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and Fathers and Sons: Lessons from the Scriptures (Cedar Fort, 2005).  He also is editor of Spiritual Gems from the Imitation of Christ (Catholic Publishing, 2016)

When I was a full-time missionary, the mission president interviewed each of the missionaries about every six weeks at a zone conference.  At one such interview with him, I related that since I had been recently transferred to an area my companion and I had been having success working with several investigators.  He replied:  “Then putting you there must have been inspired.”  

I was shocked at his answer.  I assumed he already knew he had been inspired.  I assumed he prayed about each transfer and felt inspiration about that transfer.  To suggest that may not have happened and he wasn’t sure whether my transfer was inspired was unsettling to me.  

Since then I have spiritually matured and learned that inspiration is rarely that cut and dried.  It is more common for us not to be absolutely sure whether something is inspired. I have come to realize that God doesn’t speak that strongly or clearly. Indeed, in many cases the answer doesn’t seem to come at all. We just move forward with faith.  

That process includes all members of the church, including mission presidents.  But it also includes more than mission presidents.  It also encompasses all leaders of the church.  Revelation does not come with thunder and lightning.  It is a still, small voice and sometimes not even that.  In such a process, all of us can mistake our own preferences for revelation from God.  Our own cultural biases can impact not only what we think we have received from God as well as what we even ask about in the first place.

In retrospect, I am glad my mission president was so candid with me that he wasn’t sure whether he had been inspired in making that transfer.  Unfortunately, that kind of humility among church leaders is not common enough.  In fact, the opposite is true. When a decision is announced, usually there is an expression of absolute confidence that it  is inspired. Too often, a sense of surety accompanies the announcement, which seems to be intended to convince church members that there can be no doubt of its source.  The point is to ward off any suggestion that the decision may not be inspired.

 If there was more acknowledgment of the reality of revelation, more humility about the process, there would be less need to be defensive and claim what is not likely to be the case.  If leaders expressed a belief that the Lord had spoken in a certain way rather than a certain knowledge, they would not need to defend their decisions.  They would acknowledge that they could be mistaken in understanding what the Lord wants.   

Also, they would not need to defend past decisions.  For example, in a recent case, such humility would have been helpful in explaining the shift from a policy of not baptizing the children of same-sex parents to one where such baptisms could take place.  It would provide a reason for shifts in policy in a variety of areas such as same-sex relationships, the role of women, blacks and the priesthood, and so on.  

I believe most members would appreciate that expression of humanness in their leaders. (Admittedly, some who place general authorities on pedestals would be disturbed by this revelation.) They would realize that leaders struggle as much as members in discerning the Lord’s will.  And that sometimes they have to go forward and see what the outcome might be, just as my mission president did with transfers.

This display of humility about the revelatory process also would reassure members that their own spiritual experiences are not somehow deficient because they are not clear and unmistakable.  It would reinforce the message that revelation is the same for all members, regardless of their position in the church.  And that members should seek inspiration, but not view that process as inferior to what church leaders go through as well.


  1. “Unfortunately, that kind of humility among church leaders is not common enough.”

    I have no expectation that will change. Therefore I advocate a DIY approach to relationships with church leaders, supported by posts like these.

  2. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    Truly, we should have more examples (from the leadership or whomever) of what precipitated revelation. We did get the occasional “you’ll only get the answer when you’re willing to change”, but even that has fallen by the wayside.
    I’ve had many different types of inspiration, still small, yelling in my ear, exhaustion after a long wrestle, absolutely nothing, I’d assume based on what I would listen to and how I approached it. We certainly need more stories than “by virtue of their calling”.
    We’re a Church founded on asking questions. While the current trend for investigating our history to learn the “why” of various policies through the years, it seems more like a “this is all we know” as an assumption that it is all God wants us to know (which feels like a “we don’t need another bible”).

  3. Bro. B. says:

    Some really good points here. Some leaders have been pretty good at acknowledging this. I remember Pres Hinckley talking about being deceived by Mark Hoffman’s forgery of the Salamander Letter. He said the leaders really needed the prayers of the members that they can be blessed with discernment.

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    I don’t believe in the power of discernment. I don’t think that God or Christ is up in heaven (or near Kolob) “stirring the pot.” God may answers prayers, but certainly not about minor issues like missionary transfers. We are on earth to make our own decisions, not to default to God. Prayer is more meditative than conversational.

    Because we are we on earth to grow and develop, we need to make our own decisions. Blaming God for our foibles is just plain wrong. I’m tired of members throwing God “under the bus.”

    This goes for leaders. Recently Elder Holland unfairly criticized a BYU grad. I would like see him apologize. So far, he has been silent.

  5. What’s ironic is that I think almost all adult church members do know that not all decisions are inspired, including those who are unwilling to acknowledge it. We all have eye-rolling moments as we serve in the church in response to decisions of church leaders.

  6. I agree with Roger Hansen, in that I don’t think God tells us every detail of what to do. Where would our growth be if all we ever did was exactly as we were told? We need to make mistakes, because that is how we learn. It is called “free agency.” God isn’t a micro manager.

  7. Geoff - Aus says:

    I haven’t believed church leaders recieved inspiration, let alone revelation, for some years. And yet I find myself wanting to not do anything the church says might upset God when I have something important happening.

  8. “Since then I have spiritually matured and learned that inspiration is rarely that cut and dried. It is more common for us not to be absolutely sure whether something is inspired. I have come to realize that God doesn’t speak that strongly or clearly. Indeed, in many cases the answer doesn’t seem to come at all. We just move forward with faith.”

    What you wrote is true for you, but you need to understand it isn’t true for many others.

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    Hehe, the OP’s presumptions about how inspiration must necessarily operate for everyone is the exact opposite of humility; it’s hubris.

  10. Dave Cook says:

    Love this! As a young missionary I had heard about a process called spiritual tracting. It was where missionaries would pray over their area map to receive “revelation” as to the exact street and block they sould “tract” the next day. I had heard amazing stories and was anxious to try it. My trainer kept putting me off until he finally relented. We fasted one day then that night prayed over our map until we received the answer. I was certain we would find that promised convert. The next morning off we went to the harvest. We arrived at the block where we were “directed” to tract. It was a totally vacant. Nothing but rubble, a few burned out cars and trash. I served in New York City Spanish. Do you realize how few vacant blocks there are in the city? Not many. So, it was a good lesson that revelation is not a cheap experience and certainly not as easy as I had presumed. Never tried that experiment again. The rest of my mission I simply prayed and said “Lord, we plan to work in X area today, please prepare the way.”

  11. I decided years ago to follow the teachings of the prophets (prophets in scripture and living prophets) and have been blessed with many answers to prayer as a result. I’m puzzled by post like this from an active church member. He teaches doctrine that is very different than what we are hearing from President Nelson and the apostles.

    President Nelson gave five specific actions to help us maintain spiritual momentum in April Conference . We can choose to listen to our prophet or the author of this post. Their messages are very different.

    President Nelson teaches:
    1. Get on the covenant path and stay there.
    2. Discover the joy of daily repentance.
    3. Learn about God and how He works.
    4. Seek and expect miracles.
    5. End conflict in your personal life.

    The author of this post teaches:
    1. God doesn’t speak that strongly or clearly.
    2. All church leaders are like me and don’t get clear answers to prayer but won’t admit it.
    3. Many church leaders lack humility.
    4. Church leaders conceal their spiritual inadequacies by creating a sense of certainty.
    5. Church leaders lack humanness thus putting themselves on pedestals.

    I invite the author to correct my review of his post if he thinks I got it wrong.

    To sum it up. The author of this post teaches where he is at spiritually. It is an honest view of how things are spiritually for him. I respect that.

    President Nelson teaches where he is at spiritually. It is an honest view of how things are spiritually for him. I respect that, and choose to follow his approach.

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