When it comes to personal revelation, I’m a believer; I really do think that there have been moments in my life when I’ve been on the receiving end of divine communication. I like that the doctrine plays such a central role in LDS thought; I love the idea that you can go directly to God for answers and help, that we believe in a God who is interested in us as individuals and who will interact with us personally.
Yet at the same time, I have to admit to a certain degree of skepticism when it comes to the use of revelation as a means of discerning truth. A couple of years ago the website religioustolerance.org conducted a perhaps not overly scientific, but nonetheless quite fascinating study to see, in their words, whether “prayer can determine the will of God.” They selected the controversial issue of same-sex marriage, and recruited 75 people, both conservative and liberal, to pray about it. Sixty-eight percent of their subjects reported having successfully ascertained the will of God. The result? Every single person found that God supported her or his initial belief, even though these beliefs were in direct opposition to each other.
I grew up hearing stories of people who prayed about the Book of Mormon and joined the Church based on the answer they received. I’ve heard some powerful stories along these lines, some of which have deeply touched me. Yet I’ve also heard a number of accounts of people who feel strongly that God led them out of the Church, or who eventually left after years and years of unanswered prayers. I don’t quite know how to make sense of it all.
I often hear that personal revelation will never contradict the teachings of the scriptures or church leaders. But even setting aside the issue that sometimes the scriptures and prophets contradict each other, I see problems with this argument. After all, why do we believe in the legitimacy of the scriptures and the prophets in the first place? We’re told to get a testimony of them based on personal revelation. But if you have a subsequent revelation which contradicts them, and so you’re told not to trust it, on what basis do you then trust the earlier revelation that the prophet is a true prophet, or that scripture is the word of God?
On the other hand, I do think it’s a good idea to have some kind of checks and balances on personal revelation, which has a real potential to run amok. Though it’s something I take seriously, I’m not sure that personal revelation should automatically trump all other potential sources of truth, including scripture, prophetic teaching, and reason. Perhaps the reason God communicates in so many different ways is to reduce the dangers that arise from making one source definitive and relying on it exclusively.
I frequently struggle to make sense of personal revelation in my own life. On more than one occasion I’ve made a decision that felt right which then led to disaster of some sort. I don’t know if I’m learning something valuable from the disasters, or if I’ve simply fooled myself into thinking that things were inspired when they weren’t. Sometimes I’ve felt so frustrated by the answers that went wrong, or the answers that never came in the first place, that I’ve seriously questioned my belief in the whole process. I get exasperated with the ambiguity of it all.
Still, somehow I keep talking to God. And despite my frequent doubts, I continue to hope that he’ll talk back.