Zelophehad’s Daughters

Unfulfilled Priesthood Blessings, and the Power of Religious Ritual

Posted by Lynnette

A recurrent problem in Mormonism is that of how to make sense of patriarchal blessings which make promises that don’t come to pass, or are even just plain wacky. (For some recent bloggernacle discussion of the issue, see here and here.) One common explanation when this happens is to interpret it as a communications breakdown, so to speak; perhaps the patriarch has simply misinterpreted the will of God, and pronounced blessings which reflect more of his own biases and expectations than genuine inspiration. Given that these blessings are mediated through fallible human beings, it’s inevitable that they’re going to have flaws at times.

I’m in basic agreement with this perspective. If someone asked me to theologically account for various instances in which patriarchal and/or other priesthood blessings weren’t fulfilled, I’d probably appeal to it. Nonetheless, I think tackling the problem solely from this angle overlooks an important factor, one having to do with the nature of religious ritual, and the requirements for participating in it meaningfully. And I think it’s important to bring that element into the conversation.

A couple of years ago, I had an experience with a specific promise in a priesthood blessing which didn’t come true. I certainly didn’t go into this experience with the idea that the person giving the blessing was infallible. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for just how much it hurt to have this happen. It took a while before I could even talk about the experience; I felt ashamed for having been so gullible. I asked myself how I could have been so silly as to actually believe what the blessing had said. I also felt deeply betrayed, and angry. I wondered if it was my own fault, if the lack of fulfillment was evidence that I was particularly wicked and undeserving. It also made me question earlier positive experiences with priesthood blessings; given that this one had turned out to be false, how much faith should I have in previous ones I had found meaningful?

Having wrestled with this kind of thing, I’ve been somewhat taken aback to see how often people get criticized if they report such experiences–especially if their faith has suffered as a result of them. They might be told that they are at fault for their apparent inability to make distinctions between fallible human beings and God. Their expectations were too high, I hear. They should have done a better job of remembering that rituals performed by mortals are inevitably limited in their attempts to convey the divine. At times the assumption almost seems to be that if people get hurt, it’s only because they set themselves up for it.

But as fond as I am of healthy skepticism about religion, I think this criticism misses something basic. If you go into a religious ritual with a kind of “I’m taking this all with a large grain of salt” attitude, you are subverting what makes the experience potentially powerful. To take a detached, critical stance, one which involves continually evaluating various bits and the extent to which they are actually divine, is to limit your ability to encounter God there. Participation in ordinances calls for a kind of suspension of disbelief–an attitude of openness and faith, a willingness to be fully engaged and present. If I take the sacrament, for example, while in a kind of intellectually critical mode of the sort of I bring to my academic work, my participation is likely to be much less meaningful.

But the downside of this requirement of openness is that religious ritual also has real power to hurt, to deeply shake someone’s faith and trust in God. And when that happens, I’m not sure that we can simply respond that the person has simply, in essence, taken it too seriously. If we’re going to accept, and even be moved by, Sister X’s report that her patriarchal blessing convinced her that God knew and loved her personally, we can’t then tell Sister Y that her more negative experience with a patriarchal blessing shouldn’t really mean anything, or shake her faith. As religious believers, we take our rituals, our blessings and our ordinances, very seriously. We assert that they have the power to literally change lives. This is something that can be tremendously faith-affirming to experience. But because of this, they also have the potential to cause real spiritual damage. To deny this aspect, I think, is to trivialize some of the most potent aspects of our tradition.

36 Responses to “Unfulfilled Priesthood Blessings, and the Power of Religious Ritual”

  1. 1.

    A few years ago I wrote an article for The New Era about a promise given in my patriarchal blessing that wasn’t fulfilled (at least, not in the way I first interpreted it).

  2. 2.

    What a superb post, Lynnette. Thank you for writing it.

    It can be hard to describe the feeling when something you believe with your whole heart doesn’t happen. It’s embarrassing. “Ashamed” is a good word. What are the appropriate responses? Self-blame? Anger? Cynicism?

    I don’t know the answer to this. I have thought a great deal about Kiskilili’s statement equating faith with an act of will – not belief, but fidelity. To approach blessing like this with hope, rather than belief.

    That attitude is different from the cultural expectation of belief, though, and directly counter to the idea that we have to believe to obtain the promised blessings. Hope isn’t really enough.

  3. 3.

    Thanks for the link, Jana. That of course gets into the other standard explanation for why priesthood blessings (apparently) don’t come true, one which I didn’t really engage in this post—it might be due to our own fallibility, our own misinterpretations, our own biases. I certainly think that’s quite plausible in many cases.

    But on that subject, I must confess that I have a hard time with it when the meaning of patriarchal blessings gets drastically re-interpreted in order to account for unfilled promises. If I’m told that I’m going to have children, for example, but it turns out that actually means that I’m going to work in Primary, it seems more than a bit disingenuous on God’s part to not simply say that more straightforwardly. In other words, I’m not sure I see the value of blessings if their meaning is potentially that obscure.

    Thanks, Ann. As you say, those experiences are overwhelming–when you really take that risk and let yourself believe, and then the ground gets pulled out from under you. It’s a tough thing to go through. Our church narratives are so often about how people take the risk of faith, and it all works out in the end. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people get burned, and I don’t know what to make of that.

    I’ve been feeling a bit haunted by this topic, for some reason, ever since reading the FMH thread. Maybe it’s because so much in this life is clearly unequal; people are born into such different circumstances. But I guess I want to believe that if nothing else, everyone has equal access to God. I see that as part of the appeal of patriarchal blessings—they’re available to everyone (at least, everyone who’s a member of the Church). Everyone, regardless of other life factors, gets a personalized revelation that will bless their lives. Except that in practice, not everyone does. Some get blessings that don’t mean much to them. Some even get ones that really hurt them, that mess them up. And it’s painful to see that happen.

  4. 4.

    Cognitive Dissonance: filtering information that conflicts with what one already believes, in an effort to ignore that information and reinforce one’s beliefs.

    Most people don’t feel strongly about the horoscope that is included in the morning paper, since they have invested little in what’s written there. However, in LDSville, where so much time and treasure is invested, there is considerable energy spent in avoiding information that conflicts with their beliefs, and creating scenarios which support their beliefs despite significant evidence to the contrary.

  5. 5.

    I and my husband independently had a very strong impression/revelation about an upcoming event. After we had discussed this between ourselves, our nine-year-old daughter had the same impression/revelation.

    This wasn’t something that we necessarily wanted or hoped for, but we were willing to do as the Lord had impressed us. We prepared ourselves both physically and mentally. The impressions have never been fulfilled. This has made me feel like an stupid to have believed, and so I wonder if all the other experiences I’ve believed in are just as invalid. I have been angry that I felt lied to by God. I can’t hardly sit in sacrament meeting, especially fast and testimony meeting and listen to people talk about their “impressions” and what God has helped them do and received. Mostly I’ve become very critical of priesthood leaders who make these callings and then profess they were inspired. Were they as inspired as me? Then that’s not much inspiration. I don’t trust myself or God. and I don’t trust my leaders.

    Lynette is right when she says that we can’t structure our lifes around positive experiences with the spirit and ignore negative ones. Isn’t that the immature behaviour of teenagers to only accept what they want to see and make excuses for the rest?

  6. 6.

    C. Biden, if your point is that attempts to match what blessings said with how things actually turned out, even when the two seem drastically at odds, can be explained in terms of a desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, I don’t disagree. As I said in my earlier comment, I’m wary of extensive re-interpretation of such blessings–and it’s partly for that very reason. (Though I’d add that I don’t think this tendency is unique to believing Mormons. It seems to me that all of us–Mormon or not, religious or not–filter and interpret information in ways that reinforce our assumptions about how the universe works.)

    In any case, what makes this such an angst-filled topic for me is that based on my experiences with them, I really do believe in the power of priesthood blessings to convey the divine. And that’s precisely what makes it so challenging to make sense of it when they don’t work out. I’m not sure I can dismiss either the positive or the negative experiences–as tempting as it might be to conclude that the negative ones mean that the positive ones were nothing more than a fraud, or that the positive ones are the “real thing” and the negative ones can therefore be safely ignored. It’s messier than that.

    AJ, thanks for sharing your experience. That sounds like a tremendously painful and difficult thing to go through, and I can relate to a lot of your feelings.

  7. 7.

    Lynnette – you do such a beautiful job of vocalising many of the feelings and thoughts I had when I wrote the post. For me it’s a very difficult topic. How do we react when we have blessings that seem to ‘come true’ and ones that don’t? Certainly the fallibility of the priesthood holder and ourselves can play a part, but that seems like a bit of a cop-out too. If God speaks through man (priesthood) then surely He should be able to get a clear and right message through. I’m really thinking out loud and can’t really express what I mean properly, but this is a topic I can’t reconcile right now.

  8. 8.

    This is a little different, but years before I was baptised, I couldn’t wait to get the Gift of the Holy Ghost when I turned eight. I thought about it all the time, how great it would be to have the Spirit with me as a constant companion, proving I lived righteously. When the time came and my father put his hands on my head and I heard him say, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” I felt, well, nothing. But not quite. I felt a rush of confusion immediately as a shook everyone’s hand in the cirlce–I wanted to cry out in sorrow. I was no different than I was five minutes before. Then I felt guilt–I must not have repented enough! I must be broken! I went through with the plan and gave my testimony to the ward and *told* them how glad I was to have the Holy Ghost, blah, blah, blah, even though inside my head was spinning and my heart breaking.

    I then set my eyes on the temple. Yes, the temple: that’s where I would get the Spirit I have sought for. I had a good 10-20 years to prepare, right? I just needed to prepare harder, be super righteous, read scriptures every day and pray morning and night. Well, I went when I was 21, and afterward felt no change inside me. I took my covenants seriously (deadly seriously), but I didn’t have that experience of being “born again” I’d been wanting through some kind of religious ceremony or procedure. You know, the kinds people have all the time when they’re baptised or endowed. The *feel* it. I believe they feel it, too. I just don’t for some reason.

    I don’t want to go into all the esoteric analysis of this right now, but the result in all of this is that I just don’t believe in performative utterances–for me (and phenomenonlogically, isn’t that what matters?). I don’t think words or ceremony change people. Blame it on my highly intuitive (read–not grounded in the sensory perception of the ceremony), but I’ve learned to lower my expectations.

  9. 9.

    This is a really interesting post, Lynnette! I particularly like your description of your feeling when your blessing didn’t come true–“ashamed for being so gullible.” I totally know that feeling, although the examples that leap to mind for me aren’t necessarily of unfulfilled priesthood blessings.

    I’m probably just restating what you’ve already said, but is it the case that if we refuse to be open to the potential fallibility of priesthood blessings (by conveniently reinterpreting them so that whatever actually happened is what the blessing said) then we not only avoid the potential failings we hope to avoid, we also miss out on fully experiencing the potential fulfillments when, amazingly, they actually come? I mean, if we’re precommitted to interpreting any outcome as a fulfillment, how do we distinguish between fufillments that required mental gymnastics and those that we might have accepted even with our skeptical eyes?

    I also like your idea of suspension of disbelief for participating in ordinances. You remind me of my need to engage in a kind of suspension of judgment to appreciate people’s talks. If my baloney detector is set too high and I’m just sitting there waiting to (mentally) jump all over a speaker for passing along some glurge, I’m not open enough to appreciating genuinely uplifting experiences or teaching that speakers share.

  10. 10.

    I can relate to what Alisa said. I also can relate to Emma Smith. She really struggled and tried, and she never even got to see the plates. Others did, others saw angels and not her. We can say she wasn’t worthy, but certainly church history is filled with those less valiant that got marvelous visions and blessings. A woman in our ward stood up in fast and testimony meeting and described how her adn her husband went to Florida on a business trip. Their children are grown and they appear to be financially do well. They wanted to see Disney World but found that it would cost then $250 for the package they were interested in. They decided that was more money than they wanted to spend. As they turned away an employee told them that they could have a couple of the complimentary passes that were handed out everyday. This woman thanked the Lord for that blessing. She knew that it was a “tender mercy.” And it may well have been, but maybe those tickets could have gone to a couple kids who will never have the opportunity to go rather than a upper middle class woman. She, however, claimed that her and her husband were being blessed because even though the had flown in late Saturday night, they had got up and found a church to attend. So the unspoken sermon her is that if you are righteous you get those things.

    Well, by those standards, I am not righteous enough. I don’t feel those changes when I go to the temple. I, too, have had to lower my expectations for what the Lord will give me. Why is it like that? If he really wants me to stay in the Church, why not help me more?

    Maybe blessings are not alway accurate because our faith needs to be tried. Just look at the times that blessings and inspirtations are correct. But just look at the times your horiscope is correct. The times it is not is just a chance to test our faith??.

  11. 11.

    This is an interesting post.

    I’m not sure I see the value of blessings if their meaning is potentially that obscure.

    This jumped out at me. Is it that the meaning is that obscure, or we really are supposed to, as you said earlier, suspend our usual way of looking at things? After a recent post on patriarchal blessings. I did some reading and found this:

    Elder Joseph Fielding Smith
    “The main purpose of the blessing is to be a guide to the individual who receives it, to encourage him, to direct him, to help him as he journeys through life.

    “My uncle, John Smith, who gave as many blessings I suppose as anybody, said one day to me in the presence of others, ‘When I give a patriarchal blessing, the dividing line between time and eternity disappears. If that be the case, I guess I ought to be willing to accept it. Then there may be things in these blessings that pertain to our future existence. There might be promises made to us that are not fulfilled here that will be fulfilled. For instance, suppose a patriarch says in giving a blessing to a young woman that she shall be married and that she will have posterity, and yet she dies without posterity. Married for time and all eternity in the temple of the Lord, she receives there the blessings of eternal lives, which is a continuation of the seeds forever. Perhaps the patriarch, in giving her a blessing of posterity, sees beyond the veil; so I don’t think we should be too hasty in condemning a patriarch when he promises posterity, and then in this life that blessing is not fulfilled. ”

    So in your example, it may not simply be that children would be yours in Primary (although that could be part of it), but something to instruct about the eternal nature of the plan. I think there are layers to blessings, patriarchal or otherwise, that perhaps we miss because of our mortal limitations.

    I have seen some interesting layers, too, just like with scripture. At one point in my life, a phrase might mean one thing, but then it unfolds in a different way later on. I think while sometimes there probably is that fallibility factor involved, I can’t help but think more of it would fall on our end and on not wrestling enough with the potential meaning and layers there. I tend to think we are all too quick to focus on the blessing giver’s fallibility as opposed to our own.

    I think blessings of health or healing are another example. We may define health in a limited way, when there are different ways health and healing can come, and, of course, different timing that perhaps could even transcend mortality as well.

    That said, I have had a couple of these types of blessings that you describe that have clearly just not worked out (and couldn’t be translated into eternity) so I still understand the struggle. One blessing in particular threw me for quite a loop for quite a while, and it’s still puzzles me a bit. I quip that that’s on my list of questions to ask someday. :) In the end, our faith and trust in God and His ultimate will and knowledge of us can get us through these fuzzy times when things don’t quite make sense to us. At least that has been my approach…otherwise, it’s too easy to become cynical and closed-hearted, which, as you point out, means that I reduce the chance that I will find meaning in these experiences….sort of a downward spiral.

  12. 12.

    I was also conflating horoscopes and blessings as equally imprecise, fallacious, and fictitious.

  13. 13.

    C. Biden, I did pick up on that. But as I said above, this issue causes me problems precisely because I do believe in at least the potential of blessings–if I thought they were as fictitious as horoscopes I’d simply dismiss them altogether, and not feel the need to write long posts on the subject.

    Just a reminder about our comment policy–you don’t have to be LDS to participate here, but we do ask that you respect that this is a blog aimed primarily at an LDS audience, and it’s in that context that we want to discuss things.

  14. 14.

    Thanks, Rebecca. I’ve wondered about that question as well. If messages from God are so important, why are they so often ambiguous as well? Why doesn’t God make more of an effort to get them transmitted correctly?

    Alisa, thanks for sharing your experience. I think it raises a really interesting issue. I’m thinking that in the context of LDS theology, the efficacy of ordinances presumably isn’t tied to whether or not the recipient perceives any kind of change as a result of them. Baptism “takes”, in other words, even if the person getting baptized doesn’t feel any different afterwards. And yet at the same time, I think most of us would hope for something more than otherworldly, indiscernible effects.

    This reminds me of a theological debate in Catholicism in recent centuries. The question was, can grace be experienced? A lot of the neoscholastics said no–the sacraments effect change, but only in the “supernatural realm,” not in the realm of people’s actual everyday experience. Several 20th century theologians criticized that approach, observing that it made religion basically irrelevant to people’s lives.

    And I’m sympathetic to that last argument. If the effects of our ordinances will only be seen in the next life, I’m not sure there’s much point to having them done here. Getting back to patriarchal blessings, if the promises are about eternity (and not about mortality), quite frankly I’d just as soon wait and not hear about those promises in this life–especially if it’s not made clear that they won’t in fact be happening here, potentially leading me to have expectations about this life which aren’t going to be met.

  15. 15.

    Ziff, that’s a good point. If we find ways to see anything as a fulfillment of a blessing, then it seems that an actual fulfillment potentially loses a lot of its power and meaning. (And that’s also a good reminder about ways of listening to sacrament meeting talks; I could certainly stand to engage in a “suspension of judgment” a bit more often!)

    AJ, I have to admit that stories like that frequently irk me as well. I’m thinking in particular that if I were struggling financially, and I heard someone talk about how God blessed them with Disneyland tickets, I would be seriously annoyed. There are times when I’ve really been struggling with a particular issue, and I’ve found it incredibly painful to go to church and hear people tell stories about how God blessing them in that exact area. I’ve sometimes left thinking bitterly about how God seems to have favorite children, and wondering why he ignores the rest of us.

    So I don’t know what to make of it that some people get amazing spiritual manifestations and/or other blessings, and some don’t. I suppose it can be comforting in some ways to explain it in terms of righteousness, because that gives everyone a path to get there–I suspect that’s frequently why people turn to that explanation. But so often, it doesn’t seem to work that way at all. And I don’t know how to account for the things in my life that (despite my occasional bitterness) I would genuinely consider blessings–in many if not most cases it would strain credulity to assert that I’ve somehow earned them through righteous living. Tough questions.

    m&m, thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m thinking about this bit of that quote you shared:

    The main purpose of the blessing is to be a guide to the individual who receives it, to encourage him, to direct him, to help him as he journeys through life.

    My understanding of patriarchal blessings is that they’re primarily aimed at helping us through this life–which is what it sounds like JFS is saying. So I’m not sure how that fits with the time-eternity thing. As I said in my last comment, I’m somewhat skeptical about the value of getting promises here that don’t actually refer to this life, especially if they’re not identified as such. For example, I personally would rather a patriarchal blessing said flat-out, “marriage isn’t going to happen in this life for you,” than to have a vague promise that might or might not refer to mortality. Especially when I look at the real pain those kinds of promises have caused in the lives of people I know, I have to wonder whether they might not actually do more harm than good.

    On the other hand, I do agree with you that we (or at least I!) can be too quick to assume that we know exactly what a blessing means. I’ve certainly been guilty at times of having my own preconceptions about How My Life Should Go, and conveniently interpreting blessings to fit into that narrative–and then being mad when things didn’t work out. So I’d agree that openness to alternate possibilities is important–though as I said, I also want those possibilities to have a plausible relation to the text, and not necessitate mental gymnastics.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for your thought and emotion provoking post, Lynnette. I’m sure he’s not the only one, but I think Rene Girard wrote that belief in the supernatural efficacy of the ritual is necessary for it to have cathartic power. As an unbeliever, the healing power of these rites is certainly much, much less. And while I don’t know the specifics of your situation, I think I’ve had at least a small taste of the frustration of unfulfilled heavenly promises. I hope you’re able to find some measure of satisfaction as you struggle through the messiness.

    When I had the opportunity to bless others, I took it very seriously. I believed that I really was speaking as God’s representative to that person, and did nothing to soften or dull the words and thoughts streaming through my mouth. As such, I made some pretty wild and specific promises to people over the years. I wonder now if I sowed more seeds of anguish than of comfort?

  17. 17.

    Sorry, Lynette, didn’t intend to violate TOS.

  18. 18.

    Lynnette,

    I can totally see what you mean about wishing for more precise expectations, etc. I guess my thought is that in the end, this life is by design a test of faith, so in my mind, too much spelled out for us could sort of defeat the purpose…not that we don’t all want some of that, but if it was all spelled out, would we really rely on God as much along the way? I think it’s like scripture study…we are meant to search, ask, seek, work, to figure out what is REALLY there for us in those words.

    To me, that quote helped me see even more that one of the things that can help us through this life is exactly the understanding that this life isn’t “it,” that there is much, much more to our existence than what we will do or not do, or have or not have, or experience or not experience in this life. To know that the promises of my blessing go beyond this life have come to bring me great comfort and perspective when I’m facing the limitations of mortality and the trials that mortality brings.

    I guess I don’t see it as mental gymnastics — I see it as a process of learning to put on a new pair of glasses, rather than the dark glass that Paul talks about. I’m not saying that there aren’t ever situations where mental gymnastics may be errantly engaged in, or mortal hopes or limitations affect the voice of a blessing, but again, on the other hand, our own limitations and lack of perspective can limit our understanding of the blessing or the ability to see its value…just as can happen with the scriptures or prophetic words or the guidance of the Spirit.

    My view is influenced by my experience with my own patriarchal blessing. It really has become so much more than just text to fit into my life or figure out in a one-time-only, plug-and-chug kind of a way. It’s like an onion that, more and more, I’m trying to peel layers off of rather than trying to slice it as I thought it was going to be sliced when I first got it. I had certain phrases pegged to mean one thing, and it has sometimes thrown me when things don’t unfold in that way…but after more than two decades with my blessing, I now have many examples of how what I thought it meant (say, a certain blessing) was rather there to help me through the very times when the blessings did not come to pass! I realize more now that it’s helping me through the hard times rather than predicting the easy…and it might have seemed during the hard times like mental gymnastics when things were almost opposite to what my blessing said, but experience has shown me that the blessing was correct and I just needed to hold on in faith during the hard times to see it fulfilled. It has ended up being a source of perspective and hope, if I was willing to really risk and trust it (as you can probably tell, I’m more willing to do that now that I have some experience with this kind of pattern).

    So, take the tender and difficult example of someone who may not end up marrying or having children in this life, but in told in her blessing that she will marry and have children. I don’t think it’s a matter of mental gymnastics to trust in God’s eternal promises (which in the end we all have to trust in, big time!), and to find comfort in the fact that this life is not an end, nor are our experiences here. It’s sort of like Paul’s statement that if our hope are limited to this life only, we are ‘most miserable.” 1 Cor. 15:19

    So, more and more, I am trying to look at my blessing not so much as predictive, but as an anchor for difficult times, as a source of perspective and promises that can come to pass if I endure whatever this life happens to bring.

  19. 19.

    And that should have been a post on my blog rather than such a long comment here. Sorry. :)

  20. 20.

    I was staying out of this discussion, since I commented about it in some detail on BCC just last month.

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2008/04/neo-and-patriarchal-blessings/

    The following, however, is the basis of how I view PB’s, edited from that discussion:

    Fwiw, I go with the “inspired men doing the best they can to ascertain God’s will, generally getting it right but occasionally missing the translation in the process” interpretation. I arrive at that conclusion based on my own PB and that of my wife, where some very unique things I never quite understood became crystal clear when they came true – and other things are so generic that they might as well be a horoscope. Those things can inspire focus and action, but they still are generic. Depending on the insight of the patriarch, some things also can be wrong – simply translated incorrectly or assumed by personal default.

    In the case of mine and my wife’s blessings, the unique things I mentioned aren’t simply self-fulfilling prophecies – interpreted in hindsight when they could have been applicable to any number of situations. They are truly fascinating examples of prophecy and revelation, just like other experiences I have had that convince me completely that someone sees my future and prepares me for it – not for all (or even most) things, but certainly for some things.

    Life is messy; clarity is rare; the generic is fine; the wrong is forgivable; the astounding is astounding. That’s my take, anyway.

  21. 21.

    JohnR, thanks for your thoughts on this. (And nice allusion to Girard!) It occurred to me as I was writing this that it really does put a lot of pressure on those giving the blessings–I’d be interested, actually, in more perspectives from that angle.

    C. Biden, no problem. Just trying to keep things in the realm of some kind of believing LDS context, since that’s the perspective from which I’m trying to make sense of all this (even if I do sometimes seem to be at the fringes of that realm! ;) )

  22. 22.

    m&m, thanks for your perspective. I think I can understand, at least to some extent, where you’re coming from. And I would certainly say that a lot of this life seems to be about the experience of ambiguity, and how we deal with that. (Though I do see a bit of a potential contradiction in the fact that 1) God’s communication is often vague and difficult to understand, and 2) we’re expected to follow what God says. This getting a bit off track, but that’s one reason I’ve always found the “this life is a test to see if we will obey” theory a bit odd.)

    But back to patriarchal blessings–I see one of the challenges of religion as balancing concern for the next life with concern for this one. And though I think the next life obviously plays a crucial role in our faith, I’m uneasy with appeals to it as a way to resolve difficult questions here. I can certainly see how it can be a source of hope, of giving us perspective on things, as you point out. But—going back to the marriage example—I don’t find the continual reassurance that if you don’t get married here, it will all be worked out in the next life very reassuring. (I actually haven’t met many single people in the Church who do.) I’m not terribly interested in a belief system that promises me rewards in the afterlife, but doesn’t have much meaningful or substantive to say about my situation here on earth. In other words, if I’m going to be single throughout mortality, I think a blessing that talked to me about that situation and how I might understand it would be much more helpful than one which focused on eternal possibilities.

    Another thought, on that vexing question of interpretation and reinterpretation—I would say that blessings have to be falsifiable if they’re going to be meaningful. In other words, you have to be able to imagine a scenario which would convince you that the blessing was inaccurate. Because if any potential outcome could be interpreted to be a fulfillment of the blessing, it’s essentially devoid of content; it doesn’t tell you anything.

    I also keep coming back to the question of—how do you decide when it’s useful to keep wrestling with an apparently failed promise, trying to find some way of understanding it that makes sense, and when is it actually more spiritually healthy to just decide it wasn’t inspired and let it go? Because I do think there are times when the latter is the better option. But it can be a painful process to get there.

    Okay, I’m not sure how much of this is actually connected to what you’re saying. :) I’m just kind of free associating. But again, thanks for your thoughts. I hope I don’t sound too antagonistic; I’m (obviously!) still trying to sort this out. But I think you make a valid point about the limitations of our understanding, and I like your model of a blessing as more a source of perspective than a prediction of the future.

    Ray, as I said in my post, I’m in general agreement with that perspective of “inspired men doing the best they can to ascertain God’s will” but sometimes not quite getting there. What I’m particularly interested in here, though, are the experiential aspects of that, of the effects of being promised a blessing that fails to materialize. Even if one theoretically holds to a view of patriarchal fallibility, I find that in practice it’s nonetheless a real challenge to discern which bits are in fact the will of God, and to emotionally and spiritually make peace with those promises which don’t seem to work out.

    I think it’s very cool that your blessing has turned out to be a source of prophecy and revelation—but it also leaves me (yet again) with the problem of why some people have experiences like that, and some don’t. Like I said earlier, I think I really want God to be equal-opportunity when it comes to that sort of thing, and maybe I’m just having a hard time accepting that he doesn’t seem to be.

  23. 23.

    Another thought, on that vexing question of interpretation and reinterpretation—I would say that blessings have to be falsifiable if they’re going to be meaningful. In other words, you have to be able to imagine a scenario which would convince you that the blessing was inaccurate. Because if any potential outcome could be interpreted to be a fulfillment of the blessing, it’s essentially devoid of content; it doesn’t tell you anything.

    Lynnette, I really like this comment. I wonder if this approach couldn’t be applied to all kinds of church-related stuff we interpret and reinterpret. For example, we (or at least I) tend to conveniently reinterpret scriptures to mean what we (I) want them to say. A check for falsifiability–is there anything the scriptures might say that I would consider incompatible with my preconceived idea–might be a good way to keep myself grounded. If there’s not, then my reinterpretations are pretty much meaningless. Or we might take the position that the Church doesn’t really ever change, that changing practices simply reflect different manifestations of the same underlying doctrine. And again, if there’s no possible change in practice that we would ever accept as reflecting an actual change in doctrine, then we’re clearly not taking the position that doctrine doesn’t change based on any evidence. It’s simply an axiom.

  24. 24.

    “I think it’s very cool that your blessing has turned out to be a source of prophecy and revelation—but it also leaves me (yet again) with the problem of why some people have experiences like that, and some don’t. Like I said earlier, I think I really want God to be equal-opportunity when it comes to that sort of thing, and maybe I’m just having a hard time accepting that he doesn’t seem to be.”

    It seems to me there are three agents involved in the process: the recipient of the blessing, the Patriarch and the Holy Spirirt (God). Only one of these is infallible. One would assume that the Holy Spirirt dictates the blessing each person needs, and in that way, at least, all blessings are “equal opportunity.”. There will be then some error on the part of the Patriarch as a matter of fact. The variable most likely to vary in the process isn’t the Holy Spirit, or the Patriarch, however, it is the recipient. The spiritual capacities and understanding of the recipients will vary widly, case by case. The recipient is also, however, able to improve and exercise his/her spirituality to eventually come closer to understanding the intent of the Holy Spirit – so nothing is neccesarily ever lost.

    (I dislike the langauge I’ve used here. It seems a little clinical. But it’s late, and that’s the best I’m going to be able to do.)

    ~

  25. 25.

    Lynette, I understand what you are saying and will add something that will sound somewhat (or very) unorthodox to many. It has been stated in others words in a few comments already, so I simply will try to say it a little differently. I apologize up front for the length.

    I have found that as I talk with many people about their blessings there has been an underlying assumption that their immediate, initial “understanding” of the blessing is correct – that if things don’t happen as they assume the blessing describes, then the blessing is “wrong”. Two of the best examples of this are those statements that deal with marriage (including children) and longevity.

    Let me use two specific examples:

    1) Someone is given blessings related to adult life, then that person dies before reaching adulthood. If the Patriarch were seeing the future, wouldn’t he have stopped the pronouncement of blessings before marriage and kids and career and education and adult church service? To me, this is the easiest example to address, since I surely wouldn’t want it to be stated (or even implied) in a daughter’s blessing that she would die as a teenager. I think that would be cruel and would change totally the way she would live her life – and generally not in a positive way.

    My takeaway from this example:

    A PB is a guide focused on a full life. Whether or not each individual lives that full life is not the job of the Patriarch to ascertain – with rare exceptions that prove the rule. There generally is the “dependent on your worthiness” clause (although I know of one case where that clause does not appear and the blessings are phrased in a way that makes it clear that worthiness will never be an issue – which is correct), but I believe there also is an underlying, unstated, assumed “dependent on the vagaries of life” clause.

    2) Someone is told they will marry and raise children, but she reaches the age where she no longer can bear children and is still single. This is tougher, since it seems like such a straightforward promise.

    I believe there might be an eternal element to these blessings, but I try to use that only as a last resort – since I believe these blessings are intended primarily as a guide for this life. So how do I reconcile the marriage and children promise?

    This is where my own view gets a bit unorthodox. We are conditioned (properly, I believe) to interpret statements like this in accordance with the “Gospel/Church ideal”. I belive that must always be our initial read, unless prompted by the Spirit. Therefore, this statement is taken to mean, “You will marry in the temple and give birth to sons and daughters . . .” Many times, that simply isn’t what actually is said by the words on the page.

    Non-temple marriage and adoption are legitimate fulfillment of the actual statement, but it is easy to ignore those options in life if reading only in light of the “ideal”. If a person reaches 30 (arbitrary number pulled out of thin air) and has no immediate prospect for a temple marriage, I have no problem whatsoever with that person looking actively for a non-temple marriage. I know that is heretical to many, and I don’t preach it as the general rule, but I do know that exceptions do exist for every rule, and 50,000 out of 5,000,000 still would be only 1% – a true exception.

    I haven’t even gotten to the fact of others’ agency and how their choices impact our lives. I don’t think that plays into a lot of the statements in our blessings.

    In summary, I have found that we often read our blessings through the lens of first impression, never stopping and asking deep questions like, “If this appears to not be happening, maybe it means I need to think outside my box of assumption and consider possibilities that I otherwise would reject.”

  26. 26.

    “I don’t think that plays into a lot of the statements in our blessings.”

    I should have said, “I don’t think patriarchs see our blessings in context of others’ agency.”

    Also, I realize the last question wasn’t written as a question. :)

  27. 27.

    I’ve been following this thread a little curious about everyone being so hush-hush about the specific kinds of promises within blessings that aren’t coming true.
    I mean, most of us don’t know each other in real life. We have a great amount of anonymity, and if that’s not enough, someone could post as “anonymous.”
    Anyway, what I’m asking is for people who have alluded generally to examples of blessings that haven’t come true, because other than the example of marriage and children, I can’t think of any others.
    Specific examples would make this conversation make more sense to me.

  28. 28.

    Lynette,

    Wonderful thoughts. One idea that is particularly meaningful to me is how we tend to blame ourselves when priesthood blessings go seemingly unfulfilled. We feel the need to blame something, yet the LDS faith doesn’t allow us much room to blame God or the priesthood holder, so the recipient of the blessing is often left holding the bag (as exemplified by #24).

    I’m no longer a believer, and I regret all the hurtful things I believed about my self, my worthiness, my value to God, etc. because I internalized the blame for faulty predictions or not receiving the same kind of spiritual witnesses as others claimed to have had. In this respect, religion was hurtful to me.

  29. 29.

    Jessawhy,

    If you’re interested, you can read my patriarchal blessing. I don’t know if it counts, but everything in my blessing was on schedule for fulfillment right up to the point that I lost faith in Mormonism.

    The standard disclaimer at the end of the blessing would blame me for my lack of “faithfulness in keeping the commandments”. I take exception to that now because I wasn’t perfect, but the time immediately preceding my disaffection was among the most faithful of my life.

    It was a hard burden to carry, the blame for any unfulfilled priesthood blessing. As I just mentioned, I spent a lot of time agonizing over what I was doing wrong that I didn’t have spiritual experiences that I believed to be the reward of a faithful life.

  30. 30.

    I must question the oft used excuse that the fallibility of both the Patriarch or other priesthood holder and the recipient of the blessing can explain many failed blessings. Surely God is capable of communicating simple concepts in ways that will be understood. If he means that I will not have children until the next life, it is not difficult to communicate that idea in a way that neither Patriarch nor recipient will misunderstand as “I will be married and have children in my mortal life.” If he does not mean to suggest that I will be healed from cancer, it is not difficult to make that clear. We mortals do it with each other all the time. When people say “I have terminal cancer”, nobody thinks they really mean “I have the flu and will feel fine in a week”.

    The whole point of these blessings is to communicate important, but usually very straighforward, information to God’s children. If he can’t find a way to do that when we mortals find that task to be pretty simple, then God help us all.

  31. 31.

    “The whole point of these blessings is to communicate important, but usually very straighforward, information to God’s children.”

    That’s where many members differ in how they view their PB.

  32. 32.

    When I received my PB at age 16, I almost fell off my chair because there was something so specific in my blessing that I could not deny that it was for me from Father through our Stake Patriarch. I had known since I was 5 years old what I wanted to make my career. My PB stated exactly that and what I would study in school to reach that goal. I had never met nor even seen our Patriarch before that night as he had just recently moved into our area. There were other points that fit my personality and character traits exactly.

    I know that, for me, the truthfulness and light of my blessing stood me deeply in my testimony. As has been stated by another, I knew it, God knew it, and I knew that God knew I knew it. From that time on, I never ever felt alone, no matter how dark things seemed sometimes. Believe me, there were times, if not for that reassurance, I would have wished for death because of the sorrow I faced.

    I have no idea why my PB was so specific to me, and others have to struggle so mightily to see where their lives coinside with their blessings. I have been very grateful to be so blessed because I don’t know if my faith would have prevailed during the very dark, ominous, painful times. I would wish for everyone to be so assured and I don’t know WHY they’re not. On the flip side, there is no way that I could ever deny the truthfulness of the Church, the Restoration, the Atonement and the Prophets. I know that Heavenly Father expects me to fulfill the privilege He has given me and I also know that he expects me to live up to that blessing in everything I do and say. I am certain that I fall short, often. But it is a great reminder to me to have faith, to repent, to always forgive,and to keep my covenants. I know that I should bear my testimony every chance I can. It is such a comfort to know that if I commit myself to be an example, that my Father will sustain me when I am weak and will make up the difference when I fail because He knows me, and He loves me. I can clearly imagine His arms around me, always, when there is no comfort anywhere else. I know that my Patriarchal Blessing changed who I would have been. I am so grateful that I was shown the TRUTH because I have never doubted it since then.

    I look forward to the day when I can thank my Father and my Savior face to face. It is the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me to help me through Earthlife. There is no way that I can adequately describe my thankfulness for this great blessing. When I get to the other side, I can’t wait to find out WHY me? Until then, I will just continue to try to do my best, and never forget what it means to me. I know that it was not because of anything that I did because I am so fallible. I have made many mistakes, and will continue to do so. That is what is so incredible. I did not earn it by anything I did. It is just The Plan for me. Father has a plan for everyone and He ministers to us in a way that we can recognize His hand in our lives, if we look for it.

    It is so beautiful. I hope I never take it for granted because it is the greatest blessing I could ever have received.

  33. 33.

    Jessawhy,
    I am not sharing specifics because we have been counseled specifically not to. From True to the Faith:

    “Patriarchal blessings are sacred and personal. They may be shared with immediate family members, but should not be read aloud in public or read or interpreted by others. Not even the patriarch or bishop or branch president should interpret it.”

    To me, the anonymity of the internet doesn’t really matter when it comes to something like this. I know it makes it harder to talk about it, though.

    And Lynnette I started a response to you and it got really long (surprise) and I haven’t had a chance to whittle it down. I think someone else sort of summed up my view, though…that I think regardless of what we see or know now, we ought to be careful about putting limits or judgments on the blessings we receive, or on the people who give them. Not that I don’t think that there are times when we need to step back from them a bit, but I think we can step back and let go a bit without dismissing them entirely, and especially without drawing a firm line in the sand where we have decided, without question, that the blessing was not inspired.

    I’m thinking, for example, of something I heard someone say about a blessing of health during a period in that person’s life. Because that person got seriously ill during that period, the person decided that the blessing was flawed. But what does ‘health’ mean? I mean, the person lived through this illness. Does health always mean never being sick? I don’t think so. How often do we impose expectations like this and make assumptions and conclusions in a way that may be too narrow?

    I totally, completely understand wanting more specifics. Oh, how I understand that…I’m in the throws of that with my health challenges and the blessings I have received in that regard. But I still have to believe that there is something to the struggle, the searching, the pondering, seeking, asking, pressing forward…very similar to other elements in the gospel, like the temple. The Lord knows what we need, and sometimes that is specificity. But often, I think He expects us to work and struggle to learn by experience and through personal revelation, not necessarily by having things spelled out for us.

    Just some late-nite musings….

  34. 34.

    John Hamer wrote a post at Mormon Matters earlier this year where he reported some of the interesting promises made in patriarchal blessings back in Joseph Smith’s time. We struggle when marriage and family type blessings don’t come about–some of them were blessed to live to see the Second Coming!

  35. 35.

    I honestly think that perhaps some of the blessings not being fulfilled result from other people’s agency coming into play. Inspiration and blessings are real, but individual agency trumps all…even God won’t interfere with that. I find some comfort in knowing that God truly wants a certain thing for me, whether or not it’s possible right now. However, if you are hurt or struggling due to unfulfilled promises you shouldn’t discount those feelings. Feelings are real. The problem comes when we ignore feelings or allow them to turn us to bitterness.

  36. 36.

    Wow Lynnette, I never thought about PB one way or another until I read your blog. and my first thought was summed up by Ray:
    “I haven’t even gotten to the fact of others’ agency and how their choices impact our lives. I don’t think that plays into a lot of the statements in our blessings.”
    Let’s say you were promised a good husband and 10 kids. And the husband chosen was perfect! But the chosen husband went and made a bunch of bad choices. It may be in the eternal scheme of things it will take a few eons after your death to find another perfect husband for all your kids. I hope not, but it is a plausible answer.
    On a personal note, I remember mine even though it was so long ago. The patriarch talked on and on about something I was totally not interested in. Then there was a silence of a few seconds, very noticable. Then he spoke a few words about what I really wanted to know. All these years later, turns out what he was going on about really was the most important thing I could have done, and what I was interested in was directly tied to that subject. All this time I thought it was nothing more than someone guessing, and it turns out that my future was seen and guidence offered but not taken. I would advise you keep reading your PB every so often. Not enough to obsess over though. Kind’ve like looking at a scale, you don’t want to step on it every day or it’ll just make you depressed.

Leave a Reply