You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiration

This guest post comes to us from Mike C. See his previous guest posts here and here, and definitely don’t miss his most recent fMh post, “Why I Am Wrong & Why I Need You to Tell Me I’m Wrong.”

I had just popped open an ice-cold, 24-ounce Bud when my phone rang. It was the bishop. How did he know?! It was the first time in my life that I had opened a can of beer, and the bishop seemed to know. I wasn’t even in the same state—I was on vacation, 200 miles away. Surely he couldn’t hear the pop and hiss from that far away. Let me tell you, my testimony of leaders being guided by inspiration was reaching new levels.

“Hey, Mike, whatcha up to?” Hmmm, was I honest in my dealings with my fellow men? “Making dinner”, I replied (technically true). It sounded better than, “Just opening a cold brewski, Bishop.”

In my defense, I was pouring beer into a pot in order to boil some bratwurst and onions for a traditional Wisconsin meal with my old college buddies and fellow Badgers/Cheeseheads. (The brats were delicious, by the way.) But the whole experience got me thinking about the nature of inspiration.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by inspiration. First of all, I am not talking about revelation. Though they are sometimes used interchangeably, I think most Mormons understand revelation to pertain to weightier matters, such as Church doctrine, and that revelation is typically received by Church leaders, such as prophets and apostles. Of course we believe that everyone can receive personal revelation, but I think it is safe to say that most Mormons don’t use the term revelation as in, “I received a revelation about who to call as my counselors”, or “I received a revelation about what scriptures to quote in my sacrament talk”, or “I received a revelation about what to study in college”, or even, “I received a revelation about what to say in that Priesthood blessing”. Instead, in these instances most of us would probably use the term inspiration.

The definition of inspiration that seems most applicable is this: Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the mind and soul of humankind ( Compared to revelation, inspiration is typically understood to mean something less formal, less obvious (no finger of God writing on a tablet), less concrete and more intuitive.

Now that I have defined inspiration, here are some of my thoughts about it:

  1. True inspiration can be hard to recognize. One reason is because serendipitous coincidences can be attributed to inspiration. In my example of the party-pooping phone call from the bishop, he had actually already tried to call me twice that day. The third time just happened to occur seconds after I opened a can of beer. I don’t believe he was inspired to call me right then; it was just a coincidence. However, when events happen together or are associated (you decide to visit a friend and your friend turns out to be sick), we may be quick to credit inspiration. This is because our minds are wired to look for and be attracted to causal explanations for observed associations.
  2. Supposed inspiration can sometimes be wrong. When I was little my sister was born with Down syndrome. When she was 18 months old my parents decided to try surgery to fix some serious heart defects. Before surgery my dad gave her a blessing, saying that she would live and do many things in her life. Sadly, this did not happen—she died in surgery. My parents were devastated, but I believe my dad felt some added discouragement or confusion because of the blessing he gave. I’ve no doubt he felt inspired to say those words in his blessing and I believe he was a righteous Priesthood holder, and yet his inspiration was not borne out.
  3. The best way to assess inspiration, and probably the only reliable way, is by its fruits. The outcomes of following inspiration can be trusted more than the feelings associated with receiving the inspiration. It is so easy to get feelings wrong, no matter how righteous and pure and practiced the receptacle for the inspiration. Even prophets and apostles have felt they should do or say something which, in the end, turned out to be wrong—think Joseph Smith and the lost pages of the Book or Mormon, or Bruce R. McKonkie’s pronouncements about blacks and the Priesthood. As individuals, if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that we have also experienced this difficulty, erring in our interpretation of what we thought was inspiration. To reduce such errors we would do well to only follow inspiration that suggests good fruits—patience, humility, compassion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, love unfeigned.
  4. While it may be appropriate to follow our inspiration in decisions that primarily affect ourselves, we should be reluctant to claim inspiration for others or use inspiration as a reason why someone else should do what we want. So, for example, I think it was perfectly legitimate for Nephi to risk his life by entering the walls of Jerusalem, being “…led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” However, I believe it was less legitimate for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac because God told him to do it. Rather, I believe Abraham should have first discussed his inspiration with Isaac (perhaps he did—the scriptural record is incomplete) and acknowledged his own responsibility in interpreting and acting on his inspiration. Such a discussion also would have invited a response from Isaac. The response could have been, “I don’t believe God would tell you to do such a thing”, or, “I believe you are inspired but I want to live so I don’t want you to follow your inspiration”, or, “I also received a confirmation of your inspiration and I accept it”. In any case, the agency of both men would have been acknowledged and, hopefully, respected.

These thoughts lead me to the thesis of this post: we should own our decisions and support them with reasoning, rather than place the accountability for our decisions on inspiration or on the Spirit or on God. Just as we would not say, “The devil made me do it”, I don’t think it’s OK to say, “My spiritual inspiration made me do it”. If we claim we are only following inspiration, we excuse ourselves from 1) responsibility if things go wrong; 2) any hurt that our decisions or actions may cause; and 3) understanding someone else’s viewpoint and fully weighing their arguments. Why listen if inspiration has already indicated what we are to do?

This is not to say that there is no such thing as spiritual manifestations, or that reasoning must be based on measureable evidence alone. I think it’s reasonable to say, “I am doing this because I have a certain good feeling about it, and in the past when I had this feeling and followed it things have typically gone well.” In doing so, however, it is essential to acknowledge that I am still the actor, I am accountable for what I do. My inspiration informs my decisions, but I am still the decision-maker.

So, some practical implications are:

  • Never tell someone you feel inspired to marry them or inspired to divorce them. That’s a big no-no. It’s OK to believe that, but keep it to yourself. I believe there is great potential for error and abuse in causing others to feel that our inspiration trumps their agency.
  • If you ask someone to serve in a calling, do not tell them that God called them. Tell them that you are calling them. I believe that leaders create problems for themselves and for those they lead when they imply that their decisions are God’s will. Their decisions are their will based on their interpretation of God’s will. It is a subtle, yet important distinction.
  • Don’t blame God for things going wrong when you follow your inspiration. I believe it is healthier to simply acknowledge that we misinterpreted our inspiration or that bad things still happen even when we follow God’s will.
  • Spouses (especially husbands!) and parents: do not use inspiration as a reason why your spouse must move across the country or your daughter must stop seeing her boyfriend. Give your reasons, make your case, use persuasion rather than appealing to spiritual authority.

Well, enough about inspiration. Now, please excuse me while I go open another cold one. Don’t worry, though, it’s just for cooking. I’ve taken to heart the counsel in D&C 89:7: Strong drinks are not for your belly, but for the washing of your brat-ies.


  1. If anyone has a daughter who will be attending one of the Mormon-dominated universities in the west, please post a copy of this post on her bedroom mirror. Then write in red ink on the bottom of the page this: “If some boy tells you he has received divine inspiration that you are to be his wife, please tell him that you have received divine inspiration that you are to give him a swift kick in the ass.”

  2. I would have thought a true Sconnie would have been inspired to boil brats in Miller, or at least some other Wisconsin-brewed beer.

  3. sar’s comment reminds me of a sign held by a fan during a rain delay in the ’82 World Series between the Cardinals and Brewers.

    “Don’t let the rain get in your beer or it will taste like the stuff they brew in Milwaukee.”

  4. Although there are some great points here, I am not sure I am quite comfortable with the idea of downplaying the role of inspiration in our lives. It is something to be celebrated, not pretend that it doesn’t exist.

    I totally agree that the decision is always up to us, and inspiration is only one data source in making our decision, for which we are ultimately responsible.

    I am not so sure about #3, because the fruits are not always obvious. Zions Camp, anyone? In my own life, I was called to be the primary chorister by mistake, because a friend from years ago had confused me with someone else who had musical talent. When I explained this to the bishopric person who called me, he was genuinely baffled. Not by that mistake, but because they had prayed about it and felt that it was right. So I took it on, found growth in struggling, and made great friends in Primary. A few months later, when the position opened up, I was moved to the place where I fit and thrived and served effectively. Had I immediately dismissed that rotten fruit, the outcome might have been different. Also, I wonder whether we mere humans can accurately judge the fruit?

    I agree with #4, Stewardship is an important factor here; we can’t get revelation that someone else should marry us, only that we should propose marriage to them. A parent of adult children can’t get revelation as to whether a daughter should date someone, only revelation as to how they should counsel the daughter.

  5. Kevin, I think my subconscious was working when I wrote this post because I have a daughter at BYU. She’s made it through 2 years unmarried so I’m breathing a little easier. I’m sure she’ll make wise decisions about her life and marriage, but they seem so darn young and vulnerable those first years in college (I know I was) that I’m grateful for each additional month of maturation and frontal lobe development before really big decisions are made.

    sar, I confess that my Wisconsin bona-fides are imperfect. Though born and raised in Wisconsin, we moved when I was 15 before I could become a true Wisconsin beer connoisseur (my parents wouldn’t even allow Pepsi in the house). In my defense, when we cooked our brats we were closer to St. Louis than Milwaukee, so perhaps our use of Bud can be forgiven.

    Left Field, please don’t bring up the painful subject of the World Series of 1982. This (former) baseball fanatic is still in mourning. Every October our flag flies at half mast and I only dress in black.

  6. If the ’82 World Series is too painful, you might derive some pleasure from Tom Boswell’s marvelous essay, “Bred to a Harder Thing than Triumph.” Even as an Orioles fan I enjoy this account of the remarkable ’82 Orioles-Brewers pennant race.

    Of course, the Brewers are dead to me now, since they defected the AL. Well, that and foisting Bud Selig on us all.

  7. I mostly agree with this post. Except for the idea that you shouldn’t discuss your possible inspiration feelings with your fiance/e or spouse. What kind of marriages do you people have that you aren’t open and don’t discuss your feelings on things like marriage and things like moves or job acceptance.
    My husband and I absolutely talked about why we were choosing each other. He may have asked me to marry him prematurely because he was in love with him, but I said no and over the course of the next few months I told him when I had prayed about it and when I was ready to accept and that praying about it (inspiration) and knowing God approved was part of it. Also, I pretty much insisted that he pray about it too.
    When he and I make big decisions we pray about it and we discuss it and our feelings on whether we feel inspired to do it or inspired not to do it absolutely play into it.
    I find it strange that anyone would think it is hurtful to discuss these things within a marriage. No one is really using inspiration to trump anyone. We are both seeking to make the best decisions for our family using logic and reason and experience and knowledge and understanding our wants and needs and looking to the Lord for guidance through inspiration. My husband and I have talked about the inspiration we have felt or not felt for all of the following decisions:
    1. Having baby #1 and baby #4
    2. Freezing sperm
    3. Homeschooling child #3
    4. Choosing a school for child #1
    5. Accepting a job offers
    6. Buying a house
    7. Dealing with problems within the family
    Maybe we aren’t always using the word inspiration or revelation, but we do talk about feelings and answers and what God wants us to do or what we think God is telling us to do which is the same thing.
    I honestly can’t imagine a life where when my husband and I go into the sperm collection room of a fertility clinic (just before chemo started) and I covered the stack of porn magazines with a towel, that I didn’t insist that we pray since I did not feel inspired to do this.

  8. Your first and fourth points under practical implications apear ti me to be corelaries to the the principle that “no power or influence ought to be maintaned by virtue of the priesthood, only by PESUASION…”

  9. For a short time in high school I dated a guy who loved Chicago and played that song for me, telling me I was the inspiration. I thought it was gross. I can’t hear it anymore without feeling the urge to flee.

    “My inspiration informs my decisions, but I am still the decision-maker.”

    Yes. That, and keep your inspiration to yourself!

  10. jks, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to discuss inspiration about whether to marry with someone you’re dating, but whether it’s appropriate is definitely dependent on what stage the relationship is in. If you’ve dated for a while, gotten serious, and discussed the possibility of marriage, then bringing up that you’ve prayed about it and feel God wants you to marry them is probably all right (as long as you accept that they also have the right to pray about it and might get a different answer). It is not, however, something that should ever be brought up on a first date, whether you’ve felt inspiration about it then or not. If the relationship progresses to the point you’re talking about marriage, you could say, “I’ve felt like I was supposed to marry you since our first date,” but you absolutely should not bring it up on the first date!

    And I agree with you that discussing inspiration as one thing to weigh when making large decisions in a marriage is a good thing. My husband and I certainly do. But again, this is where it is extremely important to remember and accept that the other person is also entitled to inspiration, and it might not be the same as yours. The results of this can differ. Here are three examples from my own life:

    1. When my husband was interviewing for jobs just after graduate school he got two offers. We both prayed about which job he should take, and got different answers. We talked about it, and he felt more strongly than I did, plus I thought it would affect his life more than mine, so I went along with his inspiration, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with it and certainly hadn’t gotten the same inspiration.

    2. Each time I’ve gotten pregnant I’ve gotten strong inspiration that we were supposed to before we did. I told my husband each time. I think the first time he didn’t get inspiration one way or the other and decided to go along with my inspiration. I think the third time he prayed and also received inspiration that we should have another baby. I’m not sure which it was the second time, but I’m sure it was one of those two scenarios.

    3. At the moment, I feel strongly that we should adopt. My husband doesn’t. He feels (somewhat) strongly that I should get pregnant. I don’t. So for now we’re not adopting or having a biological kid, because we can’t come to an agreement.

    In all these cases, inspiration is one aspect of a larger discussion. And most importantly, inspiration is personal and while we can share our feelings with our spouses, it should only happen if we are willing to accept that their inspiration on the same matter might be different and are willing to work through the issues that will arise if that’s the case. (BTW, I’m not suggesting that this isn’t how you discuss inspiration in your marriage — it probably is. I’m just suggesting that I think this is the only acceptable way to discuss inspiration in a marriage, and since it certainly isn’t the only way inspiration is discussed in some marriages, that might be why Mike made his fourth point.)

  11. jks, I really appreciate your points. I think Vada already addressed them in a way similar to how I would have.

    I have experienced many times what I would classify as inspiration, so I’m very sympathetic to what you’re saying. Currently I feel less strongly than in previous years that God wants me to do very specific things, rather than me choosing more independently, but I agree that inspiration is worth discussing within marriages and I admire the way you and your husband seem to do it.

    The challenge for me is situations where two people’s inspiration does not match up. If God is inspiring both people, then what do you do with that, especially if they are husband and wife dealing with a single decision? My concern is that in those cases it is very easy for the person in the more advantaged position (very frequently the husband in Mormon culture) to “win” by default, because appealing to inspiration can very easily shut off debate (e.g., “I know my decision seems illogical to you, but I feel inspired to do it.”). Having taught the Strengthening Marriage class, we unfortunately observed that this seemed to happen within marriages more frequently than we would have liked.

    I think this can also happen in church administration. A primary president feels inspired to call someone as a teacher and the bishop responds by saying he felt inspired to do something different. At that point, how does the primary president appeal the point? It seems that the bishop’s claiming inspiration limits further discussion, or puts the primary president in a one-down position. If she disagrees, she must be questioning the inspiration of the leader of the ward.

    As a recent personal example, the stake high councilor sent an e-mail saying he prayed and felt that God wanted him to choose certain GC talks for 4th Sunday lessons. The first two were by Sister Dalton and Elder Bednar, which would have been two of the last I would have ever chosen as I did not feel good about many parts of them. So, it is frustrating to me that to disagree with the high councilor is to question his inspiration.

    So, I don’t know what the best answer is, but what I would prefer is that we each process what we feel is best based on inspiration and other factors, and then we present that answer as our preference or opinion, rather than as our inspiration.

  12. Great thoughts, Mike C.! Just picking out a couple of favorites:

    “our minds are wired to look for and be attracted to causal explanations for observed associations”

    Yes, exactly! This is a tangent to your post, but I think this is a crucial point in understanding how the Church can teach things without coming out and saying them. Nobody needs to say women are less important, for example; all we need is a bunch of structures that treat them as less important, and our ability to find and explain patterns takes over and we get to the conclusion anyway.

    “Never tell someone you feel inspired to marry them or inspired to divorce them.”

    I think this is a very good point. It seems like even if our motives were completely pure when saying such a thing (not likely), it would be extremely difficult for such a statement to not come off as being manipulative. Like you said, it’s probably best to come up with arguments that are accessible to the other person rather than saying “God inspired me to do this.”

  13. Mike C and Vada – Absolutely both people in a marriage get inspiration. I guess I didn’t realize that wasn’t a given. I thought everyone knew that. And I would never assume my husband’s inspiration automatically trumped mine because if it is truly inspiration and it affects me then I will eventually get the same inspiration. If he was calling all his opinions “inspirations” then it would make an extremely difficult marriage.
    There are times when each of us in our marriage have chosen to go with the other person’s inspiration trumping ours but more that it trumps our own preference not our own inspiration. I know my husband defers somewhat to my inspiration about raising our family because I am more involved on a daily basis and he knows that I am always trying to take his values and opinions into consideration (it isn’t like I am the one thinking football is necessary for an 11 year old, but because of my particular husband and particular son I was glad to have had the feeling that it was time without leaving it too late which would have happened without that feeling because my son would have become too sure of his identity of not being an athlete).
    I felt inspired to homeschool my 3rd child this year. Of course I had a great list of logical reasons that we discussed as well. But a decision like this is a complete leap of faith. It is drastic. If my husband didn’t trust me, and if he wasn’t sure that I am really trying to be a good parent and ask the Lord for help, I’m not sure he could be as supportive. His trust in MY assurance that this is an inspired decision is helpful to him and to me.
    When making the scary decision to have a fourth child, it is helpful when we can both tell each other the Lord said YES because when you do something that huge, you need that assurance that you haven’t ruined your lives by making a huge mistake.
    (Vada, I am happy to hear you having gone ahead with either adoption or pregnancy, because it is hell to feel like you’ve ruined your entire family by a decision like that. I have a friend in this situation. There is hope in the atonement and the Lord does consecrate all difficulties for everyone’s good…eventually. But the cost is huge for either pregnancy or adoption so the non-inspired spouse should speak up if they feel strongly against it.
    I don’t have a problem with my husband and I having different opinions. We do all the time. I usually am quite confident I am right and he is wrong (I mean, isn’t it obvious that I am always right), but we seem to be able to come to decisions as we go along. Sometimes it is his way, sometimes it is my way. We hope that we often go with the Lord’s way although it is difficult to be sure. We both appreciate it when we DO feel inspiration because it is extremely helpful in our disagreements.
    I also thought it was a given that if it is inspiration that affects another person then that person has the right to get the same inspiration.
    If a spouse feels they are inspired, then the other spouse has a choice. I have made this choice a couple of times. You weigh the cost of following the spouse’s inspiration vs. not following it. So if the spouse feels inspired to have the family start a business, for instance, you decide if you can actually do it and live with that decision even if it is a failure and brings added stress or if the financial cost and time cost and difficultly of the job is too much and you can’t support it and therefore you say no even if your spouse will be upset. Like Vada deciding she could live with her husband feeling like a particular job was the better choice after praying about it. The cost of going with the husband’s inspiration was a livable cost and her inspiration was not warning her strongly against it.
    Of course it is weird to tell a date that you are inspired to marry them. But to me it is weird to not tell the person you are in love with and plan to marry them that you feel inspired to marry them (assuming you do feel inspired).

  14. This post and the preceding comments are all very interesting to me. On my second date with my husband I had a very strong impression that was totally unexpected. I went home and hoped he would ask me out again. After we were married he told me he had experienced something similar. He went home and asked out many other women to see if it could be repeated. It was only after our married that we talked about what had happened that day.

    It is my opinion that we followed the inspiration we both felt. We dated and made a personal decision. It still seems to me it worked well. Other decisions in our life have not been exactly like that.

    It does appear to me that it would depend on the situation what the best course might be. I have never told my children about inspiration I thought I had about who they should marry. They would not have listened and it would have hurt our relationship.


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