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 (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/inspiration). 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.