Zelophehad’s Daughters

Is Personal Revelation Available to Everyone?

Posted by Lynnette

One of the things I like most about Mormonism is the centrality of personal revelation, the idea that anyone can go to God and get answers. You don’t have to be in some high religious position for this to happen—God is no respecter of persons, and will talk to you directly. The narrative which has become the founding story of our faith is that of Joseph Smith reading in the Bible that he could ask God for wisdom, and taking that seriously enough to give it a try.

In fact, not only is personal revelation available, it’s expected. We tell people to pray and get a personal witness of the Book of Mormon. We warn people that you can’t live on borrowed light. You need to have your own testimony, or else you might end up as one of the people with an empty lamp in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

This is why I’m not sure what to make of it that it’s not clear to me that everyone does in fact get personal revelation. I know people who say that the concept is foreign to them, that it’s like people are speaking a different language when they talk about spiritual experience. Sure, you can toss out easy answers. They need more faith. They need to seek more diligently. They need to do a better job of listening. But I don’t think it’s fair to jump to those conclusions. (I also have to note that my own experience has given me reason to believe very strongly in personal revelation. And I’m far from a shining example of righteousness or diligence.)

One analogy I’ve occasionally encountered is one that  Barbara Bradey Hagerty, a religion consultant for NPR, mentions in her book on science and spirituality:

the brain is a radio receiver . . . Several scientists I interviewed proposed the idea. In this analogy, everyone possesses the neural equipment to receive the radio program to vary degrees. Some have the volume turned low—in the case of an atheist, so low it’s inaudible. Many hear their favorite programs every now and then. Others, though no fault of their own, have the volume turned up too high, or they are receiving a cacophony of noise that makes no sense. ( Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” 156)

I have mixed feelings about this way of framing it. But I do like the acknowledgment that one’s access to spiritual experience and personal revelation might well vary widely from person to person.

This also brings to mind the passage in D&C 46 that “all have not every gift given unto them.” Significantly, some have the gift to know, and others have the gift to believe. Going even further than that, I don’t see anything in the text indicating that everyone necessarily has one or the other; some might have neither. I find this striking because it challenges the idea that spiritual knowledge is universally accessible. Here, in contrast to so many other scriptures, it’s framed as a particular gift, not a guarantee. I’m not sure what to make of this theologically. But I wonder if we could construct a different narrative about this subject, one which takes this diversity seriously, and is cautious about making blanket promises about getting answers.

10 Responses to “Is Personal Revelation Available to Everyone?”

  1. 1.

    I think in addition to varying from person to person, it can also vary for one person at different times and in different situations. I’ve experienced a couple of bouts of serious depression, and my experience then was that receiving direction and guidance was all but impossible. It kind of made sense to me, because my brain wasn’t working right, so revelatory inputs that needed mind reception just weren’t coming through. Fortunately, I could still get reception on the heart part, which was comforting and helpful in different ways.

  2. 2.

    I think everyone is different. What works for me might not work for you. We need to respect that. If a person has a revelation/receives guidance/has a feeling that they shouldn’t join the church, go to the temple, etc., we need to trust that God has the best plan for that person.

  3. 3.

    I am persuaded to believe that everyone is able to receive revelation. I am pretty sure we are promised that in the scriptures. But what if the way we receive revelation is as varied and numerous as there are people?

  4. 4.

    Excellent questions, Lynnette. I was always under the impression that all of the spiritual gifts were available to all of us, though some came more naturally than others. I will have to research that more now.

  5. 5.

    Really interesting thoughts, Lynnette. Of course my first thought is that Moroni doesn’t seem to be applying and caveats when he says “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” But the discussion of spiritual gifts, as you point out, seems to say that some people get one and some another, but not everyone gets them all.

    Also, I wonder if Moroni might not have been overgeneralizing from his own experience. It reminds me of Nephi, who it seems to me was clearly doing so when he said “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” That may have been true in Nephi’s experience, but I think there’s no way that’s a general rule.

  6. 6.

    Even after years of effort, some cannot confidently identify personal revelation. So, its not initially a universal gift, even if Nephi can’t understand someone not getting an inspired reinterpretation of Isaiah for the asking.

    The assumption that everyone does or easily could receive personal revelation doesn’t leave much of a basis of belief for those still waiting. Moroni 10:5 isn’t the only relevant scripture; everything from the fruit in Alma 32 to Gideon’s fleece suggest alternate ways to believe and to know. I think there’s a great need for our narratives to acknowledge this.

  7. 7.

    I should also say what a wonderful and important post. Thank you for writing it.

  8. 8.

    Lynette, thanks for this thought-provoking post. For one thing it made me think about the nature of personal revelation. What do we mean by this term? If we assume the existence of God, or some supernatural being who wants to communicate with us, then I think we’d define personal revelation as the ability to perceive communication from God.

    But the problem seems to be, how could we ever prove we’re not receiving personal revelation? I think it is pretty universal that we all experience feelings and have thoughts that seem to come from outside us. Whether we call those feelings or thoughts personal revelation seems to be a matter of interpretation. The atheist may have a brilliant idea come unbidden. Suppose it actually came from God. The atheist may not acknowledge it as communication from God, but would that mean he is unable to receive personal revelation?

    Of course the converse is true. A believer may have a brilliant idea that actually doesn’t come from God, but he interprets it as coming from God and calls it personal revelation.

    The way I think about your post is that there may be people who hear the Gospel message, or pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true, or sit in testimony meeting and feel or think nothing out of the ordinary. This could be because those things aren’t true or good, or it could be because the person is unable to perceive communication from God. In either case, if the person is a Mormon they may feel defective or like an outsider. But I’m not sure that would mean they cannot perceive any sort of communication from God. Perhaps just not the conventional communications or in the conventional way (as interpreted by believers.)

  9. 9.

    Thank you for this, Lynette. You have articulated so well
    the paradox that is at the center of my faith crisis/journey.

  10. 10.

    *Lynnette

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