I grew up with two related beliefs about making decisions. The first was that in most cases, there was a right decision, a choice that you were supposed to make. “There’s the right and the wrong to ev’ry question,” asserts the hymn. The other was that with enough asking, God would reveal to you what that correct choice was. I heard again and again what a wonderful blessing this was, that God had a clear plan for your life and would guide you along that path, that you wouldn’t ever be left on your own to figure out what you were supposed to do. In fact, figuring out and then following God’s will for you was the entire point of this life. “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them,” explains the book of Abraham.
I did think that this could be taken to an extreme. I remember hearing stories when I was at BYU about people who prayed in the grocery store over which can of fruit to buy and thinking, okay, that’s nuts. But I firmly believed that God would direct the big life decisions in your life and answer the big questions you had; surely that was the blessing of a doctrine of personal revelation, that you could reliably obtain answers and guidance for any confusing situation that arose.
The only problem with all of this was that in my life, things never seemed to be quite that tidy. There were many situations about which I felt that I desperately needed answers, and I begged God to please say something about them, anything, and never heard a word. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have spiritual experiences; I honestly felt like I did, and there were times when I genuinely believed that God was communicating something to me. But I still struggled with not getting divine guidance about topics where I felt that I really could use some guidance. Part of me saw this as a problem of my own sinfulness, lack of faith, and possibly lack of effort. After all, it wasn’t as if I’d ever managed to pull an Enos and pray for hours and hours. Maybe if I tried harder, I thought, I could convince God to finally talk to me about the subjects I wanted him to talk to me about. I’d heard more than once that people didn’t get answers because God knew they wouldn’t be willing to act on them if they did, and that worried me a lot; I suspected I might be one of the slackers in that category, and that explained my difficulties with personal revelation. Alternately, I felt angry at God, and wondered whether I just wasn’t one of his favorite children, the ones who paraded up to the stand every month at testimony meeting to share how God had answered all their questions and guided their decisions in a way that ensured that their life ran smoothly. But I don’t think I ever seriously questioned the idea that God would give answers to those who diligently sought them. In fact, looking back, I questioned the existence of God before I questioned my belief that if God existed, this was how he was operating.
It’s taken me a long time to see some of the potential pitfalls in this system, many of which wreaked a fair amount of havoc in my spiritual life. One is that a strong belief in relying on the Lord to tell you what to do can lead to a certain amount of human passivity. I don’t know that this has to be the case, but there were definitely times that I went this direction. I remember one situation in particular that kind of makes me cringe to remember now. I was facing a major life decision, and I was so sure that God had the answer about what I should do that I decided to devote all my effort to figuring out God’s will. The embarrassing part of the story is that firm in this belief, I didn’t devote very much effort to researching my options, or even contemplating the question of what path would make the most sense to me. I rather glossed over the “study it out in your mind” step in the process as outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants, but convinced myself that God was a sort of vending machine who would dispense answers if only the right formula of prayer were to be inserted. I am sure it will not surprise anyone to hear that God never responded, and the decision I eventually made, based on very little of my own research, was one that caused a lot of anguish in my life.
Another pitfall is that, at least in my experience, it’s very, very easy to conflate your own desires and beliefs with communication from God. Based both on things that have happened to me and hearing other people’s accounts of trying to figure out what God is saying to them, I suspect that it’s not uncommon for personal revelation to turn out to convey—surprise!—confirmation of something that at least part of you really wants to believe, or wants to do. In some particularly awful situations, some of which affected me firsthand, people explained that abusive behavior on their part was the result of a direct command from God. People telling you that they’re doing harmful things to you because God told them to do so just messes with you in so many ways. But many of my problems in this area have been more mundane. I think that an appeal to the authority of revelation can be a convenient way of not having to take responsibility for your choices, or ownership of your desires; you can just say, but God told me to do that so I had no choice, and not feel completely accountable. I know that I’ve definitely fallen back on that when I’ve found it difficult to admit even to myself that something was what I wanted.
I also think that a strong belief that God will guide you through your life can lead to utter spiritual disaster in some situations. Because what happens when you sincerely seek answers and feel like you get them and diligently follow them—and as a direct result, your life falls apart? It is not an easy thing to maintain faith in God in the face of that happening, as I’ve observed both in my own life and in the lives of many others. It feels like a very deep betrayal. The problem of God not stopping you from stepping on a mine is a real one, but the problem of God being the one to tell you to walk into the minefield in the first place cuts even deeper. One regularly given answer is to suggest that the person misunderstood the revelation. Given human frailty, that certainly seems possible. But what’s made me crazy when this has happened to me is that if even if that were true and I’d just not heard correctly, God had watched me misunderstand and make the wrong decision, and hadn’t done anything about it. Another proposed solution to the dilemma is that God’s ways are not our ways and maybe there’s a deeper meaning in the disasters that have taken place in your life as a result of divine guidance, but I find myself wary of too quickly deciding that the really bad things that have happened to me were the will of God. I don’t know how to trust a God who behaves in such a fashion.
For all these reasons, I’ve become much less of a believer in the idea that God will generally guide the choices you make, even the major ones. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that LDS theology actually points in a different direction. If the purpose of this life is to experience making decisions in the face of ambiguity, and to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, it wouldn’t make sense for God to be micromanaging the project. How much do you learn, after all, if you’re not the one making the decisions? I’ve also come to seriously question the idea that in most situations there’s a right decision. One of the hardest things about life, I think, is that almost every decision involves some trade-offs. Even choices that come with a lot positive things also often involve losses and hard parts. And quite frankly, sometimes it’s freaking hard to be faced with all that ambiguity, with not knowing how things will turn out, and to be aware that whatever you choose, there will be regrets and difficulties. Faced with the uncertainty of all that, I do often find myself wanting someone else to intervene and make the decision for me. But I nonetheless suspect that I learn things from having to do it myself that I couldn’t learn in other ways.
This all may lead you to think that I no longer believe in personal revelation or divine involvement in my life, but that’s actually not the case at all. I just think about it really differently. I may not think God is generally going to tell me what to do (though I’m not ruling out the possibility that there might times when he or she does actually call people to do specific things). What I have been slowly developing instead is more faith that God is willing to support me and be involved in my life while giving me the space to figure out where I want to go. It’s terrifying sometimes to take that position, but I’m finding that it’s also deeply empowering to feel that I get to make the decisions about my life, that my purpose is not to be an obedient automaton but rather to learn, to experience, to develop my capacities. That feels exciting. My experience also suggests to me that God is less interested in things like which particular path I follow and more interested in things like to the extent to which I am learning to become more loving and patient and honest as I follow that path. I still believe in a God who is deeply involved in my life. But I’m finding that that involvement is not so much expressed in dictating where I go next, but rather in willingness to stick it out with me, to go into dark places with me sometimes, to not bail out when I make mistakes, and to occasionally remind me of what really matters.