Mormons1 believe that we learn truth not only through scripture, but also through direct personal revelation from God. This is essential to our religion. Missionaries invite the people to seek divine confirmation that their message is true from the very first meeting. We teach the importance of personal revelation in Sunday School and in youth Primary classes. The Book of Mormon itself includes this invitation in its concluding chapter:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and 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. (Read in context)
And yet, personal revelation is a difficult doctrine. By its very nature, it is individual and non-verifiable. I cannot experience what you have experienced; I cannot show you what revelation feels or sounds or tastes like. I can tell you about my own experiences, but since God communicates to each person in their own way, my experience may not be relevant to you.
This means, of course, that I cannot verify that what you experienced is a revelation. Wishful thinking can easily be mistaken for revelation, as can trepidation or nervousness. The human mind has all sorts of ways to convince itself of things that may not actually be true. The doctrine of personal revelation is not one of pristine, unambiguous communication.
How can you know, then, if a supposed revelation really comes from God? How can we distinguish divine direction from internal monologue? What about other religions that claim divine revelation from a different source?2
The answer to misinterpreted revelation is, quite simply, practice. Like most learned skills, we’ll probably make a lot of mistakes at first, and practice is the only way to figure it out. Fortunately, we actually have ample opportunity to do so. Each of us has a conscience, an internal sense for right and wrong. Mormons believe that this sense actually has a divine origin, known as the Light of Christ. When we listen to our conscience, we are actually learning to receive simple revelation. The same principles involved in recognizing right from wrong by instinct are used in discerning revelation. In the same way that sharing or sticking up for others just “feels right,” revelation from God also “feels right.”
Of course, none of us is perfect at following our conscience either. We’ve all experienced that moment when you realize that you made the wrong choice. That discomfort is instructive too; it teaches us to recognize correction. If we continually ignore our conscience, though, we’ll eventually diminish our ability to recognize its guidance.
A key principle in recognizing true revelation, then, is consistently following your conscience. As you do so, you’ll become more sensitive to its instruction. This will help you recognize other forms of revelation.
More specific revelation is available when we seek for it. Prayer at its best is simply communication with God. Two-way communication. Though it’s easy to fall into a routine of saying the same repeated phrases every time we pray, prayer should resemble a conversation more than a monologue. Prayer should include questions, and silent time to ponder as we seek to discern revelation in response to those questions. God does answer.
This pattern of revelation continues; as we attune ourselves more toward God and follow his guidance more and more closely, we will have access to more specific and more frequent revelation. Our ability to communicate with God will increase, as will our ability to recognize it.
I am hesitant to judge the motivation and experiences of someone I don’t know. I do not believe God would give one person truth and another a lie; all revelation from God is true and consistent. God might, however, guide a person (via revelation) to a best available option, even if none of those options is the ideal.3 Some who claim revelation may simply be mistaken, either through their own wishful thinking or by the deceptive action of another. And yes, some of them might simply be lying, claiming revelation in order to attract attention and exploit followers. Most people who seek revelation are sincere, though.
My experience in this faith, though, has shown me that many, many people receive compatible instruction through revelation. There is a universal truth, being revealed to many individuals independently. Further, revelation often gives us information we could not have known otherwise, giving us insight into the needs of those around us or explaining things we did not know. Learning to accurately recognize revelation takes time and practice, and we all make mistakes, but the principle is nonetheless true.
Remember, though, that revelation is not something only for a few elite. Everyone receives it in at least small measure through our conscience. The Book of Mormon teaches this:
But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. (Read in context)
Whether or not you believe in God, choose to do good. If I’m right, it will increase your ability to recognize God’s voice. If I’m wrong, it will still make the world a better place. Either way, choose Good.
Also, I promise I’ve got some technical posts in the pipeline too. I haven’t forgotten.
Yes, I will probably mention this in every “Mormon Questions” post. It’s important to me.↩
2: There are actually surprisingly few Christian religions that preach modern revelation. Many teach that the Bible contains all we ever need to hear from God. Some teach that God can influence people in undefined ways to do good, but stop short of acknowledging specific revelation. I believe most non-Christian religions either teach that revelation has ceased, or concern themselves more with morals and practices than with revelation. I am not aware of any other religion teaching that God gives revelation today exactly as he did in Biblical or other ancient times. (I admit, though, that I am not familiar with all world religions. Surely such religions exist; I am simply unfamiliar with them and thus cannot address their specific claims.)↩
3: For example, this might happen in areas where Christianity is virtually unknown. God might still reveal to someone the importance of following one’s conscience, or guide someone to an established religion in that area that would teach many correct principles until such time as His authorized church was available there.↩