If Ye Are Not Provocative, Ye Are Not MineBy: hawkgrrrl
Recently I was thinking about a conversation Bruce Nielson and I had years ago in which he pointed out something I was also beginning to see: that many who were criticizing the church or doubting their own spiritual experiences wanted to limit “the spirit” to whatever agreed with their own political or personal viewpoints. Joe Spencer from Feast Upon the Word had made a similar observation when he said that we can only be certain it is the spirit when it is provocative, not when we already think that way.
I do agree this is one of the key issues for people who ultimately leave, and it occurs one of three ways:
1 – they believe their own conscience trumps personal revelation.
2 – they begin to disbelieve all church level revelation because they see that it is too similar to the conventional wisdom of geriatrics.
3 – they haven’t ever experienced personal revelation that contradicted their conscience that they also believed.
There are also many General Conference addresses that focus on testimony development as a gradual process, faith happening almost as if we are unaware until one day we realize we’ve always believed. On some level, I question that such a gradual process is conversion vs. the crystallization of our own assumptions. While it’s true that change can be gradual, is that form of change truly conversion? Is that the spirit or just being in a comfort zone?
Conversion means change. Only provocative revelation has the power to change. People who haven’t experience a change, either because they didn’t have to or because they rejected the change, haven’t converted. That’s the nature of conversion. We change from one thing to another. If no change is required (#3 above) or the change is rejected (#1 and 2 above), there is no conversion. How do we avoid this problem, though?
The Dictates of our Conscience
According to the first one, we can only feel reasonably confident that we’ve received personal revelation (vs. just the dictates of our own conscience) when what we’ve received contradicts our conscience. The problem is:
- Our conscience is often right. If we are living the gospel, it’s easy to assume our instincts will only get better and better. That means we will need revelation less and less to pull us back on the straight and narrow. But that also means we may develop over-confidence in our own rightness. To combat this we have to question our assumptions, not when we think we are wrong, but when we think we are right.
- Self-justification kicks in when we are wrong, so we often find reasons to explain our anomalous behaviour. It’s really tough to distinguish between our justification of what we did when we don’t understand it and instructions from a divine source. We should always question our justifications when they are self-serving and make our own actions seem right. Examples:
- A bishop acts on a “gut feeling” about someone that turns out to be completely wrong. It’s much easier to chalk that up to something outside of ourselves (that person was sneaky, there was a hidden circumstance that hasn’t yet come to light) than something inside of ourselves (I have a prejudice, that person reminded me of someone I don’t like, I made a mistake).
- Nephi kills Laban, severing any possibility of a return to Jerusalem. (Justification: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, we’ll be led to a promised land). Laman and Lemuel’s view may have differed (our younger brother doesn’t have a vested interest in returning to the land of our inheritance since he won’t inherit anyway).
Other people’s revelation
It’s pretty hard to distinguish between our own conscience and revelation, but it seems relatively easy to distinguish between someone else’s conscience and our own when the two conflict.
What about when someone claims revelation that contradicts our conscience? All we can do in this case is what Brigham Young suggested: get your own personal revelation. But what if that doesn’t come or your personal revelation contradicts what was stated for the church as a whole? Does that mean the other person’s revelation is their own opinion that they are conflating with revelation? Maybe. The problem is that it’s very easy to throw these things out, and we may throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The best approach, IMO, is to give it more than its due in serious consideration. If revelation doesn’t come, you have two choices: 1) comply if it’s no big deal, or 2) go your own way on that particular instruction. It’s up to you what you decide to do, and that choice is one you have to own either way. Focusing on the supposed shortfall of the other person is a fruitless exercise that only leads to further self-justification and an increased likelihood of being wrong.
The point of going to church isn’t to hear what we already believe, but to hear what we doubt, what requires faith to believe. We are there to be changed, not to be comforted and made complacent. We should be listening closely at church for whatever jars us. Otherwise, the church doesn’t provide any practical value to us in terms of our spiritual development.
It’s not faith if you’ve gone your whole life never doubting that the church and everything you’ve ever been told by parents or leaders is right. First of all, I doubt there are many people who have been willing to subordinate every thought to the authority of the community. Faith is knowing that you don’t know and finding enough that compels you to act as if you do anyway. I question the strength of faith that (as some have described) just sort of becomes comfortable over time rather than actually changing our views or challenging our instincts. We don’t value what we don’t have to work to achieve.
Ask yourself: Is it easier to believe or harder to believe? If it’s made easier by your circumstances (your whole family believes, your spouse believes), maybe that’s not faith. Those who have a lot to lose (like blacks before 1978, coffee drinkers, and people whose families are against the church) and still believe, those are the strong ones. That doesn’t mean that nobody else is good enough. But I do think that if someone has never experienced personal revelation that changes their course of action from what they felt was right in the first place, they have not experienced the conversion process.
Interestingly, many of the people I’ve met over time who are in the “untested faith” category, who grew up believing everything without having done a lot of questioning or working for those beliefs, are often the ones who behaved in the most territorial manner, fearing what lay beyond the borders of orthodoxy. And unfortunately, they are often the ones who fall the hardest when they hit a faith crisis, quickly going from staunch belief to equally strong unbelief.