About eight years ago, I was interviewed by Helen Whitney, a documentary filmmaker for her upcoming piece on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) which aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) as The Mormons. My interview was cut from the final documentary, but I remember the interview.
I was asked many questions, mostly about what it was like to be a man in the Church who experiences same-sex attraction. One question I was asked stood out for me more than the others and it wasn’t specifically about homosexuality.
Ms. Whitney was familiar with the story of the First Vision, so I knew I could give my answer without much explanation. I don’t remember the wording of the question, but the gist of it was about what I thought it was like to be a Mormon or what was the most important thing about being a Mormon. My answer went something like, “It’s as if we are all Joseph Smith in the grove, seeking wisdom from God about questions we have.”
My answer was longer than that, but this is the point I want to talk about here. I went to a faith-based university, not LDS. Part of the curriculum there was that I had to learn the doctrines of the church that was the sponsor of the institution. I had a lot of time to talk to professors of the religion classes, which were all ministers of that religion.
One point they drove home was that truth was not something that God revealed anymore. He had already revealed all the truth that mattered and placed it in The Bible. If we had a question, that’s where we should go to get an answer. The pastors I spoke with said there was no basis to believe that we should seek God directly to obtain an answer, because the answers could be found in The Bible. Even modern questions could be answered there.
That doesn’t match the experience of being Mormon. Our beliefs are that we can get answers to our personal problems by seeking an answer directly from God with the assurance that God will answer us and let us know what we are supposed to do.
I recently rented a DVD for a SciFi Channel miniseries called, The Lost Room. I love good science fiction and this one was very interesting. The premise was that something extraordinary happened to a room in an out-of-the-way motel that caused all of the objects in the room to have certain powers and properties. Most people didn’t know about these objects, but those that did often formed into factions with different reasons for finding them all.
One faction believed that if they could collect all of the objects, they would be able to talk directly to God and that he would talk back. I couldn’t watch it without thinking how silly a notion it was. I don’t have any special objects and I can talk directly to God and he talks back to me.
The First Vision isn’t just a piece of history for us. It is a pattern for how we learn truth. Yes, we believe that The Bible is the word of God. We also believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. We have other scriptures too, but we do not use them as the sole guides for the decisions of our daily lives. For the more personal things, our spiritual practice is to pray about them and ask God what we should do.
This we do with everything from what classes we should take in school to whom we should marry to what careers to pursue. We do this as individuals, families, organizations in the Church, and basically anything we want wisdom from God about.
When it is done as an individual, we call it Personal Revelation. It is intended to be a guide for us in knowing how to proceed with something, a way to ask God if the decisions we want to make are right. The answer comes in a form of a spiritual feeling which our scriptures describe as a “burning in the bosom,” a spiritual sense that the plan we have presented to God is approved by him. We also believe that God will tell us when we have presented something he doesn’t want us to do by a feeling called, “a stupor of thought”.
An important element is that we don’t just ask God an open-ended question like, “What am I supposed to do?” It is more that we study a question out in our minds, ponder over our understanding of the implications of the decision we make, its conqequences, and how it fits into the doctrine we already have accepted to be true. Then, when we have chosen the option that seems, firstly, the most moral decision we could make, and secondly, that it matches our desires for proceeding in our lives. We take that option to our prayers and ask God to confirm our choice with that “buring in the bosom” I referenced.
I feel a little philosophical in just describing it without a personal anecdocte to illustrate it and I can’t think of a better example than praying about whom I should marry. I had options. I was a pretty adorable young man and not without some feminine admirers.
I also was not without some very personal feelings on the matter. One woman had already attracted my attention. There was much about her that made me feel like she would be the best choice. I knew I loved her because she had gone on a trip and I found myself thinking of her the whole time she was gone. In a lot of ways, my friends knew too. A couple of them pointed it out. I prayed and felt that burning in my bosom and knew what God expected me to do.
Some might say that I of course got the answer that I should marry Barbara because I was already in love with her and wanted it to be the answer. I will admit that sometimes our emotions can get in our way and we think that God is saying “yes” when it’s just our emotions saying “yes”.
There’s no way to effectively describe the difference and how you overcome this problem of emotions, but I think there are a few tell-tale signs. Some of those signs I wrote about recently in Self-Honesty. An answer we get from God has to be an honest answer and we have to be willing to examine our motives when we ask. We have to be certain that we’re ready to follow Heavenly Father no matter where he leads, even if it means accepting a “no” we didn’t want to get.
Beyond the mental self-honesty I described, I believe there is also a kind of spiritual self-honesty. Here are some of the questions I ask myself about my prayers.
- Does my desire match the revealed teachings of the Church and the scriptures? For me, it would be a big red flag if I thought God was telling me to go against things I’ve already gained a testimony of being true.
- Is the inspiration I’m feeling something that I’m supposed to do? I’ve heard a lot of people who think they get answers for what other people should do. That’s like saying that God is a busybody who gossips about me to other people as answers to their prayers. I knew from my prayers about Barbara that I was supposed to ask her. I did not know what God was going to tell her about how to answer me.
- Have I prepared myself for a “no”? It’s a hard thing for people to master, this thing about being able to accept “no”, and I’m not just talking about a “no” from God. Sometimes we just won’t take “no” from anyone. It’s called pride and it’s no way to pray.
- What are the consequences? Do you really think God is going to answer you and tell you to hurt people? It’s true that sometimes we have to make courageous decisions that might not turn out well for everyone, but believe it or not, God does not prefer you over others.
- Does God think I’m brilliant? If you’re “batting a thousand” in getting “yeses” to your prayers, either you’re a brilliant pray-er or you’re maybe not listening as well as you could. There are millions of things I want to do so badly that I could easily just choose them, pray about them, and claim that I was inspired.
It’s also good to re-evaluate our answers. There have been a few times when I was fairly certain I knew what to do and things didn’t turn out well at all. In thinking over my prayers at the time, I realized that some of the things I’ve talked about here were in play. Sometimes my understanding of the gospel is flawed. Sometimes I am praying like a busybody over something that is someone else’s burden. I’m the worst “no” receiver I know. Sometimes I don’t think through all of the consequences. And yes, I think I’m brilliant and that God, who knows everything, thinks it too.
I’m grateful for the lessons of those times when I’ve really messed things up and did so thinking I was acting with the approval of God. It makes me realize that I need to constantly be trying to reach heaven with my prayers with more and more effort to get the real answers God wants to give me.
Please, also see, Self-Honesty.