“Personal Revelation and Testimony,” Sister Barbara Thompson, Oct. 2011 (RS/MP 4th Sunday)
Posted by jennywebb on January 31, 2012
Disclaimer: The following is not intended as a complete study of this conference talk; rather it represents my notes taken during my study of the talk as if I were preparing to teach it. What follows contains what I think are interesting points for discussion in a Relief Society or Priesthood lesson.
Sister Thompson has a directness about her that I appreciate, especially with a topic as subjective as personal revelation and testimony. The main thrust of her talk is found in the ninth paragraph, where she states:
The way to receive personal revelation is really quite clear. We need to desire to receive revelation, we must not harden our hearts, and then we need to ask in faith, truly believe that we will receive an answer, and then diligently keep the commandments of God.
I’d like to take a brief look at the components of this statement. To begin with, Sister Thompson tells us that the way we receive personal revelation “is really quite clear.” It is interesting that she first asserts this clarity in that it appears to go against a commonly-held belief among the Saints that personal revelation is somehow a topic that is precisely unclear. It is something mysterious, even difficult, and therefore perhaps out of reach. As a people, we tend to categorize events of personal revelation as somewhat out of the ordinary, and yet Sister Thompson’s claim here rejects that notion and replaces it with an expectation of normalcy. It is almost as if she is saying if we only understood how simple and clear it is to receive personal revelation that we would be in continued communication with God.
Second, she emphasizes a need for our own individual responsibility and action when it comes to receiving personal revelation. We have to desire, we must not harden our hearts, we need to ask, and we need to keep the commandments. The act of receiving personal revelation, then, is precisely as it sounds: personal. While we probably realize this on some level, I think Sister Thompson’s description here really drives home how individual the act is. And it is the individual nature of (and responsibility for) the act that links it with the second topic under a discussion in this talk—testimony. Sister Thompson’s emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to seek and receive revelation parallels that of the development of a testimony. Just as one cannot ultimately possess another’s testimony in any salvific way, one cannot, by extension, receive another’s personal revelation in any meaningful way.
To put it in the reverse: just as it is necessary for each of us to possess our own individual testimony of Jesus Christ, it is necessary for each of us to pursue and receive personal revelation. You cannot have one without the other.
The question that follows, then, is how we receive this personal revelation once we seek after it. The “how” here functions in two ways: How, in terms of attitude and reaction, do we receive personal revelation, and How do we recognize personal revelation when we do receive it?
Sister Thompson addresses the first “how” at the beginning of her talk through the story of Lehi. Lehi teaches the gospel to his entire family, but they each reacted in different ways.
Nephi had sought the guidance of the Lord in order to more fully understand the teachings of his father. He was lifted, blessed, and inspired to know that the teachings of his father were true. That enabled Nephi to carefully follow the commandments of the Lord and live a righteous life. He received personal revelation to guide him. On the other hand, his brethren were disputing with each other because they did not understand the teachings of their father.
In thinking about these reactions, several things stand out. First and foremost is the fact that neither Nephi nor his brothers initially understood what Lehi taught. The difference between Nephi and Laman and Lemuel was not that Nephi had some immediate, intuitive grasp of the spiritual reality of their existence while Laman and Lemuel remained spiritually insensitive. Instead, Nephi took it upon himself to ask for guidance from God when he failed to understand Lehi’s teachings. In contrast, Laman and Lemuel argued about what they thought Lehi meant. These different reactions can be ascribed to a difference in pride: to Nephi, not understanding Lehi was seen as an opportunity to grow closer to God by humble asking for help; to Laman and Lemuel, a lack of understanding was instead something shameful, something to be fought against through the prideful assertion of one’s definitive, “right” interpretation. Asking anyone for help in understanding, let alone asking God, does not fit within Laman and Lemuel’s self conceptions.
As a side note, I think another interesting point that Sister Thompson’s discussion of this story brings out is the way in which Lehi disappears from the story after relating his visions. Why didn’t the sons go and ask their father what he meant? One possibility is the Lehi is deliberately leaving the task of interpretation and understanding to his sons so that they will have the opportunity to ask the Lord themselves. More broadly, one way of reconfiguring this story in terms parenting principles would be to say that the role of the parent (Lehi) is to leave the children (the sons) with questions, having taught them previously about how to seek answers to such questions. We often think of our parental roles as explaining everything, making everything transparent for our children, especially with regards to the gospel, but in doing so we may rob them of the opportunity to learn of their own spiritual ability to seek and receive answers from God. I know in my own life, I could certainly stand to help my children become more spiritually self reliant, and Sister Thompson’s use of this story in this context has given me a lot to think about in this regard.
So, in answer to the first “how” question—how, in terms of attitude and reaction, do we receive personal revelation, Nephi’s example teaches us that a reaction of humility and a desire to learn and be taught what we do not understand leads us to personal revelation.
The second third of Sister Thompson’s talk addresses the second question of “how”: how do we recognize personal revelation when we receive it?
While I am not going to repeat the various ways listed by Sister Thompson, I think her emphasis on the fact “that the Spirit speaks in many ways” is interesting. In a very real sense, Sister Thompson makes a case for a broadened understanding of what qualifies as revelation generally. It is important to realize that, especially in the case of personal revelation, that the means by which it is conveyed will be equally individualized as the inspiration itself. We often may unconsciously hold up our own spiritual experiences against those recorded in scripture and feel that they somehow do not qualify or count as “real” revelation. But Sister Thompson’s list of “hows” nullifies this misconception: however we receive personal revelation, we should not discount its true revelatory status. This point is emphasized by Sister Thompson when she concludes her list with “These are all forms of revelation”—here, the point is put on the revelatory rather than the personal nature of these divine communications in order to underscore their very real value as revelations. A revelation intended for the entire church and a revelation intended for an individual both present the same miracle: God speaking to his children.
The difficulty with a myriad of methods for divine communication is that it is easy to fall into the temptation to dismiss what is actually personal revelation as simple insight, coincidence, etc. Sister Thompson addresses this difficulty in part with a quote by Elder Uchtdorf:
Let us earnestly seek the light of personal inspiration. Let us plead with the Lord to endow our mind and soul with the spark of faith that will enable us to receive and recognize the divine ministering of the Holy Spirit. (emphasis added)
The nature of personal revelation here is explicitly not something necessarily immediately recognizable as the voice of God. Rather, it seems that both Sister Thompson and Elder Uchtdorf hold the position that personal revelation is a potentially ongoing act that we simply fail to recognize. We may be right next to personal revelation, so to speak, but unable or unwilling to receive it.
Sister Thompson uses a quote from Elder Bednar to further elaborate on this point:
Sometimes the spirit of revelation will operate immediately and intensely, other times subtly and gradually, and often so delicately you may not even consciously recognize it. (emphasis added)
Note that receiving personal revelation “delicately” is not a condemnation! If you feel like you’ve never had the Spirit of revelation, it’s not true! We are not being berated for failing to recognize personal revelation when we receive, but rather invited to realize the nature of personal revelation as far more constant and pervasive than we might normally think. On the reverse side of things, if we are consciously brushing off personal revelation because it is not “grand” enough to fit our expectation of what revelation is, then in making that judgment we manifest the pride of Nephi’s brothers that kept them from asking God to help them understand Lehi’s teachings. Again, the emphasis here is on our own individual responsibility to desire, receive, ask, believe, etc.
There is an interesting repetition going on here: in order to receive personal revelation we desire, remain humble/receptive, ask, believe, etc., and in order to recognize and understand that we are receiving personal revelation we likewise need to desire, remain humble, ask, believe, etc. The structure here is reminiscent of a immersive cycle: we need to seek personal revelation in order to recognize and understand the personal revelation we are already (perhaps unknowingly) receiving. While such a description might seem like a catch-22 at first, in reality it provides an instructive model for the way in which the Spirit works in human lives. We make a conscious choice to enter into a relationship with God, to seek personal revelation, and in keeping our covenants and His commandments, we enter into a cycle of an increasingly immersive spiritual existence.
While there is certainly more to explore in this talk, I want to wrap things up with a look at Sister Thompson’s final words:
The Lord desires to bless us with guidance, wisdom, and direction in our lives. He desires to pour down His Spirit upon us. [...] As we seek answers to our questions, He will bless us with His Spirit. (emphasis added)
I find this last sentence fascinating. After an entire talk devoted to seeking and receiving answers and aid through personal revelation, Sister Thompson closes by saying that receiving answers may be beyond the point. As we seek answers, we will be blessed not necessarily with answers, but rather with the Holy Ghost.
Perhaps the point of seeking answers via personal revelation is not necessarily or solely the answer we (eventually) receive: rather, it is that in the act of seeking we make ourselves aware and open to the Spirit, who bears witness of Jesus Christ and therefore strengthens our testimony. The blessing is not the answer, but the increase in the Spirit. As we ask and seek, individually responsible and active for our own spiritual development, we develop an awareness of our own ignorance, humility, and reliance on Christ. In seeking, we learn to look for God constantly; we are not only asking, but learning a way of being open to God. The blessing of the Spirit in our lives is a blessing that, when lived, changes who we are so that we may become more like God, something, of course, that requires the humility and receptiveness we learn through seeking, recognizing, and following personal revelation.
These are questions that I don’t necessarily address in my notes above, but that I think could provide other ways to read and discuss Sister Thompson’s talk.
- What is the relationship between pride and humility with regards to receiving and understanding personal revelation?
- How do testimonies “keep” us? (Thinking about “keep” in terms of guarding, preserving, saving, etc.)
- Sister Thompson describes testimonies as both in need of nourishment and strength as well as powerful and able to sustain us in our times of trial and need. How can a testimony be both weak and powerful? What does thinking about testimony in this way tell us about the nature and role of testimonies?
- What is the relationship between wisdom and power described here? Why is it significant to us as members of the church?
- In what ways can the Spirit fill and satisfy our souls?
- How do testimonies, faith, and knowledge relate to each other and work together for our good?