There is good reason for why the Brethren don’t give us a manual on how to receive personal revelation. The reason is because it is personal, and that means that each person will learn it in their own way and in their own time. This is a follow-up article to Some Basics of Personal Revelation.
The lack of a manual on personal revelation is, as I said, for good reason, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been given a thousand instructions on how to learn the principles of revelation, for they are all around us in the scriptural record and in the talks of the Brethren. I find it humorous that the whole point of learning to receive personal revelation is based on the fact that it is so personal that that even much of the path to revelation has to be received by revelation.
This notion that learning personal revelation has to come by way of revelation may sound like the riddle of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” where you never have a clearly defined beginning or an end. But fortunately, you can jump right on in and begin this process whenever and however you want. The cycle of learning will continue for as long as you live, but only if you do one key thing – continue to seek it.
The following article is my understanding of basic spiritual principles. I understand that we are all at different places spiritually speaking. For some this will seem too elementary to be of use, but for others this will be a complete revelation in and of itself. I wrote this for those in the second category. I could have been saved years of frustration had someone verbalized these principles for me in an organized manner. But then, I may not have been ready for it and wouldn’t have understood it even if it had been given to me. But at least I have it now. I hope it helps.
Desire – Oddly enough, the first step to learning how to receive revelation begins with the desire to learn how to receive communication from the Lord. All through the scriptures we are taught that those with hard hearts are blind to spiritual things. Just look at any of the speeches Nephi gave his brothers. Nephi points out to them over and over again that they could also receive revelation, just like he did, but they had already decided that the Lord was not going to talk to them, so why bother?
Believe – A desire to receive revelation means you are open to the idea that God might just be willing to tell you something. Even if you don’t yet believe He will directly speak to you, you might be willing to entertain the notion that His Spirit, the Holy Ghost will give you knowledge, even if you don’t yet know how. This is where those investigating the Church are spiritually.
That desire to know more of spiritual things opens all kinds of doors. When someone investigating the Church decides they want to know a spiritual truth for themselves, they must first put their faith (and yes, it takes faith) in either the idea or a person who tells them it is possible for them to personally receive truth from God. It is based on this willingness to believe and then do something about it that opens the door to all things spiritual in nature.
An important concept about belief that we all need to better understand is that belief is a choice. The beauty of belief is that it is completely up to us as to whether or not we choose to believe something. Think about it. How many people do you know that can be given a complete lie, yet they choose, for whatever reason, to believe it? And how many times have you given someone the absolute truth, yet they have chosen, for whatever reason to refuse to believe it?
No one can prevent you or make you believe anything. Believing is a personal choice. Choosing to believe, coupled a desire to know, is the first step in learning to receive personal revelation. The Lord’s hands are pretty much tied until we develop a desire and then choose to believe it is possible.
The nice thing about this first step in receiving personal revelation is that it takes no revelation to begin the process. This first step is 100 percent you and me. The Lord cannot reveal anything to a person who is unwilling to receive the further light and truth He wants them to have. But once we approach Him with a desire to know, and having chosen to believe that He not only can, but is willing to impart some knowledge to us, well then He can do all things.
Spiritual things can only be understood by the Spirit
This concept, that anything of a spiritual nature can only be understood through the Spirit, is fundamental to learning to have personal revelation. The scriptures teach us that spiritual things cannot be comprehended by the carnal or natural man/mind. Therefore, to learn anything spiritual we must go to the source of all things spiritual, the Holy Ghost.
You will find that with each step along the way to receiving personal revelation the steps keep repeating themselves. First there must be a desire, followed by a belief that it can happen, even if we don’t know how it will happen. Second, we must do something to seek the revelation or knowledge we want to gain.
Seek – Seeking comes in a number of forms. The most common way to seek spiritual knowledge is good old fashioned study. Note that I did not say reading. When we study we read with a purpose, not just to be reading. When you seek for spiritual knowledge then study the scriptures. Study the words of the living oracles of God, the Apostles and the living Prophet.
Not all the information the Lord has given to us can be found in the words of any one person, so this requires us to read and seek, which is reading with intent to learn, from many sources. It is the nature of spiritual things and spiritual learning that we will find a little here and a little there. It is only when we have begun to find bits and pieces in various places that the Spirit will begin to stitch these pieces into ideas and feelings that begin to speak to our soul.
Expect to be underwhelmed – This may be an odd way of phrasing a basic concept, but it makes it safe for the newly initiated to the process of receiving personal revelation. When we begin to seek for understanding of spiritual things, we generally begin by getting only inklings of ideas.
An investigator may hear the missionary or member tell them something that seems vaguely familiar. That is how it starts. They may be reading in the Book of Mormon and recognize a statement that seems comforting, though they may not, at first, recognize that they actually have an emotional response paired with a tiny piece of doctrine they have been presented.
This process of gaining emotional responses and tiny pieces of comprehension continues to happen as the reading and studying process moves along. The more this happens, the closer the person gets to having an actual epiphany of sorts. Remember that it is the spiritual rule that the Lord generally gives us knowledge “here a little” and “there a little.” Most of the time when we suddenly recognize a spiritual truth as being a spiritual truth, there have first been many little pieces to that puzzle that have been given along the way in our studying.
This is the reason I say that you need to be prepared to be underwhelmed. We don’t normally get a glut of knowledge all at once when we start this process. What we get is the tiny bits and pieces, like the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that slowly reveal the bigger picture. If we are not seeking for these little pieces along the way then we may actually be shown the bigger picture, but not be able to recognize it for what it is, because we have stopped “looking.”
Be aware – This act of looking for understanding as we study the gospel and go out and try to apply what we understand in the best way we know how, is what I call “looking.” It is the act of being spiritually aware that revelation is an ongoing process, not a single shot in the dark.
The Spirit is tricky like that. He slips us experiences that, when mentally we have pieced together, teach us about a particular principle of the gospel. Many times these will be difficult to communicate to another person. Why? Because we have had many little pieces of experience and scriptural or talk references, thoughts, conversations, etc. that all build up to give us this one little change in our perspective or understanding.
Expect it to happen – The key is that we need to be aware that this is what is going on. We need to be looking for, and expecting these experiences to come our way. The Lord has promised us that He will send us these experiences and these bits of knowledge and understanding as long as we desire to learn more, believe He is willing to talk to us through the experiences we have with the Spirit, and are willing to continue our study of the scriptures and the words of the living oracles of God.
Can you see how this like the riddle of the chicken and the egg? The only true beginning is to have the desire to know followed by the willingness to believe that the Lord will do something to show you that what He tells you in the scriptures and through His prophets is true. The whole process is one big “lather, rinse, repeat.”
An important aspect of this process of being aware of what is happening as we desire, believe, seek, are aware of the actual process that is taking place, and then expect things to happen, is that spiritual confirmations always follow.
A spiritual confirmation can come in many forms. We may simply recognize something as being sound, logical, or making sense. We may have an actual spiritual impression that something is true. It may come in the form of recognizing that the pieces we have seen separately in the past, and didn’t see any pattern in them then, now have begun to fit into a larger whole.
It is important to note that when we begin to comprehend a principle or doctrine/teaching it doesn’t mean that we automatically understand the whole doctrine. Most of the time we begin by having a vague sense of believing, but with many questions and “holes” in our understanding. We still have much to learn about it, but the basic belief and comprehension of the doctrine is now there.
It is okay not to understand everything perfectly at first. Most of the principles of eternity will not be understood in their entirety, especially at first. I am reminded of Alma’s teachings where he says he fasted and prayed many days to learn some doctrine he wanted to know about. He follows up some of what he does know with some information the Spirit did not tell him. And he is perfectly okay with not knowing. He, in essence says that he may not know this one point of doctrine, but since he does know that God can do and will do whatever He needs to do for the welfare of His people, he is okay with not knowing.
As you accumulate bits of knowledge through your studying, listening, watching, practicing living the principles of the gospel, and keeping the commandments, you will begin to see that everything builds on itself. You start with these little tidbits of information that begin to form ideas in your mind. Sometimes these ideas are incorrect until you gain more knowledge. That is fine, really, it is.
All of us gain knowledge at a different pace, and in different ways and means. The Spirit works perfectly within each person’s life to teach them as fast and as well as they are prepared to receive that knowledge. This is why we need to be patient and tolerant with each other. This is why it is so important not to be judgmental about someone else’s knowledge or understanding of the gospel.
None of us can expect a complete and perfect understanding of anything when we first grasp that it even exists. Spiritual knowledge is built over time. That is an important principle of revelation. Sometimes people receive huge amounts of knowledge all at once. That is true. It is also the exception. It is just like the stories of those who were converted in one fell swoop through a massive revelatory process. They are the exception, NOT the norm. Don’t expect it to happen to you. When it happens in the scriptures there is always a divine purpose in it happening in such a way. Most of us must content ourselves with a bit here and a bit there. That is life.
We are each building a spiritual library through which, and by which, the Spirit can give us further knowledge. Every day we earnestly study, seeking and believing as we go, the Spirit strengthens what we already know. We may not, and indeed, probably won’t recognize that he is indeed strengthening us on a daily basis, but he is. This library builds with each piece of spiritual knowledge we come to comprehend.
It is so important that we remember always that spiritual things can only be comprehended through the Spirit. All things spiritual must be revealed to us or we cannot comprehend them, for they are outside the realm of the natural mind. If we forsake the knowledge that has been shown to us it is possible for us to lose that comprehension, but as long as we are honoring what we have been given then the Lord will have the Spirit continue to add to our library.
This brings us to “the shelf.” Each person’s library has a special shelf for doctrines and ideas that have been introduced, but are not yet usable. It is not necessary to toss any piece of information for which we have incomplete understanding. Put it on the shelf.
When you read in Church history and are disturbed by something you read, recognize that you are disturbed because you still lack understanding. Put it on the shelf. When you have studied more, prayed more, lived more, go back and check that item on the shelf. If it makes sense now then file it away and go on with your life. If it still doesn’t make sense then put it back on the shelf and continue to ask the Lord for understanding of that thing.
The shelf doesn’t go away. It will always be there in your personal spiritual library. It has unlimited capacity to hold ideas, concerns, and thoughts. You can even stow your attitudes on your shelf. There is always room for something new there. Just remember that as you continue to seek for new knowledge, periodically you will remember that you put something on your shelf that you want to revisit. Take it down, examine it with new eyes, having lived much, studied much, and having learned more from the Spirit in the meantime. You may just find that what bothered you about that piece of knowledge before no longer concerns you. When that happens it is a most satisfying experience.
Too often people leave the Church or throw in the spiritual towel, giving up on the Lord and His kingdom merely because they don’t understand something or don’t agree with something they don’t fully understand. They have forgotten, or are not aware that their shelf can hold what we don’t understand while the Spirit matures us in spiritual things and helps prepare us for the answers we seek.
Give your shelf a whirl. Cherish having the shelf. The shelf is a gift from God to help us grow in wisdom and grace. It takes faith to use your shelf. You must learn to trust in what you have been given already, with the understanding that it may be years and years before you are ready to understand some of the things you have put on your shelf. Feel free to call it a bookcase, a cabinet, whatever you like. My mother taught this principle of personal revelation to me as a shelf, and it has worked just fine for me as a shelf.
The nature of revelation
I hope I am not the only one who went years misunderstanding what personal revelation was. I assumed that if I wasn’t having a Tree of Life revelation that I wasn’t having ANY revelation. Before my mission I told my mother I was worried because I hadn’t had an all consuming conversion experience about the Book of Mormon or about the restoration of the Church. She said, “Could I convince you the Book of Mormon is wrong?” My immediate response was, “No!” She said, “Then you already know.”
That in and of itself was a revelation to me. What we receive from the Spirit, in any form, is revelation, for it is spiritual in nature and cannot be comprehended by man without the Spirit. Call it what you will, inspiration, revelation, infusion of knowledge, comprehension of spiritual things, they are all the same thing – a communication between God and man.
Don’t discount your lack of grand visions of eternity with no communication from the Spirit. It doesn’t work that way. The Spirit opens the eyes of our understanding mere increments at a time. We will hear one thought expressed and it seems agreeable. We probably wouldn’t think anything of it, but the mere fact that we heard it, comprehended it, and recognized that we agreed with it is proof that we are being taught by the Holy Ghost. This is how most of our tiny pieces of information get assembled that later become understanding of major doctrines and the building of our testimonies.
Most of us don’t have one grand testimony experience, but hundreds or thousands of little affirmations of truth that build our witness of God’s good news, His Gospel. We just need to recognize that these little truths are being run past us on a regular basis, adding to our overall understanding of God’s plan for our salvation.
The bulk of spiritual knowledge comes from living the principles or teachings of the gospel that we currently understand. Study gets us started. Studying also keeps us going, but the best understanding we will have of the gospel knowledge we get from the books will come from having put that knowledge into practice in our daily lives.
It is important to remember that the gospel is not about academic knowing, but about becoming something better than our old selves through practicing the knowledge we receive through our studies. As we serve others through our ministering efforts, we make mistakes, but we learn (hopefully) from those mistakes.
Ministering is how we become something more than we were before. Ministering is what powers the transformation from mere mortality to holy individual. Ministering is what changes what is carnal within us to what is pure and sacred within us. It is the process through which we learn all the Christlike attributes.
Ministering begins with those around whom we live, our family, friends, and immediate neighbors and Church members. But as we become something more than we once were, our ministering efforts cannot be contained, and they spread to all we meet, anywhere we go. As we keep the commandments and continue to study and recognize the Spirit teaching us, our hearts change, our attitudes change, and our love expands beyond ourselves in every growing circles.