Inspiration from God or Just Our Own Random Thoughts?

While we Latter-day Saints emphasize the reality of revelation and inspiration from God in the operation of the Church and recognize that we can receive inspiration from God in our own lives and in our stewardship in the Church, we would be wise to be cautious about making any claims to having received such. This is the theme of a noteworthy article by Orson Scott Card, “Be Careful Claiming Inspiration.” I encourage you to read and ponder that article before weighing in.

Even Church leaders such as bishops, who may have keys entitling them to receive revelation for the work of their ministry, need to recognize that not every idea and thought, no matter how prayerfully obtained, is necessarily inspired. Decisions made while seeking prayer and revelation can still be bad decisions. I can say that because I’ve served in that role and can see that while there were many times when I have no doubt real inspiration was received, there were also times when I made poor decisions on my own.

But even those ideas that are inspired and obtained from revelation should be given caution in terms of what claims are made. Orson Scott Card makes the point that claiming an idea or thought is inspired tends to shut off discussion and close doors to further light and knowledge that may have come had others been allowed to treat it as a proposal for consideration and discussion. I think the same can apply to callings. A decision to issue a calling to someone may be inspired and often is, but there may also be good reasons why that person should not or cannot accept that calling. There are dangers in declaring that the Lord wants that person to serve in a calling before we learn that, for example, the person is moving away next week or has a major issue making them unable to serve.

The first calling I ever issued as a new counselor in a bishopric in Atlanta was one I prepared for and wanted to be a spiritual experience. When I issued the calling to the woman, tears came to her eyes. “Wow,” I thought, “this is cool. A spiritual experience!” Then she blurted out, “I need to get out of this church.” Yikes! I ran over to the bishop and had him meet with her in his office. This was a less-active woman who was struggling with major issues. It would have been unwise for me to proclaim that God wanted her to serve in that Relief Society calling at the time (I didn’t say that, fortunately). My meeting with her led to her being able to come in and talk with the bishop and move forward in some way. I’m not sure where she ended up–the bishop kept that completely confidential. Accepting the calling would have been absolutely wrong, but perhaps the decision to invite her in to discuss a calling was an inspired catalyst, perhaps, though the calling was not right for her to accept.

Revelation is sacred and real, but it is not a faucet that can be turned on at will or one that drips continually. The influence of the Spirit in guiding us, when we are open to its influence, can be clear and direct at times, but most often is quiet and subtle, a still small voice, that can easily get shouted down by the obnoxiously loud voice of our own will. It’s fair to always be a little hesitant in declaring that something that has entered into our head is necessarily revelation from God. I like the way Brother Card frames this complex issue.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

85 thoughts on “Inspiration from God or Just Our Own Random Thoughts?

  1. I have read that prophets get their inspiration while in prayer and pondering.

    When you pray and ponder in a sincere manner about a problem or question you are able to sort through mitigating factors and filter information.

    If people would be able to do the above many bad decisions would/could be averted. These decisions can relate from anything from word of wisdom sins, dating, large purchases with ensuing debt.

  2. Good thoughts, Jeff. I do feel like Card's article parses the difference between revelation and inspiration a bit too finely, but his general thought (and yours, too) is right on: we need to be cautious about declaring either revelation or inspiration, especially if we've received it "for" someone else.

    I remember sitting to extend a release to a young single sister serving as a YW president. In the middle of the interview, she began to sense where we were headed and fell into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing. In that instant I had the impression I should reaffirm her calling, not release her, which is what I did.

    Church leaders clearly need to be most careful in claiming inspiration, and need to be aware that others might assume inspiration where it has not occurred. (For some, any suggestion from a church leader is seen as "inspired counsel".)

    That said, I've had enough personal experience to help me to know that revelation and inspiration are quite real and quite beneficial.

  3. I think it is common to receive limited revelation (or inspiration; I won't distinguish here) and then claim expansive revelation. Your experience with the calling of the sister who then met with the bishop is a good example. It appears that your visit with her may well have been inspired, and that the inspiration was prompted by a particular calling. What you took to be inpiration that she should serve, however, may well have been merely inspiration that you should meet with her prepared to invite her to serve. Similarly, an auxiliary president may interpret inspiration to mean that a particular member should serve in a particular calling, when the inspiration was really just that the president should recommend that person for that calling – which may lead to a different calling, or even to no calling but to immediate attention from the bishopric, of the sort that occurred in your story.

    (I hesitated for a moment to make this comment, for fear that someone from a bishopric will themselves minimize or reinterpret the insitration given an auxiliary leader. I would never suggest that bishiprics minimize such inspiration. Those leaders are, in my experience, often ahead of the bishopric with regard to particular members and particular callings – in part perhaps because they are closer to both the member and to the needs a calling will serve than is the bishopric.)

  4. I have noticed experiences along these lines, myself. The topic of revelation has been dealt with very nicely here and elsewhere, each place relating or emphasizing different aspects of the issue. The opportunity to bless others' lives by putting inspiration/revelation into practice can be limitless.

    Sometimes I have complied with insights or promptings and other times not. In the case of suicidal persons, it has gone both ways. While with me, the issue of following the Spirit has been a matter of others' life or death, in the ordinary story, the person whose life was at stake was the person who received the promptings.

    I still have frequent challenges with matters of these sorts and am glad to read others' experiences and explanations.

    Anyone want to throw up favorite links?

  5. Ha, well. I remember this one time when I went into a gas station to get a bottle of water, and after finding the cheapest bottle they sold (around 47 cents), I went to the cashier.

    Before I could buy it, however, the lady in front of me told me that she felt like God wanted to pay for my gas and my drink.

    After telling her I just had this really cheap bottle of water, she asked me if that's all I really had. She left with kind of a confused/disappointed look in her face, and even though I was a believer at the time, I laughed a little on the inside.

    So how does Scott's article apply to the spiritual experience of praying to god for answers (Moroni's promise)? I don't see how this is a reliable way of doing things if you more or less just trick yourself into believing that a spiritual experience means, like in Scott's article, that a family should start doing scripture study for 10 minutes if they already do much more.

  6. I think Orson Scott Card writes some fine articles for church members to read. But after reading his thoughts on "inspiration", I don't think he has much to offer members seeking to increase their receptivity to things of the Spirit.

    I think his article made some good points for those who might think any thought that comes into their mind after praying is inspiration. Other than that, what did he contribute?

    I think it is important to underscore something that we experience often: people differ in their abilities.

    To illustrate, consider two unrelated activities; running a 5K race and taking an algebra class. Suppose there are 100 people participating in each endeavor. What would you expect to happen as the race and the math class progressed?

    Based on my experience, I would expect there would be a range of abilities manifest in both efforts; fast and slow runners, fast and slow algebra students, with the majority being average.

    I think it is safe to say that the same is true when it comes to things of the Spirit. I've learned that not everyone experiences things of the Spirit in exactly the same way. The Lord knows how to help each of us accomplish the purposes of our mortal experience. Most of us are going to have average experiences with the things of the Spirit, while some will have experiences that are unusual, and still others who say they've never had a spiritual experience.

    Elder McConkie addressing this topic said:

    "All men do not come into this world with the same inclination toward or receptiveness of spiritual things."

    Regardless of where we are at on the continuum of our receptiveness to spiritual things, if we have desires to grow in our ability then we will, if we diligently seek the Lord. The Lord promises this time and time again in the scripture and by the mouths of the living prophets.

    I suggest we look for words of inspiration from those sources.

  7. "I don't see how this is a reliable way of doing things if you more or less just trick yourself into believing that a spiritual experience means, like in Scott's article, that a family should start doing scripture study for 10 minutes if they already do much more."

    You just restated half of the writer's point. One way is not reliable. Another way is. Our opportunity is to benefit from learning the difference. I've had it both ways. While I've been tricked into not taking the Spirit's guidance in two cases where deaths later came and were ruled suicides, in other cases I have followed the Spirit and contributed to recovery.

    Just because you, I, and others, have wrongly interpreted the true voice or believed a wrong one, that is not any reason to suppose that there is no true voice, no means of improving on how we heed it, and that we cannot improve in discerning the difference between false voices and the true one.

    I have a nephew who gave up on revelation. I asked if he'd ever told God that he'd give up all his sins to know Him. He said, "No."

    There is a purpose for revelation. The best gifts are for the benefit of two classes of people listed in D&C 46. First classification: those who love God and keep all His commandments. Second classification: those who seek to be in the first classification.

    Perhaps I'm never in the first and rarely in the second but I've been in the second enough to know that revelation is real – and sometimes life-saving for others – even if I often don't get it right for myself (or, tragically, for others).

    One doesn't have to have the gift of knowledge to be exalted, according to the Lord in D&C 46. Just believe enough to be faithful to God "in case." There is no dishonor in not getting revelation and no dishonor in being honest about not getting it. But neither is there any honor in pretending that no one gets it.

    Revelation is real. And it comes from a living and loving God.

  8. To those who doubt this post and paper's value, hopefully you have never needed the likes of them. In light of the "practical" side of the paper and post vs. the "doctrinal" side of most treaties on the topic, to some who encounter the type of confusion that the paper points out, this paper and post may contribute mightily to Spirit literature in Mormondom.

    If these treaties help one soul in "enduring to the end" in their struggle to decode spiritual communications, I anticipate more lives being saved (as some have benefitted from my refusal to give up). How much better it might have been had I read papers and posts along this line in my youth!

    Thank you, Jeff. Practical writers, Charge On!

  9. Excellent thoughts on caution in interpreting inspiration and revelation. I love D&C 8 approach that reminds Oliver Cowdery that tremendous effort is involved in finding truth–even through revelation.

    I also enjoy the thought about different people having different skills in this regard–the challenge is being self-aware enough to not get above your abilities. Usually this is learned through plenty of experience making mistakes.

    I find the more regularly I read, think, and ponder scriptural and prophetic teachings, and act on them the more likely I am to make good decisions.

  10. "You just restated half of the writer's point. One way is not reliable. Another way is."

    And what is, indeed, the difference? From the article, Jeff's post about it, and your comments as well, the only way to tell is after the fact. But this is only because there is no difference whatsoever in receiving an affirmation from the Spirit when it was wrong and when it was right. It's a bit like you're flipping a coin and acting on impulse if it lands on heads 'cause there's some sort of mystical affirmation every time it lands on heads instead of tails. That's definitely not the process, but that's how reliable it seems.

    So when you say "Just because you, I, and others, have wrongly interpreted the true voice or believed a wrong one, that is not any reason to suppose that there is no true voice, no means of improving on how we heed it, and that we cannot improve in discerning the difference between false voices and the true one. "

    I agree that there's no reason to suppose there isn't one. There's just no evidence that the means Mormonism gives are any more reliable than just going with your gut. And so I see no reason to believe that prayerful affirmations, like the one promised by Moroni, are reliable.

    It all sounds very speculative. Like blind faith in God, only this time, in prayer. It has no power to guide someone through the many different religions out there and into your definition of the full truth, and all you can say about it is the same thing everyone else says: he's not in tune with the spirit because of this, this, and that.

  11. "And what is, indeed, the difference? From the article, Jeff's post about it, and your comments as well, the only way to tell is after the fact. But this is only because there is no difference whatsoever in receiving an affirmation from the Spirit when it was wrong and when it was right."

    Sometimes I can tell long before there are any results by which to judge. And so do many others.

    For some, learning to recognize and understand the Spirit is like learning to recognize someone’s voice. For others, such as myself, it is more like learning a language. Over many years, I’ve learned to speak Spanish fluently but with a severely limited vocabulary. One Sunday I visited with someone in Spanish and we communicated fairly well for quite a while until he changed the topic of conversation. Then I understood nothing. As far as I could tell, he could have been speaking a different language. The same with the Holy Spirit.

    We cannot be expected to have the same confidence in what we hear from the Spirit in every communication. Sometimes we will be sure. Sometimes unsure. But the surety that sometimes comes may only come after repeated experience with the influence of the Spirit as if it were another language.

  12. openminded, I think the point that Brother Card and Jeff are making (at least one of them) is similar to your question in *most* instances for *most* people. I know I often cannot distinguish between my own thoughts and inspiration – and I'm not sure there is a distinction in many cases, especially given our belief in the Gift of the Holy Ghost. That aspect of our theology muddies the water incredibly, imo.

    However, there have been a few times in my life when the FACT that I was receiving inspiration / revelation was unmistakable *in the moment*. There literally is no other explanation that makes any sense, given the exact nature of what occurred.

    Having said that, I agree totally that there is a difference in how each of us should act in relation to what we think is inspiration in most cases – especially if it involves others in some way. "Personal revelation" is one thing; promptings that affect others are something else entirely.

    The best example of this, perhaps, is the silly example of a young man who believes he has received revelation / an answer to a prayer / whatever that he should marry a young woman. Fine. Accurate or not, that "revelation" is his alone and has NO bearing on anyone else – unless he then communicates that experience with the young woman in question and attempts to use it to bring pressure to her to accept it as actual revelation.

    The proper response on the part of the young woman (an actual response I heard from a friend who was told that by a young man) is something like:

    "Great. When the Lord wants me to accept that, He will give me a similar revelation. I'll get back to you if that happens."

    If she has no natural inclination to want his experience to be real revelation, she has no obligation to seek for confirmation – none at all. If it really is divine revelation, I have no doubt the Lord will tell her so – but in most cases, I think it's nothing more than the strong desire of one person being interpreted as revelation. The case of Mary and Joseph is a good one – albeit at the extreme. The angel Gabriel visited BOTH of them, and they BOTH had to accept it as a "real" divine revelation.

  13. "We cannot be expected to have the same confidence in what we hear from the Spirit in every communication"

    This is mostly where I'm getting at. You both have your own experiences with the spirit and attribute it to some degree of truth, but there are still those times when the spirit was wrong, and so it was probably just some function of our human brain. You cite times in your life when the revelation was "unmistakable", but that could just as easily be a combination of confirmation bias and, in your own words, "nothing more than the strong desire of one person being interpreted as revelation."

    And it feels obvious to me that you want the spirit to be about revelation. I can't blame you either, your entire religion sits on top of this seemingly unreliable idea of spiritual revelation.

    I mean, and I ask this partly in an attempt to understand your position better, what are some of the ways that you've learned the Spirit is not what's giving you your revelations? Are there any signs that the feeling you're getting is not from the spirit?

  14. Jeff,
    Thanks, I think this is an important topic. Bruce R McConkie wrote about what he called “Spiritual Hobbies” It is the practice of focusing on one gospel principle above all others. It is a dangerous habit that leads to fault finding, and it can lead to one losing their faith as well.
    There is no question, revelation is very important. It is why we have a church. But also, as Card pointed out, God specifically stated that he won’t command in all things. We see that part of the purpose of us coming here, is so that we can take responsibility and do good with the skills and talents God has given us.

    I’ll seek revelation continually, take revelation when I can get it, otherwise I’ll turn to the Lord in prayer and then be content to use whatever understanding, skills and talents He has given me and trust that although mistakes will be made, it is part of what we expected before we came here.

  15. To Openminded: you mentioned Moroni’s promise not seeming to be of any use. It took me a while to notice this but those verses really only apply to someone who already has some faith in Jesus Christ. Alma 32 together with Moroni 10 might be more applicable for an agnostic. I’m sure you’ll still find objections to the measurability of the proposed outcomes of the experiment in Alma but I have definitely benefitted from those chapters working together. You complain that when results aren’t as expected a one will say “he's not in tune with the spirit because of this, this, and that.” Is this really such a silly statement?

    If I want to show my kids the interesting reaction that vinegar and baking soda make when mixed together, but I accidentally use baking powder instead, we know it won’t work. And we wouldn’t find it to be inappropriate if someone pointed to the problem so we could make corrective action. Why then is it so absurd when someone who cares about you makes the same comment to you about why you might not be receiving the spiritual results they have received?

  16. I am agnostic now, but I tried out Moroni's promise when I was a very strong and active believer in Christ. I tried multiple times and frequently consulted a missionary about my lack of a yes.

    "You complain that when results aren’t as expected one will say “he's not in tune with the spirit because of this, this, and that.” Is this really such a silly statement?"

    Yes, because it has no reliable power to guide someone to the full truth. It's not always silly, but when it comes to the point where the people are on essentially the same level of faith as each other but reach different spiritual conclusions (my no back when I was an Evvie vs. your or other peoples' yes), then it becomes obvious that the real reason we're reaching different conclusions is because the method we're using to reach them is inconsistent, unreliable, and useless at discerning truth because of its inconsistent and unreliable nature.

  17. om, it's much easier for me to focus on those times when I really did have undeniable revelation – and it wasn't confirmation bias or my own desires or anything else. It has happened very rarely for me, and I have NO idea whatsoever why it happened those times for me and it doesn't happen for others (and I do believe it doesn't happen for some who are every bit as sincere and believing as I am, if not more so). If it really were the formulaic, universal equation many people (including Mormons) believe it to be, the practical results in the real world would be very different. (and I personally think it's unconsciously arrogant to say that it works for me but not for someone else because I'm more sincere / righteous / in tune / whatever than that other person)

    The best examples in my own life of undeniable revelation are two instances where I said very specific things in blessings about which I absolutely did not know, that I didn't intend to say and that were spot-on – and I understood that to be "true" once immediately and once years later in hindsight, although I believed it was revelation at the time based on the nature of what was said. (When I say there was NO way to know about what I spoke, I mean that completely. It wasn't a long buried or forgotten memory or anything like that. One concerned a condition about which I had no idea, and the other literally was a prophecy of the future that has been fulfilled in ways that have nothing to do with confirmation bias.)

    I have shared the details elsewhere, though rarely, but I'm not going to do so here – since the details really aren't relevant to the point that sometimes, rarely for me but sometimes, the heavens have opened and God has spoken using me as the conduit. There really is no other logical conclusion, so I choose to accept the illogical conclusion I want to accept.

    Every other time is open to interpretation and evaluation, but those very rare times are not.

  18. This reminds me of an event reported in someone's near-death experience. The recently-deceased person, in the spirit, was watching some (not dead) guy who needed to leave for the airport to catch a plane for something important, but had forgotten about it. Another spirit sidled up to him and whispered to him that he needed to catch a plane. The guy, who couldn't see the spirits involved and had no idea they were present, suddenly smacked his head and said, "Holy cow, I just remembered – I need to catch an airplane!" And off he went.

  19. Alright, so you have some very rare times that you don't feel could be explained away to coincidence or the fact that it had a few years to play out. Would've happened if you wanted it to be revelation or not, etc. Were those times any different from the revelations that haven't come true or spiritual affirmations that failed you?

    I don't mean to beat a dead horse, I'd just like to know what qualifies as a likely revelation vs. human impulse

  20. Openminded–

    Many members of the church have experiences that leave no room for doubt. In other words, there is a continuum of experiences the Lord manifest. On the lower end are experiences that are open to intreputation, then there are those like a dream that comes to pass–more certain, then their are visitations–these are certain.