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We all need to receive revelation for ourselves. Personal revelation is how we first receive a testimony (Matt. 16:16-17) and how we continue to acquire spiritual knowledge throughout our lives (Alma 5:45-46). It is what guides us in making life decisions and inspires us in our callings. Some mistakenly assume that it is just for “really spiritual” members of the Church but personal revelation is actually something that all of us need and is essential to our own salvation.
The problem, however, is that many do not feel confident in their ability to receive personal revelation or to recognize it if they do. This is especially true when we are young and inexperienced. The challenge we all face is to learn to receive and recognize revelation for ourselves and one of the primary places we can turn to learn this is the scriptures.
I remember as a young missionary using Galatians 5 to teach investigators about the “fruits of the Spirit” to help them recognize revelation. In hindsight however, I feel that there are much better places in the scriptures to learn this. If I could do it over again, I would take investigators directly to Joseph Smith—History. It is there that we find a young and inexperienced Joseph Smith –basically an investigator! –struggling to receive and recognize revelation for himself as he seeks to know which Church is true. Can we see why this is such a valuable source to learn about personal revelation? This is not the seasoned and experienced prophet of the Restoration, this is a young beginner, and his early experiences can teach all of us many important lessons about how to receive and recognize revelation.
How to Receive Revelation
One thing Joseph Smith’s experience shows us is that receiving revelation requires effort on our part. There may be rare exceptions when the Lord has to urgently warn us of danger or prompt us to immediate action, but most often if we want to receive revelation we must work for it. By examining what Joseph Smith did, we can learn what efforts might be required for us to receive revelation. He explained:
“During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant… In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (Joseph Smith –History 1:8-11)
From this experience we can learn several keys to unlock the door to revelation, including the following:
1) Ponder. Joseph Smith described the “serious reflection” that ultimately led him to receive the revelation he sought (JS-H 1:8). This was not casual curiosity, but something he pondered and thought about often and for some time. Similarly, Nephi described “pondering in [his] heart” before he received his own first vision (1 Nephi 11:1). Clearly, pondering leads to revelation.
2) Scripture Study. “I was one day reading the epistle of James,” Joseph Smith explained (JS-H 1:11). It was this effort to study the scriptures, searching them to find the answers to the questions he had, that also prepared Joseph to receive revelation. Joseph F. Smith had a similar experience when he received his vision of the redemption of the dead. As he described it, the vision came as “I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures” (D&C 138:1). As we read the revelation given to others, it prepares us to receive revelation for ourselves.
3) Prayer. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5; JS-H 1:11). One of the most basic and fundamental principles taught in the scriptures is that prayer leads to revelation. However, we must not ask thoughtlessly and without effort. Just like with Joseph Smith, asking in faith implies action and effort on our part to discover the answer we seek. As the Lord explained to Oliver Cowdery, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it [revelation] unto you when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me” (D&C 9:7-8).
4) Obedience to the Lord. Implied in Joseph’s efforts to receive revelation is a willingness to live according to what God has already revealed in the scriptures and a desire to follow whatever new revelation God gives him. This is seen in his “desire to be united with” whichever church the Lord directed him to (JS-H 1:8) and is further confirmed when he asks God specifically so “that [he] might know which to join” (JS-H 1:17). Joseph didn’t just want to know, he wanted to obey. This principle of obedience is one that is often overlooked in receiving revelation, but we can’t expect God to give us what we ask of Him if we are not willing to give Him what he asks of us. Generally speaking, we will not receive revelation that we are not willing to follow and we show our willingness to follow his revelations by obeying the commandments he has already revealed.
These are some of the most important lessons we can learn from Joseph Smith about receiving revelation. Elder Bruce R. McConkie once summarized these principles when he explained: “My formula [for receiving revelation] is simply this: 1. Search the scriptures. 2. Keep the Commandments. 3. Ask in faith” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, New Era June 1980). If we study, pray, and obey we will receive the revelation we need.
How to Recognize Revelation
We have examined some principles we can learn from Joseph Smith about how to receive revelation, but what can his experience teach us about how to recognize revelation? At first we might assume that it has little to teach us because the First Vision was so dramatic of a revelation that it was easy to recognize. But the First Vision wasn’t Joseph Smith’s first revelation. The first revelation he described receiving was the one that led him to the Sacred Grove and it came as he read James 1:5. He described this revelation in these words:
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again …”
This is a perfect description of the Spirit of revelation. It comes with power and force to the feelings of our heart causing us to reflect on it again and again. This is the kind of revelation that is difficult to recognize, especially for the inexperienced. In fact, as President Boyd K. Packer once explained, recognizing the Spirit of revelation is like recognizing the taste of salt. It is difficult to describe in words and can ultimately only be known by experience (The Candle of the Lord, Ensign January 1983). Descriptions like the one Joseph gave us can help us recognize when we have experienced it.
My wife taught me this early in our marriage. We were up late talking one night when she confided in me that she wasn’t sure she knew what the Spirit felt like and was not confident that she had ever received a revelation from the Spirit. This surprised me, because I have always thought of my wife as a spiritual woman. As I struggled to think of what I could say to comfort and guide her, I remembered Joseph Smith—History 1:12 and read it to her. I then asked her if she had ever had an experience like Joseph Smith’s. Had she ever been studying the scriptures and read a verse that touched her heart and caused her to pause in her reading? A verse that spoke to her and pressed her to read it again and reflect on it? A verse that inspired her to action?
My wife became noticeably excited and took my hand and led me to the refrigerator. She explained that the night before in her scripture study she had read a verse that touched her heart. She read it over and over again. She liked it so much that she wrote it on a notecard and showed me how she had put it on the refrigerator so she could look at it throughout the day. I told her that what she was describing was exactly what Joseph Smith described when he first read James 1:5 and that the feeling that caused her to do that was the Spirit of revelation. With her eyes welling up with tears she said, “I have felt that many times in my life, I just wasn’t sure that was the Spirit. Now I know.”
Joseph Smith’s description of the Spirit of revelation helped my wife recognize that same Spirit in her own life. Not only that, but it also showed her that one of the best ways to gain experience with receiving and recognizing personal revelation is through scripture study. Just like Joseph Smith, as we read the revelations given to others found in the scriptures, we can receive revelation for ourselves. The more of this revelation we experience, the more confident we will be in recognizing it throughout our lives. Scripture study is like a place to “practice” receiving and recognizing revelation.
Scripture Study and Personal Revelation
From the lessons above, we can see that scripture study leads to revelation for several reasons. First, it teaches us powerful principles about how to receive and recognize revelation from the examples and instruction of the prophets in the scriptures. As we follow their examples and apply these principles, we can receive revelation for ourselves (1 Nephi 10:17-19).
Second, revelation begets revelation. As we read the revelations given to others in the scriptures, it is a catalyst for receiving revelation for ourselves. This is something latter-day Apostles have repeatedly emphasized. For example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught “I sometimes think that one of the best-kept secrets of the kingdom is that the scriptures open the door to the receipt of revelation” (Doctrines of the Restoration, p. 243). Elder Dallin H. Oaks also explained, “We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation” (Ensign Jan. 1995).
But there is another reason scripture study leads to revelation. It is because reading the scriptures by the Spirit is itself a form of revelation. To Joseph Smith, the Lord explained, “These words [meaning the words of the scriptures]… are of me… and by my power you can read them … Wherefore [when you read them by the Spirit] you can testify that you have heard my voice and know my words” (D&C 18:34-35). Think of it! When we read the words of scripture by the same Spirit by which they were originally revealed, it is as if the Lord is revealing them directly to us. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie once declared, the words of the scriptures “are now mine, for the Holy Spirit of God has borne witness to me that they are true, and it is now as though the Lord had revealed them to me in the first instance. I have thereby heard his voice and know his word” (Ensign, May 1985).
All of us need to learn to receive and recognize revelation in our lives and one place we can turn to learn that is the scriptures. By studying the examples and instruction of prophets like Joseph Smith we can learn how they received it and in that very process we can receive revelation ourselves. The more we experience that, the more confident we will become. As the Prophet Joseph Smith instructed us, “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the Spirit of Revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas . . . Thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation” (Joseph Smith, Teachings p. 151).