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What the Lord taught Oliver Cowdery about how to translate the Book of Mormon can serve as a formula for all of us who seek to receive and recognize revelation in our lives.
Every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the right and responsibility to receive revelation. This is because every member of the Church receives the gift of the Holy Ghost at confirmation. As the prophet Joseph Smith explained, “No man can receive the Holy Ghost and not receive revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 328). Expounding on this, BYU professor Joseph McConkie taught, “The fact that every member of the church is given the gift of the Holy Ghost is the evidence that the Lord wants to reveal things to you and through you” (Joseph F. McConkie, Ensign Feb. 2011).
But how do we receive revelation from the Holy Ghost? And how do we recognize it when we do receive it? These are common questions that have puzzled many Church members who seek inspiration but are not always confident in their ability to do so. Fortunately, the Lord answered these questions as he trained Oliver Cowdery in the workings of the spirit of revelation. Like so many of us, Oliver was young and inexperienced in spiritual things and the instruction the Lord gave Oliver can be applied to each of us as we seek to grow in the gift of revelation.
A Lesson Learned the Hard Way
As Oliver served as scribe, he observed the spiritual gift that Joseph Smith had to translate the Book of Mormon. Wondering about his own spiritual gifts, the Lord gave him a revelation through Joseph Smith in which he was told that he also had the gift of revelation and if he desired he could use that gift to translate (D&C 6:10-11, 25). He was not being invited to replace Joseph Smith, but to “assist” him in his translation efforts (D&C 6:27). After apparently giving Oliver a chance to use the Urim and Thummim with Joseph Smith (See D&C 7 heading) and explaining to him how the spirit of revelation comes as inspired thoughts and feelings (D&C 8:2-3), the Lord invited Oliver to translate. His final counsel before the attempt was to ask in faith (D&C 9:9-11).
Most Church members are aware that Oliver Cowdery’s efforts to translate were not successful. However, there is evidence that it was not a complete failure. The Lord explained that Oliver “did not continue as [he] commenced, when [he] began to translate” (D&C 9:5). This seems to indicate that Oliver may have translated briefly before he failed. Even if Oliver only translated a few words, it is still an impressive miracle. Like Peter walking on the water, we often focus on when he began to sink without giving him more credit for having actually walked on water! Who of us has done that? And who of us has ever translated even a word through a seer stone?
It was while struggling to understand why he failed that the Lord gave Oliver one of the greatest lessons on receiving revelation ever recorded in scripture. He explained, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me” (D&C 9:7). Even though the last counsel the Lord gave him was simply to ask in faith (D&C 8:9-11), it is here that the Lord explains that asking in faith is more than just asking. He continues, “But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me” (D&C 9:8).
What the Lord wants us to know is that revelation requires work. Rather than merely asking without effort, we must pay the price of our own diligent efforts to know the things we seek. As President Harold B. Lee once explained, “If you want to get revelation, do your homework” (as quoted by President Henry B. Eyring, Ensign April 2016).
In fact, this is exactly what it means to ask in faith. Faith is a principle of action, and as Elder David A. Bednar has explained, ask in faith “[means] the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and perform, the requirement to communicate and to act (Bednar, Ensign May 2008). The lesson we are to learn from this is that if we want to receive revelation, we must do more than simply ask for it, we must work for it.
The Lord’s Formula for Receiving Revelation
Through this experience with Oliver Cowdery, the Lord provided a perfect three step formula that each of us can apply in receiving revelation. First, “you must study it out in your mind,” the Lord explained, “then you must ask me it be right” (D&C 9:8). At first glance that seems like just two steps, but a careful reading of this scripture indicates there is a hidden middle step. The Lord explained that after we study we should ask if “it” is right. What is the “it” that we are asking about? It is the decision that we make after studying it out. The Lord’s formula for receiving revelation then is this:
- Study it out.
- Make a decision.
- Ask if it is right.
Referring to this simple formula, President Marion G. Romney explained, “I make all my decisions that way. . . You can solve all the problems you have in life on that principle” (Marion G. Romney: His life and faith p. 223-224).
President Romney is right. This simple formula can help us in all our decisions. If a high school student wants to know which college she should attend, rather than just “praying about it” she should study her different options considering price and location and course offerings until she has decided for herself. A college student deciding on a major or career path would follow a similar pattern. So would a young adult seeking to find the right person to marry or a couple deciding when to have their next child. In each case, the person should first use their own best judgment to discover what is the right choice and then go before the Lord to seek a confirmation of the decision.
This formula makes revelation simple. We are not asking the Lord to tell us what to do, we are asking him to give us the “green light” or “red light” to our decision. This allows us to “counsel with the Lord in all [our] doings” (Alma 37:37) but it also allows us to exercise our agency. We must remember that the Lord has created us to act, not just to be helplessly acted upon (2 Nephi 2:14). He has given us a brain and he expects us to use it (see McConkie, Agency or Inspiration, BYU Feb. 27, 1973). If we do not, we can never grow and develop into the divine beings he wants us to become. As President Dallin H. Oaks has explained, “personal decision making is one of the sources of the growth we are meant to experience in mortality” (Oaks, Ensign Oct. 1994).
Three Possible Responses to Recognize
Not only did the Lord teach Oliver Cowdery how to receive revelation, but he also taught him how to recognize it when it comes. There are a few possible responses the Lord may give when we take a matter to him and ask for confirmation. First, is that “if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8). This “burning in the bosom” is sometimes misunderstood. President Dallin H. Oaks explained that it “is not a feeling of caloric heat like combustion but a feeling or peace and warmth and serenity and goodness” (Oaks, Ensign August 2013). Because of potential misunderstanding I prefer to focus attention on the second part of the description, that we will simply “feel that it is right.” Although we cannot describe it or explain it, the choice just feels right to us. This confirmation is a revelation from the Lord.
Another possible outcome is that “if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought” (D&C 9:9). Again, the term “stupor of thought” may be confusing so I prefer to focus on the phrase “you shall have no such feelings.” In other words, if the decision is not right then you won’t feel right about it. Instead you will feel uncertain and uncomfortable and dark, indicating that it is not the right choice.
A third but unmentioned possible outcome is that the Lord could choose not to answer, or at least not to answer immediately. President Dallin H. Oaks explained that “this is likely to occur in those numerous circumstances in which choices are trivial or either choice is acceptable. … If we do not receive guidance, we should act upon our best judgment” (Oaks, Ensign Oct. 1994).
But what if it is an important decision and we don’t get an answer as quickly as we need it—what do we do then? Elder Richard G. Scott gave this powerful counsel: “What do you do when you have prepared carefully, have prayed fervently, waited a reasonable time for a response, and still do not feel an answer? You may want to express thanks when that occurs, for it is an evidence of His trust. When you are living worthily and your choice is consistent with the Savior’s teachings and you need to act, proceed with trust. As you are sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, one of two things will certainly occur at the appropriate time: either the stupor of thought will come, indicating an improper choice, or the peace or the burning in the bosom will be felt, confirming that your choice was correct. When you are living righteously and are acting with trust, God will not let you proceed too far without a warning impression if you have made the wrong decision” (Elder Richard G. Scott Ensign May 2007).
I saw an example of this in my own engagement. After I asked my wife to marry me, she followed this same pattern to seek confirmation. However, no immediate confirmation came. Although she was in love and wanted to marry me, she also wanted to follow the Lord. So when no answer came she considered telling me no. This thought was immediately met by a dark and uneasy feeling. She then decided to follow her own best judgment and move forward with the engagement. It was not until later, after she had acted in faith to say yes, that the confirmation came. The Spirit testified that she had made the right decision. (After almost 15 years, I hope she still feels she made the right decision!)
The three possible outcomes then are summarized as follows:
- “Feel that it is right” (DC 9:8).
- “No such feelings,” Not feel that it is right (DC 9:9).
- No answer.
When we understand these simple but profound principles for receiving and recognizing revelation, it can help us in our efforts to know the will of God and it can also help us in guiding others. To those who sought counsel from President Marion G. Romney, he gave them “sparse advice,” instead he recorded, “I referred him to the ninth section of the Doctrine and Covenants” (Marion G. Romney: His life and faith p. 196).
I had my own opportunity to practice this. Several years ago, one of my students came to me seeking counsel for how she might help a friend in trouble. I told her that I had a solution for her but it was not one she would probably like. I then read to her from Doctrine and Covenants section 9 and explained the Lord’s formula for receiving and recognizing revelation. I invited her to try it. When she left, I could tell she was a little disappointed that I hadn’t solved her problem. However, a few days later she returned to my classroom beaming. She said, “Brother Mathews, you were right. I didn’t like your counsel at first but as I was driving home I thought maybe I should try it.” She then explained how she pulled her car over and got out a pen and paper and made a list of possible solution. She weighed and considered each one and crossed them off one by one until she arrived at what she considered to be her best option. She felt good about it but prayed for confirmation. A feeling of peace came over her, confirming that the decision she had reached about how to help her friend was right. She then concluded by saying, “Brother Mathews, what you taught me I think I will use for the rest of my life.”
Of course, I can’t take the credit for what I taught her. Like her, I am grateful to those teachers and leaders who taught this pattern to me. Ultimately, I am grateful for Oliver Cowdery, whose failure in translating provided an opportunity for the Lord to teach us one of the greatest lessons on revelation in all of scripture. May we follow the example of President Marion G. Romney who said, “I make all my decisions that way. . . You can solve all the problems you have in life on that principle” (Marion G. Romney: His life and faith p. 223-224).