Lately I have been thinking a lot about the question of how we can know truth. I have had a few friends and acquaintances recently move away from the Church for a variety of reasons. But there has been a common thread.
Unsurprisingly, I am not persuaded by these arguments.
Each has come to believe that their past spiritual confirmations and experiences were too subjective or unreliable to form a continued foundation of belief. They have each described reliance on these experiences derisively as simply relying on emotion and feeling. Rather than relying on these experiences, they point to some other foundation that they see as more sturdy or immovable be that logic and reasoning, or the words of the Holy Bible.
I recognize that human emotion and feeling can be highly subjective and manipulated. But I reject the suggestion that is all that divine revelation is or can be. Rather divine revelation is a force that is beyond ourselves which pierces through the darkness and sheds true light.
In reaching this conclusion I rest on my own personal experiences with divine revelation and the experiences of others.
One of my favorite accounts of the reception of divine revelation comes from Oliver Cowdery.
In early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn about Oliver’s wrestle to know if the spiritual experiences he had were truly from God. He had been led by what he felt was a revelation to meet Joseph Smith and began to assist as a translator. But he was unsettled. He wondered whether he truly was following God’s will.
In a series of revelations through Joseph Smith, the Savior spoke to Oliver’s concerns.
In Section 6, the Lord blessed Oliver for seeking revelation and for following what he had felt. He reassured Oliver that the feelings of enlightenment that he had experienced had come from God.
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time. Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth;”
The Lord further explained to Oliver that the feelings that he had felt were from him and that he could know that because God had spoken peace to him and had addressed his concerns.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?”
In Section 8 it is nevertheless clear that Oliver is still struggling with these same concerns. The Lord assures him:
“[T]hat assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit.Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
God also warns Oliver that he will need to rely on his revelatory experiences because they will deliver him “out of the hands of [his] enemies, when if it were not so they would slay you and bring your soul to destruction.”
From these verses (and others in these sections), it is obvious that Oliver struggled with many of the same questions that my friends have struggled with. He wanted to know whether he could truly rely on past revelation or whether it was possible that he was being deceived. He had powerful experiences but was worried that he was being led astray by his emotions.
But soon afterwards in May 1829, Oliver Cowdery had an experience that changed his feelings towards the power of revelation. On May 15th Oliver and Joseph retreated to a spot near the Susquehanna river in Harmony Pennsylvania and prayed to know the Lord’s will concerning baptism. John the Baptist appeared to them and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood.
Writing after this experience Oliver Cowdery described the impact of this revelatory visitation on his doubts.
And as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were wrapped in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!
Oliver spoke of how this vision was an answer to his “anxiously looked for message” and contrasted his feelings with the world which “was racked and distracted” and where “millions were groping as the blind for the wall” and “resting upon uncertainty.”
Because of his experience, Oliver realized that the spirit of revelation was precisely the antidote that God had given to cut through that uncertainty. He understood that human reasoning, rhetoric, and eloquence could deceive and distract. But that God could cut through all of that noise with “the power of the Holy Spirit.”
“I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind.
I love these words so much. That has also been my experience with divine revelation. The joy peace and wisdom that I have received from the Holy Ghost is far beyond anything that the world offers. When one truly experiences divine revelation there is no room for doubt. Rather, revelation causes doubt to flee or to whither into insignificance.
It makes so much sense to me that God would primarily speak to his children through direct personal revelation. The scriptures are incredible treasures of divine wisdom. But they were received in a particular time and place and in response to the spiritual needs of their audience. And when we read them we bring our own preconceptions and experiences. Reasoning and logic are wonderful tools. But when we reason we do also do not do so objectively. Rather, we bring our own biases and world view. More often than not, we interpret facts in a way that satisfies our own desires or confirms our opinion.
Moreover, these tools are not universally accessible. For instance, so many people lack the training, education, and access to truly understand the scriptures. But God loves his children wherever they are in the world and whatever their education and background. If God really wants to speak to us we should expect him to do so through a universal language that cuts through educational barriers and cultures. That universal language is divine revelation.
But Oliver’s experience does show that perhaps we might be falling into a bit of a trap as well in how we talk about revelation especially with investigators or those looking into the Church. Oliver had many spiritual experiences before his May 1829 experience. But yet he had many doubts and wondered whether those experiences were really from God. He kept asking and seeking until God gave him a greater and more concrete answer to his prayers.
Sometimes we are content with encouraging people to rely on their initial feelings of peace and joy that they receive from going to Church or reading the Book of Mormon or meeting with the missionaries. Oliver’s experience shows us that these feelings are real, but that they are insufficient. The kind of revelatory experience that God wants each of us to have is the kind that Oliver had with John the Baptist in May 1829. That isn’t to say that we will experience a divine visitation like Oliver did. But we can all receive the kind of manifestation of the spirit that cuts away all doubt.
I have been the recipient of such divine revelation and I cannot doubt or deny it. You could sooner convince me that 2+2=5 or that the sky is purple than convince me that this was merely wishful thinking or my own emotions. Those moments of divine revelation swept away doubt and replaced them with confidence and hope. And I now that if God gave me those experiences that he also wishes to give them to everyone else. Because he is no respecter of persons but loves all of this children.
If you feel that you have never had such an experience, I encourage you to never give up and continue to seek such an answer. Rely on the answers you have felt and keep seeking greater truth and light. If you have received a powerful answer that swept away your doubt, cherish that memory. Do not allow skepticism and doubt to wipe away what you felt. If it was true when you experienced it, it remains true today.