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Joseph Smith Lectures

Seeking Personal Revelation

Dear brothers and sisters, I approach this assignment with humility, recognizing that I represent some of the finest men and women that I have ever been privileged to associate with, i.e. the senior missionaries.

There are approximately 18 senior missionary couples who serve at BYU-H, an additional 13 couples and sisters who serve at PCC, and 9 couples and sisters who serve at the Temple, the Visitors Center, HRI, and the FHC. All are serving here in Laie. They are a wonderful group and before I express my aloha to you from all of them, I wish to share an incident from Hawaiian church history that you might find of interest.

Some of you may already be familiar with it and I trust you will forgive the redundancy. I found this story in a book from our library written by a former member of the faculty, Joe Spurrier, now deceased.

The story is of Uaua. He was an ali'i of some authority. He was also a friend of Johnathan Napela, whose statue along with Elder George Q. Cannon, is just outside the door of this building. Brother Nepala was being taught the gospel by Elder Cannon, who was among the first missionaries to come to Hawaii, and Uaua sat in on some of those discussions. He accepted the missionaries message and became a member. He was faithful to the church throughout his life. In 1870 he was serving as the presiding officer of the Honolulu Conference. Today we would refer to it as a stake. He was invited to come to a mission conference being held in Laie to report on his stewardship. When he stood up to report he withdrew a folded handkerchief from his pocket, held it by two corners and shook it out before the congregation, saying "Aloha from the Honolulu Conference." He then invited those assembled to send their aloha back to the members of his conference in Honolulu by saying it aloud and in unison. He then folded up the cloth that now, symbolically, contained the greeting and returned it to his pocket.

That incident marks the beginning of a practice, found nowhere else in the Church, where a speaker begins his remarks with "Aloha" to which the congregation responds aloud. And so dear brothers and sisters I am now going to bring to you the aloha of the senior missionaries that serve so faithfully in this community, and as I do I would ask that you respond in unison and aloud with your warmest aloha that I might symbolically return it to them.

So, brothers and sisters, ALOHA.

My wife mentioned that we had been privileged to live in Laie in the mid-60s when I was working on the campus as the Director of the Library. I would like to share with you an incident that occurred about four years after we arrived.

I was sitting in my office in the library when one of the faculty members, Craig Mayfield, stopped by for an informal visit. During the course of our conversation he asked me how much longer we thought we would remain at CCH. Coincidentally, my wife and I had talked about this very thing. How much longer should we stay? In fact, the question was becoming not how much longer should we stay, but why move? We both enjoyed living here. Two of our three children that we had at the time, had been born just up the road at the old Kahuku Plantation Hospital. Our son was just beginning school and seemed to enjoy it. He loved playing with our neighbor, Russell Sorensen. My wife was serving in the Relief Society with "Mom Enos." A dear sister who was responsible for food services and operated the cafeteria here at the school. I was privileged to be serving as a Bishop on campus at the time. Indeed, why consider moving. Then Brother Mayfield went on to say, "You know, if you are going to stay in higher education, you would be well-served by getting a Ph.D." In the discussions my wife and I had had about moving there had been two motivating factors, one was precisely what Brother Mayfield had noted, that if I were to remain in higher education a doctorate would likely be to my advantage. The other motivating factor was a long felt desire that I had nourished since high school days to become an agent for the FBI. The conversation with Br. Mayfield precipitated a more serious conversation between my wife and I about what we ought to do.

We concluded that we were at a crossroads in our life. If we took one road it would lead us in a completely different direction than if we took the other road. In essence, there were three possible roads to take. One road was graduate school. If we chose that road it would lead to a degree that would set our course in life in a rather specific direction. Another road was that of the FBI, selecting that road would lead to a different profession and a completely different direction that would affect my life and that of our family. Another road was to remain in Laie. It was the road that for us, at that time in our life, was perhaps the most comfortable.

Indeed we were at a crossroads, not unlike crossroads that many, if not all, of you will come to face at some time in your life. It may not necessarily involve a decision regarding graduate school, but at some time you will each face difficult and critical decisions. Fortunately, when we come to those points in our lives, where we are faced with having to make a major decision, we have the opportunity of seeking one of the great gifts that the Lord has provided us, i.e. the gift of personal revelation.

In Matthew the Lord alerted us to the availability of this gift, he said:

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7).

Another reference to this gift is made by James. It is one that is familiar to most of us. It is the one that prompted the Prophet Joseph to seek the Lord in prayer when he was at a crossroads in his youth regarding which church to join: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally, and it shall be given him" (James 1:5).

Occasionally, we receive a gift that has an instruction book with it. The booklet may tell us how to put the gift together, how it should be used, and how it should be taken care of. With the gift of personal revelation the Lord shared with us the procedure, the instruction book if you will, that we should follow in seeking personal revelation. It is best articulated I believe, in the 8th and 9th sections of the D&C, and the 10th chapter of Moroni. In addition to these scriptural references we have also received wise instruction from the brethren on how to seek for and apply the gift of personal revelation. This is a summary of these instructions:

First, we must personally study and ponder the question or concern that we have. Elder Oaks made this clear by noting that, "We are often left to work out problems, without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality." Elder Kendrick, of the Council of Seventy, taught that whenever we face a difficult decision, the Lord expects us to consider and study all of the options we have and arrive at our own conclusions before we take the matter to the Lord. He concluded that "We have the initial responsibility to seek solutions for our own problems and this will always involve effort on our part."

Second, we must then approach the Lord in the proper attitude of prayer. On those occasions when my wife and I have had to make what we considered to be a crossroads-type decision for which we felt the need for divine guidance, we approached the Lord in the following manner.

First, we would have pondered the matter, i.e. we had studied it out in our own mind.

Second, we would prepare ourselves spiritually. Normally we make every effort to approach the Lord with humility and reverence and after having fasted for a period of time. It was Alma who counseled, "Behold, I have fasted and prayed that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit" (Alma 5:46). Fasting also helped us to be more humble and you will remember that it was the Savior who said, "Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers" (D&C 112:10).

Third, we tried not to ask amiss, i.e. when we sought for guidance, it was for that which we felt was important, truly a crossroads decision. We did not want to bother the Lord with frivolous matters. It was Nephi who exclaimed that God "will give liberally if we ask not amiss" (2 Nephi 4:35).

Some of you have read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twian. The author relates the incident when Huck Finn went out to pray for probably the first time in his life. It gives insight in how one should not approach the Lord in prayer.

(Quote) "It made me shiver, and I about made up my mind to pray and see if I couldn't try to quit bein' the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. The words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It weren't no use to try and hide it from Him. I knew very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart wasn't right; it was because I was playin' double. I was tryin' to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, but deep down in me I knew it was a lie and He knew it. You can't pray a lie. I found that out. (End Quote) (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, p. 283)

In this fictionalized account, Huckleberry Finn was broaching what the Savior counseled us not to do when he stated, "Trifle not with sacred things" (D&C 6:12). We must remember that the receiving of personal revelation is a sacred process. As Elder Kendrick noted, it is a divine discussion with Deity and must be reverenced if it is to work.

Third, we must ask in faith, and with real intent. Many of you are familiar with the counsel given by Moroni in the closing chapter of the Book of Mormon that in seeking an answer to a critical matter, we must ask with a sincere heart and with real intent. I would like to believe that our prayers were asked in that same spirit. I know that when my wife and I knelt down to seek divine guidance, revelation if you will, that we each had faith that the Lord could give answer to our prayers. Again, the Savior taught that "whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you" (3 Nephi 18:20). We must have faith that the Lord will answer our prayers. Some of you may have heard of this incident recorded in the history of the Mormon Battalion as they were making their way west:

(Quote) "We resumed our march, camping in the evening near some springs. One yoke of our oxen got mired in the mud. We took off the yoke when one got out. The other we undertook to pull out with a rope and unfortunately broke his neck. One ox would not pull the wagon and what to do for a team we did not know. This was a dark time, there were many earnest prayers that night that went up to our Heavenly Father for divine assistance. The next morning we found with our lone oxen a pair of splendid young steers. We looked upon it as an answer to our prayers. We were able to pursue our march." (End Quote) (Mormon Battalion History, p. 191)

In describing this incident in their commentary on the Doctrine & Covenants, Otten and Caldwell legitimately ask the question--Why would anyone out in the middle of nowhere think that offering a prayer to some unseen being would produce any assistance to pull a wagon? The only real answer to such a query is that they had faith that Jesus Christ could and would help them. (Sacred Truths of the Doctrine and Covenants, v1, p. 47). It is with this kind of unwavering faith and level of intensity that we must approach the Lord in seeking divine guidance.

This, in essence, is the formula that my wife and I have used on those occasions that we have sought personal revelation to the major crossroad type decisions we have come to in our lives.

First, we have researched the matter, studied it out in our own mind, and have pondered it. In sum we have done our homework before taking it to the Lord. Then we prepared ourselves to approach the Lord in prayer. As noted previously we would normally fast, we would always kneel, we would say our prayers out loud, usually I would say the prayer, though not always. At times we have both offered a prayer. We do it in a secluded part of our home, we take the telephone off the hook. Our prayers are not overly formalized. We recognize we are approaching the Lord but we express our prayers as though we were talking to our Bishop, or to our parents and seeking counsel from them. We explain very simply the issue at hand, we describe the options we have considered, we then state what we feel is the appropriate decision and seek a confirmation, i.e. that we might feel at peace with the decision we have made if it is in accord with his will and if it is not the correct thing to do that we would recognize that as well.

During our 43 years of marriage we have not sought this level of personal revelation with great frequency. My first experience was as a young man, just prior to my mission. I had just read the Book of Mormon and I sought a confirmation of the truthfulness of that record and of the truthfulness of the gospel. The second experience was when I sought special confirmation from the Lord regarding the decision to marry. We have sought it in relation to professional career moves. As Elder Kendrick pointed out--(Quote) "It is a misconception to believe that we should consult Heavenly Father on every matter. He expects us to solve a portion of our problems without petitioning Him for potential solutions. We should daily petition for the companionship of the Holy Ghost. With this presence of the Spirit, we will feel the promptings without petitioning Heavenly Father on every matter." (End Quote) (From an address given on 20 May 1997 at BYU.)

Fourth, we must then learn to recognize spiritual communications. In discussing how the Lord communicates with our spirit Elder Oaks taught that it is done in his own time and in his own way and according to his own will (D&C 88:68). (Ensign, March 1997) The spirit that would reveal the Lord's will to us cannot be compelled, controlled, nor forced. Elder Packer said that divine guidance comes to us as thoughts and as feelings, through impressions and promptings. Elder Kendrick noted that at times the spirit will impress both the mind and the heart at the same time. Usually, he said, when your head and your heart are receiving the same impression, you know that you are receiving a personal revelation. This is confirmed in the 8th section of the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord told Oliver Cowdery, "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. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation" (D&C 8:2-3).

I wish to comment briefly, and ever so carefully, about the "burning in the bosom" and the "stupor of thought" as used in the 9th section of the D&C. My interpretation of those two phrases, i.e. the burning sensation and the stupor of thought, might be too literal. I don't know that I have ever truly experienced them, yet I know that I have received personal revelation from the Lord.

I was interested in something that Elder Mark E. Petersen, of the Council of the Twelve, said when he was teaching the general authorities on this matter. He taught the brethren that Satan could duplicate the "burning in the bosom." He then went on to instruct the brethren that Section 9 was given through Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery and not the members of the Church in general. He said that only some might have the burning in the bosom from the Lord. Others may have it from a different source. He further counseled that one thing all of us are entitled to receive is peace. Satan can never duplicate peace.

Elder Featherstone expanded on this and said that when missionaries teach nonmembers about the gospel, they should not promise they would have a burning in the bosom. Some may have that experience, but many may not (Man of Holiness, Vaughn K. Featherstone, p53-55).

Elder Oaks also commented on this statement from the 9th Section of the D&C. He suggested that it may be one of the most misunderstood teachings in all of the D&C. He said: (Quote) "I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom 'burn' within them. What does a "burning in the bosom" mean? Does it need to be a feeling of heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word "burning" in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. Truly, the still, small voice is just that, "still" and "small." (End Quote) (Dallin H. Oaks)

For me the "stupor of thought" I have experienced is just the opposite, i.e. there is a sense of anxiety and being uncomfortable, not being able to relax with the decision.

Still, there have been those times when nothing happened. We have followed all of the steps. We have pondered and studied, we have prayed and petitioned the Lord, we have articulated what we feel the appropriate decision should be, but nothing happens. There is a kind of void feeling. In those instances we have concluded that for us at least, it doesn't make a difference. It isn't that the Lord doesn't care, but rather that it won't matter. Whatever we decide to do will be fine. It is a kind of "win-win" situation. In those instances, where there is a kind of "non-answer" from the Lord, Brigham Young said this: (Quote) "If I ask [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course ,my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from Him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, He is bound to own and honor that [decision] and He will do so to all intents and purposes." (End Quote) (Discourses of Brigham Young, John A. Widtsoe, 1941, p. 43)

One year after that conversation with Craig Mayfield we decided to return to the mainland. Though we were reluctant to leave, we felt there had been direction from the Lord in making that decision and we felt a sense of peace and comfort. There were two other things that had happened during that interim of time. I had been offered a teaching position at the University of Utah with the agreement that I could work on a PhD while there, and I had also applied for the FBI, passed the initial tests including the physical. I was informed it would take about one year to complete the background and security check. We felt we had two good options.

During that first year of teaching at the U of Utah I came across an announcement of a fellowship that was being offered at selected universities throughout the United States. One of the universities was Illinois, where I had studied before. I knew that there would be quite literally hundreds applying for that fellowship and that any chance I had of getting it would be minimal at best. Nonetheless I submitted an application, thinking it could be another option to consider.

In the early spring of the following year three things occurred within a matter of a few short days, I received word from the FBI that I had been accepted and they were ready to set a date for initiating my training at Quantico, Va.; I was informed by the U of U that I would be placed in a tenure track position for the following year; and, I was informed by the University of Illinois that I had been awarded their fellowship. Clearly we needed to make another crossroads type decision--the FBI, the potential for a tenured position at the U of U, or further study at the U of I.

We immediately started to ponder and "study it out in our own mind." We spoke to a cousin who had worked for a number of years in the FBI and shared our dilemma with him. His counsel led to a decision to forsake the FBI option and focus on higher education as a career. Though I was reluctant to forsake the idea of being an FBI agent, I felt at peace with the decision. I spoke to my University Department Head who counseled that it would be unwise to not accept the U of I fellowship. He said that such opportunities come along only once in a lifetime. He further counseled me not to resign my university teaching position but to take a leave-of-absence instead. As we studied the fellowship offering more closely we discovered how blessed we had been in receiving it. The fellowship paid all university related costs including tuition, books, and all living costs including housing, food, and a generous cash allowance. They paid all expenses related to travel. The only requirement of the fellowship was that I would pursue my doctorate as a full time student and was not to work. What was there not to like about it? We knelt in prayer to thank the Lord for his blessings and to confirm our decision to accept the fellowship. Though I did not sense the spirit of peace that I had anticipated, the feelings of anxiety and uneasiness were put aside as nervousness and anxiousness about moving the family and launching my doctoral studies.

I was not long into my program however, when I felt that I had made a major mistake. The program at the U of I was redundant of my master's program there. It was less challenging and not as forward looking as I had anticipated. In essence it did not seem to be that which had been "advertised" by the university. After spending a frustrating year in the program we decided to return to the position at the U of U and pursue further studies there, recognizing that it would take longer since I couldn't be a full time student. The Dean of the program at U of I was dumbfounded when I shared with him our decision to give up the fellowship. He said it would be a major mistake and counseled us not to leave. Ironically, when I completed my studies at the U of U some five years later, I was offered a teaching position at the U of I by that same Dean in an effort to augment their doctoral program in that area which I thought was weak.

In the process of making this decision I had learned a valuable lesson. The decision to accept the fellowship seemed so logical, and so correct and those feelings overrode my need to study and research their program more thoroughly and to disregard the feelings and promptings of anxiety and nervousness and the lack of peace. In essence I forsook the answer that had come from the Lord. Conversely, petitioning the Lord once again about forsaking the fellowship and returning to the U of U brought a clear sense of peace and comfort, a true feeling of serenity, though it seemed like such an illogical choice at the time. Yet, in hindsight, reflecting on this decision, it has turned out to be the very best decision as far as my professional career was concerned.

Dear brothers and sisters, into each of your lives there will come a time when you will need to be guided in a very direct way. The Lord's gift of personal revelation will be available to you. Strive always to be worthy of the gift, apply the counsel of the brethren and of the scriptures by studying the issue out in your own mind, approaching the Lord in the proper attitude of prayer, pray with faith and real intent, and then listen carefully for the answer and follow that direction.

By doing so your lives will be blessed. Of this I testify.