Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck said, “The ability to qualify for, receive, and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life.”1 Yet, the process of understanding how we can receive revelation—how God speaks to us—is a lifelong pursuit. One does not gain this skill in the abstract, we have to learn it through our own experience. Sections 6, 8, and 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants are all given to Oliver Cowdery and we are offered an intense tutorial in revelation from the words of the Lord to Oliver.
One of the major goals of the Mormon Woman Project is to broaden our understanding of Mormon women—there is never just one way to be or experience life as a Mormon woman. I wonder if one of our difficulties with personal revelation is the personal part. It works differently for each of us. I don’t know exactly what someone else is feeling even if I can tell they are feeling the Spirit. Paul called it the “unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Corinthians 9:15) We are all unique and feel the spirit differently. The Lord knows us and He will talk to us uniquely so that we might come to understanding. (D&C 1:24) I wonder why we often quote Section 9:8–9 when talking about revelations, when just the revelation before, the Lord gave an example of revelation that He actually called “the spirit of revelation.”
There the Lord says He will “tell us in [our] mind and in [our] heart.” (8:2) Do we miss the beauty there? He doesn’t deride women for their assumed lack of rationality and praise men for their assumed lack of emotion. In a move that places Enlightenment rationality in union with the Romantic focus on the heart, God can speak to women’s minds as well as to men’s hearts. We all have the capability for both and we all need both. We exclude one or the other at our peril.
And then the Lord offers the perfect example of revelation, Moses and the Red Sea. While we often think of the miraculous elements here, the Lord points to the revelatory aspects. Might the Lord be suggesting the revelatory precedes the miraculous? The spirit of revelation “is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.” (8:3) Think about why this might be the example the Lord chooses. Elder Holland’s masterpiece “Cast Not Away Your Confidence” draws three significant lessons from the Lord’s example: Ask the Lord; go forward once you’ve received revelation; and trust the Lord—He will provide a way. He also very significantly reminds us of the role of opposition in the most spiritually momentous moments in our life.
Moses had no idea what lay ahead of him. The Red Sea had never been crossed in such a way. Some of our lives will follow a path similar to one our parents followed, some of us need to move forward somewhat blindly through fog, some will be thrashing through underbrush and fighting to create a new path. Oliver Cowdery’s first gift was the gift of revelation—a gift available to all. His other gift was considerably unusual, at least for us. In a time when the spheres of folk magic and religion were still blurry for some, some considered natural objects to be imbued with power. Joseph Smith used seer stones. Oliver Cowdery used a divining rod. The Lord makes it clear to Oliver that though this gift may not be common that it was “of God.” (Oliver’s second gift is introduced well with this Revelations in Context essay. Joseph’s seer stones are introduced and shown here and here and further considered here.)
Elder Ezra Taft Benson argued that the Spirit is the most important in our lives.2 We need to know what gifts we have and what path God would have us follow. Revelation encouraged Oliver to continue on even after some failures and lots of questions. At BYU Women’s Conference in 2015, Elder M. Russell Ballard pled, “Each of you must come to know what the Lord wants for you individually, given the choices before you.” He then quoted President Beck and highlighted her witness of truth. He continued,
Once you know the Lord’s will, you can then move forward in faith to fulfill your individual purpose. One sister may be inspired to continue her education and attend medical school, allowing her to have significant impact on her patients and to advance medical research. For another sister, inspiration may lead her to forego a scholarship to a prestigious institution and instead begin a family much earlier than has become common in this generation, allowing her to make a significant and eternal impact on her children now.
Is it possible for two similarly faithful women to receive such different responses to the same basic questions? Absolutely! What’s right for one woman may not be right for another. That’s why it is so important that we should not question each other’s choices or the inspiration behind them.3
There is never just one pattern to revelation or one way to receive revelation, any more than just one way to be a Mormon woman. We all desperately need God’s guidance to know what he wants us to become. Learning to recognize his words to us and act on them are our greatest tasks in mortality.
1 Julie B. Beck, “And upon the Handmaids in Those Days Will I Pour Out My Spirit,” CR, April 2010.
2 Ezra Taft Benson, “Seek the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, April 1988.
3 He continues: “And we should refrain from asking hurtful and unsupportive questions like “Why are you going on a mission?” or “Why aren’t you on a mission?” or “Why aren’t you married?” or “Why don’t you have children?” We can all be kinder and more thoughtful of the situations in which our sisters throughout the world find themselves as they seek to follow the will of our Heavenly Father in their individual lives.” M. Russell Ballard, “Women of Dedication, Faith, Determination, and Action,” Women’s Conference, 1 May 2015.
Related Mormon Women Project Interviews
Just Call Me Ruth, Ruth Renlund
“One thing I’ve always felt strongly about is that there’s no one way to be an LDS woman. Each has a right to personal revelation and is expected to use that. It should be personal and we shouldn’t let other people’s comments shake our direction. I think women are particularly susceptible to that.”
Her Version of Having it All, Marie-Laure Oscarson
“My version of “have it all” is very specific to my family and to my profession. I know that spiritual revelation will guide me through difficult decisions. I have felt God talking to me, leading me, and guiding me. This gives me a lot of courage and determination. The peace and love that I feel testify that God lives; even when doubt creeps in, I can turn to prayer and feel that knowledge of His love again. Faith in God’s love is what anchors me in this life as I continue to make family and career decisions.”
Other Related Women’s Voices
Fulfilling the Purpose of Relief Society, Julie B. Beck
“Revelation is not a matter of pushing buttons, but of pushing ourselves, often aided by fasting, scripture study, and personal pondering.”
Personal Revelation and Testimony, Barbara Thompson
“The way to receive personal revelation is really quite clear. We need to desire to receive revelation, we must not harden our hearts, and then we need to ask in faith, truly believe that we will receive an answer, and then diligently keep the commandments of God.
“Following this pattern does not mean that every time we ask a question of God, the answer will immediately appear with every detail of what to do. However, it does mean that if we diligently keep the commandments and ask in faith, answers will come in the Lord’s own way and in His time.”