Are we limiting God?

A few week’s back there was a discussion on Issues in Mormon Doctrine regarding the relative number of revelations and signs in the church nowadays as opposed to during the Joseph Smith period. One of the fundamental questions asked was, to paraphrase, why has the initial outpouring of revelation stopped?

I don’t know. To be honest, I am not entirely certain it has. There is Geoff J‘s take and there is Ben S‘s. But, in reading the Book of Mormon today, I came across some interesting stuff.

Let’s start with 2 Nephi 26:13:

13 And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith.

This seems pretty straightforward. God’s manifestations are contingent on context, that context being provided by faith. So, if we have the faith to see the miracles, we will see them. However, this seems like a too-easy answer and it is.

To demonstrate, let’s read Ether 12:12

12 For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.

Now, some people are of a mind that every new day is a miracle. We’ll adopt their approach for the moment. Apparently, they, through their faith, allow God to continue to produce new days. This seems terribly limiting on God. Do we really believe that we have this kind of power? That the power of God is dependent on the faith of his children? Even if you are demanding classical miracles (ie. healings, tongues, etc.), the requirement of human faith (flawed as it usually is) seems to place some sort of human control over divine will.

Here’s another interesting passage, Moroni 7:35 – 38:

35 And now, my beloved brethren, if this be the case that these things are true which I have spoken unto you, and God will show unto you, with power and great glory at the last day, that they are true, and if they are true has the day of miracles ceased?
36 Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?
37 Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.
38 For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name; wherefore, if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also; and awful is the state of man, for they are as though there had been no redemption made.

Here we see human limitations being placed on the Atonement itself. If there is anything that God wants, it is for His children to return to Him. How is it even possible for human faithlessness to deny God what He most wants? It is hard to reconcile this idea with that of an omnipotent creator.

Unless you have an idea of a self-limiting creator (which we have). The limitations on God are self-imposed as a necessary step in granting us free will. Apparently, there was no other way. As a result, we, by our limited faith in God, create limits on how He can interact with us personally. But there appears to be a way around this.

Faith, as the scriptures above point out, is a means whereby miracles can be wrought. Why? Because faithful prayer gives us access to the mind and will of God and, in those cases, we can ask Him to do for us what he would like to do. The limitation that God has self-imposed seems to be that He can bless us as He would like to do, but we must sincerely ask Him to. If we are willing to seek out His will and ask Him for His help in accomplishing it, our blessings, revelations, and miracles can presumably be limitless.

Regarding the revelation issue from the first paragraph then, if the revelatory nature of the Church has changed, the reasons may be twofold. First, perhaps we don’t have so much revelation because people don’t sincerely want God to weigh in on the matters of the day (think about the internal church discussions over gay-marriage propositions in California). Second, as the church has expanded, the need for a central source to get the kinds of revelations that you see in D&C 12, 14, 15, and 16 has gone away. Perhaps people, in approaching the Lord directly, are receiving these sorts of revelations themselves. So, my guess is that a combination of a lack of desire for institutional revelation and an increased emphasis on personal revelation (perhaps to give the Brethren more time to work on other issues) has brought about the current situation. For better or for worse…

19 Replies to “Are we limiting God?”

  1. I’m convinced that we are caught in a dichotomy. On the one hand we want the extraordinary dispalys of God’s power. On the other, there is no way we want to experience extraordinary displays of God’s power.For myself, I would love to have the tangible signs of the God’s reality all the time. I also am inherently distrustful of those around me. I don’t particularly want tongue speaking at church. Maybe God doesn’t divide his power and it’s an all or nothing deal. Or maybe I just need to repent. Posted by J. Stapley

  2. John, I certainly didn’t have this in mind when I wrote my post, and i hope people didn’t read it that way. I think we don’t hear about an outpouring like JS had because such an outpouring isn’t necessary.Joseph opened the dispensation. As a Moses, a Mohammed, Max Weber’s prophetic role, he was starting from zero and needed a lot of foundational revelations. We’ve moved into Weber’s priestly stage, and since Joseph put hte Church on course, we now only hear about major revelations when a major course correction is necessary. I believe the apostles and we both receive revelations, but by nature of the historical contrast between our day and joseph’s day vis-avis hte state of the Church, those revelations rarely need to be of the magnitude of those JS received. That’s convoluted, I guess, but it makes sense to me…. Posted by Ben S.

  3. I wonder if it has something to do with what people are looking for. That is, some of the big gains in initial converts were people who were looking for what they believed were the signs of the original church.Now days, the guy next door probably is interested in something other than speaking in tongues.In other words, maybe the dramatic character is based on what potential converts, on average, are looking for.Just an idea. Posted by Jared

  4. Ben, I have heard the idea that institutional revelation is ongoing, but most people don’t hear about it because of its sacred nature. That was what reminded me of your post.Jared, Or is it that we, who would be exhibiting the spiritual gifts, would be embarassed to have potential converts see us behaving in such an irrational manner (which is possibly what J was getting at)? In areas of the world that are less western, aren’t “signs” discussed and displayed more often? Posted by John C.

  5. In our discussions over at the new “No Death Before the Fall” site this question has surfaced . (The comments are the more important part.) All this came about from my bring the difference between Inspiration and Revelation into the mix.I think that disagreements such as ours are the very things that show how little revelation we seem to be receiving. Why do we keep relying on a statement (not even a revelation mind you) from a century ago to show where we stand on evolution? Every place there is a “diversity of opinion” there is where more revelation could be used. Some examples: Same-sex marriage, women’s rights, abortion (when does the spirit enter? This is no longer idle speculation.) just to name a few of the more politically charged ones.True there are some who really want to hold to their position and would be sad if there actually was a revelation on the subject. But most people cling to their position because they feel that what revelation has been given allows for it. They fully expect that more revelation will actually validate them and their position. Is it too much to ask where the Lord stands on such important issues without having to rely on man’s interpretation of out-dated statements? Now we can say that the revelations on church organization are no longer needed, but these are the very revelation that we do claim are being receive today. We point to the reorganization of the 70’s, the perpetual immigration fund and the like. Isn’t our saying that we don’t receive these organizational revelations anymore (as most seem do be agreeing with) simply saying that the guidance we are receiving in such matter today ‘inspiration’ at best? At the very point where we say we don’t need it, is where we claim to still receive it, whereas revelations which convey doctrine and information (the revelations which really made the early saints proud), the ones which are still needed, we don’t receive. This certainly makes the problem even bigger for us, not smaller.Joseph Smith himself preached for ‘personal revelation’ to a degree unmatched by anyone (except perhaps Mc Conkie in his Messiah series). Did he consider limiting the revelation which he gave the church to be much of a help at all? I recommend one read the king follett discourse if there are any doubters on this point. More revelation from our leaders facilitates rather than prevents more personal revelation in us. In Joseph’s day, any time a doctrinal question came up he would ask for a revelation. Sometimes it would come, others it wouldn’t. Now day it doesn’t seem to happen at all. If past prophets could ask about whether John the Beloved or the 3 Nephites were really alive still and get a revelation, why can’t we get revelations for more important issues?We can say that ‘we don’t need it anymore’ but how is this different from what the Jews said in Jesus’ day? Of what the Catholics said in Joseph’s day? Do we really want to take that route? Having recently reread Nibley’s World and the Prophets, I am more than a little worried about our current condition. All of the charges he lays against the other christian churches, starting in the 3rd and 4th centuries, are becoming more and more applicable to our situation as time silently rolls on without anybody saying “I saw..” I really am worried. Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

  6. Or by Wednesday. I don’t believe that I buy your analysis and here is why: the President and Apostles do seem to tackling topics of current interest. President Hinckley’s Gambling talk or Elder’s Oaks’s Pornography talk are two examples that readily come to mind. In both cases not only were guidelines for appropriate behavior laid out but some of the rules of inappropriate behavior were counter-intuitive. Why would people struggling with a pornography addiction be told to go to the temple? Why would losing $10 bucks to play a game of poker be worse than losing $10 bucks watching Return of the Sith? I don’t know that there are reasonable answers to those questions, but, believing that they originated with the Lord instead of in the minds of the public relations men and lawyers (who, by training, should be able to see through holes like that) leads me to give the whole thing credibility.But is this an appropriate standard to follow: If it doesn’t make sense, it must be true? Probably not, I realize, but it does speak to me quite powerfully on occasion.Regarding the nature of “revelation vs. inspiration” I think that you disregard the perspective of the witness to a fault. The physicality argument fails in this because Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith alone. Who knows if it was physical or not? The three witnesses apparently didn’t touch anything? The eight witnesses touched the plates, but nothing spiritually spectacular occurred. Part of the reason Laman and Lemuel keep failing to listen to angels is that, perhaps, only Nephi realizes that that is what they are dealing with. Joseph F. Smith’s inspiration may be Gordon B. Hinckley’s revelation. The determining factor in all of this is how far you trust the witness, not the events that the witness describes. Posted by John C.

  7. Every church is forced to address current topics if they plan on surviving as a church. Many churched discourage gambling, pornagraphy and even make-up, which is completely counter-intuitive. Does this mean that they are guided by even more revelation than us? I don’t think either of us buy that.Now regarding the I vs. R, it doesn’t really matter whether it was literally physical in the exact same way as we commonly experience things. They thought it was very physical and this is good enough. Yes, how much we trust the witness is important, and identifying the correct source and content of any given message is by far the most important part of establishing how much we should trust the witness. With revelation (as I have defined it) it is much easier to do these things than with inspiration (again as I have defined it).

  8. I don’t follow, Jeff. If, in both revelation and inspiration, we’re getting the report second hand, why would one be easier to accept than the other? Posted by John C.

  9. A fair question. Let’s consider a my acceptance of a revelation, the first vision. In one account a jew (one of hugh nibley’s ancestors) questions Joseph on the subject. What happened? What did He look like? When and where was this? What did He say? Joseph even said that God touched him on the lips! Now either Joseph was a complete fraud, absolutely insane or telling the truth. Most people prefer the second in my experience.Now let’s consider an example of what appears to have been inspiration, the 1978 priesthood revelation. We did up the accounts and ask: What happened? What did you see? When and where was this? What did you hear? The answers: We saw nothing. We heard nothing. We were all in the temple as a quorum, most of the Apostles who opposed the change having now passed on. We felt that it was the right decision. Whose decision was right? Theirs! They supplied almost all the content themselves and asked for an received a divine stamp of approval. Now we can put a lot of interpretations on this as well: They were liars, they were crazy, they were telling the truth or it involved an awful lot of wishful thinking. Given the context of the event, most people go for the fourth option.Now obviously more people in the world would be willing to accept the second account as being genuine than would be willing to accept the first. Nevertheless, there are much more strict limitations placed on the possible sources we could attribute to the first one. He either lied, was crazy or was a prophet period. This is why we use the JS story so much in missionary work, it provides a convincing dichotomy.We don’t use the 1978 version becasue there is a lot of wishy-washiness in the story. They could have been liars, crazy, truthful or normal people with intense desires just like we all do. This additional fourth option is mighty large and can also be combined with the other options as well. We have no dichotomy and so we don’t use it as an ultimatum for investigators.Thus, it is easier to see what, exactly God and not the persons themselves are revealing in revelation than it is in inspiration.

  10. Jeff, I still think that you’re downplaying the revelation in 1978. The Apostles didn’t claim that this is what they thought they ought to do (although they may have). They claimed that this is what God told them to do and that that is why they were doing it. Anytime you claim Divine authority for an act, you’re either lying, insane, or prophetic. Posted by John C.

  11. Where did they say that? I would love to see such an account. Anytime I see the word ‘told’ it seems to me that there must have been words. What were the words exactly? If there were no words then nobody told anybody anything. If there were no words then it becomes “We felt that the Lord wanted…” and this is inspiration to the core.

  12. Jeff, My point was that, no matter how it was communicated, the message that the Brethren gave was “Thus saith the Lord…”. The implication was that this is what the Lord wanted (mind, will, etc. of the Lord). Anyone who makes that claim (inspired or revealed) opens themselves up to the accusations you described. They did not say that they were doing this because they thought it was a good idea. They said that they were doing it because God told (inspired, hinted) that they should do it. That is their claim. To believe that they might be simply misguided (perhaps suggesting that they truly believe God told them) puts them into the insane category by default. Your categories don’t really change in going from inspiration to revelation. That is why I am having trouble with the distinction.

  13. I too see that the categories don’t change that much except that the ‘insane’ category in revelation really is insane as we tend to use the word, whereas the ‘insane’ category in inspiration could mean wishful thinking, which is something we all fall prey to once in a while without being commited. I thought the distinction important enough to create a whole other category.Now you have gotten to my point. If it was “thus saith the Lord…” fill in the dots. Nobody has ever, and this makes me wonder if they even could be filled in with God’s own words by anybody who experienced the communication. Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

  14. Jeff, I find it hard to compare “I think she might like me” wishful thinking to “Thus saith the Lord…” wishful thinking. To me they seem entirely different. That said, I might see if your point if you were to compare “God told me that you are supposed to marry me” to “Thus saith the Lord…” wherein the first I would call delusional (or mistaken, depending on the vehemence with which it was insisted) and the second I would call revelatory. I don’t think that I accept that the Brethren would be make that mistake and call it Doctrine. Elder McConkie, no matter what he really thought, continued to write in the beginning of Mormon Doctrine  that it was just his opinion. There seems to be some level of confirmation within the revelatory experience that exists to separate Mormon Doctrine from the 1978 revelation.Therefore, I am not entirely certain if your second point (your main point) is relevant. If we accept that revelation can come in many forms and that, via personal confirmation, certain revelations are true, I am not sure if the original wording matters. I do realize that this isn’t your point. What you are trying to get at is whether or not the 15 individuals in the room all shared the same revelatory experience in a way that could be confirmed by, say, sticking them in 15 separate questioning rooms and interrogating them separately. As that is now impossible, the question is somewhat moot. But, my speculative answer would be that you would get something along the lines of say the synoptic problem in the gospels. Different audiences in a room will have different experiences with a revelation. There were other people present when Joseph and Sydney received Sec 76 who didn’t have the same experience. It is probable that Sydney, had he ever bothered to write down his own version, would have remembered different things and possibly would have had God saying subtly different things. I don’t imagine that revelation, even on a church-wide scale, is ever received entirely objectively. We get the point, but the message is conveyed differently to all. Does this make it empirically untestable? Probably, but the empiricists left the building a while ago. You are assuming, I think, that any time traveller who happened to wander into that grove would be able to see God and Jesus talking to Joseph. I am not at all certain that is the case. Posted by John C.

  15. You kind of understand my position. I do worry about the apparent lack of difference between the methods of receiving revelation involved in “God told me that you are supposed to marry me” and the 1978 revelation. Ultimately our faith must lies in the men getting it right I suppose. I don’t much care whether the 15 men all expereienced the same thing or not. What I do worry about is that the 15 men didn’t experience anything beyond what other churches experience. That is my point. We have lost our most cherished and distinctive quality in the church. Whereas before we could simply say here is revelation given by the prophet on such and such a day which started “thus saith the lord..” now we have to say “yes we have a prophet who receives revelation but I can’t really show you any records which describe the actual revelations. We just have to have faith.” Things have changed whether they really do receive revelation or not, and this change has not been adequately described by anybody. Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

  16. Jeff, I don’t mean to drive this into the ground, but I still don’t see your point. Oral Roberts saw a 700 foot Jesus. If visions are your proof of divine approbation, then Oral is as much of a prophet as Joseph. Obviously, the reason that you are Mormon and not (whatever Oral is) is that something convinced you that Joseph wasn’t insane or lying. Perhaps the reason that you’re not (whatever Oral is) is because you tested Oral’s revelations and found them wanting. It comes back to whether you trust/believe the witnesses again.Also, I don’t know that the “Thus saith the Lord…” quality of visions is a recent problem. By which I mean, if you look at sec 135 it is as much a product of divine corporate speech as the Proclamation. For that matter, in sec 138, the Lord never directly speaks to Joseph F. Smith (at least as it is reported). We may be dealing with a quirk of how Joseph conveyed his revelatory experiences, not a change in the character of revelation itself.

  17. Exactly. And the thing that we point out to investigators isn’t “well I really believe we have revelation while other churches don’t” but instead we say “here is what happened in the first vision, the restoration of the priesthood and here in the book of mormon. These are our revelations which other churches don’t have. Now they are true or false, so pray about it.” I can just imagine the success, or lack thereof, of some missionaries who say “brother we really have received revelation. Will who pray to find out if we receive revelation, as well as if this revelation is true?” It’s simply not going to work.We can say “our revelations are true while their aren’t” but this is what every church says. We used to be different becasue we could actually present rather impressive revelations for everybodies viewing pleasure. Now we don’t. We have become like every other church in this respect. Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

  18. Jeff,
    I am glad that you are worried. It is good. This is impetus for you to go gain your own visceral revelation. I believe that you have been praying about this a lot. Keep praying. Be thankful. Count your many blessings. Seeing the everyday as a miracle doesn’t completely solve your problem, but when you do this, you acknowledge God’s connection with you, and thus you allow for further interaction even revelation.

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