Why l Follow A Fallible Prophet: Part 1
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
Note: This is the first of what will probably be three posts. I'm hoping that I can post more regularly if I break up my thoughts into smaller chunks.
"Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith. For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory" (D&C 21:4-6).
Last month, as I read selected teachings of Joseph F. Smith about the patriarchal order, I was struck once again with the realization that even prophets are fallible. It was not the first time this truth had been impressed upon my heart. But in the present moment, with so many voices trying to push the Church in opposite directions, and so many faith-filled Latter-day Saints struggling with this or that counsel from our living Prophet, it was sobering and ponder-provoking.
The next week, I listened to Sister Wendy Nelson describe her experience of the last four years at the side of our Prophet, Russell M. Nelson. She concluded her comments with these words: "What I know for sure is that prophets speak the truth, because the Lord speaks to His prophets. And I know for sure that following the prophets is the only way to stay safe during these latter-days."
I believe Sister Nelson's testimony even as I believe that sometimes, the truth spoken by a prophet is muddied by mortal misunderstandings. I guess that's because I am increasingly understanding that my own mind is muddied by mortal misunderstandings, even when I know I'm receiving personal revelation. I no longer expect that what the prophet speaks is the full and ultimate truth as treasured by God. Rather, I believe he speaks the currently comprehensible truth that will lead us along the path towards that perfect light.
There is a phrase in the verse above that used to bother me a little: "his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth". I used to think that meant that anything the prophet said was equivalent to God saying it; it was the final word and there was no place for questions or personal adaptation. But the rest of the sentence, "in all patience and faith", suggests a more open process for receiving God's word through prophets.
I think what the Lord is saying here is "I am directing the prophet and he will lead the Church accordingly. Trust his guidance because it comes from Me." I don't think He is saying, "The only way you will hear my voice is through the prophet." He cannot be, especially not when President Nelson has been repeatedly calling on us to deepen our capacity for hearing the voice of the Lord in our personal lives.
In 1982, Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained,
"Only the President of the Church receives revelation to guide the entire Church... Leaders receive revelation for their own areas of responsibility. Individuals can receive revelation to guide their own lives." (“Revelation,” New Era, Sept. 1982, 46).
Is it possible for there to be some variation between the Lord's direction to the whole Church, through His prophet, and His direction to me?
How could there not be, at least on occasion? Because revelation to the Church as a whole cannot account for the wide variety of personal circumstances in which 16 million of us find ourselves. So I might need patience and faith to help me reconcile the voice of God as it speaks to me, and His voice as sent through His prophet.
For example, imagining myself in Moses' day, if he led us through the dried-up depths of the Red Sea, saying, "Do not hesitate; turn not to the right nor the left but continue straight ahead," it would be essential for the entire host to hasten through the passageway without delay. We would need to get across before the walls of water collapsed upon our pursuers. However, if, while racing across the ocean floor, I saw a child stumble and fall in front of me, I should not disregard the voice of the Lord to my own heart, bidding me briefly pause to pick the child up and carry him or her safely forward. To deafen my ears to my own conscience and trample the child, on the grounds that I was being exactly obedient to the prophet, would be unconscionable.
I do not believe that obeying my conscience by briefly pausing to save a child so we could hasten forward together would be in any way equivalent to putting forth my hand to "steady the ark." That expression comes from the Old Testament, when the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence, was being carted back to Jerusalem after being recovered from the Philistines. When the oxen jostled the cart, Uzzah, one of the drivers grabbed ahold of the ark to steady it. But everyone, even the Philistines, knew that the ark was not to be touched by anyone except the high priest, and then only after ritual cleansing. When Uzzah touched the ark, even though it was with good intentions, he fell down dead. I am sure that the Lord, who knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, received Uzzah with love and mercy. Being struck down in the flesh does not equate with being cut off. Nonetheless, Uzzah's error has, ever since, been referenced as a warning against taking it upon ourselves to attempt to reorganize the kingdom of God according to our perceptions of what ought to be, instead of trusting God to take care of His kingdom and bending our minds to serving in our appointed stewardship.
In the Red Sea scenario above, pausing to pick up a child would be in harmony with the prophet’s direction, even though it required adaptation of his words to an exceptional circumstance. What would be out of harmony and “steadying the ark“ would be for me to call a halt in order to reorganize our flight, with the adults picking up their children so that no-one else would fall. Similarly, it would be out of harmony for somebody else, a few minutes later, to call another halt and reorganize again so that each of the elderly would have an arm to lean on. Maybe from our vantage points, it would seem like Moses should have organized both those things in the first place. But maybe the specific details of flight were never intended to come from Moses, but were to be entrusted by God to each of us individually, according to our specific needs and capacities. I need to trust God to give to the prophet the direction that is needed for the whole Church. I need to trust Him to give specific guidance to me and everyone else. And I need to follow the divine direction that comes to me as I am actively seeking to follow the prophet.
For example, the General Handbook (section 22.2.2) directs members to make a fast offering to the Church so that bishops, with the keys of discernment, can assist those in need in a manner that is best suited to help them become self-reliant. But if I feel personally prompted to feed someone in need, and I don’t have the means to make a donation to the Church as well, then I should obey the law of the fast as the Spirit is directing me. What I should not do is start a FaceBook campaign to persuade people to make their fast offering my way instead of the way the General Handbook directs.
Similarly, if I am serving as a missionary, and I feel prompted that I need to focus on retention efforts, I can tell my zone leaders that I have a personal goal to keep track of new member lessons taught and to make a weekly accountability report. What I should not do is start complaining to my zone that the key indicators are messed up because they focus on activities that bring people into the Church, but they don’t include retention activities.
I have heard people debate over whether personal revelation trumps prophetic guidance or prophetic guidance trumps personal revelation. I think that’s a false dilemma. Prophetic guidance is general and applies to the Church as a whole. Personal revelation is specific to the individual. It both confirms prophetic guidance and teaches how it is to be applied. I believe we are invited to hear both as if from the Lord’s own mouth; they work together to keep us moving in the right direction.
Next week, I want to address the promise that the prophet won’t lead us astray, and reconcile that with historic examples of prophetic guidance that we now know to be erroneous.