Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Problem of Generalizing the Personal

Life is a journey, a process, a challenge. At the core of the plan that God has created for us is agency, and that means that a key part of the journey is making choices. Lots of them. Every day, every minute, we make choices - some small, some big.

Sometimes, especially with important decisions, we, of course, put lots of effort into making those choices. As members of the Church, we also often will seek guidance through prayer and personal revelation. Through the process, it's easy to become passionate about the answers we receive, about the decisions we make.

And with passion often comes the desire to share, even to proselytize. Herein lies a weakness I have seen in myself and in others. We sometimes assume that because our answer was right for us, that it will be right for others.

And yet, how often is there really One Right Answer?

There are truths that we are taught by our prophets, and I don't believe that doctrine is up for grabs. It is not within our stewardship to receive revelation about doctrine for the Church, or about the responsibilities of others' callings. We are told repeatedly that we receive revelation for our own stewardships, but not for others'.

But this principle applies to others' personal lives as well. We cannot take the revelation we have received for our own lives and apply it to others. That is not to say there is never a time and place to share our personal experiences and testimonies. There are also times and places to testify of true principles. The Spirit can help us know when and where these things may be appropriate. But I think we need to be careful about taking specific, personalized answers and trying to make them generally-applicable, especially when prophets of God have not done so. In the end, I am coming to believe we cannot do this without risking the violation of the principles of agency, and thus violating the plan of God at some level. Part of becoming like God is allowing for the agency of others.

How much room is there for personal revelation even with laws/commandments/counsel we know to be divinely inspired? Consider the following examples:
  • Word of Wisdom (have you ever met someone who wants to convince you that they are living the 'higher law' of the WoW by some specific that has never been preached over the pulpit? I sure have...)
  • Sabbath Day -- Have you ever actually met two Mormon families who apply this law in exactly the same way?
  • Multiply and Replenish -- As important as the commandment to multiply and replenish is, we simply cannot know what is right for another couple, another family. Even something as simple as "You'll just know when you're done" is not something that can be generally applied. We were recently reminded in the Worldwide Leadership Broadcast that we are not to judge others on decisions such as this.
  • Following the Prophets -- As passionate as I am about this topic, I see over and over again how each of our perceptions of what this means differs. My husband and I, as relatively close as we are on the topic, will sometimes find that we apply and interpret prophetic counsel in different ways.
  • Preparedness -- Again, we have some pretty clear counsel on this topic, but none of us is in a position to receive specific guidance for others on how to apply this counsel.
What about life choices, challenges, and situations, such as the following:

Public vs. home school -- Oh, my. Here again, the passion is intense. How many of you have heard a homeschooling family insist that there is no other righteous way to teach children, particularly when we live in such challenging times? Or, on the flip side, have you heard a public schooling family condemn homeschoolers for any number of reasons? Oh, my.

Work-life-family balance questions -- Even as the prophets have been clear about the ideal, for example about the general roles and responsibilities of fathers and mothers as outlined in the Proclamation and repeatedly taught by our leaders, there is still room for personal adaptation and revelation, and thank goodness for that, since there are so many variations in life situation, culture, needs, etc.

Intimacy in marriage -- Have you ever heard someone complain that we don't receive more guidance on this topic? I think that part of the reason we don't is because we are supposed to figure this out, with our spouses and with the Lord. I have heard professional counselors giving specific guidance about frequency, for example, and I just don't think that is appropriate. Of course, there is some good general guidance out there, but I think we need to be careful about taking on anyone else's specific answers in this tender, private, sacred element of married life.

Home birth vs. hospital birth -- A post I just read today explores the process of making such a decision. This is another one of those hot topics that I have seen sometimes bring out the worst in women. How I wish we could respect each other's space to make choices and trust that we are each doing our best! There is most certainly no One Right Answer in this regard.

Discipline of children, or dealing with marital or other family challenges -- There are, of course, spiritual and legal laws that draw some boundaries in these regards, but, usually, there is a lot of variation on how we can deal with the various kinds of challenges that can emerge in family relationships. This is likely one of the most important areas in life where we need the power of personal revelation, and where we need to be ever-so-careful about generalizing our approaches and answers to others. We can offer support when requested, but often, giving advice or counsel can be problematic. The best advice I think we can give is to encourage our loved ones to seek spiritual guidance through prayer, and, if necessary, through professional help.

These are just a few examples of many.

As someone who has always preferred nice, clean, clear-cut answers to questions in life, I have struggled with all of this. I still believe there are certain things that are Right. (I suppose there will always even be debate about where those lines are.) But still, even there, I realize I cannot take away what God has freely given -- the gift of agency. God will freely give us when we ask, and we can only hope that those we love and care about will seek God's guidance in all of their important decisions - and even ones that may not be so important. God wants to be involved in our lives, and He wants us to care about and be involved in each others' lives. But there are limits to that involvement, I think. We need to be careful about generalizing personal revelation or even simple personal choice. We need to respect the agency of others, and rejoice in the plan that allows us to discover, by our own experience, the good from the bad. And to discover the power of the Atonement when we/others make mistakes.

Am I generalizing too much? :)


  1. I just wrote this on that Segullah blog post, and wanted to add it here, since this was something I had considered exploring, but didn't want to take more space.

    Often, when we want to generalize our experiences to others, I think it’s because we somehow feel a need for validation of our own choices. I think we need to trust and love and not judge others, but also — and I think this is huge — learn to trust and love ourselves and our choices.

  2. I couldn't agree more. I've encountered a similar problem. When my personal decisions deviate from the common way of doing things, people who do things the common way often get defensive. They act like I'm judging them simply by behaving differently. I think it stems from the same issue.

  3. I'd like to add tithing - as far as I can tell there's no directive re gross vs. net.

  4. Michelle, this was great. Something I've been mulling over recently, myself. "Right" is individual to decide (as hard as that can sometimes be to accept). It's almost another layer in our teaching in mortality--we have to learn to let each other choose just as Heavenly Father lets us choose...

  5. I completely agree, and I love the way you put it--it's generalizing personal revelation that gets us into trouble. The problem for me comes when I have done something one way so long that it seems not a matter of personal revelation or even personal choice, but just The Way Things Ought To Be. I often don't realize that I'm generalizing the personal until it is too late...

  6. Sylvia -- yes! Tithing would be another one to add. And it's not just gross vs. net, but whether to pay tithing before you invest (think pre-tax 401K contributions, for example) or when you pull it out. When is it increase? What if you lose money over that time? Etc. Etc. Etc.... You were one who even got me thinking about whether it would be better for me to be handing the envelope to my leader rather than using bill pay.... :) (I learned something from you and your appreciation for the blessing of paying tithing. Thanks.)

    Naiah, I love it when someone I love is thinking something I'm thinking. :)

    Emily, that is an interesting addition...sometimes decisions become so much a part of our way of living and thinking that we forget it was actually a personal choice. Love that thought, thanks!

  7. I think we need to trust and love and not judge others, but also — and I think this is huge — learn to trust and love ourselves and our choices.

    I should add that I meant particularly when we have received personal revelation and confirmation from God. I am not one who is big on just relying on own thoughts alone. :)

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with you Michelle. I have copped a bit of flack from time to time for many things I believe. I know the Holy Ghost has inspired me with these things. Yet some feel threatened by my opinion being different to theirs.

    I may mention that Brigham Young had the same revelation and expressed this. And MEMBERS get this funny look and say, "oh, but that was Brigham Young."

    Interestingly when it suits them he is an authority to quote.

    It isn't so much that they don't agree with me, that bothers me. It is that they demand I believe as they do. They look at me with distrust from then on, like I'm some enemy.

    Sad, but hey, God didn't promise us all cake and biscuits.

  9. The last post on my blog deals with the focus of my "hungering and thirsting after righteousness" - and it touches this topic quite directly. It is LONG, so I will excerpt only a small bit of it here - but if you are interested, feel free to red the entire thing. ("For What Do I Hunger and Thirst?")

    "When push comes to shove, I don't give a rat's hairy hindquarters exactly what someone says they believe - only what they DO and what they are BECOMING. If they teach Buddhism or if they claim atheism - I don't care one bit. I really don't, as long as they are trying to do the will of the Father and become perfected (whole and complete) - and I believe religious denomination has relatively little to do with the intent that drives such a pursuit.

    To be clear and not misunderstood, I believe STRONGLY in the Restoration of the Gospel (the "Good News") - and that what constitutes the "Good News" is exactly what separates us from other denominations. I am committed to the principle of sharing the Gospel with those who will listen. I believe deeply in the power of godliness mentioned in JSH 1:19. However, I also believe (given our deeply embedded theology of grace) that perhaps the only over-riding, absolutely necessary, truly unique reason for the restoration of the CHURCH is to establish once again an organizational institution in which the "ordinance orthodoxy" can be practiced - explicitly so that the Buddhist and atheist can be exalted for their sincere efforts to be "just men made perfect".

  10. As a specific example of generalizing the personal, I think the clearest case is how we tend to take the Lord's response to Oliver Cowdery about how **he** received answers to **his** prayers and generalize that method to all (especially those who are investigating the Church) - even if we personally don't receive our own answers that same way.

    I can count on one hand the number of times I have felt an undeniable "burning in my bosom". I get almost all of my answers as a calm, peaceful feeling - a disappearance of conflicting emotion and worry and concern - almost the opposite of a "burning". For me, it is crystal clear - but it is not what we often tell others about how they can receive their own answers. We do this in so many ways that I am astounded that so many people are able to recognize their own answers.

    One more:

    "If you pray about (______), you can *know* it is true." Our own modern scriptures say that some have been given the gift to "know", while others have been given the gift to "believe on those who know". Is it any wonder many people take far longer than might be necessary to accept the Gospel, since they are being told to keep praying even after they feel the Spirit and desire and believe?

  11. I think you hit on an extremely important point here, m&m.

    Although I see much evidence of the passionate proselytizing you mentioned when reading blogs, I feel fortunate that I haven't encountered it in my ward here in Texas.

    But after reading your post, I think I have on occasion offered "advice" based on personal experience in a way that may have come across as directive, rather than simply illustrative. I appreciate the reminder to be careful not to go "beyond the mark" when discussing commandments or counsel from our leaders as they apply others.

  12. It's so true. I used to think that coming to a point where I was willing to do the Lord's will was the culmination of a life spent in service to Him. Then I discovered that the truly hard part is knowing His will, or making a decision when He doesn't direct it.

  13. Yet another well-said thought-provoking post!! I love sharing what works for me and am sure I have come across in the wrong way on more than one occasion!!! Thanks for the food for thought.

  14. I popped over from FMH and I love this post! So many times I have felt judged because my "choices" have been different from mainstream LDS culture but I also have been judgemental of the choices of others. Thank you for your thought provoking words. I also want to thank you for your wonderful comments at FMH, they always help me find solid ground on the controversial subjects.

  15. papa d, silverrain, ginny, carrina, thank you for your comments.

    papa d, your thoughts on how we receive revelation are important, I think. It took me a while to realize that it's ok to receive answers differently from other people. I have come to believe that one of the key purposes of life for each of us is to learn "how the Lord speaks to me."

    This makes me think that perhaps we sometimes misinterpret the general, too, and try to infer intellectually what that should mean at a personal level rather than look to God to help us know what the general means in our lives for us specifically.

    RoAnn, I think that advice in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I think a lot depends on how it is given. You recently were a great example to me of someone who could share thoughts that were meaningful, but preface it all with 'I know that you will have to get your own answers.' It's part of what inspired this post, actually. :)

    Ginny, I, too love sharing what works for me...and again, I don't think that is necessarily bad. And, as some commenters have indicated, it's also up to us to give people the benefit of the doubt when they do share ideas, and not assume that such idea-sharing is proselytizing. There is a sort of give-and-take here, I think.

    Carrina, thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad to hear my comments elsewhere might be helpful in some way. :) I like to comment and write because it helps me sort out and articulate my thoughts, and understand others' as well.

  16. I teach the MiaMaids in our ward and I just gave the temple marriage lesson. I specifically remember this lesson when I was there age. Our teacher told us that marrying a non member would NEVER work and we shouldn't even date them. Every single girl in that class came from a family that started out with one non member and all ended up married in the temple. I prefaced my lesson telling this story and told them the joy of this gospel is that we do get personal revelation. So learn the principles and how to communicate with Heavenly Father and things should be okay.

  17. lcm (is it lcm or Icm?)

    I think besides teaching the clear doctrine and teachings of the prophets, one of the most important things we can teach our young people is how to seek personal revelation and guidance from God -- to learn to take counsel (such as marrying in the temple, which is the prophetic counsel) and being able to get the specific guidance for their lives.

    The thing I remember from my teenage years, though, is that it was easy to take the exceptions and use them as justifications. It's a hard balance to strike...to be sure that the principles are clear without forcing them onto the individuals we teach. It has taken me a long time to really start to figure out the balance between the 'spirit and the law' so to speak.

    As a sidenote, while we are on the topic of the youth, I loved the video presentation they did at the YW general broadcast. Some people complained because the focus was on making a decision about a modest swimsuit, but to me, the power and point of the presentation was not about swimsuits but about teaching the young women to study, to really search, to ponder, and to seek God's help. And it was clear that they all came away from that experience knowing that God cared about their lives, and that they could find answers for themselves. Spiritual self-reliance is a huge deal.

    Anyway...little soap box there. Thanks for your comment. :) I'd love to hear more thoughts on how we can teach our youth to take the principles and go to God for guidance, as that presentation invited us to do. (I think it's too easy to want to TELL them what to do. At least that has often been my instinctual reaction!)