I recall sitting in a priesthood quorum lesson several years ago when the following quote from President Joseph Fielding Smith was taught:
“The Spirit of God speaking to the spirit of man has power to impart truth with greater effect and understanding than the truth can be imparted by personal contact even with heavenly beings. Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fibre and sinews of the body so that it cannot be forgotten.”Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith – Chapter 14 p. 184
The well-meaning instructor described how angelic visitations and visions usually did not produce lasting results, but that the “burning in the bosom” described in Section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants represented the “correct” way to receive revelation.
Many teachers in the church point to the verses given through the Prophet Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery as the best method for learning how the Lord speaks to us. I have listened to the comments of many members listing those who were not fully converted in spite of miraculous manifestations of God, which include:
- Laman and Lemuel (saw an angel)
- The Nephites after the birth of Christ (saw a night as bright as day)
- The Pharisees in the days of Christ (saw the blind, deaf, and lame healed)
- The children of Israel (received manna, crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, saw 10 plagues, etc)
While we should absolutely avoid sign-seeking, or demanding great works or miracles before exercising faith, there is a serious problem in suggesting the “burning in the bosom” or “stupor of thought” is the only way God speaks.
Imagine if Joseph Smith, when visited by the Angel Moroni, or by God himself, had responded like this: A vision?!? How disappointing! Didn’t God know that instead of showing me something he should give me a burning in the bosom? Now I’ll never know what to do…
Of course, that would be ridiculous… and if ridiculous for Joseph Smith, why should this be the expectation of every other human being on the earth? If God chooses to give a dream, or a vision, or speak through a prophet, or use ANY of the methods he has repeatedly chosen to use throughout the scriptures, then who will tell him he chose the wrong method? Hint: GOD NEVER CHOSES INCORRECTLY.
So if God is capable of sending angels or visions or dreams or signs, why did he tell Oliver Cowdery that he should be focused on a burning in the bosom or a stupor of thought?
Receiving revelation is not easy for everyone… it’s a gift. Some people have a natural ability to hear the voice of the Lord, like Samuel, who in his youth came to Eli. Others required repetition to understand the voice, such as the Nephites standing near the temple in Bountiful just before Jesus Christ appeared to them, as they heard the voice of the Lord. Some people must wait much longer to receive a witness from God.
The counsel the Lord gave to Oliver is helpful for anyone seeking to begin receiving revelation. Yes or no questions are a natural starting place because they are simple. We also see that when individuals are seeking something from God, more is required than a passing curiosity.
A person who seeks the Lord diligently… who approaches the throne of God with a prepared heart and real intent… is a person who will assuredly receive an answer. And while it may very well come in the form of a “burning in the bosom” it may come in the form of the Lord “speaking peace” (D&C 6:23), or a dream or a vision or a prompting or the counsel of a prophet.
A person who seeks the Lord diligently takes to heart the admonition of Jesus himself: they watch and pray, looking everywhere for signs that God is speaking to them. They are an active participant in the process that weaves the truth into the sinews of their bodies so that it cannot be forgotten… because they understand that however he chooses to speak, God speaks correctly.
- Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Doctrine and Covenants 2021, December 28 – January 3.
- “The Blessing of Continuing Revelation to Prophets and Personal Revelation to Guide Our Lives” -Elder Quentin L. Cook, April 2020
- “A Personal Relationship with the Savior” -Elder James E. Faust, October 1976
- “Prayer and Promptings” -Elder Boyd K. Packer, October 2009