Tuesday, April 1, 2014

3 Ways to Listen to General Conference

I have tried using three different approaches to listening to my church leaders. I'd like to share what each one was like for me, and what the prophets and scriptures have said about that sort of approach. I have found that the third approach brings me closest to God.

Preparing to Obey

When I was a teenager, I took pages and pages of notes every LDS General Conference. Whenever I listened to a priesthood blessing or a general authority, my mental effort involved paying attention, comparing my own behavior to what the church leader said, and remembering as much as possible.

The nice thing about this approach is that it's spiritually safe. Doing whatever someone says in General Conference will never get you thrown into hell. It doesn't take a whole lot of critical thinking, but that doesn't mean it's easy: it means trying to balance hundreds of ideas and commandments and apply them to your life. This is an honorable, challenging, and very common way to listen to General Conference.

Unfortunately, Brigham Young didn't like it very much. Apparently, being so dependent on others for your spirituality can never lead to eternal life:
"Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and rinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming Gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to do in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They never can become Gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold scepters of glory, majesty, and power in the Celestial Kingdom. Who will? Those who are valiant and inspired with the true independence of heaven, who will go forth boldly in the service of their God, leaving others to do as they please, determined to do right, through all mankind besides should take the opposite course. Will this apply to any of you? Your own hearts can answer.”
President Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 1, p. 312

As if that weren't enough, General Conference itself says that not all church leaders' statements are doctrine! Elder Christofferson explained,
It should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” President Clark, quoted earlier, observed:
“To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. …
“… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”

Elder Neil A. Anderson also pointed out that this method--complete acceptance--can lead to confusion when a church leader makes a mistake:
A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.
The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”
Joseph Smith said, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations.” The miracle of God’s hand in the history and destiny of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is understood only through the lens of spiritual inquiry.

This approach's focus is on obedience to prophetic authority, which is a good principle, but the three quotes above show that this approach is limited.

Sifting for Truth

Recognizing that prophets make mistakes, I have also tried approaching General Conference critically, trying to sort out what is doctrine and what is a particular speaker's opinion. The mental effort here involves comparing them with other talks, with the scriptures, and with logic.

This approach is intellectually healthy (it's very similar to how academics approach each other's scholarship), but it also has some problems. When I first tried using it, I found that General Conference wasn't much of a spiritual experience for me, leaving me feeling empty and a little sad.

One spiritual danger of this approach is explained by Jacob:
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.

This approach can be sincere as long as you accept truth, as long as you listen to whatever is really from God. However, there is still a better way to listen. For me, at least, there are more important things to think about during General Conference than whether or not the speaker's words are technically in line with doctrine.

Listening with Faith

This is by far the most powerful approach I have tried. Instead of just remembering whatever they say, or critiquing their talks, I pray to hear what God wants me to learn. The mental effort here includes praying for yourself and your leaders to have the Spirit of the Lord.

Once, Nikki and I went to the bishop for some help resolving a disagreement. I prayed about the interview ahead of time, and I felt impressed that there was something I needed to learn from him. The bishop spent a long time giving us well-intentioned advice about how men and women think about emotions differently and have different expectations, and how we need to try to understand each other's perspective. And then, without seeming to realize that he was changing the topic, he looked at me and said, "You will need to make a sacrifice that feels unfair to you, for this situation to feel fair to your wife." The Holy Ghost burned within me, and I knew that this was what God wanted me to learn.

The bishop went back to his differences-between-men-and-women-and-let's-try-to-understand-each-other speech, which was somewhat helpful. But 95% of the benefits of that conversation came from that one moment, when he looked at me and spoke by the power of the Holy Ghost, in answer to my prayers. Elder David A. Bednar described this as a kind of spiritual discernment:
The gift of discernment opens to us vistas that stretch far beyond what can be seen with natural eyes or heard with natural ears. Discerning is seeing with spiritual eyes and feeling with the heart—seeing and feeling the falsehood of an idea or the goodness in another person. Discerning is hearing with spiritual ears and feeling with the heart—hearing and feeling the unspoken concern in a statement or the truthfulness of a testimony or doctrine.

As I follow the Holy Ghost, I feel prompted to focus on talks and passages that are particularly appropriate to my family, which answer my prayers, or that get me thinking about topics I hadn't fully understood before. I have found that, like how Elder Oaks describes the Book of Mormon, General Conference can be a Urim and Thummim for personal revelation: a tool, a starting ground, for inspiration.

This principle--reading and listening as a staging ground for revelation--was essential to Joseph Smith. His First Vision came because the Spirit touched his heart as he read James 1:5-6, and many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants (including sections 37, 45, 73, 76, 77, 86, 91, and 132) were received because the Spirit spoke to him as he read the Bible.

I have found that listening with faith is both spiritually safe and intellectually healthy. This approach acknowledges that Church leaders may make mistakes, but it focuses on learning what God wants you to learn, praying for the Spirit, and praying for your leaders. And this is the approach I plan to use this weekend.

In response to my post, my aunt shared a quote from J. Reuben Clark: ""We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’" (J. Reuben Clark). I believe that, if we don't get the Holy Ghost through prayer, sincerity, faith, and real intent, no method for listening to conference will benefit us.

As I listen to the April 2014 General Conference, I just heard Elder Neil A. Andersen say that it is good to take anything the Prophet says as from the mouth of God himself. I agree with that, as a general principle. In the story Elder Christofferson told two years ago, when the Prophet made a mistake, it was the Prophet himself who corrected it. And I think that's a good, general pattern for how the Lord tends to work through the head of the Church.

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