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Why does revelation sometimes feel counterintuitive? Elder Bednar discusses

Confused man looks at his laptop.

Many times we know an impression is coming to us by the power of the Holy Ghost when it tells us something we do not want to hear or to do something we do not want to do. This is not always the case, but it happens frequently enough to bear examining further.

Consider the experience of Peter as recorded in Luke 5:2–8. He had finished fishing for the day and was washing his nets when Jesus came and asked to be allowed to stand in his boat to preach. When the sermon was over, Jesus then told Peter to “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught” (v. 4).

This instruction must have seemed counterintuitive to Peter, who told the Lord, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing” (v. 5). Peter was a professional fisherman. He already had ascertained that there were no fish in the area. He would have to cast his newly cleaned nets into the water again, to no apparent benefit. But he responded, “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net” (v. 5).

And two ships were filled almost to the point of sinking with the number of fish the men caught.

The story of Naaman the Syrian is another example of the ‘not my will, but thine’ principle in operation. When Naaman’s servant girl suggested that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his leprosy, his first reaction was to approach the issue with his accustomed currency: a great deal of money. But Elisha did not want his money and would not accept it. The Lord had a different lesson in mind for Naaman: “And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean” (2 Kings 5:10).

Naaman was furious. He had expected the healing to come in quite a different way, and he seemed to feel rebuffed and even insulted that the prophet did not come out himself and perform the miracle on the spot. It did not make sense to him. There were rivers in his own land; why should he wash in Israel’s waters? He believed in the power of the healing, but he wanted it to be done in his way. “So he turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:12).

Not until his servants prevailed upon him to just try following the prophet’s guidance did he finally yield to those instructions and receive the promised blessing.

The scriptures are filled with revelations that seem counterintuitive.
David A. Bednar

The scriptures are filled with revelations that seem counterintuitive. How did the widow of Zarephath feel when Elijah asked her to make him a little cake with the last of her meal? How did Abinadi, Alma the Younger, and Samuel the Lamanite feel when instructed to return to the cities from which they had previously been cast out by the wicked inhabitants? How did Joseph Smith feel sending his most loyal supporters on a mission to Great Britain at a time when he was surrounded by apostates and enemies?

The life of President Spencer W. Kimball provides a more recent and truly remarkable example of the ‘not my will, but thine’ principle and the spirit of revelation. During his long lifetime, he was tortured by the most severe physical afflictions, including boils, life-threatening heart ailments, and devastating throat cancer that adversely affected his voice.

In the spring of 1972, President Kimball, then serving as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was very ill. Throat cancer had returned, and his heart was threatening to fail due to a clogged artery and a malfunctioning valve. He was seventy-seven years old. The cancer was stopped with cobalt treatments, but the heart problems remained.

In a meeting with his doctors and President Harold B. Lee of the First Presidency, “President Lee asked Dr. [Russell M.] Nelson if an operation could correct these problems and what the odds were of survival.

“‘Surgically you would have to have two operations at the same time, one to replace the defective aortic valve and the other to graft that obstructed coronary artery to make a bypass graft,’ Dr. Nelson explained. ‘We have no experience operating on a seventy-seven-year-old man in heart failure doing these two operations at once—a valve and a coronary heart operation. It’s never been done before that I know of. It would entail extremely high risk. As a surgeon, I cannot recommend the operation.’

“President Lee then asked what the risks would be if Dr. Nelson were to proceed with the operation: They are incalculably great,’ Russell responded, again repeating, ‘I would not recommend an operation.’” (Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson [2019], 104).

President Kimball said wearily, “I am an old man and ready to die.” He wondered whether, at his age, it made sense to fight so hard to extend his life when, perhaps, his time had come. President Lee arose and said with power, “Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything you need to do to care for yourself and continue to live.”

Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything you need to do to care for yourself and continue to live.
President Harold B. Lee

The surgery successfully was performed by Dr. Russell M. Nelson. While President Kimball was recovering, President Joseph Fielding Smith passed away. Eighteen months later, President Harold B. Lee also passed away, and Spencer W. Kimball became the twelfth President of the Church. Considering his age and health history, most people expected his administration to be a brief “caretaker” period. But instead, it was a remarkable time of revelation and miracles (see Petrea Kelly, “Spencer W. Kimball: He Did Not Give Up,” Tambuli, March 1994).

Why would God allow such ongoing physical maladies to occur in the life of a future prophet and President of the Lord’s restored Church? And why would that President almost lose his ability to speak? I certainly do not know the answers to those questions. But perhaps the lessons he learned through his physical suffering and the revelatory tutoring of the Holy Ghost prepared him in part to be the mighty prophet, seer, and revelator he became.

President Kimball’s teachings provide a window into his soul and provide at least a part of the answer to those two perplexing questions. He declared, “I’m grateful that my priesthood power is limited and used as the Lord sees fit to use it. I don’t want to heal all the sick—for sickness sometimes is a great blessing. People become angels through sickness” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [1982], 167–68).

President M. Russell Ballard shared the following experience. “I stood in [President Spencer W. Kimball’s] presence one day when he was attempting to save a boy who had lost his direction. Yes, a young adult who had lost his direction. His propeller was so much out of kilter that he was not even going around in circles—he was going in the wrong direction toward the devil’s kingdom.

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“I heard President Kimball say at a very key moment to that young man, ‘My boy, I have not enjoyed all of the physical sufferings that I have gone through. I would like to have been spared those.’ Then he riveted his eyes on this young man and said, ‘But in all my suffering I have come to know God.’ Chills went down my backbone and tears welled up in my eyes. Oh, brothers and sisters, the quest is to come to know God. President Kimball has learned—and you feel it when you walk into his presence—to control his body and physical appetites, by the power of his mighty eternal spirit” (M. Russell Ballard, “Do Things That Make a Difference,” Ensign, June 1983; emphasis added).

As we seek for the spiritual gifts of eyes to see and ears to hear by the power of the Holy Ghost, some of the revelatory lessons we learn through the things that we suffer prepare us to receive the blessings of both mortality and eternity.

The Holy Ghost is not always going to invite us to do what is easy or convenient. In fact, the Spirit will sometimes send promptings that go exactly counter to what we want to do. The fact that we would never have thought of such a thing on our own may be an indication that it has come from the Spirit—and that blessings are in store that we would never have imagined.

The Spirit of Revelation

In this landmark book, Elder Bednar outlines several principles of revelation, then provides a host of examples in which we can observe these principles in action for ourselves. As we come to recognize the role of revelation in our lives, we can move forward in confidence that the Lord is guiding our steps. As Elder Bednar writes, "If we are striving to be and become good—not perfect right now, but gradually getting better,...then indeed we can have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. We are not 'preparing to receive revelation'; we are 'living in revelation.'"

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