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Be careful claiming inspiration
By Orson Scott Card January 20, 2011

The home teacher had recently moved into the ward when he was called to visit the Robles family. He had seen them at church but knew little about them, so before his first visit he earnestly prayed, and as he did, the thought came into his mind: family scripture study.

He arrived for that first visit, and after chatting a little he said, "I feel impressed that your family needs to read scriptures together for ten minutes a day." He went on to talk about the blessings that would come.

Finally Brother Robles, a humble man, shook his head and said, "Brother, I am grateful for all that you have said. But I cannot understand why the Lord would want us to cut back so sharply on our family scripture reading."

Only then did the home teacher discover that there was no family in the ward more dedicated to family scripture reading than the Robleses.

Inspiration comes often in our lives, especially compared to revelation, which is more rare.

My few experiences with revelation were unequivocal. They came unbidden; I was talking with someone for whom I had been given responsibility, and suddenly pure knowledge came into my mind, and I spoke aloud what I knew. In each case, that knowledge was immediately confirmed, and allowed us to speak truthfully together, and right actions to be taken.

Let us take that as a hallmark of revelation: It brings an increase of truth and promotes right actions.

Inspiration, on the other hand, can come into our minds like any other idea, often indistinguishable from our own thoughts; indeed, they might well be our own thoughts, which are merely confirmed or encouraged by the Spirit.

I think of when I was in grad school at Notre Dame during the recession of the early 1980s. My wife was pregnant with our third child and it was clear for financial reasons that I needed to interrupt my studies and look for work.

I applied for two jobs, one with a game company in Connecticut and the other with a magazine publisher in North Carolina. I was offered both jobs.

They were very attractive offers; the money and the work were attractive in both cases. Hartford and Greensboro were both lovely towns.

Yet as my wife and I talked we realized that we both simply liked the Greensboro offer more. So we took that job and moved.

Within nine months it was clear that the job was a mistake, and I quit to return to fulltime freelance writing. In fact, the whole move had been a financial disaster.

But it was the perfect place for us to raise our third child, who, because of that move, was born with cerebral palsy in the county with the best facility for schooling brain-damaged children that we could have found anywhere.

It was not revelation, it was just a good idea; we believe now that the Spirit encouraged us to make the move, but at the time we felt we were making the decision for personal reasons.

And we were.

Revelation comes when the Lord has urgent business, and he calls upon whichever of his servants are in a position (usually with authority) to carry out his will.

But if every decision in our lives came to us by revelation, where would our agency be? Every choice would be between obeying God or not; we would be like children whose parents were always present, telling them what to do.

I think of inspiration as coming into our minds along with all our other ideas, and indistinguishable from them. We follow the ideas the Spirit brings us, not out of obedience, but because we desire the path itself. Our choices then reveal who we are, and we are fully responsible for the life we chose to live.

That home teacher made the common -- but false -- assumption that any idea that comes to you while or after praying must come from God.

Remember that when Joseph Smith prayed in the grove, some pretty awful ideas came into his mind as Satan tried to interfere with what he was doing.

Our own minds also do a pretty good job of filling our heads with ideas that do not come from God.

And that's a good thing. The Lord does not want us to wait to be commanded in all things (D&C 58:26), though we should consult with him in everything (D&C 46:7).

Even when ideas are inspired, we are perfectly capable of misunderstanding what we're supposed to do about them.

Perhaps when that home teacher prayed about the Robles family, the Spirit prompted him to think of scripture study so that, when he visited them, he could learn from them how to involve his own family in scripture study!

Inspiration comes into minds that are already filled with a mixture of true and false ideas. Even if we feel that we have received confirmation of a course of action we propose to the Lord, that does not imply that all the ideas we might have attached to that proposal are true doctrine!

The Lord blesses us with inspiration from time to time without relieving us of the entire burden of our own ignorance and error. We are given such light as we are ready to receive.

That is why I worry when people make a claim of inspiration as a means of asserting authority or ending what they see as opposition.

When you propose something to others with words like, "I feel impressed that our course of action should be ..." you are effectively cutting off the possibility of receiving good counsel from others.

You can leave them feeling that their own thoughts and ideas are of no interest to you; you don't need them.

If, in fact, you have received clear revelation in a matter that is within your stewardship, so be it

But if your idea merely might be inspiration, then prudence, modesty, and the agency of others suggest it is wiser to say, "The thought occurred to me that we might...."

You will not be testing their faith (in God or in you) with every idea that pops into your head. This leaves others free to think and ponder and counsel and even test your ideas with questions and objections.

You might become acquainted with new information that you would never have received had you introduced your thought with a claim of inspiration.

How do you know that the Lord does not plan to give you the answer to your prayers through the counsel of others? By presenting your thoughts to them as your own, and not God's, you might stand a better chance of actually learning the mind and will of the Lord!

Certainly that has been true in my life; invariably when the Lord has a message I need to hear, he puts it in someone else's words. And, knowing my pride and vanity, he often makes sure it's a person that I am unlikely to want to hear it from.

Neither I nor any other stranger can judge what passes between you and the Spirit. I only know my own experience, thoughts, and observations. That is all that I have written here. You, too, are free to examine these ideas and decide for yourself if they have merit.

If the Spirit inspires you to take my words to heart, then I am glad to have been part of that process. But I must also remember that the Spirit can work through anti-Mormon propaganda to inspire people of good heart to seek the gospel. The Spirit is not a genie to be bottled up in print, or repelled by it.

A claim of inspiration is a claim of authority, and, as a writer, I have none.

That is why I never claim that anything I wrote was inspired by God, not even things I wrote by assignment from the Church. I accept the blame for my mistakes, and assume that if you feel inspired, that is the Spirit acting upon you as you read, not upon me as I wrote.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

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