Thursday, May 20, 2004

Unpredictable God

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,–at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

(The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, 507-509.)

The above quotation suggests to me that we cannot predict, neither based on our previous experience nor based on our own reasoning, what God will require of us. We may appeal to scriptures regarding God's “unchanging nature,” but it seems that we cannot rule out much, if anything, based on such an assertion. How can we claim that any act of God would be inconsistent with his revealed nature, if we do not “see the reason thereof till long after?”

How, then, are we to distinguish between something that is inspired of God and something that is not?

It seems that our faith and trust in God cannot merely be based in our ideas about him. It cannot simply be based in the idea that he is omniscient or omnipotent or wise or loving, because these things alone are not adequate predictors of what he may inspire -- in fact, there may not be any such predictors. In other words, we cannot say, when confronted with an “inspiration:” “God would never require such a thing!”

How can we trust such an unpredictable God? I think we can only do so when we have a real, meaningful relationship with him: when we feel his love and learn to recognize it in the same way that a child recognizes his mother's voice: “I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called” (Mosiah 5:12). It is God's love and our relationship wih him that is the foundation of our trust, not our intellectual understanding of his character and attributes.


  1. You must have the first edition. I've got the revised edition of Jesse's Personal Writings, and that's not what's on my p. 507-09. What exactly is the document from which you are quoting?

    I'm not real fond of the "whatever God says is right" idea, which of course operationally becomes "whatever I think God says is right" or (more accurately) "whatever thoughts are inside my head that I think came from God are right." If one is seeking guidance for what chapter of Acts to read before bed, no big deal, but when the topic is generating an exception to "thou shalt not kill" then it becomes much more problematic.

    Incidentally, "canon" means rule or measure. The canonized scriptures were designed to be a rule or measure against which inspiration or statements about God and doctrine could be measured. That is the traditional answer to your rhetorical question "how are we to distinguish between something that is inspired of God and something that is not?"

  2. The reference is the one given in GospeLink 2001. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith in GospeLink has a copyright of 1984, but no edition information.

    You're right that this idea is problematic when we don't allow for outside sources to guide us in determining what is of God and what are our own thoughts, mistaken for God's voice. But it seems to me that once we have established a real relationship with the true God, this is no longer an issue, just as I don't need an outside source to guide me in recognizing my wife's voice.

    I don't know anyone who is at that stage (I'm certainly not), but it seems that is what we should be aiming for, and while the scriptures can give us a good start, unless we are actually communicating with God, we will not recognize his voice. It takes a long time to get to the point where we can, with confidence, claim to know God's voice.

    And while the idea of canon is the traditional answer to my question, Mormonism's idea of an open canon seriously undermines that purpose. In practice, our canon today isn't nearly as open as it was in the 1840s; perhaps this is a reaction to the problems you allude to in your comment.

  3. To use a sports analogy, some coaches use the same schemes on offense and defense year after year--but better coaches change their game plan from game to game (see Patriots in this years playoffs) depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. The goal is the same: to win--but playing conditions including the weather, injuries to either side, etc--oftentimes mean the path to winning is different each time.
    For God the same logic can apply: the goal is the same--bring about the immortality and eternal life of man--but the 'gameplan' can be different by location and time period--even by individual. The only way to know the will of God--indeed any truth is through the Holy Ghost. The ends are the same even though the means are often different...