How Do You Recognize a Divine Revelation?

Two years ago, Baltimore Yearly Meeting published a booklet, A Quaker Response to Christian Fundamentalism, which described beliefs typical of fundamentalists and evangelicals, and compared them to beliefs typical of Quakers. The author, Sallie B. King, points out, among other things, that while fundamentalists believe divine revelation is ended and to be found complete in the Bible, Quakers believe that revelation is ongoing and is available to any who wish to open themselves to it.

Some of my colleagues, looking through the book, picked up on the Quaker belief. They asked: How do you know when you are experiencing a divine revelation and not simply thinking your own thoughts? How do you tell the two apart?

In pondering a response I came to feel that, in identifying a message of the Holy Spirit, it might be clearer to speak of a range of intensity and frequency in how we experience the Light, rather than trying to make an either/or distinction.

Sometimes, as in the case of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus, or George Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill, the recipient cannot doubt who the author is.

If we take that clear, unforgettable voice as the rarer, high intensity end of the range, then the more frequent, middle range might be the enhanced clarity in thinking about an issue, or the deeper sensitivity in a relationship, that arises out of sustained contemplation and worship.

At the most frequently experienced, low-intensity end of the range we might discover a new awareness to a problem, the first promptings of a concern, or we might be moved by a sympathetic resonance to another’s shared message.

One way to consider the origin of our thoughts, at this level, is to see where they take us. The leadings of the Light are purposeful; like a plant, they develop if we nurture them with time and thought. They are positive; they enhance our spiritual growth and development as we make room for them; and eventually they bring us to some action or a changed state.

The question then arises: If I am now clearer on recognizing the promptings of the Holy Spirit, how do I respond to them? Messages shared in meeting are a very important part of the meeting for worship. But although many messages are shared, I believe even more messages are intended, at least initially, just for the recipient. It might take some time, even years, to work out the full implications of one.

Or a prompting might be shared with a particular person; or even not spoken at all, but shared by means of a closer relationship or different behavior.

To feel hesitant to speak may be an indication that the message needs more contemplation. A clearer indication of the need for reflection may be that the thought is convoluted and lengthy, or contains anger or hostility.

On the other hand, clarity and conciseness, and the absence of rancor, are good indications of a "seasoned" message. The urge to share, I believe, is a part of divine guidance and grows along with our understanding of the leading.

In meeting for worship we receive a shared message largely in the spirit in which it is given, so polish is not an issue, and it is surprising how pertinent the message can be to so many. But one may feel diffident about speaking, nevertheless.

A Friend once mentioned he felt embarrassed when he recalled some of the earliest messages he had shared in meeting. In responding, it seemed to me that one might compare those messages to an artist’s portfolio of drawings. Rather than disparage his earlier efforts as untutored or lacking in skill, one can see by them how much progress the artist has made since then in conveying an image.

Sometimes in the act of speaking we attain clarity; or perhaps the message achieves clarity as we express it, since we are not the drivers of this process, but rather the messengers. And so our reticence is cleared away as we open ourselves to the Divine Presence.

Being attentive to the Light, being ready to listen, still requires a lot of effort on my part. Being clearer on what I am listening to is helpful. The rest will work itself out, as way opens. But I appreciate the questions my colleagues raised as they prompted me to consider some aspects of worship more closely and then to put my thoughts into words.