Thursday, July 13, 2017

7 Mistakes Even Good Mormons Make

On the whole, Mormons are good people.  Most of us do our best to try to live the gospel. Most of us try to be Christ-like and obedient to the Lord.  Unfortunately, even the best of us tend to fall into traps of bad thinking without even being aware of it.  This flawed thinking can interfere with our ability to fully live the gospel. These mistakes can keep us from experiencing the full blessings and joy that come with gospel discipleship.  More often than not making these mistakes can actively make us miserable.  On my blog I answer gospel questions, and in real life I talk to people of all walks of life about religion, and I have noticed a few common problems that even the best of us may have to overcome in order to progress in the gospel.

I.                 Riding the Line
When I was a young man, I was taught a parable in my Aaronic priesthood Sunday classes about truck drivers and staying away from the line:

“A man was interviewing new drivers for his transportation company. The route was very dangerous and went along several steep cliffs through a mountain pass. The interviewer asked each man how close he could safely drive near the edge of the cliff. The first man responded, “I could drive within six inches of the edge.” The second man responded, “I could drive within two inches of the edge.” The third man responded, “I would stay as far away from the edge of the cliff as I possibly could.” (Aaronic Priesthood Manual,

A common question that is asked by members of the church has to do with precisely where the line is when it comes to what is allowed, or what is forbidden by the Lord, or by Church leaders. Those that ask this question, much like the first two drivers in the parable, often want to know how close they can get to the line without going over.  I hear some form of this question all the time, and I noticed recently that it cropped up during the face to face question and answer sessions the apostles hold with the youth of the church.

Note that the third man in the parable doesn’t care where the line is, because he doesn’t plan to go anywhere near it.  How can he avoid the line if he doesn’t know where it is?  In the gospel, there are two great commandments.  They involve deep, heartfelt, and total love for God, and love for neighbor.  Both commandments are important.  These are the commandments for keeping all other commandments (see Henry Drummond, The Greatest Thing in the World, 12). If you truly love God, you would never consider disobeying him.  If you truly love your neighbor, you would never dream of lying to or about him, or stealing from him, or doing anything that might cause him pain or harm.  If you are focused on loving and serving God, and on loving your neighbor, obedience will become part of your nature.  You won’t need anyone to spell out what you can and can’t (or should and should not) do, because your natural impulse will be to act as Christ would act.  If you are truly living the gospel, then it shouldn’t matter where the line is, because your natural impulses lead you well away from the edge.

“Occasionally our well-meaning young people want every detail of appropriate and inappropriate conduct to be specified, perhaps so they can feel comfortable in getting closer to the edge. They sometimes seem more concerned with what the gospel prohibits than what it gives. For instance, some young adults were surprised when they learned that it was inappropriate for mixed young single adult groups to be involved together in overnight activities. They said, “Why hasn’t the prophet told us?” The Church counsel in this matter has been clear for many years. It should not have been necessary to tell these young people to avoid the appearance of evil. My strong advice is, if there is any question about your personal conduct, don’t do it. It is the responsibility of prophets to teach the word of God—not to spell out every jot and tittle of human behavior. Our moral agency requires us to know good from evil and choose the good. If we are trying to avoid not only evil, but the very appearance of evil, we will act for ourselves and not be acted upon”  (James E. Faust, “Acting for Ourselves and Not Being Acted Upon,” Ensign, Nov. 1995).

II.              One and Done
This one makes me sad because I have seen too many people fall into this trap, including myself.  It also makes me angry, because it shouldn’t exist.  Many good Mormon kids have made some mistake, or committed some sin, and they believe that they are permanently damned for it.  I suspect that this way of thinking has come about (at least in part) because of a common (but false) way of thinking that is best represented by a well-known object lesson which has been taught to the youth of the church since before I was born.

Some genius came up with the idea of comparing human beings to gum, out of a desire to scare them away from the temptation to sin.  If you have sinned in some way (in the case of this object lesson, by violating the law of chastity), you are like gum that has already been chewed.  Well-intentioned youth leaders have been using this object lesson for years, perhaps without fully understanding the terrible message this object lesson sends: Like previously chewed gum, you are no good anymore, no one wants you, and you amount to disgusting garbage.

This object lesson isn’t the only source for this way of thinking, but it is a dramatic example of a terrible trap that leads good Mormon kids into despair and misery.  I cannot say this loudly enough:  you can never sink below the reach of God’s love!  If you make a mistake, or commit a sin, you can ALWAYS be forgiven, if you will repent.

1 John 2:1-2  My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

The power and blessings of the atonement are available to ALL, no matter what you have done.  No matter who you are, and what you have done, you are never beyond the reach and the power of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Christ died so that ALL who repent may return to live with God someday.  The atonement was made with sinners in mind!

Too many kids fall into the trap of thinking “I’ve made one mistake, I might as well go and make some more” because they do not have a good grasp of their own worth in the eyes of God.  There are many who have fallen away from the church because they fell into this trap, and it is a terrible waste and a tragedy.  It is important to avoid sin, but if you do slip up, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it is all over.  If necessary, go talk to your Bishop.  It is his job to help you to recognize and take the necessary steps to come back to Christ through full and complete repentance.

For more on this, check out my article "You Are Never Beyond The Reach of God's Love."

III.           Know it All
When I was young I was asked to give a talk in church based on one of the principles contained in Preach My Gospel chapter 3 (which contains the missionary lessons).  This section features clear and concise explanations of the basic principles and doctrines of the gospel, the plan of salvation, and the restoration.  As I looked over the chapter, I felt frustrated, because I was sure that my audience would be bored out of their minds, because I thought “I know all of this stuff already, and so do they!”

Later, when I served a mission, I found that I spent nearly all day, every day trying to explain the basic principles and doctrines of the gospel to people who had largely never heard them before.  I soon discovered that I had to understand these doctrines so well that I could explain them to a child.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t know or understand these principles nearly as well as I had supposed that I did.  Once that realization set in, I no longer found Preach My Gospel chapter 3 to be boring.  Instead, I found the information in that chapter vital to me as I tried to understand and explain principles I had heard all of my life, and which I had taken for granted for most of that life.

I am certainly not the only one who has fallen into this trap. It can be easy to take something for granted if you hear it repeated over and over again.  This is especially true if these things are presented in less than engaging way, as occasionally tends to be the case at church; where teachers sometimes do not adequately prepare to teach their lessons, and speakers do not always put very much work into their talks.  Nevertheless, that is not a good excuse to neglect the basic principles of the gospel.

This particular problem takes four main forms, but each of these stems from the assumption that we already know everything we need to know about the simple doctrines of the gospel.

Intellectual Laziness
In some ways, the know-it-all problem can affect our whole approach to learning about the gospel.  I will never forget a conversation I had with an active returned missionary.  He noted that my scriptures were filled with handwritten notes and cross-references that I had discovered while I studied the scriptures.  However, he then informed me that he couldn’t see the value of finding/creating your own footnotes/cross-references because “that’s what the church footnotes and the Topical Guide are for.”  WHAT!  Basically, he thought the church footnotes are all that we need! Talk about missing the point!  The footnotes and cross references, and study guides included in the LDS edition of the scriptures are meant to be just that: guides! They are not intended to be exhaustive, and they certainly aren’t meant to act as an intellectual crutch so we don’t have to do any work for ourselves when we study the scriptures!

I hope that this young man is not typical of people his age, and that church members generally value and treasure the process of searching, pondering, and prayer that is required if we are to unlock the treasures of knowledge and joy that can come only by the Holy Spirit.

Gospel Ennui
A frustrating phenomenon among Mormons is the tendency to arrogantly assume that we know everything there is to know on a particular gospel subject, and that there is nothing left for us to learn.  This is dangerous, not only because this attitude is a symptom of pride, but also because a spirit of weltschmerz can make us miss out on important truths, and greater understanding.  The Lord wants to teach us, but if we refuse to listen, simply because we think we already know all there is to know, we will lose future opportunities to learn from the Lord.

This attitude is most often characterized by a species of ennui when it comes to gospel subjects.  “Sunday School is boring, because I’ve heard it all before.”  I often see people who sleep through conference, or who skip it altogether, because they don’t believe that there is anything new for them to learn. Sadly, such people often miss out on the simple joy of being taught by the spirit.  They can walk out of a meeting in which many have been richly fed through the spirit, and complain that it was boring.

These people often look at people who are excited about the gospel as being “weird,” or a little goofy.  I have often found that those who experience gospel ennui often seem uncomfortable when religion is brought up outside of the confines of Sunday worship.

Jabez Wilson Syndrome
Gospel Ennui can come in another form, which I call Jabez Wilson Syndrome.  In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic short story The Red-headed League, Sherlock Holmes makes a number of deductions about his new client Mr. Jabez Wilson.  Naturally, Mr. Wilson is fairly startled to hear a stranger deduce so much about him and about his life.  However, once Holmes explains how he arrived at these conclusions, Wilson is less impressed.

"Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. "Well, I never!" said he. "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all."

Naturally this frustrates Holmes, who fairly grumbles "'I begin to think, Watson,' said Holmes, 'that I make a mistake in explaining. 'Omne ignotom pro magnifico,' you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid" (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. I, 208).

What Jabez Wilson didn't understand is how much training and effort and energy that Holmes had put into (what Holmes calls) the science of deduction.  I suppose he thought Holmes was performing a simple parlor trick, which is never as much fun once the technique of the trick has been explained.

I have often found that Mormons are prone to Jabez Wilson syndrome, insofar as they often fail to appreciate, or take for granted some wonderful explanation of doctrine or principle because they don't understand what went into producing that explanation in the first place.

They aren't impressed when a General Authority sheds greater light on a particular doctrine, or a Sunday School teacher gives deep insights into the gospel, because they assume that anybody could come up with the same thing.

The beauty of the gospel is that indeed anybody COULD discover great truths and insights into the scriptures through the spirit, however it remains true that not everybody is willing to do what it takes to obtain such valuable insights.

It takes careful and diligent study coupled with prayer (and often fasting), as well as faith and a striving to maintain spiritual worthiness  (esp. through repentance) in order to obtain the sublime truths that can only be received through the spirit (see Alma 5:45-46, Alma 26:21-22, 1 Corinthians 2:9-16).  Such enlightenment cannot be gained through casual or idle inquiry.  However, those who have never made such an effort generally do not understand this, and therefore they seldom appreciate the effort that goes into teaching or speaking (or writing) by the spirit.

As Neal A. Maxwell once observed, "it is very difficult to show to the provincial and proud things which they 'never had supposed'" (Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine,

Like Jabez Wilson, such people are unimpressed when presented with new or deeper insights into gospel principles, because they suppose "that there was nothing in it after all."  They assume that because the methods for arriving at them are familiar, the conclusions must therefore be unremarkable as well.  A common refrain among those who suffer from Jabez Wilson syndrome is "There was nothing in that talk/lesson/article that I/we haven't heard before."

Like the other points on this list, Jabez Wilson Syndrome tends to stem from a certain amount of pride.  Those who suffer from this syndrome are often assured of the completeness of their gospel knowledge. This often causes them to miss out on new insights and knowledge, because they don't think that anybody else has anything to teach them.

Despite the self-assuredness that tends to accompany this syndrome, I have found that these individuals rarely study their scriptures, and are often less than diligent about observing personal prayer.  More often than not, what these people think the church teaches is very different from what the church teaches, because they haven’t truly listened to church teachings in many years (because they assume that they already know what is being taught).

The gospel tends to lose much of its wonder and joy for those who are not humble enough to allow themselves to be taught by others.  If you are not willing to be taught by others in the church (especially church leaders), you will likely also find it difficult to be taught by the spirit, and you will miss opportunities for true enlightenment and joy.

Looking beyond the mark
I have also found that some Mormons like to focus on more “exciting” topics than the simple principles of the gospel (I myself have been guilty of this in the past).  This often leads many to spend (waste) time (at church or among friends) speculating about so-called “deep doctrine.”

“As I travel around the Church, I find the word "doctrine" is not very well understood. Sometimes we think doctrine refers to weird, abstract, mysterious subjects in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I refer to doctrine, I am not talking about how many light-years it is to Kolob and who lives there. Rather, doctrine refers to the eternal, unchanging, and simple truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are several key words in that definition: eternal, unchanging, simple, and truth. Doctrines are never altered. They never vary. They will always be the same. You can always count on them. There is, for example, the doctrine of the Atonement. There is doctrine related to priesthood and priesthood keys. There is doctrine related to continuing revelation and the pattern whereby our Heavenly Father communicates with us and we communicate with Him. These are eternal, unchanging truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (David A. Bednar, "Teach Them to Understand," Ricks College Campus Education Week Devotional, June 4, 1998).

I have encountered many members who focus on an esoteric doctrine that they happen to love, and which has had very little revealed about it, such as the existence of a heavenly mother (or the nature of spirit matter, or the precise location of Kolob, and so on), to the degree that they become defensive when you remind them that such things, while beautiful and sweet to know, are not strictly essential to our salvation.

The reason why I think it is important to make this point, even at the risk of offending some individuals, is because so little has been revealed about these things that it can be easy to wander into opinion and even false doctrine in speculating about deep doctrines.  As such, it is easy for such esoteric doctrines to become stumbling blocks if/when they begin to interfere with our study and understanding of the essential doctrines and principles of the gospel.

“Joseph Smith taught this central truth: “The fundamental principles of our religion [are] the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, … ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;’ and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.

“Sometimes faithful Latter-day Saints and sincere investigators begin to focus on the “appendages” instead of on the fundamental principles. That is, Satan tempts us to become distracted from the simple and clear message of the restored gospel. Those so distracted often give up partaking of the sacrament because they have become focused, even preoccupied, with less important practices or teachings.

“The important questions focus on what matters most—Heavenly Father’s plan and the Savior’s Atonement. Our search should lead us to become kind, gentle, loving, forgiving, patient, and dedicated disciples. We must be willing, as Paul taught, to “bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” (M. Russell Ballard, “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!” Ensign, November 2014, 91).

When you or I allow our fascination with the mysteries and the appendages to blur our focus on the essential doctrines of the gospel, we are looking beyond the mark, which can have dire consequences for our spiritual well-being, as well as the well-being of those around us.  Our testimony needs to be centered on the pure and simple, and beautiful doctrines of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the gospel which He taught.  If we try to jump ahead into the deep doctrines, without building a solid foundation on these basic doctrines, we will stumble, and we will lose our testimony.

“Alas, when the Lord gives us “line upon line” and “precept upon precept” about Himself and His plans, many ignore these great gifts. Instead of lines, some demand paragraphs and even pages. When God provides “here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10), some want a lot—now!” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Yet Thou Art There,” Ensign, Nov. 1987).

The prophet Jacob taught that we are not unique in this particular affliction, and he warned of the perilous consequences of looking beyond the mark.

Jacob 4:14  But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.

However, I am not saying that we shouldn’t search into the gospel, and try to understand it on a greater, and more profound level.  However, there is an order to these things.  If you or I want to discover the mysteries of the kingdom, the Lord has instructed us in the right way to go about obtaining them:

Alma 26:22  Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance.

D&C 63:23 But unto him that keepeth my commandments I will give the mysteries of my kingdom, and the same shall be in him a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life.

IV.            Too much Milk, not enough Meat.
Some Mormons are more interested in feel-good fluff than they are in learning things that take actual work and study to master.  I hate to be so blunt, but I have noticed that there are many who seem to prefer books with pretty pictures, or vaguely gospel related self-help books, to time spent wrestling with the scriptures.  These people love “warm fuzzies,” i. e. “faith-promoting” feel-good stories that often involve dramatic elements; such as terrible accidents, terminal illnesses, miraculous recoveries, visions or visitations.  Most Mormons who fall into this category will insist that these things are worth consuming because they are “uplifting.”  To them I say: it is good to seek out things that are virtuous, lovely, and of good report, but not at the expense of a deep and abiding understanding of the gospel.

“The commandments of God aren’t just a long list of good ideas. They aren’t ‘life hacks’ from an Internet blog or motivational quotes from a Pinterest board. They are divine counsel, based on eternal truths, given to bring ‘peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come’” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Living the Gospel Joyful,” Ensign, Nov. 2014).

It is possible for the fluff to become a distraction from what is truly important.  That fluffy distraction can become dangerous when it causes us to neglect the best things in favor of that which is merely good, or at least, not bad.

“Satan doesn’t have to tempt us to do bad things. He can accomplish much of his objective by distracting us with many acceptable things, thus keeping us from accomplishing the essential ones. We need to frustrate that distraction by identifying what is critically important in our lives. We must give the cream of our effort to accomplish those things. Where there is limited time or resources, this pattern may require that some good activities must be set aside.”  (Richard G. Scott, “To Learn and to Teach More Effectively,” Brigham Young University 2007-2008 Speeches, 21 August 2007).

It is a matter of priority.  The fluffy stuff may not necessarily be bad in and of itself. However, if I choose to subsist entirely on a diet of feel-good stories, and pictures of flowers, instead of undertaking a diligent, daily study of the scriptures, then I have allowed Satan to distract me from what is essential, with a diet of meaningless confection.  If I bear my testimony in Fast and Testimony meeting, and I spend it thanking my friends, or detailing my latest trip, or my recent medical problems, then I have missed an opportunity to bear witness to the critical truths, such as the atonement of Jesus Christ, the truth and power of the gospel, Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet and the blessings of the restoration, etc.

When it comes to conscientious discipleship, we must learn to discern what is most important, and to prioritize our lives accordingly.

“We should begin by recognizing the reality that just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.

“As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all.

“Some uses of individual and family time are better, and others are best. We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better or best because they develop faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthen our families.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, pp. 104-108).

The only way to avoid this problem is by never assuming that you know everything there is to know.  Be humble enough to always be learning.  Don’t allow yourself to become complacent, or to substitute good things for the best things.

Here is a link to an excellent article which goes into more detail about the dangers of subsisting on "Spiritual Twinkies" and how to nourish oneself properly in the gospel.

V.               The Checklist Church
Many Mormons make the mistake of approaching the gospel like it is a checklist of things to do just to get blessings, or just to get into heaven.  These people genuinely think that the church teaches that you have to follow a rote checklist of A, B, C, and so on in order to be considered a good mormon in this life, and to be saved in the next.  A typical checklist often includes things like: serve a mission, get married in the temple, have children, attend church every Sunday, hold a calling, and so forth.  The checklist often involves a timetable as well, or in other words, you expect to be able to check off certain boxes by a certain point in your life.  Many people assume that, if they check off all of the boxes on the checklist then everything will go according to the plan they have laid out for their life.  Unfortunately, life very rarely goes according to plan, and life almost never follows a schedule.

When things don’t go according to plan, or if it takes a little longer than planned to check off the boxes on the checklist, it is easy to become frustrated with yourself and with others.  When you are prevented from checking off one of these boxes (for instance, you are prevented from serving a mission due to health problems), it is common for people to feel like they are stuck, or like there is something wrong with them.  I tend to see this among Mormons who are in their thirties and who have yet to be married (especially in Utah).  Not only do they feel like something is wrong with them, but they are often treated by other members as if there is something wrong with them.  This holds true for members of the church who have been divorced (even through no fault of their own), or valiant missionaries who were forced to return home early (even for legitimate reasons).

This can lead to feelings of despair and misery, and in more cases than I would like there have been people who have left the church because they “couldn’t handle the pressure to measure up all the time.”

The church does NOT teach that we have to follow a checklist in order to be saved.  The church teaches that we should be more focused on becoming converted through the gospel of Christ so that we can be transformed by Christ’s grace.  Once we have been transformed, the many commandments, principles, doctrines, and responsibilities that we have and are taught as disciples of Christ aren’t so overwhelming.  There is certainly a lot to do, but none of those things matter much if they are not also accompanied by “to be.”  The difference between the gospel “to bes” and the checklist “to dos” is that you can check off a to do, whereas you are never done “being” a disciple of Christ.

How much faith do I need to have before I can get into heaven?  When am I finished loving my neighbor, or my wife?  The answer is that you are never truly done because checking things off a list is not the point or the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Developing the character of a disciple of Christ, and becoming a person who will feel at home in the kingdom of God is what the gospel is about.  Christ’s grace, coupled with heartfelt obedience to the principles of the gospel (which is a byproduct of Christ’s grace operating in our lives) is the only way that we can accomplish that.  Stop worrying so much about things not going according to your (or someone else's) plan, and worry more about following the Lord's plan for you instead.
“When I was a young man I thought I would serve a mission. I graduated from high school in June 1950. Thousands of miles away, one week after that high school graduation, a North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, and our country was at war. I was 17 years old, but as a member of the Utah National Guard I was soon under orders to prepare for mobilization and active service. Suddenly, for me and for many other young men of my generation, the full-time mission we had planned or assumed was not to be.
Do not rely on planning every event of your life—even every important event. Stand ready to accept the Lord’s planning and the agency of others in matters that inevitably affect you. Plan, of course, but fix your planning on personal commitments that will carry you through no matter what happens. Anchor your life to eternal principles, and act upon those principles whatever the circumstances and whatever the actions of others. Then you can await the Lord’s timing and be sure of the outcome in eternity” (Dallin H. Oaks, Facebook post, Nov. 9, 2017). 
For more on the evils of the checklist church, check out my article "The Gospel is NOT a Checklist."

VI.            Pharisee Thinking
This is the way of thinking that assumes that if something is good, then it follows that a more extreme and/or more restrictive version of that thing must be better.  For example, if passing the sacrament in your Sunday best (usu. a button up shirt and a tie) is good, then requiring all who pass the sacrament to wear only white shirts must be better.  Or, if going on a mission is good, then going on your mission the instant you hit eligible age must be better.

There is nothing wrong with going on your mission as soon as you are of eligible age. However, where Pharisee thinking comes in is the tendency to negatively stigmatize young men who do not leave as soon as they turn eighteen.  This was pretty common when I was young, when the age for eligibility was nineteen, but I had hoped that things had changed over the years, especially given the more recent changes to the age requirements.  Unfortunately, in talking to young people in the church I have discovered that this form of Pharisee thinking is alive and well among some members of the church.

Pharisee thinking is a mistake because it nearly always has a negative component.  It generally takes this form: “If you don’t follow this more extreme form of (insert principle, commandment, or practice here), then you are a sinner.”  If you show up to pass the sacrament wearing a shirt that is another color besides white, you will be sent home to change.  If you do not leave on a mission at eighteen, then you are at risk of apostasy.

Sadly, most people who fall into this trap think they are doing God’s work, even though they generally do not have the authority to make changes to ordinances (such as requiring priesthood holders to wear white shirts when officiating in the ordinance of the sacrament), or to tell other people how best to apply the commandments and counsel of the Lord and His authorized servants.

Pharisee thinking comes from pride, namely the pride that presumes to tell others how they should live the gospel, and assumes a right to do so based on the unspoken notion that the one doing the telling is somehow more righteous than everyone else.

Jjron / CC BY-SA 3.0
VII.         Straining at a Gnat, or a Comma
There is another form of Pharisee thinking that is related to “riding the line.” I recently spoke to someone who wanted to know how I interpreted the placement of a comma in a specific place in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants.  She felt that this minor piece of punctuation held major implications for the meaning and application of the doctrine contained in the word of wisdom.  It was clear to me that she saw the word of wisdom as a comprehensive legal code, one which could be pored over for loopholes, and which was subject to interpretation based on semantics alone.

I responded by pointing out that the word of wisdom is meant to be "a principle given with promise." That means that the word of wisdom is not intended to be a comprehensive legal code that spells out every little thing that we can and cannot put into our bodies.  Rather, as a principle, it is up to us to work out how to best follow God’s commandments, with the aid of the spirit.  By definition, this will require us to discern the essential truths behind the language used to communicate those truths.

“As with all things, the scriptures do not contain page after page of detailed commandments covering every possible application of the law of life. Rather they speak in general terms, leaving us free to apply the principles of the gospel to meet the infinite variety of life. - Boyd K. Packer, Eternal Marriage: Student Manual (2001), 143.

"As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances." (Richard G. Scott, “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86.)

When it comes to gospel principles, details such as the precise placement of a comma matter less than the basic truths contained in said principle, which will help us to make the best decisions with the most knowledge.  By separating “principles from the detail used to explain them,” we can avoid getting lost in a quagmire of legalism and semantic confusion.

If we strain over the meaning and placement of a comma (or bickering over some other semantic detail), instead of searching out the basic underlying truth behind a certain doctrine, we are definitely missing the point. Furthermore, we may even be straying dangerously close to the heedless legalism that characterized those who could only live the lower law.

In much the same way that the Pharisees figuratively strained at a gnat, and swallowed a camel (see Matthew 23:24), if we strain at a comma, we run the risk of swallowing something much worse: a spirit of disobedience based on legalism, which may prevent us from hearing the voice of the spirit as it attempts to direct us in the paths of the Lord.

For more on the dangers of legalism in the church today, see my article "A More Excellent Way: Are Mormons Living the Higher Law?"


It is not my intention to raise these points in a spirit of negativity, nor do I believe that I myself am immune from making these mistakes.  These are simply a few problems that I have encountered in my own life, and among my fellow Mormons, which I feel might interfere with our ability to enjoy the full blessings that come from fully living the gospel.  My hope is that by pointing these problems out, and by giving them a name, I can enable all who read this to find those places in their own lives in which they fall into traps of bad thinking.  It is my genuine hope and desire that this will empower those who read it to identify and remove those things in their own lives which prevent them from experiencing the joy of a fully-developed relationship with the Lord.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this, it is a great tool for figuring out where I need to pull up my socks and get to work. (BTW I expect I will be doing that until the day I die), it is a wonderful overlook of places I have let go of the iron rod.Carol Scanland.

    1. Thanks, Carol. I'm glad it was helpful, and I'm gratified that you liked it. Feel free to share.

  2. many good points. I am convinced that satan messes with us like you say, having us to do something that is OK, to keep us from really reading and studying the Book of Mormon

    1. I think that is how he catches us off guard. We may be on the lookout for temptations to do outright evil, but Satan knows that he can do some real damage by tricking us into wasting our time on less essential things.

  3. I've only read half (long article), but I LOVE what I've read and agree 100%!!

  4. LoL, I know it's long. I just sort of went on a rant I guess. Oh well, thanks for reading anyway.

  5. Excellent....I am glad
    I found your blog. I am going to feature this on my LDS facebook page and then read some of your past blogs to share!
    Brother D.
    LDS Standing United

    1. Thanks, Brother D. Feel free to share as you like.

  6. I have learned so much from this statement . Thank you.

  7. I have actually had discussions with people concerning each of these topics, and I have been enlightened as well. I have also come to realize that loving one's neighbor goes beyond shoveling their driveway for them. It means getting to know them well enough that they will share (or you can see) their hidden "burdens". Often times, people can become unburdened simply by changing their thinking, the way they see something (as you have given some examples of)...which removes a stumbling block they themselves have placed.

    I remember not long after being baptized as an eager 18 year old, more than one older member informed me that their mission was "the best two years of their lives" and that they were "never more spiritual" than they were on their missions. Puzzled, I asked how that corresponded with this being the gospel of ETERNAL progression? I also mentioned that many of the apostles served missions, but I was more than certain that they were much more spiritual as apostles than they were as teenage missionaries.

    They were shocked. They went about for much of their lives certain that they had "peaked" spiritually years and years ago, and not only could they never attain that level of spirituality again, but that there was nothing really beyond that. And they had lived their lives accordingly...not making them...fruitless effort.

  8. your recent blog referred to the wearing of white shirts while adminstering the sacrament was optional?? Did I misunderstand??

    1. Michael's comment on "white shirts" quote: "Sadly, most people who fall into this trap think they are doing God’s work, even though they generally do not have the authority to make changes to ordinances (such as requiring priesthood holders to wear white shirts when officiating in the ordinance of the sacrament)..."

      The way I took Michael's comment was that perhaps his experience included some people seeking to change the practice "away" from white shirts, and of course, not having the authority to do so.

      Elder Russell M. Nelson's August 2004 article "Worshiping at Sacrament Meeting" (which was adapted from a June 21, 2003 worldwide leadership training meeting) address stated: "Those who administer the sacrament are to look their best and be dressed appropriately. White shirts not only look nice, but they are a gentle reminder of other sacred rites, such as baptismal and temple ordinances, at which white clothing is also worn."

      Of course, "looking their best" does not always include the money or means needed to own a white dress shirt, and in those instances allowances are made.

    2. From section 20.4.1 of The Church Handbook of Instruction: "Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church."

      Anyone making wearing white shirts exclusively a requirement for passing the sacrament is violating church policy, and altering an ordinance (by adding unnecessary requirements) without the authority to do so.

    3. Your quote from the handbook states "ties and white shirts are recommended". If you look up the definition of recommended you will find: "put forward (someone or something) with approval as being suitable for a particular purpose or role."

      Some synonyms for recommended are: approved, endorsed, favored, supported, advocated, sanctioned.

      The manual, as you pointed out, goes on to say that white shirts should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate.

      The reasons for this include the one I mentioned...taking into account their financial circumstances, as well as their maturity in the Church.

      The financial circumstances is self-explanatory, and mostly involves a "I would if I could" attitude.

      Maturity in the Church as separate issue usually means that finances are not a factor, but the maturity of the priesthood holder in question in regards to whether adding to the dignity of the ordinance is important to them.

      If it is not important to them, then they are not mature in the Church. Perhaps simply looking for loopholes to see what they can get away with. Which is sometimes involved in youthful rebellion, but always a certain impediment to Celestial Glory.

      In other words, it shows the heart of the particular person if they can afford a white shirt and refuse to consider adding to the dignity of the ordinance because of personal preference.

    4. It is recommended. It is not required. If my thoughts are about gospel maturity in those blessing and passing the sacrament based on the color of their shirt, I suspect I am the one whose soul needs some self reflection.

  9. Too many times, members judge others based on their own performance and never stop to look at themselves. This is a great article. Thanks!

  10. sorry, but I disagree. A white shirt is a requirmemnt when performing Priesthood duties To digress from this is to asert personal preferences to the Priesthood dties. If one does not have funding for a white shirt for blessing and administering the Sacarament the ward will provide. And would the "personal preferences" of the full time missionaries be a consideration for thier dress standards?

    1. So, are you saying given the hypothetical example of a horrible hurricane taking every possession from you and a small group of surviving saints meet on Sunday and have just enough bread and water for sacrament that they should NOT administer the sacrament if all they have left are plaid shirts? In the 1970's following a sacrament meeting, I over-heard a "law and order" type of member approach a visitor and inform him that we do not wear long-hair and hair in Church could not touch the collar. Good thing the Savior didn't show up that day!

  11. Great read we all fall into these now and again

  12. Loved this article!! You can't help but to walk away from this inspired and wanting to be better. Thanks for sharing!!

  13. This isn't a TBM thing to say, but another mistake Mormons make (along with any other dogmatically "certain" religionists) is to assert that ours is the only "true faith" or religion: that all others are lacking something that prevents them from being "in" with God. I know what the first authorities of the church taught, taking their cue from Joseph Smith. That this is "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased", etc. And it goes on from that original statement. The temple recommend interview question (no. 4) causes many Mormons to assert that no other religion can exercise "authority" in God's name or with his approval. If that is the case, then they are not serving God but the adversary. All their good works count for nothing because the adversary corrupts those well intended works to his own purposes.

    This mindset of being exclusively God's own true and living church creates a very subtle form of pride and intolerance. It runs counter to the New Testament accounts of how Jesus of Nazareth behaved in his mortal life. He did not demonstrate anything less than overthrow of fundamental Mosaic Law, i.e. the established "church" of his time: by associating with all manner of sinners and social outcasts, he showed how to be ecumenical. Mormonism, from its inception, is not ecumenical in the least.

    Should Mormons be ecumenical? My purpose in bringing up this other "mistake" that Mormons make is to assert that, yes, we ought to be focused on being ecumenical if we are true disciples of Jesus the Christ. And even if we do not have an abiding conviction of what that means, we ought to see that ecumenicalism is the only way for the world's diverse peoples to move forward together in creating a cooperative paradise.

    Wait a second, isn't creating a paradise something that is supposed to happen after Jesus returns and not before? Isn't the picture of the "last days" supposed to be antithetical to any work of men to create a paradise? And if that is so, isn't it hubris, or worse, cooperating with the adversary in creating a pseudo paradise?

    We often say, "Every church is true; some just have more truth than others". But we do not often concentrate on the truth and the good in them, because none of them are "pleasing" to the Lord. That is the part that we notice and remember, especially when their members treat Mormons poorly.

    This mistake is, in my opinion, the most prevalent and pernicious. We are known for our separateness and our high opinion of ourselves. That is not helpful in getting Mormons to be part of the wider religious community of diverse sects and denominations and different religions. We ought to be doing good works with others, not just in addition to their good works. Together we can do far more than working separately, especially in our neighborhoods or at the "grass roots" level, where our reputations as Mormons are made.

  14. Message of the Lord Jesus Christ to His Beloved humankind. 29April18.
    Beloved children of My Sacred Heart, Consecrate yourselves to Me as soon as possible, the war begins shortly and if you don´t Consecrate yourselves to Me I Will not be able to rescue you as My people. Love You, Your Jesus.
    Amen, Amen, Alleluia.
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Amen.
    Glory to God Omnipotent, Omnipresent in the Eucharist.
    Beloved Be The Eternal Father forever, for ever
    of the centuries.
    Amen, Alleluia, Amen.

  15. This post is so encouraging. Nice work.

    1. Thanks Oscar. I hope you will follow my blog. Also, feel free to share with your friends via social media, etc.


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