Assuming the Best

Updated: Sep 17, 2021


"And charity suffereth long, and is kind...is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil" (Moroni 7:45).


Earlier, I wrote that, in order to build Zion, I need to signal a desire for peace by leaving the trenches of my tribe and venturing onto no man's land. I said the scary thing about doing so is the risk of taking fire from my own side, as well as from perceived enemies. Turns out, there's something else that might be scarier. It is the risk of a changed perspective causing me to see my people as enemies.


I'm willing to take fire. I'm not willing to lose allegiances that anchor me, that are bound up in my testimony, that have brought me to where I want to step into no man's land in the first place, in the interest of building peace.


To be more specific, I am willing to be criticized and even unfriended by zealous saints who see my peace-building attempts as disloyal and wrong-headed. I'll risk being identified as a "progmo" (progressive Mormon) and discounted as unfaithful. I am not a "Mormon." I'm a Latter-day Saint. Am I progressive? Well, achieving Zion would definitely be progress and that's my goal, so I guess you could call me that. But I don't think I know better than God. And I sustain those whom God has placed at the head of His Church. I'm afraid my making space for loving dialogue with people who don't sustain the prophet might make my sustaining him hard to discern for someone who is stuck in the trenches, firing at the enemy. I'm okay with taking fire from them.


What I'm not okay with is getting to a place where I start attributing malicious motives to people who are just trying to defend the faith. And especially, I'm not willing to lose faith in the Brethren. I am keenly aware that many others have tried to do what I'm attempting and have wound up switching their allegiance. They've reached out to people who were disaffected with the Church, heard their often anguished stories, and come to blame the ones who hurt them. Then they turned around and started firing on the Church's leaders.


I think there are two areas of misunderstanding that have led to their disaffection. The first has to do with what we should expect of a prophet. And the second has to do with what God expects of a peacemaker when it appears that peace-building is being blocked by the very people one might expect to be leading the effort.


First, what we should expect of a prophet. I love the story of when Joseph Smith dressed in ragged clothes and assumed a rough accent to meet a boatload of Saints newly arrived from England. He accosted one of the immigrants, calling him "Bub," and asking "What do you know about old Joe Smith?"


"I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God," the brother replied.


“I suppose you are looking for an old man with a long, gray beard. What would you think if I told you I was Joseph Smith?” the prophet asked.


The man answered, “If you are Joseph Smith, I know you are a prophet of God."


Joseph dropped his act and explained he had come to ascertain whether the immigrants faith was "strong enough to stand the things they must meet. If not, they should turn back right now."


I am touched that Joseph saw strong faith in the willingness to accept as a prophet a man with a rough manner and ragged clothing. He was both the oracle of God and a man with genuine foibles that sometimes gave offence. Maybe it didn't take strong faith to accept his prophetic calling when he was revealing glorious doctrines like the redemption of the dead. But sustaining him as prophet when he was fighting with his brother William, or when the bank failed that he'd urged the people to support? That took faith that was anchored, not in Joseph's charisma or inviting doctrines, but in a steady assurance of God's ability to do His work with flawed instruments.


One of the things that can challenge faith is the awkwardness inherent to hierarchy and institutional power. This is not new. When Oliver Cowdery was becoming disaffected with the Church, one of his grievances was his observation that some of the Brethren seemed to be grasping after positions of authority. He wrote to his brother, "My soul is sick of such scrambling for power." Yet the same Lord who declared, "It is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39) is also the One who established His Church as a hierarchical institution. With a perfect understanding of human weakness, he built into His kingdom a safeguard against the pitfalls of power. He has inseparably connected the rights of the priesthood with the powers of heaven -- powers He controls. Men only have access through the exercise of righteous principles (D&C 121:36). God is guiding this Church. He chastens His servants and their only enduring dominion comes from aligning with Him. Even prophets need to repent. Joseph couldn't even translate until he'd made amends with Emma.


I also believe that God doesn't require His prophets to be perfect. I don't think He even requires that they not be causing lasting harm. The story of Abraham and Hagar is ample evidence for that. Abraham treated Hagar as property, instead of as a person, and then he sent her and their son away into the unforgiving desert with inadequate provisions to even sustain their lives. What's more, the scriptures say that his sending them away was confirmed by revelation. Sarah's demand that he do so, because young Ishmael had mocked little Isaac, was "very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son" (Genesis 21:11). It irritates me that there is no mention of his being grieved on Hagar's behalf. But then God mentioned both mother and son while directing Abraham to comply with Sarah's demand. And he promised to raise up a nation of "the son of the bondwoman" (Genesis 21:12-13).


So, in the morning, Abraham handed her one bottle of water, some bread and her boy, and sent them away into the desert. This is hard for me to comprehend. He had plenty of servants who could have carried provisions for them. He had plenty of connections and surely could have made arrangements for her to be attached to another household. Could he maybe not do that without shaming Sarah? Or risking Isaac's inheritance? Could it be that no-one wanted a bondwoman who kept forgetting her "place"? Perhaps little Ishmael's behaviour was a violation of a prevalent taboo for slaves and prevailing sensibilities demanded that it be punished. Perhaps Abraham risked censure for being too merciful when he provided both the water and the bread.


God speaks to us in our own language. I think He also speaks to us both according to the light we have received and the light we are currently capable of receiving. So, maybe for Abraham, sending Hagar and Ishmael into the unforgiving desert with scanty provisions was the best he was able to comprehend to do, even with God stretching his mind to get him that far.


All of this means that we should not expect a prophet to be above reproach. We should, however, remember that he's above our reproach. That doesn't mean he's better than us. It merely means that chastening the prophet is God's place alone. We don't have to worry about keeping the prophet in line any more than the bearers of the ark of the covenant had to worry about steadying the ark when they walked across uneven ground. Keeping the ark from tipping over was God's prerogative, and He specifically commanded the bearers not to touch it. Resisting the urge to steady the ark was a way they could express and strengthen their faith in God, that He would Himself do the work He had promised. Similarly, following God's guidance to the flawed mortal He has called to lead His work is a way of expressing and strengthening faith in God today.


Again, it's helpful to remember the story of Abraham and Hagar, because it demonstrates God's seeing and cherishing Hagar in ways that Abraham could not. She was no less precious to Him than was Sarah or Abraham. And Hagar knew it. She learned it first when she fled after being abused by her mistress and an angel appeared and directed her to return and submit to Sarai. Then he gave to her an Abrahamic promise of seed that "shall not be numbered for multitude" and instructed her to name her son Ishmael, meaning "God hears," "because the Lord hath heard thy affliction" (Genesis 16:5-11). Hagar received Abrahamic promises before Sarah did, and that day she started calling God a new name, "Thou God seest me" (Genesis 16:13).


So when Hagar and her boy were banished, when the scanty water was spent and Hagar was mourning her son's imminent death, once again an angel spoke to her, renewed the Abrahamic promise and provided them with a life-sustaining well of water and "God was with the lad" (Genesis 21:16-20).


God sees and cares for every one of his children. Every single one. He calls shepherds with limitations, but He has not forgotten a single sheep. If it doesn't look that way at a given moment, that's because we see only a fraction of the picture. God's plan is glorious beyond imagining -- for all of us -- and His grace extends beyond the grave.


What, then, should a seeker after peace do if they feel like the Brethren are putting roadblocks in their way? First and foremost, a fundamental prerequisite for building Zion is becoming charitable. "And charity suffereth long, and is kind...is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil" (Moroni 7:45). It's okay to feel the sting of injustices, of insensitive or even condemning words. Sensitive hearts suffer long. But sensitivity is not the same as being easily provoked. Choosing to think no evil, that is, refusing to attribute malicious intent, seems to be a key to avoiding provocation. I need to assume that my fellow labourers are well-intentioned and growing. I need to not let myself be provoked by the blind spots of others, but extend to them the same grace I would hope for them to extend to me. And especially, I need to extend grace to and believe the best about the ones that God has called to direct His great and marvellous work.


Here is a real-life example of what I am resolved to avoid. I recently read an interview with BYU alum Brad Carmack (now Levin, having taken his wife's name at marriage). In December 2010, Brad published his book Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective despite strong discouragement from his bishop, a stake president and an emeritus General Authority. At the time, California's Proposition 8 was being challenged in the courts and the book presented an argument for Latter-day Saints to embrace same-sex marriage. The BYU honor code prohibited homosexual advocacy, that is "seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable." Brad was four months away from completing his juris doctorate. He was warned that publishing the book could result in disciplinary action that might get him expelled. He could have waited just four months and then published without any risk to his degree. He chose to publish immediately.


In February 2011, just as his book started getting media attention, the homosexual advocacy ban was removed from the BYU honor code. Brad's explanation: BYU's Board of Trustees (the First Presidency and eight other General Authorities and General Officers) changed the honor code in order to avoid the bad publicity that would have resulted if they'd expelled him and a growing number of others who supported same-sex marriage.


In retrospect, Brad identifies his book's goal as "normalizing homosexuality in Mormonism." He recalls thinking, " "Look at this flaw I found that's needlessly and substantially and predictably harming tens of thousands of people, surely those in power will change course once they see!" But, his book didn't change Church teachings on homosexuality.


Brad took on additional causes. In 2013, he launched FreeBYU, an advocacy organization seeking to change the honor code so that students would be able to leave the Church without risking their enrolment. And he has written another book and made presentations in favour of "eliminating sex-based barriers in [Church] power structures." His analysis is, "I haven't seen evidence that these efforts moved the needle at all."


While his advocacy seems to have had negligible impact on the Church, the same can't be said for its impact on himself. In his 2010 book, Brad described himself as a temple attending, believing Latter-day Saint. More recently, he says, "For a quarter-century I bought the story that I was so important to the universe that a God sacrificed himself for me, so I could avoid endless hell and instead become a god myself through my decisions and behaviors." Now, he has had a faith transition and has come to believe his religious behaviours were "the behaviors of a pawn in a chess game between much larger forces".


I wonder if Brad's faith could have remained intact had he been able to extend grace to and believe the best about his leaders. What if, instead of chalking up the 2011 honor code change to optics, he had assumed good faith on the part of the Brethren? What if he'd concluded instead that the change was inspired. Perhaps the Board of Trustees examined Brad's book and sought inspiration on how to deal with it and similar works that might follow. Wouldn't it have been liberating to conclude that they'd been inspired to change the honor code to permit greater and more searching inquiry? Such a charitable explanation could increase faith and hope. It could help to keep the precious assurance that Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for Brad.


Maybe the hardest part about such an explanation would be its tendency to lead to the belief that the Brethren were also seeking inspiration and acting in good faith on LGBTQ issues. It would mean accepting that God was not telling the Brethren what Brad believed God was telling him. Continuing to sustain them would then require him to stop trying to push the Brethren to change and instead to leave the directing of the Church to God. It's hard to sustain the Brethren in a position that contradicts our hard-won and publicly advocated opinions. That pits faith against ego. I don't think there's any way to side with ego and come out with faith unscathed.


So what does all of this mean to me? As I muse in public about sensitive issues, as I work on the manuscript of my book about my gospel misunderstandings that led me into codependency, I need to stay anchored in my personal stewardship. I need to resist all temptations to try and fix the Church. I need to choose charity for the Brethren while listening closely to their counsel. And I need to take direction, especially at the expense of my ego.


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