Today at church a sister was talking about how it was her testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, he was still imperfect.
From my understanding, he became an excellent individual who underwent many heart-wrenching difficulties (like the deaths of many children, being harrassed by mobs, and repeatedly tried by unjust courst, and finally being martyred himself), and performed many seemingly impossible tasks (published the Book of Mormon (even if you believe the Book of Mormon to be made up or a dilusion, he would have made it up in a few months, complete with many scriptural references, characters and histories, and expository teachings), organized a church, and founded several cities and temples).
Despite all this, he was imperfect; and I suppose “imperfect” is probably a bit of a euphemism. I mean, he probably wasn’t just “imperfect” like a diamond has microscopic imperfections. He probably had serious moments where he was in error (in fact we had scriptures saying he was reprimanded by God, usually sternly). And it wouldn’t shock me if he even had lifelong biases or personality flaws (eg maybe he was too overbearing, expected the same devotion to the cause from others that he himself exhibited; or maybe he mistreated some folks, I dunno, something).
At Church we tend to focus on the positive, which is inspiring for us to want to follow such an excellent example. And then when we hear something he did wrong, we’re shattered. We have difficulty comprehending how someone with flaws can be “The Lord’s Anointed”, meaning someone called by God to be his spokesperson. It doesn’t seem congruent to us.
I don’t think it’s just in church either that we sometimes idealize people, and then we discover that idealized story isn’t the whole story, and that makes us second guess everything about that person.
My High School Physics Teacher
One of my favourite high school teachers was a physics teacher of mine. Maybe I really liked the topic, or maybe I was better at physics than other courses, but I liked the course and in my head he was a good teacher. It was probably his class that led me to study the sciences, and end up doing Computer Science, rather than art.
He also volunteered as our “Robotics Team” counselor. Four other classmates and I entered a robotics competition (like Robot Wars, but less violent) and he gave us some tips on how to build the robot and got us a budget. After a few weeks of building our robot out of plywood, flower pots, power drills, and fishing lines, we headed to the competition. And we failed epically- we actually neglected to test our robot on similar obstacles, and somehow the event organizers gave us dead batteries for our drill. But it was a ton of fun, still. One of the most memorable moments of my high school years.
Anyways, one of my friends worked at a local home hardware or something, where in the staff room they had the pictures of everyone who had shoplifted and they were supposed to watch out for. Well, this teacher was one of those shoplifters.
Did that affect my opinion of him? Yeah, a bit. But my relationship with him was fairly solid, and I didn’t think too much of him, despite obviously not condoning shoplifting myself. Did this affect how I felt about the robotics competition, or the material I learned in physics class? Of course not, that was still a really worthwhile experience and physics was still my favourite of the sciences.
I feel similarly about Joseph Smith: it’s quite possible he may have done some things similar to shoplifting, but that doesn’t mean my experiences at church are tainted, or that the things I’ve learned and felt aren’t true.
When I was a child, I looked up to many adults, and it never occurred to me that they were basically nuts. I mean it, I really think we’ve all got a little crazy in us somewhere. For example, some adults, who my wife and I looked up to as children, turned out to have some of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories. Others who appeared to be angelic church-goers indeed were, but heaven forbit you got on their bad side. And other excellent church-goers also believed some funky eastern-medicine stuff which really doesn’t jive with what they believed at church, it seemed to me. (And what’s my crazy? Among other things, my having constant great ideas that never really go anywhere, my brain revolves around video games if I don’t keep them in-check, and believing writing in here is of any use!)
Yes most of those examples are from unnamed people from my church. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but I didn’t know as many other adults outside of church so well, besides school teachers. And I mostly only discovered all this cookiness in them when Amanda and I briefly returned to live in the church ward where I had spent my youth. So maybe that was another factor. Anyways, I’ve discovered people are generally a lot weirder than I thought they were as a child!
When I first realized these folks were weird, at first that made me second guess everything they were and professed. If a church member was testifying of the church in one breath (which I agree with), and then spouting eastern medicine in the next (of which I’m very skeptical, although it’s possible it may work, I’m skeptical of the explanations about energy and flow etc), how could I believe anything they said?
But like I said, I’m learning that it’s not just these church goers who were crazy, or inconsistent. We’re all inconsistent, have our character flaws, and all have a degree of crazy. Just because someone exudes crazy in one aspect of their life means they’re crazy in others. So I think I’ve changed from having childlike idealism for people, to an understanding that people are complex, filled with good and bad and crazy.
Childlike Admiration for Parents
The most important example of my vision of people changing is of course probably my parents. As a child, they were the best thing. When they told me something, it was true; no doubt about it. When they acted a certain way, that’s just what everybody did (besides very strange people, of course), and that’s what my default would be too. I couldn’t imagine anyone better than them.
Then into adolescence, I started noticing their quirks. How the old man would forget his shoes on the way to my soccer practice, or catching my Mom watching TV while we were doing chores outside. And eventually, beyond quirks, I started to notice real character flaws. How one would never give you a reason for his decisions, and the other would periodically get all moody and irrational.
But now, with children of my own, I wonder how they did it. I have two kids, and get frustrated, can’t get them to eat their vegetables, and wonder how I would have handled even a tenth of the troubles they went through. I’m more aware of their humanness, and am aware of the obstacle they’ve overcome despite this.
If anything, I admire them even more than I did as a child. Despite their being no better than me, probably feeling (and quite rightly being) basically clueless, they were able to raise us kids and come out on top of life. And knowing that flawed people like them could achieve so much, gives me hope for what I can achieve.
Flawed Church Leaders
I was reading in The Truman G. Madsen’s Story today and read this part about his mission president:
“We had an elder,” Truman recalled, “who had been brought in [to the mission home] for, more or less, clinical reasons. One night at the dinner table, he said something that troubled the president and he rebuked him. Later, as we were in our various officers or stations in the home, the word came ‘President Young wants to see all of you.’ we went to his office together and sat down. He said, approximately, ‘Elders, when a man makes a mistake the first thing he needs to do is realize he made it and the second thing he needs to do is apologize. I made a mistake in what i said to Elder [x] and I now want to ask [his] forgiveness as well as yours.’ [The elder] was moved. They embraced. The rest of us nodded and smiled and returned to our stations.”
So, the mission president had made a mistake. But he turned that mistake of his into a teaching opportunity for the missionaries: he taught them he wasn’t above admitting he had made a mistake, and he was willing to do it publicly. He was teaching them they should do likewise.
The fact that Truman’s mission president had made a mistake was actually not a hindrance to their learning about discipleship of Christ, but actually enhanced it. Had he not made that mistake, the learning opportunity would not have surfaced. (I’m sure they could have heard a lesson on it somewhere else, but not seen the principle at work like they did.) They wouldn’t have seen a church leader admitting to a mistake and apologizing, and being the better because of it. This didn’t mean he was unfit to be their mission president, nor that he was rejected by God. In spite of this imperfection, he was still their mission president, receiving revelation for their mission, who was just as fit to serve as ever.
Also, I’m sure those missionaries would later make plenty of mistakes of their own. Not only would they know how to apologize and move on, but they would realize that just as their mission president of old was imperfect, yet still worthy and effective, so they could be imperfect while being worthy and effective.
Knowing that church leaders are imperfect, and yet still “the Lord’s anointed”, gives me hope that, should I, or someone I know well, be called to such calling, we too can be worthy for it, effective at it, and the one chosen by God for that time and place, despite our imperfections.
Can “The Lord’s Anointed” Make Mistakes?
Right now I’m called as Elders Quorum president. I do feel bouts of inspiration to make some things happen, but like I said earlier: I still get frustrated, still am neglectful of my calling, and could probably improve a bunch.
A few years ago I was called as a youth sunday school teacher. The kids mostly looked up to me as one of those perfect teachers, like I did with my teachers at their age. And one day, while in the middle of church services, I realized my suite pants didn’t match my suite jacket. I was wearing my pinstripped black pants with my solid black jacket. I’m not sure how many people noticed, but I looked pretty silly. Likewise, I’m sure I probably made all sorts of mistakes while teaching them, including doctrinal ones. But I don’t think God wanted me to teach them perfectly, he probably just wanted me to teach a handful of things that would stick with them, and the rest they were going to forget anyway. He didn’t need me to be perfect, he just needed to me try my best, make a ton of mistakes and blunders, and he would sneak in the few divine moments and teachings those kids needed.
What’s more, it’s actually a bit blasphemous to suppose church leaders are perfect. We believe only Christ was perfect. I’m pretty sure prophets aren’t perfect after they’re called (e.g. Jonah).
But how do we differentiate between their personal mistakes, and their divinely inspired actions and teachings? This is tough, admitedly. This is where your own prayer, study, reasoning and faith come in. I still haven’t figured this aspect out.
And googling, don’t forget googling. I found this
“To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk. …
“… The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.”6
Anyway, that’s a start. It’s really something to study and work out.
Am I Alarmed at their Imperfections?
When a member of the bishopric is a bit rude, or an Apostle says something unseemly off-the-cuff, or I find a story about Joseph Smith doing something that seems wrong to me, am I alarmed? Does it shake my faith?
I think it’s good to understand the person and situation; to seek direction from Heavenly Father; and to offer advice where appropriate. Just like I would hope someone would do for me, as I bumble through trying to fulfill the callings Heavenly Father has given me…
But no, imperfections in church leaders don’t shake my faith. That’s part of the whole plan, whereby our Heavenly Father is training us, through his experience, to be changed from our flawed fallen selves, to becoming more like Him. And when I see flawed church leaders doing the work of God, it gives me hope that I can do that too.