Trusting Imperfect Prophets

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An important part of the mission of FAIR, as part of defending the faith, is to promote and defend the credibility of the Brethren in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, authorized to lead and guide the Church in the Latter-days. For some, the notion that the prophets or apostles might at times be wrong is just too earth shattering. “They speak with God,” so the thinking goes, “and therefore cannot be wrong.” This leads them to the conclusion that since they are sometimes mistaken, they must not be prophets. Others may perhaps come away with a distorted view of prophets, with an inordinate focus on their imperfections that erodes their faith and confidence in them as men of God. Our hearts go out to those who have had, or do have, similar concerns and struggles.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a few suggestions that have helped me maintain faith in the prophets and apostles and other leaders despite my awareness of their imperfect and fallible status.

1.  Recognize that you do this all the time

The first thing to realize is that coming to trust imperfect people is something we are doing all the time. What I mean here is that all of us have managed to exercise faith and trust in various imperfect human beings. All of us have people we trust for advice and counsel, like a spouse, parent, older sibling, teacher, local church leader, a friend or co-worker, etc. And for all of us, those people are imperfect. Often times they are people we know quite well, which means their imperfections are glaringly clear. We are usually quite cognizant of our parents’ imperfections; we lament our own inheritance of those imperfections sometimes. Yet despite that, many of us still go to our parents for advice and counsel; we will take their words into serious consideration, and often incorporate their advice, to some degree or another, into what we ultimately decide. As we go through this process, we don’t usually sit around and pick apart everything that they say and think “Well, that was wrong” or “I disagreed with that” and so on. Instead, as we mull over the advice we’ve been given, we tend to zero in on the parts that seem to resonate with us, that we find most useful, and focus on that as we try to make a good decision.

Beyond personal mentors, we often place authority in teachers, professors, scholars, and scientists who are imperfect. They are imperfect people, employing imperfect methods of research, working with incomplete data, and yet despite that we trust the “experts” to teach us and inform us about their field of study. Despite the fact that science has been wrong in the past, and is undoubtedly wrong about some things now that won’t be discovered until the future, we still place confidence in the findings of science and scholarship. Those who spend a lot of time reading scholarly or scientific literature, or who obtain the requisite training to be scientists themselves, usually learn how to parse between the good and the bad, are able to think critically about the evidence and procedures used, and learn to discern between what they find to be true and what is not. But finding errors in the work of a scholar or scientists doesn’t always destroy our confidence in the fields of study or even in that particular individual. Many scholars will critique the work of other scholars whom they still view as top notch scholars.

So why is it that we can handle imperfection in authority figures in essentially every part of our lives, but struggle with it in Church leaders, particularly prophets and apostles? The problem likely lies in unrealistic expectations of prophets, but even once that expectation is gone it seems to be difficult for us to navigate the waters between trust and knowing their imperfections. I think the first step to managing that is to realize that they are waters you swim in all the time for other parts of your life, and so you can no doubt manage to swim through them here.

2. Get to Know the Prophets and Apostles

I fully believe that part of the reason that we continue to trust parents, siblings, friends, and others despite their imperfections is because of the personal relationship we have with them. (This is also, ironically, why we know and understand their imperfections so well.) Others, who don’t know your parents or siblings as well as you do, may see their shortcomings and form negative opinions of them. So if start learning about some of the imperfections that leaders of the church have, but lack that personal relationship with them, then we may, like the strangers who pass judgment on people they see in the supermarket, form a negative opinion of them without ever really coming to know them.

How do we fix this? Obviously we can’t all know the prophets personally – how hard would it be to maintain close friendships with 14 million people? But, we can all learn about them in various ways. Many of them have book length biographies written about them. When a new apostle is called there is often a feature article about them in the Ensign. Several General Authorities have been featured in conversations on the Mormon Channel. Even paying good attention to their personal stories in General Conference can help! Though there are often inspiring moments in their life stories, getting familiar with their stories often humanizes them, helping you realize that they are normal people who have struggled with the same kinds of things that you have, and also enjoyed the same things. Many of them played on their High School sports teams, went to dances and dated. They struggled on missions, or in the military, and they raised their families with all the same problems and fears that you and I have. Through all of this they tried to make the right decisions, and sometimes they made mistakes.

How does this improve our confidence in them? Shouldn’t they be super-humans? Well, the truth is people are much more likely to trust those whom they perceive as “one of them.” Having a seemingly perfect life and his uber-clean-cut image didn’t help Mitt Romney gain the trust of the American people, and in fact probably hurt him (it was frequently used against him). You trust the imperfect people in your life because you know that they are just like you. Of course, they have, through that struggle, made a lot of the right decisions, and have been called and qualified by God. I’ve found that when I better know the men who have been chosen to lead the Church, I have greater confidence in them and their ability to do so, and trust in their council.

3. Give them the Benefit of the Doubt

Sometimes when certain things are said over the pulpit or in print, we have a tendency to react, instantly, to what we thinkwas being said (and not so much to what was actually said). So one thing I’ve learned is important is to not have a knee jerk reaction to what a prophet or apostle said. If you hear or read that they said X, and X bothers you, stay calm, clear your head, and then take time to think about their comments. Mull over them in your head for awhile. Look at their words carefully, consider context, and if you need to, dig up anything and everything else you can find from that leader on the same or similar topics. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt; don’t just assume you know what they meant, and don’t just assume your attitude about X is right and theirs is wrong. Instead, take time to try and understand their words and what they were trying to communicate. Such a situation arose back in 2010 with some of the words President Packer spoke, which many people had a knee jerk reaction to. But sustained analysis and consideration of his words in context with others he has spoken over the years shows that his words (and their subsequent clarification in print) don’t imply any of the things attributed to him. Giving leaders the benefit of the doubt with patience, study, and faith is always preferable to making assumptions.

4. Focus on Principles, Not Particulars

I’ve learned that it is really easy to get knit picky about what this or that prophet said. If you want to, I’m sure you can find something wrong with every address ever given by a prophet, apostle, or other leader of the Church. More often than not, this will likely be a periphery comment, perhaps even an off the cuff remark. But this isn’t an especially useful approach to their words. I like to, instead, focus on the principles that are being expressed, and not some much on the particular words used to articulate them. For example, back in the April General Conference of this year, Elder Russell M. Nelson said the following that really ruffled some both in and out of the Church:

Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, “Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?” The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions!

I’m not a science buff, and I’ll admit that I was among those who chuckled when he first said this. But a flurry of blogs and social media posts went up immediately picking apart Elder Nelson’s words. It conflates and confuses the big bang with evolution, uses a false analogy, and several other things were said. Many members who both embrace the gospel and scientific theories like the big bang and evolution struggled with Elder Nelson’s comments. It is important to realize the Church formally has no official position regarding such scientific theories, and members are welcome to embrace them so long as they maintain faith in certain core teachings of the faith. And it is one of those core teachings that Elder Nelson was trying to articulate, however clumsy you may feel he did so.

When I read or hear comments like this from a leader of the Church, I tend not to quibble about how he articulated his thoughts, but rather I try to understand the principle they are teaching. In the case of Elder Nelson’s words, they may not have been scientifically sound, but the principle that underlies his words is indeed true. That principle is that life, and the universe, are not the products of an accident. We are not a random happenstance. Regardless of what processes – whether evolution and the big bang or something else entirely – were used, we came to exist not by accident, but intentionally – just like a dictionary does not come about as the result of an accident in a printing shop, but by the intention of editors and printers, etc. We are creations of God. Not just us, the whole universe came about by the deliberate actions of God, created as part of a plan and purpose. Regardless of what one thinks of the big bang or of evolution, every believing Latter-day Saint should find the principle taught – that we are intentional creations of God – agreeable.

Though they may not always say it perfectly, the principles they are trying to teach are usually true. So I find that focusing on the principles being taught, not the particular expression of those principles, is for me, a good way to find value and truth in the teachings of the prophets.

5. Ask, “What Can I Learn/Apply from this?”

Again, when you get advice from people you trust, you probably don’t dwell on what they said wrong, or the imperfect ways in which they expressed themselves. If you do, before long you won’t be going to those people for advice for very long because your confidence in them will quickly erode. As previously noted, probably without even trying, you just naturally focus on the things that they said that you found helpful in their advice. So, I’m suggesting that we do the same thing with the prophets and other leaders. Rather than spend your time picking apart their words, a much more productive approach is to look for the valuable teachings in their words – the things that you can use to improve your own life or gospel understanding. For example, take Tad R. Callister’s October 2011 talk on the Book of Mormon. Although there are several points made in it with which I could quibble, doing so would cause me to miss the important message that the Book of Mormon’s origins are such that is forces us to make a choice (to believe or not), his testimony that it is a book from God, and that it is an important, confirming and clarifying witness of the truths taught in the Bible. All of which are teachings that resonate with me. I can then apply them by recognizing the choice the Book of Mormon forces upon me, and coming to terms with it by gaining a testimony of my own, and then learning to use the Book of Mormon alongside the Bible in my scripture study to come to better understand the truths of the gospel.

As I apply the teachings of Church leaders into my life, I can often see the way my life is improving; I feel the Spirit more in my life and my confidence in the leaders of the Church grows. Surely this is more productive then quibbling over whether or not what he said on a periphery point is true or not.

6. Find Good, Usable Quotes

Earlier I talked about not getting hung-up on the particular wording and focus on the principles. Just as important, I think, is finding and cherishing the times when they do prove to be particularly eloquent. In other words, don’t just ignore the things they say poorly, find the things they say well. When a prophet, apostle, or other leader says something that you find especially moving, motivating, or meaningful – jot it down, cut and paste it, or find some other way to save it. Print it off and hang it on your mirror or whatever, use it in your own teaching opportunities, etc. Use it to help you apply the principles, as discussed above. By focusing on things they have said well, once again, you can grow in your confidence in their calling as prophets of God. One example of mine for this comes from the already mentioned talk by Elder Callister.

Would you like to have emblazoned on your soul an undeniable witness that the Savior descended beneath your sins and that there is no sin, no mortal plight outside the merciful reach of His Atonement – that for each of your struggles He has a remedy of superior healing power? Then read the Book of Mormon. It will teach you and testify to you that Christ’s Atonement is infinite because it circumscribes and encompasses and transcends every finite frailty known to man.

I think Elder Callister’s words here really drive home the power and purpose of the Book of Mormon in testifying of Christ. So, I’ve remembered it, look back at it from time to time, used it when appropriate, and tried to apply it by exerting greater effort in my own study of Christ in the Book of Mormon.

Closing Thoughts

It is important to realize that the General Authorities – including the 15 men who are prophets, seers, and revelators – are humans, and are fallible. Not everything said or done by them is exactly right. But this doesn’t have to destroy our confidence in them or leave us feeling unsure on what to believe, though understanding and recognizing their imperfections can make it hard to know how to “follow the prophet.” The tensions that this creates are ones that I have spent a number years working and thinking through – and continue to flesh out in my mind. The above highlights a few things I learned, that have helped me in that process. If you have any additional suggestions, please feel free to share them. And please realize that I, like the prophets, am imperfect. I have no doubt that much can be found wrong with what is said above. I just hope that those who are struggling with this currently may find something of value in my thoughts.


7 thoughts on “Trusting Imperfect Prophets

  1. Julianne_Hatton

    Neal, this is a great way to look at church leadership on all levels. I certainly wouldn’t want every candid remark I have uttered to be picked apart by future generations. Just as we give our loved ones the benefit of the doubt, we should do the same with those who lead. Most of them are doing the best they can with what they have. Julianne

  2. bethany.solis

    Hi Neal – I’m 100% with you on the examples you highlighted in your article…I agree that taking a small quote and analyzing it to death is often counter-productive. However, I’d love to get your perspective on really difficult decisions or ideas promoted by church leaders (e.g. the priesthood ban) that may or may not be the result of imperfect church leaders who do their best to follow the Lord but are still very much a product of their time. I find it easy to cut Elder Nelson some slack on the comments you mentioned as I can see the core message he was trying to communicate and see no error in that. However, given all that we DON’T know about the origin of the policy to withhold the priesthood from church members of African descent, I find myself entertaining the idea that this could have been the product of man vs. God’s official policy–another example of imperfect men doing their best to lead but sometimes making mistakes or failing to promote a better way. I’m OK with the possibility that the priesthood ban was the product of men and yet the Church is still true, Brigham Young was still a prophet of God, etc. However, at what point does the error of prophets actually MATTER? Do we shrug it off, big or small? Do we follow and support even if mistaken simply because they are called by the Lord? Isn’t the whole point of prophets and apostles to help us as members of Christ’s church to be “no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” …to NOT have to always wonder what’s true and what’s not? Can’t seem to fully reconcile this issue in my mind and would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Neal Rappleye Post author

    Hi Bethany,

    You raise some great questions which, frankly, deserve a better response than what I am capable of giving. The priesthood ban is something in a class all its own at this point – I don’t know what was going there, and I’ve spoken to folks who have studied it very carefully and they don’t have a clue, either. But you raise a very thoughtful question when you ask “at what point does the error of prophets actually MATTER?”

    I don’t know if I can really answer this question. Certain things no doubt matter more to some than they do others. For me, I’ve always been a “first steps” and a “keystone” kind of guy. Meaning, as long as I have confidence in the “first steps” of Church history (e.g., the First Vision, Priesthood Restoration, etc.) and in the origins of the “keystone” (the Book of Mormon), then for me, while I still find myself puzzled by things here and there, or even troubled, at times, it ultimately can’t detract from the testimony I have in the Gospel. So I frankly can’t imagine an error that would MATTER (in the sense of being faith-destroying) for me – certainly I can think creatively about all sorts of things that might greatly bother me, but I because of the confidence and testimony I have in the “first steps” I would find ways to cope with them. But, I know that doesn’t really answer your question…

    Their purpose, of course, is to testify of Christ and help lead us toward salvation. So I guess their mistakes start to matter when they start to impact that. But when is that, and is it even possible? Well, I know one apostle in either the late 19th century or early 20th century started teaching that the atonement wouldn’t save us. That is a mistake that matters (needless to say, he was excommunicated, if I recall correctly). That is the kind of mistake I believe Wilford Woodruff had in mind when he said that the God won’t let the head of the Church lead us astray (more specifically, he was referring to the decision to stop polygamy – but at the time, many people viewed that as a mistake that would have implications for salvation). Thus in that sense, the prophets do keep us from being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. Frankly, for me, in doing the things in my blog post, I’ve never felt “tossed to and fro”. I’ve felt I could confidently follow the counsel of prophets past and present. That is something I could not have said before I worked out some of my thoughts above.

    I’m not sure if that helps. I wish I could give you something better. What is in this blog post is the working out of my thoughts over a process of a couple years, and I imagine your questions will keep me thinking for a few more. :-) Generally, though, I think that virtually any potential “mistake” – great or small – can be productively approached by patiently working through it, giving the benefit of the doubt, seeking out the principles (and sometimes you might have to really dig and search to find out the principle they are trying to teach really is), etc. I even think the priesthood ban is better approached by seeking to understand what we can learn from it rather than viewing it as a problem or a mistake that shouldn’t have happened or that should be apologized for and then forgotten (and I’m certainly not advocating racism – but their all kinds of things we might potentially learn from complicated issues).

    Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling and I’m sure it is not helpful, so I’ll stop. Thanks for the questions.

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  5. MichaelT

    Great article. I have struggled for a long time with how to articulate this idea. You’ve given me some great food for thought that I can hopefully pass on to others in my church service. Thanks a ton.

  6. RFB

    On Bethany’s post, I have had the same struggles. In my case, I have concluded that the brethren in the 19th century were a product of their times, meaning they likely shared racial prejudices, in varying degrees, with their contemporaries. Add to that a resistance to persecution, such as the fight to outlaw the church over polygamy, and a fixed determination to uphold their immediate predecessors, and you can sort of understand why it took so long to redress a grievous error (in my opinion.) After all, we are aware of false teachings that were voiced by Brigham Young or others, which were never accepted by the church (Adam God, for example.) Over time I have developed a tolerance for what seem to be errors or at least matters of personal preference.

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