By Eric Johnson
In an April 2011 general conference message, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland made it a point midway through his talk to explain how “the (LDS) Church is not a fast-food outlet; we can’t always have it ‘our way.’” (“An Ensign to the Nations,” Ensign, May 2011, pp. 111-113).
Holland quoted from Matthew 5 to show God’s remarkable standards. It says in part,
“‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. . . . Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” In the next paragraph, Holland recited verse 48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’”
Holland explained his interpretation:
“What was gentle in the lowlands of initial loyalty becomes deeply strenuous and very demanding at the summit of true discipleship. Clearly anyone who thinks Jesus taught no-fault theology did not read the fine print in the contract!”
This is the classic teaching of Mormonism, with the emphasis on how obedience to the whole law is necessary for those desiring exaltation in the celestial kingdom.
The problem is that it’s impossible to keep the whole law, including the Ten Commandments. Nobody can do it. Yes, a person might not murder, but Jesus said that whoever got angry was just as guilty. And a person might not commit adultery, but the mere act of lusting after another is sexual sin. The law is narrow, and breaking it in one part is like breaking it in whole (James 2:10). In fact, as evangelist Ray Comfort puts it, if you have ever stolen something, you’re a thief; if you have ever said a curse word, you’ve a blasphemer; and the list goes on. Nobody can attain God’s perfect standard. By quoting the Matthew 5:48 “be ye perfect” passage out of context and insinuating something it never was meant to say, Apostle Holland set the bar higher than anyone could ever jump.
Next, Holland tried to downplay the seriousness of the words of Jesus, at least the way he interpreted them, when he continued,
“. . . please be reassured that when we speak on difficult subjects, we understand not everyone is viewing pornography or shirking marriage or having illicit sexual relationships. We know not everyone is violating the Sabbath or bearing false witness or abusing a spouse. We know that most in our audience are not guilty of such things, but we are under a solemn charge to issue warning calls to those who are—wherever they may be in the world” (emphasis in original).
Not guilty? I can imagine many smug folks in the audience thinking to themselves, “He’s right, I don’t view pornography on my computer or violate the Sabbath. I’m a good person.” Many, I’m sure, thought the apostle was addressing others, not them. How many became more confident in their self-righteousness?
“So if you are trying to do the best you can—if, for example, you keep trying to hold family home evening in spite of the bedlam that sometimes reigns in a houseful of little bedlamites—then give yourself high marks and, when we come to that subject, listen for another which addresses a topic where you may be lacking.” In what he calls “listen(ing) by the Spirit,” the audience was told that while his message may not have applied to them, they should await another speaker who may deliver a “personal prophetic epistle [given] just to you.”
Saying that “trying to do the best you can” is enough may sound logical to some Mormons. After all, nobody is perfect, and who can fault another for trying to do something that cannot be accomplished? However, one 20th century LDS president—Spencer W. Kimball—would have rejected such counsel. He was very pointed in saying that trying to do one’s best is not good enough to merit forgiveness of sins.
On page 164 in The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball related the fictional story of an army soldier who was told by a superior to deliver a message.
“I’ll try, sir! I’ll try!” The officer berated him, saying, “I don’t want you to try, I want you to deliver the message.” The soldier responded, “I’ll do the best I can, sir.” To this, the officer replied, “I don’t want you to try and I don’t want you to ‘do the best you can.’ I want you to deliver this message.” Finally, the soldier responded, “I’ll do it or die, sir.” Chewing him out, the officer concluded in part, “The request is a reasonable one…now get out of here and accomplish your mission.”
Kimball wrote: “To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong enough. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life” (p. 165). Kimball had much more to say on the topic of forgiveness. I doubt that few of his words can be taken as encouraging.
In addition, Holland misleads “most of [his] audience” by telling them to give themselves “high marks.” What comes to mind is the story of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 and Jesus saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Our Savior did not approve of those who were self-righteous and thought they had everything under control. For instance, He commended the man who beat his chest in prayer and bemoaned the fact that he was a lowly sinner while criticizing the scribe who said a flowery prayer for everyone to hear. We’re good at pointing our finger at the faults of others, failing to see the thumb pointing right back at us.
If they were honest with themselves and had been pressed on the issue, I believe that most of the people in that general conference audience knew, down deep, that they were not doing enough to qualify for eternity, at least according to their own church’s standards. I doubt they felt confidence that they were forgiven of their sins. For a general authority to get up in conference and quote “be ye perfect” while insinuating that the people were somehow OK if they were “trying to do the best (they) can” does great disservice to Jesus’ commands. If these people only were told that eliminating sin from their lives is not the requirement for forgiveness, they could begin to understand just what God’s grace is all about.