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Review of “The Greatest Possession” (Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, Oct. 2021 General Conference)

By Mike Rabus

Posted January 17, 2022

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk at the October 2021 General Conference titled “The Greatest Possession” that was published in the November 2021 Liahona magazine. There are two main points that I’d like to share with you from this talk:

  • Like the practice of other LDS leaders, Holland edited a quote to fit his  presupposition.
  • In Mormonism, God will only forgive sins that have been completely abandoned.

Holland opened the talk with a reference to Mark 10:17-22 when Jesus was asked by a rich young ruler how eternal life could be gained. Jesus replied that the young man needed to sell everything and give the money to the poor. The man became sad and walked away grieving, “for he had great possessions.”

Holland described this as

a story about wholehearted, unreserved devotion to divine responsibility. With or without riches, each of us is to come to Christ with the same uncompromised commitment to His gospel that was expected of this young man. In the vernacular of today’s youth, we are to declare ourselves “all in.”

A quote from C.S. Lewis

With the context of the talk set, Holland then provided a quote from the Christian philosopher and author C.S. Lewis:

In his characteristically memorable prose, C.S. Lewis imagines the Lord saying to us something like this: “I don’t want . . . your time . . . [or] your money . . . [or] your work [as much as] I [just] want You.  [That tree you are pruning]. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want . . . the whole [thing] down. [And that tooth]. I don’t want to drill [it], or crown it, or [fill] it.  [I want] to have it out. [In fact, I want you to] hand over [to me your] whole natural self. . . . [And] I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my . . . will shall become [your will].”

When reading through conference addresses, I think it is important for the reader to reference every single footnote–even though this is impossible until the transcript is published the following month in the Liahona magazine. Sometimes the speakers provide valid references while other times they take things out of context, including scriptural verses (whether the Bible or unique LDS scriptures).

This particular reference to Lewis comes from Mere Christianity. If you haven’t read this classic work, I highly recommend it for a strong defense of the Christian faith. I find it interesting how often Lewis has been quoted by Mormons throughout the years, including general authorities such as Holland who seem to cling to some of his ideas as proof of LDS doctrine and theology. Amazingly enough, LDS Church-owned Deseret Book carries several other Lewis’s titles besides Mere Christianity, including The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and Four Loves. (For more on Lewis being inaccurately cited by Mormon leaders, click here.)

I think it’s important to remember that Lewis was never a member of the LDS Church, so he shouldn’t be considered an authoritative source on Mormon doctrine. With that said, I’m glad that Holland has been reading Mere Christianity.

Returning to Holland’s citation, did you notice the ellipses that were used? Ellipses are the set of three spaced periods that designate to the reader that material has been omitted from the original source. In this case, there were a total of six ellipses. In addition, did you notice the square brackets used around certain words and phrases? Those brackets are used to signify words or phrases that were added to the quotation. In this case, there were 14 sets of square brackets.

Generally, there’s nothing wrong with using ellipses and brackets, as they are a normal means of punctuation in the English language. But I would argue there is a problem with ellipses and brackets if these changes alter the meaning of the quotation. In this case, Holland used an abnormal amount of ellipses and brackets that corrupts the meaning of the original text.

Let’s compare the Holland quote from the actual source (Mere Christianity) and see if the meaning was changed.

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of [or] your money and so much of [or] your work: [as much as] I [just] want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. [That tree you are pruning.] I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole [thing] tree down. [And that tooth.] I don’t want to drill [it] the tooth, or crown it, or stop [fill] it, [I want] but to have it out. [In fact, I want you to] Hand over [to me your] the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. [And] I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become [your will] yours.

Each time Holland added text into this section of Mere Christianity (denoted by brackets), I inserted that text into Lewis’ original paragraph. Then I went through and underlined only the exact words that Holland used. So all of Lewis’ words are the words above that are not in brackets. And all the words Holland used are underlined. As it can see, there were many words omitted and added to the original source.

Once again, remember that Holland said this quote was done in Lewis’s “characteristically memorable prose.” If it’s so memorable, why did he have to pull it apart and add so much?

This leads me to two questions:

1) Why didn’t Holland just cite Lewis exactly as he originally wrote?

It was challenging for me to accurately integrate the Holland quote into the original text. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to pull it apart and alter the quote. (This must have been exhausting!) There must have been something in the original text that he didn’t like.

2) Why did Holland change what Lewis originally meant?

There were a lot of small words removed, like “so much of” and “to have” and “the tooth,” though I’m not too concerned with these changes. It’s the two large portions that were removed that is a problem.

Notice these omitted sentences: “I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good.” Why did Holland remove these? He also took out the phrase “all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit.” From a Mormon perspective, what could be wrong with these sentences?

Perhaps Holland didn’t want his listeners to get depressed during the second talk of General Conference and have to think about killing their natural selves or eliminating their innocent and wicked desires. (Of course, Holland does reference Mark 10:21 in the fourth footnote and then says that “there can be no halfway measures, no starting and stopping, no turning back.” Why did he remove this line from the Lewis text about half-way measures if he’s just going to say the same thing later?)

Perhaps these sentences were removed because they don’t really fit well with Mormon theology. In Mormonism, the natural man really isn’t that bad. Everyone is a god in embryo, right? Mormonism teaches that humans chose correctly in premotality to make it possible to prove themselves worthy of celestial glory.

But that’s not what Lewis thought about man and his ability to become God like Heavenly Father. Lewis saw the fall as resulting in the horrible spread of sin throughout all humanity. He believed humans are spiritually dead with complete inability to restore a relationship with God through individual efforts. That’s why we’ve got to completely throw out “the whole outfit.” Even the desires that we think are innocent are wicked in God’s sight (Rom. 3:10).

I recommend reading the paragraphs  before and after the referenced paragraph in Mere Christianity. In fact, I’d recommend reading the entire chapter, which is titled “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?” I think Holland used this citation to support his overall theme in the talk, which is that we have to take our natural selves as a starting point and “make a change in our behavior” in order for “each of us is to come to Christ with uncompromised commitment to His gospel.” According to his take, people must put their entire effort into following the commandments as defined by LDS leaders. The God of Mormonism is good at forgiving sins, but only after those sins have been completely forsaken by the individual.

When the entire chapter referenced from Mere Christianity is considered, it is clear that Holland took Lewis out of context. I have found that this is a regular practice of LDS leaders through their use of partial quotations and references. These distortions in quotations don’t seem like the actions of leaders being led by the Holy Ghost.

Let’s get back to the talk by Holland. Just after footnote 7, he said this:

Of course, we all have some habits or flaws or personal history that could keep us from complete spiritual immersion in this work. But God is our Father and is exceptionally good at forgiving and forgetting sins we have forsaken, perhaps because we give Him so much practice in doing so. In any case, there is divine help for every one of us at any hour we feel to make a change in our behavior.

Holland seems to want to sugarcoat the horrible nature of sin. When LDS leaders do this, it may give some Mormons the impression that the sin in their lives isn’t really that bad. Still, the LDS gospel emphasizes that all sin must be abandoned in this life, something modern LDS leaders continue to teach. Latter-day Saints must downplay their sin in order to feel that abandoning sin is possible. I think statements like Holland’s (“habits or flaws or personal history”) contribute to the downplay of the seriousness of sin.

Did you notice what Holland said about how God will forgive and forget our sins? He couldn’t have been more clear in his belief that God will only forgive and forget our sins that “we have forsaken.” This completely agrees with D&C 58:42-43:

Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.

And what does LDS scripture say will happen if a Mormon sins the same sin again? D&C 82:7 explains:

And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinners shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.

While it is true that the God of Mormonism will forgive the sins that have ceased in a person’s life, if that sin is committed again, any hope of forgiveness is lost.  Holland’s understanding is the same as what was taught by 12th President Spencer W. Kimball in The Miracle of Forgiveness. Quoting Alma 13:11-12, Kimball explained on pages 354-55 that

repentance which merits forgiveness . . . is that the former transgressor must have reached a “point of no return” to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin—where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life.

Certainly no Latter-day Saint has ever achieved true forgiveness because it is fully dependent on a person’s ability to stop all sin. Holland states how it is the individual who needs to “make a change in our behavior.” And with that, Holland provides a great summary of the Mormon gospel: If a person desires exaltation in the celestial kingdom, a complete changing of behavior (i.e. cease the sin) must occur. Forgiveness of sins come with a very high price tag, an impossible feat for anyone but Jesus.

Ask yourself honestly, does that sound like good news to you?

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