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Review of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, Chapter 11: True Greatness

During 2016, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is in boldfaced is from the manual, with our comments following.

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, 2015

The world’s definition of greatness is often misleading and can prompt damaging comparisons.

Many Latter-day Saints are happy and enjoying the opportunities life offers. Yet I am concerned that some among us are unhappy. Some of us feel that we are falling short of our expected ideals. I have particular concern for those who have lived righteously but think—because they haven’t achieved in the world or in the Church what others have achieved—that they have failed. Each of us desires to achieve a measure of greatness in this life. And why shouldn’t we? As someone once noted, there is within each of us a giant struggling with celestial homesickness. (See Heb. 11:13–16; D&C 45:11–14.)

Realizing who we are and what we may become assures us that with God nothing is really impossible. From the time we learn that Jesus wants us for a Sunbeam through the time we learn more fully the basic principles of the gospel, we are taught to strive for perfection. It is not new to us, then, to talk of the importance of achievement. The difficulty arises when inflated expectations of the world alter the definition of greatness.

It’s interesting how Hunter says that “we are taught to strive for perfection.” Perfection is something that President Spencer W. Kimball said was possible to attain through obedience:

This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfec­tion. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us. In his Sermon on the Mount he made the command to all men: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.) Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal (The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 208-209).

Kimball also said,

In the context of the spirit of forgiveness, one good brother asked me, “Yes, that is what ought to be done, but how do you do it? Doesn’t that take a superman?” “Yes,”I said, ‘”but we are commanded to be supermen. Said the Lord, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.) We are gods in embryo, and the Lord demands perfection of us” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 286).

Mormons don’t like thes quotes. Some will explain away Kimball’s words by saying he wasn’t speaking authoritatively. Well, he was a Mormon apostle when he wrote this. He said other things closely related to the meaning of this statement. And so did other leaders. Consider these statements from church manuals:

Perfection is a word that causes different reactions from many people. Some people say, “Perfection? Why, that is impossible!” Others say, “Perfection? I get discouraged just thinking about it!” Yet, would the Lord give us a commandment that was impossible for us to keep? And when He gives a commandment, doesn’t he, as Nephi said, prepare a way for us to accomplish what he commands? The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s blueprint for perfection” (The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, 1979, p. 57).

Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Because it is very difficult to become perfect, our Father helps us. He has established the
Church; called leaders; and given us commandments, principles, and ordinances. In our Church meetings we receive instructions concerning these things. We must obey and live according to
God’s laws to become perfect” (The Latter-day Saint Woman Part A, 2000, p. 122).

However, Mormons leaders today do not appear to agree with these statements, as they are saying that perfection does not need to be met in this lifetime. Michael Rabus recently wrote an article on the website that deals with this issue. Let me recite what he wrote here on this issue:

As soon as I tell my Mormon acquaintances that all their sin needs to be abandoned, and all their ungodliness needs to be denied in order to attain the good news of the LDS gospel, they are quick to tell me that perfection is not required.  In their minds, perfection is the same thing as abandoning sin.  To their relief, the Ensign magazine does clearly say perfection is not required.  The problem is that the Ensign authors mean being “complete,” or “fully exalted.”  Or full of all truth.  Here is one example of not being perfect:

Do any of your family members ever get discouraged because they’re comparing themselves with others?  Consider sharing this story of a sister missionary who struggled as she compared her slow progress in learning a language with the faster progress of other missionaries.  (“Family Home Evening Ideas,” Sept 2015, 3).

If the sister missionary was perfect, she would have no problem learning her missionary language.  But that’s not what the Ensign authors are saying.  They’re saying you don’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to be the best at everything, and know all the truth about everything.  If you were a perfect Mormon baseball player, and you were a pitcher, every game you played would be a no-hitter.  If you were a perfect missionary, each time you knocked on a door you would successfully lead that person to baptism.  But that’s not the requirement placed on each Mormon by the Ensign magazine.  That kind of perfection is impossible.  But abandoning sin and becoming pure is another idea completely, and in Mormonism, it absolutely needs to be achieved.

A friend asked recently, “How close to perfection must we live to receive the exalted promises of a temple sealing?” Husbands and wives know each other so well, especially those who seek for eternal blessings, that on some days they can honestly wonder if they are living close enough to perfection—or if their spouse is. I like the answer given in Moroni’s farewell words: “If ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that…ye may be perfect[ed] in Christ” (Moroni 10:32; emphasis added). One way to rid ourselves of ungodliness is to stay close to the temple, because it its ordinances “the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:20; emphasis added). Further, loving “God with [our] might” means loving to the extent of our own unique personal capacity, not to the extent of some abstract and unreachable scale of perfection.” As we deny ourselves of ungodliness and honestly love God as fully as we are able, Christ’s perfecting grace can complete the process of making us whole. A First Presidency letter written in 1902 suggests what Christ’s total sacrifice combined with our own total sacrifice will look like: “…Those who attain to the first or celestial resurrection must necessarily be pure and holy, and they will be perfect in body as well…”  (“The Temple and the Natural Order of Marriage,” Sep 2015, 40-45).

Like Joseph Smith, you need not lead a perfect life in order to be a powerful instrument in God’s hands.  Mistakes, failure, and confusion were part of Joseph’s life and mission, and they are going to be part of yours too. (“The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” July 2015, 40-45).

You don’t have to be perfect or the greatest person who ever graced the earth or the best of anything to be with Him.  (“Be at Peace,” Dec 2015, 31).

Understanding that Jesus Christ was without sin can help us increase our faith in Him and strive to keep His commandments, repent, and become pure.  He also understands how to win the struggle…The power of His Atonement can erase the effects of sin in us.  When we repent, His atoning grace justifies and cleanses us (see 3 Nephi 27:16-20). (“The Attributes of Jesus Christ: Without Sin” Feb 2015, 7).

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can become clean again as we repent of our sins.  King Benjamin taught his people of the Atonement of Jesus Christ…that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually…And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things (Mosiah 5:1-2, 5).  (“The Attributes of Jesus Christ: Without Sin,” Feb 2015, 7).

How does being pure differ from being perfect?  (“The Attributes of Jesus Christ: Without Sin,” Feb 2015, 7).

Being pure is denying yourself of all ungodliness and sin, and in Mormonism, you absolutely need to make sure you have made yourself pure.  Now, you don’t have to become perfect, because the Ensign authors make it clear there is a difference between being pure and being perfect.

The Prophet Joseph was concerned with the daily tasks of service and caring for others. Joseph Smith is not generally remembered as a general, mayor, architect, editor, or presidential candidate. We remember him as the prophet of the Restoration, a man committed to the love of God and the furthering of His work. The Prophet Joseph was an everyday Christian.

Joseph Smith is the central player in Mormonism. Without him and his accomplishments–including the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and his theology of the nature of God–this religion falls apart. This is why the church is required to continue propping up his legacy. Much has been written on our website on Joseph Smith, there is no doubt. While Hunter wants to remember him as “a man committed to the love of God” and describe him as an “everyday Christian,” I cannot say the same. If Joseph Smith taught a false gospel by proclaiming a false God and a false Jesus, translated “books” as scripture , and did immoral things a moral man should never do, is it really possilbe to say this was a great man?

Here are some places you may want to go in order to investigate further:

True greatness comes from persevering in the difficulties of life and from serving in ways that are often unnoticed. To be a successful elders quorum secretary or Relief Society teacher or loving neighbor or listening friend is much of what true greatness is all about. To do one’s best in the face of the commonplace struggles of life—and possibly in the face of failure—and to continue to endure and to persevere in the ongoing difficulties of life when those struggles and tasks contribute to others’ progress and happiness and one’s own eternal salvation—this is true greatness.

As I read this chapter, I was reminded of what John the Baptist said about Jesus in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Of course, I fully understand what Hunter is getting at—he wants his people to feel that their lives are relevant and worthwhile even when they may become discouraged. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to do their best and help them endure while going through life’s struggles. I get it. But when I think of spiritual greatness, I am drawn to becoming less so that He can become greater. I also am reminded of 1 Peter 5:7, which says,” Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” True greatness comes when we become less self-reliant and more God-reliant. It comes when we follow the Golden Rule (“Love you neighbor more than you love yourself”). And it comes through following the example of Jesus who humbled Himself, according to Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus is the epitome of greatness. Yet He did not arrive on earth robed in the majesty of a king but rather in the swaddling clothes of a servant. We live in a society that continually whines and complains while demanding special privileges. Me, me, me! everyone screams. Yet humility doesn’t look after one’s own self-interests but rather the interests of others. It’s not natural to think this way, but it’s what Jesus requires.

True greatness requires consistent, small, and sometimes ordinary steps over a long period of time. True greatness is never a result of a chance occurrence or a one-time effort or achievement. Greatness requires the development of character. It requires a multitude of correct decisions in the everyday choices between good and evil that Elder Boyd K. Packer spoke about when he said, “Over the years these little choices will be bundled together and show clearly what we value.” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 21.) Those choices will also show clearly what we are.

This is called integrity. How we act in the small things defines who we are.


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