When we are faced with a challenge to overcome, we often seek counsel from those we trust, love, and who are wise in their advice. Those collaborators may include a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, religious leader and, most importantly, Heavenly Father. Most likely they share similar values so that we can trust their advice. Yet, can advice from someone with a view that appears divergent from ours be good advice? Perhaps, let’s see how a greater understanding of another’s view can help us in finding the best solutions to our questions and ways we can be a support to others who question.
Just like Nephi trusted in the design of the ship that God instructed him to build, we need to trust in the power of our Savior’s Atonement in helping us develop a deeper empathy for all of Father’s children as we help build their ship of faith, being truly empathetic even though—AND especially when—they may have different views than we do.
In his recent interview with Kurt Francom on Leading Saints, Tyler Johnson—a medical oncologist, author, and a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine—helps us understand how we can gain a broader understanding and let go of some of our black-and-white views on how to live, teach, and love the gospel. He does this by helping us understand that, in general, all those who question or feel a dissonance about a piece of Church history, principle or practice, can find a non-judgmental, caring, and empathetic response from us.
The Great Divide
In an effort to help us better understand how polarizing our interactions with others can become, Johnson explains how our American culture has become polarized and divided. With that said, he encouragingly reminds us that the Church doesn’t have to be polarizing. We just need to show Christ-like empathy and strive to understand the virtuous intentions behind the questions of others.
Much has happened in the past few decades to polarize us. To help us better understand, Johnson explained that there are essentially four value systems that are explained in an article by George Packer titled, “How America Fractured into Four Parts.” Packer proposes that we no longer agree as a nation on what our purpose, values, history, or meaning is.
As described by Packer, there are four views on what America embraces:
• Free America – “This philosophy draws on libertarian ideas, which it installs in the high-powered engine of consumer capitalism. It’s personal freedom, without other people—the negative liberty of ‘Don’t tread on me.”
• Real America – “Is a very old place and the idea that the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands, the ordinary Real America has also been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist, hostile to modern ideas and intellectual authority. The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray.”
• Smart America – Is reflected in ways that “they believe in credentials and expertise—not just as tools for success, but as qualifications for class entry. They’re not nationalistic—quite the opposite—but they have a national narrative. They believe that your talent and effort should determine your reward.”
• Just (justice) America – “Just America assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America. It does the hard, essential thing that the other three narratives avoid, that white Americans have avoided throughout history. It forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame, the heart of its social problems.”
Listening and Empathy
If we are unwilling to understand the narrative and mindset of any of these views and especially the Just America views, we will almost inevitably fail miserably in helping the Gospel resonate with some members and loved ones in our contact sphere and especially with the young people of the Church.
Johnson shared that when someone questions the history, a policy or practice that doesn’t align with what they’ve been taught, ideally, our first response doesn’t need to be trying to explain the “whys” but, instead, respond in empathy. He gave the example of the challenge of Black members of the Church, for a time, not being able to fully have access to some of the covenants and blessings. Our first response could include how sad it makes us that some of Father’s children were treated unfairly and experienced that situation. This response needs to recognize the virtue of the question:
“When someone comes to us with a question, we will almost always be better off by starting with recognizing the virtuous impulse behind the question before we start by dealing with the content of the question.”
Johnson continues that it may sound like this:
“Wow, I can tell this is really troubling you. I love how much this matters to you because I can tell that this really matters to you for the right reason. I can tell that this matters to you precisely because your heart is so invested in doing the right thing. And you want to be sure that our prophets share that same desire to do what’s right.”
These virtuous impulses that bring up the concern are there because they’ve been raised in the Church and are striving to be virtuous.
Jesus taught us how to interact with the challenges others are facing when his friend, Lazarus, died. Before he raised him from the dead, he wept with Mary and the others who were mourning his death.
He taught us the power of mourning with those that mourn and when we are struggling with something that is dissonate in our hearts or minds about the Church, we are mourning what we thought was true or aligned with earlier teachings.
How To Address the “Messy” Content of the Question
We need to realize and teach that even when sincere, loving, and consecrated Latter-day Saints speak or act each day, it may not always be perfectly in line with the Plan of Salvation. Real life tells us that life is messy, people and their actions are messy as they strive to navigate an imperfect mind and body through this earthly experience. The unfolding of the Restoration is messy because it has imperfect, messy individuals striving to be a resource of all loving, powerful, and knowing Heavenly Parents. Thus, there may not always be answers that resonate with the peaceable things of the Gospel.
Just two of many examples in the scriptures testifies of how great leaders have messy moments. Nephi was messy. He described himself as a “wretched man”:
“Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great agoodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O bwretched man that I am! Yea, my heart csorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. 18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily abeset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have atrusted.” 2 Nephi 4: 17-19 19
Paul had a messy “thorn in the flesh” that plagued him for a life time:
“And lest I should be aexalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a bthorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My agrace is sufficient for thee: for my bstrength is made perfect in cweakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may drest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Just because life is messy, doesn’t negate the wonderful and glorious message of the Plan of Salvation, it just gives us hope that even one, as messy as I am, can return to Father. Additionally, there are many diverging and detoured paths back to Father and we have the opportunity to be an impact for good when someone’s diverging path crosses ours for a moment.
The Sacred Quality of Empathy
The Gospel embraces the messiness by providing loving Heavenly Parents and a Savior to help restore us from the messiness. A Savior who has perfect empathy. So, as we strive to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, we would do well to also take upon us the sacred quality of empathy as we deal with Father’s children. How do we become a resource for good to the rising generation and all generations that we interact with? We mourn, we empathize, we DO NOT judge, we just love.
Beth Young is a convert of 45 years; served a mission in North Carolina; has been married for 35 years to her sweetheart, Bob; has five adult children and two grandchildren. She raised her family in Texas for 25 years where she served in various capacities in church and in her community. She moved to Utah four years ago and loves writing, teaching, and inspiring others to make changes to their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Beth is the owner of 5 Pillars of Health, is a certified Tai Chi Instructor, serves as the written content manager at Leading Saints, and is a master gardener.