I can remember the first time I felt sick to my stomach at something that was said over the pulpit during church. I was 16 and feeling claustrophobic in a chapel bursting with people who had come to listen to stake conference.
I had heard incorrect teachings at church before, but I could usually explain these away by the speaker's age, nerves, Freudian slips, or some other harmless mistake. But here I was, listening to a member of our stake presidency, and I could not reconcile what I was hearing with everything I knew to be true. My stomach knotted and clenched. Is this what our church really believes? I wondered.
This wasn't the discomfort of a sinner being called to repentance; I knew that sensation all too well. No, this was something entirely new.
That day, I went home and wrestled, questioned, and worried. What did the scriptures say about the leaders of our church never leading us down wrong paths? Was the Church even true anymore? Was it ever true?
I think many of us have had a similar awakening—that moment when we see the flaws of our fellow members with burning clarity. I wouldn't receive a full answer to my questions for years, and in the meantime, I heard more statements and opinions that made me feel uncomfortable, even from Church leaders. But the more I've reflected on these experiences and the more I've read scriptures, doctrine, and enlightening books, the more I've realized the Church has never claimed a monopoly on perfection. Quite the opposite. Nearly every prophet has talked about human fallibility while testifying of God's ability to work through imperfect instruments. Theirs is a testimony of merciful, ever-patient, ever-loving, all-knowing Heavenly Parents, not a testimony of their own prowess.
And nowhere has God promised us that our Church leaders won't make mistakes, confuse their opinions with doctrine occasionally, and say hurtful things from time to time. No, what He has promised, as Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf testified, is that "this is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny” (“Come, Join with Us").
Even with a few bumps or jostles here and there, the Lord can still get this Church where it needs to go. Along with his above testimony, Elder Uchtdorf provided this witness: "As one who has seen firsthand the councils and workings of this Church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father."
The more I've thought on the mis-teachings that can sometimes occur at church, the more I have felt this is a crucial, inspired, and beautiful part of our Heavenly Parents' plan for us. When They sent us to earth, They did it with an intention greater than having us blindly stumble back to Them by following others. No, They sent us here to become strong, capable, knowledgeable, perfected—to become gods and goddesses of unlimited power and potential. That won't happen without heartache, growing pains, and personal revelation.
That we get to learn from each other and our mistakes at church is one of the most beautiful and purifying things about this Church. Here are a few simple reasons I think it's a blessing and a miracle that we can't believe everything we hear at church:
1. It helps us focus on revelation and learn how to seek it.
Ours is a church of continuing revelation. Without the courage of one young boy to question and seek, we wouldn't have the Church on the earth today. While we understand the importance of the grand revelations, dreams, and visions prophets have received throughout time, I sometimes think we fail to see the greatest miracle of all—that we have access to this power and can use it to search out answers for any questions we may have. It's not a power limited to the near-godly or the select few. If we have the patience and diligence to ask—even when the asking may take a lifetime—along with the humility to hear God's answers, nothing will stop the mysteries of God from being open to us.
As Alma 26:22 reads:
"Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed."
After that day I heard a member of my stake presidency speak, I learned a new way that the Spirit communicates with me. It took some time, but I began to recognize that my strong physical reaction to the stake presidency member's talk—that unshakable sick feeling—was a communication from the Holy Ghost. He doesn't only speak to me with heartfelt, warm, comforting feelings. He also warns. That experience provided me with the motivation to develop a personal relationship with the Spirit so He could be with me when I needed Him most.
God gives us these experiences at church to motivate us to rely wholly and entirely on His grace, knowledge, and truth, not on "the arm of flesh." More importantly, they help guide and teach us on how to seek His grace, knowledge, and truth.
As President Russell M. Nelsontestified in the April 2018 general conference:
"The privilege of receiving revelation is one of the greatest gifts of God to His children. . . . Oh, there is so much more that your Father in Heaven wants you to know. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, 'To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it is clear that the Father and the Son are giving away the secrets of the universe!'"
2. It shatters the myth of perfection.
One day when I was having a little heart-to-heart with my Heavenly Father, agonizing over the judgments and imperfections of those who call themselves disciples of Christ, God provided an unforgettable answer.
"If you want all the members of my Church to be perfect and always act like my Son, you would never have a place in that church," God said to me. "You aren't perfect. I know it. They know it. You know it. If all those people you struggle and disagree with were as perfect as you want them to be, you'd never belong, and neither would those who need my Church the most."
I testify of that truth. That day God showed me that I had bought into the myth of perfection that we sometimes share amongst ourselves. We tell ourselves we need to always strive toward perfection, that Latter-day Saints are somehow above the world, that we are set apart and special. That allows pride to sneak in until somehow we translate "peculiar people" as meaning "better people." But these are all lies. Bold-faced, unadulterated lies. And what makes them lies is that we cut out the most important part of the equation. We forget that the only reason we can strive toward perfection and the only way we can rise above the world is through the One who sets us apart: Jesus Christ. He is what makes us special and peculiar, and we should never forget that.
This dangerous and prideful kind of thinking only gets us into trouble as we seesaw between feeling inadequate and seeing the inadequacies in everyone else.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland so powerfully illustrated:
"Be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all" ("Lord, I Believe").
3. It teaches us to have patience.
Ah, patience. It's a quality we all want to emulate, but the tricky thing about patience is that we all like to praise those who have it while not really think about the work and discomfort that goes into developing it. No one can be a perfectly patient person without first having anger they had to work through, trials they had to make the best of, friends and family who irritated them, heartache they had to heal from, mistakes they had to grow from, and conscious effort they have to exert on a daily basis.
We all pray to be patient but then plead to not have to go through the process. So the next time you hear or see someone say or do something not so saintly, thank Heavenly Father for the chance He's given you to work through the process of gaining patience.
4. It allows you to practice empathy and compassion.
Just as we can grow in patience, we can look for ways to practice empathy and compassion for those who may frustrate us. Or, as Jesus put it, we can look for ways to "love [our] enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).
I wish I had a better understanding of this principle as a 16-year-old brooding in stake conference—but I hadn't gone through the process yet. I didn't have the empathy, charity, and compassion to realize that my stake leader was a remarkable man who sacrificed family time, hobbies, career opportunities, and more than I'll ever understand to serve the Lord and to serve me. Maybe he did make a mistake and allow some personal opinion to slip in with the doctrine he taught, but he was trying. He was willing to make mistakes and stumble and still push forward as a disciple of Christ. In my mind, this man perfectly fits the definition of a saint Elder Dale G. Renlund used when he quoted Nelson Mandela: “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
5. It provides experiential learning.
We often so heavily stress the words of teachers, scriptures, or prophets that we forget our Heavenly Parents have a vast arsenal of ways They teach us. In the temples, They use symbols, gestures, repetition, reflection, and many other tutoring methods. Sometimes at church, our Heavenly Parents use experiences, even unsettling ones, to instruct us. Applying the gospel to our lives is never as straightforward as a manual and doesn't have the clear organization as a talk. Life is messy. Circumstances get complicated. And sometimes the best way to learn is to confront the problems, questions, and realities that fill our lives. I can't think of a better opportunity to do that than when we disagree with something we hear preached at church. What can we learn from that experience? How can we reach out to those who might have been hurt by a comment? How can we tactfully bring up a different perspective and offer our limited knowledge to teach others? How can we be more mindful of others in the future?
There are some things you just can't learn without mistakes—yours or those of others. Thank goodness God lets a few mistakes slip in every now and then at church so we can keep learning.
6. It helps you have the humility to see your own flaws.
Putting my insights and vulnerabilities onto the world wide web for others to comment on, criticize, and tear apart is an opportunity I hope no one ever has to experience, but at the same time, it is something I hope each and every person goes through at some point in their life. There's nothing quite so humbling as sharing your own ideas only to be shown your every. Single. Flaw.
But it's taught me that every person is composed of rich, complex experience. As soon as I think I know what I'm talking about concerning one topic, a voice will speak up and complicate the picture, showing me where my reasoning falls through or where my biases leak out. Thanks to these commenters, I now try to speak only from a space of genuine, lived experience (stress on the word try)—my experience and those that others have shared with me. I do not know all things and cannot know all things, even on a specific topic I've studied for years. Only God can.
This online conversation is much like what we experience in our wards and meetinghouses. We are a global church with diverse, distinct voices that will always add richness to our conversations—and point out our blind spots, weaknesses, and flaws. Because of this, we can each strive to listen to one another more than we preach to one another. We can strive to speak of what we have seen, felt, lived, and what we know to be true through experience and forgo the pressure we feel to act like experts on any given topic. We can strive to live in humility, forgiving others' flaws as we hope they will forgive our own.
7. It allows us to see the Atonement at work and utilize it more in our lives.
None of this—perfection, patience, empathy, revelation, learning, humility, even the Church—would be possible without our Savior. With each difficult experience we might face at church, we can discover a new and beautiful facet to the Atonement of Jesus Christ and God's infinite love. He can help us forgive serious hurts. He can help us let go of pet peeves and frustrations. He can teach us what is truth and how to testify of it. He can make our weaknesses strengths. He can make all things possible, but sometimes we do not know the depth, width, and breadth of those possibilities until we are forced to wrestle for understanding and stretch beyond what is comfortable.
As Elder David A. Bednar testifies:
"The Savior has suffered not just for our iniquities but also for the inequality, the unfairness, the pain, the anguish, and the emotional distresses that so frequently beset us. There is no physical pain, no anguish of soul, no suffering of spirit, no infirmity or weakness that you or I ever experience during our mortal journey that the Savior did not experience first. You and I in a moment of weakness may cry out, 'No one understands. No one knows.' No human being, perhaps, knows. But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He felt and bore our burdens before we ever did. And because He paid the ultimate price and bore that burden, He has perfect empathy and can extend to us His arm of mercy in so many phases of our life. He can reach out, touch, succor—literally run to us—and strengthen us to be more than we could ever be and help us to do that which we could never do through relying upon only our own power" ("The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality").