When it comes to defending one’s faith, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A lot of knowledge can be even more dangerous. The problem with knowledge comes when one relies on knowledge alone to respond to questions or attacks. The more knowledge one has that seems to refute an argument, the greater the temptation is to share it and dump on the person with the question. A thirty-minute soliloquy exploring the ins and outs of a topic may not be what was needed. Sixty minutes is no improvement. Sincere listening might have been the right thing to do first. Sometimes the wiser approach is to first understand, empathize, and then, if appropriate, share alternate perspectives in a dialog, not a knowledge and testimony dump. SO EASY TO SAY! Hard to do when you’ve got your finger on the trigger of a loaded fact gun (still dangerous, even when it’s loaded with blanks). I’ve made many mistakes in this area. I regret some of my overly zealous efforts to persuade others in my younger days.
If one thinks his or her knowledge is so sound and bullet-proof that any other view is due to ignorance, then we’ve got a real crisis of cinematic proportions in the works. The resulting spray of fact bullets are going to injure a lot of bystanders without ever hitting the target, like so many gun battles in the movies. All that ammo used without doing any good, just creating mayhem. Knowledge needs to be there, written resources need to be provided with documentation and insights, but the application needs to be with restraint, with kindness, with respect and not animosity for the target, or all is lost. Again, so easy to say!
In Forays Amongst the Disaffected, John Lynch discusses his efforts to reach out to former Latter-day Saints on a forum for ex-Mormons. His experience is consistent with that of many who have sought to understand the concerns of those who leave the Church. His advice is outstanding.
I discovered that most who leave the church and associate on that web site do so because they perceive some violation of trust occurred. Perhaps there was a teaching they held that they found out to be false, and they could no longer trust a long time mentor to whom they had anchored their testimony. Perhaps the failings of a member created an offense, and the person could not reconcile their expectations with reality. When it is a leader that disappoints, it seems the sting is so much the greater. Perhaps they found an unflattering piece of history on the Church (ironically almost always directly or indirectly through some Church or Church-sponsored source), and they feel that the truth had not been told them. In all cases, the issue was that somehow they had an unmet expectation that resulted in feeling a trust they had granted someone or something had been violated.
Several shared accounts of their attempts to reconcile their sense of violation by approaching leaders, family members, or close friends with their concerns. Whether real or imagined, these same people indicated that the reaction to their inquiry was too often met with hostility. The very people they felt could help them often responded by either dismissing their concerns or become hostile to them, treating them more as a threat than a cherished acquaintance.
I very much realize that there are two sides to every story. Fears and insecurities may have well led at least some to interpret others’ reactions harshly. However, the insecurities of members may have equally caused their reaction to be less than it could have been.
In discussing such issues, recently sustained member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook, made the following comment during his conference address titled “Our Father’s Plan—Big Enough for All His Children”:
It is equally important that we be loving and kind to members of our own faith, regardless of their level of commitment or activity. The Savior has made it clear that we are not to judge each other. This is especially true of members of our own families. Our obligation is to love and teach and never give up. The Lord has made salvation “free for all men” but has “commanded his people that they should persuade all men” to repentance.
Such an eloquent appeal to our better natures encourages us to endure in kindness with those in the church who struggle with their testimonies.
Is this not wise advice regardless of the reason someone approaches us with a concern?
When people approach us with concerns, with questions about objections they have encountered, with troubles over something that happened int he Church, it’s likely that we won’t have a good answer at our finger tips. But that’s no excuse to dismiss the concern or chastise the questioner. Treat them with respect, honor the trust they show in you by approaching with the question, and try to help them find a resource or an answer. If you don’t know, feel free to admit that. Be kind and loving, even if the questions seem unfair.
If you do have a good answer at your finger tips, if your fact gun is loaded and ready to shoot, be careful. If you’ve got a silver bullet, why not carefully hand it to your friend when they are ready to receive it rather than blast it their way at 30,000 feet per second? Ah, so easy to say.
The kind and loving part is especially hard in email. Sometimes sincere seekers of truth ask questions that seem hostile and belittling. Better to delete and move on that to respond in kind. For those that aren’t really looking for an answer, I prefer to not waste my time, but I may have missed opportunities. There are times when I respond to really bitter questions, but it’s difficult to be tactful when someone approaches me with something like, “You Mormon liar, if you don’t refute my lengthy and rambling arguments within one month, I’ll take it as admission that you know you are deliberately deceiving people and defying God.” Yeah, just got some of those from a noted self-appointed defender of the Christian faith, whose tone in approaching his fellow Christians doesn’t exactly inspire me. I’m actually going to respond, but I hope I can resist the temptation to descend into similar nastiness.