Straining at Gnats and Hypocrisy

Several posts around the bloggernacle recently have quoted from the KJV of Matthew 23:24, in which Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees, calling them “blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

This is one of the KJV’s more famous errors.

Apparently a misprinting that was eventually corrected, the text should read “blind guides who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” The Greek word diulidzo means to strain out, to filter, not to make strenuous effort towards. Every Bible translation other than the KJV gets it right. (There are other examples of what limiting yourself to the KJV can mislead you on, but that’s another post.)

The point here and in the preceeding verse is in the contrast between the two types. While the scribes and pharisees made great efforts to keep the law in the smallest point (straining out gnats, the eating of which would violate the Jewish dietry laws of kashrut, and paying tithing even on the spices they grew), they grossly violated the “weightier matters” of the law (symbolized by swallowing a camel, also against the laws of kashrut, and failing to exercise justice, faith and mercy.)

Straining at a gnat (what would that mean, anyway?) is thus not negative in and of itself, but it should not stand alone in our interpretation. Rather, it is hypocritical to strain out gnats while also swallowing camels, to proudly wear a white shirt to all our meetings, but fail to be merciful and faithful. Those we should do, and not leave the other undone.

Edit: Added the following.
Elder Faust has an excellent General Conference talk on “The Weightier Matters of the Law” November 1997.

Draper, Richard D. “”Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites”; a Study in Hypókrisis.” In The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry and Andrew H. Hedges, 385-427. Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000. Text here. (He also has it in .pdf)

Royal Skousen points out several other places the KJV fails to fully convey the right thought. “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures” BYUS 26:4 (Fall 1986). (Free download.)

49 thoughts on “Straining at Gnats and Hypocrisy

  1. I always found it interesting on my mission when disobedient Elders would call obedient Elders “Pharisees.”

    I would usually respond that the Pharisees problem was not obedience, but selective, outward obedience with not real inner spiritual life. The disobedient Elders would often claim they were actually following the “spirit” of the law (by sleeping in til 10 and coming in early at 5 and playing cards until midnight – this actually happened to me and I ain’t exaggerating).

    Like you said – there’s nothing wrong with obedience to the small matters (like white shirts or a full length fast) as long as the weighter matters get done. A missionary who was always up on time and had starched shirts – but never did any real missionary work would be a Pharisee. But those Elders who didn’t keep the mission rules often did little to no missionary work themselves.

  2. It seems to me that “Pharisee” and even “hypocrite” are widely abused terms in our society. I certainly think there is a problem with people going around as self-appointed judges. But at the same time it is no hypocrisy to be struggling with something and yet state that it is wrong. Thus someone struggling with cigarette addiction can still say how awful cigarettes are without being a hypocrite.

    As Ivan pointed out, the problem was really a dual life. The appearance of righteousness with very little attempt to actually live the life. One focused in on appearances so one would get the social benefits of seeming righteous. Now certainly there are many people like that around. I think they are more typically termed “Sunday members” though. But even there one ought be careful. I had roommates who weren’t always living the gospel but would come to church, answer questions in Sunday School and so forth. Heavens, I was like that at the times I wasn’t spiritual the way I wished I was. But just because someone is doing things one ought not, it doesn’t mean it is hypocritical to go to church. Far from it, I think one ought be happy that sinners come to church. Many of the people I knew overcame their weaknesses because they managed to retain contact with church.

    What is bad though are people who would pretend to be good members, just so they would get the praise of people or be able to date women they wanted to go out with. The Pharisee sin was that intentional deception.

    Of course I also think that the Pharisees as a group get perhaps an unfair name due to the NT. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites. Obviously a lot of leading ones were – thus Jesus’ criticism. But the movement, especially in its earlier days, was a very good return to trying to live the gospel as they understood it. Perhaps Ben could comment more on that.

  3. I always wondered about that “straining at a gnat” line from the KJV. What the heck does that mean, anyway? Thanks for clearing that up, Ben. “Straining out” makes a lot more sense. Speaking of which, the Joseph Smith translation does a great job of fixing the “that,” “which” and “who” problems in the KJV. For example, the above should have said, “blind guides, which who strain atout a gnat, and swallow a camel.” I believe the JST makes that change.

  4. Didn’t the pharisees really exhibit two problems? Hypocrisy is well discussed above. But the Savior also castigates them for multiplication of rules: a hedge about the law. Disobedient missionaries justifying their actions is obviously inappropriate. But often when I hear people described as Pharisees it doesn’t concern the problem of hypocrisy, but multiplication of rules–rules that are not essential parts of the gospel.

    One good man of my acquaintance often argues that we need extra rules to keep us far away from ever committing any serious sins. It sounds like a good theory. But it seems hard to reconcile with the Savior’s distaste for the Pharisee’s approach (the only group who get called names, not even those who would harm children get called vipers).

    If it was wrong for the Pharisees to put a hedge around the law, is it OK for us to use similar tactics?

  5. So if I wear a blue shirt to my meetings I’ll be OK then? Whew, I’m glad I finally found the justificaiton I needed to break from the white shirt conformance!

  6. That is a useful piece of info, Ben. Still, it seems to me that this scripture is usually quoted to make the same point you make here — that we should not focus on little things and forget the weightier things. While straining at gnats doesn’t make much sense I always thought it meant something about struggling to swallow gnats but gulping down camels without difficulty. I assumed the gnats were trivial sins and the camels were the truly weighty ones. The upshot is that the basic message is the same, though. Do you think that this scripture is generally misapplied by church members?

  7. I agree with Geoff. I own more than 35 translations of the Bible, and I’ve read the entire New Testemant in many of them. I never even noticed the difference here, because I took it to mean the same thing.

    If the subtle differences float your boat, it seems to me (for example) that the difference in I Corinthians 13:12 is more substantial. The KJV uses the archiac usage of glass that means mirror. Accordingly, most Mormons I know take “we see through a glass darkly” to mean that we see through some kind of veil, when it actually means that we see but a dim reflection.

  8. JCP–

    I think making additional rules for yourself to prevent you from breaking the commandments is fine. For example, I don’t think it a sin for a Saint to be at a party where alcohol is served. But if I had had WoW problems in the past, I might make it a personal rule not to attend such things. That would be fine.

    What isn’t fine is when you assume your personal rules should apply to others and begin castigating other people for attending parties where alcohol is served. That’s the Pharisee part.

  9. As the visiting teaching coordinater in our ward, I get so disgusted with women who are active in every way, but their visiting teaching. They bear their testimonies, but refuse to serve their fellow women. The last time I had this calling, I wouldn’t take the sacrament half the time because I was so mad. I could understand the inactive women (many who are really dependable about their visiting teaching), it was the bishop’s wife, or the stake Relief Society president.

    I wrote this poem one day in a fit of anger: (I admit I lack in this talent, but it does describe the way I felt):

    Mary Poppins said:

    “In every job that must be done,
    There is an element of fun.”

    Conversely,

    In every visiting teaching companionship,
    There is one who drags and one who is dragged.

    Because half of you serve,
    (And half of you not only do not serve,
    you love only yourself)

    Half(at least half) do not believe,
    Do not conceive,
    That visiting teaching is necessary
    And important to the Lord’s work.

    The half who believes drags out the butt of the other half of you.
    You who are the bumps on the log are the dragged–often kicking and screaming and bellyaching.

    You are not all “inactive.”
    In fact, most of you are not,
    You pray in church,
    You have callings–oh, big important ones, you are big, big cheeses
    (Your husband is the bishop).
    You even have temple recommends
    You bear your testimonies how much you love the Lord
    and how
    You know the church is true
    and how
    Last month you had a wonderful experience at the temple,
    and how
    You are so thankful your ancestors died on the way across the plans
    For you.

    But you
    Will not go down the street
    For your neighbor.

    You…you of the noble heritage,
    or you, whose heart was touched when you read the Book of Mormon
    And prayed with sincere young missionaries
    And who pat yourself on the back every time you go to church,
    And hand the bishop your tithing envelope.

    You, you, thing. (I especially laugh at this part,I
    was mad when I wrote it.)
    must have your butt dragged out to visit your fellow woman.
    And the number of those butts being dragged is increasing, while the ones doing the dragging is decreasing, creating a problem of global proportions.

    I’m not Mary Poppins, but I say,

    In every ward in God’s church, and–consider if the shoe fits:
    More than half the loyal sisters are scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites.

    Just reading it makes me mad all over. I need to get out of this calling before I go postal in Relief Society. You wouldn’t believe the people who are avoiding me these days. :)

  10. Julie –

    or the converse. I have a few small, personal rules like those, but I never preach or even bring them up in conversation. Yet once, I mentioned one at church (in the a small private conversation, in the context of setting up personal boundaries, etc. and I said clearly this was a personal thing) and another member overheard us and very vocally told me to grow up and realize that stupid little rules like that weren’t going to save me and that I should be more spirtually in tune (like he was, I guess).

    Really, it seems to me some people try to make a lack of rules a virtue to be emualted, and they preach it.

    I think “spirit of the law” is the most abused LDS phrase, as it is used to justify disobedience more than it is to discover the true principle behind a commandment.

  11. Uh – that’s “emulated.” I guess emualted is a new word, combining emulsion and exhalted. Or something.

  12. There’s definitely a distinction between personal boundaries (of the type that Julie describes) and gospel fetishes (of the type that JCP describes). And unfortunately, it seems to me that there are far too many of the latter and not nearly enough of the former (or perhaps that’s just my personal gospel fetish).

    And there are indeed many bizarre gospel fetishes. I’m not talking about popular misconceptions like taking the sacrament with the right hand. I’m thinking about notions like the one that George Pace, religion professor at BYU, advanced when he said that children were only really born in covenant when conceived while their parents wore the garment of the holy priesthood–this notion is nothing short of priestcraft.

    But as a general rule, Mormons (liberal and conservative) are indeed a tangled mess of hang-ups and prejudices. I ascribe this to a general forest-for-the-trees problem that dovetails quite nicely with Ben Spackman’s notion of straining out the gnats but swallowing the camel. Like the fabled teenage girls who sacrifice their morality but won’t touch alcohol, most Mormons of my acquaintance just don’t “get it.” This is why leaders excommunicate reputable scholars (straining out gnats), while simply rescinding the temple recommends of abusive adults (swallowing the camel).

  13. Julie draws a nice line.

    Ivan: Pretty sweeping statement: ” “spirit of the law” is the most abused LDS phrase, as it is used to justify disobedience more than it is to discover the true principle behind a commandment.”

    Any evidence for this? It certainly does not fit my experience. I will admit to having seen it happen before … occasionally.

  14. annegb –

    Do the women who upset you really not serve one another? Do they in fact not comfort one another, not cry and laugh with one another, not bear one another’s burdens, not cheer one another up?

    Or do they just not make the required visit to the required house during the required one month period to make the required presentation, so as to fit the statistical expectation?

    There’s a difference between the two situations. The former situation is a serious problem, worth worrying over. My humble opinion is that the latter is not.

  15. JCP -

    if by evidence, you mean my own fallible, limited experience, then yes.

    But as far as scientifically based sociological studies? I’m not even sure how one would go about doing such a thing in order to “prove” it.

    I’m glad your experiences have been more positive than mine.

  16. A few responses:

    This was a typesetting, not translational error.

    In my experience, the phrase “strain at a gnat” is sometimes used by LDS to criticize (what they perceive as) nitpicky, perfectionist, strict, or too-detailed policies or people. I do think the typo encourages this interpretion, because it implies making extensive effort at tiny and insignificant things. (Straingin out gnats wouldn’t have been terribly difficult. All you needed was a cloth.)

    As such, Jesus words are not correctly being applied. He had little criticism for the Pharisees in their attempt to live the law in detail as it was actually written (though he did resist the laws and interpretations they added to it). Rather, his criticism was for those who thought that living those small picky points was the end-all of obedience, the pinnacle of righteousness and who thus completely missed the point. Jesus, by doing so, followed in the footsteps of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and others who rebuked Israel for their tendancy to get hung up in the nitty-gritty (important, commanded nitty-gritty, mind you!) and lost sight of the reason for which the nitty-gritty was commanded.

    I also don’t believe “the spirit of the law” exists. It’s not a scriptural phrase. Paul seems to teach that you can live the law as it is given, down to the smallest point. Or, you can live by the spirit, a principle-guided life. As Ivan pointed out, invoking the “spirit of the law” is really breaking the law, bcause law allows for no such thing. Either it’s kept, or it isn’t. Stephen Robinson expresses this well.

    The commandments of God may be expressed either as rules or as principles, depending on the circumstances of those to whom his word is given. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous difference between rules and principles. Rules are usually based on principles, but rules are “bite sized,” specific applications of principles to certain specified situations. Because of their greater specificity, rules are more rigid and inflexible than principles. By design they offer little choice—other than to obey or disobey—and little wiggle-room. After all, “A rule is a rule.” Rules are usually constant; they are the same for every person in every circumstance: “A rule is a rule.” And because you don’t have to understand a rule in order to obey it, rules are a blessing to the young, the inexperienced, or the spiritually immature. fn The rules automatically apply higher principles for us to many of life’s common situations. This they do in a predetermined and almost mechanical manner that does not require much judgment or discernment on the part of those who keep them: “A rule is a rule.” A prime example of righteousness by the rules would be the law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments), which was given to spiritually immature Israel in the wilderness.
    FOLLOWING CHRIST, p. 131 – 132
    Principles, on the other hand, are not rigid and inflexible in how they are observed, and they may often be appropriately adapted and changed to meet special circumstances, though doing this successfully requires more spiritual maturity and judgment than does merely keeping a rule. That is the great advantage of principle-based righteousness over rule-based righteousness: In order to live our lives by the rules, we would need a rule for every possible human situation, zillions of rules, more than we could ever memorize, but we need only a few principles to live by, and those same few principles can always be appropriately applied to any of life’s zillion possible situations. Rules, like the law of Moses, are fulfilled (and made obsolete) when we learn and live by the larger principles on which the rules are based. Thus the principles of the gospel fulfill the rules of the law of Moses, which was a law of “carnal commandments,” or a law of rules. For example, in the context of the gospel, the rule against homicide is fulfilled and made obsolete by the principle of love, the rule against adultery by the principle of chastity, and so on.

    Following Christ, 131-32.

    As Julie pointed out, the Pharisees judged people not only for how well they kept the law, but how well they kept the Pharisaic additions, the “hedge” they put around the law so that no one would ever get close to breaking it. This would be equivalent to condemning non-Mormons because they don’t live the WoW. Those who create their own personal rules to keep themselves safe or holy or whatever (done it myself, at times) can not hold those personal rules to be binding on anyone else.

    Pharisees and the other Jewish groups had various other problems that stemmed from their assumptions and scriptural interpretatios. I’m going to do a separate post on that. However, it should be pointed out here that we do have examples of scribes, pharisees, tax collectors, etc. who did not fit Jesus discription and who apparently became disciples of his.

    Geoff: The JST reads “Ye blind guides, who strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel; who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law.”

    Arturo: I agree with you right up to your comment about excommunicating reputable scholars. Many abusive adults are repentant, while scholars tend to be dogmatic about their apostasy. However, I don’t want to threadjack into that…

  17. I am confused about what is wrong with the “spirt of the law.”

    True: the phrase is not a scriptural quotation. But Romans 7 and 8 seems to imply that we are to live by something better than the rules of the old covenant (and certainly something better than the silliness of the Pharisees). For what it is worth, the Robinson quotation also clearly suggests that living by principles is better than living by rules.

    So it seems to me that issue is about the definition of the “Spirit of the Law.” If people take that to mean principles–rather than rigid observance of rules–then what is the problem?

    Obviously, there is a question about what people mean by that phrase. My experience suggests they mean principles. But that appears to be an uncommon experience among many of those in this discussion.

  18. Living by the spirit of the law means not that you’re not actually living the law. Splitting hairs, perhaps. And I’m tired and perhaps a little incoherent, so apologies…

  19. Well, I don’t mind the phrase “the spirit of the law” if it means (to use an example): “Tithing is really about sacrifice, giving up worldy things and being willing to give your all to the Kingdom of God.”

    But I hear the phrase used more like this:
    “Well, I can’t afford to pay my tithing, so I just live the spirit of the law by being willing to give uo everything to the Lord when the time comes to live the law of consecration.”

    Or:

    Good use: “Fasting is a multi-faceted commandment. One reason the Lord has us keep this commandment is so we can learn to have our spirit control our fleshly urges.”

    Bad use (the one I usually hear): “I fast by abstaining from Rock Music for 24 hours. That’s keeping the Spirit of the law, if not the letter.”

    (Yes – there are exceptions – someone who is hypoglycemic would not be able to keep a 24 hour food fast, but somehow the people I hear invoking “spirit of the law” to avoid a true two meal fast – well, they don’t have medical conditions that make it so they have to fast some other way. They just want to eat).

  20. Allow me to strain out a gnat.

    It’s fasting for TWO MEALS, NOT 24 hours. Some us don’t eat meals at the same time every day (and thus may fast for more or less 24 hours), but we still fast for 2 meals.

  21. Sal -

    I used both “two meals” and “24 hours” in my post above.

    I know the church handbook of Instructions says “two meals” but I hear 24 hours over the pulpit more, so I used both. (Plus if you skip two meals, it amounts to 24 hours, give or take two hours).

    It isn’t that big of a deal.

  22. Ben: I’m not sure where you got that definition of living by the spirit of the law. How are you sure that’s what people mean?

    At any rate there are dozens of examples of actions that “break” gospel laws in some narrow legalistic sense, but are the appropriate course of action for that particular set of circumstances. At times the Lord has commanded such things.

    I admit: clearly the phrase could be abused by thoughtless individuals. But that doesn’t make it a bad concept. Many things are abused. The law for example was abused by the Pharisees. That doesn’t make the law itself bad.

  23. Just so we don’t get too happy at beating up the KJV. Straining means, among other things: “To overtax by exertion.” Seems to me that’s what the Pharisees were doing, although “straining out” is certainly better.

    I remember years ago having a conversation with someone who said: “I know a lot of good Mormons who drink coffee and alcohol.” I guess it depends on your definition.

    Hypocrisy is not nice. But if you can say one nice thing about hypocrisy it is that at least, the hypocrite is recognizing a standard he ought to try to live up to.

    We all have our struggles. It is not hypocrisy to be struggling with some principles; it is, however, hypocritical to hold others to a standard we are unwilling to live ourselves.

  24. Hi Guys, sorry for giving you that long poem, it was just me venting in January. I just thought the last line applied.

    Yes, Portia, there is a real problem in my ward. Part of it is that I live in a repressed area where many of the young families with kids are struggling from day to day to pay bills and buy groceries and the mothers work full time. It’s pretty sad. We have about 103 women in our ward, 70 work, and another 10 work in their homes. There are very few of us who have the luxury of being home all day. I spend literally hours trying to be considerate of each sisters individual burdens.

    I have also been frustrated (no duh, huh? :)–and this is my larger gripe–by the large numbers of supposedly “active” women, just like I said in that quasi-poem, who will not put themselves out. Honestly, in every companionship, there is one who can be depended on and one whose “butt has to be dragged.” It drives me nuts.

    I think there was a problem of accountability in our ward, the last few Relief Society presidents have not been committed to visiting teaching (they didn’t do it much till they got put in, which sort of cracks me up), and the sisters got lazy. My friend had me put in and now she has a pit bull. Our numbers (which I hate) have literally doubled. What that means is that lives are being touched, not that anybody deserves a pat for being more righteous.

    I also think that you are absolutely on target in your question–I think I will use it in next month’s message, do you mind? I have tried to make that point. And our ward is pretty good to get behind those who mourn. But a lot of people get lost in the woodwork because nobody sees them for months at a time. There is a real lack of ministering in my ward.

    There are a few who do a lot and others who murmur sympathetically and let others do all the work, really, we have a lot of people we have to babysit and coddle, who do not give back when there is a need.

    Arturo, I agree with you completely (I often fight the urge to smack you, so this is new).

    Somebody talked about the spirit of the law. I like that term, myself. My friend and I, who discuss these matters, decided that the essence of the gospel is free agency and love (my in-put), and the letter of the law (hers). What a fine line we walk.
    I think we could use a whole thread on spirit vs. letter. The dissection would be good for all of us, some who hold so tightly to the letter they can’t love others like they should, and those who are lacksadaisical. The more I age, the more I think lacksadaisy is the more desirable way, the lesser of the evils. (Except when it comes to visiting teacher, says this Nazi coordinater).

    Perhaps we are all pharisees, scribes, and hypocrites at one time or another. And perhaps we are all Gods in embryo, too, rising to the greatness within us. Only God can decide which is which.

    But, boy, you guys should be a fly on the wall when I stare balefully at the woman bearing her devout testimony, when I know she hasn’t done her visiting teaching in six months, or won’t go to certain women because they make her uncomfortable.

  25. Ivan —

    I know. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-butt. I was demonstrating a straining out of a gnat. Irony, you know — aw, heck, it just can’t be done in writing. Sorry.

  26. I have to note my favorite example of gnat straining/camel swallowing in the contemporary church. Next time you play in a church basketball game, brethren, pay attention. How many men are there who would sooner die than taste coffee, but would gladly tear your arm off to win a meaningless pickup game?

  27. Sal -

    it’s all good. I think some people do take the 24 hours “rule” a bit too seriously (I’ve been yelled at by people who think a 23 hour and 59 minute fast was a sin in the eyes of God), so mentioning the “two meals” rule is always a good antidote.

    I was just afraid I was being taken for one of those 24 hours types.

    ;-)

  28. JCP: I agree with Ivan and Ben on the “spirit of the law” issue. I might even go farther and say that the people enamored with the “spirit of the law” are those who do not want to keep the letter of the law; the letter of the law cramps their style, so they just drop the phrase “spirit of the law” and imply that anyone concerned with the letter of the law is a Pharisee and is missing the point.

    I think the “spirit of the law” is, if anything, a reminder that we are not only obedient, but that we are obedient for the right reason, not that we are excused from being obedient once we are enlightened enough to live by the spirit of the law. All of us should be working towards a state of being in which we automatically comply with the law in all of our actions; a state of being where acting against an eternal law is literally impossible for us because of the choices we make. When we arrive at that exalted state, we will be living the spirit of the law, but it will be absent any violation of the letter of any eternal law.

  29. You know, where is DKL? I haven’t heard from him lately. hmmm….

    You guys, can you help me with this–I was pondering Portia’s question and my response and went to church yesterday wondering if my attitude was the problem (which I’m sure I have a part in the whole deal, it can’t be good for the spirit for the visiting teaching coordinater to hate anybody who doesn’t go out).

    But it really does seem as if my ward is repressed. I counted a full ten benches which were completely unoccupied in our chapel yesterday. There were about 65 adults in sacrament, 6 were visitors, and about 35 kids (we don’t have as many kids as we used to have). Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but that’s pretty static. Then I tried to figure out how many members are in our ward, we have about 320. That’s what–a third of our membership attending? Some people come later, some leave, but that’s a median number.

    Is that normal for the church, or am I right, is it low? And isn’t that sad as can be?

  30. John Fowles: Perhaps you are right. But wouldn’t we need to see evidence that people in favor of the concept are using it the way you describe (such has not been my experience)? If people are using it in a reasonable way (for instance, as you do in the second half of your comment), there really shouldn’t be a problem.

  31. Portia,
    I’m a bit curious. If I understand your comment, you seem quite cynical about the value of visiting teaching, apparently writing it off as an exercise done only for a statistic. First of all, am I correct in my understanding of your comment? Second, do you see any value or importance in it?

  32. Annegb

    I don’t know your heart, so maybe your attitude is problematic, and yes, hating people isn’t a good thing. But on the other hand, there is clearly a problem if the active sisters won’t do their visiting teaching. I have the same problem with the brethren in my quorum–they won’t home teach. They just won’t do it. In RS, my wife runs into the same thing from many of the sisters–active women who serve in the temple but refuse to visit teach.

    I don’t have any answers for you–just wanted to commiserate. It’s a serious problem. I don’t think wards or branches are any stronger than the visiting or home teaching is–and this is not just about statistics or numbers, which, at least in my experience, have been strongly DE-emphasized in recent years. If someone, including myself, can’t be bothered to do this basic, basic gospel responsibility, I think it shows a lack of commitment.

  33. Arturo,

    I wasn’t aware that taking the sacrament with the right hand was a misconception. Can you enlighten me?

  34. John Fowles:

    P.S. And what about cases where someone “breaks” a law but it is the appropriate course of action for that circumstance (fill in your own favorite example)?

  35. Braden, the misconception is that you’re “supposed to” take the sacrament with your right hand. It really doesn’t matter. Moreover, it really doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter (unless it comes to making someone with no right hand feel bad).

  36. JCP,
    How often do you think the spirit of the law justifies breaking the letter of the law? Obviously there are some cases–Nephi killing Laban, the Savior’s sabbath behavior, etc. But I’ve wondered how often these really occur. Personally, it seems that many times when I appeal to the spirit of the law, it is to justify breaking the letter, and my experience with other people’s citations of the spirit of the law seems similar.

  37. Arturo,
    Thanks. I guess what I am asking is how do you know this is a misconception? Where does it say that? I’m not arguing with you, just curious.

  38. Arturo,
    Thanks. I guess what I am asking is how do you know this is a misconception? Where does it say that? I’m not arguing with you, just curious.

  39. JCP # 36: that is the only way that the concept of the “spirit of the law” become relevant: as an ad hoc justification for the failure to comply with the law in a particular circumstance. It explains the exceptions to the rule, or in other words, it explains why someone might not be culpable in a given circumstance for not complying with the law. But I don’t see how it provides someone with a justification to pick and choose which aspects of the law that individual needs to comply with. I don’t have the empirical evidence that you demand as a conversation stopper of this observation, but it seems to me that many who who go on and on about the spirit of the law are often people who want to justify not living according to the letter.

  40. John Fowles: Given that the scriptures and church history furnish us with many examples (too many to list in a post, and a single example can always be dismissed as nonrepresentative), I think it comes up reasonably often. Not every week or even once a month, but with some frequency. But, we should be wary of generalizing from our own experiences. That’s why I’m suggesting that it is HOW one uses the concept that matters, not WHETHER one uses the concept or not.

    And is anyone suggesting that they be allowed to “pick and choose”? I certainly did not mean to suggest that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have never heard this asserted seriously (i.e. I won’t obey this part of the law–even though I should–because of some vague “spirit” of the law.).

    On a final note: the inadequacy of rules suggests that the concept will hang around. No rule covers all circumstances. I suspect that people are often trying to figure out how to obey the spirit of the law when the letter of the law gives no guidance. Also, perhaps because of particular circumstances that were never anticipated by the law, NO option adheres to the letter of the law.

  41. “I guess what I am asking is how do you know this is a misconception? Where does it say that?”

    Braden,

    This is the wrong question. The question is, where does it say that it’s a rule in the first place?

  42. Hi Braden –

    The point of my comment was that we are supposed to be serving one another. Annegb indicated that she felt the poor showing in her ward’s visiting teaching activity indicated a failure in service. I wondered whether it indicated a failure in service or whether it indicated a failure in meeting statistical criteria.

    A poor showing in visiting teaching statistics might indicate a lack of service. Or it might just indicate poor visiting teaching statistics.

    Visiting teaching is supposed to be an organized method for rendering service, and when it is working that way, great, but service is a messy and very personal thing and doesn’t always behave itself by fitting nicely into our organizational pigeonholes. Service doesn’t necessarily happen via visiting teaching, and isn’t necessarily captured by the statistics that we generate. Most of the really important burden-carrying and tear-drying that I have done over the years has not been in the context of visiting teaching. The people who needed my help just didn’t happen to be the people assigned to me. The people assigned to me either didn’t need or didn’t want or wouldn’t accept my help. So I did what was needed, where it was needed, visiting teaching or no.

    If service is happening but the numbers are bad, I’m not very inclined to worry about them. If the numbers are an indication that the service is not happening, then I’m inclined to worry.

    In either case, while I appreciate Annegb’s commitment and resolution to her calling, I suspect that being a “bulldog” about visiting teaching will improve only the numbers — probably not the quality of the service or of people’s hearts. Improving the quality of service and of people’s hearts, on the other hand, will I believe eventually improve the numbers — or if it doesn’t, we’ve accomplished the goal anyway and the lack of good numbers doesn’t really matter.

    And if I should manage to say anything useful here, I’m certainly happy to have it used in a lesson or message.

  43. Eric,

    That’s a fair question. However, since, correctly or not, taking the sacrament with the right hand is the generally accepted norm, and Arturo was so confident that it was a misconception, I was simply curious about how he knew. I’ve been taught all my life that using the right hand is the appropriate way. I suppose I’m saying that since the right hand is the established practice, the burden of proof seems to rest on the argument that it’s not important. Don’t get me wrong–I’m open to the idea and honestly, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I’m just curious.

  44. Well, perhaps bulldog is not the best phrase. But accountability is a good one. The sister, yes, the active ones, who overwhelmingly did NOT do their visiting teaching, now have somebody who expects them to do their job. And, in this case, those numbers show Sister Doe having visiting teachers come for the first time in a year. She is the former Relief Society president and she was lonely. Every month, she walks her teachers out to their car and talks, she acts like she would get in the car with them. I know, because I am her visiting teacher.

    I hate numbers, screw the numbers, but our ward is suffering from a real lack of closeness. And part of that was a very low percentage of sisters who get out and do their visiting teaching. The home teaching is worse, we very seldom have home teachers. Again, accountability. Those in charge don’t care and only give a lackluster encouragement. There are a few of us who do most of the ministering.

    My particular skill, gift, is inclusion. I am able to make friends and bring people together. I am doing it one sister at a time. Every month, I call somebody who hasn’t been out for six months and we go out once and they find things in common with women they barely know, even though they’ve been their neighbor for years. For instance, last night, I went with a woman to a girl she had been assigned to, along with her companion, hell, for before I got put in, and I’ve been in six months, that was the first time she met that girl. And that girl told us that she has left the church and joined a born again group. We have a problem. My companion last night was the secretary of the primary, very active. This girl lived next door to her. This is the norm here. Well, not so much anymore.

    For our program in January, I had a sister do an Arma Pitts takeoff on Earl Pitts, and we danced to We Are Family, with a high priest in drag and a pink wig, playing a new member of Relief Society who just came from Young Women’s. It rocked in so many ways. I used humor to smack them up the side of the head. I’m not the preachy sort. I’m the type that says, “do your damn visiting teaching, the woman is dying of cancer, wake up America.” Tonight I’m going out with another woman, a former relief society president, that hasn’t been out for months. See what I mean?

    I’ll probably die of exhaustion trying to get this done. So much for my Al-Anon program. Another subject.

  45. PS, does anybody know about those numbers I posted? Is 33% activity the norm for the church or are we down a bit?

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