Counsel of Prophets and Hot Coals

A recent post on Wheat and Tares has got me thinking. The post is titled, “Blaming Parents vs. Mourning with Those Who Mourn.”

I know people whose children have left the Church, who did “everything right.” They had scripture study, gospel conversation, family home evening, bore regular testimony, and did all this with love — and despite that, their children left the Church. I also know parents who did not do all of these things — that is, I know for a fact that they did not have family home evening, regular scripture study, and gospel topics were rarely discussed in the home except perhaps over Sunday dinner. And some of their children have also left the Church.

If I were the teacher of the fifth Sunday lesson, here’s what I would want to say. I certainly would follow the Spirit with a prayer in my heart, and I’m sure that, in the moment and facing brothers and sisters who are clearly hurting, I would probably speak these things in gentler ways than I do here, where I am at a distance and in a blog post.


Brother _____, we love you. God loves you. Our savior Jesus Christ loves you. Many of us have felt the heartache of children who have left the faith. Nobody here is leveling an accusation here — not even Elder Bednar. We’ve known Elder Bednar for quite some time, and we’ve heard him speak on many, many occasions, and you know and I know that he does not think that every child who has left the Church has done so because their parents did not teach them enough. So first of all, let’s be a little bit more generous when interpreting his remarks than that — he is talking in the abstract and in the aggregate here, and he knows full well that there are myriads and myriads of families where this does not apply. So let’s not make him an offender for a word, and read into his remarks absolutes and finger pointing that simply isn’t there.

Second of all, I believe you when you say that you did everything you could — when you say that you had family scripture study, family prayer, family home evening, and gospel conversations, teaching, and testimony in the home. I believe you. And I’m certain everyone else here believes you as well. But can you honestly say in your heart of hearts that the same is true of every other family in the Church? Can you honestly say in your heart of hearts that every family in the church has daily family scripture study, daily family prayer, regularly testify and teach of the truths of the Gospel in the home, perhaps even on a daily basis, have weekly family home evening? Can you honestly say that? And can you honestly say that this does not have an affect, in the aggregate, on the gospel understanding and testimony of our youth?

Since we all know — both you and I — that many, if not most, families in the Church are not doing all they can in this regards, and that this does have a net, aggregate affect on our collective spiritual well-being, why not allow Elder Bednar to teach and instruct in this regards? Why make him into an offender, rather than accept his message for what it is?

One of the deepest blessings of following prophetic counsel in this regards is that when we have done everything in our power to testify, to teach, to counsel our children — when we have poured our souls into making our home a spiritual haven for them, where we study the scriptures diligently on a daily basis together, then when our children do leave — and they sometimes will — we can sleep knowing that we did all in our power. It will hurt nonetheless. God, who has done everything in His power for his children, weeps for those who have left Him. So yes, it will hurt. But you can ask your Father in Heaven for spiritual assurances that you have indeed done that which was in your power, so that your pain is the pain of love and grief, not that of self-imposed guilt. We will all have moments where we ask ourselves if there was more we could have done, but if we have followed the counsel of God, we can find peace of conscience, even as our heart aches for our loved ones.

You may not have that testimony right now, even if you did do all you could do. I invite you to seek that spiritual reassurance, to know your standing before God, so that when prophets counsel us to do better in this regards, you do not instinctively react as if someone has just dropped hot coals on your head. When you have that spiritual assurance that you have indeed done all in your power to witness and testify of Gospel truth in the home, I believe that you will no longer feel the need for offense when prophets suggest that many of us can do better. For they are speaking truth — many of us can do better.

It is simply asking too much of prophets — of any mortal man, for that matter — to ensure that every statement they make is applicable to every person in every circumstance. Some Latter-day Saints view pornography, but those of who don’t should not react with offense at the suggestion that many marriages are troubled because of pornography use. Some Latter-day Saints do not attend the temple as often as we could and should, but those of us who do should not react with offense at the suggestion that our spiritual well-being as a collective will improve if those who do not did more. Every prophetic teaching has myriads of members for whom it does not apply, and if we are the exceptions, we should not take offense at that. It makes their divine task harder if those to whom they are not speaking to take offense at words not applicable to them.

So I invite you to pray for spiritual assurance, and do not set your heart at war against the teachings of these men — look inward, ask yourself if there is more you can do. If there is not (which may very well be the case, and I believe you when you say it is), then seek a spiritual assurance of that, consider yourself an exception to the counsel, and move on. Because I guarantee you that there are people in this room — and in this Church — for whom this counsel is sorely needed. While the pain you feel is real, and I have no desire to delegitimize it, a clear conscience does not react as if touched by hot coals at the suggestion that we — as a Church — can do better in some areas, particularly when we all know that what Elder Bednar has said is true: many of us aren’t doing these things, and yes, that makes a difference.

In the meantime, know that we love you, and that we believe you, and we recognize that your response right now comes from a place of grief and pain, because of your love for your children.


Again, I want to emphasize that in the context of a Sunday lesson, I would probably say all these things differently, with the gentleness and contextual awareness warranted by the situation at hand. However, I was deeply troubled by this person’s response, and wanted to share my initial thoughts about it.

I honestly think that we do ourselves a disservice when we treat counsel that doesn’t apply to us as offensive because it doesn’t apply to us. If we are truly at peace with our actions, if we truly have a clean conscience, we don’t get offended at the implication that we can do better. Our hearts will instead be at peace, and if there are parts of the counsel that don’t apply to us, we will simply move on. If there are part of the counsel we disagree with generally (and not just in regards to us), we will react with a heart at peace, instead of with a heart at war or full of offense. Either way, we won’t react as if we’ve been pricked.

Again, this doesn’t imply that those who do react that way have done anything wrong — it may simply be that they need to seek a personal testimony of their standing with God.

27 thoughts on “Counsel of Prophets and Hot Coals

  1. Sadly, those who are looking for reasons to be offended will always find something to pick at. So it was in the days of Adam. So it was with the Nephites. So it is today.

  2. I just comment over at W&T, but the reaction to Elder Bednar was not justified. We’re just as responsible for what we hear as church leaders are for what they say, and that includes times when we feel emotional or weak.

    Elder Bednar was addressing a group of general authorities and general officers at a general conference training, not the general membership. The presentation created from excerpts of that training was intended for ward councils, not the general membership. He probably wasn’t thinking he needed to carefully couch all his words. But even then, what he said was that the most common reason for losing kids between baptism and the endowment was weak gospel teaching and modeling in the home. He never said it was the main cause, or even the cause of the majority of cases, simply that it was the most common (and if it’d been a general conference talk, he probably would have added “that we can do anything about”). It’s like saying the most common reason kindergarteners are behind in reading is because they don’t get read to at home. That’s probably true too, and it doesn’t take into account any other factors, and other factors are also important. It’s unfair to routinely criticize church leaders for not including every exception and caveat and to expect them to always acknowledge our personal circumstances every time they make a point.

  3. I would encourage those folks who have beef with Elder Bednar to make peace with him now. He is almost guaranteed to be President of the Church in fifteen to twenty years. Could be sooner. Despite being an apostle since 2004, he is *still* the youngest among 1PQ12.

  4. I find we lose many because we teach them that the prophets are infallible, that the earth is only 6000 years old, and Joseph Smith was pure white -without blemish.

    Instead we need to teach them that our leaders are human and have weaknesses, but also are called of God. If God is willing and able to be patient with men like Joseph or Brigham, there is a chance for us, also.

    We need to separate out actual doctrine, and stories that members have made up over the years trying to fill in the gaps.

    We do not have to like everything that happens in the Church, but must realize it is for the sick, not the perfect. Together, we will hopefully build Zion, where we will be of one heart. Until then, we must patiently strive with all imperfect people, knowing God is in charge and is gently making corrections.

  5. I also know a lot of people that didn’t do all those things and their children ended up just fine, temple recommend holding active members of the Church. I think the main reasons people fall away are that they just can’t bring themselves to believe the required “story”, or they just don’t feel good when they try to live the Gospel’s precepts. Meaning people fall away because from their point-of-view the Gospel/Church doesn’t meet their needs for whatever reason.

    One can increase the probability that the Gospel will “take” with their children by providing them with a spiritually rich environment at home and plenty of service opportunities which will allow them to feel the Spirit. But in the end conversion, covenants, and commitment are very personal things. No one gets an actual testimony through external mortal forces.

    It does not pay to be upset with the Church’s leaders. Accept what counsel you can, do your best to understand God’s will for you, and then do it.

  6. I already commented over at W&T, don’t feel a need to rehash. The author at W&T closed his ears and heart to what Elder Bednar was saying. This is something of a threadjack. I’ve experienced what the stake leader in the training in the author’s post experienced. A person or two saying something that wasn’t appropriate for the setting. I wish I could say I reacted with the patience shown by ldsphilosopher. Instead, I felt moved to reprove with sharpness, but I did follow up with a private meeting afterwards. I’ve lived in my ward for close to 25 years, so I know most members very well. “Lively” discussion is had all the time, but it is respectful. Was just wondering what others’ experiences have been, and how you handled “on the fly” a member that was purposefully trying to be argumentative and disrespectful.

  7. I’d say judging by that author’s response to the stake president and Elder Bednar it’s clear the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Gospel teaching in the home was not modeled in that response.

    When Brigham was perhaps in his mind unjustly and publicly reprimanded by Joseph he humbled himself and said what would you have me do.

    When this brother was confronted with the mere possibility of INDIRECT constructive criticisms, he publicly freaked out and then self righteously took his criticism online to boot.

    Yep, I’m sure you are the ideal model of Christ’s representative in the home.

    We all make mistakes. All of us lose our cool. Have the courage to apologize.

  8. Gerry, I hate to be presumptuous and judgmental. But truth be told, I had very similar thoughts — the response does not model sound Gospel understanding and teaching.

  9. I don’t think the problem was with Elder Bednar’s statement. I think the author’s statement is a little problem. I think the main problem was a poorly prepared lesson. As has been noted above, Elder Bednar’s statement was not intended for the general membership of the Church. He was making a factual statement to a group unlikely to take that statement in an emotional way. To then use those words in a meeting for the general membership with people who have experienced pain and spiritual confusion as a loved child has rejected the gospel is not good teaching. At the least, the words should have been prefaced with words of encouragement for those who have had children leave the Church.

    Perhaps the author could have said something more positive. I cannot say that I would have been thinking straight if I saw my wife in pain, and felt that pain myself, because of the poorly chosen words of a teacher who should know better. The article does not say how the teacher continued after all the class comments. I hope comfort was offered to those whose children have wandered for a time.

    I have been encouraged by the many talks in recent general conferences about letting children make choices and trusting them and trusting Heavenly Father to watch over them. They have given me hope when I thought I had lost it. I know we can teach people to have good family gospel teaching without heaping guilt on those who do not deserve it. We have seen that modeled from our leaders.

  10. The wife in this scenario was more admirable. She had an emotional response to defend herself, and wrote it down as she sorted through her feelings. Perhaps in time she might have questioned and then been led to personal revelation.

    Publicity blaming the Lord’s servants to relieve his grief short circuited both her and his potential revelation and learning process and it was magnified by putting it online for others.

    Oath and covenant of the Priesthood time: did you receive the Lord’s servants?

  11. I read the post at Wheat and Tares. While I don’t think the husband handled it well, I do have to agree there was probably some real honesty about feelings regarding children who “stray.” I was a divorced parent, with the other parent abusive and absent from children’s lives much of the time. I tried extra hard–my children now tell me they left because they felt so pressured to be in the church, combined with many other complex factors related to our situation. But this week, when that clip was played, I wept, and I almost walked out of the meeting. It was excruciatingly painful to hear the apostle I have seen as my favorite for so long basically tell me (I get it–that probably wasn’t his intention or real message) that if I’d just been more loving, more service oriented, more prayerful, attended the temple more than weekly, etc., I wouldn’t have all of my children now rejecting the church and gospel. I don’t know that publicly confronting is the right way–but maybe in this case, it was prompted by the Spirit, since it had some truly cathartic and positive responses. My hope is in the statement by Joseph Smith that our love continues to reach out to our children throughout eternity, and that someday they will return. Meantime, it was the most excruciating pain when I added Elder Bednar’s (out of context) statement to my grief that my children have no share in the joy of the gospel, or ability to understand the things that are most central to my life and my desires for them. I don’t agree with the approach, but I hope there is some real ability to discuss the pain and grief that parents feel in these situations.

  12. It is amazing how quick people are to attack a man who was obviously hurt and troubled by Elder Bednar’s words. Such harsh reactions push people away. I am always surprised when good active members react so poorly to another’s pain, though, given my lived experience in our faith, I really shouldn’t be.

  13. We react strongly to those in our faith, who we expect to know better, that condemn the words of Christ.

    Taking the tirade online in an attempt to gather public support to demonstrate “I’m right, using the moral authority of my grief, and the Lord’s representative is wrong” clarifies the issue.

    Make no mistake, I believe the Lord weeps for this individual’s pain and that of their children. Yet the impetus for these feelings also come from, “How oft would I gather you under my wings… and ye would not…”

    I’m also confused at the response of the mother who apparently wrote that she made decisions (to stay), her kids made decisions (to leave), and she wouldn’t disagree with them. I think so morally confused thinking is part of the problem and they hold it up as the ideal.

  14. CSS, I fail to see any “attacks” in the OP or in the comments. Perhaps you meant a softer word?

    When a GA says something that we disagree with, we have a choice as to how to react. There is a wide range of possible reactions. I find that condemning the GA for being insensitive is not a good reaction, certainly not one that shows an intent to bring unity and harmony in the Church. And, as is the case here, the writer involved decided to misinterpret the GA’s remarks rather than give him the benefit of the doubt. I think LDSP’s OP is rather kind given that reality.

  15. Interesting. Our ward probably had training based on the package you mention, but I don’t recall hearing anything from Elder Bednar. Perhaps because our Bishop, who led the training, is a professional counselor and had a nuanced understanding of which aspects of the training would not be appropriate for general discussion in that sort of forum.

    Our ward is also a bit tempered because we have a lovely lady with Tourette’s and a chip on her shoulder the size of Mt. Everest. So we’ve all learned to interact with gentle and loving kindness.

    As to the comment that Elder Bednar will necessarily become the future prophet, no one expected Harold B. Lee to die as young as he did. The same majority who prognosticated a long life for Harold B. Lee would have scoffed at the idea that the frail Spencer W. Kimball would ever survive to become the senior leader of the LDS Church.

    And yet history is as history is.

  16. Sorry Geoff, when someone is giving a lesson in church, teaching from recent broadcast given by an Apostle, and you tell them that’s a streaming pile of crap, along with other things that you later acknowledge you forgot because you are so worked up…. That’s an attack.

    It’s disruptive, it’s rude, it’s the very model of an unchrist-like response.

    Raise your hand and ask some questions, raise your hand and say you feel that doesn’t tell the whole story and add in your view on agency or whatever your principled point is.

    But by telling the teacher they are teaching a streaming pile of crap…and then launching into an emotional tirade to boot… Yes that is an attack on what’s being taught and who is doing the teaching.

    Taking it online makes the attack all the more clear. Sorry, no spinning out of this one.

  17. Looks like I misread Geoffs comment to Css as being to me. My mistake.

    To be clear I don’t think people are attacking the w&t author, but rather defending against the attack he already initiated in his area and is now opening another front online.

    That obviously requires some direct pushback.

    I realize author may say the same about Elder Bednar “starting it”, but I don’t see his relatively tame observation that by being more devoted disciples of Christ in our actions at home we can keep more youth in the church. It’s the essence of our faith in some sense after all.

  18. I said “almost guaranteed”, Meg. You’ll notice it’s not an absolutist comment. I’m well aware of church history, particularly the dynamics between Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball.

  19. I just read the “Wheat and Tares” post. While I can have compassion for the feelings he, his wife, and presumably a substantial number of people in the room for the lesson, I cannot agree with the way he expressed that in such a forum. There are countless times when church leaders have expressed themselves in less than optimal ways. But, to publicly criticize in such a disrespectful manner and then take it to the Internet for even more publicity to me is stepping closer to apostasy. While our feelings are real and we definitely feel them, they do not justify behavior.
    Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of compassion for those whose children have strayed. Not having been in that situation, I realize I can’t begin to understand the depth of hurt many are feeling and that to feel like you as a parent should have been better would feel like rubbing salt in the wound. My heart aches thinking about that and I would have gladly put my arms around that dear sister and shed tears with her.
    However, the way this brother handled his hurt feelings was wrong, and in my opinion, would be wrong in almost any situation. I didn’t hear Bednar’s words, but it is not unfair to say that in general, if there were better gospel teaching in the home, there would be fewer leaving the church. In general. Maybe it should have been clearer that it won’t or wouldn’t have solved every issue of falling away. But, now I can’t help but think the way this brother handled this painful situation can’t help but cause more pain. Very sad all around.

  20. The Wheat and Tares post could be a case study in cognitive distortion:

    -Emotional Reasoning
    -Should statements

    If you’ve taught the gospel in the home, then Elder Bednar is giving you a gold star, not a scolding, regardless of the choices your individual children have made.

    Furthermore, it’s irrational to take a general rule — for example, “smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer” — and take it to mean, “everyone who has lung cancer is (or was) a heavy smoker”. Elder Bednar’s point is true in the aggregate, but not for every individual case.

    I won’t speculate about why the author applied these particular cognitive distortions, leading to his irrational reaction. I do suggest Heber13’s post as a much needed corrective, however.

    Finally, some of the responses to the Wheat and Tares post have asked for statistics about the parental role in children who eventually leave the faith. Luckily, those statistics exist, and have been elegantly summarized by John Gee:

    He also links to the original study, if you’re interested.

    Finally, a quote from Elder Holland:

    “Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance.”

    John Gee gives a much longer quote from the same text, as well as the complete citation. I give this quote in response to a couple of red flags in the post:

    “We taught him to think for himself. We taught him to ask questions and not accept easy answers to difficult questions. I taught him to use his agency.”

    I suspect that these are euphemisms for “flirtation with skepticism”, but I cannot be sure.

  21. Jonathan,

    Using our agency, asking difficult questions, and thinking for ourselves are great things! I want to take them at face value as intrinsically good qualities, because truthfully they are. But alas, you probably are right — when cited by people who engage in righteous indignation at the suggestions that some parents could do better in the Church, they are likely euphemisms for “flirtation with skepticism” as the primary lens through which we view the Church.

  22. Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you for the link to the July 2015 article at the fornspollfira blog regarding the National Survey of Youth and Religion.

    I finally went and read the Wheat and Tares post. My family advises me not to post what I want about what I think.

    But I recall a poem I love, which has apparently been published in textbooks attributed to “Anon,” but which was written by Pat Chiu:

    The Gardener

    If you were a gardener, your child a seed
    your task it would be to garden and weed
    ‘way wild things that threaten destruction and strife
    and prepare the young plant for the rigors of life.

    But a daisy’s a daisy, A rose is a rose.
    The seed must be true to its form as it grows
    True to the form from the maker sent
    And not to the will of the gardener bent.

    When we see as we are seen and know as we are known, you will all know what it was I wanted to say, and you will know how urgently my family advised me not to post my comment to the internet. And I will know Jon and his wife and what happened in that joint session, and what occurred in the decades prior to the outbreak that featured the “steaming” pile of “guilt” crap. And in that day I will love all the individuals involved, and you will laugh at me and with me.

  23. Jonathon,
    I have also noticed among my high school students, that if a key figure can be pulled off course, it can have repercussions throughout an entire religious community. Families must be our building block if we ever hope to fight the increasing tide of nonsense sweeping our society. But both families and communities can and should initiate productive mindsets or memes which deeply influence the minds of youth. The fornspollfira blog linked by Jonathon has some great ideas and themes which cry out for discussion and development in our families and wards. At least get them to “doubt their doubts!”

  24. What Elder Bednar addresses is creating the environment for children to bloom. While creating the environment helps, it will not, in every case, lead to children who accept the gospel and live it as adults. I know many great families who did all the right things, and still some of their children have wandered away. Even some children of apostles wander. The truth is, there are those children who have to learn things the hard way. They do things just because they are told they shouldn’t and perhaps they don’t fully understand that their love of God should inspire them to choose differently. Most of my siblings have gone astray. Many of them have come back. But in all cases they were adamant that it was not becuase they didn’t know right from wrong, nor was it from a lack of testimony. Certainly, those can be issues, but if we follow Elder Bednar’s counsel, those will not be the issues that lead to our children falling away. I feel sorry for parents whose children wander. They have the promises that God will continue to seek after them. I worry about some of my own children that demonstrate the tendency to have to learn things the hard way. All my wife and I can do is teach, love, and pray. Ultimately, the rest is on them.

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