This is guest post by Eric Hachenberger, who says he was born and raised in the Church in Austria, served his mission in Spain, studied Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution at BYU-Hawaii, and lives with his wife and daughter in Berlin. He works as Account Manager and a Conflict Coach on the side.
After the First Presidency’s message urging us to get vaccinated, a close relative of mine refused to do so and got Covid-19 a mere few weeks later.
Me, the obedient member, who decided to be vaccinated after this prophetic counsel, felt like the world was in order now. ‘See, you should have been vaccinated,’ I thought, ‘then you wouldn’t have to suffer now.’
I am deeply ashamed of the thoughts I had at the time. Sadly though, I wasn’t the only one to think along these lines. In fact, I saw these tendencies spring up all around me. Similar patterns run outside the church as well.
Using the Gospel as a Hammer
Many of us, who were aligned with the First Presidency’s message’s content, immediately used it as a hammer to say, “See, I was right. Now go, think like me, and get vaccinated.”
This is not how we are supposed to use the gospel. But it is sometimes how we would like to use the gospel, and sadly also do use it, but it really defeats its purpose.
We don’t know exactly how Lucifer wanted to execute his plan of saving all of mankind. Only that it boiled down to the extermination of agency. There is, however, one prevalent theory among members of the church, namely, that Lucifer just wanted to force us to always do what is right. (The second theory, also quite compelling (pun intended), was to simply eradicate all the bad consequences of mistakes and sins).
This tendency to force our ‘truth’ on someone else is easily observable in our natural, human state. ‘To be right’ just feels so good. To know (or at least deceive ourselves to think) that we chose and acted right holds tremendous satisfaction. And in its worst form, it becomes equal to the absolution of judging and condemning others.
Using the Gospel as a Mirror
When the scribes and the Pharisees came to Christ, hauling a woman taken (!) in adultery, they wanted him to justify this sort of gospel use (see John 8:1-11). “In the law …” it says we are right and she is wrong. We follow the prophet and they don’t. Now we are justified in stoning her. Now we are justified in condemning them on social media, in our ward’s Whatsapp chat, in defaming them when gossiping in our own ward clique, …
Jesus then does something we have mostly forgotten in our 21st-century society: He ponders before he speaks. This pause calms the energy of the mob and gives him time to think. What then comes out of his mouth is one of the greatest lessons on the use of ‘the law.’ “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
He turns the law into our faces! The commandments are for me. They are no hammer to ram other people’s opinions or behaviors into the place where we’d like them to be. Never has a commandment or a direction of a prophet been the free ticket for us to condemn someone who disobeyed.
A Guideline for the Latter-days
We sometimes think of this verse applying only to people given official authority, like our overbearing Elder’s Quorum President or an overly motivated ministering brother or sister. But we have authority the moment we exercise our agency to influence someone else. And this happens all the time, every day.
God must have known that our age would be a contentious one. So he didn’t leave us without instruction. No matter if we are on official priesthood business or just typing away on a social media comment, he cautioned that “our influence can … be maintained … only by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge, …” (V 41,42).
God is telling us that if we want to help someone else keep the commandments (have positive and useful influence on them), it will backfire if we try to stone them (use force). The only way to do it, is by really caring about the other person and being wise in the way we communicate our help.
We won’t win anybody over by hauling stones at them. But we might by following Elder Renlund’s counsel to become stone catchers. That way, the other person will know that our “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death,” (V44) and that we love them no matter their decisions.
Christ was never impressed by people convinced of their own righteousness. Instead, he was pleased by people acknowledging their imperfection before him without being immobilized by this. He was pleased by people who lifted the arms that hang down. And gladly, we don’t need stones for that.