Love, Honesty, and the Defense of the Faith
Perhaps the two best chapters in the LDS manual Gospel Principles are chapters 30 and 31, which discuss “Charity” and “Honesty.” These chapters make excellent points regarding both topics and show that LDS religion at its best reflects substantial agreement with some basic Christian values. Among the many important affirmations found in these chapters are the following:
- Jesus Christ is our primary example of pure love (173, 177).
- Love (charity) is “the greatest of all virtues” (173).
- If we love, we will give to people in need whether or not they are our friends or deserve our help (175).
- Love includes feeding the poor and meeting other basic needs (175).
- Saving people’s souls is also a labor of love (176).
- Love is not just doing good things for others but a disposition of kindness and compassion from the heart (176-77).
- Those who do not forgive others show a lack of true love (176).
- Like Jesus, we can despise wickedness even while we love sinners (176-77).
- We should ask God in prayer to make us more loving toward others (177).
- We should “avoid thinking we are better than other people” (177).
- God is perfectly honest and expects his people to be honest (179).
- Lying is of the devil, who tempts us to justify our falsehoods if they seem harmless (179, 181).
- Any intentional deception is lying, including withholding the truth (“silence”), “telling only part of the truth,” or misleading people “to believe something that is not true” (181).
- We will have to give an account to God for our lies (181).
- Taking what does not belong to us is dishonest (181).
- Taking unfair advantage of others is dishonest (181-82).
- When people lie to protect themselves, the Lord does not consider that an acceptable excuse (182).
- We should examine ourselves and repent of all dishonesty no matter what it costs us (182).
In this study, we will not be offering any critique of these two chapters of Gospel Principles. Instead, we will discuss the relevance of the two basic Christian values of love and truthfulness that the two chapters so commendably articulate to a very controversial issue: the expression of religious and theological disagreements between Mormons and evangelical Christians. That is, we will take a careful look at how these two values should affect the way we defend our beliefs and respond to the beliefs of others when they disagree with our own.
A. Love and the Defense of the Faith
We begin with love, or what the King James Version often calls charity. Love is not an emotion (which changes constantly depending on all sorts of physical and environmental factors), although in human beings love should affect our emotions in a generally positive way. Love is a disposition or attitude toward others of seeking what is best for them over what we might desire or even need. To love someone, in this sense, means to seek their good even if it is at our expense. If we understand love in a biblical way, it will profoundly affect the way we view people of other religious beliefs.
1. If we truly love God, we will want to know the truth about God.
Jesus taught that the command to love God with our whole being (Deuteronomy 6:5) is the greatest of all the commandments (Mark 12:29-30). As Jesus expressed this command, it includes the obligation to love God “with all your mind” (v. 30). As the man with whom Jesus was speaking recognized, this meant that we have a responsibility to make sure that we love God in all our “understanding” (vv. 33-34). If we truly love God—and according to Jesus nothing is more important—we will consecrate our minds to understanding the truth about God, to knowing who he is, what he is like, what is important to him, what he has done for us, and what he expects of us. We will want to understand the world that God has made, to see it as he sees it, and to see ourselves and others as God sees us. It will be our goal to worship God in truth (Joshua 24:14; John 4:24). We will exult not in our worldly wisdom or power or wealth but in understanding and knowing God (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
One way in which such love for God should be manifest is that we should each be zealous to learn as much as we can in the whole area of study known as theology (the study of God and everything related to God). While most of us will not become academic theologians, every Christian ought to be extremely passionate about knowing all he or she can about God. What is God really like? How are we different from God, and how can we be like him? What does God do and what does he want us to do? We should pursue a deeper and more accurate understanding of such things because nothing is more important to us than knowing God—not just knowing facts about God, of course, but knowing him personally and living in a way that is faithful to the truth about God.
Zeal for true knowledge about God will motivate us to become discerning with regard to the many teachings about God that are circulating in the world today. On the one hand, as people who love God, we will be thirsty to learn truth about God from whatever source can help us in this regard. Good books, good preaching, and other sources of good teaching will be very important to us. On the other hand, as people who love God, we will be careful to process what others tell us about God to make sure that what we are learning is indeed the truth. Most importantly, we will compare what others tell us about God with what God himself reveals in the Bible. Like the Bereans who eagerly listened to Paul and Silas and then examined the Scriptures daily to see whether what they were saying was true (Acts 17:11), we will be happy to hear what others say but will test their doctrines by comparing them with the teachings of the Bible (see also Matthew 22:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1-6).
2. If we truly love God, we will take a stand for the truth about God.
If you loved someone—say, your husband, or your mother, or your best friend—and people were spreading falsehoods about that person, you would not want to remain silent. Whenever you could, you would want to speak up and state the truth about your loved one. You would want others to know who that person really is and what that person’s values and life really mean. If this is part of what it means to love another human being, how much more ought we to want to see the truth about God known and respected in the world that he created!
Such zeal for the truth about God marked the people of God in the Bible. One of the psalmists stated that he was consumed with zeal as he observed other people neglecting God’s words (Psalm 119:139). David did not hide God’s truth from the congregation of Israel (Psalm 40:10). John the Baptist “bore witness to the truth” (John 5:33) even though it cost him his life. Paul told the Galatians that he refused to compromise with false teachers “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Galatians 2:5 ESV). He even confronted Peter, another apostle, when he saw that Peter was not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14).
Love for God, then, ought to motivate us to speak to others regarding the truth about God. We should be zealous for his honor and glory, for his reputation in the world, for people to honor the truth about him in what they say and how they live.
3. If we truly love others, we will want them to know the truth about God.
Jesus taught that the second greatest commandment in the Old Testament is the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). It should be obvious that if we love others we will want them to know the truth. People need to know the truth because of the incalculable benefits they will derive from that knowledge. Knowing the true gospel of Jesus Christ, the way to become reconciled to God, is vital to every human being’s eternal welfare. Knowing the truth is also vital to a healthy, fulfilling life in the here and now. Thus, knowing God and his will as revealed in the Bible is a blessing with both eternal consequences and temporal benefits. What better gift could we give to others?
Of course, it is not only possible, but all too common, for people to tell others what they consider to be the truth but to do so in very unloving ways. We do great harm to the cause of truth when we speak harshly, pompously, or arrogantly to others, even if what we are saying happens to be true. We can all probably think of people who claimed to be speaking the truth but whose behavior struck us as unloving. Nevertheless, speaking the truth can be an act of love, and those who love must and will speak the truth.
We should also realize that sometimes we will be unjustly perceived to be unloving when we speak the truth, simply because it is not what some people want to hear. Paul expressed this point when he asked, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16 NIV). The test of whether our speech is loving, then, is not necessarily how others react to what we say, though this may be an indication to be taken into account. Rather, the test is whether our motivation is to do good to others rather than, say, to make ourselves look good.
B. Honesty and the Defense of the Faith
It should go without saying that the only proper and legitimate way to defend the truth is to speak the truth. This is simply another way of saying that we should be scrupulously honest in the way that we stand up for what we believe. Unfortunately, people of all religious and nonreligious belief systems are susceptible to the temptation to cut corners on the truth in their zeal to defend what they believe. For that reason, we should take a moment to think about the implications of the Christian value of honesty in our efforts to share the truth about God with other people.
1. If we are truly honest, we will represent what others believe as fairly and accurately as possible.
Two biblical statements epitomize the great importance of speaking honestly about what other people believe. The Old Testament tells us, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13 ESV). To put it bluntly, if we criticize other people before understanding what they really are saying, we will only look foolish and embarrass ourselves. The LDS writer Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, enunciates the same principle as what he calls the Fifth Habit: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” This is a guiding principle behind thisstudy guide, Gospel Principles and the Bible, and everything else I write about the beliefs of others. It has also been a guiding principle for everyone at the Institute for Religious Research since its beginning, which is one of the main things that attracted me to the organization.
Frankly, the thought of embarrassing myself by misconstruing others has been a major motivation to me personally to work very hard to understand what people of other religions believe and why they believe it. I don’t always get it right—I can’t claim to have attained perfection in this or any other area—but I can honestly say that I work as hard as anyone to be fair, accurate, and complete in understanding what other people believe before I criticize those beliefs.
The other biblical statement is by far the more famous. It is the “Golden Rule” articulated by Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12 ESV). Like everyone else I know, I want other people to understand me. I do not like it when other people lie about me, or carelessly misrepresent what I believe. Since I want other people to represent my positions fairly and accurately, I ought to make every effort to do for others in this regard what I would like them to do for me, by representing what they think as carefully, clearly, and correctly as I can.
In order to represent accurately what another religion teaches, it is important to listen to what its members actually say and to study any literature they publish that speaks for that religion. This does not mean, for example, that we should consult only evangelical publications when studying evangelicalism or that we should read only Mormon publications when studying Mormonism. Outsiders of a religion can often provide telling insights into what that religion teaches. Still, the best resources by outsiders will document their analysis of the religion’s teachings from the primary sources of that religion’s most authoritative or representative literature.
I have a simple test to determine if I have understood what other people think correctly: I ask them. Sometimes, I find out that I have misunderstood them. When that happens, I thank them for their help, because they truly have provided a service to me by clarifying what it is they think.
Unfortunately, as you probably have experienced, some people feel it is their religious obligation to hide what their religion teaches, or at least to give it a glossy covering to make it seem more acceptable to others. I am very slow, however, to conclude that someone is behaving in such a way. We should assume that people want to be understood and that they are telling the truth about their real beliefs unless and until their responses have made it abundantly clear that they are not being forthright. I don’t make any assumptions about individuals in a religion as to whether they are likely to be forthright. For example, I have found some Mormons to be extremely candid and straightforward in saying what they believe. I have also found some Mormons to be less than forthcoming or perhaps simply unable to articulate clearly what they mean.
On the other hand, not all evangelicals have done the best job they can in communicating the truth about the LDS religion. Most evangelicals who seek to educate both Mormons and non-Mormons about the historical and theological issues that divide us from them strive to represent the facts about the LDS faith accurately. However, I must acknowledge that not everyone on the evangelical side has made a sufficient effort in this regard. Some evangelical critics of Mormonism are notorious for their cheap shots, their sensationalized depictions, and their disregard for what most Mormons really believe.
In an ideal world, people on all sides of religious disagreements would be completely honest and candid with each other and in the way they describe each other’s beliefs. This is not the case, of course. But even though we all fall short of the ideal, we should all strive to attain it as best we can. Honesty about our differences is vital to fruitful communication, and anything less dishonors the God of truth.
2. If we are truly honest, we will acknowledge our own religion’s failings, weaknesses, and history, even when embarrassing, and acknowledge the good in other religions.
As an evangelical Protestant, I am painfully aware not only of my own personal shortcomings and failures but also of the weaknesses and failures that can be all too easily documented in the history of that religious tradition. Like most religious traditions, evangelicalism has had its scandals as well as its honorable moments. There have been evangelicals who were and are racist, and yet there have also been evangelicals who did as much or more than anyone else to combat anti-Semitism, slavery, and various forms of racism. Some evangelicals are anti-intellectuals who exhibit and even promote ignorance; yet evangelicalism has also produced accomplished philosophers, scientists, historians, artists, teachers, authors, and others who have advanced human knowledge. Honesty compels us to be candid about the bad as well as eager (naturally) to accentuate the good. Whitewashing our history does no one any good.
Likewise, it does no one any good to misrepresent the history of the LDS religion, either by hiding the problems or by ignoring the good things that Mormons have done. As a non-Mormon, for example, I should be (and hopefully am) just as careful to acknowledge the LDS Church’s laudable efforts in defense of traditional marriage (as opposed to same-sex marriage) in the past several years as to point out the LDS Church’s teaching and practicing of plural marriage (polygamy) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The values of love and honesty are what compel us to reach out to Mormons and to research, write, and speak about the issues dividing evangelicals from Mormons. It is because we are concerned for the eternal welfare of people in the LDS Church and for the glory of the God of truth and love that we do what we do. Our goal is not to attack other people. We do not seek to tear down anyone’s faith in God or in Jesus Christ. Our purpose is, as the apostle Paul put it, to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), so that others may know the truth about God and in knowing him be secure in his love. May God mold our character so that we will fulfill this purpose in a way that truly honors him.