It is a common story in LDS congregations: when somebody goes inactive or feels unwelcome at church, the story always is that somebody at church has offended them or made them feel unwelcome with their opinions or actions. This happens all the time. It is so common that Elder David A. Bednar gave a talk nine years ago about how to avoid being offended called “And None Shall Offend Them.” Read the talk. It really is great.
In this talk, Elder Bednar discusses how we can either choose to acted upon or to act for ourselves. Ultimately, when we let the actions of another person deprive us of the blessings of church attendance, we are choosing to be acted upon.
In the grand division of all of God’s creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:13–14). As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of moral agency, the capacity for independent action and choice. Endowed with agency, you and I are agents, and we primarily are to act and not just be acted upon. To believe that someone or something can make us feel offended, angry, hurt, or bitter diminishes our moral agency and transforms us into objects to be acted upon. As agents, however, you and I have the power to act and to choose how we will respond to an offensive or hurtful situation.
That is great doctrine, but sometimes I wonder if we Latter Day Saints do not fully understand that idea, in two key ways.
Elder Bednar was talking about members in the church, but I feel like church members are very easily offended by people outside of our church. We tend to have an expectation that other people should not be offended when we share our beliefs, but when non-members share their beliefs, we can get very defensive and hurtful. I am sure that we can all think of examples of times that we have seen church members lose their minds (and their Christ-like demeanor) in situations where they have been confronted with opinions or ideas contrary to their own or have been pushed to explain exactly why they believe a certain way. As members we are so easily offended when people question our beliefs or share their beliefs with us, but we expect them to be tolerant of what we share with them. We need to make sure that this standard of not being offended does not only apply to us in our church meetings or interactions but also in our interactions with every single person we see.
I have also seen a misapplication of this doctrine in a different way. Often times, members use the idea that we can choose not to be offended to get rid of the responsibility to not be offensive in the first place.
Many times on my mission and in the past few years, I have heard people using this excuse. “Well if somebody did not want to come to the activity because of something I said, that is their choice. They shouldn’t be offended so easily.” I am sure that every church member has heard this.
But how about this for a change; how about choosing not to offend?
Just like choosing to be offended is a lack of exercise of agency, we also lose our free agency when we refuse to check ourselves and what we say around other people. The doctrine that we choose to be offended does not give us free rein to say whatever we want without thinking about the consequences. We are not given a blank check to say whatever we want with no personal consequences. In the epistle of James we read:
For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
Later on, the author gives us this admonition:
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, andare driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:3-8)
Now I am not perfect at this, as anybody who knows me can probably attest, but working this summer at EFY has really taught me the truth of this principle. Our words can have huge effects on the people that are around us, often times without us knowing, and the offensive or hurtful things that we say will be held against us at the end. I have a hard time thinking that God is going to say in the judgement: “You said some really hurtful things to Sister So-And-So that made her feel really uncomfortable at church. Oh well. She chose to be offended, you can’t be held accountable.”
So what do we need to do?
Everybody is different, but here 2 things that I have tried to work on:
- Not sharing my personal opinions in church meetings, keeping those for times that I am just talking to my friends.
- Being careful what I post on social media. I try to share my opinions about things on this blog, but I have really been trying to cut back on being harsh when it comes to sensitive topics. Especially with EFY, I want my kids to know that primarily I care about the gospel and not issues XYZ. Social media is a great tool, but we do not know who is looking at our comments, and what damage that can do to them.
I am sure that there are more that I can do and more that we can all do. But I know that by really monitoring what we say, the church experience will be that much more better. Fact is, the church has a huge amount of diversity that we need to be aware of. While we should strive to avoid being offended, we should also strive to avoid offending our fellow Brothers and Sisters in Christ.