It must be something to do with human nature. Some important truths get left out of Sunday school lessons. Let’s take care of that lapse right now. Here are 7 truths that every Christian should understand.
1. God accomplishes his work through mortals. When someone prays for help, it’s usually through a mortal that God answers the prayer. We are God’s hands. As we do his work, we gain charity, which is very important to have: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Corinthians 13:13).
2. God works through imperfect people. The main reason for this is #1, and the fact that we are all seriously flawed. If God didn’t work through flawed people, you and I would be left out of his work. That would be sad.
3. All of the prophets were flawed. The main reason for this is that they were people. God worked through them anyway (see #2). Many of us don’t have our flaws broadcast to the world, but it was different for the prophets. Prophets are always under a microscope, and their flaws are broadcast loudly. Some of their flaws even get memorialized in scripture. Moses, who was perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, lived in a violent society, and was at times violent himself, as when he killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15). Among other things, he also provoked the condemnation of his associates by his particular choice of a wife (numbers 12:1), and provoked the wrath of God on multiple occasions for his sins (for example, failure to circumcise his son in Exodus 4:24-26). In the end, he was deemed unworthy to enter the promised land (Numbers 20). Abraham, the great patriarch, lied to protect himself and his wife, bore children with slaves, and was pretty sneaky in hiding his plans to kill Isaac from his wife. Peter denied the Christ, who at one time called him “Satan.” Elisha sicced bears on some annoying youth. Some of Moses’ behavior may have been reprehensible, but we don’t use that as a reason to reject the Ten Commandments or first five books of the Bible. That would be too easy. Despite their flaws, God made use of these people, and thy did many very good things. That’s a good sign for you and me. Maybe he’ll accept our offerings as well.
In Moses’s and Abraham’s defence, some of the seemingly reprehansible things they did, or are reported to have done, may have been commanded by god, or may have even been mere legend. It really doesn’t matter. (But this does bring up the issues of lying and the errancy of scripture.) What Moses did was his problem. What we do is our problem. The solution to both of these problems is what Christ did, and that’s what really matters. What’s important is what Christ did, and what we do with what he did.
4. Joseph Smith was not atypical. Joseph Smith was a lot like Moses, Abraham, Peter and Elisha. He could be violent. He could lie and be deceitful. He could deny his duty to God. He could be duplicitous, proud, even haughty and vindictive. As with other prophets, his sins were put under a microscope and broadcast about. A few of them are even preserved in scripture, which must have been especially embarrassing for him. In one of his earliest revelations, Joseph Smith is called, in effect, boastful, selfish, stubborn, carnal, a pushover, and fearful of men.
“For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. . . . And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” (D&C 3:4, 6-7)
This wasn’t just idle chat. Joseph Smith had done some real damage in causing the loss of the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon. He needed to be humbled, and he was. He also provoked the Lord’s chastisement on other occasions. His flaws were apparently not a surprise to the Lord, who said, “for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth” (D&C 124:1).
Many Christians believe the prophets were infallible. Mormons don’t (or shouldn’t), but we do tend to idolize our prophets. Terryl Givens, in his “Letter to a Doubter,” aptly explains why we should not:
“Air brushing our prophets, past or present, is a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. God specifically said he called weak vessels, so we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s.”
A prophet is a mouthpiece for God, not a substitute. Many crises of faith relative to Joseph Smith’s flaws (perceived and real) could be prevented if we would see him as a mortal used for God’s purposes rather than as an idol to be reverenced. We must let go of Joseph the idol and appreciate Joseph the servant. He would have liked that: “I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous” (Manuscript History of the Church D-1, p. 1555-57).”
5. Although we might like the prophets to have been angels, it’s okay that they weren’t. We worship God, not the prophets. We follow and emulate Christ, not the prophets. What any man does or did is irrelevant to our worship of God. From some Sunday school lessons, it may seem that we are idolizing the prophets, but that isn’t the Gospel. Joseph Smith was an amazing man, but let’s not get hung up on analyzing and judging him. He’s not the point.
6. It’s the product, not the prophet, that’s important. The importance of the prophets to us is not their personal characteristics, but what we received through them–the Ten Commandments and other scriptures through Moses, the Covenant through Abraham, and the expanding Church through Peter.
7. Despite his flaws, God did work through Joseph Smith. How do we know? One way we can know is by judging his fruits. A true prophet, although imperfect, produces good fruit (Matthew 7:15-18). The Book of Mormon is one of the fruits that we have because of Joseph Smith. We are to judge the prophet by the fruit, not the fruit by the prophet. We judge a fruit by tasting it. Tasting the Book of Mormon means reading, pondering, and praying for discernment and understanding. By humbly following this process we can receive a spiritual witness that the Book of Mormon (although imperfect) is a gift from God. Judgment of the fruit doesn’t have to be limited to only spiritual discernment. There is also plenty of internal linguistic evidence for its authenticity. I present some of it on this site.
8. Scriptures have errors. What? Don’t we learn that the scriptures are the word of God? Well, yes, they are the word of God in that they contain God’s message for us. But in general, the words in the scriptures were spoken and written by fallible men–often inspired, but still fallible. Some Christians believe the Bible to be inerrant. Mormons do not (or should not) believe the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or any other scripture to be inerrant. Besides errors from their fallible original authors, scriptures accumulate errors as they are copied, translated, copied and translated again, etc. Each step introduces accidental errors as well as unavoidable ambiguities and errors due to the impossibility of creating a perfect translation between very different languages. Meanings are often lost, and gained, in translation. Copyist errors (as well as intentional changes meant to correct previous errors) are also common. Biblical manuscripts often had glosses (notes written in margins to clarify the text), and these were sometimes inserted into the text itself by later copyists.
The current edition of the Book of Mormon differs in many places from the printer’s manuscript, which in turn differs from the original manuscript, which in turn no doubt differs from the preceding iteration of text. But didn’t Joseph Smith teach that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth”? Yes, and in the next phrase he explained what he meant: “…and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Joseph Smith’s concern with correctness was with doctrine more than with grammar or historical detail. This was how he judged scripture. (It was also how he approached much of his “translation” of the Bible.) Scripture is written, not to be grammatically flawless or historically inerrant, but to bring us to God by explaining and illustrating correct doctrine. Scriptures, like prophets, are not to be objects of our worship, but rather instruments God uses to get our attention. Those instruments can fulfill their purpose without being infallible or inerrant. Only God is perfect, and we worship only him.
Letter to a Doubter by Terryl Givens