I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

What is an appropriate way to respond to unfriendly questions about the Church?

Steve F. Gilliland, bishop and institute director, Long Beach, California. It is quite a responsibility to represent the Church to other people. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you offend them? And there’s always the possibility that they might embarrass or offend you.

As an institute director and a bishop, I’ve been invited many times to answer questions about the Church in university classes and at other churches. My presentation emphasizes the positive aspects of the Church. It’s easy to talk about the fruits of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that we are trying to do to implement his teachings in this challenging world.

But I always worry about the questions; I cannot predict what direction they will come from. What if someone is hostile? Fortunately, the scriptures give insights that can help us in these situations.

As I have studied them (particularly Alma 30), I’ve discovered some valuable principles that have guided me time and again when facing friendly or antagonistic inquisitors.

1. Listen and clarify. It’s hard to hear clearly what is being said when you’re under attack. I’ve become involved in unnecessary arguments because I was uptight and misperceived what the person was saying. At times we were in full agreement on the issue, but I thought he was saying something he was not.

Make sure you know what the person is saying. Ask clarifying questions, or repeat his question as you understand it, followed by “Is this what you are asking?” Let him know you understand his position, and give him a chance to clarify if necessary.

If a person “smites you on one cheek,” he may expect retaliation—and it may disarm him if you turn your other cheek and listen. He may be more likely to listen to what you have to say if you’ve listened to him first. (See Matt. 7:12.)

2. Suggest corrections to misunderstandings. It may be a temptation to accuse or attack an antagonist, to try to embarrass him or put him down, especially if you feel he is purposely distorting the facts. But your challenge is to love him and to avoid putting him on the defensive.

Explain the facts clearly, as Alma did to Korihor (see Alma 30:32–33), speaking as calmly and firmly as possible. If he berates you with quotes from books not accepted as official Church doctrine, inform him that Latter-day Saints have always been free to speculate, but that the speculations of individuals do not constitute the official position of the Church. I would say at this point, “If you are interested in what the Church teaches, I’ll be glad to explain it to you. I don’t feel responsible for speculations from earlier times. Besides, without the individual available to explain himself, neither you nor I can understand fully what he meant. Do you want to know what the Church teaches?”

Most of the time the person is innocently repeating misinformation. A gentle reply setting the record straight may avoid putting him on the defensive. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” (Prov. 15:1.) The First Presidency recently counseled us “to meet the criticisms and attacks upon the Church without resentment and without malice.” (Letter dated 1 Dec. 1983.)

3. Focus on the basics of the gospel. Throwing a person into deep water doesn’t help him learn to swim; it may even give him an aversion to going near the water. Similarly, without a proper foundation in the basic truths of the gospel, a person usually isn’t ready for heavier doctrines. That’s why the Lord counsels us to give people milk before meat. (See D&C 19:22; 1 Cor. 3:2.)

In their efforts to turn people away from the Church, some antagonists focus on doctrinal half-truths, distorting some of our richest and most precious doctrines that people aren’t ready to understand. It is important that we return the discussion to the basics—the simple, yet beautiful truths of the gospel.

Alma demonstrated this principle well. In control of himself and the situation, he moved the discussion with Korihor to the basic belief in God. “Believest thou that there is a God?” he asked. (Alma 30:37.)

Another basic gospel teaching is our belief in modern revelation and living prophets. Almost any question can be returned to that issue: “The real question here is not __________, but whether or not there is modern revelation in the Church today. The scriptures clearly teach the principle of living prophets. [See Amos 3:7; Acts 1:2; Eph. 2:20.] I bear testimony that the Lord does direct the Church today through living prophets and that you can come to know this also. Would you like to know how you can come to know these things?” Another approach may be: “Time will not permit me to give you an answer to that question. Related to it, though, is the more basic question: ______.”

4. Bear testimony. Nothing is more basic to the gospel than our personal testimonies. Alma bore a simple, forthright witness to Korihor: “I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.” (Alma 30:39.) If the person is receptive to the truth, the Holy Ghost is able to bear witness to him. The testimony of the Spirit will be the most powerful influence in his conversion. However, if a person is not receptive to the Spirit, all the reasoning in the world won’t touch him.

Many people aren’t ready for conversion, but are curious about what the Church teaches. They deserve to hear the basic truths of the gospel and to have their misconceptions cleared up. But in the process they may challenge you to give some physical or logical proof of the gospel. Although the gospel can be explained logically, it’s not our responsibility to try to prove it or to convince the other person. The only real proof is the witness of the Spirit.

5. Explain that you are not interested in debating or arguing—but in sharing your point of view and listening to his. Alma didn’t get pulled into the trap of trying to prove the gospel. In fact, he turned the tables on Korihor. “What evidence have ye that there is no God … ? Ye have none, save it be your word only.” (Alma 30:40.) If the person is very contentious, a fair question to ask is “Do you just want to argue, or do you want to understand what I believe?”

6. Challenge the person to action. When Korihor persisted in demanding proof, Alma placed the burden of proof where it belonged back on Korihor’s shoulders. If he really wanted to know, he had “the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets[.] The scriptures are laid before thee.” (Alma 30:44.) Our promise to the world is the one Jesus gave: “If any man will do his [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. …

“If ye continue in my word … ye shall know the truth.” (John 7:17; John 8:31–32.) If a person will live the gospel—obey the commandments, study the scriptures, pray—he will have spiritual experiences that will confirm the truthfulness of our message; he will not need to ask for proof.

What if you can’t answer a question you’re asked? Again, Alma demonstrated a proper course of action: “Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forebear.” (Alma 37:11.) Say “I don’t know.” People will respect you for your honesty. When I feel there is an answer available, I usually tell them I’ll try to find out what it is.

What if you confuse or offend them? Remember that the Holy Ghost has the power to reach beyond our sometimes clumsy efforts into the heart of anyone who is sincerely seeking the truth.

We are promised that as we study the scripture prayerfully, the inspiration we need “shall be given … in the very hour.” (D&C 84:85.) As we become familiar with the Topical Guide in the LDS edition of the King James Bible, we will discover at our fingertips a gold mine of scriptural references to use in sharing the gospel. And our church classes, such as Sunday School, priesthood meeting, seminary and institute, can also help us become better prepared.

I take comfort in reading a statement of the First Presidency on this issue:

“We remind you that among the blessings of membership in the Church is the gift of the Holy Ghost which is conferred upon each individual at the time of confirmation. This gift will be present with members, as well as leaders, who faithfully live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We have confidence that if you will respond with prayer, and in a spirit of humility, then inspiration will attend you.” (Letter dated 1 Dec. 1983.)

A century and a half ago, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned from the Lord that tobacco was not good for us. Since then, medical science has determined the same thing. How has society responded to this information?

Dr. James Mason, director of the Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia. The revelation known today as section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants was received on 27 February 1833. [D&C 89] Few revelations have come under more scrutiny than this “word of wisdom,” and few have served as well to vindicate Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet. The counsel he received that day in 1833 has since received increasing support from scientific and medical research, much of it only in the past few decades. The Lord’s admonition to refrain from tobacco is but one example.

For the past twenty-two years, the Surgeon General of the United States has identified cigarette smoking as the single most important cause of disease and premature death. Tobacco kills thirteen times as many Americans as hard drugs do, and eight times as many as automobile accidents. The worldwide cost in lives now approaches 2.5 million lives per year, with about 360,000 deaths annually in the United States. Over a billion people now consume almost a trillion cigarettes per year, an average of more than half a pack per day.

Lung cancer alone claims 129,000 lives per year; coronary heart disease kills another 170,000 annually. Some smokers contract cancer of the larnyx, mouth, esophagus, bladder, and pancreas; some suffer with chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, peptic ulcer, allergies, thrombosis, reduced fertility, and peripheral vascular disease. Smokers can even be affected by the medicines they take to get well, because the desired pharmacological effects of some drugs can be altered by the chemical residue of tobacco in their bodies.

The United States Public Health Service calls Americans’ addiction to tobacco “the most widespread example of drug dependence in our country.” Nicotine is an addictive drug, and the American Lung Association and other agencies state that smoking meets all the criteria of addiction. The fact that nine out of every ten American smokers say they want to “kick the habit” provides additional evidence of the addictive qualities of tobacco.

The Lord has told us that “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man.” (D&C 89:8.) In spite of this and other warnings, the rate of smoking is increasing in many countries where the citizens can least afford tobacco products and smoking’s adverse effect on their health. The people of these countries are already confronted with high infant and child mortality rates, short adult life span, and limited health care facilities. Family incomes are low and often do not cover basic requirements for food and clothing. Even so, smoking is on the increase in eastern bloc countries, Canada, and Egypt, where more young people than adults smoke. In some schools surveyed in Santiago, Chile, two-thirds of the children smoked.

Statistics in other countries, including the United States, Great Britain, Norway, and Sweden, are more positive and show a decrease in smoking activities, particularly in the age of starting to smoke and the incidence of smoking. An analysis of cigarette smoking in the United States from 1981 to 1983 shows gradual reductions in smoking. According to an American Cancer Society study, the number of men who smoke dropped from 48.4 percent in 1959 to 26.15 percent in 1982. The percentage of women smokers declined, too, from 27.2 to 21.1 percent during the same period. However, women in general, and young Caucasian women in particular, comprise a higher percentage of smokers than ever before because their consumption of tobacco is not falling as rapidly as in other groups. Women 18 to 22 years old currently have a higher smoking rate than men—34.9 percent versus 34 percent. If present trends continue, smoking rates for men and women will be identical in the United States by 1990.

That trend alarms many researchers who have found that in the past few decades, women have taken up smoking almost with a vengeance. As a result, the average life expectancy advantage women have had over men is gradually being eroded. Over the past thirty-two years, there has been a 315 percent increase in the lung cancer death rate among women, and lung cancer is expected to surpass breast cancer as the leading cancer killer of American women. It has already done so in five states.

Smoking by mothers of unborn children is even more serious because it places their offspring at risk. Nicotine, numerous toxic chemicals, and radioactive polonium all interfere with fetal development, since the fetus can receive these substances through the mother’s blood. Smokers give birth to underweight babies twice as often as other women. And because birth weight is a key factor in infant mortality, tobacco use by a mother can threaten her baby’s life. Furthermore, Americans pay more than $152 million a year for intensive care services to underweight babies of smoking mothers. To add to these grim statistics, birth defects, including mental retardation, abnormal facial features, and heart defects may occur in infants of women who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes per day during pregnancy. Each year more than 3 million babies are born thus afflicted, and the number is growing as more women become smokers.

The tragic and needless deaths, disease, and untoward effects on the unborn that occur as a result of tobacco witness to the truth of the Word of Wisdom.

Even those who don’t smoke are at risk in a smoking environment. For example, children of smoking parents experience much higher rates of respiratory illness, including colds, pneumonia, and bronchitis. They can also suffer lifelong effects; evidence shows that passive smoking in childhood (inhaling the smoke of others’ tobacco products) delays physical and intellectual development.

Passive smokers are about three times more likely to die of lung cancer than those not exposed. More than ten studies have linked lung cancer in nonsmoking men and women to their smoking spouses. In fact, passive smoking is estimated to cause more cancer deaths in the United States than all regulated industrial air pollutants combined. This may affect five thousand nonsmokers per year, or one-third of the cases of lung cancer not directly attributed to smoking.

Smoking is not only a deadly habit, but a costly one. The price Americans paid in 1985 for lost productivity and health care was approximately 65 billion dollars. And this does not include the cost of the tobacco itself—another 30 billion dollars!—nor the loss of food and other beneficial products the land could have been used to produce.

In response to tobacco’s terrible cost in lives and health, many governmental and private agencies have launched campaigns attacking smoking. One result is that TV stations now no longer carry advertising for cigarettes and cigars. The year 1982 marked the first decrease in the sale of cigarettes since 1969, and sales declined even further in 1983.

But as sales fall, the advertising budgets of cigarette manufacturers rise. The more than $2.7 billion spent on cigarette advertising in 1983 was mostly to convince young people to smoke. The Lord was aware of these temptations when he warned, “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation.” (D&C 89:4.)

One ironic result of campaigns to reduce smoking has been the marked increase in the use of “smokeless” tobacco. As the sales of cigarettes decline in the wake of negative health publicity, sales of smokeless tobacco are dramatically increasing. The use of “chew” or “snuff” in the United States has increased more than 40 percent in the last two decades, and as many as 22 million Americans may now be users.

There are three kinds of smokeless tobacco: chewing tobacco, dry snuff (usually inhaled), and moist snuff (tucked between the gum and lip). Youth are becoming heavily involved in this form of tobacco use. A study of one thousand high school students in Colorado noted that 22 percent of the male students chewed tobacco or dipped snuff, with 10 percent using it on a regular or daily basis. Even young children are becoming involved; a 1983 study in Louisiana showed that 21 percent of ten-year-olds dipped snuff!

The health hazards of smokeless tobacco have long been known. As early as 1761, John Hill, a British physician and botanist, blamed a cancerous lesion in a patient’s nose on the patient’s “immoderate” use of snuff. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health ordered that snuff carry warning labels about its cancer-causing properties. The United States Congress has recently mandated tough warning labels on all smokeless tobacco products and advertising.

Physical symptoms of disease caused by smokeless tobacco include receding gums, disintegration of bone where the wad of tobacco is held in the mouth, and formation on the gums of white patches called leukoplakia. A significant percentage of these leukoplakia patches become cancerous. Researchers in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, India, and Denmark have concluded that smokeless tobacco is linked to oral, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancer. A study in the southern United States showed that short-time snuff users had a fourfold increase in cancer; longtime users had a rate fifty times higher!

The smokeless tobacco industry is gearing up to fight any hint that its products are not good for health. Manufacturers are resisting warning labels. One manufacturer with a $30 million budget promoted its product in conjunction with the 1984 Summer Olympics with the slogan, “Take a pouch instead of a puff,” falsely implying that smokeless tobaccos are a safe alternative to cigarette smoking.

Users who think smokeless tobacco is nonaddictive are wrong; there is just as much addiction with smokeless tobacco as with cigarettes. The only difference is that instead of being inhaled, the poisonous alkaloid is readily absorbed through the lining of the mouth.

There is some good news in all this: we have no reason to believe that addiction to tobacco cannot be overcome. More than 33 million Americans have heeded the warnings and given up smoking since 1964 when the first Surgeon General’s report on the consequences of smoking was issued. No one is so addicted that he or she cannot stop smoking. The Word of Wisdom was “given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” (D&C 89:3.)

It is good news that smokers of all ages can experience substantial health benefits from giving up tobacco. Even those who have smoked for as long as fifty years have a great deal to gain by giving up their habit. They feel noticeably better within a year, and they also reduce their chances of having a stroke or heart attack.

The Lord finished his revelation on the Word of Wisdom with a promise to the Saints: “And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” (D&C 89:18–20.)