Am I What I Appear to Be?

Are there times when we look at the small weeds in the gardens of other people’s lives but fail to see the tangled mass in our own?

If you ask me what first pops into my mind when I hear the word hypocrite, I’d probably say Frank (the name is changed). Over the years, he has been active in the Church and has served in numerous callings.

A few years ago, Frank and a friend started a business. It boomed for a time, but when the economy abruptly slowed down, their business fell off. Frank, more perceptive about the company’s impending doom than his partner, took company money and sheltered it in several of his grown children’s bank accounts.

By the time his partner realized what had happened, they were headed to bankruptcy court. The court determined that the company could file for bankruptcy and no longer be held liable for the debts it had acquired. But in the process, Frank’s partner lost his home. Frank, on the other hand, continued to enjoy his previous life-style.

“I’m glad I’m not a hypocrite like Frank,” I sometimes find myself saying. But then I remember that there have been times that I’ve professed to know God, but have, by my works, denied him. (See Titus 1:16.) I think of the time several years ago when our daughter Heather was born. When it came time to take her home from the hospital, I wanted a memento of the precious few first days we had spent getting to know each other. The hospital’s receiving blanket was unique, and I decided it would be just the thing. I asked the nurse who was discharging me if I could take it along with all of the other paraphernalia I had been given. “Sure,” she replied. “No one will notice if one blanket is missing.”

I knew by her reply that it was not part of the package each mother received. But because my heart was already set on having the blanket, I ignored my conscience and packed it along with the other items.

A lengthy battle ensued in which one side of me tried to convince the other that it really was all right that I’d made off with the hospital’s blanket. During the battle, the blanket lay folded up in the drawer most of the time. I was embarrassed to have friends see it, fearing that they might ask where I got it and think less of me. And I did not like wrapping my sweet, innocent child in it; it somehow seemed tainted.

“Relax, it’s only a receiving blanket!” one side would say.

“Only a receiving blanket that you didn’t pay for!” the other side would respond.

“Don’t be silly! It cost the hospital next to nothing. And did you see the bill they sent?”

I almost had myself convinced that it really wasn’t such a big deal when my mother and my husband, each on separate occasions, expressed surprise at how I had acquired the blanket. “It just seems out of character for you,” Mom mused.

I finally admitted to myself that what I had done was wrong. Relief overcame me. Once having made that admission, the rest was easier. I informed the hospital and made payment for the blanket. Finally, my conscience let me rest.

Most of us possess a great ability to discern the acts in other people’s lives that seem hypocritical—while overlooking the inconsistencies in our own. If we concentrate all of our energy and thought on diagnosing others’ inadequacies, we are spared the pain of facing and solving our own problems. But until we honestly confront the inconsistencies in our lives, we cannot make positive changes.

How can we bring these positive changes about? Perhaps we can start by regularly asking ourselves, “Am I what I profess to be?”

Who do we, as Latter-day Saints, profess to be? We profess to be a people of integrity. We profess to be morally sound, allowing nothing to deter us in the least degree from our commitment to the truth. Joseph Smith summed it up for us in the thirteenth article of faith: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men. … If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

“We believe in doing good to all men.” Yet, on occasion, we fall short. How often do we judge people on a first impression? Has a new neighbor ever moved in across the street, and when we see him or her smoking in the yard, do we decide that there’s no point in getting to know that person after all?

“Let every man esteem his brother as himself,” the Lord said, not once but twice, in section 38 of the Doctrine and Covenants. (D&C 38:24–25.) He didn’t qualify it with the words “unless he’s overweight” or “unless he’s less educated than you” or “unless he makes more money than you.”

So how can we esteem our brothers as ourselves and become all that we profess to be?

1. Acknowledge the incongruities in our lives, and strive to uproot them.

We cannot free ourselves of the incongruities that plague us until we recognize them. One way to do that is to use the thirteenth article of faith as a standard against which to measure our behavior. For instance, we might ask ourselves:

“Am I honest?”

“Do I seek after that which is virtuous?”

“Do I treat all people with respect and dignity?”

I have found it helpful to do this assessment with my husband or a close friend. That way, we can lovingly point out each other’s blind spots.

Or we might consider our actions of the last few days, weeks, and months, and then ask, “Would a Latter-day Saint be earnestly seeking to follow Christ by ———————,” and fill in the blank. For example:

  • By failing to read the scriptures day after day?

  • By telling white lies to get out of tight spots with an employer?

  • By consistently spending more money than he or she makes?

  • By watching titillating television programs?

  • By yelling at his or her children?

  • By juggling figures on income taxes?

  • By watching videotapes at home of movies that he or she wouldn’t consider viewing in a theater?

If we find no inconsistencies in our lives, is it because we are in harmony with the gospel, or are we not asking enough probing questions? President Spencer W. Kimball, in his closing address at the October 1975 general conference, shared his resolve to go home and try even harder. (See Ensign, Nov. 1975, p. 111.) If he thought he could improve his life, I suspect that we can work on our lives, too. Ignoring inconsistencies won’t make them go away.

On the other hand, if our lists of incongruities are so long that we feel defeated just looking at them, we need to remind ourselves that, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted by the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty.” (Mere Christianity, New York: MacMillan, 1943, p. 172.)

We can begin by ranking the incongruities on our lists. We can then resolve to root out the incongruities that are most damaging to our emotional and spiritual health, and once that is done, continue down our lists. But we must be patient as we struggle to improve. Perfecting ourselves is a lifetime process.

Stephen R. Covey tells of a time when he and his wife recognized that they professed to be loving, supportive parents, when in fact they were sometimes overly concerned about how their children made them look. One of their sons lagged behind the other children his age—socially, athletically, and academically. They tried psyching him up with positive mental attitude techniques, but nothing seemed to help their son become more competent or confident.

Finally, the Coveys began to realize that if they wanted to change the situation, they had to change themselves. They fasted, prayed, and did some earnest soul-searching. They eventually realized that they had been more concerned about how their son reflected on them than about him as a valuable individual. They started to focus on his uniqueness, and for the first time saw within him layers of potential that would be realized at his own pace. They began to understand that their role was to help affirm and value his good qualities and teach him self-worth.

The changes they made in their perception and treatment of their son resulted in great changes in him. He felt their unconditional love and slowly began to blossom. As the years passed, he realized his potential.

It was not easy for Brother and Sister Covey to acknowledge that they were less than they professed to be. But once they had acknowledged this inconsistency, they were able to root it out with the Lord’s help. And they blessed their son’s life and their own lives by doing so. (See Stephen R. Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 20.)

2. Refuse to make even small compromises.

I wasn’t aware just how hot and humid it was that August day until I opened the door and saw Elder Dayton and Elder Warnick standing there. They were flushed and dripping with perspiration.

“Could we trouble you for a glass of water, Sister Parker?” Elder Dayton queried.

“Sure. Come on in,” I invited.

“Thanks, but we’ll just wait here,” he replied.

“Please come in. It feels like a sauna out here.”

Again they politely refused. As I dropped ice cubes into a couple of glasses, I tried to figure out their reluctance about coming in. They had taught investigators here just a few nights earlier and had seemed at home with us.

“Please come in and rest a few minutes,” I offered again, handing them tall glasses of lemonade. “You look worn out.”

“Thanks for the offer, but it’s against mission rules,” Elder Dayton said. “We can’t come in when your husband isn’t home.”

I joined them on the front porch and we visited while they downed a couple more glasses of lemonade. Then Elder Warnick handed me his glass. “Thanks a lot! Now we can finish tracting your neighborhood!” And they were off.

Happy to be back inside my cool home, I thought of the elders. They were two of the most effective missionaries I’d met. They were also great examples because they refused to compromise their standards. They didn’t justify entering my home with the excuse “It’s so hot outside,” or “Sister Parker is an active member of the Church; she’d never cause us any trouble.” Instead, they refused to break a rule that could one day safeguard them.

Our willingness or refusal to make small compromises may be a good barometer of our spiritual health.

Perhaps we could compare our lives with a garden, and the incongruities we find there to weeds. A wise gardener understands that weeds draw nitrogen and other necessary minerals away from the other plants. He knows that they will block out the sunlight. He knows that, if given a chance, they will overrun his garden.

The incongruities in our lives draw away vital energy that we need to help us meet our daily challenges. They block out the Spirit. They make us less fruitful.

Let us be like the wise gardener who does not wait until his garden is crowded with weeds before he destroys them. Let us eliminate the incongruities in our lives when they first appear, before they have a chance to take root and infect our souls.

And if our garden is choked with weeds and is no longer fruitful or beautiful, let us not despair. Let us plow it up and plant again.

[illustration] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Heidi Holfeltz Parker serves as first counselor in the Primary presidency of the Macon First Ward, Macon Georgia Stake.