One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father, who was a blessed peacemaker, settling disputes in our family by saying, “Be tolerant; each of us is unique. People are different, but that’s not necessarily bad.”
I feel certain that remembering my father’s words has been the beginning of my understanding about the differences in people.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has commented on a problem that is related to the principle my father taught. He said: “We live in a society that feeds on criticism. It is so easy to find fault, and to resist doing so requires much discipline. … The enemy of truth would divide us and cultivate within us attitudes of criticism which, if permitted to succeed, will only slow our pursuit of our great divinely given goal. We cannot afford to permit it to happen.” (General Conference, April 1982.)
How should we respond in these troubled times as we are faced with daily criticism and hostility in the world? And how should we respond to the everyday disagreements and failings in our own lives?
I would like to suggest that part of the answer can be found in two phrases in our own Articles of Faith. The eleventh article of faith reads: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Italics added.)
“Allow all men the same privilege” expresses, of course, the idea of religious tolerance. And I like to think that this is a gospel principle that can be extended to include tolerance in all its forms, which is what my father wanted me to understand.
In the thirteenth article of faith is another phrase that is related to the first: “We believe … in doing good to all men.” (Italics added.)
It seems to me that “doing good to all men” expresses a quality that goes a step beyond “allowing all men the same privilege”—something we might call compassion, or the Savior’s kind of love. I believe tolerance leads to compassion, and that there are no shortcuts to Christlike love which can neglect tolerance.
The opposite of tolerance, of course, is intolerance, or self-righteousness—other words for the faultfinding and criticism President Hinckley described. Why are we sometimes critical and intolerant of those around us?
I suggest that it’s because of the kinds of differences my father pointed out to me. We separate ourselves from others by the differences we see. We feel comfortable with those who dress like we do, think like we do, and act like we do; and we feel uncomfortable with those who are different.
Physical deformities or differences, for example, can sometimes cause discomfort. Of course, most people would never openly draw attention to such differences. But would you put forth the effort to get past the difference to establish a friendly relationship? The gospel teaches us that that which is eternal in us provides kinship that no physical differences should weaken.
Age is one difference that should make very little difference. How well I remember, when I was thirty-five, the tender moment when a lovely eighty-two-year-old woman whom I had fondly respected told me how much she enjoyed having me as her friend. Foolishly I had never seen friendship crossing the so-called age barrier in that way. But much of what I know I have learned from watching and listening to those older and wiser and those younger and wiser than I.
Some differences, like the physical ones I’ve just noted, don’t matter at all and should never divide us. Most cultural differences also fall into this category. We are a worldwide church and represent many different cultures.
That knowledge helps us in relationships where there are differences that do matter—differences involving values, principles, truth, and the confirming religious experience we call testimony. We should hold to truth, but it should not be a barrier to tolerance and compassion and love. To accept and love others, we do not have to adopt their ideas or be condescending. When others differ from us in these essential matters, we must learn to understand that which separates people from their traditions. Good people can have mistaken beliefs.
Moreover, having truth in our possession, knowing righteous and true principles doesn’t automatically make a Latter-day Saint better or more righteous than others. It could have that effect—but it is living what we know, not knowing alone, that is really important. Joseph Smith taught us: “All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: It is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind, and hinder our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness. The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we will look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. … If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977, page 241.)
The gospel teaches us not to condemn our brothers and sisters for their weaknesses and sins, but to show them by our lives how it is possible to escape sin through learning and living the truth. Satan must laugh when we condemn and criticize others or judge them unrighteously.
I often think of the eleven-year-old boy I taught in Primary many years ago. He had been labeled “troublemaker.” But as I came to know him, I found the label was wrong; it should have been “mentally alert,” or “ahead of everyone.” He was bored because he knew all the answers. He had only to be challenged.
Do we allow a brother or sister to change, to repent, or do we keep labels firmly in place—long after they have become meaningless?
Recently I heard of an excommunicated man who left his Church court angry and unrepentant. Many of us, if we had participated in that court, might have said, “Well, good. He’ll have time to make things better”; and others might even have thought, “It’s good he’s gone.” But one of the high councilors present spent three evening a week for the next several years visiting this man until, repentant, and reactivated, he was reinstated in the Church.
What should my response be to the excommunicant, recent or of long standing? Or the young unwed mother? Or the Latter-day Saint boy—or any boy of missionary age fighting a drug or alcohol problem? Why not this response from Isaiah 1:18–19 [Isa. 1:18–19]:
“Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
This is one of the most beautiful messages of the gospel, but sometimes, alas, one that we keep secret from those we are reluctant to reach out to in love.
“Therefore strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations and in all your doing.”
The word all appears four times in that verse. It doesn’t leave much room for exceptions.
If we can learn patience, allowing all men the privilege of seeing truth at their own pace, we will have moved measurably toward the compassion and love of the Savior, who saw no enemies among his crucifiers. His example stands for all time to teach us the tender path from tolerance to compassion and perfect love. With every cause to rage against his adversaries, he said rather, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32: italics added), thus offering himself on our behalf, that we might have room to repent.
Can we do any less for our Father’s world-wide family?