Knowledge is great, but when you wield it as a club to beat someone into intellectual submission it becomes a weapon of crass destruction. Have you ever had anyone finish your sentence but it wasn’t what you were going to say? Did someone ever make an assumption about you based on your appearance, age, name, gender, or religion, only it didn’t even come close to being true? Have you ever made an assumption that turned out to be wrong? How many arguments could be avoided if we just take the time to hear each other out?
On numerous occasions I’ve had someone tell me I must be really organized after finding out I homeschooled my ten children for many years. I just laugh. Me, organized? Anyone who really knows me knows that “organized” is no more in my vocabulary than “moderation.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against organization, it’s just that I find it incredibly unnecessary and boring. Same with moderation. If having one child is good, then having ten is better. Well, at least it’s funner. Yeehaw!
Assumptions aren’t always wrong and they’re not always out of line. You can assume I enjoy Mexican food if you see me frequenting a Mexican restaurant. In fact, you can pretty much know I like Mexican cuisine if you’ve seen me drinking the salsa right out of the dish (as I’ve been known to do on occasion; like when my husband isn’t looking).
Knowledge is useful, and making assumptions can at times be helpful; but when it comes to deeply personal issues, like religious or political beliefs, it’s best to set one’s presuppositions aside and earnestly seek to understand the views of the individual.
I dislike being told what I believe. I didn’t like it as a Mormon, and I don’t like it as a Christian. I just bristle when I hear someone say, “All you Christians think all you have to do is say a little prayer for salvation and then you can live like the devil and still go to heaven.” No, not all Christians believe that. In fact, very few—at least that I’ve met—believe that. I, personally, don’t know of any.
As a Mormon it used to bother me when someone would say that Mormons believe that there are six-foot-tall Quaker-looking people living on the moon (Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 3, 1892). Well, to be fair, I actually did believe that there could be people living on the moon, but they probably didn’t dress like Quakers and some of them could have been short. But still. I hated being told what I believed when maybe I really didn’t.
My LDS sister-in-law recently told me that a few years ago her neighbor—a pastor—spent a couple hours telling her what Mormons believed. As she listened to his speech (apparently he did most of the talking), she kept thinking, I’ve never heard that. I don’t believe that. That’s new to me. That’s not taught in our church. She was shocked at some of the things her neighbor insisted she believed.
I remember when I was first taught in LDS seminary in 10th grade that Heavenly Father had sexual relations with Mary for Jesus to be conceived (Mormon Doctrine, p. 546-547, 742; Family Home Evenings Manual, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972, p. 125-126; and other references). I was horrified! I left class in tears. Eventually the thought was so repugnant to me that as an adult I refused to believe it. In order to reconcile that the Church was true and not think the early LDS prophets were in error, I had to do some mental gymnastics. I decided that Heavenly Father could have used artificial insemination to impregnate Mary. So I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, quite pleased with myself for resolving the issue, at least in my own mind. If anyone had told me that I, as a Mormon, believed that Jesus was conceived through a physical union of God the Father and Mary I would have denied it. But if it had been pointed out that the plain sense of LDS teachings meant exactly that, I would have had no choice but to re-examine my faith and decide if I was going to believe what our Church’s prophets taught or what the Bible taught.
When I was LDS I didn’t have a problem with people asking me about my beliefs, faith, practices, or about Mormon doctrines. I was happy to discuss these things, even with people who didn’t understand or agree. I wasn’t offended when someone opened up the Bible and showed me passages that seemed to refute Mormon doctrine. It was only offensive when someone seemed more concerned about proving me wrong than about the state of my soul; or when someone brought up a uniquely Mormon doctrine in the most inflammatory way, like, “You believe God committed incest with Mary, his spirit-daughter.” It was an ugly and unkind way to bring up the subject, and certainly threw cold water on what could otherwise have been thoughtful discourse.
My friends, please listen. Whether you’re a Christian trying to talk to your Mormon friends and neighbors, or passing out literature outside an LDS Temple; or a Mormon trying to engage your evangelical roommate or co-worker in a religious conversation, use language that invites thoughtful discussion. You can study other religions and learn a great deal about them, but when it comes to talking to an individual follower of that religion, realize that he or she might not fit into some neat little theological box. Be earnest. Ask questions. Show you care. Better to say, “It’s my understanding that Mormon doctrine states x,y,z…,” than to say, “You believe that (fill-in-the-blank)…”
If you want to win souls, show your concern. If you want to win an argument, join a debate club.