Almost 10 years ago, Elder D. Todd Christofferson admonished us in conference to better accept chastening. (Part of this talk was later made into a wonderful Mormon Message.) Elder Christofferson quotes President Oaks, who reminds us that this life is not about enduring, but transforming.
“The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become.”
To become something more: to experience the transformation President Oaks describes, we must be open to being shown our own shortcomings. Elder Christofferson teaches:
“one particular attitude and practice we need to adopt if we are to meet our Heavenly Father’s high expectations. It is this: willingly to accept and even seek correction… Though it is often difficult to endure, truly we ought to rejoice that God considers us worth the time and trouble to correct.”
Elder Christofferson initially focuses on “divine correction” – that is, correction that comes to us from a loving Father in Heaven, often through the Holy Ghost. He tells us that this correction can come in a number of ways:
“It may come in the course of our prayers as God speaks to our mind and heart through the Holy Ghost (see D&C 8:2). It may come in the form of prayers that are answered no or differently than we had expected. Chastening may come as we study the scriptures and are reminded of deficiencies, disobedience, or simply matters neglected.”
But those aren’t the only ways that correction can come. It can even come from our brothers and sisters around us: from those with priesthood callings, family members, or even from an observer we might initially deem as judgmental and “mean-spirited.”
“Correction can come through others, especially those who are God-inspired to promote our happiness. Apostles, prophets, patriarchs, bishops, and others have been put into the Church today, just as anciently, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). Perhaps some of the things said in this conference have come to you as a call to repentance or change, which if heeded will lift you to a higher place. We can help one another as fellow Church members; it is one of the primary reasons that the Savior established a church. Even when we encounter mean-spirited criticism from persons who have little regard or love for us, it can be helpful to exercise enough meekness to weigh it and sift out anything that might benefit us.” (emphasis added)
I find that last line fascinating: what exactly can I learn from someone who cannot even treat me with the respect I deserve? How am I supposed to benefit from others’ mean-spirited comments?
How the Hippo Lost His Hair
Elder Christofferson’s comments reminded me of a fantastic little parable from the book Where’s the Gift?
Back when the world was still brand new, Hippo was not hairless like he is today. He had a beautiful fur coat and a thick mane. Hippo took full credit for its beauty and luster and showed it off whenever he could. In fact, Hippo would grow quite ill-tempered at night because the darkness hid his coat from the envious glances of other animals.
Thanks to his elegant fur, Hippo didn’t need to sleep near the fire like the others – his coat kept him warm. Even so, each night Hippo would lie just a little closer to the flames. He wanted the light from the fire to shine on his fur so everyone could admire it day and night.
One evening majestic Lion gave Hippo a friendly warning. “My dear Hippo, it might not be safe to sleep so close to the fire. I suggest you move farther away.”
Hippo ignored him. “Lion is just jealous,” he thought. “Jealous because all the animals can see both day and night that my coat is better than his.”
Jackal was also worried about Hippo’s coat catching fire. Jackal, however, despite her great intellect, did not have great tact. “You big hairy oaf,” grated Jackal. “Your inflated pride is matched only by your girth, and it’s going to get you into trouble one of these days.”
Hippo was indignant. “I didn’t ask for her opinion! How dare she speak to me like that. When she learns how to treat me with respect, I will listen.”
Soon after, disaster struck. Hippo slept just a little too close to the fire. A stray spark flew into his fur and his exquisite coat burst into flames. Hippo made a desperate dash for the river, but by the time he got there it was too late. Although he couldn’t see it in the darkness, his fur was gone. He spent the rest of the night in the cool waters of the river.
When the sun rose the next morning, Hippo climbed onto the riverbank and shook himself off. He turned to admire his reflection in the water. Instead of a thick glossy coat, Hippo only saw charred flesh.
“If only I had listened to Lion, or even Jackal!” he wailed, then immediately plunged back into the water. To this day, to hide his embarrassment, Hippo spends the sunlit hours buried in the waters of the river. Only at night does he venture out, when he can eat without worrying who might catch a glimpse of his hideous hairless hide.
Some years ago (before I knew better), I decided to participate in a political discussion with a Facebook friend. I was spending more of my downtime on the computer at the time; I’d been in a car accident that had broken my wrist, and my choice of activities was significantly limited by the thumb spica cast I wore from my forearm to halfway up my fingers. As is the case with most online dialogues, it was ultimately a fruitless venture. In the end, we were left with the same views we’d started with. I figured that was the end of it.
A few days later I saw the mother of my friend. Somewhat passive-aggressively, she said to me, “Oh, look at your hand! It’s amazing you were able to be so rude with one hand. I’d hate to see what you could do with two hands.”
OH NO SHE DIDN’T.
Internally, I was fuming. I wanted to shout back, “At least it’s just a broken bone – a cast ain’t gonna fix brain damage!”
(I didn’t, by the way.)
How dare she insult me like that! And so passive-aggressively! How spineless!
I thought, “I’m MAD! I’m FURIOUS! I’m…”
Oh my goodness, I’m a hippo.
I didn’t appreciate what she’d said. I didn’t appreciate how she’d said it. And I certainly didn’t agree with her nonsense assessment that I had been “rude.”
But did any of that matter?
Leaving aside the specific content in what she told me, the fact that she’d said anything told me something. Evidently, something about the way that I conducted myself could convey hardness, insensitivity, and rudeness.
And I could learn from that.
Stepping back from the frustration over her passive-aggressive dig helped me learn something about how I could be better. In the same way, God can help inspire all of us about what we can improve, even when that inspiration is catalyzed by the (potentially incorrect) feedback of another. David Brinkley said, “Successful people are those who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at them.” Bricks hurt, of course, perhaps especially incorrect or passive-aggressive bricks, but if we accept them, we can build a powerful foundation.
Still, surely I wasn’t the only who needed to learn something here. At worst, I’m a Jackal, and that makes my Facebook buddy a Hippo. She should learn how to take feedback better, right?
The short answer is, “Who cares?’
Could she have responded better? Of course.
Could ‘mama bear’ have responded better? Of course.
But is that what I should be focused on? No!
I should be looking for bricks. The fact that I was chastised in the first place tells me that I probably didn’t accomplish what I set out to do. In this case, I was trying to participate in a civil and productive discussion; that didn’t happen. Instead of being concerned about whether or not the Hippo keeps sleeping close to the fire, I should be looking for bricks that help me successfully reach my purpose next time, that help me be better, that help me transform.
I encourage you to look a bit more closely at the feedback – even the mean-spirited feedback – that you receive. It’s easy to “block” or otherwise ignore someone who calls us out for misbehavior, whether that’s improving the language we use or better sustaining our Church leaders or receiving others with kindness and grace, but what then? We miss out.
Even if a gift of feedback is a bit rough around the edges, it’s not a stretch to think that there is a nugget of truth contained within and with the help of a loving God and his Holy Spirit, we can begin the process of repentance and change that will enrich our lives. We can be transformed, and even that social media “edgelord” or ideological opponent can be the person who kick-starts our transformation.
Elder Christofferson promises us,
“All of us can meet God’s high expectations, however great or small our capacity and talent may be. Moroni affirms, “If ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is [God’s] grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32). It is a diligent, devoted effort on our part that calls forth this empowering and enabling grace, an effort that certainly includes submission to God’s chastening hand and sincere, unqualified repentance. Let us pray for His love-inspired correction.
“May God sustain you in your striving to meet His high expectations and grant you a full measure of the happiness and peace that naturally follow.”
You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat.