In the past couple weeks, I've ended up having conversations with several different people about a sad thing.
It seems like there are a lot of people in our church these days who are looking for more rules and more specific doctrine when it comes to how we should dress, what we should eat and drink, what we should believe politically, that sort of thing. Lots of people seem to be seeking after clear black and white answers in areas where the Lord has only offered guidelines or strong suggestions. I've read carefully through "For the Strength of Youth" and the primary, YW and Relief Society manuals as well as other official church materials and you know what? There aren't very many hard and fast "do's" and "don't's." In most places where guidelines are offered, words like "generally" or "should" are used rather than "always" or "must." Often, official church materials suggest that we pray for guidance as we strive to figure out what is right given the unique situations we may find ourselves in.
To me, it seems clear that the Lord wants us to figure out a lot of things for ourselves. As any loving father would do, God offers us a lot of guidelines and counsel. But also, as a loving and wise father would do and in keeping with the free agency that this life is all about, He stops short of giving us specific and complete directions and rules about everything. Long, long ago, God did away with the Law of Moses - the lower law of hard-and-fast long lists of specific "do's" and "don't's" - and replaced it with more nuanced laws. Love God. Love each other. Be Chaste. Be generous. Be modest. Be healthy. . . Through modern prophets, He's offered us very helpful guidelines to help us figure out how to live His commandments. But beyond a relatively few very specific rules, he leaves it up to us to figure out what obedience should specifically look like in our lives.
I applaud people for seeking for guidance about specifics on how to best obey God's laws in their own lives. I think it's important and commendable when people develop personal standards that are strict and that involve sacrifice. But what bothers me is when some people use their personal understanding of what a guideline might mean to judge someone else.
It made me sad to hear about a primary leader making a big deal about sleeveless dresses not being modest while several little girls in pretty summer dresses without sleeves are sitting right there in the room (what are they supposed to think? That their moms committed a sin by purchasing and dressing them in such clothes? That they are capable of tempting men with their shoulders?...). It made me sad to hear of a Young Women's leader asking the 14 and 15-year-old girls in her class on Sunday whether they were going to the casual no-date school dance that weekend, then proceeding to tell them (after most of the girls raised their hands) that the prophet has taught that they should not be attending dances until they are 16 (I guess you could interpret some of the guidelines that way but that would be a personal or family choice, not something to preach as doctrine). It made me sad to hear about a young boy who saw a relative drink Coke and was seriously worried about this relative's soul.
I wish we could all focus more on the things that seem much more important to me based on the scriptures and what our church leaders talk about the most - loving others and seeking personal revelation and working out our own salvation.
Anyway, the thoughts and conversations that have popped up in the past couple weeks led me to really notice this passage in the scriptures this week:
"For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure...yea there were envyings and strive and malice and persecutions and pride even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God..." (Alma 4:8-9).
Don't get me wrong. I think the vast majority of the members of my church around the world are good people who are doing their best. And I don't see people outright persecuting each other much at church. But I do think that if we get caught up in the letter of the law and try to interpret what is right for anyone other than ourselves and our own families, we are led to some dangerous pride. And that can lead us to quiet and/or outwardly friendly persecution as well as strife. This pride and strife can really hurt fragile testimonies of others and cause us to loose our focus on the things that matter most - like loving each other and advancing our faith in Christ - while we get distracted by smaller things that may not matter very much in the grand scheme of things.