“According to the Strength of the Good…”

When I was a younger man reading the Book of Mormon, I would freak out when I got to Jacob 5. It was so long and so weird (I couldn’t get past the dunging). Now I freak out with excitement. There is SO much to glean from every verse.

One phrase in particular has changed the way I view everything about the Church, and, strangely, I don’t hear it quoted very much. It’s towards the end of the chapter when the Lord of the Vineyard was almost ready to give up on his trees, but He decides to give it one last chance. What is His plan to revive a corrupted tree? Is it to declare an all-out war on all the imperfections? No, He gives clear instructions:

And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once (Jacob 5:65).

This last pruning of the vineyard (which consequentially represents our day) turned out to be the most successful which leaves us to ponder what this principle means and how it set the vineyard up for a successful, albeit drawn out, restoration.

I don’t pretend to currently understand all the implications of this principle, but two things are clear to me:

  1. We should not despair when we observe weaknesses (bad branches) in the Church. Weaknesses in the Church have always existed and shouldn’t be a cause for giving up on it.
  2. When we do observe bitter fruit, instead of abandoning the tree, we should double our efforts to increase the size and strength of the good so that the bad can be dispelled! That is the antidote.

Have you seen those lists of the “17 characteristics of the true church of God”? One characteristic of the church evident in the Old and New Testaments, in the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants that I’ve never seen on any of the lists is that the Church isn’t and has never been perfect. It has problems, always. After all, it is made up of humans. What do you expect? Weak branches are easy to find, especially if you’re looking for them.

When I find myself beginning to feel frustrated about weaknesses I observe, especially within the culture of the Church, I take some comfort in reading some of these verses in the Book of Mormon:

Nevertheless, there were many among [the church] who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists (Alma 1:22).

Well, I’ve seen a couple heated arguments in Sunday School, but nothing that bad!

And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress (Alma 4:10).

I’ve also never seen anything so bad as to use the phrase “the wickedness of the Church,” nor have I seen it “fail in its progress.”

And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church—not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God (Helaman 3:33).

This one does hit a little closer to home. The way it’s worded makes the problem much more real; most of the time, there isn’t a problem with the church, but with the hearts of those of us who profess to belong to it.

So there you have it, if the Church is a tree, there are imperfect branches. So why remain faithful? Is it really worth it to put in so much work and devotion when there is real potential for disappointment? When there’s still potential to occasionally bite wholeheartedly into a piece of bitter fruit?

Yes, for two reasons.

First and foremost, it’s the roots. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rooted in our Lord Jesus Christ. He was called to be perfect, the rest of us were called to pass through intense imperfection as the only way to become perfected like Him. The Church houses the priesthood of God and “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:20). When He said He was restoring the “fullness of the gospel” that didn’t mean it would be perfect. That simply meant the Church would contain all the truths and power necessary to teach us and give us what we need on our path to immortality and eternal life. Even one of the Articles of Faith alludes to the imperfection of the Church. “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 1:9). If you think about it, if God’s purpose is to perfect us, belonging to a perfect Church where we agreed with everybody and everything would be much less successful at accomplishing that.

Second of all, luckily for us, Jacob 5 doesn’t just give us the problem, but a real solution. If we are aggravated by the bad, we must cultivate and grow the good!!! We can’t get rid of the bad until the good surpasses it! When you choose not to focus so much on the weaknesses and look for opportunities to grow the good, the opportunities are endless.

I started to list them out, but first of all, that’s boring and cliché. Second of all, you already know everything I can put in a list. Let me instead share a couple experiences where I’ve found ways to grow the good.

I am annoyed that Mormons equate all types of reverence with being quiet (might have something to do with being raised in the South). It has resulted in quiet hymns that should be more jubilant, and worse, 200 people mumbling the word “amen” after talks and prayers. When I realized how much this bugged me, I decided to take action. Where I used to subconsciously try to sound nice while I sang hymns, now I try to sound like I’m enjoying singing. I sing like I mean it, and it makes me smile. Now, when a talk is over, I firmly enunciate the word “Amen!” And if it was a really good talk, I may even draw it out a little like I really mean it “Aaaamen!” It makes me smile. It makes me feel good. Instead of just focusing on the bad and judging others, I am finding good fruit and enjoying it and hoping that eventually leads to the good fruit spreading.

My wife has had similar experiences. In her own words:

“I was trying to figure out what women’s place is in the church, and feeling really discouraged that things weren’t changing. My husband told me he could get me a pass to BYU Women’s conference and my initial thought was, ‘It’ll just be more of the same. Relief Society voices, regurgitating the same sugar coated placation.’ The Holy Ghost, on the other hand, said, ‘Go.’ So, I went. The message I came away with was, ‘It’s happening!  All the things I want to see in myself and women in the church, they’re happening! Women are powerful! I am powerful!’ It was not what I was expecting but it was true and exactly what I needed. Often when we reach a point of pain our natural reaction is to disengage, to back away, to disconnect; creating distance from ourselves and the thing that’s causing us pain. There might be times when we should step away and regroup, there is clarity in that space too, but more often than not it’s when I dive in deeper that I find the answers, peace, healing, and power that I’m looking for.

Elder Donald L. Hallstrom gave a talk in 2012 that addressed similar topics. In the talk entitled “Converted to His Gospel through His Church,” Elder Hallstrom distinguishes between what the Church is and what the gospel is and gives counsel for how focusing on the gospel can help us grow in our appreciation for the Church. He says,

Unite the gospel with the Church. As we concentrate on the gospel, the Church will become more, not less, of a blessing in our lives. As we come to each meeting prepared to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), the Holy Spirit will be our teacher. If we come to be entertained, we often will be disappointed. President Spencer W. Kimball was once asked, “What do you do when you find yourself in a boring sacrament meeting?” His response: “I don’t know. I’ve never been in one” (quoted by Gene R. Cook, in Gerry Avant, “Learning Gospel Is Lifetime Pursuit,” Church News, Mar. 24, 1990, 10).”

I’ve known members of the Church who once had very strong testimonies become painfully aware of weaknesses in the Church and declare all-out war on those weak branches. That approach usually has not ended well. I understand that it takes a ton of patience, and that it can be a painful process to feel like so many people in the same church as you support and foster practices that are grating to you. It’s like you’ve realized how shallow the pool is and want to get out without realizing there is a deep end. Dive deeper. You’ll find so much good, and you might find more people than you supposed working on finding that same good fruit.

I’ll leave you with verse 66 from Jacob 5 which restates the same principle as 65 in a powerful way:

For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow…until the good shall overcome the bad.

We’re not being asked to ignore the bad and pretend like it’s not real, we’re just being given a real way to overcome it, by growing the good. I’ve had way too many witnesses that these roots are good and true to abandon this tree. I’m going to do all I can to grow the good.

Note: I would be very sad if someone reading this interpreted the idea of “bad fruit” as individual people. That would break my heart. I’m speaking of practices and ideas that are weaknesses in the Church. Not individuals.