Today’s guest post is from long-time respected commenter Janey. Janey is a single mom who was active in the Church up into her 40s. She’s lived in Utah pretty much her entire life and currently works as a lawyer.
The second time I heard a nice LDS woman describe child sexual abuse as a mistake, I realized the Church had done some real damage by dropping the word “sin” and replacing it with “mistake.” A few years back, I spent all ten hours of General Conference listening to see if any of the speakers used the word “sin.” One speaker referred to both “mistakes” and “serious mistakes,” but no one called anything a “sin.” There’s a difference between committing a sin and making a mistake, and it’s an important one. Christ never used the word “mistake” (see Topical Guide). He called people to repentance for their sins; mistakes are not a religious issue.
Combining sins and mistakes has really messed up the definitions of right and wrong. To further confuse the question of right and wrong, the Church has turned morally neutral personal preferences into tests of faith and obedience.
Let’s untangle mistakes, sins and personal preferences.
Mistakes. A mistake is an unintentional action that is generally morally neutral. You make a mistake when you mix up a date, for example, so you aren’t prepared to teach the Primary lesson. Mistakes can cause a lot of harm – like a moment’s inattention while driving can cause an accident. Mistakes are, at most, irresponsible, but they aren’t a sign of moral decay. You don’t need to repent for a mistake; you apologize, do your best to fix it, and move on.
Sins. A sin is a deliberate action that violates God’s laws. God’s laws can be summarized into two categories: love God and love your neighbor (see Luke 10:27). So let’s break sin into two categories: sins against God and sins against your neighbor.
The sins against other people condemned in the scriptures include adultery, physical violence and murder (unless God commands a war), lying, stealing, taking advantage of widows and orphans, oppressing the hireling in his wages and refusing to help someone. Sins hurt people. Many sins against people reflect universal morals and form the basis of some of our secular laws.
Sins against God listed in the scriptures include actions like taking the Lord’s name in vain, not keeping the Sabbath day holy, not observing religious feasts, worshiping other gods and failing to pay tithes. Religious believers take these sins seriously, but non-religious people would consider them morally neutral. Sinning against God doesn’t really cause objective harm to another person. No one gets hurt if you quit keeping the Sabbath day holy, or quit paying tithing. These actions are important to a church community, but not to secular society.
Personal Preferences. A personal preference is a decision you make about yourself. Probably the most famous “personal preference turned into a commandment” story is the Earring Story. In 2000, President Hinckley announced that women should not have double-pierced ears (among other instructions). Hinckley, Gordon B. “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother.” Ensign, October 2000. A few years later, Elder Bednar told a story about a young man who was dating a young woman with double-pierced ears. After President Hinckley’s announcement, she didn’t remove her second set of earrings. Because this young woman did not heed the prophet’s counsel, the young man broke up with her. Elder Bednar clearly approved of this.
Before President Hinckley’s talk, ear piercings were just a matter of personal preference and were morally neutral. After President Hinckley’s talk, ear piercings became a way to judge someone’s faith and obedience.
Another personal preference turned into a test of faith is accepting callings. How we spend our free time, and what we’re willing to do or not do as a volunteer, should be a personal preference but instead it is a test of our faith and obedience. The Word of Wisdom takes some morally neutral drinks and turns them into tests of obedience. Whether or not you like the word “Mormon” used to be a personal preference.
The Church has backed off on some personal decisions. The Church used to discourage birth control, but now that’s a decision left to the husband and wife. Traditional gender roles are still seen as an obedience test, though it’s one that many women are willing to fail. A woman’s decision to stay at home full-time or have a career is a personal preference and family decision.
The Church pushes hard at personal boundaries, whether expecting our free time and money, or just insisting that we defer to priesthood leaders on matters of opinion. The following statements ought to be seen as morally neutral, but instead are more likely to be seen as disobedience, or at least a bad attitude:
- “No, I don’t want to spend my Saturdays as the building cleaning coordinator.”
- “I’m choosing to get offended; you owe me an apology.”
- “I like the word Mormon.”
- “We’re not planning to have children until we both finish school, and then we’re hoping for just one or two.”
- “I don’t think the world’s greatest problem is the breakdown of the family. I’m more worried about climate change and wealth inequality.”
- “I’m not going on a mission.”
The Church has essentially created a new category of wrongdoing – disagreeing with modern prophets. Most of these decrees from modern prophets were morally neutral actions until the Church leaders made them a test of our obedience and faith.
Much of the guilt that an ordinary Church member feels may just be disagreements with modern prophets. Is it a sin to hate your calling? No, it’s a personal preference about the way you spend your free time. Is it a mistake to have fewer children than your mother had? No, that’s a personal decision. Is it disobedient to not go on a full-time mission? Well, now it is.
Prayer and faith may change some of your personal preferences. Some things really are just about your attitude. I’ve learned to like people that I didn’t like at first. I’ve liked callings that I initially didn’t want. But there are people I never liked no matter how much I prayed to have charity for them, and callings I asked to be released from. It took a long time for me to stop feeling guilty about these “sins and mistakes” and realize that they were really nothing more than ordinary likes and dislikes.
The Church spends more time instructing its members about these “prophetic personal preference” sins than it does in preaching against scriptural sins, or other actions that hurt people. It comes off as controlling and petty rather than concerned with making the world a better place. It also leaves some members confused about whether it’s worse to get a tattoo or to verbally abuse your kid.
For the Church (any church) to remain relevant, it needs to be seen as a credible source for morality. The hard work of being a moral beacon involves holding wrongdoers accountable and being very clear about right and wrong. Calling serious sins a mistake leaves the impression that the Church doesn’t understand how to distinguish between right and wrong and that it won’t hold wrongdoers accountable. Turning personal preferences into commandments trivializes real morality. Ultimately, the Church weakens its moral authority when it mashes sins, mistakes and personal preferences all together.
- Have you seen Church members confused about the relative seriousness of sins against other people, sins against God and personal disagreements with modern-day prophets?
- Do you think that all sins and misconduct are basically equal because we all need to repent?
- Do you think committing scriptural sins against God and/or sinning against the teachings of modern-day prophets causes harm?
- What would restore/strengthen the Church’s moral authority for you personally?
Great post Janey. I really enjoyed reading your take on a problem that the modern Church seems to be struggling with if only because it is something that they have largely ignored. I have written a book that touches on this topic that you might find interesting. Here is a link.
Amazon.com: The Gospel – as simple as ABC: A Thematic Approach to The Gospel of Jesus Christ Based on Personality Psychology eBook : Cooper, Robert: Kindle Store
But we are not alone in this. In 1994 Elder Oaks spoke at a devotional expounding on this very topic. Here is a link to a news article on his talk.
Mistakes, sins different in nature, treatment, Elder Oaks explains – Church News (thechurchnews.com)
I also like a book by Wendy Ulrich where she outlines her thesis on the difference between sin and mistakes.
Weakness Is Not Sin: The Liberating Distinction That Awakens Our Strengths – Deseret Book
I look forward to reading more from you in the future.
All the best,
This might blow up the simulation we are all living in but here goes: If it’s a sin to disobey a prophet’s guidance while at the same time we are told that prophets aren’t perfect and at the same time we are told that we should exercise agency but that life’s major decisions have already been made for us if we are a baptized member of Church….what’s the point of life for a TBM? Is it all about just following the operating manual like a robot would with no regard to moral decision making?
I’ve read many posts here at W&T…this is one of my favorites. Just this Sunday in EQ I spoke out (gently) against the “handbook-ization” of family life (and also indirectly against the same trend in the church). The transmutation of “prophetic” opinion into quasi-commandment (and by corollary viewing disregard for those opinions as rebellion or even sin) is a dangerous thing. I had not noticed the movement towards “mistake” and away from sin…much to think about!
I love this point about treating adherence to a church leader’s personal preference as if they were as or more important than avoiding sin. Great way to frame the issue.
Bob, thank you for the recommendations and the kind words. I looked up the book by Ulrich and I think she’s talking about the inverse problem I was hoping to focus on in my post. My concern is that the Church focuses so much on actions that AREN’T sins, and on making sure people know that these are just mistakes or weaknesses, that they’ve confused people about what sins are. There’s so much taught about everything being a mistake that the two women I referred to in my first paragraph thought that sexual abuse of a child was just a mistake.
I couldn’t find Elder Oaks’ article in a search, and the link in your post must not have come thru. And I read as much of your book as Amazon would let me on the ‘free look inside.’ Perhaps I should have put this post through another couple of drafts!
My point was that the Church spends too much time cautioning people against actions that really aren’t bad actions, to the point that real wrongs, real sins, real damage, gets treated as somehow the moral equivalent of turning down a calling or getting your ears double-pierced. Does that make sense? Like the man who faithfully fulfills his calling and sighs sadly about his nephew getting a tattoo, all the while he’s verbally abusing his wife and beating his kids. He figures the way he treats his wife and kids isn’t as bad as getting a tattoo or turning down a calling.
Or a woman who wears her garments, pays her tithing, holds a temple recommend, and doesn’t think twice about keeping that second set of books at work so her company doesn’t have to pay out full commissions to their salespeople – after all, everyone does it and it’s not like she’s robbing a store at gunpoint. In fact, this way she pays more tithing!
josh h – that’s an insightful question, and probably one that most of us at W&T have pondered!
Thanks for your comments, Jade and April. I was a bit nervous about my first post, and I appreciate the warm welcome.
“The Church has essentially created a new category of wrongdoing – disagreeing with modern prophets. Most of these decrees from modern prophets were morally neutral actions until the Church leaders made them a test of our obedience and faith. ”
Excellent point, well stated. Are so many artificial tests of obedience really just tests of loyalty to the institution? Let’s see who we really can count on? Let’s separate the wheat from the tares? Church leader worship? Ego? Distract from the lack of nourishment many members feel by giving something concrete to measure obedience?
I wonder if the sacred cow of personal preference is premarital sex.
Janey, I’m curious about your take on crocs, sweats, honkytonks and Seven-11’s where the masses congregate – sin or mistake?
Fantastic post Janey.
These are really important points. So much time and air seems to be expended on stuff that shouldn’t matter, at the expense of things that really should matter.
I was horrified by a speaker in sacrament meeting shortly before the last general conference. The crux of his talk was that gathering together and experiencing that group belonging, coming to believe that the cats we’re seeing are dogs (I might have got the animals the wrong way about, he was referencing a psychology experiment) was a good thing! It was jaw dropping in the sheer nerve of the idea! And that we go to general conference to get our “marching orders” for the next six months. Help!
Two favorite ideas from your piece:
1) This line:
“For the Church (any church) to remain relevant, it needs to be seen as a credible source for morality.” Yup. Between never being taught about consent at church, Prop 8, and the POX, I lost trust in the church as a moral authority about sex. When I see it as failing on such a big moral topic, everything else falls apart.
2) Your list of sins against other people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these sins all spelled out and grouped together like this. I would love for church class time and sermons to spend more time discussing these. Church might feel more political, but also like we are grappling with real problems, as opposed to obedience tests. I would love to work on real problems at church. The push to help refugees was great, but then they released the women who were working on it
I agree that not following prophetic guidance is used by some leaders as a “strength of faith” indicator. But is there any official language that indicates that it is a sin? Of course if the prophet is counseling us to obey commandments and we choose not to obey, it would be considered a sin, but what about the personal preference stuff? Like if someone decides to get 2+ ear piercings, watches an R-rated movie, or doesn’t get the C0vid vaccine, have any of the brethren said this is sinful behavior?
Regarding the preference stuff, it seems like I have heard more along the lines of “you’ll be safe if you follow the prophet”, rather than “you’re a sinner if you don’t follow the prophet”.
BTW – thanks for the post Janey!
I think the reason that violations of business law and ethics (second sets of books, cheating on taxes, not paying a fair wage, etc.) are not viewed as sins in the modern church is that most Latter-day Saints are morally informed more by their political ideology (conservative) rather than by a careful analysis of the two great commandments. For many of today’s conservatives, greed is good. If one wants to test this, teach or testify about being your brother’s keeper, protecting the environment or adopting a nuanced view of abortion which includes women’s health and rights (you can repeat the church’s policy on abortion). You’ll be called a “liberal” or worse… and by implication viewed as a “lesser” Latter-day Saint.
Adding to my lexicon: “prophetic personal preference” sins
There are several excellent points here. First, it is wrong to equate the personal preference of any person to a sin. That is why hymns such as Praise to the Man should be abolished. We should give praise to God, not man.
While each person is free to act on personal preference when deciding where to go, who to be with, and what to wear, that does not mean that every choice is a good one. Those with the wisdom of experience do know a great deal about how time can be spent productively.
No reasonable person can deny that far too many young people today are spending their time unproductively. Hanging out in parents’ basements playing violent, sexually explicit video games day after day does nothing to benefit society at large. Nor does spending evening after evening hanging out at honky tonks, Dairy Queens, or 7-Elevens. That is irrefutable fact.
In short, Janey is absolutely correct that designation of sin is up to God, not man. But that does not mean that every possible choice benefits society as a whole. Nor does it mean that lounging around in sweatpants and crocs watching hot dog eating contests on television is as important as feeding the homeless. There must be some common sense in the equation.
Paraphrasing American investigative journalist Fred J. Cook: [Mormons] have abandoned their personal morality for a collective, institutionalized morality. They have abandoned thoughtful conviction for compromised sentimentality. They have abandoned responsibility for obedience.
Janey: Great inaugural post! I am reminded of an incident a British friend of mine shared years ago about E. Packer. There were a few apostles doing a meeting in the UK, and my friend was helping coordinate with them. One of the more junior apostles mentioned something he intended to instruct people in his remarks that was his own personal opinion about something. E. Packer stopped him and said that he would learn just how important it was NOT to do that because the membership will take these opinions and turn them into hard and fast rules, so you should only share your opinions sparingly. I mean, let’s be honest, great story and all, but this from the guy who wrote a talk about the Unwritten Order which literally codified his own preferences as de facto doctrine, LOL. Perhaps he cautioned the junior apostle because he just didn’t agree with that specific opinion!
love this. Also, I had no idea you were a fellow lawyer! makes so much sense …
I think this is something we would do well to understand and teach more clearly.
//Janey, I’m curious about your take on crocs, sweats, honkytonks and Seven-11’s where the masses congregate – sin or mistake?//
I think crocs, sweats, honkytonks and 7-11s are firmly in the category of personal preference. Dressing sloppily and comfortably is not a sin at all, nor is it a mistake. Dress for the situation – don’t wear sweats to a job interview, but by all means, wear sweats and crocs to hang out at honkytonks or 7-11s. Also, hanging out at honkytonks and 7-11s can be quality friend time. Go for it! We should all hang out with friends more often. Enjoy yourself and say hi to your friends from me.
Hedgehog, just to make sure I understood …
//The crux of his talk was that gathering together and experiencing that group belonging, coming to believe that the cats we’re seeing are dogs (I might have got the animals the wrong way about, he was referencing a psychology experiment) was a good thing!//
This speaker was saying that it was a good thing to change the definitions of right and wrong? Or to believe false facts? Because wow, I’m horrified by that too. It’s interesting he would admit that’s what is going on. Like believing a different set of facts is some kind of initiation.
I agree completely that the Church fails to teach important concepts about sex. The law of chastity really needs an update. I’ve toyed with the idea of posting about “The Law of Chastity if Written by Women”.
And wouldn’t it make for a fascinating discussion to talk about all the ways we sin against other people? In my job, I’m in a position to see the effects of major dishonesty, like swindling someone out of their retirement savings, not just the “I didn’t return $0.35 cents to the store when I got too much change.” Our actions that hurt another human being ought to be the focus of moral teachings.
bwb, I haven’t heard Church leaders call the ‘personal preference’ actions a sin, but I don’t hear them call anything a sin anymore. I mean, even terrible actions only get called “serious mistakes.” Double-pierced ears are not a sin. Neither is sexually harassing your employee. It’s all just mistakes anymore.
Old Man, that is a really interesting observation. I’d never put words to the idea that ‘greed is good’ but you’re right. Megacorporations and billionaires are considered success stories, and I hadn’t thought of that before. I keep hoping the antitrust laws and tax laws will reduce megacorporations and billionaires both!
Bishop Bill, did you like my alliteration? I was channeling Elder Maxwell! re: “prophetic personal preference”
JCS – I agree with your comment. Some actions are of more value than other actions. I’m more tolerant of lazy and unproductive behavior than you are, but I definitely agree that there is more value to society in feeding the homeless than in playing video games.
That’s a really good quote, CM.
Angela, yeah that story is ironic coming from Elder Packer! I was specifically remembering his guilt trips about turning down callings while writing this post. He caused me so much anxiety about callings.
//The Law of Chastity if Written by Women//
Write it!!! That sounds like it could lead to a fascinating discussion.
Eliza, that was certainly the message I got. Although it’s not completely clear the speaker fully grasped the implications.He started off talking about an experiment in which everyone believed they were being shown the same image of cat/dog and asked to identify what they’d seen, but a minority had seen dog/cat. Said some just went along with what others said (which sounded eerily similar to the introduction I had given to my last sacrament meeting talk February 2020 on the subject of truth, and which I posted here. https://wheatandtares.org/2020/03/05/truth-a-sacrament-meeting-talk/), but went in totally the opposite direction. He moved onto talking about group effect and being in an audience and checking round to see how everyone else is reacting to the performance before deciding how we’re going to react – clapping, cheering etc, and then moved onto group effects being one of the benefits we get from watching general conference… it’s up there in my short list of most disturbing sacrament meeting talks. (Ironically the speaker had been the bishopric member who had asked me to speak back then, and was himself speaking as a high council member giving the required pre general conference pep talk..)
The other most disturbing talk was by a lovely woman who started her talk some years ago by saying how great it is we have prophets so we can just do what they tell us and don’t have to think about it.
Great analysis, Janey. As a person who fell out of activity decades ago, I’m still sort of taken aback at how it seems the institutional church seems to have lost the thread when it comes to simple differences between preferences and actual harm. The horrors perpetrated in AZ and documented by the AP are, to me anyway, the clearest indication yet that the church’s moral compass not longer finds true north. If you’re the true church led by Christ himself, then by definition everything you do is God’s will. What destructive, circular logic.
My comment should be addressed to Janey, not Eliza.. sorry Janey!
+1 on the request for a post about if the LoC were written either BY or FOR women. It would absolutely look nothing like what we currently have, or so I think.
SEXUAL ASSAULT REFERENCES AHEAD, SO BEWARE…
We were recently watching Outlander, a series many women especially have watched, and we often muse about the fact that in this rendition of the past, there are about 2 rapes per episode. A discussion ensued about whether this or that specific assault constituted “rape” or just “assault,” which boiled down to penetration. I have to say, as a woman, that I just don’t think sex = penetration is or should be the definition of sex (and by default rape). I do know that it’s got a long history (Romans for example considered “being penetrated” as the ultimate own.) I don’t think it’s accurate to delineate such a chasm between “attempted rape” and “rape” on that basis alone. But again, this was just a discussion about a TV show. Carry on.
I find a meaningful confluence between @John Charity Spring and @Janey emphasizing the importance of feeding the homeless, and @Old Man’s “greed is good”, and @Janey’s “I keep hoping the antitrust laws and tax laws will reduce megacorporations and billionaires”.
Feeding the homeless matters a lot. It must be combined with working to PREVENT the factors that lead to homelessness.
Homelessness is a canary in a coal mine. @JCS’s disparagement of the younger generation for playing video games in their parents’ basements reflects a real life futility for their efforts, vs their ability to be self-sustaining, or even thriving.
Great post. You put into words what I’ve long disliked–how opinions and preferences, when uttered by those our culture esteems, can so easily and wrongly get turned into judgment clubs wielded by others. My feeling is that the Savior holds such modern-day pharisees in the same contempt as the old ones. There’s also a tremendous onus on church leaders (who know how easily an expressed preference can take on a life of its own) to help prevent the creation of such judgment clubs in the first place.