Truth Telling and Personal Growth
in Faith Communities
May Hansen (pseudonym) is a returned missionary and a lifelong member of the Church living in Utah.
I believe that each of us is a pilgrim on our own spiritual journey but that, for most of us, such a journey takes place, at least in part, through participation in a faith community. The Church is mine, and what I have to say about faith communities takes place within the context of a life lived within that community. I define a faith community as a group of individuals who enjoy common bonds of friendship and love, who share their spiritual journeys, and who accept certain basic spiritual beliefs. These characteristics of faith communities often interact with and have an effect on each other. The relationships between members of a faith community play an integral part in each member’s individual spiritual growth, and the spiritual values and beliefs of the members affect how they interact with and care for one another. I believe that personal truth telling plays an essential role in both of these functions of a faith community and that both are significantly limited when personal truth telling is limited.
Genuine personal growth, including spiritual growth, begins with an honest acknowledgement of where we are—of how we really think and feel, at any given point in time. Real progress requires enough self-knowledge to be honest with ourselves and the freedom to be honest with others. Tomorrow’s understanding emerges from today’s genuine life experiences. If we are forbidden from acknowledging today’s truth as we experience it, tomorrow’s growth and greater understanding may never come.
Since all of us are imperfect and our lives are still works in progress, where we are at any given point in time as far as our understanding of truth is concerned will contain some error. Sometimes we will be wrong in our understanding of truth. So what? Each of our lives is a journey towards greater truth and love, and no one is expected to understand all truth from the start. Being wrong at times is one step along the pathway to learning all truth and a necessary and expected occurrence throughout our mortal lives. There is no shame in being honestly mistaken at times as we learn and grow. We see only in part during our mortal lives, and our beliefs and opinions often change over time as we have new experiences. I realize as I write this essay that I could be mistaken myself in what I have to say here, and it’s possible my views will change over time, but the words on this page are simply the truth of my own life as I understand it right now.
I believe that as long as we are honest with ourselves and others and remain humble and teachable, God will continue to expand our knowledge and understanding of truth throughout our lives. If some of our current beliefs are in error, I believe that eventually God can and will show us that error through our own life’s experiences, when we are ready and able to learn and understand each new truth for ourselves.
Personal truth telling can be inhibited in many ways. For example, truth telling can be seriously undermined during the formative years of a child’s life. When adults deny or invalidate a child’s perceptions of reality, the child may eventually lose touch with and come to doubt the validity of his or her own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Such children learn to accept other’s definitions of their experiences and to discount their own perceptions. They may also be treated in ways that are either physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive, while being told that this abusive treatment is actually concerned care and is being done for their own good. As adults these people may continue to discount their own perceptions and may not even consciously recognize when they are being treated abusively or even when they are abusing others.
Unhealthy emotional environments can also undermine personal truth telling. When we live in an environment where it is not safe to be honest with others, at times we may not even be honest with ourselves. We may not consciously acknowledge to ourselves what our real thoughts and feelings are. We may simply think and feel what we are taught to think and feel, what we will be loved and accepted for thinking and feeling. We fit ourselves to the procrustean bed, perhaps without even realizing that this is what we are doing.
Personal truth telling can also be undermined in faith communities, the very communities whose purpose it is to foster personal growth. While most faith communities are united in their acceptance of a few basic core beliefs, many different experiences and understandings of truth may flow from these core beliefs. For a faith community to be nurturing to the growth of all of its members, it must permit, and even encourage, personal truth telling. Each member must be supported in learning truth for himself or herself, so that when we speak truth it is our own truth—the truth of our own lives—and not a truth we were simply commanded to believe.
When our own personal truth as we experience it does not conform to a current norm or standard of truth telling, and when our faith community is intolerant of any experiences of truth which lie outside of the accepted norm, then we are left with two options. We can speak the truth of our own experience with the probable consequence of being ostracized by the larger community. Or we can lie by speaking only that truth which is deemed acceptable, even if this is not what we honestly think or feel, with the probable consequence of remaining acceptable to the community. But what point could there possibly be in lying when it comes to speaking the truth of our own lives? Surely there cannot be any real growth, let alone any spiritual salvation, in lying about how we really feel, or what we really think and want. And surely God knows when we tell such lies. Remaining silent to avoid disapproval or censure has the same effect as lying, because we obtain acceptance only by withholding our personal truth.
A group of people who are all at different places in their understanding of truth and who freely speak their own truth may not always be a highly efficient or homogenous group. Any individual member’s current understanding of truth may not always be in synchronization with the truth as it is experienced by other members of the community, including those in positions of authority. But when it comes to faith communities, perhaps effectiveness is better than efficiency. Perhaps it’s better to be effective at nurturing the personal growth of each individual member of the community than efficient at keeping everyone neatly organized—always in a straight line or a perfect pyramid.
Faith communities must, of necessity, have some boundaries by which the community defines itself and its members. However, as Reba Keele has pointed out, boundaries can be either exclusive (by defining who is not included in the group) or inclusive (by defining who is).1 For Mormon faith communities, some valid inclusive boundaries might include:
- Belief in God.
- Belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Belief in scripture as one medium through which Christ’s gospel can be revealed to us.
- Belief in Joseph Smith’s revelatory experiences and in the teachings of the Book of Mormon.
- Belief in the possibility and occurrence of continuing revelation from God in our own day and time.
- Turning one’s heart to God (repentance) and accepting Christ’s atonement through the ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
- A commitment to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those who mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness of God. (Mosiah 18:8-8).
If these inclusive boundaries were used to define a Mormon faith community, then anyone who shared these beliefs and had accepted these ordinances and commitments would be included in the community, even if he or she differed with other community members in an understanding or interpretation of any particular truth or in the practical application of any of these truths in his or her daily life.
For one person in a faith community to marginalize or exclude another for not seeing all truth in exactly the same way is highly counterproductive. Even if your version of the truth is ultimately correct, to force others to agree with you or else be cast out prevents them from coming to their own genuine understanding of the truth through the exercise of their own free agency.
Those in mutually agreed-upon positions of authority in faith communities usually feel a sacred duty to proclaim truth and correct error. I believe that it is possible to perform this function without undermining the truth telling of the other members of the community. Those in positions of authority can and should speak the truth they feel called to proclaim. They can teach it again and again if necessary, testifying of its value and merit in their own lives. If they believe that a dangerous error is being taught and believed, then they can boldly proclaim the truth and teach why the error is in fact an error. But they should speak to the merits of the truth and the dangers of the error, rather than to the merits of agreeing with people in positions of authority and the dangers of disagreeing with them.
Authority in and of itself does not insure rightness or moral goodness. Indeed, as the scriptures warn, almost all of us, as soon as we get a position of authority, will begin to use it abusively (D&C 121:39). Pharaoh had a position of authority. So did King David, Pilate, the Sadducees and Pharisees, King Noah, David Whitmer, and Sidney Rigdon. They were all proved decisively wrong—opposed to the truth and acting, at least in parts of their lives, as enemies of righteousness. This is why I believe it is important to let truth stand on its own merits and let error fall on its own weaknesses. In boldly teaching those merits and weaknesses, authorities meet their sacred duty and obligation to proclaim truth. (And of course, members have the same duty, though not necessarily the same sphere.) Truth carries its own authority. Leaders cannot simultaneously teach true principles and compel people to follow them without confessing a de facto belief that the truth is too obscure or too weak to prevail. President Howard W. Hunter struck a responsive chord with me when he stated:
Those who are filled with the love of Christ do not seek to force others to do better; they inspire others to do better, indeed inspire them to the pursuit of God. We need to extend the hand of friendship. We need to be kinder, more gentle, more forgiving, and slower to anger. We need to love one another with the pure love of Christ.2
Sooner or later, and we pray sooner than later, everyone will acknowledge that Christ’s way is not only the right way, but ultimately the only way to hope and joy. Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that gentleness is better than brutality, that kindness is greater than coercion, that the soft voice turneth away wrath.3
Allowing others to learn truth for themselves requires that we have faith, both in God and in the fellow members of our faith community. We must have faith that each other’s hearts are good and that God, in his or her own divine wisdom, way, and time, will lead each searching soul to all truth. As mortal beings, no matter what our current positions of authority may be, there are always truths that lie beyond our present understanding, and there always will be throughout our mortal lives. None of us yet understands all truth.
When it is considered unacceptable for individual members of a faith community to venture beyond certain preset boundaries in their exploration and understanding of truth or to question existing interpretations of truth, then the community as a whole may stagnate—never progressing to any greater understanding of truth than that which it currently possesses.
In addition to nurturing the spiritual growth of the individual members of the community, faith communities also serve to build bonds of genuine friendship and love among their members. For Christian faith communities, Jesus described the love that the members have for one another as the attribute by which the world will know they are his true disciples (John 13:35).
I believe that a faith community in which personal truth telling is limited will also be limited in both the quality and quantity of the love which its members share. A limitation on truth telling inevitably means that the love within that community will be conditional, limited, capable of being snatched away or withheld as a punishment for noncompliance. Faith communities limit personal truth telling when they teach (either overtly or covertly) that only certain kinds of personal experiences of truth are acceptable and good and that any expressions of truth which fall outside of these limits are somehow suspect or bad and should be avoided. In this kind of community, I may face a difficult dilemma if my experiences and understanding of truth don’t always conform with currently accepted norms for truth telling. If I value my associations and friendships within the community and want to avoid being ridiculed, shunned, or looked upon with suspicion and disapproval by people I really care about, then I may choose not to share some of my deepest thoughts and feelings with others. But how deep can those friendships really be if my friends don’t know such basic things about me as how I truly think and feel?
Friendships based upon agreement on all points of truth are tenuous, because they may endure only as long as both people are at the exact same place in their understanding of truth. When disagreements over certain points of truth develop, even longstanding friendships may wither and die, sometimes a very painful death. In such a community, my ability to love may be limited to loving and being loved only by those who are just like me, whose life’s experiences closely parallel mine.
In more nurturing faith communities, enduring bonds of friendship and love are built, not upon a perceived agreement on all points of truth, but rather upon mutual respect for the sanctity and worth of each person within the community. There is humility, tolerance for varying beliefs, and respect for each individual. Differences are celebrated and value is placed on the unique contributions and gifts which each member brings to the community. Personal truth telling is viewed as a part of each member’s unique contribution to the community.
Whether the bonds of friendship in a faith community are based upon agreement on all points of truth or upon mutual love and respect for each individual within the community will be determined by whether the community places a higher value on conformity and unanimity or on love and esteem for each person. To make love and respect for each person within the community the dominant value, the members of the community must be united in their acceptance of this belief as one of their common core values. Much of the direction in a faith community will naturally come from those people who have mutually agreed-upon positions of authority within the community. Those in positions of authority must teach and exemplify love for and acceptance of each member and must value all voices within the community. Those who are viewed as leaders in the community must model love and respect. In contrast, people in influential positions who model a strict demand for conformity in thought and expression among all members may actually do harm to the bonds of Christian love between the people in the community.
The fact that I am writing this essay under a pseudonym is a message—a message that I fear at least some of the potential consequences of speaking my truth within the Church I love and give my loyalty to. In some ways, I do not feel safe talking about the sanctity of personal truth telling in my own community. How ironic this is, and how sad. Yet I have hope for change. I deeply desire that our faith communities will be places where we can experience both individual personal growth in our understanding of truth as well as the growth that comes from interacting with others in loving, honest relationships. We need faith communities where we are each able to speak our own truth and to listen with tolerance, humility, and love to the truth of others.
1Reba L. Keele, "Is Religious Community an Oxymoron?’ Sunstone 16, no. 6 (November 1993): 13.
2Howard W. Hunter, "‘A More Excellent Way,"’ Ensign, May 1992, 63.
3Hunter, "‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee," Ensign, May 1993, 65; emphasis his.