WARNING: SCRIPTURES TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT AHEAD. Do not attempt at home.
One of the obstacles missionaries run into when teaching the Gospel is the fact that the general population is largely unfamiliar with the old “King’s English.” Since most of all our Standard Works are written in the English of the King James Bible, this becomes a problem when trying to teach the Gospel as missionaries. Investigators often read “ye” and “yea” as just alternate spellings of “yeah” or “yay.” “Hath,” “wist,” “wot,” and “listeth” are stumbling blocks when trying to use the Book of Mormon or the Bible to teach important doctrines.
But sometimes that stumbling block can help us see another meaning to the Scriptures, too.Take the word “just.” In almost every Scriptural context, it is an adjective meaning “moral, upright, even-handed, and fair.” But in today’s vernacular it is most often used as an adverb meaning “exactly” or “barely; by a little,” or “simply; only; no more than.” As in “I had just enough to pay for the midnight pregnancy craving run. Crisis averted.” Or “No matter how many times the princess kissed him, the smooth-talking frog was still just a frog.” It means lowly, sub-par, not enough, or perhaps enough, but only barely.
The modern usage is not the same meaning of the word in the scriptural context. But every once in a while, I like to look at it in that light as a form of “likening.” So here are my thoughts on some verses about “just men” and women from the Book of Mormon. Taken completely out of context… for our profit and learning, of course.
Church leaders are just men and women
None received authority to preach or to teach except it were by him from God… and none were consecrated except they were just men.
In this misconstrued verse talking about the church established by Alma Sr., we can interpret the word “just” to mean that the Lord has a very strict requirement for those who labor for Him in His Church. They must be mere mortals, fallible, sinners, and prone to error. They must be just men and women. The perfect and the super-powered need not apply.
Again, not Mormon’s intent, but I think it highlights an important principle: Sometimes we elevate those in the Scriptures to a superhuman status. We consider their spiritual stamina and their testimonies to be so superior to our own and so far out of the reach of us mere mortals. We assume could never be a Nephi, or an Abinadi, or a Joseph Smith. We could never measure up to the stature of the Prophets and Apostles.
But while I think it’s good to admire the strength and the examples of our Church leaders and our scriptural heroes, it’s not right to put them high on an unreachable pedestal. Even God Himself descended from Heaven to show Joseph Smith that He is not “unknowable” and out of our reach. We can become like Him. He wants us to become like Him. We should certainly not do the same with our scripture and Church heroes. Pres. Packer related:
When I was a young man, I was a home teacher to a very old sister. She taught me from her life experience.
When she was a little girl, President Brigham Young came to Brigham City, a great event in the town named after him. To honor him, the Primary children, all dressed in white, were lined up along the road coming into town, each with a basket of flowers to spread before the carriage of the President of the Church.
Something displeased her. Instead of throwing her blossoms, she kicked a rock in front of the carriage, saying, “He ain’t one bit better than my Grandpa Lovelund.” That was overheard, and she was severely scolded.
I am very sure that President Brigham Young would be the first to agree with little Janie Steed. He would not consider himself to be worth more than Grandpa Lovelund or any other worthy member of the Church.
There is the natural tendency to look at those who are sustained to presiding positions, to consider them to be higher and of more value in the Church or to their families than an ordinary member. Somehow we feel they are worth more to the Lord than are we. It just does not work that way!
It would be very disappointing to my wife and to me if we supposed any one of our children would think that we think we are of more worth to the family or to the Church than they are, or to think that one calling in the Church was esteemed over another or that any calling would be thought to be less important…
As General Authorities of the Church, we are just the same as you are, and you are just the same as we are. You have the same access to the powers of revelation for your families and for your work and for your callings as we do…
No member of the Church is esteemed by the Lord as more or less than any other. It just does not work that way! Remember, He is a father– our Father. The Lord is “no respecter of persons.”
I saw this on my mission, too. I met members in every ward who seemed to hold us to an almost superhuman status. They would make comments about how they much they admired the strength of our testimonies or our understanding of the Gospel, or how selfless we were to make such a sacrifice. Often they expressed that they hoped one day to gain as strong of a testimony or as rich of an understanding of the Gospel as we had.
It was almost always those members who had not served as full-time missionaries who seemed to hold missionaries in such lofty esteem. I know before my mission, I certainly had the same opinion of missionaries. But there, on my mission, knowing my weaknesses and the weaknesses of the elders around me, I felt we would never measure up to the image the members had of us. That graciousness always made me feel uncomfortable– like I was an imposter for not being everything they expected.
I feared how any sweet member’s opinion of us would change if she the weekly behavior of many of our missionaries. What would she think if saw a district goofing off in plainclothes on P-Day? Or if she watched some elders doing donuts in the Church parking lot with the mission car? Or saw them browsing the web at the library?
In this Church, it is easy for anyone (but especially new converts) to assume that the members or the leaders are perfect. So it can come as a huge letdown when we discover that “more than half the time” anyone you talk to at Church is going through a major crisis in their lives and are in trouble. And when we base our testimonies on the strength of others, we are walking on dangerous grounds.
When “our missionaries” get transferred, when we move to a ward that is less welcoming than our previous ward, or when a member or leader of the Church says a thoughtless remark that we take offense to, it is easy to throw up our hands and throw in the towel. In those times we need to remind ourselves that the whole canon of ancient and modern scripture is full of just ordinary men and women with just ordinary minds and ordinary hearts. They struggle with trials and temptations, and they make mistakes, and they push through life much the same as we do. And every leader from the Prophet to the nursery worker are just men and women trying to do their best. Their best is good enough for God; be patient when their best is not good enough for you.
Being just men and women doesn’t lessen their ability to magnify their callings
On the other hand, there are some who would argue that because our Bishops, our General Authorities, and even our Prophet are just men, that somehow makes their words less meaningful, less authoritative, or less the word of God. They write off doctrines or policies that they don’t agree with as being uninspired and pick and choose which ones they will accept like the Gospel is a Golden Corral (I call this “buffet Mormonism”, the technical term is “apostasy”).
In the next brazenly misconstrued verse, King Lamoni teaches such critics (inside out outside the Church) that it is possible to be both fallible and yet be the Lord’s mouthpiece. Speaking to his father (who was about to try to kill him), he boldly testified:
I know that [the brethren of Ammon] are just men and holy prophets of the true God.
Being just men, mortal, fallible, and simple did not get in the way of their filling their callings as prophets (lowercase P) of God. Joseph Smith found many who could not reconcile that fact within his own calling as Prophet (capital P):
I was this morning introduced to a man from the east. After hearing my name, he remarked that I was nothing but a man, indicating by this expression, that he had supposed that a person to whom the Lord should see fit to reveal His will, must be something more than a man…
I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught…
Although I do wrong, … the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against Him—they all watched for iniquity in Him.
The humanity of our leaders does not in any way weaken our duty to heed their counsel. The Lord affirms, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38).
Being just men and women doesn’t lessen our ability to magnify our callings
This applies to us in our callings as well. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed like we cannot measure up. When we feel inadequate, insufficient, and like we don’t deserve the responsibility and the blessings that come with our callings, we can take comfort in knowing that we are doing it right. Pres. Eyring taught Priesthood holders:
There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed. One of the ways you will be attacked is with the feeling that you are inadequate. Well, you are inadequate…
If you told me that you feel perfectly capable of fulfilling your priesthood duties, I might worry that you do not understand them… This is just as true for me in my calling as it is for you in yours. None of us can do the work of the priesthood, and do it well, relying solely on our own wisdom and talents…
So if you feel a little overwhelmed, take that as a good sign. It indicates that you can sense the magnitude of the trust God has placed in you. It means that you have some small understanding of what the priesthood really is.
There are very few people in the world who have that understanding. Even those who can recite a reasonable definition may not truly understand it.
Fortunately, this understanding of our inadequacies can lead us to magnify our callings and strive to live up to the awesome responsibilities handed to us. All my mission that “imposter syndrome” made me strive to always live worthy of their trust. I wanted to live so that any of those members who thought so graciously and highly of us could catch us unawares at any moment and not be disappointed.
If we strive to live up to our callings as best we can in the eyes of others and the Lord (but mainly the Lord), God has promised to make up the difference. Pres. Monson taught, “When we are on the Lord’s errand, we are entitled to the Lord’s help. Remember that whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.”
Yes, we are weak. We are just men and women. But that weakness itself is a tool for God, too, in unfolding His work in the lives of others, and in transforming our own:
The weak things of the world shall come forth… that every man might speak in the name of God… That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple… These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
– D&C 1
This holds true on both sides of the veil (now with two misconstrued verses):
“[Angels are] just men made perfect.”
“[Those who inherit the Celestial Kingdom] are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.”
Even though modern usage is not the meaning of the word just in the scriptures, when I read those verses this way (“in the manner of my language”), I take comfort in the fact that the extraordinary work of the God is carried about by just ordinary, everyday people. Because if that’s true, even I have a shot of getting there someday, too.