Sunday, July 15, 2012


Based on the talk, “Only Upon the Principles of Righteousness,” by Elder Larry Y. Wilson, spring, 2012 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,

On Sunday, 1 July, I was asked by the First Counselor of my Bishopric to select a talk from the church’s General Conference, and do a 15-minute presentation on it.  I got my copy of The Ensign magazine and started looking at talks.  I read a dozen or more, but was drawn repeatedly to the one by Elder Larry Y. Wilson.  At first, it didn’t interest me, and it seemed that the title didn’t really represent what was in the talk.  By Wednesday, however, I had firmly selected this talk as the basis for my own.  Over the next three days, I read Elder Wilson’s talk several more times, along with the referenced Scriptures. The more I studied, the more strongly I felt that I’d made the right decision.   This is the script from which I spoke, but there were a few departures, mostly 1-off or collateral connections I made at the time.


Elder Wilson’s talk had two main themes:  the fallacy of pretending that the priesthood confers any authority or power over others, and that the exercise of dominion over others can be very harmful to them.

He began with a story about being a newlywed, and telling his bride she was driving too fast. She asked what made him think he had the right to tell her how to drive.  He said he believed his position as her husband and the priesthood holder in her house gave him that right.  He assures us that she convinced him in pretty short order that he was mistaken.

D&C (Doctrine and Covenants) 121:39 informs us that, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”  The history of mankind bears this out.  We know that The Adversary’s plan for us involved unrighteous dominion, and I wonder if his affinity for it is why he has crafted it into one of the most irresistible temptations for us – one that comes to us so naturally as to seem almost reflexive and subconscious.  Elder Wilson says, “Women, too may exercise unrighteous dominion, though the Scriptures identify the problem especially with men.”  There is one point on which I have observed that women bear at least an equal part of the fault, and I will bring it up in turn.

The history of America gives us an excellent example of how easily we fall into unrighteous dominion.  In 1613, a Portuguese ship with a cargo of kidnapped Africans was blown off course and landed at Jamestown. The ship’s master struck a deal with the colonists and delivered to them the Africans.  The first documents indicate that the Africans were considered indentured servants who would be freed after 7 years.  However, in less than 7 years, legal documents from the colony began referring to, “Persons born to servitude.”  Not, “IN” servitude, but, “TO” it.  We all know where it went from there.  In such a short time, those Bible-reading, praying, God-fearing men and women embraced human slavery where it had not existed before.

Among the literature of the world’s churches, the restored Gospel of the Book of Mormon is the most consistent and outspoken critic of unrighteous dominion.  It doesn’t just leave us with a, “Thou shalt not,” it gives us a very clear, “Thou shalt.”  D&C 121:41 – “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”

Verse 43 even tells us how to handle situations when it is appropriate to rebuff someone:  “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.”  I have a personal testimony that The Adversary will use His skill at mimicking the Holy Ghost to make reproving others – and with more than mere sharpness – seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  In my experience, this is most likely to occur when others have refused our “…persuasion… long-suffering… gentleness and meekness, and [our] love unfeigned.”  Whatever the problem was, it still is, and we are left with the choice of backing down and accepting something we believe to be wrong, or taking a more  hard-line approach.  I urge you to beware of this trap, because it can suck you in before you know it, and the results can be catastrophic:  broken hearts, and even spirits – shattered relationships that ought to have been eternal.

The second part of Elder Wilson’s talk concerns the effects of dominion on those for whom we bear the responsibility of teaching.  He spoke primarily of our children, but these principles are true for anyone we are trying to teach or lead.

Genesis tells us that we are created in God’s image, intellectually as well as physically. This gift of agency is beyond price!  If the objective of this life is to prove ourselves worthy to return to the presence of Heavenly Father, we absolutely must have that agency.  If we were compelled to do what He wished us to do, there would be no proving to it, and we might as well skip the whole mortal experience.  From 2 Nephi: 11 and 15 we know that there must needs be opposition in all things, otherwise we could never tell one thing from any other.  Our senses work by differentiation, or discrimination – light and dark, hot and cold, good and evil, freedom and compulsion.  Without our agency we could make no decisions; we’d be like instinct-driven animals, and there could be no growth or learning.

The Priesthood allows us to have the counsel of the Holy Ghost, which facilitates discernment, evaluation, and decision-making.  As fathers and husbands, we can use the first two of these to the advantage of our families.  The decision-making only applies to our children before they are able to take it over for themselves, and we can all speak about this with great conviction; we can quote chapter and verse about it; but recognizing the point where they are ready to take the wheel is a little tougher.

In the case of our wives, none of the three apply, and even hinting that they do can bring about Armageddon.  (Armageddon is a great name for a couch, don’t you think?)  Now, if the wife actually asks for our input on something, I suppose it would be okay to offer it, but Elder Wilson kept his talk rooted firmly in Gospel principles, and did not wander into fantasy.

There is an old saying that experience is the best teacher. It’s baloney.  A more accurate proverb is that experience is what allows us to recognize a mistake when we make it a second time.   Experience teaches nothing, except maybe first aid.  It is the evaluation of experience that teaches us, and then only if we are open to the lesson.  If we decide to do something, and it goes bad, we have the opportunity to evaluate our decision and come to the conclusion that it was not at all what we’d intended, and that we will do it different next time.  That’s what it means to, “learn from experience,” but having the experience does not guarantee learning.  If we did not make the decision that led to the experience, we have little or nothing to learn, unless maybe that we shouldn’t let other people make our decisions for us.  Sadly, many, many people are emotionally incapable of recognizing their own part in bad experiences.

At every step in the process:  information gathering, evaluating, deciding, and acting, if anything interferes with the exercise of our agency, the whole thing comes to naught.  The purpose of our mortal existence has been thwarted.  We must let our children begin to make their own decisions as they become capable.   The hard part, though, is in standing aside and letting them reap the consequence of their decisions.  If they don’t feel the sting or the exaltation, the opportunity is lost.  This is the point at which some mothers exercise unrighteous dominion by falling into a trap that also takes many fathers. That trap is in shielding a child from the real consequences of their decisions, and it is every bit as seductive and powerful as any other. Not only does it keep the child from learning about the decision, it also keeps the child from learning to trust in the counsel of the Holy Ghost, and this may be one of the worst things we can do to our kids.

Elder Wilson quoted Brigham Young thus:  “Were I to draw a distinction in all the duties that are required of the children of men… I would place first and foremost the duty of seeking unto the Lord our God until we open the path of communication from heaven to earth – from God to our own souls.”

Unrighteous dominion is not just bossing people around.  It is also standing between them and reality, usually under the false impression that we are protecting or helping them.  Sisters, watch out for this one, because that old mama bear impulse is awfully strong.  You, too have the gift of the Holy Ghost to guide and counsel you.  Letting your children see you use it, and teaching them that they can do the same will protect them better than anything else you can do.

One of the more subtle ways we exercise unrighteous dominion is through giving others false choices.  Instead of saying, “Clean your room or get grounded; it’s your choice,” some people will say, “Clean your room or I’ll know you don’t love me.”  I have heard, from a trusted source, that some women have become adept at sending others on no-expenses-paid guilt trips. Just because you offer a choice doesn’t mean you aren’t building fences where there shouldn’t be any.

A pattern that Elder Wilson addressed, and one that I have seen many, many times, is that of shielding our kids from consequences until they turn 18 or 21, and suddenly jerking that shield away.  The poor kid is standing there, fat, dumb, and happy, thinking he’s invulnerable, and suddenly one morning he rolls out of his bunk and comes face to face with a hungry tiger called life.  I’ve never seen that listed as a form of child abuse, but I’ve sure seen some kids wrecked by it.

We must also always remember that they are learning, and will make mistakes that should not have lifelong effect on their self-respect.  My own parents were opposites in this.  If I made a mistake on something, Mom was ready to write me off as genetically inferior and hopeless. (She’d use guilt for this:  “I guess I’m just a failure as a mother.  I’ve wasted my life and ruined yours, too.  I don’t blame you for hating me.”)  Dad was the coach who would show me how to bind the wound, then take me to Peter Pan’s for a sundae and a lesson.  He’d let me take the punch, but was always there with encouragement, so that I always knew it was just part of life, and that I could do better next time.  Those lessons were priceless to me.

One thing the Old Man didn’t have, though, was the Gospel and the Priesthood.  He didn’t have the Gift of the Holy Ghost to guide him, and he couldn’t give it to me.  He didn’t have the authority to bless me.  He didn’t understand the Gospel principle that I am a child of God.  As it was, he did an amazing job of teaching me to be introspective and open to the lessons.  As holders of the priesthood, we have a much, much greater chance of imparting these attitudes to our children.  

There is another aspect of letting our children exercise their agency and enjoy the consequences of their actions.  As priesthood holders, we have a unique opportunity to grasp this, and to use it to the everlasting benefit of our children. The idea that we are doomed by our mistakes is absolutely corrosive to the human spirit.  As we allow our children to take the punch, as Dad used to say, we must – MUST – convey to them the knowledge that no matter what they do, they have available to them ultimate perfection through The Atonement.

Christ has given us the chance to make good on our probation through the use of our agency, but he has also stepped between us and the consequences of our actions.  As we teach our children about accountability and responsibility, we must leaven those lessons with the understanding that we are all flawed and unworthy, but we have within our grasp the most amazing, incredible gift – a gift that literally blots out all of those foolish things we will do in our lives.  The lesson of standing tall and accepting consequences should never exclude this fact of supreme mercy, lest they live in terror of making a mistake, and that terror dull or dampen the joy they should take in this mortal life.

In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ,  amen.

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