Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”But what about what we know for sure that IS so? Could there be danger in certainty there too? Let’s take a look at both.
First let’s talk about things we can’t be certain of. In 2007, I wrote an article called, “What’s Wrong with Being Right?” followed by one called, “Root Causes of the Need to Be Right.” Since they are available in the Meridian archives, I will just refer you to them and not repeat myself. Every once in awhile I feel the need to re-read them because nothing has gotten me into bigger trouble in relationships than being “certain” about something, and trying to talk othersinto seeing it my way. (Talk about a futile quest!)
If I draw “certain” conclusions on any topic, from health and nutrition to politics, then try to convince someone else I’m right, trouble is sure to follow.Politically-charged subjects offer a prime example. My husband was raised by a father who was a blue-collar anti-Mormon Democrat. I was raised by a father who was a white collar Mormon Republican. We both claim “Independent” status, but suffice it to say that our perceptions and opinions, built by a lifetime of totally differing sources of programming, make it a challenge to find common ground.No wonder the Lord asks us to leave final judgment to Him. In politics, as in most arenas of life, I can be certain about principles, but not much else. I don’t know the hearts of people, the behind-the-scenes contributing factors, the obstacles and problems involved. And I always find that quietly lighting candlesdoes far more good than noisily fighting darkness or trying to remove it by sheer will power.
So it is with any subject that invites conjecture (where the best we can do is make educated guesses). All I know doesn’t fit on the head of a pin compared with what God knows, and I’m skating on thin ice whenever I take the position of absolutely certainty about any secular subject. Even scientific “facts” are subject to change by the minute. Differing perceptions and opinions are a fact of life. When someone voices an opinion that differs with mine, I’m learning the value of using phrases such as, “you could be right,” or “maybe so.”The fact is that someone else’s opinions and perceptions are just as likely to be “right” as my own.
Can Certainty Lead to the Sin of Unrighteous Dominion?
I was intrigued when I first heard the phrase, “the sin of certainty” in a BYU Women’s Conference address. To clarify, I looked up the word “sin” in the dictionary: “An action contrary to the law of God”. . . . but also, “An offense against good sense.” So how can “certainty” be a sin?
I suggest that undue emphasis on being “right”-even in gospel topics that lend themselves to certainty–can lead to spiritual abuse (using gospel truth to browbeat or cause emotional pain) as well as unrighteous dominion. And in my experience, those sins are every bit as likely to be found in the feminine gender as in the male gender.
In the Church, we women are especially fond of pointing fingers toward the male gender when the subject of unrighteous dominion comes up. But I ask you, is it the husband or the wife who is most likely to strongly suggest and even try to orchestrate when and how church-related assignments should be fulfilled? Have you ever heard a husband say, “Honey, have you done your visiting teaching yet?”
I’m going to trust you with a confession. Ether 12:27 tells me: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.” When I come to the Lord, here is a weakness He has shown me that not only makes me humble, it astonishes me. I see myself as a person more likely to be intimidated than to intimidate, and yet, the Lord shows me that I have a tendency to unrighteous dominion. The area that I find myself most guilty is in the area of trying to change (and of course improve!) my husband’s thinking.
Attempt to Control Others’ Thoughts
I began to ponder how “certainty” could be a sin if it leads to an effort to control how others think. Hmmm. Whose plan was it to control the perceptions and opinions and actions of others? Because of mankind’s huge fondness of independent thought, efforts to control most often fail. However, when control IS successful in any measure, in regard to religion especially, it is unrighteousness dominion.
D&C 121:37 tells us that “when we undertake to . . . exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved.” Yes, that scripture, in context, was given in regard to those holding the priesthood, but it obviously applies to all. Agency is a sacred God-given gift and to follow His example I must honor it.
Our 11th Article of Faith states: “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Sometimes I want to amend that article by adding, “unless it is my own spouse or children; then I claim the privilege of getting them to worship according to the dictates of MY conscience.”
Even the attempt to control is prideful and disrespectful. It strains relationships, drives away the Spirit, and promotes contention. Do I ever get into contention when I am full of humility or charity? Or is when I’m certain that I am right and determined to convince someone else to change his or her thinking? Unrighteous dominion can mean exerting any sort of emotional pressure in an attempt to get someone to agree with me. Attempts at unrighteous dominion create resistance and power struggles. Being certain that my perceptions and opinions are “more correct” or even “more inspired” than those of other people and that I am therefore justified in my efforts to change their minds, indicates a pride problem
President Benson said, “Pride . . . limits or stops progression. (See Alma 12:10-11.) The proud are not easily taught. (See 1 Ne. 15:3, 7-11.) They won’t change their minds to accept truths, because to do so implies they have been wrong.” (“Beware of Pride,” Ensign)
Hanging on to a certainty of being “right” can keep me from repenting or from seeing the truth, and always creates distance in relationships. Most importantly, it keeps me from letting the light of Christ lead me along. Not seeing where I am wrong can keep me from repenting and from letting the Atonement cleanse and transform me.
It’s the Spirit that Counts
But wait, I am absolutely “certain” about are gospel truths; in fact the Holy Ghost has borne witness of them to my soul. As His disciples, we are supposed to raise up our voices in testimony and be a witness of Christ at all times and in all places. However, there is a disclaimer in regard to when and how to share that certainty: D&C 42:14 tells us: “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.
” We’ve received them by the Spirit, and we are not to teach them without the Spirit.
The revelation in D&C 50 given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in response to his special inquiry in regard to “false spirits that were abroad in the earth” merits close examination. While this revelation is directed to elders who were ordained to preach the gospel, yet I find verses that apply to me. They apply every time I attempt to teach or influence or share any principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God.” (17-18)
It gets down to the rock bottom truth that if I speak the very words of God and do it without His Spirit, it is not of God. If my words do not edify because they are given in the wrong spirit, no matter how certain I am of their truth, I am spreading darkness, and not light. Whoa!
And how do I know for sure which is which? Verses 23-24 state it clearly, “That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. That which is of God is light.”The dictionary definition of edify is “to improve spiritually or morally by instruction or example.” Only the light of the Spirit edifies.
Truth Can Injure Instead of Improve
Even when I am”right” and speak the truth, I can come across in the wrong way if I speak with the wrong spirit. For instance if I say, “I know this Church is the only true and living church on the face of the earth,” I speak the truth, but if I do not speak it by the power of the Spirit and if even my tone infers “and consequently if you don’t agree and don’t belong to this church you are wrong, misguided, and maybe even bad,” then the truth of the original statement is tarnished; it does not edify.
Here’s another example: what if a wife, hurting to the core because of a husband’s habit of constantly criticizing, says in tears, “Couldn’t you find just one little thing that is right about me?” and the husband, in response, pulls out a list he has been carefully compiling of the wife’s shortcomings, documented with scriptures and quotes from conference talks and Ensign articles that “prove” how wrong she is. What if he uses the very words of God and the prophets to back up uncharitable attitudes? Could words of truth edify in this situation? Will those “certain” words in that setting bring more light to that marriage?
It takes a spirit of charity for two people to connect across their differences; charity is the gift of the Spirit that makes it possible. Through the help of the Spirit we want to enter each other’s world and understand each other’s hearts. We want to influence each other by the power of the Spirit. Only when we do that can we connect and build the relationship.
Ego/Natural Man vs. Charity
The sin of certainty is ego-based. I suspect that ego and natural man are synonymous and that ego takes us in the opposite direction from charity. The “certain” position of ego always creates distance. Charity, on the other hand creates unity. When my heart is full of charity I feel connected with all living things, full of love for all God’s creations, and I know I’m one of them. I find the commonalities with other men-not that which divides us. I feel one with God and Christ, “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” Zion people are of one heart and one mind. A celestial marriage means being of one heart.
Ego turns away and sulks when others don’t agree with its certainties, it takes offense whenever it feels slighted or overlooked. Ego feels the need to defend, be noticed, be right. The spiritual, charitable man, “seeketh not her own.” Moroni 7:45 says, “And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, edureth all things.” I wonder if “seeketh not her own,” means avoiding the need to prove we are”right”?
Certainty with the Spirit Can Lift and Build
I’ve recently been editing the journal I faithfully kept as a young missionary, hoping to pare it down so my grandchildren might want to read it! I’ve been touched and blessed to read of moments I recorded of the spiritual blessings of bearing testimony and of speaking with the Spirit.
Here’s an example that impressed me when my District Leader spoke with certainty, with the Spirit to a family who had sincere hearts but were struggling to commit to tithing and living the Word of Wisdom:
October 8, 1964 Elder Tracywent with us to talk to thePauls and it was wonderful! At the end of our meeting he said, “Brother And Sister Paul, if you will kneel together and pray as a family every night I promise you in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the holy priesthood which I hold that you will know that these things are true and that you will have the spiritual testimony which you are seeking and the strength to live the laws of God.” His words went to my heart like fire and I knew he truly was speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost. My heart was so full!”
The Paul family followed Elder Tracy’s counsel and the certain promise he made to them with the Spirit was fulfilled. They were baptized in a matter of weeks.
I had so many experiences on my mission where the Spirit was present and words of certainty and truth did edify and bless both giver and receiver, as promised in D&C 50 :22, “Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”
We can choose to respond to others with charity, which means the Spirit is attending. We can pray for charity with all the energy of heart. We can transcend the tendency to unrighteous dominion. We are all in the same boat-all flawed, all struggling, all wanting to be certain about a million things we can’t be sure of. But with the help of the Spirit we can be sure of the things that matter most.
We can pray for a protective fence of light to protect us from ego/natural man “I’m certain I’m right” thinking. We can learn to be like Jesus. He was the only perfect person who ever lived, yet He exemplified and stated His need for constant spiritual connection and guidance. The Lord will help us, guiding us in this path of light. We can get all the validation we need from Him, but we can never get it by trying to prove ourselves “right.” We can remember to avoid the “sin of certainty” and bring to mind now and then Mark Twain’s quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Author Note: I invite you to check out my new website, at darlaisackson.com, where I will now be posting regular blogs, as well as updates concerning my books, Trust God No Matter What! and After My Son’s Suicide, an LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On.