Thursday, September 11, 2008

Unsaid Sermon

I realize it was posted some time ago, but I just finished listening to a Mormon Matters podcast containing a Sunstone speech on the unsaid sermon. The unsaid sermon is essentially the cultural guilt we feel when hearing the positive spiritual experiences of others. An example would be if a member testified of the blessings they have received for not watching PG-13 movies, and a listener feeling that they are somehow less worthy for watching such movies. While it was interesting, and certainly explored a very real occurrence in Church congregations, and although it approached what I feel to be the most important aspect of this occurrence, I feel that the way it was discussed missed emphasizing a vital point.

They continually mention the "false cultural doctrines" and "false notions" perpetrated by this sort of testifying. In fact, the very term "unsaid sermons" indicates that the person speaking is the one perpetrating these sorts of notions. They miss that the unsaid sermon is not a sermon from the speaker at all, but more accurately, a misinterpretation on the part of the listener.

I believe this to be an important distinction because the connotation to their approach is that we should be more cautious and less free with stories of how the Lord has blessed our lives as a result of certain actions. Removing or even reducing these uplifting stories does not solve the root of the problem: a basic misunderstanding of God's ways and methods.

While the speaker, Dr. Bohn, certainly focuses his points to remedy the situation on self-behavior, a thin thread of misleading information creeps its way into his phraseology. For example, his eighth point "Assume responsibility for our feelings and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ instead of reacting to other members’ well-meaning, false notions and cultural doctrines," begins focusing on your own behavior, but ends up shading blame on other members. Those "other members" are well-meaning, but full of false notions and cultural doctrines, according to him. This is harmful addendum to an otherwise good point.

If I claim "I have made a personal covenant with God not to watch PG-13 movies, and this has blessed and purified my life. God has protected me from evil because of it," I am not testifying to either a false notion or a cultural doctrine. I am not trying to say that because I have ceased watching such movies and have been blessed, all members should do the same. In my life, I have made such a covenant and God has blessed me. I am testifying that the Spirit led me to make a covenant which has helped me personally. The take-away message focuses not on PG-13 movies, but on the act of covenant-making and/or letting the Spirit guide you to how you can purify your life. It also testifies that seeking to purify your life and acting on the Spirit's guidance will gain you blessings from God. The problem is not a false notion, but a false focus on the part of the listener. That listener is grabbing onto the thing in the testimony that will gain them more guilt, not trying to listen for the real message and see how it might apply to their own lives. They are throwing away their right to Spiritual guidance.

Take the story of the stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon. One of their examples covers this exact tale. In it, 2000+ young men take up arms to defend their fathers who have taken a covenant to never kill another person. Because of the faith which was taught them by their mothers (and fathers), they are preserved. Although all are injured in the subsequent war, none are killed. This is used to show how a mother of a child killed in war might feel guilty. Perhaps she and her son were not as righteous. Perhaps she didn't teach him strong enough faith.

What this thought misses is that there were many righteous Nephites who were killed in that story. Yet, this miracle was not only a blessing to the young men, but to the whole army. The take-away is not if you are righteous, you won't be killed. It is that the Lord is mindful of us, that faith will strengthen you, and that from time to time the Lord will bless our lives with miracles. Sometimes the Lord's blessing comes in the form of preservation, but in the perspective of an eternal, omniscient, loving God, sometimes it comes in the form of death. The key is to trust that God will protect His faithful when and how He can to bring to pass their immortality and eternal life. God's promise to deliver those young men was specific to them. Another faithful person has another calling. Neither life diminishes the other, but rather strengthens a true faith in God and His love, and knits those lives together into the body of Christ.

The most powerful story that illustrates this concept is found in Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, Daniel's four friends, are pure and faithful, but face death in the furnace. In one of the most poetic and powerful statements of human history, they declaire, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." Esther's story which peaks with the declaration "If I perish, I perish," shows no less vibrant, powerful faith. The key is in the faith, not in the miracle.

If we water down our testimonies of God's hand in our lives in the interest of sparing other people self-manufactured guilt, we reject the chance to share our joy. I have often felt the power of unsaid sermons in my life, but I recognize that the problem is mine, not the speakers'. It is Satan whispering in my ear, focusing my attention on the details of the story rather than the moral.

While Dr. Bohn has a good point, and good ways to focus on changing yourself and your attitudes, an important place to start is to cease thinking of others' experiences and personal perspectives as intrinsically wrong and realize that they are not wrong for sharing their life experiences and showing how God has blessed them. They are simply asking you to find joy with them.


  1. Thanks for this beautiful and powerful post on an important issue, SilverRain. I hope that your post will reach a wide audience, because IMO there is a great deal of misunderstanding manifested in the Bloggernacle of what you termed "a vital point."

  2. This is great, you explained it so well.

  3. Overall, I am (sort of) in agreement with you here -- without having listened to the podcast you are referring to.

    Frankly, I think you have two different sides that are talking past each other on this issue. One side, as you have accurately stated, assumes that the guilt from the "unsaid sermon" must be caused by the speaker. The other side (your side, from my reading) does not consider the fact that many (or at least some) Latter-day Saints, however sincere, might in fact be insensitive to others and, if they knew better, could better testify of things in a way that better enriches other people. Allow me to say a little more about that.

    Standing as a witness of God is always relational. That is, when we share a testimony or experience, we are always sharing it to someone or a group of people. The best testimonies, then, are those that consider their audience in the things they say. One is not to simply talk in a stream-of-consciousness way or cite some "standard" testimony lines, but to actually communicate with the congregation. In some cases, well-meaning Latter-day Saints communicate their experiences in a way that does not fully enrich others, and also is interpreted in a way that the speaker did not intend. This does not mean the interpretation is false interpretation (or a correct one). Meaning and interpretation is always a two-way street. A wise person learns better ways to say things so as to not to (unnecessarily) offend or distract.

    Case in point: PG-13 movies. As a listener, I should not be offended if someone bears their testimonies concerning the type of covenant you talk about. I agree with you completely. However, as the testimony-bearer myself, I might consider what it might mean to say certain things. I might ask myself: Is it really necessary for me to mention the specific rating involved? Or would that be a distraction to what I really want to communicate? I can imagine that some would take offense at my comment; is there a way I can avoid that? Might I at least say, "I do not mean in any way that I think every one should avoid PG-13 movies; I'm simply saying that FOR ME ..."?

    Unfortunately, many of us (myself included often times) do not think through some of the things we might say. One reason for this, I suspect, is that we have not thought carefully about this very issue.

    In the spirit of your post, I would recommend that we all look inward concerning how we interpret others -- but also with how we communicate our experiences with others. It might be unfortunate that some people get offended by certain things, but surely I can try to avoid unnecessary offenses by catering what I say to who is listening.

  4. One other thing.

    Kylie at Times and Seasons says the following about Elder Marlin K. Jensen's recent remarks at a regional conference (which I saw):

    Elder Jensen’s other example of unkindness was a woman who bore her testimony and commented how grateful she was that Heavenly Father “trusted” her to raise her three children. Perhaps she did not know that there were couples unable to have children in the audience or perhaps she simply did not consider what her words implied. She likely did not mean to be unkind, yet she still hurt others.

    Elder Jensen's example captures very well what I was trying to communicate in my last comment. It is tempting to say, well the women should not have been offended about this! But on the other hand, the woman who gave the (quite benign) comment would be wise to look inward ...

  5. Dennis—what you say is certainly true, and is the other side of the coin, which I intended to address next.

    Way to steal my thunder!

  6. What an interesting topic! I have not heard of it before. Yet as one who has had feelings of guilt or anger well upside me at the words of another, I feel the need to weigh in.

    In those instances where I have heard an untold sermon, it is usually because there is something in my life that needs to change which is in direct correlation with the topic at hand. These feelings that occur can often be traced back to the Holy Ghost wispering to us what we need to do. For example, if we need more purity in our lives, perhaps cutting out PG-13 movies is precisely what we need to do. And hearing another talk about it and getting that pang of guilt, can allow us to see that this change should be made. If we are not lacking in purity, or this isn't a solution for our issue, the untold sermon will not exist.

    The Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is a voice or a burning bush. In my life, it is most often through the voice of a friend. One who has been there and can share some light and love with me. The Holy Ghost tells us when to listen to these other voices. He gives us the warm fuzzy feeling when something is right. And He gives a cold or guilt feeling when we need to change. Both are important, and both need to be heeded if we are to naviagte through mortality. We need the words of the sermon, and the reaction they invoke, to truely understand what it is we are to learn.

  7. But on the other hand, the woman who gave the (quite benign) comment would be wise to look inward ...

    Actually, the woman in his example does not need to look inward. Her heart was not full of malice. I think Elder Jensen was inviting us all to look outward just a bit, and to try to be sensitive to the fact that all of our lives are different.

    What that woman did was not a sin. He said she was innocent.

    This is such a fine line and it involves us all being humble, loving, and patient with each other.

  8. Recently the leaders of the church have taught much about how to bear testimony, especially in testimony meeting. I wonder if one of the reasons this is being taught is because of the 'unsaid sermon'. If we stick to the big 5 (God, Jesus Christ, true church, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon) there is less room for an 'unsaid sermon'.

    Money is another issue that can very easily be turned around.: 'I know the Lord has blessed me temporally because of my faithfulness.'

  9. Wonderful, SilverRain. I really, really like your blog - since I walk away enriched every time I read something new.

  10. This post and the following comments are excellent!

    I remember hearing once that "we're all learning on each other's time" and this phrase popped into my head while reading this. Like M&M said in the comments, "This is such a fine line and it involves us all being humble, loving, and patient with each other."

    It's important to remember that we all make mistakes, sin, and hurt others (whether intentional or not) throughout our lives and that we're all learning together.

    Thanks again for this excellent post!


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