Teaching Truth

For a lot of Januaries I’ve felt like writing this post. I’ve finally done gone and done it!

Christmas! So much focus on the Savior. So many shows, movies, articles, talks and songs celebrating the birth and life of our Savior. So much to invite the Spirit.

But some of what we think we know isn’t necessarily true. To make a point, let’s have a short quiz, shall we?

  1. Jesus was born in a cave.
    • True
    • False
    • We don’t know
  2. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem.
    • True
    • False
    • We don’t know
  3. An innkeeper turned them away.
    • True
    • False
    • We don’t know
  4. How many Wise Men were there?
    • Three
    • Four
    • We don’t know.
  5. There was a new star shining over the manger the night Jesus was born.
    • True
    • False
    • We don’t know.

I think five are enough to make the point – they all have the same answer – We don’t know. Much of the traditional Christmas lore that we all know and accept for truth…isn’t. This past Christmas I was extra aware of how much has been added to the simple Christmas story as told by Luke and Matthew, and no, I’m not just dissing the little drummer boy.

I’ll admit that adding fictional elements to the birth of Christ makes for a better story, but not a more accurate one. Does this do any harm to anyone? Probably not, but it does raise some interesting questions. Does spending time on false things, or the unknown, take our focus away from the truth? Do we have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible when teaching truth? I believe so.

During the recent holidays I read two different essays built around what Mary and Joseph must have been thinking and feeling during the run up and fulfillment of the birth of the Savior. Interesting things to think about, yet nowhere in the essays did it say, “This essay is 5% doctrine and 95% conjecture and supposition.” (Which would be the honest approach.) They discussed known truth with speculation in the same breath, yet never differentiated between the two.

If we are willing to add and accept fictional elements to the story of the Savior’s birth, what other truths are we messing with?

The reason I’m asking is that we just began a new course of Come Follow Me study – the New Testament. I can guarantee you that somewhere in the Church today, someone will be teaching some sort of falsehood in their Priesthood, Relief Society, or youth classes. Perhaps not intentionally, but falsehoods nonetheless.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of things that are questionable at best, flat out false at worst. Here are a few examples:

  1. “Jesus spent every day of his life serving other people.” Sure, it makes sense, but when the New Testament only looks at 40-50 days out of 12,000, I don’t know that anyone could make a blanket statement like that about how he spent every day. Me? I don’t know!
  2. “Jesus was kind to everyone.” True, except for when we wasn’t. Check with the scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees, (Matt. 12:44), or with the apostles when they were slow catching on (Matt. 17:17), or with an unproductive fig tree, (Matt. 11:29) etc.
  3. From the famous poem, One Solitary Life.Jesus never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place He was born.” And you know this how?
  4. “Jesus was a carpenter.” True, unless he wasn’t. In Greek and Hebrew the word for carpenter is the same word as mason, stonecutter, craftsman, or artisan. We don’t know which.

This is not merely something that happens when studying the scriptures and the gospel. There is all sorts of bad info out there – some is bad info with good intentions, some is bad info with deceitful intentions.

One of the earliest posts I ever wrote on the old MMM blog was about a motivational quote attributed to the Savior, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” Why? Because Christ never did say it – the quote was from the actress Mae West being seductive. (Now go back and re-read it in your best seductive voice.)

It bugs me when people put words in the Savior’s mouth, or tell me what Jesus would do in any given situation. These usually start with, “If Jesus were here, he’d say…” or, “Jesus would do this but not that.” Oh, really?

I see articles and books being written about Heavenly Mother, when everything we know about her would fit in one short paragraph. Any book would consist of 2% Truth, 98% speculation.

There are oodles of books about people’s near-death experiences that add lots of interesting ideas to hold up to our lack of understanding about the next life. Yet all of those books, combined, have added zero new doctrinal concepts to the gospel. To have a good discussion about what happens in the next life requires a ton of speculation and or make-believe, because we know precious little. Be wary of those who claim to know “new” things unless they carry a prophetic mantle.

Another problem we see is when teachers bring questionable content from questionable sources into their lessons. Again, usually well-meaning, sometimes not. This is tricky. I enjoy it when teachers bring a few outside references or ideas to a class. Why? Learning new and different things is interesting. Hearing the exact same thing taught the same way for 50 years is boring. (I’m sorry, but it is!)

I’ve always tried to teach so my gospel lessons contain a lot of meat, and a little bit of spice. Why? Same reason I add spice to food – because interesting is more memorable than boring.

We must be careful as spices can overwhelm and detract from the main course. My solution to that has always been to have some spice, but to use it sparingly, and only as needed. (This goes for comments from the class as well as the teacher. If you can’t back them up with scriptures or a prophetic quotes, you might want to keep them to yourself.)

I once taught an Elder’s Quorum that was so adept at speculation and skilled at steering a lesson off track into Crazy Town that I had to find a way to stop it. I resorted to putting a chair at the front of the classroom with a sign taped to it that said, “Speculation Chair.” If someone made a comment, I would ask them to back it up with a Scripture or citation from a prophet. If they couldn’t, I’d invite them to come sit in the Speculation Chair. Not everyone appreciated it. Nobody ever really sat in it, but after a temporary chilling effect, eventually the comments resumed, but with less opinion and more truth.

When deciding on who we should trust as a source, President Oaks had this to say: “We need to be cautious as we seek truth and choose sources for that search. We should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth. We should be cautious about relying on information or advice offered by entertainment stars, prominent athletes, or anonymous internet sources. Expertise in one field should not be taken as expertise on truth in other subjects.” (link)

Another dangerous aspect is that a source you like might have written a wonderful, accurate article on the topic that you were researching, but you might not know that the same person has also written articles that preach in direct opposition to prophetic counsel on other topics. Korihior would be proud of such duplicity.

If we share outside sources in our classrooms and homes, without disclaimer, it serves as a tacit endorsement that we, as the teacher, think this source is worthy. That is dangerous ground. This is why some “influencers” are dangerous: They teach 90% accurate, faith-promoting, legit stuff, but then slip in 10% of apostate dogma that contradicts the living prophets. (If you ever see me doing that, call me out!)

We have a shared obligation as teachers and students – to teach truth. To do that we have to put away our personal ideas, agendas, egos and speculation in order to discern what is true, what is tradition, and what is falsehood.

As we start delving into the new curriculum, let’s remember how Christ advised his apostles, “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)

Have a great new year and enjoy the New Testament.


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  1. Love it! It’s amazing to see how many things we insert into stories based on the small bits of information we actually have. (Stories about the donkey that took Mary to Bethlehem raise my hackles faster than anything else people say about the nativity; even if she did ride a donkey, we don’t know anything about what the donkey was thinking.)

    We can’t even say Jesus was born in a stable. We assume that, because a manger is mentioned, but stables aren’t the only places where one can find a manger. President Nelson gave a devotional talk at BYU back in 2002 where he discussed the circumstances of Christ’s birth.


  2. Nephi 32:4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
    Moroni 10:5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
    If you have had a question that was answered by Spirit, is it speculation to quote the Holy Ghost?

    1. Depends on the stewardship. If the Holy Ghost answers a question I have, it is for me, not the masses. If I were a Bishop and received an answer on behalf of the ward, it wouldn’t be speculation – but beyond that specific audience, it would be, so it shouldn’t be shared.

      For example, if the Holy Ghost told me that I need to sell my house, it would be a (valid) personal revelation, but if I tell anyone else in the ward that they need to, it is speculation and unrighteous dominion.

  3. We moved into a new ward (city and state) about 2 years ago. a month later I was called as Sunday School President. I teased the bishop….”so, when you get a high priest and you don’t know what to do with him, you make him Sunday School President?”

    The Sunday that we were sustained, I looked around to see who my councilors were….because I literally picked them by going down the ward roster and chose the men who’s names stood out to me. I didn’t even have any idea what they looked like. As it turned out, one had been the previous bishop and the other had been a full time-seminary teacher until he retired.

    the point of that long lead in….I love hearing faith promoting stories. Perhaps it is because I grew up hearing faith promoting pioneer stories from my great grandmother and grandmother. I have no reason to doubt that the stories that they told me were true. I support that, with the fact that they wrote those stories, of personal experience, in their journals for posterity. Therefore, faith promoting stories have always been taken as truth.

    that being said, we have learned that there have even been past General Authorities that have, maybe, exaggerated some of their stories in order to make a point. if we have to exaggerate or make up a story in order to make the point, another cliche comes to mind….1/2 the truth, is a whole lie. Lie’s only have one source. A lie negates any truth that is given.

    I am sure that the teachers in our ward are getting tired of hearing the same thing presented in different frosting…but for the last 2 years, every other teacher’s council has been….teach by the spirit, and teach the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  4. When teaching the Deacon’s quorum for several years I borrowed a trick from one of my seminary teachers – whenever I was sharing “The Gospel According to Chris” I would throw my tie over my shoulder, then bring it back down when we left conjecture territory.

  5. My son has a great term for this–we were talking about something speculative and he said “that’s an interesting fan theory,” which I thought was well put. There are a lot of interesting fan theories, and honestly some of them are even helpful to me as I try to liken the scriptures to myself.

    But I think it’s important to both liken the scriptures to you in ways that resonate in your time of need, and also not teach your personal likening as doctrine. This is one reason why I love the Book of Mormon–it’s a lot easier to release the fan theories, since we don’t have as many resources for the Book of Mormon as we do for the New Testament, and instead focus on what’s actually there on the page.

  6. Yes! Thank you for this post and reminder. So…how do you correct runaway false doctrine real-time without causing a fight or hurt feelings/awkwardness? Can you write a blog post on this one day with practical suggestions?

  7. Amen and amen. I find it extremely comforting to read your words. Finding a like-minded soul, for too many reasons to write here, has given me greater confidence in my on testimony.

  8. Thank you! I have felt this often since I was first called to teach Gospel Doctrine, around 40 years ago. It has been a challenge at time to steer comments back on track, but that has been important to me to do. And to strive to always teach clear and firm doctrine. I’ve probably not been perfect at it, but it has been a real focus.

    I loved the newest church video on the Nativity, where Joseph and Mary actually went into an in, when she was just beginning labor, but there was no privacy (there was no room for them at the inn), and seeking a private place for her to give birth they were led to the stable. Subtle difference to the traditional being turned away, but insightful.

    I also reflect on the times that the Savior went off by himself to be nearer to his Father. We could say that was serving others because he was being strengthened and continually prepared, but he was alone with the Father and not ministering or serving others directly at those times.

    Lots of examples, but the bottom line is that I really agree with your post, that we have to guard ourselves in teaching or sharing what we think might be doctrine, without a solid foundation IN doctrine.

  9. Thank you! I’ve felt this way for a while. It’s hard to hear when most of the comments during a lesson start with the phrase “This podcast I listened to this week said….” Or “In the movie Chosen, they said this…”

  10. As a Primary teacher, I always feel this keenly. While I don’t need to use a Speculation Chair for my class, I am so careful to make sure that the concepts we talk about from our scripture study are supported by what can be found in the scriptures. The kids often want details that we simply don’t have.

    “We don’t know” is an important part of our scripture study. We talk about what parts of the story are there for us to learn from. We talk about how to apply these lessons in our daily interactions with God and others. Acknowledging what we don’t know lets us keep the focus on what we do know.

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