Thursday, April 11, 2013


Of all the comments I have heard regarding last week's general conference, the one I have heard the most often (or at least most loudly) is some reaction to President Packer's comment on the "Tolerance Trap." While some commentators simply asked for clarification, others seemed to dismiss President Packer's words out of hand. In response to these questions and reactions I offer my own reading of President Packer's talk.

This is not an attempt to pad President Packer's message or perform "mental gymnastics." Rather, this is my sincere interpretation of a message that I believe deserves more pondering and meditation than it has heretofore received.

So here I go.

Here is the controversial passage:

"Tolerance is a virtue, but like all virtues, when exaggerated, it transforms itself into a vice. We need to be careful of the “tolerance trap” so that we are not swallowed up in it. The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity."

"Tolerance trap." Tolerance trap? What? Before I answer that question, I want to back up a bit. Let's start at the beginning of the passage.

"Tolerance is a virtue."

I don't think anyone was arguing with President Packer here, but I wonder if some listeners passed over this phrase and forgot this part of his message. Tolerance is more than something we merely tolerate. It is a virtue, and as a virtue, we seek to cultivate it! We tolerate difficult challenges because we know that they stretch us and help us grow. We tolerate misbehavior in children because we know they are still developing and learning. We tolerate people who behave in ways we disapprove because we know that they are children of God and we love them. We tolerate our own imperfections because we know that we are doing our best and we can become perfected through Christ. Without tolerance we would prevent our own growth; we would be unduly harsh on ourselves and others; and we would be cut off from those around us. In an imperfect mortal world, tolerance is a beautiful and necessary virtue. I am grateful to President Packer for pointing that out.

"Like all virtues, when exaggerated, [tolerance] transforms itself into a vice."

Virtues can become vices. I don't think this is an earth-shattering idea. Chastity is a virtue, but could it become a vice? Sure. If we believed that celibacy was the only way to live, or if we believed that sex was dirty and sinful in all occasions and we forgot its central role in marriage, then chastity would surely become a vice. The same goes for tolerance. If I tolerate too many difficult challenges in my life, I may be "running faster than I have strength." If my five-year old pees in my face and I just endure it and shrug it off, I am probably doing him and everyone he meets a disservice. If I become too tolerant of antagonism or bullying, I may be unnecessarily enduring destructive patterns of abuse. If I become too comfortable with my imperfections, I will severely limit my personal growth. I am grateful to President Packer for the warning.

"The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity."

I imagine that this sentence juxtaposed with the part about the "tolerance trap" is what ruffled a few feathers. Why did President Packer have to bring up gay marriage in this context? Sometimes I get the feeling that there are those who believe that President Packer is an old fuddy-duddy apostle who severely hates gays and will condemn them at every chance he has. I can see why persons who think that way would be upset. Setting aside the claim that President Packer is a bigot, let's look at other reasons for this example.

First, we should ask ourselves whether President Packer is talking about same-sex marriage. The answer is probably yes, but not necessarily exclusively. It is clear that in this context President Packer is using the term immorality exclusively to describe violations of the law of chastity, but "legalized acts of immorality" include more than same-sex marriage. Adultery, for example, is a criminal offense in only 22 states, which means it is legal in the other 28.

So, President Packer is warning us that when it comes to violations of the Law of Chastity, we ought to be wary of letting our tolerance become a vice. This begs the question, then, how might tolerance become a vice in this scenario? In my view, President Packer is simply making the point that God's laws do not change with the laws of the land. A nation (and hence, a culture) might find a sinful act permissible, but that does not mean that it ceases to be a sin, or that the consequences of the sin do not disappear. Do we need to tolerate people that break the Law of Chastity, as it has been explained to us? Yes, of course we do. President Packer made this clear in his example of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery ("neither do I condemn thee"). Does our tolerance become a vice if we forget or stop believing that violating the Law of Chastity is a sin? Yes, it does. (Remember, Jesus said "go and sin no more." He did not say, "it's all cool. You go do what you want.")

This assertion might give way to another question: why is it important to not forget the reality of sexual sin and its consequences? First and foremost, President Packer probably wants us to avoid committing sins ourselves that we may be tempted to believe are permissible. In addition, could it be that President Packer would rather that we encourage others to avoid sin, rather than celebrating sinful behavior? I have said nothing of laws here; I am simply speaking of our interactions with our friends and family. If we believe in the reality of sin, is it not better to love and encourage righteousness, rather than to love and encourage sin? It is up to us as Latter-day saints to learn to love others without discounting the consequences of sin. Admittedly, it is not an easy task.

Final thoughts

So how do we do it? How do we tolerate without going to far? If I may be so bold, I will offer a few of my  thoughts. First, obviously, we need to build a little tolerance. Tolerance demands love and kindness. No Latter-day Saint should be caught condemning or shaming anyone for anything. Second, we need to remember that we aren't Jesus. A precious few of us are numbered among his judges, but most of us are just his disciples. And even those of us that are judges are only judges for our stewardship. In other words, none of us should be running around shouting "Go and sin no more!" to all the people we think are sinning. Third, we need to be tolerant of each other. Actually, I'm going to repeat that one in caps. WE NEED TO BE TOLERANT OF EACH OTHER! I am a Latter-day Saint. You might be a Latter-day Saint. President Packer is a Latter-day Saint. We are all in this together! Sometimes we say dumb things. I say a lot of dumb things (ask my wife!). Sometimes (often?) we as Latter-day saints let each other down. We need to be tolerant of that. We need to accept the fact that each one of us has an imperfect knowledge and lives an imperfect life in an imperfect body. There is no way we can build Zion if we are not tolerant of each other. When we trade tolerance for cynicism, we lose the ability to learn by faith and trust in one another. Each of us has spiritual gifts, but without tolerance for one another we lose the opportunity for "all [to] profit thereby." This is a tragic loss. Finally (returning from the tangent), we must remember that sin is sin, and learn to tolerate like Christ without assuming Christ's authority to judge.

President Packer is the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I, and perhaps you, sustain him as a prophet, seer, and revelator. I believe in his apostolic witness and calling. He is not an old fuddy-duddy whose counsel can be discredited because he said something offensive in the past or because his message has lost its popularity. Neither can he be dismissed because we expect him to kick the bucket soon. I condemn no one for questioning the meaning his words. In fact, I am grateful for the questions, because they encouraged me to explore his talk in a deeper, more meaningful way. This has been a spiritually rewarding experience for me. Perhaps this is a manifestation of what can happen when we live with tolerance.