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.