When Being Right Isn’t Good Enough
by H. Wallace Goddard
Almost twenty years ago Nancy and I were planning the landscaping around our new house. A landscape architect had recommended a cluster of three fruit trees at the corner of our property. We wondered if that was too many trees too close together. We talked about it. We stepped out the area. We looked up the mature size of the specified trees. Finally, the day before the trees were to be delivered, we decided to follow the landscaper’s suggestions and plant all three trees.
When I arrived home from work the next day I went to inspect our new trees and found that we had just one tree where I expected three. I asked Nancy about it. She responded, “Well, three trees just seemed like too many. I told the men that we wanted just one.”
I wish I could say that my response was, “Well, it was a hard decision. We have vacillated back and forth. It is probably just as well that we have one tree there.” Unfortunately I did not say that.
I was mystified and indignant: “Why did we spend hours researching and discussing the question to have you change it on a whim? When we have decided something together, we should stand together by our decision!” I was angry. And the more I talked and thought about it, the angrier I got. (Anger requires very little encouragement to grow.)
In some technical sense I was right. A couple should stand by their joint decisions. Before those decisions are modified, they should be discussed together if possible. I was “right.” Nancy had upended our decision process. But a feeling deep in my conscience haunted me.
To soothe my conscience, I might have hunted for the beatitudes that say, “Blessed are the right, for they shall be top dogs.” or “Blessed are the logical for they shall inherit the computers.” Of course I would have hunted in vain for such beatitudes. The real beatitudes would only have made me even more uncomfortable: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
It is worth switching perspectives on the fruit tree fracas from our provincial, earthly one to a heavenly one. I feel sure that the heavenly hosts were NOT nodding assent to my ungracious lecture. There were no immortals joining in the finger-wagging. I rather suspect that heaven wept. Why should a priesthood-bearing son belittle and berate his covenant companion whose greatest fault is gentleness? Is her vacillation a greater sin than my acrid accusation?
It all seems very clear in retrospect. The Lord’s new command is that we love one another as He has loved us. He, with His infinite patience and perfect goodness, is our model. The command to love as He loves must have special application (and particular challenges) in marriage. In fact, scriptures offer a remarkably challenging standard for husbands:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; (Ephesians 5:25, emphasis added)
That is a high standard! We are to be guardians, protectors, and defenders of our wives in the same spirit that Christ loves and sustains the church. Petty differences, so common in marriage, should never eclipse that guardian role. Irritations over toothpaste, vacation spots, and fruit trees must be seen merely as distractions. We express our preferences and even make requests. But we never burn the family home just to make our point.
There is a powerful line in a modest little film, Martin the Cobbler. A hungry little boy has stolen an apple from a widow. When caught, the owner of the apple threatened to beat him within an inch of his life. She was interrupted by Martin, the Cobbler, who asked:
“If he should be whipped for an apple, what should be done with us?”
The question haunts me. If Nancy should be whipped for an apple tree, what should be done with me? Are my many offences to be dismissed? When we become executors of the law of justice, we invite sterile judgments for our own acts. If we live by the sword, we will surely die by the sword.
God recommends that humans cultivate mercy and leave judgment with One who knows everything AND loves perfectly (See Mormon 8:20). When we will not forgive each other our pocket-change debts, how can we hope to be forgiven our staggering debts against heaven? God’s counsel to the unforgiving debtor challenges us:
Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matthew 18:33-35)
We must keep the bridge of mercy in good repair. Each of us will surely need to cross it.
Apparently our human obsession with being right often obscures His command. He asks that we focus on being good; He does not commands that we always be right. How many wars might be averted, how many lives spared, how many estrangements might be avoided, and how many misunderstandings renounced if we let goodness govern over rightness?
Even as Christ calls on the stubborn citizens of the world with messengers, angels, His voice, thunderings, etc., it is all “the voice of mercy all the day long” (D&C 43:25). All of His actions are designed to bless and redeem. “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world” (2 Nephi 26:24). That fits my experience of Him. He has more reason than anyone to be indignant with my contrariness and taintedness, yet He is most patient. Apparently He actually aims to redeem us with His love. What an example for us as we struggle to strengthen relationships!
The intimacy of marriage with its soul-stretching challenges provides the ideal stretching for the development of charity. We may be irritated and annoyed by mannerisms and limitations in our partners. Or we may wisely surrender or modify selected judgments, preferences, conveniences, and even our advanced knowledge in order to prosper a relationship. I can value an activity or perspective because my spouse values it. I can adjust my schedule to accommodate her. I can modify expectations to celebrate the patches of sunshine in our lives.
Redemption can be a very demanding business, as Jesus can attest. Sometimes being right just isn’t good enough. “I think one fruit tree is just right.”
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