Elder Holland: How to Distinguish Between the Sin and the Sinner

Image result for elder hollandWe are facing one of the most complex challenges of our generation: How do we stay firm and grounded in the doctrine and standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while simultaneously loving family members who are living lifestyles that include serious sexual sin? How do we lead with love and compassion while being loyal to the commandments, warning against sin and not condoning actions? How do we teach children and youth who are finding it increasingly difficult to discern sin and sinful behavior when their peers and the media say it is acceptable and in fact, very good? And, using Elder Holland’s words, “How do we distinguish between the sin and the sinner?” These concerns and questions are in the hearts and minds of many members of the Church right now. They are ones that prophets and apostles have answered time and again, but are so often misunderstood that they are in need of frequent repetition.

In a Worldwide Broadcast for Young Single Adults titled “Israel, Israel God Is Calling“, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland addressed these issues and provided much-needed guidance to help us navigate some very difficult social issues of our day, if not our generation. Check out what he says about it in this short clip:

*This clip may be helpful in a discussion or conference workshop with youth and young adults or for parents struggling with complex family issues.

Understanding that “some current social issues and laws have eternal consequence,” please pay particular attention to Elder Holland when he states the following:

We keep praying silently: What is the right thing to do here? And what is the right thing to say? What ultimately will make this situation and her (or him) better? …

My young brothers and sisters, this Church can never “dumb down” its doctrine in response to social goodwill or political expediency or any other reason. It is only the high ground of revealed truth that gives us any footing on which to lift another who may feel troubled or forsaken. Our compassion and our love—fundamental characteristics and requirements of our Christianity—must never be interpreted as compromising the commandments.

He continues:

I know of no more important ability and no greater integrity for us to demonstrate in a world from which we cannot flee than to walk that careful path—taking a moral stand according to what God has declared and the laws He has given, but doing it compassionately and with understanding and great charity. Talk about a hard thing to do—to distinguish perfectly between the sin and the sinner. I know of few distinctions that are harder to make, or at least harder to articulate, but we must lovingly try to do exactly that. Believe me, brothers and sisters, in the world into which we are moving, we are going to have a lot of opportunity to develop such strength, display such courage, and demonstrate such compassion—all at the same time.       And I am not speaking of punk hairdos or rings in your nose.

We know exactly what kinds of issues Elder Holland is speaking of here. He has a brilliant way with words and we can appreciate that he is trying to teach overarching principles on some very specific and difficult social issues without actually naming them. This is the mark of a masterful teacher. His words relate to many situations currently facing our families and friends. Elder Holland also takes note of a common misunderstanding or confusion that is so prevalent within our membership today:

In this regard—this call for compassion and loyalty to the commandments—there is sometimes a chance for a misunderstanding, especially among young people who may think we are not supposed to judge anything, that we are never to make a value assessment of any kind. We have to help each other with that because the Savior makes it clear that in some situations we have to judge, we are under obligation to judge—as when He said, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.” 17 That sounds like a judgment to me. The alternative is to surrender to the moral relativism of a deconstructionist, postmodern world which, pushed far enough, posits that ultimately nothing is eternally true or especially sacred and, therefore, no one position on any given issue matters more than any other. And that simply is not true.

In this process of evaluation, we are not called on to condemn others, but we are called upon to make decisions every day that reflect judgment—we hope good judgment. … When we face such situations in complex social issues in a democratic society, it can be very challenging and, to some, confusing. Young people may ask about this position taken or that policy made by the Church, saying: “Well, we don’t believe we should live or behave in such and such a way, but why do we have to make other people do the same? Don’t they have their free agency? Aren’t we being self-righteous and judgmental, forcing our beliefs on others, demanding that they act in a certain way?” In those situations you are going to have to explain sensitively why some principles are defended and some sins opposed wherever they are found because the issues and the laws involved are not just social or political but eternal in their consequence. 

In short, our compassion and our love—fundamental characteristics and requirements of our Christianity—must never be interpreted as compromising commandments or condoning sin.

Below is the full video of Elder Holland’s address (approximately one hour):


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Angela Fallentine

Angela Fallentine is a native of Alberta, Canada but has loved living in New Zealand and briefly in Europe with her fun-loving and adventurous husband. She is a researcher and analyst for a think tank focusing on social issues, religious freedom and international policy affecting the family at the United Nations.

2 thoughts on “Elder Holland: How to Distinguish Between the Sin and the Sinner

  1. Greg Barlow

    I think you have opened a discussion that reaches deeply into the most difficult issue of our day. The commandments regarding serious sin have not changed and we are assured that they will never change. Yet we live in a day where acceptance and even promotion of grievous sexual sin is a cultural requirement in many circles.

    So, what can we do? Following the counsel of the Brethren is an important place to start. I’m not talking about parsing every talk and every quote to wring some obscure inflection that might in some way justify succumbing to the pressure of our day. I am talking about deep, earnest, prayerful study of their every word with a desire and commitment to be obedient to their counsel even in the most difficult of circumstances.

    My own experience in struggling with difficult issues has taught me that if Elder Holland’s words (or the words of any of the Brethren) cause discomfort, anger or resentment, the Spirit is not the source of those feelings.

  2. Rozy

    How did I miss that particular talk? Wow! I’m so grateful he beautifully articulates what I’ve been trying to for so long. I actually prefer the term “discernment” to judgement for it’s more compassionate connotations. We really must discern right from wrong, good from evil, in actions and intentions. Thanks for sharing this.

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