If You Only Understood!

A few years ago, a friend of mine from Israel came to church with me. He was curious about Mormonism, and he happened to come on – you guessed it – a Fast Sunday. I prepared him ahead of time for the likelihood of congregants offering unusual personal stories from the pulpit, thinking that by doing so I was covering most of my bases. It ended up being a pleasant enough meeting, mostly filled with streams of little kids getting up and being cute in front of the microphone. I felt a certain amount of relief heading into Sunday School for the second hour.

This was a large, well-attended ward in Utah County. The Sunday School was packed, and it was clear from the lack of a set time for visitor introductions that few visitors came. No one knew there was a non-Mormon in their midst. And then the Sunday School teacher, an older gentleman, began to talk about the Holy Land and the Last Days. As he built up steam I found myself shrinking down in my seat and doing a literal facepalm. The teacher was nice enough, and obviously sincere. But his lengthy diatribe made it quite clear that he was not as informed on these matters as he apparently thought. My friend kept silent, and then turned and stared at me, his eyes bulging, as the teacher exclaimed:

“Those people just don’t understand who they are! There is so much ignorance! That’s why they’re so wicked, and why we need to help them understand just how important and special they are!”

It was one of the first times I’d really listened to, really taken in, that common, utterly Mormon phrase. In the context of a Sunday School lesson with an Israeli present it was ironic to say the least: my friend, like all Jewish Israelis, had grown up in a school system with a rigorous curriculum of instruction in Jewish history from antiquity to the present, including subjects ranging from the Hebrew Bible to modern Israeli history. He was unquestionably far more knowledgeable than our Sunday School teacher. And as the grandchild of a man who fled to Israel from Belorussia – the only member of an entire village to escape the gas chambers – my friend was more than shocked to hear himself sweepingly characterized as wicked and ignorant (but also special and important).

Since then I’ve come to pay attention whenever I hear someone say “if you only understood who you are” in Mormon contexts. It seems to come up most often in discussions of gender roles and women. “If you only understood your role as a woman, you would be content/pacified/happy.” I can’t help but wonder – what, exactly, is not understood here? What does the speaker know that the hearer does not?


  1. What a dramatic moment. Ugh! Just horrible, for you and your friend!

    I think that’s an astonishingly good point about gender. So many people are busy telling us what women are, how they can be happy, what they are best at, etc. I’m a woman…… Do my answers really not count?


    Again, it’s a situation with awful misogyny that we take for granted, that when put in another context, becomes starkly disturbing.

  2. “what, exactly, is not understood here? What does the speaker know that the hearer does not?”
    Yes! Exactly! This is precisely what I keep wondering. Well…tell me then! What is it I am missing?!

  3. Great comparison, Galdralag! This is probably stating the obvious, but it seems to me like, particularly in the situation with women being admonished to accept their roles, “If you only understood” means “If you could only ignore the things I can ignore.”

    Trying to be fair, I can imagine situations where I think people focus too much on trivial details and avoid seeing the big picture. I cannot, though, see women wanting change in the Church as being an example of this. Wanting to be treated as a fully capable agent is not a trivial detail.

  4. The great thing about this post is that it reminds those of us who are in gospel doctrine teaching positions not to make offensive blanket statements about any group of people (women, israelis, or otherwise) whether they are present or not. My take on so many members of these groups is that they are extraordinary, with so much to offer the church if given the opportunity, particularly in the way of offering a new perspective. I don’t think we focus enough, when we are talking about expanding the church, about what an asset new people can be. We need them as much as they need us. Just think what your “ignorant” friend could bring to a gospel doctrine class, for example.

    But I think that’s part of the whole problem with putting women in this special, nurturing, “on-a-pedestal” role. It does nothing to recognize our potential or capabilities or the myriad of ways we could make the church better if given the opportunity.

  5. Your questions are excellent. Unfortunately the speaker is an ass. This is what the hearer knows that the speaker does not.

    (okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but seriously, it’s all I could come up with.)

  6. I have the same problem with the “ever darkening world”. There is never any explanationof what is seen as darkening.

    I assume they are referring to equal treatment of women , more people living together without marriag, and gay marriage.

    Can these really be ballance against the incredible advances in many peoples standard of living, civil rights for many, less rape in the world, reducing crime rates, less war and murder. Obviously there are still many suffering, but I don’t think that is what they are talking about.

  7. What a shocking experience!

    I’m also troubled with President Monson inviting us to “See Others as They May Become.” There are a lot of implications there.

    Your story also reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I want us to evolve in the way that he recommends in, “No Religion is an Island.”

    “We fail to realize that while different exponents of faith in the world of religion continue to be wary of the ecumenical movement, there is another ecumenical movement, worldwide in extent and influence : nihilism. We must choose between interfaith and inter-nihilism. Cynicism is not parochial. Should religions insist upon the illusion of complete isolation? Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each others failure? Or should we pray for each other’s health, and help one another in preserving one’s respective legacy, in preserving a common legacy?”

    “Dialogue must not degenerate into a dispute, into an effort on the part of each to get the upper hand. There is an unfortunate history of Christian-Jewish disputations, motivated by the desire to prove how blind the Jews are and carried on in a spirit of opposition, which eventually degenerated into enmity. Thus any conversation between Christian and Jew in which abandonment of the other partner’s faith is a silent hope must be regarded as offensive to one’s religious and human dignity.”

    OK last one…

    “Is it really our desire to build a monolithic society : one party, one view, one leader, and no opposition? Is religious uniformity desirable or even possible? Has it really proved to be a blessing for a country when all its citizens belonged to one denomination? Or has any denomination attained a spiritual climax when it had the adherence of the entire population? Does not the task of preparing the kingdom of God require a diversity of talents, a variety of rituals, soul-searching as well as opposition?”

    Oh, yeah! And women, too!


  8. “what, exactly, is not understood here? What does the speaker know that the hearer does not?”

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Witness of the Holy Ghost. There, was that so hard to answer?

  9. If I’m feeling charitable, “If you only understood” can mean a couple of things coming from the speaker’s good intentions:
    1) “If only you could experience the good things that I have experienced, you wouldn’t be looking at the issue that way,” or
    2) “There are some spiritual things — pertaining to the mysteries of Godliness/the kingdom — that I can’t detail over the pulpit, but trust me, the Spirit is in this.”

    When I’m feeling uncharitable, it means, “I know better because of who I am/what title I hold, and you’d better just trust me.” Basically, it can be a passive aggressive tactic.

    In the case of your Sunday School teacher, I think it was just an ignorant, ill-informed statement. meaning nothing. It deserved the bulging eyes response.

  10. Jettboy, if you only understood what it was like to be on the receiving end of the statement, you would realize what an asinine response that is.

  11. All right, Jettboy, I’ll take the bait. I actually appreciate your comment, because I think it points to an underlying dynamic that’s often at work in these types of conversations: namely, one (or both!) participants using the Spirit as a kind of trump card. As your comment illustrates, when people say, “you just don’t understand,” it can mean “you don’t have the necessary spiritual knowledge to really ‘get’ it.” In other words, the problem is construed as one in which the other person doesn’t have the spiritual witness or superior understanding of the gospel that she needs in order to truly understand a situation.

    I see a couple of problems with this. One is that it effectively shuts down conversation. Person A, the one who is citing a spiritual witness, has little motivation to try to genuinely understand Person B’s point of view because Person A sees herself as already having The Answer, complete with a spiritual stamp of approval. In addition, Person A is likely to feel little need to better articulate her position in a way that might make sense to Person B, because she can easily dismiss Person B’s question as indicating a lack of spiritual witness. To make things even more complicated, Person B might cite her own spiritual witness in support of her position, at which point both of them hit an impasse. And perhaps most concerning of all, something as personal and powerful as spiritual experience gets reduced to a way to score points in a blog argument.

    In addition, I think that assuming that another person hasn’t had a spiritual witness of the gospel, or doesn’t understand it as well as you, based solely on the fact that the two of you disagree on a particular point, is a bit of a leap. I would imagine that it’s rare that any person in a conversation completely understands all the aspects of a problem. I think it’s tempting (at least it is for me!) to assume that if the other person really understood your point of view, she would agree with you. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; the two of you might simply disagree. You might understand each other all too well.

    I also find that reframing things in terms of personal experience (as in Hunter’s charitable interpretations), e.g., “In my life, this has been a positive,” or “this has helped me feel closer to God,” is much more conducive to genuine conversation than telling people that they suffer from limited understanding or assuming that they are spiritually lacking.

  12. Galdralag, that story is amazing. In a really awful way. I just wanted to say that the “you don’t understand your role” thing, said by men to women in the church, flies in the face of standpoint theory. Women know what it means to be women, because duh, they’re women. But they also understand the perspective of those in power (men) because that perspective is being shoved down their throats ALL THE TIME. Whereas men understand the “male perspective,” but really have no clue about women’s perspective, because no women in the scriptures, very few women speaking in general conf, etc. It’s like how black americans know what it’s like to live in white society, but white people do not understand what it’s like to deal with racism, live in the ghetto, etc.

  13. What a story!

    We are all so different and perceive things differently. Two people may look at the same facts and see them differently because if the lenses through which they are viewed.

    Does this kind of thing come only from one side? Or is it possible that announcing that “no one can feel equal, because equality is not a feeling” is similar rhetoric?

    Which is not to deny that some people don’t feel equal.

  14. On the off chance that someone comes across this thread without also reading Times and Seasons: Go check out Julie M. Smith’s fantastic post. (Thanks to Ziff for bringing it to my attention.) Among its many gems:

    I frequently see (mostly women) say something to the effect of “if only women truly understood their divine roles, they would not be asking for the priesthood (or any other change).” Let me tell you why I think the world would be a better place if this line were never, ever used again.

    (1) It’s condescending and arrogant. (The Bad Part of me wants to jab my index finger into the speaker’s shoulder and say, “Well if you understood women’s divine roles as well as I do, you’d be bothered by them as well.”) And it isn’t even true: would we ever say, “If only you really understood the Word of Wisdom, you would instantly and permanently never be tempted to violate it again”? It also substitutes an assertion for an argument. (That is, what is it about women’s divine roles that actually explains why a sister missionary can’t baptize her own investigators?)

    (2) It is precisely what Mormonism teaches about divine roles that makes the role of women in the Mormon Church so vexing. Think about it this way: if you took what Mormonism teaches about Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and mapped that onto a couple on earth, you’d get a stay-at-home dad and a mother who is–I don’t know–a medical resident or deployed to a foreign battlefield or maybe took a job in another country and so she literally never sees her children. (In fact, the kids can’t even Skype her.) So you need to explain how we (a) claim that gender roles are eternal and (b) see our Heavenly Parents in roles more or less inverted from what the Church teaches that mortal couples should occupy. Until this little chestnut is cracked, we need to stop acting as if all women would be content if they just understood better.

    Slow clap, Julie. Well done.


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