In a letter to his son, Mormon laments a dilemma he faces: how to calibrate the tone of his message so that his people will listen. Here’s how he describes the situation:
When I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it.Moroni 9:4
This passage reminds me of a statement made by President Dallin H. Oaks at the end of a talk about repentance:
Most of what I have said here has been addressed to persons who think that repentance is too easy. At the opposite extreme are those who think that repentance is too hard. That group of souls are so tenderhearted and conscientious that they see sin everywhere in their own lives, and they despair of ever being able to be clean. The shot of doctrine that is necessary to penetrate the hard shell of the easygoing group is a massive overdose for the conscientious. What is necessary to encourage reformation for the lax can produce paralyzing discouragement for the conscientious. This is a common problem. We address a diverse audience each time we speak, and we are never free from the reality that a doctrinal underdose for some is an overdose for others.“Sin and Suffering,” Brigham Young University Devotional Address, 5 August 1990
Another prophet who was painfully aware of this dynamic was Jacob. He was commanded to deliver a stern rebuke to a group of stubborn men, but he knew that innocent women and children, many of whom had been harmed by the men, would be in attendance. He knew that he would have to “use much boldness of speech” to get through to the men, even though that boldness would “enlarge the wounds” of the innocent women and children who had come hoping for words of comfort and healing (Jacob 2:6-9).
As President Oaks observed, there may be no way to avoid this dilemma when speaking to a large group of people. But in Mormon’s case, the dilemma was particularly disheartening, because his people didn’t respond well to any approach, however severe or however gentle.
But as I’ve pondered this passage today, one thought has stood out: Mormon kept trying. He tried teaching with sharpness. He tried teaching without it. He didn’t give up. Even after telling his son, “I fear lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them.,” he immediately encouraged his son to continue to “labor diligently” in teaching them (Moroni 9:4, 6).
Today, I will follow Mormon’s example with the people I lead and teach. I will recognize that different people will respond to different approaches, and I will vary my approach to learn what works for each person. When multiple approaches fail, I will follow Mormon’s example and keep trying. I will not give up.