BOTH FEET FORWARD
By Scott H. Swofford (BA ’79)
RM from Japan
Being authentic, loving, and
humble is the most effective way to communicate—and live—the gospel.
father was a builder of big buildings, some well known. So when I
returned from my two-year mission to Japan and wanted summer work, I
ended up 40 feet down at the bottom of an air conditioning shaft,
stripping forms from freshly poured concrete. My captive coworker,
Chuck, made the mistake of asking why I would “waste two valuable
years like that.” I am sure he had no idea what he was in for, and I
unleashed my abundance of missionary zeal.
At some point in our discussion I heard a noise
overhead and saw the familiar silhouette of my father leaning over
the shaft. What he said was a surprise: “Chuck, I don’t know what
he’s saying down there, but I believe it is true. Now get back to
This is for me the most treasured testimony my father
bore, but I hope we can surpass that level of communication today. I
don’t want you to go back to class thinking, “I don’t know what he
was saying down there, but I believe it is true.” Instead, I want to
persuade you to rethink the way you communicate to others
your feelings about your connections to heaven and the amazing
blessings of what you know and what you feel.
I also want to persuade you to consider another
perspective that will help you follow the counsel of an apostle.
Elder David A. Bednar (BA ’76, MA ’77) has asked us “to sweep the
earth as with a flood of truth and righteousness” in our online
efforts. Elder Bednar’s first qualification for this effort was
We are disciples, and our messages should be
authentic. A person or product that is not authentic is false, fake,
and fraudulent. Our messages should be truthful, honest, and
accurate. We should not exaggerate, embellish, or pretend to be
someone or something we are not.1
Following his counsel to be authentic will be more
difficult for us, as central-culture Mormons, because for decades we
have desired to honor the Lord by always putting our best foot
forward. The problem is that nearly every mortal has two feet, and
most require both of those feet to stand properly.
Over the past 10 years I have regularly had the
punishment and privilege of watching through a one-way mirror as
focus groups discuss Mormons. The people in these groups were
selected for these sessions because their beliefs and actions
demonstrated that they were likely to respond positively to the
message of the Restoration. They were people who believe in Christ,
who have their prayers answered, and who believe their relationships
will endure beyond death, even if their particular faith doesn’t
teach that. Quite possibly they were those “who are only kept from
the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12). And
yet these amazing people of faith, when asked to characterize us,
said we are, in no particular order, polygamous, sexist, racist, and
The first impulse in that situation was always to
leap into the other room and correct the misperception, but we had
all agreed not to do that, and the experience of the professionals
was that the conversation would have quickly disintegrated into “No,
“Yes, you are.”
“No, we’re not.”
And so on. So we calmed ourselves and went on.
Now, there are points of history and evidence that
can at least be used to argue for these erroneous perceptions, and
there has been an exceptionally authentic response of late by the
Church on the issues of polygamy, race, and gender, but what is most
troubling for me is not those perceptions. It is the widespread
opinion that we exclude others from our faith, our communities, our
sociality, and our love. How can that be an accurate viewpoint?
As we probed deeper into the experiences that
generated this perception, we bumped into a very understandable
cultural phenomenon. The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants
identifies us as “the only true and living church upon the face of
the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). I believe that statement and embrace
it. If we take it as a reminder that we are grateful recipients of
access to all revealed priesthood keys and ongoing revelation from
heaven to guide our actions, then it is a humbling and awe-inspiring
statement of our faith. Often though, it is used as a contrastive
statement of pride, exclusion, and misunderstanding, as if we are
more righteous than others, as if we can monopolize truth, and as if
being chosen makes us more beloved.
In 1965 the first black family to live in our
neighborhood moved in. My mother, as was her custom, baked fresh
bread and went to visit the new family. I peered out the window for
her return, anxiously awaiting her report. To her great credit, the
fact that they were black didn’t make it into the conversation at
all. With genuine pleasure she exclaimed that they seemed like “such
nice people for being nonmembers.”
In my suburban east side Salt Lake City neighborhood,
our social circle mostly consisted of either active members or what
we called Jack Mormons, since at the time the handful of Catholics
or Presbyterians in the neighborhood were kept within polite waving
distance. We had little daily interaction with those not of our
faith, and my mother’s surprise at their goodness affected me. I
spent my youth thinking that heaven was for Mormons and that all the
other believers were destined for some other place. I told my Greek
Orthodox and Baptist schoolmates as much. I was a little Zoramite,
climbing the Rameumptom in my Primary classes and praying, “And
again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people”
(Alma 31:18), as if to add, “and the rest of your children are not.”
Imagine my awakening as my work over the last 30
years in 50 countries has acquainted me with thousands of our
Heavenly Father’s beloved children who are amazing and faithful
souls. In Egypt I worked for months with Ahmed Sami, the producer
of Death on the Nile. He was a devoted Muslim, a father, and
an ethical businessman in a country ripe with corruption at its
cultural and political roots. Without even knowing the word, he
voluntarily tithed himself to the benefit of the poor. He spoke of
many miracles and answered prayers. He often reminded me of Christ’s
injunction to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt.
10:16). If I ever make it to the entry queue for the celestial
kingdom, I expect him to be standing up there ahead, well in front
While in Egypt we honored the promise the Church had
made not to proselyte, but I have no worry for the state of Ahmed’s
soul. Why? Because apostles remind us often of the Lord’s statement
in 2 Nephi 27:20 that “I am able to do mine own work,” and the last
two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants reiterate that the Lord
has a plan for the redemption and exaltation of those who have died
without the gospel and its ordinances (see D&C 137 and 138).
All of God’s children need the opportunity to hear
the gospel, exercise their agency, and have access to the plan of
salvation, or God would cease to be God. He lets us serve in our
sacred responsibilities as missionaries both for our mortal trial
and learning and to gather His elect, who hear His voice and
doubtless have particular service to render here and hereafter. So
as we seek authenticity, we should remember that all men are
children of our Heavenly Father and all “come short of the glory of
God” (Rom. 3:23).
Since the reality of our own weaknesses and
continual striving to overcome our failings is obvious to all who
observe us—trust me—others find us most authentic when we
acknowledge that trailing foot and don’t just champion the best foot
forward, pretending we have two “right” feet. I like this quote:
I love that man better who swears a stream as long as
my arm yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his
substance to the poor, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite.
I do not want you to think that I am very righteous,
for I am not.
This same person also said, “There was one good man
and his name was Jesus.2
Though this sounds like a focus-group participant
talking, it was actually Joseph Smith who said those words. He
understood the value of acknowledging what I like to call “the state
of striving” in any effort to persuade, lest we hold ourselves to a
standard—with our protestations or our posts or tweets or pins—that
any observer could call pride in self rather than love for God and
Please don’t assume that I am calling for a
disclosure of all our personal failings anytime we desire to rejoice
or for a mandatory review of our sins as a preface to our posts. We
have all seen too much information online and cringed. I am simply
asking that we make sure the pictures we present of ourselves have
two feet walking toward God, reflecting His glory and not our own.
This has ramifications for the way we communicate to
all those who share our values but not our membership. I was taught
in Primary to interact with those not of our faith using what we
called “the golden questions”: What do you know about the Mormon
Church? and Would you like to know more?
If we applied that advice in today’s social climate,
would it work? Imagine using it on a personal interactive basis.
Let’s say I boarded a plane, sat next to a fellow traveler, and
declared: “Hi, I’m Scott Swofford. What do you know about me? Would
you like to know more?” I am pretty sure a call button would be
pressed, and I would be relocated—if not removed from the plane.
The most authentic way to enter a gospel discussion
is to first seek to understand. I have experimented with the
following approach when seated on a plane: “Good morning. I like
those shoes.” The dialogue is now underway on a positive note.
Eventually it gets us to “Is this flight outbound or
returning home for you?”
Inevitably they will ask me where home is, and I am
lucky in that admitting I’m from Utah is like setting a timer on a
predictable response. Three, two, one: “Are you Mormon?”
Now, I could launch into my memorized first
discussion, but it is in Japanese, so instead I usually reply, “Yes.
And you?” I then pay genuine attention to a lot of information about
these new friends—their thoughts on faith, their struggles, and
their current frame of mind. Then I am ready for the Spirit to
direct the next move.
Am I encouraging timidity or restraint in opening our
mouths? No. Am I celebrating weakness? Yes! The Lord said:
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and
my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me;
for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then
will I make weak things become strong unto them.[Ether
Weakness and the recognition of it, the humility that
follows, and the application of faith in Christ are essential to our
eternal progression. Weakness is also the key to authenticity.
During the “I’m a Mormon” research we learned that
the most powerful myth-dispelling force was personal exposure to the
lives of our members. More powerful than any argument, firsthand
knowledge was the secret weapon. When we met someone who held
inaccurate beliefs, we would say, “Do you know any Mormons?”
The answer was usually something like, “Yes, one of
our vendors is a Mormon.”
“Well, does he have two wives?”
“Does he behave in a discriminatory way toward women
or people of different backgrounds?”
“Has he invited you to participate socially in his
“Yes. We’ve been out to dinner.”
“So how do you explain this contradiction between
your beliefs and your experience?”
“Well, he must be an exception.”
We learned that people need five to 10 exceptions in
their lives before they will adjust their misperceptions of
Latter-day Saints. Thus we created the profiles on Mormon.org—thousands
of virtual, relatable, striving followers of Christ.
After those experiences provided me with a valuable
clue about what makes us relevant to others, I came to BYUtv. We
knew from our research that good writing, good drama, and powerful
television draw at their most inspired levels on the capability of
flawed characters, whether real or imagined, to accomplish amazing
things. That is our story as humans. The Atonement takes the small
and simple beings that we are and makes us heirs to “all that [the]
Father hath” (D&C 84:38). We began as a team to craft such shows,
striving to “see the good in the world” amidst all of our human
flaws. If I judge our success by the letters I receive from some
well-meaning Saints, we have ruined the channel. We try to take
these comments into consideration and then proceed carefully with
our approved direction.
The most popular show when I arrived was a quilting
show, Fons and Porter’sLove of Quilting. The week I arrived
it pulled 8,700 households. Now, following the counsel of our
leaders and with an amazing creative and distribution family in
place, some of our shows are seen by a million-plus viewers in a
week and receive 63 million digital views in a year. Many of those
views are by those not of our faith, and we hear from thousands of
them whose perceptions of us moved from negative to positive.
Both our weakness and our need to overcome sin help
bind us to the Savior. In Luke we read:
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a
Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God,
I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust,
adulterers, or even as this publican.
I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift
up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast,
saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified
rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be
abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. [Luke
Often, bitter and gnashing voices focus on some
personal weakness of Church leaders, both general and local, in an
attempt to justify refusal to follow their counsel. I find these
protestations, whether historical or current, to have the opposite
effect on me. If these leaders can accomplish such virtuous, lovely
things as humans—and therefore flawed characters—then there is hope
for me, a sinner. I have myself witnessed members of the ruling
councils of this Church make decisions that in no way aligned with
what I knew their personal opinions to be because the Spirit of the
Lord had wrought upon them otherwise. What more joyous witness can
there be than knowing Heaven is in charge? Those not of our faith
resonate with the message of the gospel best when it is presented by
messengers who jump in with both feet and acknowledge their striving
Authenticity also implies an attempt to speak in a
situational language our audience can understand. A few years ago I
had the opportunity to role-play with English-speaking MTC
missionaries. I chose to play a husband who had just lost his wife.
After welcoming them to my “home,” I spoke about my grief at the
loss of my imaginary spouse and my sincere need to understand her
whereabouts. I felt I had given them an obvious approach to take.
“Man,” I thought to myself, “I wish I had seen such a golden
investigator on my mission.”
Their fresh young faces looked up at me, and they
enthusiastically launched into what was their most comfortable
vehicle: the story of the Restoration. “In the spring of 1820 in
upstate New York . . .”
I stopped them. “Now elders, listen to what I just
asked and see if there is a more comforting approach.” I repeated my
deep yearning for knowledge about the state of the soul after death.
With even brighter smiles they began again: “In the
spring of 1820 in upstate New York . . .”
And this time I just let them talk. You see, to them
the story of the Restoration is so central, so relevant, that it was
of course the answer. We would all agree that the words of Alma
about the Resurrection that I wanted them to quote or the messages
about the sealing power that I was hoping for would not be ours
without the Prophet Joseph, but they were just a little too ready to
use their new MTC squirt guns to squirt the gospel on me and feel
that they had done their job. I wanted them to also take
responsibility for the absorption of that message. Their testimonies
of Joseph Smith would be critical to my understanding as an
“investigator,” but they were out of place in messaging hierarchy.
If these elders had caught my situational questions and affirmed
that their message had the answer I was seeking, I would have been
happy to wade through any lesson on the Restoration. Likewise, as we
strive for authenticity, we need to listen and construct a message
The Savior could easily have taught “love your
enemies” (Matt. 5:44) with a simple pronouncement, and He did so on
occasion. He also used a much more engaging method: “A certain man
went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves” (Luke
10:30). Now that is a terrific opening, belonging to the parable of
the good Samaritan. Both approaches eventually arrive at the same
place—love your enemies—but one follows a messaging strategy that I
have seen work countless times in my career from behind the one- way
I am aware that by advocating a change in our
approach to the world I have perhaps created another “should,” and
the sad reality is that “you should” can become the enemy of “I
would.” I saw an effective illustration of this principle once. The
presenter brought a life-size cardboard cutout of a Latter-day Saint
and placed Post-it notes on it to represent every commandment,
responsibility, expectation, program, activity, area of emphasis,
and worthy endeavor members of the Church are repeatedly asked to
apply themselves to. The image of the person was quickly obliterated
and overwhelmed. I feel that way often. The only way for me to find
a way forward is to remember that the Savior found a way to make it
all simple. He took the mass of instructions, policies,
commandments, and traditions and made them only two:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy
neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the
When I need a gut check in the decision-making
process, I don’t always have with me the laminated card they handed
out at the last leadership meeting. Instead I weigh my options
against those two commandments.
It is clear that Jesus, for whom the answer to nearly
all questions is love, surely loves us all. He loves the ineffective
politician. He loves the guy who asks you out once and then never
calls again. He loves the roommate who steals your milk. He loves
the people who know Him by names we cannot pronounce, who chant to
Him, who dance for Him, who kneel five times a day on little rugs,
or who touch a mezuzah at their comings and goings. He even loves
Pharisees, although to be honest He was sort of tough on them during
His mortal ministry.
That love is the answer to any procedural question
because it dictates through the Spirit how we are to approach each
specific child of God and each specific audience. It is different
for each encounter, and following that pure love of Christ under the
direction of the Spirit is the ultimate communications trump card.
It is divinely authentic.
I leave you with three guidelines for putting both
feet forward. Feel free to laminate these for your wallet—or just
put them on a sticky note on your forehead.
1. If your virtues must be extolled, it is always
better to have a third party do it. Really.
2. If doing it yourself is unavoidable, start by
expressing love and genuine admiration for your audience. What will
follow is then less likely to be offensive.
3. When in doubt, follow dear Nephi’s example:
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of
the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart
exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth
because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations
and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth
because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. [2
Like Nephi, I too am a wretched man. My thoughts
careen about recklessly. My family, my coworkers, and my bosses will
attest that I am often irreverent and annoying. When I served as a
bishop, a sister told me in an interview that I was not only glib—a
word I had to look up—but that I also had perhaps “the shortest
attention span on the planet.” Sometimes I think there is no hope.
It is not God who makes me feel that way in the
middle of the night. Weakness and humility lead to hopefulness, not
helplessness. But when I calm myself I know there is indeed a bright
hope, because I know in whom I have trusted. I believe that if I
just keep striving, keep repenting, and don’t stop trying to love as
He loved, then someday, maybe after a millennium of practice, I will
be whole because of His atoning sacrifice for me.
Today I feel His love for you, though you are all
also wretched in some way. I know His love will save you and me, and
I know that about you because you know in whom you have trusted. I
testify that you will go on, with both feet forward—the best foot
and the real foot—to do mighty things in His name.
David A. Bednar, “To Sweep the Earth As with a Flood,” BYU
devotional address, Aug. 19, 2014 (available at lds.org).
Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), vol. 5, p. 401.
Swofford, BYU Broadcasting director of content and media,
delivered this devotional address Nov. 11, 2014.