If you listen to this hymn and find that it feels familiar, it’s because the tune is “Lower Lights,” which, but for two changed notes, is identical to the tune from the much-beloved “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.” (We’re not writing about that one until August. Hopefully you can last that long.)
This hymn is about fault-finding and sniping, something that plagues us not just as Latter-day Saints, not just as Christians, not just as anything, but as human beings. We have what seems to be an infinite capacity to be petty. We look for occasions to point out the mote in others’ eyes. We tear others down, either in an effort to build ourselves up or simply to be spiteful and cruel.
King Benjamin, a prophet-king in the Book of Mormon, described this state as the “natural man.” We are, left to our own devices, unkind to others. We puff ourselves up to make ourselves feel important while stepping on others. We look out for ourselves. It’s human nature, and there’s a temptation to shrug it off with the excuse that it’s simply who we are.
We can be more, of course, and the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to help us transcend that state through the Atonement. We can become “as a child,” as Benjamin puts it, “submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love.” It involves active effort on our parts, though. We choose to follow the Savior, and we reaffirm that choice countless times each day as we’re given opportunities to slip back to being the natural man. Often, we find ourselves on the brink of doing something that we know we shouldn’t do and have the choice to either correct our action or plow on ahead.
This hymn is about that moment of decision. Do we feel the need to chastise someone about something trivial? “Ask your own heart,” we sing, “if you have not failings, too.” We pause and consider the beam in our own eye. We count the cost of what we’re about to say. More often than not, we stand to lose much more than we gain by being right in an argument, or by correcting someone’s action we deem to be wrong. The first verse cautions us against being so quick to judge:
Let not friendly vows be broken;
Rather strive a friend to gain.
Many words in anger spoken
Find their passage home again.
Simply put, we will find kindness returned with kindness, and pettiness returned with pettiness. In situations like these, it’s easy to create, if not an enemy, at least hurt feelings. Instead, we can take the opportunity to be kind and potentially gain a friend. The second verse makes this clear as we sing, “those of whom we thought unkindly oft become our warmest friends.”
So we take the time to be kind. We choose to withhold criticism and judgment and instead offer praise. We do unto others as we would have them do unto us:
Do not then, in idle pleasure
Trifle with a brother’s fame;
Guard it as a valued treasure,
Sacred as your own good name.
We choose to be like the Savior, following His commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you.” It’s a choice we make over and over each day, and each time, we get the chance to draw incrementally closer to the Savior or incrementally further from Him. It’s up to us to choose.