Avoiding Unrighteous Dominion
September 1990

“Avoiding Unrighteous Dominion,” Ensign, Sept. 1990, 62

Avoiding Unrighteous Dominion

How can we recognize our temptation to exercise power or influence unrighteously?

Anne,* a single parent of several small children, was attempting to finish college, manage her home, and earn enough money in a part-time job to provide the minimum necessities of life. Despite her demanding schedule and her often desperate circumstances, she was optimistically meeting the challenges. Except for one.

Her supervisor at work, an active member of the Church, frequently demeaned her, criticizing much that she did. He complained to others that she wasn’t doing her share, and he seemed to go out of his way to reprimand her in front of others.

She responded by giving extra effort both to her work and to her relationship with this supervisor. She made a list of each of his criticisms and began making specific attempts to improve. For example, with scant extra time, she went to work fifteen minutes early and stayed beyond quitting time. But after a month, the supervisor continued to criticize, even saying that he thought she was neglecting her children. Because Anne was achieving in other areas of her life, she eventually was able to see that the problem was his, not hers. But because she had expected a member of the Church—a priesthood bearer—to treat her fairly, it was hard for her simply to ignore or dismiss his criticisms.

The scriptures tell us that “almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, … will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39.) Power begets the thirst for more power—the urge to exalt oneself by appropriating perks or special privileges, to reaffirm one’s position by compelling or demeaning others.

You don’t have to look far to find examples. In an effort to get ahead, some people feel they have to hold someone else back or put others down. Too often, survival of the fittest seems to be the prevailing rule of conduct.

As Latter-day Saints, we hope to be in but not of that world. But we all hear of Church members who succumb to this kind of unrighteous dominion. It can occur in homes and families. (See Elder H. Burke Peterson, Ensign, July 1989, p. 6.) It can occur at work, at church, and in the community. It can exist wherever someone has “power or influence.” (See D&C 121:41.)

Places Where Unrighteous Dominion Can Occur

The temptation to abuse power is always present in the workplace, but it is particularly discouraging to hear of a Latter-day Saint who, in the guise of making business decisions, demeans or diminishes others. Too often, people refer to themselves as being tough-minded when they are really only mean-spirited. Many of us have felt the bitter yoke of an employer or supervisor who continually put us in our place to remind himself of his place.

Unfortunately, the Golden Rule is not widely taught in business schools. Materialistic ledger sheets contain no line for the worth of souls. But we cannot be the cause of injury to a single person—even in the business world—without grieving the Father of us all.

It surprises some people that unrighteous dominion can occur not only in the workplace, but in church settings as well. Even so, it is true that the Lord’s warnings to us about pride, ambition, and control were in the specific context of priesthood leadership. In our own experience, each of us may have seen church workers who dictate rather than listen to others, who care more about appearances than experiences, who see callings as status rather than stewardship. It is easy to forget that we are called “not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:9), and that the Lord often uses the weak things of the earth to accomplish his purposes.

The temptation to exercise power unrighteously exists in even the most mundane circumstances. Recently, while waiting in line at a store, we watched a female customer browbeat a young sales clerk. The store had not received her order by the expected date, and the woman was punishing the clerk for the shipping department’s error. It appeared that in her mind, the motto that “the customer is always right” gave her power over the clerk, and she used it to vent her anger. The clerk was nearly in tears and no doubt went home with a bruised spirit. We hoped that the young clerk did not know—as we did—that the customer was an active Latter-day Saint.

The Way We Treat One Another

People exercise power unrighteously by using familiar weapons: criticism, discourtesy, discrimination, blaming others for their own failures, taking credit for others’ ideas. Such conduct occurs in many situations, but especially in the way some men treat the women they work with, including the female volunteers in community service or church organizations.

President Spencer W. Kimball said: “Our sisters do not wish to be indulged or to be treated condescendingly; they desire to be respected and revered as our sisters and our equals. I mention all these things, my brethren, not because the doctrines or the teachings of the Church regarding women are in any doubt, but because in some situations our behavior is of doubtful quality.” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, p. 49.)

Mistreatment of women by priesthood bearers is especially crushing because most sisters expect to be valued by the better measure of the gospel. The Lord has told us frankly that He will not bear “the cries of [his] fair daughters … against the men of my people” who may try to control or dominate. (See Jacob 2:32.)

Of course, unrighteous dominion is not the exclusive province of men; women, too, are susceptible to the effects of pride. And often men demean other men, and women condescend to other women.

A particularly unpleasant form of unrighteous dominion is the expression of feelings of superiority that may arise out of an attitude that one is better than another because of education, material success, or Church position.

Several years ago, a wonderful and faithful divorced sister was called as a ward Relief Society president. After the calling was announced, a young, recently married woman congratulated the new president by saying, “I guess you must be worthy or they wouldn’t have called you.” In a subconscious way, the younger woman felt superior because of her marital status. Although well-meaning, she caused the new Relief Society president to feel needless anguish and self-doubt.

We often speak of those who hold positions of authority over us as our “superiors.” However, the term does not describe the comparative character or worth of people and has no relevance to the mutual respect and support we owe to each other. Nevertheless, those in supervisory or leadership positions may come to act or to think of themselves as actually superior to those whom they have been called to serve.

Unrighteous dominion may also be reflected in a judgmental attitude. A piece of ironic folk wisdom, Cohen’s Second Law, observes that “the world is divided into two groups, the righteous and the unrighteous, and the righteous do the dividing.”

Because of the gospel’s moral code, some Latter-day Saints may feel morally superior to those who are not of our faith. But in passing judgment on others, we ignore scriptural warnings that self-appointed superiority is unrighteous. The Lord warns such self-appointed judges that “they that have watched for iniquity shall be hewn down and cast into the fire.” (D&C 45:50.)

In addition to these direct and oppressive forms of unrighteous dominion, there are other less-obvious ways in which we reject others. We may simply ignore or not care about those around us. The poet e.e. cummings was once jostled while walking down a busy sidewalk in New York City. He turned and shouted to no one in particular, “I am not a crowd, I’m a person.”

The blur of life sometimes causes us to see only crowds, not individuals. Too often, we ignore or are oblivious to our neighbors or their burdens. Such indifference, even when unintentional, may affect others in severe ways.

Some years ago, a young college student had an experience that deeply hurt her. As a waitress in a local restaurant, she was excited to wait on a prominent leader but was stunned when he did not leave a tip. The disappointment was deep and lasting. While the slight was surely inadvertent—and the young woman should have been understanding—this experience demonstrates the influence we may have in even the most seemingly casual encounters.

When we do not care enough about others to ask about their hopes or needs, they become nonentities, off the radar screens of our consciences. We thereby harm them twice: once by our implicit rejection of them, and again by the missed opportunity to encourage them, to help lift their pains and burdens, and to comfort them.

Keeping an Eye Single to the Glory of God

God has counseled us repeatedly about our responsibility to others, especially to those with whom we have power or influence. One way of understanding that responsibility is to consider the Lord’s commandment to have an eye single to His glory. (See D&C 88:67.)

The work and glory of our Father in Heaven is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) He glories in his children, in the process of their perfection, and in their progress on the path to exaltation. That glory is to be our single and principal focus on earth. The Lord has said that every man is to seek “the interest of his neighbor, and [do] all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” (D&C 82:19.)

We can determine how well we are meeting that responsibility by evaluating whether we are truly seeking the interest of others and whether we are helping or hindering them in their eternal progress. (See accompanying article, “Take a Look Inside.”)

Author C. S. Lewis reminds us of the eternal importance of the people around us:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” (The Weight of Glory, New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 18–19.)

Putting Others First

In summary, here are a few suggestions about how to avoid unrighteous dominion:

  1. Be people-oriented. There are hundreds of small ways to encourage others. Try to remember people and call them by name. Notice their efforts, and sincerely compliment them for their specific achievements. Encourage them in their efforts. When workers in a store or restaurant serve you, thank them for their service.

  2. Remember that people are more important than projects. In the world, leaders often use people to accomplish certain tasks or to produce certain products or events. But in the Church, righteous leaders use tasks and events to produce certain kinds of people. Our goal is not perfect programs, but perfect people.

    One Mother’s Day several years ago in the Chevy Chase Ward in Washington, D.C., we listened to a wonderful young man with Down’s syndrome speak about his mother. His words were halting and hard to understand, and his message was simple. By any secular measure, his talk was neither literary nor polished; and some may have wondered about the wisdom of his participation. But the gratitude and love that young man expressed were of exquisite beauty. A sensitive bishop had cared more about that individual than about whether the Sunday School program was regarded by someone else as “perfect.”

  3. Never regard any encounter or relationship as casual or unimportant. Every situation, every relationship, every encounter presents an opportunity for influence—good or bad.

    President Spencer W. Kimball was a great example of constant sensitivity to others. He made it a point always to take his place at the end of a line and not to be moved up; in so doing, he showed his genuine respect for all those waiting in front of him.

    One afternoon several years ago, a friend and his eight-year-old son and friend were driving in Salt Lake City and happened to see President Kimball unexpectedly. On an impulse, the father stopped the car and took the boys over to meet the prophet and shake his hand. President Kimball was no doubt busy and may have been delayed by the intrusion. But instead, he warmly greeted them and visited with them for several minutes. As they were leaving, he said to the boys, “May I kiss you?” He did so—and they left with a lifelong memory. President Kimball refused to treat those few minutes casually.

  4. Listen to others, and respect their views. In classrooms and work and social situations, some people are never asked for their opinion and are never given an opportunity to be heard. We treat people as equals when we listen to them and value their views. By listening to others—such as those of other faiths and beliefs—we can learn what they think and how they feel. And our expanded knowledge increases our capacity to help and encourage.

    Elder Neal A. Maxwell regularly asks questions of others and listens carefully to the responses. People departing his company feel valued and lifted. Such listening emulates our Father in Heaven, who loves us enough to listen to us.

  5. Pray that God will consecrate your efforts to the benefit of others. Pray that you won’t inadvertently offend or wound someone.

  6. Be objective about your actions and contributions and favorably subjective about those of others. Be patient, looking for the best in others instead of attributing to them bad motives or errors.

As parents, we are grateful to the many people who help our children, who boost their self-image by complimenting them at crucial times. In our neighborhood, there is a kindergarten teacher who has made a difference in hundreds of impressionable young lives. She values each child as a unique being. She encourages and praises and loves the children and then sends them on to first grade skilled and full of self-esteem.

Our feelings of gratitude toward her have helped us understand the feelings our Father in Heaven must have for each of us when we affirm and strengthen and encourage His sons and daughters. When we do so with an eye single to bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of others, He has promised us that our “whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness” in us. (D&C 88:67.)

Take a Look Inside

Consider these questions:

  • Was I sensitive today to the person working next to me? Do I really know and care about him or her?

  • How did I speak to and treat the people under my direction today—either at work or at church? Did I deal with them as my inferiors, or did I treat them with respect?

  • Do I give orders, or do I make requests—using “please” and “thank you”?

  • Do I give others full credit for their contributions, or do I mostly take credit myself?

  • Do I accept blame when appropriate, or do I try to push it onto someone else?

  • How did I treat the people I spoke with on the telephone today?

  • Was I mindful and appreciative of those who waited on or helped me today?

  • Was I supportive and encouraging to people in my neighborhood today?

  • Did I treat with respect today those who are different from myself?

  • Name has been changed.

  • James S. Jardine serves as regional representative in the Taylorsville Utah Region. Jeanne Nebeker Jardine serves as ward music director and Relief Society teacher in the Parleys Sixth Ward, Salt Lake Parleys Stake.

Illustrated by Richard Hull