Picking Away at the Church: The Parable of the Ants

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During the past few years, I have frequently interacted with people who have had questions and concerns about the Church. Sometimes, these were people who had a simple curiosity about an issue. Other times, they were people who were in a state of serious distress. Many people have expressed gratitude and a deep sense of relief to find that there are answers to the questions they have.

Unfortunately, there are others who, for whatever reason, are inconsolable.

Sometimes, these turn out to be committed anti-Mormons who simply want to fight, and initially posed their questions merely as a ruse. But it is simply heartbreaking when a formerly committed member of the Church discovers some issue of concern, and when the issue is addressed, moves to another issue. They may have identified a real or imagined problem in Church.

They may have identified a real or imagined problem in Church history, or a flaw in the system of the Church or in one of its leaders, and they pick at it. When a response is provided, they shift their focus to a different issue and continue picking away. As they do so, their faith begins to weaken, and if they continue to find fault with the Church and its leaders, they invariably leave the Church.

Joseph Smith once said, “That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.”1

This process reminded me of the parable of the ants, a story about a Polynesian woman that I heard told by historian Claudia Bushman.2 The story is as follows:

The Parable of the Ants

When I was a child and we lived in the village, we had no refrigeration; nothing whatsoever. My grandad, when he had some money, would buy a loaf of bread. We would put a table cloth on the floor and sit on that to eat. And because we had no way of storing the bread in a refrigerator, or a box to put it in, after we ate some, we would put the bread on the cloth, fold it up, and put it in a woven basket of pandanus leaves.

On the ends of the basket would be a string, and we would hook it up to the beam of the home so it was off the floor and away from the ants. That is, if we had folded the bread up quick enough before the ants started to get in.

Because sometimes he would say to us to “Hurry up!” And my cousin and I would say, “Yeah, yeah . . . . We will put it away,” but then we would run around and play and leave the bread there. And then we would remember that we needed to put the bread away! So we would wrap it and hang it. But we had forgotten that the ants would have already gotten in.

The next morning, Grandad would tell us to get the bread down. The bread came down and we would all sit around. The water had been boiled in the kettle and the tea was then poured into the cups. We would proceed to cut the bread. As the bread was cut, the ants would just fall out of the bread!

So I would get my piece of bread and, “Oh no!” I would say. And I would bang it on the floor, and the ants would come out. I don’t know how my cousin and grandad ate their bread, but I sat there hitting the bread on the ground. And as I hit it, more ants came out! So then, they would climb up my hands and my legs and I would start swiping them off and jumping around.

Grandad would say, “Just dip it in your tea!” And I would say, “But it still has ants! It’s going to kill me!” And Grandad would say, “No, no—just dip it in your tea. It will kill the ants and it will be alright for you. It’s good for you. Trust me! See?” And he would dip his bread in the tea and eat it and say, “See? I am still alive.” So I thought that he must be right. So I would dip my bread in the tea and I’d eat it. But I would still want to pick the ants out.

Then my Grandad would say that you could spend all of your days, but you can’t get the ants out. There are so many in there. And when you pick at the bread, with every ant you get out, you pull out a piece of the bread too. So by the end of the day, you are going to have no bread to eat. Then you will be hungry because there is no bread to eat, and you will be late for school. And he would say that every morning. Then I finally realized that I better dip the bread in the tea and eat it.

It was some years later, during a sacrament meeting, that it finally dawned on me what that was really about. He taught me that the ants are good for you. And I figured what Heavenly Father was trying to tell me is that in our lives, my husband could be that piece of bread.

As I look at every little thing that is wrong with him, and I pick it out, and pick it out, at the end of the day, there is nothing left of my husband to love because I have picked out all of the imperfections in him. He drops his socks on the floor or his undies and he doesn’t wash the dishes.

Every little thing that I could think of that was wrong about him would be like me picking the ants out of the bread. At the end of the day there would be nothing left of my husband to love anymore because it was all eaten up by my picking at it, trying to destroy the little things.

But when Grandad told me to dunk the bread with the ants in the tea, because it’s good for you . . . well, if I take everything that I felt is wrong and that I feel bad about, and take it to the Savior, I could just take it all to Him and let it go and just immerse it in his blood, and His atonement. Then it will be alright.

When Grandad said that the bread with the ants would be good for you, it really is good for me. It is better for me to let it go, and not pick at every little thing about someone else, or even about myself. I can sometimes pick out things I don’t like about my face or putting on weight. But if this is all that I concentrate on, and I don’t concentrate on what it is all about, the big picture, then I am losing out on life and the lesson of life. Then my days are wasted.

Just as my grandad said that I was picking on so many ants that I could miss out on school, we could miss out on our lives if we are picking on things. I am here to learn things, and that is all I am concentrating on. I am missing out if I am picking on all of the little things.

That lesson just hit me out of the blue. And I have not forgotten it since because it taught me a powerful lesson about what the atonement really means. For the atonement to be effective, it has to apply to me first, especially for others close to me—especially for my own husband.

If I want the atonement to work in him, then I need for it to work in me first. It is forgiveness. Heavenly Father can’t really forgive me if I can’t forgive myself or forgive the other person, because then greater sin is upon me if I don’t forgive. And I have felt the same about looking at others and how to not pick on the ants of others or of myself, because when I do, I am taking away something that is important and good for me to know.

Dipping Deeply into the Atonement

It seems appropriate to me that this woman gained these special insights while partaking of the sacrament. I can imagine her holding the sacrament bread in her hand, thinking about the parable of the ants as she was also reminded of her own mistakes and the mistakes of others. And as she held the cup of water, I wonder if she remembered dipping the ants in a cup and thought about how we can immerse our sins, cares and imperfections in the blood of the atonement.

As we demonstrate our willingness to accept Christ’s sacrifice for us, we do not suddenly find ourselves without problems and weaknesses. However, if we will put our trust in Christ, the problems we face in ourselves and in others can help us to become better people. We are assured that God “will make weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27).

In this regard, I like what she said about the ants being good for you.3 As we plan for the future, we might imagine a life without cares, challenges, or struggles. However, if we were to go throughout life without experiencing opposition, we could not experience the growth necessary to help us to become like God. (See 2 Ne. 22:11-13.)

It is not hard to find things that can bother us about Church history or Church leaders. However, as Elder Holland observed, “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”4

Also, in picking away at the Church, we can ruin the experience others are having with the gospel. Critical comments on social media and in Gospel Doctrine classes can cause the faith of others to crumble. On-line communities that ostensibly exist as forums where people can find comfort in sharing their concerns about the Church ultimately crush faith as participants emphasize the negative aspects of Church history and highlight the failings of Church leaders.

That is not to say that we should practice “blind obedience.” Rather, we must come to understand that this life is filled with obstacles and challenges, not only for us, but also for our leaders. Two of the main reasons we have come to this Earth are to be tested and to gain experience.5 That is true for our Church leaders as well as for us. It is in our challenges that we are tested and experience growth. It is through sorrow that we come to know joy. (See Moses 6:55.)

Parable of the antsHowever, if we pick apart at every little thing that bothers us about the Church and its leaders, we may find that there is nothing left for us to enjoy. Just as the little girl was taught to immerse her bread to kill the ants, we should immerse our trials in the pure love of Christ. We should exercise patience, forgiveness, humility, and faith. If we do that, our experience with the Church will be nourishing, sustaining and, ultimately, exalting.

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1 History of the Church, 3:385; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 2, 1839, in Montrose, Iowa; reported by Wilford Woodruff and Willard Richards.

2 The story is unpublished and appears as story Number 123 in the Claremont Mormon Oral History Collection, Special Collections, The Claremont Libraries, used here by permission. It has been edited here for punctuation and clarity.

3 Surprisingly, it is true that many kinds of ants have nutritional value. For example, formicidae ants “are nutritious, very popular, improve growth, strengthen immune defenses and provide proteins, vitamins and minerals.” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Nutritional Value of Insects for Human Consumption at 77.)

4 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” General Conference, April 2013.

5 “When asked in conversation, ‘Why are men left alone and often sad? Why is not God always at man’s side promoting universal happiness at least for His Saints? Why does not God do everything for man?’ President Young responded concerning how man’s divine destiny requires individual experience and practice in learning ‘to act as an independent being’—to see what we will do, whether we will be ‘for God or not’—and in developing our own resources. Such experiences will teach us to be ‘righteous in the dark—to be a friend of God’ (Brigham Young Office Journal, 28 January 1857).” Quoted in Elder Neil A. Maxwell, “Meekly Drenched in Destiny,” BYU Devotional Address, September 1982.

Steve Densley, Jr. is an attorney and is licensed to practice law in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and before the U.S. Supreme Court. He graduated with University Honors from Brigham Young University with a combined Bachelors and Masters degree in Public Policy and Political Science. He received his law degree from Brigham Young University where he was a member of the Law Review and the National Moot Court team. He has served in church on the high council, as the stake executive secretary, elders quorum president, young men’s president and as a gospel doctrine teacher. He has been recognized in SuperLawyers Magazine as one of the Mountain States Rising Stars and has been listed numerous times in Utah Business Magazine as being among the Utah Legal Elite. He has appeared on CNN, C-Span, BBC Radio, KUTV, KTVX, KSL Radio, KTKK Radio, and Swiss TV.