A few weeks ago I was asked to teach a lesson in Relief Society and given the topic of “On Being Genuine,” an address given to the priesthood brethren by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf in the April 2015 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Uchtdorf opened his remarks by telling a story that supposedly took place in Russia in the late 18th century, and I went to the World Book Encyclopedia to gather more details. Catherine the Great of Russia announced that she would tour the southern part of her empire and would be accompanied by several foreign dignitaries. We know this area as the Crimea region in Ukraine.
Prince Grigori Potemkin (1739-1791) was a Russian statesman and governor of the Crimea. Potemkin desperately wanted to impress his visitors and knew they would not be impressed by the poverty in his area. He went to great lengths to showcase the accomplishments of his country.
As Catherine and her entourage floated down the Dnieper River, she proudly pointed out the thriving hamlets along the shore. These hamlets were filled with industrious and happy townspeople. There was only one problem: it was all a false front. Potemkin had assembled pasteboard facades of shops and homes to make sham villages to hide the actual poverty of the area. He went so far as to position busy-looking peasants to create the impression of a prosperous economy.
Once Catherine’s party disappeared around the bend of the river, Potemkin’s men packed up the fake village and rushed it downstream in preparation for Catherine’s next pass. Catherine and her guests were fooled by the sham villages.
Modern historians question whether this story is true, but the term “Potemkin village” is apparently well-known even I do not remember hearing it previously. The term refers to any attempt to make others believe we are better than we really are. I asked the sisters in my ward if they had ever heard the term and saw just a few hands raised.
The overall question I wanted the sisters to think about is: “In what ways do we build Potemkin villages in our lives?” I posted several other questions that I also wanted the sisters to consider: (1) What is the difference between trying to look our best or being on our best behavior and putting up a façade? (2) Why do we sometimes try to appear active, prosperous, and dedicated outwardly when on the inside we are something entirely different? (3) How do we avoid building Potemkin villages in our own lives?
We discussed the three questions, and the sisters had many suggestions. I was particularly interested in the remarks of a sister that teaches Seminary to our youth. She said that most facades are put up to make people think we are better than we really are, but the youth put up facades to hide their goodness and fit in with the world a bit better. I had not previously thought that our facades could go both ways.
President Uchtdorf said, “It is part of human nature to want to look our best. It is why many of us work so hard on the exterior of our homes and why our young Aaronic Priesthood brethren make sure every hair is in place, just in case they run into that special someone. There is nothing wrong with shining our shoes, smelling our best, or even hiding the dirty dishes before the home teachers arrive. However, when taken to extremes, this desire to impress can shift from useful to deceitful.”
There is the answer in a nutshell: We can look our best – wear our best clothes, wear makeup, and even dye our hair – and still be ourselves. When we try to appear to be something more – or less – than we really are, we are being deceitful.
Jesus Christ has a specific word to describe people who are not what they pretend to be. He calls them “hypocrites.” President Uchtdorf said, “The Savior was understanding and compassionate with sinners whose hearts were humble and sincere. But He rose up in righteous anger against hypocrites like the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – those who tried to appear righteous in order to win the praise, influence, and wealth of the world, all the while oppressing the people they should have been blessing. The Savior compared them to `whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
“In our day, the Lord has similarly strong words for priesthood holders who try to `cover [their] sins, or to gratify [their] pride, [or their] vain ambition.’ When they do this, He said, `the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:37).
We are not building a façade by putting a smile on our face even though we do not really feel like smiling. We are not building facades when we use the “act as though” principle. As we act as though we are happy, we actually become happier. When we say wonderful things about our husbands, they actually become better husbands. A façade could be someone wearing a high neck with long sleeves and long pants to hide the bruises.
Sometimes members of the Church appear to be something they are not. President Uchtdorf said, “In some cases, we may simply have lost our focus on the essence of the gospel, mistaking the `form of godliness’ for the `power thereof.’ [See Joseph Smith – History 1:19; see also Doctrine and Covenants 84:20.] This is especially dangerous when we direct our outward expressions of discipleship to impress others for personal gain or influence. It is then that we are at risk of entering into Pharisee territory, and it is high time to examine our hearts to make immediate course corrections.”
Other circumstances or reasons we may try to appear as something different than what we are could be (1) Trying to look like the “popular” crowd or the “cool” people, (2) Filling out college applications or job applications and stretching the truth too far, (3) Moving to a new area in an effort to make a new start, (4) Spending more for our homes than we can really afford in order to be more like the “Jones”.
We can avoid building Potemkin villages in our lives by searching our own hearts and lives to learn who we really are and the real reason we do the things we do. We could ask ourselves questions such as the following: (1) Why do I come to church every Sunday? (2) Why do I serve in the Church? (3) Why do I go visiting teaching? (4) Why do I pray, study scriptures, go to the temple, or hold family home evening?
President Uchtdorf suggested that the brethren ask themselves why they were at the priesthood session that evening. He suggested several reasons why he might be there and then gave his real reason: “But we all know there are better reasons for attending our meetings and living our lives as committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
“I am here because I desire with all my heart to follow my Master, Jesus Christ. I yearn to do all that He asks of me in this great cause. I hunger to be edified by the Holy Spirit and hear the voice of God as He speaks through His ordained servants. I am here to become a better man, to be lifted by the inspiring examples of my
Brothers and sisters in Christ, and to learn how to more effectively minister to those in need.
“In short, I am here because I love my Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
President Uchtdorf stated with his usual love and encouragement. “Whether your testimony is thriving and healthy or your activity in the Church more closely resembles a Potemkin village, the good news is that you can build on whatever strength you have. Here in the Church of Jesus Christ you can mature spiritually and draw closer to the Savior by applying gospel principles day by day.
“With patience and persistence, even the smallest act of discipleship or the tiniest ember of belief can become a blazing bonfire of a consecrated life. In fact, that’s how most bonfires begin – as a simple spark.
“So if you feel small and weak, please simply come unto Christ, who makes weak things strong. The weakest among us, through God’s grace, can become spiritually strong, because God `is no respecter of persons.’ He is `our faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments….
“God’s promises are sure and certain. We can be forgiven of our sins and cleansed from all unrighteousness. And if we continue to embrace and live true principles in our personal circumstances and in our families, we will ultimately arrive at a point where we `hunger no more, neither thirst any more…. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed [us], and shall lead [us] unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears form [our] eyes.’”
I love the way President Uchtdorf puts the gospel in such simple ways. An example of this is when he compared the Church to an automobile service center. “The Church is not an automobile showroom – a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation.
“And are we not, all of us, in need of repair, maintenance, and rehabilitation?
“We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.”
We can make our wards and branches into places of healing and places where we can be ourselves by (1) looking for the good in each other, (2) complementing each other, (3) serving each other, and (4) loving each other. One good suggestion for doing all these things is to improve our visiting teaching.
President Uchtdorf closed his address: “The greatest, most capable, most accomplished man who ever walked this earth was also the most humble. He performed some of His most impressive service in private moments, with only a few observers, whom He asked to `tell no man’ what He had done. When someone called Him `good,’ He quickly deflected the compliment, insisting that only God is truly good. Clearly the praise of the world meant nothing to Him; His single purpose was to serve His Father and `do always those things that please him.’ We would do well to follow the example of our Master.”
I have been thinking about this topic since I received the assignment to teach it. I always thought of myself as being the same person at home as in public, but I decided I am not. I recognize that no one or very few people see my very worst moments, but I also recognize that I put up a front to appear stronger than I really feel at times. I know that I sometimes put up facades in my life even though I know I am a good person. I do not particularly care if others know the truths in my life, but I do not particularly want to talk about them – whether they are good or bad; therefore, I act as though they are not there and attempt to go forward in my life.
I see no reason to continually talk about things that we do or that happen to us; I recognize that we must acknowledge they are there, do what we can to correct or improve them, and then move forward the best we can. I see no reason to bring a matter to someone else unless that person can help us carry our burden or needs support in overcoming a similar situation.
I do not care too much about what other people think about me even though I do try to look and act my best when I go out in public. I do care what Heavenly Father thinks of me, and I strive to live my life pleasing to Him.