Treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time

May 12, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 10:14 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

When I was a young man, I served as counselor to a wise district president in the Church. He tried to teach me. One of the things I remember wondering about was this advice he gave: “When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.” (Henry B. Eyring, “In the Strength of the Lord,” Ensign, May 2004, 16)

This quote from Elder Eyring pierced me when I heard it a year ago. I find it profound. I am disturbed by how true it is. People have trouble in this world, and sometimes they have lots of it.

I heard news recently that hit me like uppercut to the gut. We got a call from an old friend. She informed us that her husband, someone I have long considered a real and trustworthy friend and fellow saint, had left her and their three young daughters. In addition, this young BYU grad, returned missionary, and former member of a bishopric had proclaimed he no longer believes there is a God and intends to remove his name from the records of the Church. We were devastated to hear the news. Why would he do such a thing? What could lead him to such a decision? What could have changed this loving father and husband into the type of man that could walk out on his family like that?

Well the jury is still out on that. Perhaps we will discover there was another person (male or female) that seduced him away. Perhaps it was some combination of the Devil’s GPA that called to him and convinced him it was worth it to abandon ship on his Christian life. I suspect details will slowly come forth that reveal what changed in this man’s life that ended up changing his very character enough to allow him to make such a choice. In the meantime we mourn his change and the terrible pain his girls have already suffered for it and will continue to suffer for it.

Obviously this friend was a person who was in serious trouble. I must confess that this news in part led me to write my rather strident posts on our need to stay in a dialogue with God. I know one thing for certain – no one that is involved in regular dialogic prayer with God will ever become an atheist!

I am angry at this friend of mine. I’m angry that he didn’t try hard enough to break through and clearly hear the voice of God speaking back to him. I’m angry that he did not do something early on about this spiritual cancer that apparently started in his life years ago. I’m angry that he never sought help from me or anyone to head off this disaster. I’m angry that he will not return my phone calls now. I’m angry that he has so deeply wounded our dear friend, his wife, and those innocent little girls.

And yet I mourn for him to. I mourn for the pain he will face when he realizes the gravity of what he is doing. I mourn for the horrible place he must have come to spiritually and emotionally that would allow him to justify such actions… I mourn that my friend is gone and has become someone else entirely. I mourn that I did not and probably could not have stopped this.

Whenever you talk with someone, assume they are in serious trouble and you will be right more than half the time.


  1. I recently ran into a missionary from my mission. I never served with him, but I replaced him in one city and had definite ideas about him personally. When I saw him recently, he was doing well financially and spiritually, his kids were cute, and I thought, “I’m glad everything’s working out well for him.” Then my friend (who is his EQ Pres.) related that his wife had just left him and their little children and was leaving the Church and returning to her earlier wild ways…

    I think I’ve always assumed that everyone is doing fine, but it’s really not true. That’s just the face we all put on.

    Comment by Anon. — May 13, 2005 @ 7:20 am

  2. As long as one approaches the other in the spirit of humility and compassion this advice is worthwhile.

    Comment by Daylan Darby — May 13, 2005 @ 9:12 am

  3. Geoff,
    This is a great quote and your story is heartwrenching. I wonder what you (and Elder Eyring) are talking about when you say to “…assume they are in serious trouble…” Are you suggesting to be more sensitive in our conversations with those we don’t know well? Or are you suggesting we offer help? I would imagine it’s a matter of the Spirit (gosh, I love the Spirit, it always comes in handy doesn’t it?) and you take it on case by case.

    Comment by Rusty — May 13, 2005 @ 11:00 am

  4. What a tragedy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 13, 2005 @ 12:26 pm

  5. Rusty,

    I think it is mostly a paradigm shift that Elder Eyring is talking about. Don’t assume everyone is happy and whole — assume they have real hidden pain and scars. When we come in with that idea we can be prepared to offer comfort and solace and assistance if and when some of that internal pain and trouble begins to manifest itself. If we assume everyone is completely whole and joyful we may not discern signs of trouble and therefore may not be prepared to hear the Spirit and help. Often we will discover that others are not in trouble and we can rejoice with them in those cases. But as the Boy Scouts say, it is always better to be prpared.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — May 13, 2005 @ 12:45 pm

  6. I first heard Elder Eyring mention the concept of “assuming everyone is in trouble” during a stake presidents seminar in the Philippines a few years ago. When I heard it, it strucked me as odd but also profound. I have since used it in my callings to remind me that everyone needs help on occasion including myself. This is more reason to be our “brother’s keeper.” It is important to strengthen one another at all times and not assume everything is alright with anybody. But in order to help and for others to accept our help, we must have established a relationship of trust with others as friends. From my personal experience, genuine friendships are becoming more difficult in a mobile society. Thus, there will probably more ‘casualties’ as we experience more isolation from a real ‘community of saints.’

    Comment by Randy F. Rubio — May 13, 2005 @ 11:05 pm

  7. I’m so sad to hear of this instance.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 14, 2005 @ 5:04 am

  8. Thank you for this post Geoff. I often come here, read and not comment. Your posts are really good. I appreciate the effort you put into posting the subjects you cover.

    You raise an interesting point. One that is lost most of the time on a huge part of our community. Which part? The priesthood. Rarely is your priesthood used on another of your brethren. It is used on women and children, the sick, the distraught and on and on. However, rarely does a man come to a friend and ask for a blessing. Come on you guys! Help each other out. Lift the burdens of each other. Lift without asking for specifics, just knowing your asking helps.

    Comment by cooper — May 15, 2005 @ 8:14 pm