Let me start with a disclaimer: I believe Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God. I believe he saw God the Father and Jesus the Christ in a grove of trees when he was a young man. I believe he was the instrument used to restore the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, along with the organized church of Christ, in these days. I believe all of that.
So, with that said, let me also say this: I doubt Joseph was perfect. I bet he lost his temper at times when he probably shouldn’t have. I would imagine he had some lazy days when he didn’t work as hard as he should have. There may have been moments when he answered a question someone asked him and then later in the day, after some thought, realized that he answer wasn’t entirely honest. I also think there were moments when he thought he was following the direction of God and he wasn’t, and times when he didn’t realize that the Lord was trying to guide him but he wasn’t listening. And there were probably moments when he was following God’s will, but not exactly in the best, wisest way possible. There may have been room for improvement in some categories.
The reason I think those things is because he was just a normal human. Yes, his calling on earth was incredible, but God was calling a normal human to do an incredible thing. Some detractors to the Church spend much time discussing, bringing to light, and celebrating the moments in Joseph’s life when it would be easy to question his decisions, actions, or inspiration. I bet there is a precedence for this, too, scripturally.
Can you imagine what was whispered about Moses by some of the Israelites?
In whispered tones: “So, have you heard about Moses killing an Egyptian years ago? He sure doesn’t say much about it now? I mean, what really happened back then? Do you think we’ll ever really know? Why doesn’t he say more about that to us now? What is he afraid of?”
What about this: “Did you hear that Moses’s father in law had to come and show Moses how to run this organization? Jethro thought Moses was doing such a poor job he had to come all the way here and give Moses a ‘Leadership 101’ course. If Moses can’t even be an effective leader, what else is he messing up? Should we really be putting that much stock on what he is teaching us?”
It doesn’t stop with Moses. What would people have said about Paul? Paul certainly had a list of poor choices prior to his call as an Apostle, and I’d bet he made a few poor choices after his call. What about Jonah? What about Peter? What about Nephi. I mean, we have record of him taking someone’s head off early in his life. What do you think people thought of that? Did they buy the idea that he was just following a prompting?
You see, I believe that I am being asked to sustain a prophet who is made out of the same material as I am. And I don’t always know whether it is the Spirit of God prompting me or if it is just my own thoughts. I doubt that I’m alone in that quandary. At some point, after I’m dead, I’m sure a number of things will be explained to me about my life choices and I’ll have a few moments of “Ooooh…Yep, I didn’t get that quite right…” Maybe Joseph Smith will have a few moments like that in the spirit world, too.
I believe God can and does work through imperfect, well-meaning, learning, growing, endlessly flawed humans. Even his prophets. I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on those imperfections and mistakes, and not because I’m burying my head in the sand. I know about those possibilities. It is mostly because I appreciate that people have overlooked my mistakes during the few moments I’ve had to serve as a leader in the church. I and they know I’ve made mistakes, but we don’t spend too much time celebrating them. We’ve too much work to do…