“If I Would Have Known…I Would Have Never…”

A few years back, a friend of mine — who shall remain namefull (Logan Bobo) — and I worked together and had a mutual acquaintance. Britney was usually good for a laugh around the proverbial water cooler. Until one day when she told us of how she had recently found out something about her husband, which, had she known in the past, would have caused her never to marry him in the first place! At the time, Logan and I were shocked (and curious, actually, we never found out what that one thing was).

Fast forward to the present. My conservative, traditionalist grandmother (as opposed to my happy-to-be-a-Democrat other grandmother) was recently given Rough Stone Rolling as a present for her birthday. To her horror, she learned of things that caused her to state the “If I would have known…I would have never…” She believes God has protected her all these years.

Now, I need to be careful. My grandmother is an amazing person with an amazing conversation story. The Church really does mean everything to her. And this trial is just a minor bump in her life experiences. The Church is still true, etc. In situations like these, it’s difficult to know if the person involved is using the “If I would have known…I would have never…” to say what he/she means or if it’s used for the intended meaning of “I’m just really annoyed and frustrated.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m always fascinated by the “If I would have known…I would have never…” Being raised in the Church, I was somehow subconsciously raised with the preconceived notion that the Church is exempt from the “If I would have known…I would have never…” as is something like marriage (see first example). But we know that this, of course, is preposterous. Unfortunately, past dirty little secrets screw up the present every day.

But within the context of the Church, how much protectionism is a good thing? Should we hang our dirty laundry for everyone to see? I’m thinking, as usual, that a balance is needed. But where the balance point is, I’m not sure anyone knows.


  1. Aaron Brown says:

    I haven’t run into this much, but I can think of one example in my own family where I did: Before he died, my grandfather had a conversation with me and several friends in which he related his frustration with a recent Gospel Doctrine class. The teacher had proclaimed that all deceased people who hadn’t been baptized Mormon would go to “spirit prison” in the Spirit World, while faithful baptized Mormons would go to “paradise.” My grandfather objected strenuously to the notion that his deceased non-Mormon mother would ever go to a “prison,” since she was such a good person. albeit unbaptized. I explained to him that “prison” didn’t necessarily connote “punishment,” but that it was just somewhere the unbaptized go until they accept baptism in the next life (assuming they do). My grandfather agreed with the “she-will-have-a-chance-to-get-baptized” line, but continued to object to the idea that his mother could be in a “prison.” I tried to explain that the Spirit World division needed to be drawn between the baptized and unbaptized (rather than the “good people” vs. the “bad people,” whatever that would mean); otherwise the Spirit World wouldn’t serve any theological purpose, for it would end up being too much like a pre-final Judgment without any special characteristics, and would seem to render a subsequent judgment superfluous.

    This line of thinking was not persuasive to my grandfather. He was still focused on the negative connotation of the word “prison,” and then proclaimed: “If I had known this when I joined the Church, I never would have joined!”

    Why do people say these things? …

    1. They’re just “annoyed and frustrated,” are blowing off steam, and are being melodramatic.

    2. They’re just analyzing (perhaps accurately) what would have happened had they known x, y or z, and are wishing that they had known this earlier, so as to avoid the horrible decision to be baptized. :)

    3. They’re just analyzing (perhaps accurately) what would have happened had they known x, y or z, and are feeling grateful that they didn’t know, because they value their membership, but know themselves well enough to know that certain knowledge would have dissuaded them from baptism had they possessed it at a certain time.

    I have mixed feelings about #3. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing how we would have handled certain counter-factual scenarios, and expressing gratitude that we never had to go down those paths. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that LDS thought hasn’t better integrated certain potentially unpleasant facts and issues earlier, such that people wouldn’t have to recognize how vulnerable their convictions would be to certain unpleasant truths.

    Aaron B

  2. There’s a concept in law called “informed consent” that suggests people have a right to know things that are material to their decisions in certain contexts. I think this is right, morally speaking, ie, we have a right to know things material to us. If we’re asked to believe something, we should have a right to think it out in our minds with all relevant information.

    But the real question is–what is known or knowable? And, how well informed can someone be on all material matters? Everyone’s an ignoranti, just on different topics.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Bob, I am not sure the right question is one of balancing what facts and concepts should be revealed. Instead I believe it’s more about when and how they come to light. This is a milk/meat perspective, but I believe that sooner or later people should learn all there is to learn about their faith.

    Most of this knowledge will come after we’re dead, to be sure…

  4. Two points for Aaron’s grandfather (or Aaron–is that really a quotation, or has his mind edited the line) for remembering the subjunctive voice!

    God bless the subjunctive! May it, like Francisco Franco, outlive all predictions of its demise.

    If I had known that the subjunctive was going the way of whalebone corsets, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born in an English-speaking [sic] country.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, Joseph’s original conception of the spirit world was that everyone went to the same place without distinction. It was basically a holding area pending the judgment. This is rather like a postmortal version of the *guph*, which some rabbis who believed in a preexistence of spirits held was a holding area or treasury for these spirits after the creation but pending their coming to mortal bodies.

    Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked in the spirit world was a theological innovation. (To see this, go to the appropriate chapter in Daniel Ludlow’s _Latter-day Prophets Speak!_ and trace the quotations chronologically.) People didn’t want to be in the same place as the wicked, so it became necessary to separate them. (Of course, to some extent at least one could argue this makes the judgment later a mere formality, as a prejudgment is necessary to divide all of these people up in the spirit world.)

    Given this history, I think there would be theological room for a Mormon to believe his sainted mother was not in “spirit prison.”

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    Regarding No. 2: I agree that in contract law informed consent has a sound moral basis.

    But it seems to me that God (what with his perfect knowledge and our puny capacities) may not operate on an informed consent basis. “Charitable ignorance” may be much more like it.

    This gets to a big (and I think unanswerable for now) theological question: to what extent was our consent to follow the Savior informed when we chose sides in the pre-mortal existence?

    I believe that it was informed to a degree. I believe we were told mortality would be hard and that the rewards would be great. But given our state then, it seems likely that both the struggles of mortality and the rewards to follow were beyond our comprehension. That obtaining that comprehension was the purpose for mortality in the first place. That in presenting his plan, Jesus was saying “trust me” and we did.

  7. Usually when people say “If I had known, I never would have…” they’re expressing regret over results they’re stuck with. If they had known there was a bicycle in the driveway, they never would have backed the car over it. If they had known that woman was my sister, they never would have spoken of her in such unflattering terms in front of me.

    Do people feel stuck accepting as true certain beliefs they wouldn’t have freely chosen for themselves?

  8. When you teach your kids to do right do you also tell them all (yes I mean all) the things you have done wrong? I doubt it. I wonder how many of us would believe in Jesus if we saw him up close for three years. Lot’s of people did see him up close and a lot of them adandoned him over the course of his ministry. In fact even at his death the apostles seemed ready to cash it in. It took a real big miracle on the road to Emmaus and at supper that night to bring them back.

    God reveals himself to us through mortals who all have their failings real and perceived. We can continually parse the failings or we can take their message to the Lord and receive the witness of the Holy Ghost that the message is true. We must receive God’s servants but we are not obliged to receive every single one of thei actions.

  9. I think the most difficult thing about this phrase, at least in a Mormon context, is quite different ramifications than what you assert Beijing. Say I recieve what I believe to be a communication from God affirming my membership in the Church (which I have), then I find some information challenging my world view. The “If I had known” phrase means that one rejects their spiritual epistemology to date. Now, if the challenging info were to have come before any spiritual manifestation came then it is an assertion of reality a la Aaron’s #3.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    btw, great post Bob.

  11. Great comments, everyone. Here are some responses:

    Aaron B.,

    Your breakdown works quite nicely, and I have the same mixed feelings about #3.


    You bring up some good points but mostly made me indirectly think of some new thoughts: If everyone is an ignoranti on something, it sounds like everyone is probably missing out on positive information as well. That being said, we run into a bit of pickle when we realize that positive and negative can be completely different from person to person. Joseph’s polygamous relations might be quite meaningful to someone even if not to my grandmother.


    The milk/meat perspective definitely deserves to be thrown into the mix even if it’s getting to be more and more problematic (i.e., the earlier discussion on how the Internet kind of screws that up). However, I still think that plenty of tidbits that some may classify as meat can be more like the grease left in the frying pan to others.

    Mark B.,

    For what it’s worth, my grandmother’s native language is not English. If I had known your feelings about the subjunctive, I would have changed the title!


    “I wonder how many of us would believe in Jesus if we saw him up close for three years.”

    So are you suggesting that many of us will be using the subjunctive phrase in question after this life (assuming a huge increase in the applicable knowledge)?

  12. Steve EM says:

    #1, Grandfather was right. I seriously doubt the two criminals crucified with Jesus were baptized. They accepted Jesus and got to camp out with the other good guys in the spirit world. I’m sure an unbaptized righteous spirit can be an effective missionary to those who don’t know Jesus yet in the spirit world. Paradise isn’t just for the baptized.

    BTW, the final judgment passes over those who have accepted Jesus just as the angel of death passed over the homes of the faithful who marked their doors with the blood of the lamb in ancient Egypt. If you’re not shielded from the judgment by the grace of Jesus, you’re in deep doo-doo.

  13. Kristine says:

    Mark B.–we are truly kindred spirits. I once completely humiliated myself in high school (OK, I completely humiliated myself *lots* of times in high school, but I’m going to relate a particular incident that happened “once”) when the Peter Cetera song “If She Would Have Been Faithful…” came on the radio while I was driving a van full of friends somewhere. I said “I hate this song!!” My friends stopped singing and asked why and I said, with my best teenagery weird inflection, “it’s just *so* gramatically *wrong*–everyone *knows* it should be “if she had been faithful…” Like, duh!!” It got very quiet in the car.

    And yeah, yeah, yeah Steve E., etc., I now know that I should *also* have been humiliated by the mere fact of tuning my radio to a station that played that song.

  14. I support the concept behind ‘milk before meat’ not everyone is ready to hear everything all at once. I think, though, that we are often fed on milk a little too long. We get to a point where we are ready for doctrinal meat, but no one tries to give it to us, and most of us are unaware that there is meat and so don’t know to look for it.
    And re: spirit prison, I always thought that was a self imposed thing. ‘Bad’ people won’t want to hang out with any goody-two-shoes and vice-versa. I really don’t see it being an external thing imposed on unwilling participants. I’ve also heard theories that spirit prison is really a product of being subject to physical appetites while not having a body to act upon them with (ie craving a cigarette, but not being able to smoke). Those who have those cravings suffer, while those who don’t are just fine and dandy. This gives great incentive to learn to bind our passions before death, but seems a to be sort of a raw deal for honest and good hearted addicts.

  15. Kimball Hunt says:

    A great thread!

    (–a former Mo’ non-believer)

  16. I like that idea, Starfoxy, and I want to add the notion that it’s possible that Spiritual Prison is entirely a personal condition rather than a realm. It’s not, who wants to hang out with whom, but how spiritually confined we are.

  17. Shades of Kristine in #13, but I’m really interested: Kimball Hunt,are you a former Mormon, but now a non-believer or formerly a person who didn’t believe in Mormonism? I’m guessing its the former, but would am hoping its the latter if only because that is such a great way to phrase it.

  18. I don’t know about the milk before meat stuff. It seems to be rather self-serving. It’s a big deal to go to a foreign country asking people to antagonize their families, neighbors, and colleagues.

  19. Hiram Page says:

    You mean, we still have doctrinal meat? I thought just about everything, including the temple ritual, was being ground into a fine powder and mixed with our milk so we wouldn’t think or be disturbed in any way.

    Just when I thought I was safe . . .

  20. a former Mo’ non-believer

    That’s ambiguous.

  21. I agree completely with Meems. I get this from the book Return from Tomorrow. George Ritchie tells of his near death experience where Christ and angels of light were near many people who simply didn’t look up to see them. They were busy with other things and habits they’d kept with them.

    It’s a long story.

    I was thinking about your grandpa, Aaron. The older I get, the more I think God includes a heckuva lot more than He excludes.