Life can be a brutal course. There are so many ways to fail.
As a young adult I used to grade myself every day—initially in three areas, which grew to twelve areas, then seventeen areas, and ultimately twenty-eight areas. Every day I evaluated how well I had used my time, read my scriptures, kept virtuous thoughts, been patient, managed my money, gotten enough sleep, and so on. For months at a time, my life was a wave of F’s with an occasional D or C. There was not an A or B in sight.
I was not meeting my standards and I knew it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not be the kind of person I knew the Lord expected me to be.
I got depressed.
I kept trying to be a better person. I worked hard. I used to go to a chapel and pray for help. But the darkness persisted. I yearned for answers but found none.
During that era I was having trouble with a calculus class. I went to the instructor and told him I was lost. His answer confirmed my desperation: “That’s your problem.”
Is life a calculus class with daily quizzes and no mentors or tutors? Are we on our own? If we are not smart enough to “get it” from studying the text, is our only option to drop out of life as a spiritual failure?
I was rescued from myself by the demands of a mission. Two years of service and spiritual experiences turned me from a gloomy, weary traveler into a jubilant learner. I stopped trying to fix myself and got busy serving.
What could I have done to make my pre-mission experience more productive?
A set-up for success
A friend was recently telling me about her college experience. She said that every semester she used to sign up for many more classes than she could actually complete. During the first week of class, she studied the syllabi and the teachers. Then she dropped those classes where she was not sure she could get an A. She had found a good strategy for a good GPA—but not for getting a good education. She graduated at the top of her class but missed out on a lot of beneficial learning she might have gained from risking the more anxiety-producing, challenging courses.
My friend recognized this as a model for the course of life. God is determined to give us as much education as we are prepared to receive. We can drop the courses that frighten us in order to appear successful—but we will miss out on the learning that matters most. Many courses may seem daunting. But He is an unusual instructor.
One teacher in my friend’s college education was both a blessing and a frustration. He told his classes that he required students to submit a paper each week on the assigned topic. The students had the option of attending class or not. If the teacher found the paper acceptable, it would get an A. If he felt that the paper needed additional work, he would write comments and return it to the student. Each student could re-write the paper until it was accepted—until it got an A. It could be re-written an unlimited number of times, each time with coaching from the teacher. His attitude was, “I’d like all of my students to learn the lessons and have the experiences that qualify them for an A.” He was working tirelessly to help them learn.
The course of life is much like that. Each week we write a paper—or live a span of life. Each week we present it to Him. He accepts it—or returns it to us with suggestions for additional refinement. If we are willing to keep living and learning, He is willing to keep teaching and guiding. We can re-submit our imperfect efforts an unlimited number of times. He will continue to coach us until we get it right—as long as we don’t drop the course and don’t stop turning in our papers.
The weekly encounter
As she talked about our weekly assignments, the blessing of the sacrament seemed clearer than ever to me. It is our weekly accounting with our instructor. He invites us to bring our notes, scribbles, and compositions from the week. We may be reluctant to take our flawed creations to Him. But He invites us to “come boldly [fully, completely] unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (hebrews 4:16, alternative words for “boldly” suggested by Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible).
We certainly have the need. He assuredly has the grace.
But perhaps the encounter is not intended primarily to evaluate us. Perhaps the Master Instructor is less interested in grading what we submit than in developing us further as His students. God will sort among our efforts during the week and accept parts: “This offering is acceptable.” He will also send us back to re-write parts that need more thought and nobler purpose. He will haul off those sins that burden us. And He will touch and stanch those issues of blood that drain us.
Each week He meets us at the sacrament table to sort us out. Over time He turns our weakness into strength.
He will set right everything that we bring to Him. Clearly we should never hold anything back. If we do not submit it, it cannot be refined.
Those few minutes when we sing a sacrament hymn and ponder His plan may be the most important time of any saint’s week. Perhaps He would like us to more consciously bring our weeks to Him. So lately I have made sure that my skimpy journal—really nothing more than a few words listing the activities of the days—is up-to-date when the Sabbath comes. Then I take the week to Father so I can be taught.
I offer my resentments and beg him to transform them into appreciations and compassion.
I shuffle my reluctance to the throne and plead for him to replace it with glad service.
I humbly drag my sins and beseech him to pay my burdensome debts.
I heave my burden of self-interest before him and implore him to change my heart.
I confess my doubts and confusion and earnestly appeal for additional insight and greater faith.
I take my imperfect performance and ask that He extend my contract yet another week.
Understanding the pained past
What should I have done differently as a young adult to avoid the endless and pointless self-evaluation, self-hate, and self-destruction?
The key is to know who will save me. It is not I. It is he.
Back then I was the judge, jury, and executioner of my tortured young adulthood. I seemed to think that if I worked hard enough and hated sin ardently enough, I would overcome it. But I cannot. He is the conqueror. Of course I do all that I can do. But I do not deceive myself. I am not the God of my life; He is.
So I try to be better prepared for my weekly encounter with the Professor of heaven and Earth. I go wholeheartedly to the weekly encounter knowing that He is able to do His work. Week after week I will return to him ready to be blessed, taught, and strengthened.
I thank him for His perfectly gracious tutoring.