I make lots of mistakes. I have always felt that I made more than my share. Some of them are fairly small. It is not hard to imagine that God will blink at them. But some of them are medium size or even giant size. And they have the annoying habit of accumulating faster than I can clear them away.
The chief advantage of making big mistakes is that they force us to acknowledge our need for repentance. Being filthy is not pleasant business. But it is so unfortunate that the only alternative to sin is this distasteful business of repentance.
But maybe repentance is not what it appears to be. In early adulthood I felt bad when I sinned and I would redouble my efforts at virtue. It seemed to work tolerably well. At least I felt that I was making progress. But, as the years went by, it became clear that certain persistent failings and foibles were not effectively dissolved by such low-strength solvents as my efforts at self-improvement.
More years went by and my attempts at repentance continued—with no better results. Somewhere about middle age it occurred to me that I might benefit from following the example of that remarkable repenter, Alma the younger. So, to my regimen of guilt and resolve I added formulaic prayer: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18). That’s when the surprises began.
After making a stupid and distasteful mistake (a sin), I found myself in the same tired monologue: “Why do I make the same mistakes? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I ever change?” Hot tears bespoke my desperation. Fortunately I was too discouraged and tired to stiffen my resolve and schedule my growth. Instead I slipped to my knees, I planted my tearful face on the ground, and I gave myself up. “O Lord and Father, I have no excuses for my mistakes. I know better. I have been blessed by your patience and goodness yet I return again and again to my boundless imperfection. Please, please rescue me. I do not ask because I deserve thy grace. I plead because thou art my only hope. Please give me some hope. Please cleanse me. Please remove this stubborn and sullied disposition. O Father . . . .”
As I prayed, I felt divine goodness encircling me with unexpected peace and love. I felt comforted and renewed. I instinctively protested: “Hold it. Stop. You can’t love me now. I am filthy. Let me clean myself up first and then I will welcome your visit.”
The irony and presumption dawned on me. “Let me clean myself up.” Am I God that I can remove sin?
But how can I possibly entertain the divine when I am filthy? There must be a cleansing process before the offended Spirit can return. Alma teaches us the incisive answer. Before his desperate plea for mercy, he could not endure the thought of facing God. “. . . the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds. (Alma 36:14–15)
Yet, only minutes later, he exclaimed “oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon His throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there” (Alma 36:20, 22).
How does a person go from being ranked among the vilest of sinners, and dreading the heavenly face-off, to having joy in a heavenly vision? The answer is Jesus. When we call on Him, bringing our whole souls as an offering, He cleanses us. Being clean, we may immediately entertain the divine.
Jesus’ message to me in my penitent state was clear: “Wally, you make yourself humble. I will make you clean.” What a remarkable surprise. He is the God of my life. I am not.
I always thought that, if I organized myself, tried really hard, and filled myself with goodness, that I could somehow become a pretty decent saint. Don’t we fare according to our management and prosper according to our genius and conquer according to our strength? No. That is the anti-Christ doctrine taught by Korihor. It logically leads us to the conclusion that there could be no atonement and that none is needed (Alma 30:17).
Our latter-day self-sufficiency is evident in many forms. Do we depend more on our planners or the scriptures to make sense of our lives? Are our cultural icons as likely to be the gentle meat cutter as the prominent businessperson? Is meekness as important as prominence to us? Do we turn to him in all things? Do we gladly acknowledge our dependence on God?
When I was a college student I bristled at the idea that man is nothing (Moses 1:10). I eagerly awaited a postmortal rendezvous with Moses to update him on the best humanistic thinking. Maybe Moses merely intended to say that our physical strength is very limited, I reasoned.
But King Benjamin slams the door on that option as he seems to rejoice in our nothingness, our worthless and fallen state (Mosiah 4:5). Beautiful King Benjamin also gave the context for our nothingness.
“For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state—” (Mosiah 4:5).
The goodness of God is the context for our nothingness. My early efforts to make myself saintly failed because I drew on my power rather than his.
Just as for King Benjamin, Moses’ discovery of nothingness was in the context of God’s goodness. He had ruled in Pharaoh’s court for years. But in his desert tutoring, he was granted a heavenly vision. God introduced himself to Moses: “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3).
As mortals we may be tempted to wonder why God would flex His eternal muscles so conspicuously. Does He think He needs to impress Moses? The words after the grand introduction of himself: “And, behold, thou art my son” (Moses 1:4).
God presented His merits so that Moses could understand His divine heritage. He has no interest in ostentation. He only wants to teach us. In a remarkable parallel of that same pattern of building a context around us, Father shows Moses the extent of His creation before inviting him: “I have a work for thee, Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6).
The context for every person’s life work is the goodness of God. Our rejoicing, our repenting, our growing are all made possible by a divine grant.
I have often taken comfort that Nephi apparently felt as flawed and imperfect as I have felt. But there was a subtle transformation that I had not noticed in his psalm (2 Nephi 4:17–23; note the bold words).
17. O wretched man that I am!
Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations
and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19. and when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins;
nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted
The turning point is: “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.” Important words: “I know in whom I have trusted.” Not Nephi. Not Lehi. But God. Notice a significant difference in his post-transformation statements:
20. My God hath been my support;
he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness;
and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.
21. he hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.
22. he hath confounded mine enemies, unto the causing of them to quake before me.
23. Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the night time.
Nephi did not merely add a dose of Jesus to his own program of self-improvement. He entirely changed his focus. Rather than grieving over his own abundant failings, he turned to Jesus’ remarkable goodness. He stopped talking about Nephi. He focused on Jesus.
Nephi then recounts some of God’s gifts to him and glories in his only hope. “Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation. O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?” (2 Nephi 4:30–31).
Nephi found joy and hope by turning entirely to the Lord. “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh” (2 Nephi 4:33–34).
I must not put my trust in the arm of flesh. I cannot save me. Nor can any other human. But He can.
The Book of Mormon, with its relentless testimony of Jesus’ redemptiveness, is the great latter-day corrective. If anything can save us from our self-sufficiency, it is the message of the Book of Mormon. The great danger of the latter-days may be that we will dilute its message of divine redemption with our do-it-yourself, American, can-your-own-peaches, push-your own-handcart self-sufficiency and find that being valiant in the testimony of Jesus is incompatible with salvational self-sufficiency. Ammon’s explosion of rejoicing captures the essential Book of Mormon message. “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17).
All of this reliance on Jesus can make a good, red-blooded, twenty-first century American Mormon pretty uncomfortable. Are we shifting all the responsibility to him? What is our duty? The best answer comes (predictably) from scripture. Notice the clear division of labor expressed in this beautiful triptych: “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17).
We do all that we are able, whether much or little. And we do it cheerfully. Then we stand still. That sounds very serene. Faith-filled. The result is that we see the hand of God doing the work that He is uniquely able to do. He will guide us, teach us, and, most important of all, cleanse and perfect us.
What must we do to qualify for His goodness? Paul’s surprising message is that we must need it. (Oh, how I need it!) “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Need. I have more than my share of need. And he, having made an infinite and eternal sacrifice, has more than His share of grace, mercy—redemption. How is our requisite need expressed? How do we draw His power into our lives? In humility. Jesus’ remarkable definition of righteousness still surprises us: “I tell you, this man [the penitent sinner] went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Just as the process of repentance is different from what I expected, so also is the outcome. When I was younger I hoped to one day be capable and confident. But there is something better than self-sufficiency and self-confidence. “. . . then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45).
Divine confidence is infinitely better than self-confidence. Self-confidence is always flawed and fretful because it depends on a fallible source. Divine confidence provides the serenity to face trials, death, joy, repentance, disappointment, and, ultimately, admission to His presence.
Shortly before he died, Lehi summed up the repentance process we call life. “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).
I am glad to know that the one who is in charge of saving me is a lot more capable than I. I go to him gladly and regularly for the cleansing that He so graciously offers. I rejoice that I can be encircled in the arms of His perfect love. “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever” (Alma 26:12).