Sincere mortals have one central challenge in mortality, figuring out what to do with our persistent badness. We strive to be good and regularly fall short. We seek to be holy but we have holes in the knees of our jeans and stains on our elbows. This burdensome fact of mortality haunts our journey. “When I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:19).
The popular American treatment for persistent feelings of inadequacy has long been the self-esteem movement. We focus on our inherent worth and try to ignore or deny our weakness and shortcomings. “I am good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” This approach has always been dishonest at best. Something must be done with the badness; affirmations can only persuade the weak minded.
Some brands of Christianity have celebrated badness. The themes in this tradition are depravity, corruption, perversion, and fundamental evil. Unfortunately advocates of this view (e.g., St. Augustine) have often applied God’s irresistible grace to deliver a select few from eternal torment. This remedy makes agency an immediate casualty—our choices have no impact on our outcome. This is a bad state with an irrational remedy.
Others celebrate meaninglessness. “The dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its meaninglessness” (Martin Esslin). There is no sin because there is no law. Nothing means anything (see 2 Nephi 2:13). We live painfully and greet death with characteristic ambivalence. We live without meaning and die without purpose.
Amusement is another alternative. We distract ourselves from our quandary by dangling before us this bauble and that entertainment. When the novelty wears off, we shop for more toys. We live on the hedonic treadmill. It takes great discipline to keep this approach from collapsing in a heap of meaninglessness.
There is an approach that is especially popular among earnest Latter-day Saints. We emphasize our chosenness and divine nature. We work very hard to keep sin away while we work to be good and serve well. Clearly it is working for Sister So-and-so or President So-and-so. With just the right measure of denial it can provide superficial relief . . . but it leaves a gnawing spiritual desperation at the core. We don’t seem to be able to do as well as the So-and-so’s. And our persistent misdeeds are too real to be ignored.
Most of my life I was the dutiful boy, Aaronic priesthood bearer, missionary, BYU student, husband, and father. Some people may have judged me to be a pretty good Joe. I was aware of my lapses here and faults there but hoped that time and effort might subdue them.
In due course I was called to be a bishop. It seemed that the ward divided into three groups. Those bright-faced earnest strugglers like me who seemed to be making progress. Those wanderers whom we spent our time trying to reactivate. And then there were the sinners.
There was the prison parolee who was not meeting the conditions of the court (that included being current on his bills) and came to me for welfare assistance. There was the woman who had fallen unceremoniously into grim and unsatisfying immorality. There was the couple who quit the Church and began to teach against it.
We tried to rescue these fallen ones but usually had little success. How can we get them to change their courses? How can those driving south ever hope to get north?
Even now I am mining those experiences when I was bishop for new understanding. I remember the woman who confessed such a variety of misdeeds, betrayal, and corruption that I felt absolutely no hope for her soul. After spilling out her tale of woe she got to the dreaded question: “Bishop, what can I do?” Fortunately the Lord took over. He delivered specific counsel, words of encouragement, and clear statements of love to that desperate woman.
I was dumbfounded. I simply had no idea how much the Lord loves His children. How can He cherish such stained and fallen ones? How can He bring order to such spiritual chaos? What had she done to draw such grace?
In the course of my service, my favorite words became: “Bishop, can we talk when you have some time?” I came to know that when people become sick of sin and finally cried out in desperation, God delivered His greatest miracles. I was blessed to be His messenger for some of those miracles.
I wish I could say that in my adulthood I have been only a spectator of sin—using my opera glasses to observe the drama and tragedy from a safe distance. It is not true. I have been guilty of pride, meanness, thoughtlessness, selfishness, dishonesty, and a variety of sins of omission and commission that have hindered and buffeted my soul. The burdens have been too great for my “I’ll-just-try-a-little-harder” optimism. Self-sufficiency was crushed by reality.
I am fallen. No matter how hard I try, I do not measure up. Sometimes I cannot even keep up the veneer of civility. Even decades of trying hard will not transform me into the man I yearn to be.
The fish discover water last. Why did I think that I knew Nephi but had not noted that his self-loathing was transformed into heavenly rejoicing when he acknowledged the One in whom he trusted (2 Nephi 4)? Why was it so late in life when I realized the significance of Alma feeling crushed by sin to being vaulted into the heavenly courts by calling upon Jesus (Alma 36)? Why did the Savior’s definition of righteousness in the sinful publican elude my understanding for decades (Luke 19)? How did I miss Jesus’ frank forgiveness granted to the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7)?
Suddenly the scriptures are full of surprises. It seems that everything is turned upside down. The first are last. The last are first. Stained sinners are my heroes because they found the humility to throw themselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of him who is mighty to save.
I always thought my objective was to be righteous. Unfortunately I have never been able to do it. Now I see my objective as to follow the only One who is righteous. I still grieve over my faults, sins, and weakness. I still work assiduously to avoid sin. But I do not look to myself as the one who can fix weakness and sin—I am not God. I look to him who is able to do His work. My job is to become humble. His commitment is to perfect the humble.
So my attitude toward sin has changed. My old (and failed) attempts to ignore my weaknesses are gone. I join Corianton in the attempt to let my sins bring me down unto repentance (Alma 42:29). I keep my weaknesses as the backdrop to His remarkable goodness. In fact it is His goodness that awakens me to the soul-deep yearning to be something better. (See Mosiah 4:5.)
When I was young I imagined that the mural of my life was coming along nicely. But now I realize that it was nothing but darkness and confusion unless He was the central character. My life is nothing without Him.
The best I can do is point to Him. To paraphrase Paul, “I now glory in my weakness. It is clear to me and to all observers that any goodness that comes through me is heaven sent” (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
It is not surprising that Corianton—who strayed from righteousness and his mission—should get counsel from his father, Alma, to turn to Christ. But I note that even faithful Shiblon was counseled by their common father not to depend on himself but to turn to the one Source:
And it came to pass that I was three days and three nights in the most bitter pain and anguish of soul; and never, until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.
And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness” (Alma 38:8-9).
Christ is not a decorative touch on our lifetime resolve and finest efforts. He is our only hope. As I have discovered that central fact, everything is new. I comprehend sacred mysteries because He is my light. I accomplish things I can never do because I welcome him as my life. I feel a peace that passeth knowledge because He is my comfort.
So the solution of what to do with my persistent badness is quite different from anything I had expected. I do not conquer it. I do not ignore it. I gather it up and give it to Him. He gladly takes it away. (he has already paid for it!) Then, having cleansed me, He comes in and sups with me.
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20).
Every time I bring him into my life, I am better for it. It is He who can transform me. It is He who is my only hope. It is He who is the beginning and the end—not merely for the world but for me personally. President Benson described spiritual reality when he said:
Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life. (“Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Christmas Devotional, Salt Lake City, Utah, 7 December 1986; Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.361.)
Thank you for writing this. I think it takes a lot of insight to put words to these feelings and beliefs that are so much my own. I like this line: “We work very hard to keep sin away while we work to be good and serve well.” I know I can do it if I keep trying – then I won’t have to bother Jesus until just near the end, or maybe not even at all.
I am just coming to understand what you’ve been saying in your articles. There has been a slow recognition, acceptance of the true doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon, and then a growing desire to go directly to the Lord.
Just this week I realized that when King Lamoni was in his ‘deep sleep’ he was being taught and discovering that God is good: “The light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness…” (Alma 19:6) Then I found a beautiful example of completely relying on Him in Alma 26:17-22. Ammon almost sounds surprised (as I will be) to discover that “our God would have been SO MERCIFUL…” But only those who are penitent, repentant, have faith in him, do good, and pray continually (vs. 21-22) will receive that knowledge.
I am still confused sometimes as to how much good I NEED to do to find Him and to be able to feel Him, because that is how I have lived my whole life and what others around me still believe. (The scripture above does include ‘do good works.’) Why is it so hard to let go of the belief that I can do it if I work hard enough, and instead believe that I should rely “wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2N 31:19)? I know that I feel relief and gratitude when I read what you have to say, so again, thank you very much.