At various times and in various places I have heard it said that it would be better for a person to come home in a pine box than to come home unclean.
Marion G. Romney reported that his father said the following to him just as he was boarding the train to go on a mission: “My son, you are going a long way from home. Your mother and I, and your brothers and sisters, will be with you constantly in our thoughts and prayers; we shall rejoice with you in your successes, and we shall sorrow with you in your disappointments. When you are released and return, we shall be glad to greet you and welcome you back into the family circle. But remember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.”
This is one of those statements that can be inspiring or evil–depending on how one understands it.
One way to understand the statement
If, by the statement, we mean that sin is worse than death, then it is in defiance of everything Jesus said and did. He was the One who cherished the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee. He was the One who left the 99 to reclaim the one. He was and is the friend of publicans and sinners. He is the One who paid an infinite and eternal price so that He could reclaim all of us from our sins.
A different way of understanding the statement
If, by the statement, we mean that choosing a life of sin is more miserable than suffering death, then we are right. Wickedness never was happiness. It is always ugly and miserable. Satan glamorizes sin. But he is a liar from the beginning. Sin is always a downer. That is a timely and timeless message.
But let’s return to the first interpretation, the troubling one. If God believed that sinning was the ultimate awfulness, He would not have sent us to this place where sin is inevitable. The fact is that learning and growth are more important than cleanliness. So God sent us to a dirty place where all sin and come short of the glory of God. But He didn’t do it because He was indifferent to sin. He sent us here in order to facilitate our growth. And, knowing that we would become soiled by our mortality, He provided a Savior for us so that we can return to be with Him.
The ugliness of sin
None of this recommends a careless attitude toward sin. Most of us hate it, resist it, and cry out for mercy. We do all we can to avoid it. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1918) expressed the disciple’s attitude toward sin better than I can:
[Man] wallows in vice, wins by cruelty, violates love, is treacherous to trust. His sins clothe the world in lamentation. Yet in him is a protest…He hates his sin even while he commits it. He repents, tries again, falls, rises, stumbles on–and in all his best hours cries out for saviorhood. (The Meaning of Faith, pp.19-20).
In spite of our hatred of sin, only One in the long history of this world and its billions of inhabitants has been entirely successful in avoiding it. The rest of us have been tainted. We have only one way to be clean. We throw ourselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save.
While Satan would like us to feel that our sins and mistakes make life worse than death, Jesus invites us learn from our experience and be made holy by His redemptiveness. Without hope in Christ “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Can I ever be worthy?
A friend of mine shared a vital experience.A youth at the detention center really impressed me. He helped the other kids with finding verses in the scriptures. He volunteered to play the piano and was very familiar with the hymns. Every indication was that he was a fine well-trained Latter-day Saint. All the while, though, he was glum and downhearted and refused to participate in discussions. Finally, I was able, after several tries, to persuade him to have a one-on-one visit. I felt prompted to tell him my story [of addiction and recovery]. He wept and wept and wept. When he finally regained his composure he told me of his very similar story. Only his was worse. Worse, in that his adoptive parents, who had loved and trained and kept him from the time he was three years old, had rejected him for his sin and refused to allow him back into their home. The poor young man was laboring under the impression that he’d never serve a mission, be married in the Temple or be worthy of anyone’s love ever again–things he had longed for all of his life. I guess his parents would rather he came home in a pine box too. I bore testimony to him that he could be clean and whole and utterly acceptable to the Lord and His church. He went on his way rejoicing to a foster home [elsewhere in the state]. I pray his new family will help him along his way. I’m confident he’ll make it now that he knows of the power of the Redeemer.
The bright hope of Jesus
The testimony of scripture and the chorus of brethren must not be swamped by a misunderstanding. The price in pain and hopelessness would be an insult to the Redeemer.
“Is it possible to reclaim a life that through reckless abandon has become so strewn with garbage that it appears that the person is unforgivable? Or what about the one who is making an honest effort but has fallen back into sin so many times that he feels that there is no possible way to break the seemingly endless pattern? Or what about the person who has changed his life but just can’t forgive himself? . . .”The Atonement of Jesus Christ is available to each of us. His Atonement is infinite. It applies to everyone, even you. It can clean, reclaim, and sanctify even you. That is what infinite means–total, complete, all, forever.” (Shayne M. Bowen, “The Atonement Can Clean, Reclaim, and Sanctify Our Lives,” Ensign, Nov. 2006, 33-3)
When we habitually understate the meaning of the Atonement, we take more serious risks than simply leaving one another without comforting reassurances—for some may simply drop out of the race, worn out and beaten down with the harsh and untrue belief that they are just not celestial material. (pp. 5-6 Bruce C. Hafen, 1989, The broken heart. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book)
There is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the Atonement of Christ. (Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 19)
We must not succumb to the false doctrine that our ability to sin exceeds His ability to redeem. We must not tell ourselves that we have fallen so badly that He can’t pick us up—or doesn’t want to pick us up. And we must not communicate that hopeless message to any of His children.
He descended below all things so that He can lift us above all things. He bore every sin and indignity so that He can lift us out of them. He is not surprised to find that we, like children who were all washed and dressed for church, have wandered off and found the mud. Time and again, He washes us off and points us toward the sacred.
It is clear that we must cheerfully do all we are able to do as we go through our earthly experience–but it will not be enough. We all must turn to Christ for cleansing, healing, and sacralizing. Only He can make us what He is.
Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Nephi 31:20)
My first reaction to reading the story about “coming home in a pine box” was to remind President Romney’s dad to re-read Alma:39:11. Alma’s missionary son had become “unclean, lost his virture etc” while serving his mission. However, Alma didn’t come from the Zoramites in a “pine box” In fact, his father Alma gave him some of the greatest teachings we have on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I’m sure after a period of time (probation, or disfellowshipment) his son repented and went back out on his mission. Something I’m not sure they would let a missionary do today! (maybe I’m wrong)