“And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God” (D&C 20:29).
While I was serving as a branch president some years ago, a young returned missionary in the branch made an appointment to see me. He wanted to renew his temple recommend but confessed a bothersome sin. He had done everything he could think of to overcome it. With youthful optimism, I joined him in support of his effort to overcome the sin. We made a plan to strengthen him spiritually. We fasted together. We considered and changed those circumstances that made him vulnerable. We arranged for him to get a father’s blessing. We did everything we could think of—but the troublesome behavior persisted. I was fully convinced that he was earnest—even intense—in his effort. But we seemed to be making no progress.
I assumed I could not issue a recommend as long as he had any problems with that behavior. He was discouraged. I was discouraged. The story was not following the standard script. Spiritual exertions are supposed to be rewarded with steady progress. What could we do?
A new way of thinking
I think I would handle the situation differently today. I would do all of the things that I described. But, with permission of the Spirit, I would not wait until the behavior was fully conquered to move forward. I would turn our focus away from the problems to the positives in his spiritual life. I would ask the young man about his experiences with the Spirit. Is he feeling the Spirit in his life? Is he being taught from on high? Is he feeling the goodness of God?
In spite of our most determined efforts to root them out, some thorns in the flesh may last a long time–maybe a lifetime. That failure to conquer may not be a failure at all. Maybe resisting evil, without fully overcoming it, is a part of what enduring to the end is about.
Many of us who hope for steady improvement in ourselves get discouraged, self-blaming, and despairing as a result of our lack of progress. When habits and weaknesses persist, we give up on ourselves spiritually. Yet maybe enduring to the end does not mean that the last vestige of fallenness will be removed in mortality. Maybe it means that we continue to resist evil. If that is true, those who have ever felt discouraged by the tenacious hold of a bad habit or weakness can take hope.
Surely it is true that we should draw on good sense, determination, faith, and priesthood power. But some of us may have thorns in the flesh that persist despite our spiritual exertions. Paul grieved: “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” (2 Cor. 12:8). Yet the trouble persisted. But wise Paul turned it to his spiritual benefit. He transformed his dismay with his own limitations into rejoicing in the Lord’s power.
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
I do not presume that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a moral weakness. But I believe that the God who gives us weakness in order to make us humble (Ether 12:27), may continue to administer His unique humility medicine for a lifetime. Our persistent weaknesses and failings can be a continuing reminder of our dependence upon God. They can energize our humility.
Enduring is resisting evil
Telestiality is a stubborn malady. Maybe that young man’s valiant struggle, together with the clear activity of the Spirit in his life, are indicators that he should have had a temple recommend. Clearly I am in no position to set policy for the Church. Yet I believe that I may too often take overt behavior as the primary indicator of spiritual progress when the activity of the Spirit may be a surer indicator. Stephen Robinson observes that “if we experience the gifts of the Spirit or the influence of the Holy Ghost, we can know that we are in the covenant relationship, for the gifts and companionship of the Holy Ghost are given to none else” (Robinson, 1992, p. 94).
If I were that young man’s bishop today, I would ask the Lord for permission to grant him a recommend, not because he had overcome all weakness but because he was humble—because he was seeking the Lord and His goodness with all his heart—as manifest by the young man’s experiences with the Spirit.
President David O. McKay observed that “not a few of us have a thorn in the flesh as did Paul. Perhaps to some of us a dead leaf of some past act is clinging. It may be that there is a little dirt in our character, but each one has also a rose in his life, a hawthorn twig, or a lily. And it is a glorious lesson for us to learn: to see the rose and be blind to the thorn; to see the hawthorn twig and he blind to the dead leaf; to see the lily and not the dirt in our fellow’s character” (Conference Report, October 1967, p.8).
Down in the dumps
To use a metaphor rather more vulgar than President McKay’s, mortality is somewhat like a lifespan at the garbage dump. Disorder and stench are everywhere. We are wise not to believe that the odors are the indicators of character; those foul smells remind us that we inhabit a place where we are all bedeviled by our weakness and burdened by fetid shortcomings. The smell around mortals is not a measure of character but a reminder that this world is not our true home. Maybe it is a person’s noblest moments, those times when character shines through all that garbage, that give us the truest measure of character.
Let us not be discouraged by the persistent and bothersome odor of mortality. As Harry Emerson Fosdick reminds us, “What a King stoops to pick up from the mire cannot be a brass farthing, but must be a pearl of great price.”
He has stooped down to this mortal garbage dump for you and me. He intends to rescue and cleanse us if we will keep reaching for him to the end.
Learning to think in a new way is hard work.
Even as you stated, and with the details of transgression you mention omitted, it is difficult to predict the Lord’s will.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
There is certainly justice as well as mercy, but sometimes mortal thinking wants to cling to rules, as the Pharisees demonstrate so well.
Thanks for writing, I enjoy the journey.