Recently, on a Facebook group for another organization, someone asked a question that addressed some themes and mis-perceptions of the gospel that I think are unfortunately not uncommon. I responded to there and wanted to post here as well, because I think the ideas are important. The questioner wrote:
“If that is indeed the case, then I wish someone would explain WHY we seem to be berated all the time about those mistakes and sins that are ‘supposed’ to happen. I seriously wonder what God himself would say about it all. I wonder if, at the ‘great and last day’ (whatever that will look like), if God will be standing there with a clip-board evaluating each person. If so, I am guaranteed to be thrown out.
“And then there’s Jesus. Precisely what is it he does? He offers salvation—but only if we are ‘good enough’ such that the light switch of his grace is turned on to take care of things? Who can ever be ‘good enough?’ The book The God Who Weeps offers a bit of a different take—that salvation is about who we have become, rather than a measure of good deeds/bad deeds. Yet, even that falls short of satisfying me because it’s still all about how good we have to be.
“The older I get the more I see that people HAVE ISSUES. Everyone. … So does God just universally condemn us all? Not one of us is ever going to be good enough or get it right all the time or be those ‘shining stars’ or ‘stripling warriors’ who are perfectly obedient and perfect. God help us.”
It was actually the reference to Terryl and Fiona Given’s The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life that got the cognitive wheels turning and triggered my desire to respond. Their book is amazing I’d highly recommend it to anyone. I’ve actually considered offering a brief review of the book here as a post on Northern Lights but haven’t had the time to flesh it out in a way I’d want to to do it justice.
One of the themes Terryl and Fiona often speak of is early Mormonism’s more Universalist flavor. Modern Mormonism certainly has the same ideas embedded within it but there also seems to be a sort of behaviorism and legalism that is pandemic in the culture of the modern-day Church community that I’m not sure I fully understand the root of. I don’t feel it in the heart and spirit of Joseph Smith’s teachings.
(As a parenthetical side note, Michael Stevens, a professor of business administration at Weber State University in Utah, noted after after coming to Utah in 2008 that his students score almost twice as high for having passive-aggressive conflict-resolution styles as his students in other regions. He later presented some of his thoughts and theories. I definitely think there’s something to his observations that we’d do well to more fully explore and address.)
One of the ideas that the Givens’ discuss is God’s “infinite patience”—that God fully intends to save and exalt all his children who are willing to at any point make the choices necessary, and that He will provide us with all the experiences we need to help in that process. I’m not capturing the idea as well has he did, but I don’t have time at the moment to go back and search for where he talked about i—but the idea, I believe, is critical to understand. I don’t believe there’s any “3 strikes and your your”—or any number of strikes. That, again, God will provide us with as many opportunities and experiences, in mortality and beyond, as are required to eventually lead us into His fullness.
Returning to the questioners comments, I don’t think it’s that mistakes and sins are “supposed” to happen… It’s that they do happen and that it’s simply part of the process growth and learning—a natural given as opposed to something that is “supposed” to be in some sort of predestined sense.
The scripture that people often refer to regarding our quest/need/desire/whatever to be “perfect”—Matthew 5:48/3 Nephi 12:48: “Be ye therefore perfect”—seems to be at least partially connected (at least in the way we’ve commonly understood and related to it) to the unhealthy attitudes and beliefs reflective in perfectionistic and behavioristic tendensies so many seem to struggle with. An alternate translation I often hear in LDS circles is that the Greek here can also be translated as “whole” or “complete,” but I was listening to a commentary once in which they offered “mature” as another alternate translation to reflect the meaning of the Greek—and as a therapist, that’s the one I that’s always seemed to resonate most with me.
Behaviorism and perfectionism and legalism are “immature.” A lot of addictive and compulsive behaviors grow out of emotional mis-management. Perfectionism isn’t simply a desire for growth and progress—or, what some have called “healthy striving.” Rather, perfectionism is the compulsive drive to cover our shame and feelings of unworthiness or “not enough”-ness with the mask of perfection so that we can convince ourselves and others that what we really believe about ourselves—that we’re inherently broken, unworthy, or not enough…or that if people knew the “real” us, they wouldn’t love us—isn’t really true.
With perfectionism and her sister vices of behaviorism and legalism, rather than growing and learning to to channel and process and manage emotions in “mature” ways, of growing into deeper states of self-awareness and self-compassion and acceptance, we get all caught up in the problematic behaviors that grow out of them, feeling excess guilt and shame and berating ourselves. That “perfect” or “mature” approach would be to simply seek to understand what is at the root of our issues or difficulties or problems, etc, and proactively seek to address them in growth-oriented ways—acknowledging and accepting first our inherent goodness and beauty and worth and then, from a place of self-love and compassion and hope in the eternal promises of atonement and reconciliation with the Divine, accept that what is past is past, learn the lessons from the experiences of our past—and maybe even present—forgive ourselves and any wrong-doing, and move forward toward the Light of God’s Love and the capacity of eternal life He has promised to lift and tutor us into.
I once heard a statement that I’ve always loved—that God’s laws are intended to be a light to guide ourselves by, not a stick to beat ourselves with. Whatever it is in LDS culture that feeds and facilitates a kind of perfectionistic behaviorism isn’t healthy, and giving ourselves emotional and spiritual space to “make mistakes” as we earnestly and with sincere and godly intent seek to grow and learn and navigate the complex and messy territory that often accompanies the life of faith is different than having a “free pass” to do whatever we want because “grace covers us” or because we were “born that way.” This is a cliché example, but a child needs to have the space and permission to fall as s/he learns to walk. It’s not that babies are “supposed” to fall as much as it’s simply a given that they will fall. It’s part of the natural, normal process of learning and growth via human experience… and as he or she learns to walk they’ll fall less and less. I witnessed this in an intimate way with our toddler not too long ago.
It’s a core teaching of Mormonism that the first purpose of coming to mortality was not to get married or to find romantic partnership (because everyone “deserves” to be married to someone they love, right?) or to prove that we are somehow “worthy” or “enough” or as good as Jesus by never making a mistake—but rather that we “may learn from [our] own experience to distinguish good from evil” and then to embrace the good. Well, we don’t “learn from [our] own experience” to discern them both unless we encounter both. And when we do learn, the ideal objective as I imagine it would be to simply embrace the good rather than berate ourselves for coming in contact with the bad it was a given we would come in contact with. We learn from it, express gratitude for what it taught us about the good, and then let it go.
I remember a hearing a story about Alexander Fleming—and I haven’t taken the time to verify this so it could be total fiction, so say nothing of the fact that this is my own paraphrase from memory—in that he was asked how he dealt with so many “failed experiments” in the process of trying to develop what became Penicillin, the first antibiotic. As I heard it, he said something to the effect of, “I’ve never had a failed experiment—only learning experiments”… or something to that effect. He had to have the permission to just test and experiment as much as he needed to in order to get to the conclusion/state/end he wanted. And because of his willingness to endure that process, being intent on the end he hope for, we got something miraculous and revolutionary in it’s time.
I state all this with the hope, I think, that we might have a little more compassion with ourselves—a little more of the godly quality of “infinite patience” that Terryl Given’s attributes to God’s nature. That even as we make mistakes that we will make them not out of apathy and carelessness, but of an earnest desire to “learn from [our] own experience to distinguish good from evil”—and then to fully own and embrace the good we have paid such a dear and beautiful and sometimes painful price to learn. And that said good will lead us that much closer to our God and Father who, in infinite patience, beckons and empowers and awaits us as we grow ever slowly in to eternal Oneness with Him.