Sunday, August 30, 2020

The joy and freedom of repentance

Introduction

Over the years, several people close to me have left the Church. Some have simply stopped their formal activity with it; others have formally cut ties. A few of them have shared their stories and a pattern has emerged: each of them seems to misunderstand doctrine because of the teachings or examples of active members of the Church who are close to them. My friends correctly see that these incorrect doctrines cannot be true. Then, other influences have eventually pulled them away.

Although my friends are, of course, responsible for their own decisions, it seems clear to me that if they had been taught the true and living gospel of Jesus Christ, they would have had roots that could have held them fast. In other words, I believe the root of the problem is in active members of the Church who teach and live incorrect doctrines.

Accordingly, I have written this article (based on a talk I gave in church in July) about the doctrine of repentance and my intended audience is active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My hope is that Latter-day Saints, armed with a better understanding of our doctrine, will find joy and freedom as they repent constantly &endash; and that the people around them will be inspired by the joy and freedom that they see and choose the same joy and freedom for themselves.

Almost true

Let's consider a fictional Latter-day Saint named Joe, who typifies a set of frequently-occurring misunderstandings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joe understands the importance of the "big" commandments, such as the ones that come up specifically in temple recommend interviews. He obeys these laws but the gospel doesn't seem to affect much of what he does in the rest of his life. He's uncomfortable around people who don't live the same laws and especially struggles to forgive people who have the same values but whose behavior falls short. He sees repentance as an escape plan for fallen people or as a punishment. There are times, if he's honest, when the commandments he believes in feel restrictive &endash; especially when he sees people doing things he wishes he could do &endash; and he struggles a little bit but ultimately decides to soldier on. Joe is a good man and is genuinely trying hard.

Unfortunately, Joe's well-intentioned interactions are hard on the people around him. He is sometimes overly forceful as he teaches his children to live these commandments, which they learn to do to comply with his will, not because they believe in them of their own accord. He doesn't realize it consciously, but he's proud of his righteousness and looks down a little on people who live their faith in a different way. He occasionally shares the gospel with his friends, but they never seem interested. He sometimes meets people the missionaries are teaching but the friendships always fade away when the missionaries stop teaching them.

Joe's beliefs and practices are almost true, but they're based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He will certainly be rewarded for the good things that he does, but he is not experiencing the full "joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3), nor the freedom that Christ gives us (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Additionally, his incorrect understandings harm his most important relationships and the people in those relationships.

Every one of us understands some doctrine incorrectly. While this is inevitable, it is our duty to continually refine our understanding and allow that refinement to change our actions and bless the people in our lives.

Our own prison

God's commandments are for our benefit. He gave them to us to teach us how to enjoy happiness and how to develop the fullness of His power to act. These commandments, however, are insufficient; in D&C 56:26-29, our Father teaches us that there are things we should do that He has not and will not command us to do. One of the primary reasons for this is that God's goal has never been obedience. As Elder Renlund put it, "God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient 'pets' who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business" (Choose You This Day. Oct 2018). As a result, we necessarily experience uncertainty about whether or not our actions are correct.

What's more, each of us fails to obey the laws that we do clearly understand (1 John 1:8). And when we do, we find that even our best and most sincere efforts cannot undo all of the harm we have done, nor can they absolve us of our guilt. Worse still, many sins create a feedback loop: we act poorly, shame ourselves, believe that we are unworthy of love, and from that spiritually weakened stance sin again. To summarize, each of us struggles with the following things:

  • We have sinned and cannot redeem ourselves,
  • We are sometimes uncertain about what is right, and
  • Our sins imprison us in a feedback loop.

Christian liberty

The atonement of Jesus Christ addresses each of these problems and more. First, He redeems us unconditionally from the effects of the fall: we will all be resurrected, never to die again and all of the pains we suffer on this earth because of the earth's fallen state or the actions of others will be made right (Alma 7:11-13). Second, He offers us the joy of repentance. If we are willing to turn away from our sins and towards Him, He will not only accept us but cleanse us from our guilt. Additionally, He offers us His grace to change our natures so that we no longer desire to sin. The joy of repentance is freely offered but not forced upon us; we must choose to accept it. However, it is always available to any of us if we will make that choice (Rev. 3:20).

The liberty that Christ offers us extends far beyond simply being cleansed once. Because His grace is inexhaustible, it applies to future actions as well as past actions. This means that while we honor and accept His sacrifice by trying to do what is right, we needn't live in the paralysis of fear, terrified that our imperfect understanding might lead us to a poor choice.

All of this freedom actually leaves us free to be ourselves: we are not forced by sin or by circumstance to choose what is wrong, nor are we forced to choose what is right. The brilliant reality of mortality is that all of its trials and difficulties actually give us the opportunity to choose what we truly desire, whether or not our desires align with God's will. Naturally, choosing God's will invites blessings into our lives that He is willing to give but that He cannot justly give to those of us who choose other paths.

With Christ's liberty, we still obey His laws; however, our purpose has changed. Instead of trying to achieve salvation through obedience (which was always beyond your capacity and mine), we now obey out of gratitude for His gift and out of a desire to become like Him. In fact, His grace gives us an even greater gift: if we choose to repent, He will gradually change our nature so that we, like Him, have "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2); His image will eventually become "engraven upon our countenances" (Alma 5:19).

This transformation offers us the most transcendent freedom of all: it will free us of the conflict that can arise between our desires for good (in both our actions and their consequences) from our divine heritage and our desires for evil. The more His grace transforms us, the more aligned we will become with our deepest and most eternal desires. As we engage in the process of repentance, obedience will increasingly be a joy instead of a chore.

How we repent

Repentance is not universally well-understood, even among people who have been taught about repentance since their childhood. Part of the problem is that we fixate on the steps of repentance, which are the actions we can take to engage in the process, instead of on the grace of Christ that enables it and on our intent. The steps (summarized briefly as confession, restitution, and better behavior) are important, but we misunderstand if we think that repentance is how we set things right. We don't set things right because it is light years beyond our capacity. Repentance is how we show to our Savior that we want to be more like Him and welcome His grace into our lives. Absolution of guilt and change in our nature are both gifts He offers us; the best we can do is accept His gift and try to use it.

In this light, it is clear why insincere or incomplete repentance is ineffective: the point is for Christ to change us but He won't change us unless we wholly desire to change. Nothing short of our entire will is sufficient to invite the "mighty change of heart" (Mosiah 5:2) that He offers us. In other words, Christ saves us from our sins, never in our sins (Hel. 5:10).

The materials that missionaries study and teach define repentance as the process of "[changing] our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are not in harmony with His will." I prefer to rephrase it positively: to repent is to change our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to be more in line with God's will. This definition frees us of misconceptions about our role and responsibilities. It also shows us that there is much more to repentance than addressing the things that we typically think of as sins. That is, any thought, behavior, or belief that needs to be changed in order to harmonize with God's will is sin and any correction to thoughts, beliefs, or behavior is repentance.

To illustrate, I'll point out that you may have learned something doctrinal as you read this article. I know that I learned things as I studied and worked to articulate these ideas. As we learn, the Holy Spirit teaches us that these things are true. His voice is not condescending or condemning; rather, He rejoices with us as we learn. There is good reason that the scriptures abound with examples of people who repent and immediately feel joy (Alma 36:18-21, Hel. 5:28-31,45-47).This joy that we feel as our thoughts and beliefs (and behaviors) become better aligned with God's will, which is inseparable from truth, is the joy of repentance!

We seek

When John Wentworth asked Joseph Smith what it is that Latter-day Saints believe and what makes them unique, Joseph responded with a letter that includes the Articles of Faith. It is the closest thing the Church of Jesus Christ has to a definition of the beliefs and behaviors that make someone a Latter-day Saint. These Articles of Faith are the only part of the Wentworth Letter that has been formally canonized. There are thirteen articles, twelve of which are single sentences. The last has two sentences. As a result, there are fourteen sentences. In twelve of these fourteen sentences, the principal verb is "believe"; for example, the first article asserts that "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." The twelfth article claims religious liberty for everyone.

The remaining sentence is the final sentence of the final article. In contrast with the other assertions about belief, the thirteenth article of faith concludes with the sentence "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." I find it compelling that the first article of faith asserts a belief in God and the last asserts that we strive to learn, do, and become everything that is like our Father in Heaven. In other words, truly being a Latter-day Saint includes repentance. It does not require repentance as a single event or as an occasional practice; instead, repentance is a character trait that defines Latter-day Saints.

I believe that repentance is the source of "the joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3). I believe that repentance inevitably leads us to greater freedom (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Whether or not you identify with the fictional Joe, I invite you to study the doctrine of repentance and learn to find joy in constant repentance. I invite you to seek after everything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy and to discover heretofore unknown peace and joy. And I invite you to share the gospel in the only way that can work: to live it and to let other people see your life and gospel living for what they are.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The beams in our own eyes

Most of us know someone (or many people) for whom we wish better things. Some of us know wonderful people who want to marry but, for any number of reasons, is not married. Some of us know people who have left the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of us know people who are not living up to their potential in their educational or vocational pursuits. Some of us know good people who have become mired in an addiction. Naturally, many of us have wondered about our friends and wished we understood why things turned out as they did. I do not have complete answers to these questions, but I do have some thoughts.

Before I proceed, I need to clearly state a disclaimer: these thoughts do not apply universally. Please refrain from assuming these things about anyone, including about yourself. And if you carefully consider and determine that these things are true in some case, please be gentle with the people involved – especially if that person is you.

The idea is this: in some cases, there are good reasons for the ongoing struggles in people's lives. However many of these issues are not the fault of the people who suffer from them.

For example, I know single people who have issues with mental or emotional health (sometimes in degrees that might be diagnosed; other times, not). I have witnessed romantic relationships begin to develop and then fall apart because of these ongoing issues. Some of these people come from homes that are broken, either visibly or silently. Some of them have experienced some sort of trauma. Some suffered at the hands of friends who tore them down instead of building them up.

I have also had many friends who were once active participants in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in His church. Some of them have left His gospel behind. Some of them have left His church. Some of my friends grew up in ostensibly active and yet toxic families. Some of them grew up in homes that were culturally, but not doctrinally, sound. Others had good families but had bad experiences with their congregations. The same can be said for people who are trapped in an addiction or who struggle in any other way; in many cases, they are doing the best they know how to do with problems that were handed to them through no fault of their own.

As I worked on this post, a friend mentioned a video of Will Smith (he swears a couple of times but you can find it here), where he differentiates fault and responsibility. In the cases I've just described, people have ongoing issues that are not their fault. However, it is up to these people to choose a path that will allow them to heal.

And so I have a few suggestions:

  • Stop blaming people for the "sin" of being broken in a way that happens to be visible.
  • Stop assigning fault to people who are in bad situations.
  • Remember that we never have all of the details and so can never make perfect judgments about people.
  • Stop compounding people's problems by heaping shame on them, even if we believe their issues are their fault.
  • Start believing in the power of Jesus Christ to heal your wounds and the wounds of everyone around you.
  • Do whatever is in your power to welcome His healing influence into your life and encourage others to do the same.
  • Get in the habit of looking for the beams in your own eye.

If you have a friend who is single or addicted or struggling spiritually or afflicted in any way – or if any of these things applies to you – then the answer is Jesus, who welcomes us each with open arms and teaches us how to become different. Or, in the words of Elder Holland:

'Come as you are,' a loving Father says to each of us, but He adds, 'Don't plan to stay as you are.' We smile and remember that God is determined to make of us more than we thought we could be.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Thorns in the flesh

Every person on this earth was raised by imperfect people. Our interactions with parents (including surrogate parents), teachers, peers, and all kinds of other people influenced us for good and for ill. Many of us find ourselves striving to unlearn things that we believed growing up, through no fault of our own. At first blush, this appears to be a tremendous injustice. On the contrary, I believe that this is an opportunity given to us by a wise and loving Father in Heaven.

Something happens inside us when we learn by experience that simply doesn't happen when we learn in the abstract. Our theoretical knowledge becomes more concrete and we learn how it can be applied. Sometimes, it takes us years of experience to finally articulate something that a few moments of experience taught us.

The fact of the matter is that these things are unfair. However, we have been promised that the grace of Jesus Christ will not redeem us just from death and offer us redemption from our sins; His grace will also make right all of the injustices done to us. Somehow, we will look back on our imperfect lives and see that His grace has paid in full all of the debts incurred by the people around us, no matter how flawed they are or how depraved their actions.

And so we find ourselves in an imperfect world, where we have the opportunity to face and to overcome difficulties that could not exist in a better world, such as the one we came from. These difficulties are necessarily foreign to heaven. And yet the opportunity to overcome them is the opportunity to learn by experience what we could only learn in the abstract previously. It is the opportunity to become imbued with positive characteristics that we merely understood before we were born.

So the fact that you learned by your upbringing to be careless or anxious or overbearing or whatever else isn't fair. But it will be fair, somehow. And it's a glorious opportunity to become as you truly are: a child of God, full of His goodness.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Hope from the scriptures

I remembered a scripture this week and it brings me hope. From D&C 130:2:

And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.

I'm encouraged to know that social interaction is the norm. It may be a while before things go back to normal but they will. And we can look forward to spending eons with the people whose company we treasure.

Social media and intentionality

For some time now, I've disliked the amount of time I've been spending on social media, even though I'm already more distant from the various platforms than most of my peers. Today, I removed the last remaining social media apps from my phone. After a week or two, I'll see how I feel about them and will likely delete my accounts. Many people have voiced their opinions about social media's benefits and costs and don't feel the need to repeat everything that has been said, although I will say that users pay for the service of social media with their privacy and that was a driving concern for me. I also don't know that my solution is the right solution for everyone else.

As I've considered and experienced this change, a thought struck me that I wanted to share. It's an idea that I think has been germinating for some time but has only recently come to the forefront. Stated simply, it is that social media remove intentionality from our interactions. I'll explain.

I know I'm painting with broad brushes here, but social media are about broadcasting information; we might choose to limit who has access to what we post, but the default is for it to be accessible to everyone. In contrast, we have to choose to reach out to someone via phone call, text, or email. This is true even if we send group emails or texts (as long as we aren't simply sending to our entire contact list, and we can all tell when that happens). The act of choosing to reach out to an individual or even to a group of individuals is fundamentally different from the act of submitting information to a platform.

As a result, social media allow us to update weak ties about our lives but discourage us from actually reaching out to people. They allow us to invite people to social events without investment and these weak invitations can be accepted, declined, or even ignored. In contrast, an invitation by phone call has to be taken seriously; these invitations can also be declined but we consider it rude to ignore them. The very efficiency of updates on social media are part of their curse; they give us the illusion that we're in touch with people just because we know about what they post publicly. In reality, we're not actually connecting with our friends.

Parodoxically, the reason I want to distance myself from social media is partially because I want to enhance my connections with my friends. I want to be more intentional about connecting with people than I have been and hope that my friends will reciprocate. I've already seen improvements in myself as I've shifted my thinking and behaviors and hope to see more as time goes by.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

A soft answer turneth away wrath

This week's scripture study included the stories of Abinadi, who was arrested and killed for preaching the gospel, and Alma, who was converted by Abinadi's preaching. Alma attempted to stand up for Abinadi and had to run for his own life. The manual posed the following question: "When have you felt like you were standing alone in defense of the truth?"

Instead of attempting to write all of my thoughts on the topic, I'd like to write just one. We live in a time where every person can broadcast his or her voice to the masses. As a result, there are more opinions out there than any of us has a dream of hearing. This has amplified an effect already evident in more traditional media: the voices that yell the loudest get the most attention. I'm surrounded by so much yelling that it feels like I stand alone every time I choose not to engage in a shouting match or, even more courageously, write something that is moderate, well-reasoned, and not written in a way that screams for attention. I frequently write posts on this blog and hope that there isn't backlash; too frequently, I feel like my stances elicit rancor from both extremes in the various arguments around me.

If fixing the problem is up to me, I have to come up with a way to force or cajole everyone into doing what I think is best. I don't know everything, but I do know that people could do a lot better than to rely on me as an arbiter of what's right. The only other result is for each of us to do what we can do to contribute to a solution. My solution is simple to state but difficult to live: have the courage to stand alone by speaking softly.

Let go of the need to convince people about your point of view. Express what you think, certainly, but do so in a way that leaves room for people to disagree with you. On your own blogs, where you have some editorial power, insist on civility. Elsewhere, do not engage with conversations that are out of hand and leave conversations that get out of hand. Find and build on truth and goodness in everyone and in every stance that people take, even if you disagree with them. Treat people with respect and quietly insist on that same respect for yourself and for the people around you.

The last recommendation I have requires a little technical background. You may be aware that most websites keep track of who clicks where. It's mostly so they can target advertising but it's also used to see what's effective and what's not. Every time you click on a sensational headline, even anonymously, it tells the people running these websites that people are willing to click through and encourages them to make more content like it. So vote with your feet and don't click on clickbait. Don't read sensational articles. If something is intriguing, find another news source that presents the information in a level-headed and informed fashion. If you find a news source that does so consistently, consider buying a subscription.

Imagine with me how peaceful and kind the world would be if we all lived this way. Then remember that you can only control yourself and content yourself with what you can do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to outside where I can keep my distance from people and watch spring emerge.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

On courage

A phrase from 3 Nephi 12:29 struck me this morning during my scripture study. It comes from the Lord's sermon to ancient inhabitants of the Americas that is almost identical to the Sermon on the Mount. From context, it might be considered a literal exposition on the metaphor to "cut off [our] right hand" (Matthew 5:30):

Behold, I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart.

I've been thinking about courage (which literally means living from the heart) recently. It occurred to me that, as a child of God, I always want what is right. I may also want things that are not right. This suggests that sinful desires are never wholehearted. They may, of course, be powerful. But especially if we remember that actions and their consequences are inseparable, it's easy to see that there is always conflict when we desire something sinful.

The solution, then, is to live wholeheartedly by choosing a course that is aligned with what we really want: a clear conscience and the blessings of eternity. When we experience temptations, we can identify righteous conflicting desires and can choose them instead. Over time, the glorious blessing of repentance (and one of many gifts that Christ offers us) is that our desires will change and our hearts will become more whole.

A little bonus thought is that at the end of this chapter, Jesus instructs us to "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). The Greek word τέλειοι, translated here as perfect in the KJV, could also translate to complete, whole, or mature. So one way we could interpret this is that the process of becoming wholehearted is the same as the process of aligning our will with true principles and the same as becoming like our Father in Heaven.