My Little Heresies, Part Two: Repurposing Mortality

[This post is part of a series. Part one is here. Part three is here. Part four is here.]

This life is the time for this life. By this, I mean that I think that many of the things that the church concerns itself with are important, but not for the reasons you may think. I want to start by considering the purpose of the commandments.

In 2 Nephi 25, Nephi has just concluded his extended quotation from Isaiah. Nephi’s purpose in quoting these passages is to create a context for understanding the doctrine that follows. That context is the repeated cycle of scattering and gathering Israel. Nephi believes that his three audiences (Lehites, Jews, and Gentiles) all need to understand this cycle.

Nowadays we call it the pride cycle. God blesses his people. They get cool stuff and become cool people. But cool people have a tendency to find their worth in their own actions and their own things. So they start to rely on God less. So they start to go astray, sinning (more than usual). So, generally speaking, God smacks ‘em. They realize that they are being prideful and either a. they turn back to the Lord or b. they keep being prideful. We’ll deal with option a for now and set aside option b.

If we choose option a, what does that entail? Well, it entails realizing that we’ve been sinning and being willing to do something about it. Here is the rub: we can’t do much. Often, when we are caught in sin, we are more disappointed at being caught than we are genuinely repentant. Any repentance in those circumstances seems suspect to ourselves and to others. Even if we are genuinely repentant, we often find ourselves desiring those sinful behaviors later. If we never wanted to sin, it would be easy not to, but oh how we do. The great problem of sin is always our desire for it and desire is hard to change.

Getting back to 2 Nephi 25, we find Nephi discussing this very thing. Starting in vs.9, Nephi begins to discuss Jewish history and temperment (sad and prideful, respectively). This continues until vs. 16 where Nephi begins to consider the circumstances of the gathering of the Jews and the return of the true Messiah. In vs. 20 Nephi argues that the truth of his prophecy is like the truth of the events recounted in the Torah (the five books of Moses). This is critical because it explains the nature of Nephi’s project in scripture. Having cited the Jewish “Law,” Nephi argues that the words he is writing will continue forward (as the Torah does) and become a law unto its later interpreters.

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.
Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away. (2 Ne 25:23-27)

To the Jews and to his people’s descendants, Nephi argues that the purpose of law is to direct our thoughts to Christ. But how? The symbolism is important, of course, but there is a better way, that we often ignore. We try to live the law, because we know we will fail at it. The law doesn’t save and, frankly, doesn’t truly delineate the good from the bad. We all fall short. We all must seek Christ.

Consider this, if you never sinned, would you feel a need for God? If you never fell short, would you turn to him in humility? Christ is exceptional, not just because his is the First Begotten, but because he humbled himself without having to. We tend to feel that if things aren’t broken, they don’t require repair. And so, we’d fail without the law, because we’d succeed. We’d be the sort of people who eat the tree of life, without first eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Not bad, but not progressing.

So how do we progress anyway? We can’t. In spite of what my therapists may tell me, I can’t change my character by thinking about it, keeping a journal, stopping and counting to ten, and so forth. Even when I succeed in avoiding bad behavior, I still want to indulge and secretly wish I could. Mormon has informed us of the value of the gift ill-given. What do we do?

I’m going to play fast and loose with history for a moment, under thematic duress. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehis considered the depths of their sins, they, like the missionaries who converted them, were horrified. They had killed people, innocents, lives they could not restore. Following the 5 Rs was never an option. So what did they do? As Anti-Nephi-Lehi, their leader, eloquently stated:

And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to atake them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain— (Alma 24:11)

Now this is just the beginning of the speech (they go on to talk about their swords and burying them), but I’d like you to focus on the parallels between Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s speech here and Nephi’s in 2 Ne 25:23 above. What if all we can do is repent?

I submit that our purpose in life is not foremost to live an exemplary life (although I think God would be pleased if we did that). It is to repent, because repentance is ultimately the way that we become like God. When we sincerely repent, we beg our Lord to make our weakness a strength. We ask Him to remit our sinful desires, to place His law in our hearts. We ask Him to make us like Him. Sin always reminds us of how far we have to go. Repentance is the means for getting there.

Therefore should we seek sin? My first answer is that it would be wasted effort. It comes whether you seek it or not. My second answer is of course not. The lives of unrepentant sinners are miserable. They lose friends, family, health, and sometimes wealth and life. I think that living according to the standards of the church will tend to lead you to have a better mortal life than otherwise. Speaking generally, the commandments are about our mortal happiness, not our eternal worth. Or rather, keeping them will help us be happier now; repenting when we’ve broken them is the means to becoming like him (and breaking them less).

How? That’s for tomorrow.

Comments

  1. My second answer is of course not. — or as Paul says “God forbid.”

  2. “I submit that our purpose in life is not foremost to live an exemplary life (although I think God would be pleased if we did that). It is to repent, because repentance is ultimately the way that we become like God.”

    Amen – and amen.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    I’m still waiting for the “heresy”part, John…

  4. ” Repentance is ultimately the way that we become like God”.
    IMO__sorry – no. This sounds like David Koresh at Waco. That sin, (sex with him), leads to advancement, progression and God.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Bob, that is possibly the worst reading I have ever witnessed. You have completely missed the point.

  6. I can’t remember who made that connection between the Anti-Nephi-Lehis and 2 Ne 25:23 for me, but I love it.

    I also really like this: “And so, we’d fail without the law, because we’d succeed.”

    i.e., “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin” (2 Ne 2:13). There’s a lot in the NT that goes along these lines, too, of course.

    The law and the Atonement are inextricably connected. Great post, John.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    This doesn’t read like a heresy, to me. :)
    If repentance is the way we become like God – I couldn’t agree more – then sin is, ultimately, not being like God. No wonder King Benjamin says there are so many ways to sin we can’t number them. Everything we do contains an element of sin. It seems to me the celestial law is contained in the totality of Father and Mother. And we cannot abide that kingdom until we can abide that law. (sec 88). If we can abide a lesser law, then we can abide the kingdom in which that law is the law. We are constantly given lesser laws which may, in the long run, prove less than tangential to the highest law. ‘Save our righteousness exceeds that of the pharisees, we can in no way enter in the heaven.’

    Nice.

  8. Funniest line in a very serious article:

    I’m going to play fast and loose with history for a moment, under thematic duress.

    Maybe I’m misreading this (or am I?) but it seems like sinning less would be more fruitful to becoming more like God than repenting more, but perhaps it’s the same path.

    (The “heresy” is that we follow commandments for this life, not the next.)

  9. Maybe I’m misreading this (or am I?) but it seems like sinning less would be more fruitful to becoming more like God than repenting more,

    To me, the point is that we aren’t saved simply by sinning less. We are saved by being changed by God and having the desire for sin removed from us. That can only happen as we humble ourselves and realize our need for Christ. We can’t simply obey our way to that kind of change. It reminds me of Elder Bednar’s clean hands, pure heart talk a couple of years ago. We can avoid sin (have clean hands) but still not be God-like in our hearts (having a pure heart).

  10. Nibley once stated that there are only 2 things we can do in this life: we can love, and we can forgive. There is nothing more. I think the 5 rs are a waste of time because it makes people think there’s a checklist to repentance, that when all the boxes are cjhecked (yup, I’m remorseful) the process is done, over.

    Reread the story of Alma the younger… and pay attention to his word “repent-ed”. It happened (fast – not like the 12 monthhs we’d. Require of him today), then he moved on. His repentance was completed long before he went through the “restore ” phase of the 5 rs.

  11. Steve,
    The heresy here is very, very minor (focus on repenting, not keeping commandments). Of course, I think sinning occurs mostly to remind us to repent, so if we learn the trick of doing it without sinning first (humbling ourselves instead of being humbled) that’s good, too.

    Bob,
    What you said isn’t what I meant so we are having a massive communication error.

    Thomas,
    You are good and kind, as always.

    FHL,
    I think that when we sincerely repent we allow God to change our desires and replace them with his own (for a little while, at least). So I think that we sin less if we repent, because becoming more like God means wanting what he wants (submitting ourselves to his will). It’s not so much about what you do; it is mostly about why you do it. It’s all odd and paradoxical, but I think the best parts of the gospel are like that. Actually, just read Michelle’s comment, because she explains it better than I.

    rayray,
    Yeah. The point isn’t to check boxes so that you can get out from under scrutiny. The point is to let God change you.

  12. I submit that our purpose in life is not foremost to live an exemplary life (although I think God would be pleased if we did that). It is to repent, because repentance is ultimately the way that we become like God. When we sincerely repent, we beg our Lord to make our weakness a strength. We ask Him to remit our sinful desires, to place His law in our hearts. We ask Him to make us like Him. Sin always reminds us of how far we have to go. Repentance is the means for getting there.

    Here’s what troubles me. It’s not that I disagree that repentance is important, but I feel we’ve missed the broader point here. Your heresy is a shift from obedience to repentance. But that’s not what I see in the example the Savior set. He didn’t repent, or at least if he was perfect it would appear he did not need to. Yet you would not argue that he is “like God.” Perhaps he already went through his progression to godhood.

    In any case, I think the trouble here is still the focus on the self. What was Christ’s example? It was a turn outward, a turn to caring about others MORE than self. And ultimately this is what troubles me a bit in my own ward situation. The focus is on obedience (or in your case, repentence) and caring for others is certainly implicit in that. But it’s NOT the focus, and I think it should be. I think we become like God when we STOP focusing on ourselves and start feeling what others feel, bearing others burdens, mourning with them, etc. That, to me, is what cleanses the inner vessel and produces a Christlike individual.

  13. There is a very cool TED presentation that has application here.

    It has implications for so many things, but especially for LDS on the ways we think about repentance, perfectionism, over-achievement, and pride. It turns out, our capacity for fallibility is a necessary condition for creativity, and even for creation. Next time they rewrite the missionary discussion about the plan of salvation, they need to include this.

  14. jmb275,
    I think that he did repent (that’s what I think Nephi is getting at in 2 Ne 31:6-7) even though he didn’t need to. Humbling himself like that is repentance. We assume that sin is necessary for repentance (because that is our experience), but I don’t believe it is.

    I also think that we are self-centered, until we are changed by God. Our gifts tend to be ill given, even to one another. We help that family move because we want to look good to local church hierarchy or because of some notion of temporal karma or something else. Very occasionally, we operate out of Christian charity. Repentance increases those occasions.

    This isn’t saying that we should hold off on helping others until we can do it sincerely. It is saying that we should be honest with ourselves about why we do it and use that as an occasion for further repentance.

  15. I think placing the focus on repentance makes it clear that it is our turning to God that saves us not some layer upon layer of obedience that somehow adds up to salvation. If the obedience turns us to God…so be it…but the more we focus on our own obedience the more we are actually turning inward.

    though provoking, but not heretical.

  16. Your last paragraph could be a post on its own. Or maybe even two.

  17. Kyle,
    Yeah. I’m having trouble keeping this from becoming bigger than I want it.

  18. Maybe if I were a better writer, I would have sounded more like #12 or#14.
    Thank you John C., for leaving MY Little Heresies in your post.

  19. I’m with Steve. No heresy here.

  20. jmb, I look at it this way:

    We need to have faith that what we are promised in the Gospel actually can happen in order to repent; repentance means nothing more than “change”; our whole purpose in life is to change from our “natural” state to an “exalted” (God-like) state; we call that change “repentance”; baptism is the outward expression of our commitment to change (repent); the gift of the Holy Ghost represents God’s promise to help us change (repent); thus, everything for which we ought to aspire in this life is centered on repentance.

    It’s like a mathematical given: Our ultimate goal is to become like our Father and Mother in Heaven; we aren’t like them now; thus, we need to change in order to become like them; thus, everything else fails miserably without changing (repentance).

    That’s why “easy grace” is such an abominable concept, since it completely denies the prupose of our very existence, guts true repentance and derails the change that repentance enables.

    If anyone is interested:

    “Rethinking Repentance” – http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/01/rethinking-repentance.html

  21. One more, written as a follow-up to the one I linked in #20:

    “More Thoughts on Repentance” – http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/06/more-thoughts-on-repentance.html

  22. Since obedience and repentance cannot exist without each other, I don’t really see the heresy either.

  23. jmb275 – Yes, helping others is the main goal of this life. However, you cant save someone from quicksand if you’re beneath them. Obedience, repentance, and helping others are concurrent, not separate.

  24. This is more or less Nibley’s view too. I’m not convinced entirely since I think repellence entails change (as best we are able). While it’s true we’re more limited than we sometimes like to think, it’s also true that we are more capable than we often like to imagine.

  25. Well, I think I’m following John C. and Ray, and I don’t think I disagree, but it still doesn’t feel quite right to me in terms of focus. I can see the point that change==repentance, and that this is our goal. I do like the idea that humility==repentance and is therefore not inexorably tied to sin. My point is, to me it is the compassion, charity, and love that comes by losing sight of oneself in every way that progresses us toward godhood, and is the thing that causes change. Internal reflection and godly sorrow certainly must be a part of that but if I take my cues from Jesus’ life I can’t help but notice that it was his pure love for others that drew him near to God, most poignantly manifest in the atonement itself!

    Frankly this is why I think the temple is so ingenious. It’s the closest Mormons can get to accomplishing something like an atonement, a purely unselfish act based on charity, and it’s fitting that it is nestled snugly in the context of our own symbolic progression toward godhood.

  26. Yes, helping others is the main goal of this life. However, you cant save someone from quicksand if you’re beneath them. Obedience, repentance, and helping others are concurrent, not separate.

    I absolutely disagree. Obedience is NOT a virtue in my mind! Obedience is worthless by itself, but helping others has intrinsic value as an act and is not tied to obedience or repentance (and it shouldn’t be). Furthermore, no matter how much one has “sinned” (usually defined by others) he/she can help people and feel the redeeming spiritual bounty that comes from charity.

  27. Scott Armstrong says:

    (13) I’m with you. Perfectionism is a huge problem within the church. I don’t mean striving to be our best, I mean going beyond the mark to set up impossible standards and then getting depressed when we don’t reach them. Repentance isn’t some special lifeline for the worst of us, it’s the fundamental reason we’re here. (No heresy, in my opinion)

    By the way, does anyone else perceive the perfectionism things as affecting women in the church disproportionately? If so, what’s the cause and how do we remedy it? Seems like a side-effect of patriarchy to me.

  28. One last thing:
    Re Ray:
    I LOVED the post on repentance! I couldn’t agree more. I so so so wish that was the message I took home with me each Sunday after church.

  29. it's a series of tubes says:

    Obedience is NOT a virtue in my mind! Obedience is worthless by itself

    Fortunately, your mind is not the mind of God. Neither is mine, to be clear. But the standard works are replete with divine admonitions to obey…
    Besides, what’s the problem? Isn’t “helping others” showing obedience to the second commandment?

  30. it's a series of tubes says:

    Still can’t master the blockquotes :)

  31. Glass Ceiling says:

    Scott,
    I am not sure about your statement about disproportions. I agree only partially. As a single Mormon, I have seen it go both ways. I believe married women in marital conflict are usually disadvantaged “because their husband has the priesthood, and is the family patriarch” (even if he is committing adultery.) In other words, I have seen women at the end of their tether and rightly trying to get a divorce end up looking bad to their ward/stake leaders.

    On the other hand, in the singles world the scales seem to tip the other direction. Single men tend to get stiffer punishment for moral sins than single women. I have heard that the reason for this is that men have the priesthood. But as an observation, I believe that a single woman’s tears hold a lot of power in the Bishops office , whereas a single man usually does not cry (and if he does, he might be seen as pathetic (now there’s a subject for this blog!))

    The point is, there seems to be consistent inconsistencies along these lines.

  32. Chris Gordon says:

    Great thoughts, all! The dichotomy between exact obedience and repentance needs an overhaul in its church discourse in my view, but it’s definitely an understandable problem–much like the tension between mercy and justice, faith/grace and works, our understanding shifts a bit as we’re forced to respond to our critics and take the eternal round of the Lord’s course and make it into something that we can process and live by.

    I too loathe the notion of a checklist of repentance but I can certainly see its benefit as a teaching tool. Teaching it to teenagers, investigators, etc. as a starting point to understand the types of changes that need to occur in our hearts and minds is one thing. Extolling its virtue in gospel doctrine is another.

    Isn’t there some value unto itself in this particular type of heresy? It’s sort of beautiful and stimulating all at once to realize that you can take any given number of doctrines and concepts and say, “You know, it’s really all about [faith/obedience/repentance/atonement/sacrifice],” and kind of be right?

  33. Re #29

    But the standard works are replete with divine admonitions to obey…
    Besides, what’s the problem? Isn’t “helping others” showing obedience to the second commandment?

    No, the standard words are replete with divine admonitions to obey (be obedient to) something or someone. As a result, obedience ITSELF is NOT a virtue, nor any guarantee of anything except mindless allegiance to some arbitrary authority (the same kind that causes people to lock up Jews in concentration camps). Obedience is only worth its salt when considered in conjunction with the thing to be obeyed – a specific authority, or adherence to a specific command. If obedience itself were a virtue we’d be living Lucifer’s plan.

    So no, I do not consider “helping others” to be showing obedience to the second commandment except by happy coincidence. Rather helping others, or charity (which is a better characterization of what I’m trying to describe) is a personal endeavor to become more Christlike. It has intrinsic value beyond obedience to some command.

    But this is really besides the point of the OP so I apologize for causing the tangent.

  34. Scott Armstrong says:

    (31) Interesting stuff, and I hadn’t considered the differences between the genders when it comes to church discipline. I was thinking mainly about my days at BYU. I experienced that University as a fun, loving place where friends are made easily, but I know many women who experienced it as a competitive and hyper-judgmental pressure cooker that was all about proving how perfect you were. I’m sure the different perceptions didn’t break down strictly along gender lines, but in my experience they kind of did. I sometimes get the feeling we have a similar thing going on with wards.

  35. observer fka eric s says:

    “[Unrepentant sinners] lose friends, family, health, and sometimes wealth and life.” But so do repentant sinners, right? Good things happen to “bad” people, bad things happen to “good” people . . . So I’m not sure the value and benefits of repentance can or should be measured by our attachments to temporal forms. Isn’t its value measured simply by asking, is one at peace regardless of what life throws at you? In fact, Christ taught extensively that becoming deattached from the things of the world is also part of the life-long process of repentance. It is the process of shedding an identity with those things that you would think lead to happiness in this life.

    It’s hard to be at peace while unrepentant because what we theists call sin is behavior that has become overly and unhealthily attached to forms. That inevitably leads to anxiety, sadness, and other symptoms of lacking peace. They become overly identified with the ego, to the point where it takes over their ability to make conscious choices. There is no peace in that state. But the repentant can be at peace regardless of whether their son or daughter marries “the right person,” if their physical health is in decline, if they lose that job, if they lose that house, and on and on and on.

  36. Scott,

    I would say that perfectionism especially among women is a reflection of the broader culture and not something that originates with our church. I’ve been studying some statistics the last few months and have seen some interesting things about depression among women especially over the last 30 years. Essentially happiness levels have gone down among women and depression has gone up. Some think it might have to do with the pressure to do and have it all. I think its a little more complicated than that but in any case I think that depression among women originates in American culture and has seeped into LDS culture.

    I don’t think it has to do with patriarchy at all. As far as differences in discipline. It has been my experiences that the discipline councils are often times harsher on men because of their responsibilities to take care of the family and such, but I don’t know that you can take my experiences or glass ceilings experiences into account because it seems largely anecdotal and may only reflect what certain local priesthood leaders are like.

  37. Nibley also said we are either repenting, or not repenting, which I think goes along with what you are trying to say. Obedience is not the answer, perfection is not achievable in this life, and repenting is the only way we can become more like God. In Alma 22:18, King Lamoni’s father makes an interesting statement, that he will “…give away all my sins to know thee…”

    I think that is a particularly good way to describe repentance. Agreed, no heresy here, more likely a different way of looking at repentance than we normally are used to, and it has the advantage of being both scriptural, and makes perfect sense to the rational side of me.

  38. JTB – I’ll add my own two cents that depression seems to be connected to a society and people who increasingly focus their efforts into things which have no eternal significance or doesn’t give us a strong sense of empowerment and accomplishment. And that particularly, especially, and unfortunately, includes women (and men) in the church.

    I’m not saying there’s nothing chemical going on here, because all those feelings are chemical… I question relying solely on chemical solutions without seeking to examine or modify behavior or lifestyle though. But that’s besides the point. I’ve rarely met farm kids, boy or girl who are depressed. Never in fact. Why? Because they are doing a work that directly relates to their lifes, their family, and they can a great sense of accomplishment and empowerment because of it.

    When we prop up the important parts of life to be school and career and having a picture perfect family complete with fancy toll paintings, gift cards, etc, it’s no wonder we see people get discouraged. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing against any of these good things, but it seems sometimes we put so much emphasis in their direction we overlook the more foundational principles where our emphasis should be. So when a kid does poorly in school or when a person doesn’t measure up at work, those set backs seem even more severe — one because they were focused something which while good and important isn’t a #1 priority, and two, because often our grades, career, etc. are so disconnected from who we are and what we can do. I’ll end my mini-rant now, because I could keep going and will probably say something incomplete that will give the impression of offense.

  39. it's a series of tubes says:

    But this is really besides the point of the OP so I apologize for causing the tangent

    Thanks for the clarifications. I tend to agree with your statements as rephrased in 33.

  40. I’m a little disappointed. I came here expecting a juicy heresy, and instead I got a Sunday School lesson.

    So I will offer my own little heretical repurposing of mortality.

    If we lived with God as his Spirit Children, and He is truly all-knowing this entire mortality is unnecessary. He could have told us at the beginning whether we merited celestial glory or outer darkness.

    The real purpose of our mortality is not for us to prove our worthiness to God. This mortality is just a time for us to generate enough evidence that God can prove to us who we really are when we can’t tell He’s looking over our shoulder, and by extension what we would do with phenomenal cosmic power if He gave it to us.

    This is similar to the way prayer is not about changing God’s mind, it is about changing us.

  41. Sorry to disappoint, wamba. Hopefully, the next one gets your heresy juices flowing.

  42. Small idea: some could conclude that a certain amount of sinning is necessary or important. Some could find support for this idea with the phrase, “there is no other way.” But, if you know that phrase, keep in mind that the man (or spirit) who said it is a liar and the father of lies. Oh, and keep in mind that not only is Christ “the way,” but he offers a “more perfect way.” It is very interesting, to me, to hear different plays on the word “way.”

  43. Shawn,
    I can’t tell if you are agreeing or disagreeing with the argument.

  44. Hey, this was a really excellent article. Thanks for putting it up. I don’t comment much on this site, but fwiw, posts like this are what keep me coming back to read every day.

  45. Stop it, Jay. I’m blushing.

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