Repentance and Conflicts of Interest

Note: This is the first of a two-part post resulting from a lengthy conversation among the permabloggers at BCC regarding repentance. Part 2 will be posted later this week.

Several weeks ago during a casual conversation, my Elders Quorum president asked me a thoughtful question: “How much real atonement do we see in the Church?” By “real atonement” he meant true repentance and change–people beginning to sing the song of redeeming love, putting off the natural man, desiring no more to do evil, and desiring only to do good. That sort of thing.

After a few minutes of discussing it, we both seemed to conclude that the answer is somewhere between “I don’t know” and “Not very much.” Is this weird, given that we are (theoretically) in agreement that church is a hospital for sinners? Shouldn’t repentance–something we all need, constantly (seriously–we all need it constantly)–be something to celebrate as a frequent event? Shouldn’t we react a bit more like the Robinson family when we, or our fellow Saints Sinners “fail” in our pursuit of Christ-like living?

To be fair, we do talk about sin and repentance and atonement nearly every Sunday–often in every meeting, at least indirectly. Still, even allowing for the fact that no one but the gossip whores[1] wants to hear the nitty gritty details of their fellow saints’ struggles with sin, for some reason it seems to me that most of the discussions are at the theoretical and highly impersonal level–steps of repentance and all that–and are profoundly detached from the in-the-pews struggling that doubtlessly exists.

I suggested that our institutional marriage to the concept of “being worthy” is at the root of infrequent real atonement among a body of Saints Sinners; that is, there is a possible inverse relationship between a policy that emphasizes worthiness and the incidence of meaningful repentance and change.

In the Church, we serve in callings that are public and social–meaning that they are frequently both highly visible and require personal interaction with others: we teach classes, we sit on councils, we work on committees, we advise groups, we organize efforts. Our service affects the lives of others–or, stated from the other direction–other people affect our lives through their service. Recognizing this, it is both natural and reasonable, I think, to desire that those who have influence over us in the Church not only believe what they preach, but that they also practice it. Additionally, we really want to know, with some degree of certainty, that our teachers and leaders are inspired.

The scriptures teach that no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God, and the (logical?) corollary is that the Holy Ghost won’t hang out with us and inspire our Gospel Doctrine lessons if we’re wallowing in sin. The desire for genuine and inspired service, combined with the belief that God will not save us “in our sins” results in the institutional need for a standard of “worthiness”–a checklist of beliefs and behavior that guarantees–at least nominally–that we get what we paid for, so to speak.

However, it also generates a perverse conflict of interest that potentially suppresses real atonement and, consequently, renders the standard of worthiness vacuous.

The public and social elements of our callings send signals to our fellow Saints Sinners and confer standing upon us. In such an environment “being worthy” is no longer merely a state of spiritual health or standing before God; it has morphed into a social status, providing access to social benefits the community offers–acceptance, trust, and future opportunities for service, in particular.

Connecting the dots here is easy enough: If an individual engages secretly in sinful behavior, confession of these sins may result in a change in “worthiness,” which can easily set the individual down a very different path socially and with respect to future opportunities for service. If the individual values their social status or seeks after these future opportunities, there is a strong incentive to put off repentance. This decision then further alienates the Spirit, which makes repentance even less likely, while simultaneously (and without warning or knowledge) robbing coreligionists of their (assumed) access to inspired service.

What is to be done, then? In my view, to the extent that it relates to a state of personal righteousness, the assumption and/or requirement of “worthiness” is misleading at worst and irrelevant at best. None of us is truly “worthy” in the sense of being free from sin, and none of us would ever claim as much. What value, then, is there in making declarations of “worthiness” at all? Perhaps the final temple recommend question gives us an answer: Worthiness as an aspiration or desire–something we strive for, like perfection–is what qualifies us to enter the presence of the Lord.

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[1] That is to say, all of us.

Comments

  1. Scott, this is excellent.

  2. My first thought is that assuming one has to be sinless in order to be inspired or worthy is going to disqualify even President Monson from inspiration.

    My second thought is that every member of the church should be given the AA big book and the LDS 12-step manual for Priesthood and Relief Society instruction for a couple of years. I’ve never encountered better instruction regarding true repentance. It would do us all a world of good, says I.

  3. This really hits a nerve with me, as a previous excommunicant and re-baptized sinner. There is little in the way of real support in the church for those of us who decided that we needed to change our lives because they were so out of whack, and when we come forward (me, totally voluntary), we are thrown out. So yeah, been to a lot of 12-step meetings and the spirit there is a LOT different (in a positive way) than I have ever found in any class in church.

    At a 12-step meeting, there is a realization that we are truly weak and powerless and that we need a power greater than ourselves to be rescued. We don’t judge each other, because, barring the gory details, all of our stories are the same. It would be refreshing if there were a church meeting with some real honesty and empathy for each other, and no more of the black and white thinking and putting on airs about “worthiness”. I dislike that term with a passion, because just as the post said, we are not.

    Also, repentence in the church is relative. Once you have been ex’d, you are tagged. A friend of mine had been re-baptized and some years later was called to be the bishop. He was asked by the SP if he had ever been ex’d, and he said yes, about 9-10 years previously. A day or so later, the SP said that it had been 9 years, and that he would be called to be a counselor instead. So there is still an asterisk by your name in the computer. It leaves me feeling a little sad.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve never really thought about this. Our lay leadership structure is in many ways a great strength, but it can also be a disadvantage in some respects, and this is an example of that. If I weren’t a Gospel Doctrine teacher–a calling I love and would be loathe to lose–but just a parishioner like in most other churches, I would probably be more likely to seek counseling with a Pastor if I felt the need, since I wouldn’t be risking my standing in the congregation the way I would by approaching a Bishop. This post provides a lot of food for thought.

  5. “How much real atonement do we see in the Church?”

    I’m wondering if that should be paired with a like question: “How much real atonement should we expect to be highly visible in the Church?”

    Since we’ve been commanded to pray in secret, and to “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment”, I’m wondering if it’s really any of our business as to how much real atonement we see in the Church. Only God really knows my heart; the rest of you can settle for making a calculated guess.

  6. Mark N.,
    I don’t think that is quite the message here.

  7. I guess I’ve misunderstood. Typical behavior for me.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    Perhaps not what you’re looking for, but people I’ve known in the Church have made changes. They’ve started coming to Church again. They’ve shed old habits and put themselves in a position to serve a mission or take their families to the temple. They’ve started tithing after a couple decades of not doing so. They grown out of wild, irreverent youth and shouldered responsibility in their families and wards.

  9. Excellent post Scott.

    I second what John says in comment #2- using the 12-step plan or the AA big book would be an excellent exercise for Sunday School, and perhaps reframe repentance for all of us in a more realistic and compassionate light. I really appreciate your thoughts here.

  10. I’ve had the exact thoughts Scott posted, and I’ve watched (and am watching) some I love as they go through the repentance process. I also think Paolo’s point is poignant. I’m not even sure a divorced man, let alone a former excommunicant, can become bishop (anybody know a policy here?). However, I’m not convinced that being guilty of certain sins shouldn’t have life-long consequences (eg., sex crimes), even if they’re completely erased by the atonement in the eternities. Even Moses was sentenced to wander the desert the rest of his life, after all (though there are plenty of alternative interpretations to that story). The problem isn’t so much the opportunity loss (my heart doesn’t exactly bleed for those who can’t be bishop), but that a penitent can’t feel fully re-integrated into the community, because the community can’t drop the baggage. That part bothers me deeply.

    The cases that I think Scott is most referring to are behaviors that can be hidden but may require outside help to break, such as porn, habitual lying, drug use, gambling, etc.. Admitting to any of those things, and you’re going to lose face, at least in the short term. And to be brutal, I think part of the repentance process is humbling oneself to the point of being willing to accept that. Fortunately, the loss of face can be limited to a small circle.

  11. John Mansfield,
    That is totally what I am looking for. I don’t know what happens in other wards; as Mark N. points out, I don’t even know what is really happening in my own ward. If your ward(s) fosters an environment where repentance is easier to undertake, then that is wonderful.

    However, the point remains that whatever real atonement takes place, there could still be more.

  12. Also, I have similarly seen all the things you mention, and it is wonderful. I have also seen (and personally experienced) great periods of stagnation.

    Several months ago, my then-bishop did a lesson on repentance for the ward, and it was like a breath of fresh air–he was so positive and upbeat about it that it literally caused me to start thinking of ways to actively find areas of my life where repentance was needed.

  13. another take on John Mansfield’s point:

    It’s probably easier for a less-active member to take those big steps toward repentance–return to church, change your habits, serve in a calling. We want people to come back to the fold.

    But I think this process and the ward’s response could be a lot different when it’s a respected ward member. So the Sunday School teachers and ward mission leaders and Elders Quorum presidents have a powerful disincentive to confess their sins (as do missionaries and future missionaries, right?).

  14. My friend Jason (name changed) attends the addiction recovery class, but will not attend other church meetings, seemingly because he does not feel that those meetings are as genuine and “spiritual” as the addiction recovery ones. I wonder if there is a way to bring in the best of addiction recovery into Sunday meetings? Though, that said, the very obstacle/humility required to attend addiction recovery + the mutual confidentiality, trust, and compassion may make those classes unique.

  15. Scott B.- this post confuses me. You say there is little real repentence or real atonement going on in the OP, then say you see it in comment 12 in response to John. You say Mark N. doesn’t get it when he talks about the private nature of repentence, but you Quote him in #11, where you’ve backed down from little repentence to just not enough repentence. I guess I don’t know the defintion of this real repentence you seek. Are you looking for people to feel more comfotable talking about their struggles at church? Are you looking for more people to feel comfortable about publicly expressing their sins?

    If true that worthiness is a deterent for publicizing sins, a stick if you will, are you saying we should have some sort of carrot for publicizing sins? What would that produce? (Fletch 2 comes to mind)

    When I first joined the church, there was a movement of sorts to redefine worthiness to mean readiness. Was that just a local Indiana thing. (By Movement, it seemed like it was mentioned anytime anyone used the word worthiness in almost any meeting. “By worthiness, I mean readiness…”)

    I really want to understand you here. Please help me.

    PS- for the record I know a formerly disfellowshipped man who has served in a Bishopric and on the High Council. I would not be surprised if he were my next Bishop. I know because I was a clerk. But I don’t need to look to him to see that real repentence has taken place. All I need to do is look in the mirror.

  16. Scott, thanks for doing this. I’ve been reading Jana Riess’s book Flunking Sainthood and been noticing how much we focus on a kind of perfectionism in the church that makes allowing others to see our weak selves anathema. Our public discourse even in testimony meeting focuses on presenting a perfected projection, rather than talking about our struggles and failures. I think I would have more desire to fix my weaknesses if I knew others were facing challenges that I could support and could support me in mine. I think the atonement is not only a relationship between me and savior, but to me and the community of Christ. The sacrament is a ritual with a social dimension. I am horrified that people have to hide who they are, including their failures and stumbles, and that conversely, past mistakes can follow us in the church and affect our opportunities to serve.

  17. Wow, I sound like an arrogant idiot in that comment. Let me just re-emphasize I really ant to understand.

    And forgive me my spelling and punctuation and I will forgive those who have spelled and punctuated against me.

  18. Kevin (#4), the issue is not laity vs. clergy, it is separation of powers. Catholic priests are automatically (and retroactively!) excommunicated (revocable only by the Pope) if they directly violate the confessional seal. This is a BIG deal. Even under civil or religious compulsion, this is not permitted.

    Can. 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.

    I understand this to include the same priest, when he is wearing a different hat: he may not use your words against you outside the confessional. The basic idea is that where your immortal soul is at stake, anything that might keep you from true repentance is noxious, even if that impediment is the Church or its priests.

    In contrast, LDS repentence apparently takes an “it takes a village” approach where (to some extent) public rebuke or threat thereof is viewed in principle as a constructive force. This is so unlike the Catholic concept that the two approaches are inherently incomparable, in theory as well as practice.

  19. Matt,
    I am not speaking for Scott, but I think that there is a real sense in the church that repentance is what other people do. Recent converts or the recently reactivated do it (obviously), but we don’t like to acknowledge the reality of repentance in the lives of the firmly entrenched. Would it be necessary for everyone to get up and confess their sins to do that? I don’t think so (although there is some previous LDS precedent for that, isn’t there?). But it would help if we were all a lot more open about our sinfulness. That doesn’t require explicit discussion (necessarily), but it does require, for instance, a lot less discussion of how the world needs to change and a lot more discussion of how we do. Or, even better, actual change.

    It may well be that this is a first-world, entrenched Mormon problem. Once you’ve gone through your initial conversion, you may well feel a bit unmoored. Once you’ve stopped all the fairly public sinning, why keep pushing yourself so hard? Certainly if you’ve been a member for years and don’t feel like it’s brought much change in your life, you may begin to wonder if your neighbors are similarly mired (again not speaking for Scott; rather for myself). In any case, while I’m not sure upping the discussion of sin would be helpful, more overt discussion of repenting would be.

  20. Once, sitting in a church council, I felt the need to offer up a bit of confession. My approach to this set everyone on the edge of their respective seats. One man started to cry. I was merely trying to convey the idea that in my then frequent traveling to foreign countries our even just out of state, I sometimes felt isolated, that I didn’t come across as the ideal member. I was trying to say that I was often brusk and unkind with various folk or simply silent when I might have been proactive as a representative of Christ. After the meeting one of my friends approached me and said he thought i was about to reveal some serious transgression and that what crossed his mind was a long list of consequences, but mostly, loss of position. As Kyle says, there is a very powerful disincentive here. People in the church often value position a great deal.

  21. Kyle’s point is incredibly important- I do think it’s probably easier for the person who has left or gone inactive to come back, start fresh as i were- because we all want them back. But for a person who is esteemed in the ward to fall, the stigma would be great.

    As a convert with no family in the church, I have thought before that if I really screwed up, a) my family would rejoice, and b) it would be easier if I just left and then came back. Perhaps that’s lame and reflective of a deep character flaw that I would want “easier” but after having my family disown me for joining the church, the idea of my church disowning me would be more than I could bear.

  22. Matt W.,

    You didn’t understand because I didn’t explain it very well. I was on my phone with my thumbs and didn’t type much to Mark N.

    What I meant to him was that his comment focused on judging others; my post is about confessing our own sins and repenting. These two issues don’t necessarily relate to one another, although in some cases they might.

    My response to John Mansfield was not agreeing with Mark N.’s comment, but rather using Mark’s comment to acknowledge that we do a lot of things in private, so it’s very possible that we simply don’t see boatloads of true repentance, even if it’s there.

  23. Re: 10
    My uncle was called to be bishop of the same ward from which he was excommunicated, roughly five years after he was rebaptized. This was SLC. Pretty much everyone in the stake knew his circumstances. This was about 20 years ago, but unless the newest book 1 of handbook of instructions is different, there are not solid guidelines about who can be called. I also have known of a twice divorced bishop.

  24. WVS, had you been reading about the school of the prophets at the time? There are a lot of pros and cons at play, I think. But I have to admit that the failed attempt at the school of the prophets to have an open communion of honest confessors is inspiring and terrifying.

  25. Repentance is about changing who you are, not what you do. How’s that for a sound bite? The usual LDS approach is to focus on the latter.

  26. The mutual confessional in Kirtland was interesting and I think, really impossible now. Our inward turning is so complete that a bishop’s office is often seen as an uncomfortable place rather than a refuge.

  27. Excellent! It’s hard to be argumentative after reading something like this. Thanks.

  28. My mission president used to tell us that when he was a Bishop he felt that he was failing if Sacrament Meeting didn’t smell like an ashtray. My own father started a special class for members who wanted to come to church, but felt out of place. They met in a room with access to an outside door. After a few weeks of “sneaking into church” through the side door, they began walking through the front door and experienced real change.

    I’m with Mark N. in that I initially thought this post was about the lack of “visible” repentance in the church. How much of what we do comes from what we are, or are trying to become? I guess that I think that the fake it ’til you make it philosophy can be a way to stay on track while you are trying to make it.

  29. Thanks Scott. I’ve dealt with this a lot in my life being a member of the porn generation and having been raised by a fairly prominent family in the local mormon community. The nice thing is, when it comes to service opportunities, (1) I’m not alone in my sin and (2) the questions ask if there is any “unresolved sin”, so my future bishops don’t have to know. If the church wants to find men in my generation who have always been “worthy”, they are going to have a really small supply. My survey sample size isn’t huge, but nearly everyone my age that I’m really close to has dealt with or is dealing with a sin that keeps them out of the temple or off a mission (or maybe there’s just major bias in who I associate with).

    Honestly, though, it has been enlightening to be unworthy of the temple at one point, because it makes you realize how sinful you really are. If you have always been “worthy”, than you might expect everyone else to be as well. Once you realize how easy it is to be unworthy, the expectation is off for others. “Worthy” to me means, at least for bishops/RSP/EQP, that you can take the sacrament and are striving. I think the spirit not residing in unholy temples is a spectrum, not an all-or-nothing principle.

  30. I’m 35, born and raised in the Church, and the scariest thing I’ve done in my life was to voluntarily come forward and confess a fairly serious sin to my singles ward bishop soon after I’d been called as first counselor in the Relief Society presidency. Besides the anxiety at the thought of letting someone I respected know of my sin, I was very worried about being released from my calling and the eyebrows that would be raised. As I debated what to do I seriously considered the following face-saving options: 1) moving to a new house in a new ward and confessing to my new bishop quickly before they could put me in a high-profile calling, 2) waiting to confess until after the RS presidency was reorganized a year or two later so that if the bishop decided my sin was such that I should no longer serve in a leadership position I wouldn’t be humiliated by the questions that would no doubt arise if I were released soon after being called, and 3) confessing to the bishop immediately but devising some sort of evasion (or even lie) I could use to cover up the situation if I were released from my calling and had to answer questions from ward members.

    I decided to just confess immediately and live with the consequences and it was the most thrillingly redemptive experience of my life. The bishop discerned, based on my account of my private attempts at repentance, that I was on the right path and was sincere and decided to keep me in my calling. He then offered such loving concern and support in any future struggles I might have that I get happy and teary every time I think of it. If a similar situation arose in the future, I wouldn’t resist confession to the bishop as I did before, even if my reputation in the ward felt similarly imperiled.

    I think I’m a pretty typical member of the Church and so I suspect, based on my own experience resisting full confession, that many members hesitate to confess to their bishop sins that could get them kicked out of visible callings. That will always be embarrassing–I don’t see any way around it–even if we in the Church do become more forgiving and less surprised about significant weaknesses of those in prominent callings, the “fall” of a person in a visible calling is simply going to attract more attention and cause more discomfort to the person repenting than would a release from serving as a greeter. However, if we’re going to continue to assert that our callings are inspired of God, we need not push the shattered worthiness angle. We are repeatedly reminded from the pulpit that the Gospel Doctrine teacher is not called to be the Gospel Doctrine teacher because he was the most spiritual person or even the most talented teacher or best scriptorian–just that God wanted him in that position at that time, for some reason known only to God, and that his failings, for whatever reason, can be covered by the efforts of others, the charity of the members, and the Atonement. I think it’s at the member level that we erroneously equate prominent callings with superior spiritual refinement. Our leaders do a pretty good job of discouraging that kind of thinking–encouraging us to respect the calling but be prepared for real weakness in the person called.

  31. Excellent, Scott. Lots to chew on. Thanks.

  32. Scott, your post is excellent for kinds of reasons.

    You note (#22), and a comment you made in the OP suggests, that you value confession and honesty but also feel that we should avoid nitty-gritty details. It occurs to me that unless we can cultivate a specific idiom of confession then it is unlikely that we will be able to shift the problems you note in the OP. What are your thoughts around how we can practice confession or repentance in accordance with the principles you outline?

  33. In general, I don’t think we as Mormons think of ourselves as sinners. Whenever sin comes up in a lesson, we use drinkers and fornicators as the examples, sins from which most Mormons are definitionally free. We rarely use examples of greed, selfishness, impatience, unkindness, and all of the others we all dip into fairly regularly. In the effort to separate ourselves from the world, we have set the definition of ‘serious sin’ at a point that we don’t have to take real responsibility for actually doing what Christ has asked.

  34. There doesn’t seem to be any risk of status, perceived or otherwise, in repenting of unkindness. If the 1st Counselor to the Primary President has a tendency to berate people, and comes to feel that she is doing wrong and goes about becoming more loving in her dealings with others, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone would think she needs to be released. Perhaps they would if the unkindness had been secret, private jabs that had been damaging lesser known ward members.

  35. i don’t know, i think i’ve seen lots of “real atonement.” Does your EQP think ‘real atonement’ have to be something extraordinary in each and every case? I mean, that’s like every person expecting to get an angelic visitation or some extraordinary miracle. My understanding of that ‘rebirth’ into a Christ-like being, that Paul explains well in Romans, is that it happens internally, not externally, so the difference we see in people won’t be something extraordinary. Ironically, the atonement itself was something simple when you think of it. Jesus prayed in the garden for a few hours, and then was nailed to the cross for a few more hours. To a casual observer, there was nothing grand going on. In fact, to most casual observers of the time, there was nothing particularly different about the atonement that Jesus was going through! We’ve extrapolated a huge occurrence in the atonement because it was big, but not visually, not in a change we could well define through observational experiments. The change is internal. Just as in every single person who comes to Christ, the change is internal, not external. The more we focus on the external, the more we shift away from Christ’s true change: inside our hearts.

  36. There must be ‘opposition in all things’ including our desire to repent, reconnect or be reconciled to God.

    This discussion about the conflict between perceived public worthiness and the genuine desire to repent of sin only really applies to those sorts of serious sins that would put our membership or public church service into question. It is a genuine concern about the insistence on public worthiness. Sometimes I have worried that return missionaries have merely learned how to ‘look good’ rather than be good.

    The challenge of being Christ-like is a private battle and the success in overcoming what we traditionally see as less serious sins (although all sin is serious) is usually a private victory. Presumably the public reward comes in the after-life!

    Maybe the Lord’s concern with hypocrisy (something we see reflected in the gospels, 3 Nephi and Joseph Smit’s First Vision) is because it is so easy to fool ourselves that looking good is all that really matters when it comes to being ‘worthy’.

    Clearly, merely looking righteous is not what the emphasis on being worthy actually means.

    There are many obstacles to the genuine desire to repent and many incentives to procrastinate our personal repentance, even in those areas where the sin, confession and repentance do not have to involve the local priesthood leaders… That is why the living of the gospel and the level of atonement in our lives is not something one can measure on any list the church has published. The atonement is a very personal thing.

    Even Alma 5 does not put the emphasis on what you have done, are doing or will do but rather on whether ‘you feel so now’!

    I am grateful that I have felt a personal desire to repent even while holding visible office but acknowledge that the temptation to ‘cover our sins’ is a genuine one that must be set aside… even for sins that would not be so serious as to result in an end of service.

    Anyway, living the gospel is not easy and I much prefer than the emphasis is on how Christ is our example and how he enables us (to overcome sin) rather than the impression that almost no-one if their sins were known could remain in positions of service or even in the church. {I’m not saying that this is what the post was suggesting}

    In this church, everyone has the privilege to repent (including the prophet). That is a sign that the Church is genuinely Christ’s. The worthiness level is not the same as the sinless level – otherwise we would literally only say, “Worthy is the Lamb!”

    Maybe what we need is to show better how repentance fits into worthiness or into the gospel plan – it is, after all, the second principle of the gospel.

    Thanks for the post.

  37. Sharee Hughes says:

    For a good example of serious sin, true repentance and “real atonement,” read Born That Way. I don’t remember the author’s name. Repentance brings full forgiveness of the sin, and I can’t think why a former excommunication or divorce should keep a man from being a Bishop

  38. Steve Evans says:

    M J, I couldn’t disagree more with this: “This discussion about the conflict between perceived public worthiness and the genuine desire to repent of sin only really applies to those sorts of serious sins that would put our membership or public church service into question.” We’re quick to judge each other for pretty much any failing, however slight. The impression you cite — “almost no-one if their sins were known could remain in positions of service or even in the church” — is factual.

  39. Really, really good analysis in the article. It are these kind of thoughtful questions and discussions we heard in our lessons every Sunday. (And sometimes we do!) Thanks for this.

  40. ergh…I am publicly repenting for that second “sentence”.

    These kind of thoughtful questions and discussions are the kind I wish we heard in our lessons every Sunday….

  41. Steve,

    Maybe I’m not so quick to judge because although I know some of these slight sins or failings in other (some in significant local leadership) I do not think they are not worthy or should be released.

    Maybe I just serve around a better bunch of people than you do… but I seriously doubt that. ;)

  42. “By ‘real atonement’ he meant true repentance and change–people beginning to sing the song of redeeming love, putting off the natural man, desiring no more to do evil, and desiring only to do good.”

    This describes how I felt when I joined the church. This also describes the vibe I get from many new converts and those returning to the fold from inactivity. For me it was a spiritual renaissance, and it was amazing. However, over time it fades. For one, I think we become acclimated. And, I think we become complacent. Sometimes I yearn for those same feelings. Other times I get my kids to primary and go sit in my car and surf BCC on my iPad.

    Life is a constant struggle. We’ve been told we all have need of daily repentance, yet how many of us do that? I don’t. Sure, I have shortcomings I try to overcome. But am I really repenting, personally, communicating with the Lord trying to better myself? Simply doing this would bring about the putting off the natural man, etc.

    It’s easy when I get busy with the daily grind and the weekly schedule to go through the motions and be glad I’m not a fornicator, murderer, etc. (at least not anymore ;) If we aren’t doing this on a personal level, how likely are we to approach our bishop and risk losing a calling, or what some might perceive as social status, in the church?

    Great post, lots to think about. And Casserole/#30, that’s just awesome.

  43. Re: The impression you cite — “almost no-one if their sins were known could remain in positions of service or even in the church” — is factual.

    You mean, speaking as though there was no atonement made, presumably?

    No one (save Christ) stays on the path (or in the church) without repentance. We must repent. Is that what you’re getting at?

  44. John, I agree. But the lack of owning up to our collective status as sinners makes admission of sin when it would result in a loss of status even trickier.

  45. Scott B and John C- Thanks for your responses. My wife and I had a good talk about this last night, and ultimately, I think Kyle and WVS have a point, the higher your position in the ward, the less comfortable it will be to go to the church for help. Also, the more likely you are to be excommunicated, the less likely you are to go to the Bishop for help.

    I think the philosophy of the church though, is to attempt to not call people into high positions who would commit sins of those types where they would lead to such issues or the philosophy is that loss of position/loss of membership is a deterrent to committing such sins. Neither of those things helped George P. Lee though…

    I look forward to part 2.

  46. Chris Gordon says:

    @30, I was very moved by your story. I’ve had the blessing to confer with priesthood leaders on my own repentance a few times, and I’m always amazed at how liberating it is (As an aside, one of my bishops had also been my junior high vice principal–i.e. the one you talked to when you’d gotten into trouble. Yikes!). That feeling of liberation always makes previous hesitations feel so silly and so obviously diabolical. It makes me sad to think that we contribute to that amongst ourselves.

    Like many, I struggle to grasp what form this heightened awareness of the use of the atonement would take. I suspect that more people’s nebulous references to “there was a time once when I was really struggling” in their testimony-sharing and comment-making during lessons and talks might be veiled references to this kind of repentance.

    I’ve commented on this in previous threads, but I think that some of this could be remedied by a more compassionate, inviting tone towards repentance, particularly of the priesthood-leader-assisted kind in lieu of the warning against tone. How alienating it must be for those who struggle with sin to hear constant warnings against it while they’re in the throes of it, themselves worried about the damage they’re causing and will cause when the inevitable day comes that confession is necessary! I always appreciate Elder Scott’s example in this, and sometimes even wish he’d take it to a greater extreme. He generally gives strict warnings against offending the Spirit and then follows them up with an invitation to repent and allow the atonement to work. Wish I heard that more from bishops and stake presidents.

  47. Scott, fascinating post.

    I heartily agree with the comments singing the praises of the 12-step approach to accessing the atonement, esp. #2 John C.

    My experience is that those who have know the blessings of repentance can sing its praises. For others, it’s just a theoretical exercise.

    Re #13: “But I think this process and the ward’s response could be a lot different when it’s a respected ward member. So the Sunday School teachers and ward mission leaders and Elders Quorum presidents have a powerful disincentive to confess their sins (as do missionaries and future missionaries, right?).”

    I think that’s true until the pain of not repenting is greater than the pain of repenting. The same is true for any change we make in our lives. Only when the pain of changing is less than the pain of not changing do we change. Is it possible that some will lead lives of hypocritical leadership without change? Perhaps. But it will be their loss if they do.

  48. whizzbang says:

    Lots of Thoughts. My Current Stake President and a former Bishop have been divorced. How they got two women to marry them is beyond me but whatever. When I was 12 our tyrant (Found out later he routinely beat his kids and went out of his way to excommunicate his own daughter who didn’t live in his ward boundaries) of a Bishop gave us a copy of the MOF by Pres. Kimball. Honestly it poisoned me almost to death. I thought then and have residual effects of it now that if I sinned God stopped loving me, I was left to my own devices, every bad thing that happened to me in life was God’s way of tripping me up to repent like the “stumbling block”, I stumbled as a Teen. I was almost suicidal because i couldn’t escape the sometimes bad stuff. I thought too if I confesses to the Bishop then God would love me again and I was good now-the thing is too our Bishop then who gave me the book encouraged regular interviews so I just fell into it and the next bishop heard me confess EVERYTHING. I was so paranoid about sin and God’s love and I never felt worthy for much of anything. It took a divorce and 4 years of dark depression, panic attacks in my 20s to divorce myself from most of that thinking. Now I confess only what affects my standing in the Church-like if they could disfellowship me or ex me then I’ll tell otherwise I am not telling any bishop anything.

  49. As a corollary to the idea that we members of the church may say things which discourage personal repentance, I suggest that our rhetoric about “the world” plays a part in helping members avoid personal repentance. Discussions which are framed within categories like “us vs. them,” “insider/outsider,” “righteous/wicked,” “true church/apostate church,” “church/the world” allow me on an individual level to feel good by association with the Church. Rather than focusing too much on my own sins, I can remember that I am set apart from the evil world. Further, these us/them frames don’t allow for institutional recognition of imperfection.

    The frequent deflection to institutional problems is: “well, the Church isn’t the people. The Church is perfect, the people aren’t.” This deflection sort of misses the point that we members of the church are imperfect, and that we individually and as a body aren’t perfect. Other attempts to frame things include differentiating between “the gospel” and “the church,” as Elder Poleman and Henry Eyring did. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcM7koDc-jg.

    In short: the time we spend talking about being more righteous than the world would better be spent talking about the ways we can better love our neighbors, bear one anothers’ burdens, and repent of our sins. Granted, talking about “the world” does not mutually exclude our ability to repent or to talk about things like loving our neighbors. But it seems to me that the time spent talking about “the world,” which is usually done vaguely, can be better utilized as time to repent and love.

  50. This Sunday, my almost-12-year-old son leaned over to me and said, “Dad, I’m trying to decide whether to bear my testimony or not. Here’s what I want to say: As you probably already know, I used to have a lot of doubts about the Church and Jesus, but thanks to my parents’ help, I am doing better. And I know that with their help, even though I still have some doubts, I still believe the Church is true. Amen.” (Yes, he actually talks that way.)

    It’s pretty similar to the testimony I’ve wanted to bear for several years now, but it was near the end of the meeting and there were several people on the stand already, so I convinced him to wait until next month. But now I’m wondering if I did the right thing for the right reasons. I’m not going to lie to you – there was a part of me that discouraged him because I was afraid it would bring unwanted attention on us – on me, specifically.

  51. RickyH, I would have loved to have heard a young man say that in our ward. (I love to hear you say it, too!)

  52. Can I just point out that it is a contradiction to answer a question as somewhere between “I don’t know” and “Not very much” because if you don’t know then you don’t know whether it is not very much!

  53. Steve Evans says:

    Let’s not forget that the same effect occurs within any social circles, including families. Consider the husband afraid to come clean about a porn problem because his wife would divorce him. How is that man to effectively repent?

  54. Paul (47),

    I think that’s true until the pain of not repenting is greater than the pain of repenting. The same is true for any change we make in our lives. Only when the pain of changing is less than the pain of not changing do we change. Is it possible that some will lead lives of hypocritical leadership without change? Perhaps. But it will be their loss if they do.

    Of course this is true–as soon the benefits of an action outweigh the costs, we undertake the action. The point I am trying to make, though, is that the socially-loaded language and policy surrounding “worthiness” unnecessarily inflates the costs. Is it possible that any given person will still reach the tipping point on the benefit calculus and repent, despite the inflated costs? Of course it is; however, it will (by default) take longer to reach that tipping point, and for some, that may be too late.

    The message to me is that repentance should not be “easy” in the sense of requiring effort or genuine sorrow for sin, but that it should be easily accessible for all people. The only way I can see that happening is to become, as a people, far more aware of and open about our sinfulness and reducing the public shame associated with needing to repent. Sinning is sad, sure–but repentance from sinning is something to be celebrated. A policy of “never talk about the sin again” seems to care only about the former, missing out entirely on the latter point.

    There is clearly a narrow line to walk here, and I don’t know how to do it myself, but I think we can do better.

  55. M J (51),

    Can I just point out that it is a contradiction to answer a question as somewhere between “I don’t know” and “Not very much” because if you don’t know then you don’t know whether it is not very much!

    You are certainly welcome to point that out, but if you do, you run the risk of having me telling you to think about it a little bit more in the context of a conversation instead of just reading it literally and not trying to understand the point.

    That is to say, the conversation went something like this:
    EQP: How much real atonement?
    Me: Good question, I don’t know for sure. What do you think?
    EQP: It seems like there should be lots, but I don’t really see it.
    Me: Yeah, me neither. It’s possible that it’s there, but I don’t see it, either.

    TOTALLY contradictory, right?!?

  56. Steve,

    Good point. It is possible to fear woman more than God!

    You remind me that the truest motive behind repentance is love … and trust.

    You also remind of the hymn… choose what is right … let the consequence follow.

    Very difficult in practice if the sin is a habitual and very hurtful one.

  57. Very difficult in practice if the sin is a habitual and very hurtful one.

    …or if the environment of worthiness described in the OP has artificially and inappropriately inflated the costs of being deemed “unworthy” by convincing people that sins–even habitual and hurtful ones–are worse than they really are…

  58. Scott B,

    That means your answer was actually … I don’t know … but I suspect I should be able to see lots more than I do … because I do know how to recognise it … and I don’t see it….

    so yes… i see a contradiction between claiming not to know and claiming on the other hand to know.

    Contradictions happen all the time in conversations…. but it is a contradiction… however subtle or small.

  59. It would probably help if we could somehow learn to regard something other than sexual sin as serious–it doesn’t help that the only thing Mormons think is _really_ sinful (besides coffee) is adultery. It makes the gossip about callings/releases/who I saw coming out of the bishop’s office crying that much more titillating, and it means we assume that anyone who has a problem they can’t bring up in RS (i.e., anything worse than yelling at your kids occasionally) is sleeping around.

  60. #53 Scott: You are correct that the potential for public humiliation may slow a repentant person from confessing.

    It’s an interesting facet of 12-step meetings: they are grounded in anonymity. Participants are encouraged not to discuss details of the practice of their addiction (true in both LDS and non-LDS 12-step meetings) but to focus on recovery (read: atonement).

    I observed in the meeting I attend last week that I feel the spirit more often there than in my high priests group. At least some of that has to do with the voluntary nature of the meeting, some with the raw need for repentance in the 12-step meeting.

    The other thought I have is that repentance (and therefore the realization of the atonement in our lives) is often quite private. A father who repairs a relationship with a child is not likely to discuss that in the next fast & testimony meeting, and yet that father may see the blessings of the atonement quite clearly in that healing relationship.

  61. observer fka eric s says:

    Since we are talking about the loss of society as a demotivator to go and speak with the bishop/wife/husband, doesn’t that beg the question of each individual’s understanding of when they should and/or need to go and speak with the bishop/wife/husband? Take the porn question that Steve raises in (52): when does the husband need to, or when should the husband tell the wife that he has a porn problem in order to be made internally whole (repented)?That seems to be a very complex question from person to person and his/her understanding of why and when it is even necessary to speak with another regarding sin. So besides the variable of loss of society, there is the variable of not feeling the need to talk about sin with others and to handle it between yourself and God. Otherwise, why don’t we all draw up a rap sheet of weekly sins, send it to those even periferally involved, and line up at the bishop’s office. There is a very fuzzy spectrum with self-contained repentance on one end and disclosure to the world on the other. Where someone falls in between is complicated, it seems. And the loss of society as a demotivator can distort where you are along the specturm.

  62. @ Scott B, at 56.

    I agree with you about that. Sometimes we turn motes into beams…

  63. Kristine, you’re right. When we talk about “serious sin” it is almost ALWAYS sexual or Word of Wisdom. (I guess not paying your tithing can also get the temple recommend revoked and could conceivably result in a loss of a relatively “high” calling.)

  64. just about that motes and beams problem, I wonder if the brethren do that as well. if I have a problem with something hearing how bad it is and all the implications of it would just heap on more guilt and could make the problem worse

  65. “[T]he potential for public humiliation may slow a repentant person from confessing.” Of course, this is true. And it is not a sign of hypocrisy or in any other way a bad reflection on the Church or its members.

    “I confess only what affects my standing in the Church.” That’s right, too. The handbooks say this. Most sins, I suppose, are private — and private sins do not require confession to a Church officer — only those sins that, if known, would affect one’s standing in the Church require such confession. Those sins are very few in number. Bishops will hear all confessions, but members need only confess very few.

    Repentance is an act of faith. We try to treat it as such. Almost all of my journey of faith is private. Almost all of my repentance is private. This is the way it should be. Some might say they would love/trust/respect/_____ me more if they knew me better; meaning i I opened up a little and made myself vulnerable and shared my private thoughts — even in the workplace, we are sometimes encouraged to be more open about private feelings — I see this as modern-day psycho-mumble, but there are people who really, really feel this way. They want to share, and they want me to share.

    I don’t want to see evidence of the atonement in our meetings, if such evidence means people testifying of their previous sins. I’m happy hearing simple testimonies bearing witness to God’s love and the wonders of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t want other members to make themselves vulnerable on the stand, or to share all the details. It isn’t necessary. Jesus didn’t tell the woman to go and tell others had bad she previously was and how good she now is; he simply told her to go and sin no more.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a wonderful place, and a wonderful community. The atonement of Jesus Christ is real. It’s effects can be seen clearly by anyone who has eyes to see.

  66. Paul, #47: Is it possible that some will lead lives of hypocritical leadership without change? Perhaps. But it will be their loss if they do.

    The point is, this is a battle that doesn’t need to be waged this way. The ways in which the church has handled confession, repentance, and various consequences have been fluid since the beginning. Church courts, public confession of sins, temple worthiness qualifications, etc. have not been static, clearly revealed doctrines of the Church. We know several big shifts have occurred in the past. So it seems to me this is an issue where ongoing refinement (or eternal progression) can be hoped for, or maybe even expected. We could imagine ways through which person sins, confession, and consequences can be managed within the Church without resulting in unnecessary personal dilemmas.

    Actual policy changes would require a lot of time, a lot of pondering, a lot of prayer, and ultimately, inspiration to our Church leaders. But regular members like us don’t need to dismiss real problems we face today on the “their loss” argument. In fact, we probably shouldn’t. Can we help make that loss less likely, less available? I hope so, because I believe, as a community, “their loss” is “our loss” too.

  67. “Up from the ashes, grow the roses of success”

  68. #66 BHodges, I agree that the church’s administrative practices regarding confession and consequences has been fluid over the years.

    In the end, the penitent must feel that he or she has done enough to repent. That’s a challenge for a bishop who must be careful to do enough but only enough.

    Several years ago, while I was a bishop, our stake president told a story that Elder Condie had told him. Elder Condie was on a committee responsible for reviewing petitions to the First Presidency for rebaptism. I don’t know who else was on the committee, and I don’t know which applications they reviewed, but they reviewed several which they then sent on with their recommendations to President Hinckley. President Hinkley returned their recommendations with a handwritten note: “Have you no compassion?”

    Our stake president then taught us to be cautious, and to be true to the principle in Alma 42, that church discipline (like guilt in Alma 42) should only be enough. Period. We should take care to facilitate the working of the atonement in someone’s life, not impede it. It was an illuminating discussion.

  69. Scott, I think this post and the resulting discussion has been really good, and that you’ve brought up some really good points. I really resist the idea that a standard of “worthiness” and the social cost associated with not meeting it interfere with people taking advantage of the atonement. In fact, I think not having the concept of “worthiness” would do that.

    First, “worthiness” is not perfection, and I really wonder about Steve’s comment that if we knew every leader’s personal sins, they couldn’t continue to serve in their position. We tend to project our own narrow experience onto the wider world. Even if the ward knew about my own personal struggles, I believe most would still have sustained me while I was in the bishopric, even though my sins shame me deeply. I believe I was worthy to serve. But worthiness does not come naturally to me, and it’s been a goal for most of my life. Casserole’s #30 really touches me.

    To me, the atonement is about empowering change, and the standard of worthiness is an impetus to that change. We need that standard. But it’s really hard to know exactly where that standard needs to be set.

  70. esodhiambo says:

    I had a bishop who had been excommunicated. I know this because he mentioned it nearly every time he spoke to the ward. I appreciated the candor, but I also wondered if he perhaps went too far in that direction. He nearly always directed his remarks to the youth, and I wondered about the balence between testifying of the redeeming power of the atonement and his other role as being a role model. Personally, I wouldn’t really love my kids to get the idea that impregnating your high school girlfriend, giving the baby up for adoption, and a few years of riotous living could be easily overcome [and perhaps if he worked on his presentation, it would ahve sat better with me; it was a little heavy on the sinning years and light on the repentence). It is certainly NOT the path everyone takes to full activity in the Church. I guess it is one of the reasons we teach missionaries not to divulge past sins. Can’t we teach about the atonement without revealing our own nity gritty details? That’s what family is for–always illustrate your lessons with siblings who didn’t follow the spirit!

  71. Kristine, I have to disagree. There’s a sin in the church worse than adultery — the P-word.

  72. Martin (69),
    I guess I just think that the way we talk about “worthiness” suggests it is a steady-state position, whereas I feel like it’s a fundamentally non-existent position that can only be aspired to in mortality.

  73. Not having read all the posts above, forgive me if I’ve repeated anyone of merit.
    I think one of the issues involved regarding repentance is that LDS are still recovering from the teachings of the 1970s and before that suggested we had to earn our own salvation through obedience. We pushed obedience, rather than the concepts taught by King Benjamin and others in the scripture that we are fallen and can’t get up. We are cast out of God’s presence, and no amount of obedience and righteousness can make us guiltless of our sins. Only the atonement and true repentance and faith can cause us to recover through. We are saved (made sinless) through justification, which has nothing to do with obedience, and everything to do with faith and repentance.
    It requires us to have a broken heart and contrite spirit, even as the Lord commanded the Nephites after the great destruction and darkness at his death.
    Personally, I do not think most of us show sufficient contrition to be fully, 100% repenting and forgiven. For this reason, I believe that many of the saints will suffer the “buffetings of Satan” in the Spirit Prison hell, prior to receiving exaltation (D&C 132). They must repent or suffer even as Christ suffered (D&C 19). This requires us to fully repent of each and every one of the sins we’ve committed. Otherwise, we just cannot be pure, and so will be as Alma, suffering in his own personal hell for 3 days (Alma 36).
    Heck, I expect I’ll spend some time there for the little idiosyncrasies I have that I’m just too proud to let go of.

  74. Steve’s 53 is a very good point.

    Kristine- I’d add openly rebelling against the church to the serious sin bucket. Sometimes we even conflate the two. (So and So says the church isn’t true, so they are probably hiding some other sin, like porn).

    But you are right, these are the only two things I’ve seen people get exed for.

  75. Oh, I love this post. Thank you. I especially love the last paragraph. (And I’ve had “The Roses of Success” in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this comment!)

    Of many really great comments, the ones made by Norbert (#33) and BHodges (#49) stick out to me the most, and I totally agree with them. It seems like our rhetorical focus on being different from the world, combined with all the outwardly-visible behaviors the active, “worthy” member is expected to exhibit, causes church members to put so much emphasis on the behaviors that they forget that the behaviors themselves aren’t the real thing.

    (Hence: teenagers who feel so much overwhelming pressure to go on a mission that they suppress issues that really should keep them from going; the stigma that can stay with a man for his entire life if he doesn’t go; political liberals who have their morals and standing in the church publicly questioned; working mothers, stay-at-home dads, single people in their 30s, childless couples in their 20s who endure snide remarks about their “lifestyle choices”; and so on.)

    I felt like a few of the comments were focusing on the wrong end of the repentance topic. The problem here isn’t that more people need to just suck it up and accept the hard things that come with repentance–we all already know that. The problem is that the LDS church, as a community, does not respond well when someone’s sins become known. You can see part of the problem right here in the comments, in the way a few people have talked about a prominent church member “falling.” We really do forget that we are all already fallen–we think that because we’re members of the living church, and separate from “the world”, that we’re somehow higher up on a scale. We are disappointed when others “fall” because I think we honestly forget that it’s impossible for them not to. This post is not about individual repentance–it’s about the way the church community responds to an individual’s repentance. (And I think it was also made pretty clear that it’s not about wishing more people would get up and share the most intimate details of their personal lives, either.)

    I loved Casserole’s comment in #30, but I couldn’t help thinking how lucky she was that her bishop seems to have really been inspired and thoughtful about her position. Her story seems like an example of what things would look like more generally, if the problem that inspired this post in the first place didn’t exist.

  76. @70

    In contrast to your bishop my current SP is quite fond of publicly diminishing the value and efficacy of the atonement. This past “standards night” he even went as far as telling the youth that having sex before marriage would permanently diminish the value of a temple marriage– reflvardless of the atonement. That is quite the message of hope there. I’d trade ten of your bishops for one of my SPs any day.

    That standards night sermon left me broken-hearted and frustrated.

  77. Part of this seems to be that we as members really don’t always embrace the principle of repentance involved in taking the sacrament each week. Someone here at BCC recently made the comment that we view repentance as a root canal, when in reality it ought to be more like brushing and flossing. I really liked that analogy. Repentance ought to be part of our daily spiritual regimen. I actually regret that we now have two years between temple recommend interviews for that chance at self evaluation. Perhaps a suggestion is that we could do our own little personal interview each week while we are partaking of the sacrament as a means of keeping our minds on repentance. In that process, we would perhaps be less likely to let small things multiply and put us at risk of the more serious transgressions.

  78. I wanted to say that I think this conversation is so so important.

    Also, wanted to make a possibly minor point. The Spirit is necessary to the process of cleansing, so that we should expect to access to it even while we are in the process of overcoming our sins. I’m not saying that we can’t drive it away. (Very importantly, I think, sec 121 lists “covering our sins”, not having them, as a condition that ‘grieves’ the Spirit.) I’m saying that as long as we genuinely trying to improve, we can count on its influence in spite of our failures. ‘Where sin more abounds, there grace also more abounds.’ Asking someone to repent before they receive the Spirit is like asking someone to clean up in the shower, and then tell them they can have any soap after their shower is over. We get the soap when we get in the shower, even though we are not clean. If I’m right, our meetings would not lack the spirit because we have sin, but because we are not repenting. Possibly we are being Mormons, but that is the end of it.

  79. #77: kevinf: Sorry for yet another refernce to 12-step programs, but for 12-steppers, it’s a daily process, not even weekly.

    #78: Thomas Parkin: Love this comment. Thanks.

  80. Ditto for me–I really love comments 77 and 78.

  81. TP (78),
    This is really the point I’m driving at: no people or institutions, no matter how fervently or authoritatively they may deem us “worthy” or “unworthy,” can control whether or not a member of the Godhead is a steady influence in that person’s life. That’s why I keep emphasizing that “worthiness” is really just a term that, in reality, doesn’t really mean a whole lot.

    We are all unworthy, all the time–and yet the Spirit works with us, as long as we are aspiring to become worthy (no matter how futile the effort) and seeking its counsel.

  82. ji,
    “only those sins that, if known, would affect one’s standing in the Church require such confession. Those sins are very few in number.”
    Except they are also never enumerated, so the conflict of interest keeps people from approaching counsel with their bishops when they don’t have to worry, because they don’t know if they should worry.

    “I don’t want to see evidence of the atonement in our meetings, if such evidence means people testifying of their previous sins.”
    Why? I’m not saying that people should get up and testify of their sins (whatever that means), but why do you think it would be a bad idea?

  83. “forgive me if I’ve repeated anyone of merit”
    OK. But not if you repeat anyone who is not “of merit.” (eyeroll)

  84. TP (78) Beautiful. Yes.

    Sometimes I think we treat the Holy Spirit as though it is the fragile thing that runs and hides and cowers in the face o human frailty- this is so wrong. It’s not something we can break through the process of being human and living in the fallen world. What hubris to imagine we could.

  85. “We are all unworthy, all the time–and yet the Spirit works with us”

    If the term “unworthy” is used this way, then you can replace it with the term “human”, and I’d agree it doesn’t mean very much. I’d also agree that “worthiness”, as established in the church, isn’t God’s criteria for determining whether a person is on the right track.

    But I think it’s very wrong to dismiss “worthiness” as being the work of modern Pharisees. I believe it has tremendous value in helping people take advantage of the atonement. Without that standard, I think a lot of people wouldn’t feel the need to change. After all, if we think we’re “all unworthy”, and that we’ll always be unworthy, then there’s real risk of thinking “it just isn’t that bad”. I have no idea how many people are receptive enough to the Spirit that they simply change, but I think there have got to be many more who are like me, and who are only humble enough to receive the Spirit after we’ve been held in front of the mirror and don’t like what we see.

    When I gave temple recommend interviews (and as a counselor, I only dealt with the routine cases), I was surprised at the number of people who ended up in tears of joy after being able to declare themselves “worthy”.

  86. It strikes me that many of the best in the Church (probably myself included) are like the rich young man coming before Jesus saying that he has kept the commandments from his youth. Jesus pointed the way to perfection for him – getting rid of the wealth that kept him from seeing what sort of a person he really was. Because our perceptions, that our sins are so small, most of us, going to the bishop, would have not too much to confess to, really. What we might confess to such things as speaking unkindly, anger at our loved ones, endangering people on the freeway because of our bad driving, jealousy of another’s success, not loving our spouse enough, or saying enough to get the Gospel Doctrine teacher removed from her position. The list is long.

    In the OP you mentioned

    my Elders Quorum president asked me a thoughtful question: ‘How much real atonement do we see in the Church?’ By ‘real atonement’ he meant true repentance and change–people beginning to sing the song of redeeming love, putting off the natural man, desiring no more to do evil, and desiring only to do good. That sort of thing

    What I suspect what your EQ president meant was this next step, the one the Savior told the rich young man to do, removing the blindfold which kept him from further progression, from “singing the song of redeeming love.” Just imagine a Church filled with people like this, who can see clearly by the spirit.

  87. Scott, I totally agree with your point, and was really floored by the OP. It is something that is perpetually just over the edge of what I’m thinking, and it was great to see the problem expressed so forthrightly.

    Tracy. Aye. And some of that is just what we have learned trying to figure out our experience.

    Martin, I think you’ve got a point about worthiness. But worthiness for what, and who decides and when? I think it is great that we have a pretty set group of questions to determine Temple worthiness. My dad likes to tell me that when he was a bishop people would sometimes be surprised at how little they had to change. You can say, look, here are the handful of things. I think it can be very enabling to have that list.

  88. Martin (85),

    But I think it’s very wrong to dismiss “worthiness” as being the work of modern Pharisees

    I think it’s wrong to suggest that I’m saying it’s the work of modern Pharisees. I don’t know where you’d get that impression.

    Without that standard, I think a lot of people wouldn’t feel the need to change.

    Certainly there are people like that. However, I think the other side of the fence houses plenty of people who see themselves as technically worthy, and therefore see no need to change.

    Whether you agree or disagree with me depends, then, on which side of the fence you feel is more populous, right?

  89. “Certainly there are people like that. However, I think the other side of the fence houses plenty of people who see themselves as technically worthy, and therefore see no need to change.

    Whether you agree or disagree with me depends, then, on which side of the fence you feel is more populous, right?”

    I’m not sure. Wouldn’t the people who’d cleared the worthiness threshold be right where you’re proposing everybody ought to be — namely motivated only by the workings of the Spirit and not some new criteria? Some not progressing, thinking they’re “good enough”, others gradually becoming more Christlike?

    Maybe you’re suggesting that those who need a “worthiness” standard to progress are going to top out anyway once clearing it, because there’s no new clear-cut standard to measure themselves against.

  90. John C. (no .82), You’re right that some members “don’t know if they should worry” — I would hope bishops would teach them that confession to a bishop is required only sins that, if known, would affect one’s standing in the Chuch. I suppose many bishops don’t, wanting to be open and receive all confessions, but I wish they would teach this principle.

    Regarding people testifying of their sins, I indicated that I prefer not to hear such in our meetings. I prefer for repentance to be private. I much prefer to hear testimonies of the wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even so, of course I allow others to say what they want — and I believe that some things can be said privately which might not be said publicly. Why might it be a bad idea to testify of one’s sins publicly, you ask? See esodhiambo’s no. 70 for an example.

    Scott B. (no. 81), You’re right that no person or institution “can control whether or not a member of the Godhead is a steady influence in [another] person’s life.” Amen.

    Brigham Young once said, while President of the Church: I believe in coming out and being plain and honest with that which should be made public, and in keeping to yourselves that which should be kept. If you have your weaknesses, keep them hid from your brethren as much as you can. You never hear me ask the people to tell their follies. But when we ask the brethren, as we frequently do, to speak in sacrament meetings, we wish them, if they have injured their neighbors, to confess their wrongs; but do not tell about your nonsensical conduct that nobody knows of but yourselves. Tell to the public that which belongs to the public. If you have sinned against the people, confess to them. If you have sinned against a family or a neighborhood, go to them and confess. If you have sinned against your Ward, confess to your Ward. If you have sinned against one individual, take that person by yourselves and make your confession to him. And if you have sinned against your God, or against yourselves, confess to God, and keep the matter to yourselves, for I do not want to know anything about it. Journal of Discourses, p. 362 (March 10, 1860).

  91. Agree ji, in your response to John C., but that requires a level of judgement that individual members might not feel comfortable about. What are the sins that would affect one’s standing in the church? I’ve been a member all my life, and I have no idea what that list of sins might comprise.

    Also, I love that Brigham Young quote. If I’m ever a bishop, and I don’t lose my testimony and leave the church over it, I’m going to put a cross-stitch of that quote on my office door.

  92. Mommie Dearest says:

    This is such a great thread, and I so wish I had the time to organize my thoughts into a comment. So much rich food for thought, I love the things that have been said about the Holy Spirit. I am struggling with stagnation, as always, and this is much more helpful than what I get out of most of my meetings. Except for the time spent during the administration of the sacrament, that alone makes up for all the rest of the deficits. But does it need to be so?

  93. Kyle M (no. 91) — You wrote, “that requires a level of judgement that individual members might not feel comfortable about” — I agree. However, Elder Packer spoke a long time ago and again more recently about spiritual self-reliance — he spoke of members depending too much on the bishop and bishops doing too much to help members — there is a great need for spiritual self-reliance. He is right. We preach temporal self-reliance; we also need to teach and encourage spiritual self-reliance. There is no list — the handbook only says confession to a bishop is required only sins that, if known, would affect one’s standing in the Church — I hope no one tries to make a list — there are very few sins that reach that definition, and members can figure it out for themselves (spiritual self-reliance).

  94. I just want to say thanks to everyone who has commented on this thread. I struggle to think of a thread on any post I’ve written in the past that has had such a consistent stream of thoughtful comments. This is just fantastic.

  95. John Mansfield says:

    “When you have that image, a program idolized as pure, the harder it is to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you have this need to appear to be perfect, the harder it is to admit that you made an error in judgment.” — former FBI agent Ken Lanning in the Washington Post regarding events at Penn State.

  96. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments made.

    Re in the claim in 88 about “people who see themselves as technically worthy, and therefore see no need to change” – this does not automatically follow.

    I have to say that most of those that I’ve met who consider themselves “worthy” still believe that they have to change. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Of course, there are those that consider themselves “worthy” who feel that therefore there is no real need to change. There are also some who consider that the word “worthy” really means “perfect” and so do not consider themselves worthy… when in fact they are… (in the sense of being ready to receive revelation).

    You’ve made me re-think about what the scriptures say about our worth and I appreciate that.

    Still I wouldn’t dispense with the notion of “worthiness” although I think we need to explain it better.

  97. Scott B,

    I meant to say that while I disagree with some of what you say I wholeheartedly agree that suffer from not making the meaning of “worthy” relevant beyond it being some sort of badge for spirtual security. Ironically, the emphasis on “worthiness” may cause some to succumb to carnal security. The point is well made. Thanks.

  98. ji,
    I don’t feel like I better understand where you are coming from. I’ve met the quote before and you just repeated what you said before. I feel like without a fall, there is no atonement; I’m not sure why pretending otherwise in church is helpful. So, setting aside Pres. Young’s notions and commandments on decorum, why “don’t [you] want to see evidence of the atonement in our meetings, if such evidence means people testifying of their previous sins.” Also, I still don’t know what it means to testify of a sin, so if you’ve got that worked out, please let me know what you mean there, too.

  99. Hmmnn….what kinds of “stigma” happen? How does that play out? Does the teacher not call on you in Sunday School? Is one denied callings? Or is it a more social thing that happens outside the chapel?

    I live in an area where LDS are a minority, most our friends are non-LDS, so I am trying to understand what this looks like on the ground.

  100. We had an interesting experience with seeing the impact of the atonement in our meetings recently. Of course, this was a case of a newly baptized member, whom we’ve previously said (in an earlier comment above) might have an easier time than an active member. But it was still remarkable.

    This sister had investigated the church off and on for several years. She had not been an easy investigator, requiring rides, living a little further than is comfortable for many members to help. Running hot and cold over time. But in the last six months something changed and she prepared and was finally baptized with oldest daughter. A couple of months later her husband gave permission for the younger children to be baptized, and she bore her testimony for the first time this month.

    She is, quite obviously to anyone who has known her longer than a few weeks, a new person. Her whole countenance has changed. As she bore her testimony, she spoke about her life before the gospel — a childhood of abuse, a young adulthood of drug use, etc. And yet, she said, she stood in our chapel that day changed by the atonement. It was one of the best moments I’ve witnessed in a testimony meeting in some time (and we have pretty good testimony meetings in our ward). I think it was so wonderful because her words mirrored the change we and she had seen in her life; we all knew that the Savior’s atonement had made all the difference.

    I should point out that her discussion of her past was not a recitation of prior transgression, but rather a painting of a background for understanding of how far she had come in her life. It was really something. Quite a blessing to behold; clearly a blessing of being a part of a missionary church that teaches a gospel that has the power to change lives.

  101. I really loved this post. Thank you.

    When I gave temple recommend interviews (and as a counselor, I only dealt with the routine cases), I was surprised at the number of people who ended up in tears of joy after being able to declare themselves “worthy”.

    I wasn’t going to comment on the thread, but I have to say, this comment broke my heart. It tells me we have a lot of really decent people walking around with unnecessary self-doubt about their acceptability before the Lord, who don’t feel empowered enough in their relationship with God to feel confident in His love and grace.

    I long for the day when we talk less about “qualifying for” blessings (as though He owes them to us somehow) and more about how grateful we are to a God who gives us what we don’t deserve — a God who is loving and merciful enough to make the sun rise on both the just and the unjust.

  102. Wow! I got to this discussion late, but thank you everyone. I feel inspired to repent.

  103. John C. (no. 98) — I don’t think there’s any confusion about the thoughts I shared, and you already know that you err in characterizing my words as “pretending otherwise” regarding the atonement.

    This has been a good discussion…

  104. Wonderful post, Scott. Deeply thought-provoking – as are the comments.

    In a nutshell, I think we don’t understand repentance, sin, transgression, atonement, etc. nearly well enough as a collective body of saints / sinners. (and I believe we can embrace both categorizations without having to strike through either) I think we don’t understand our 2nd Article of Faith even remotely, again as a collective body. I believe it’s the most powerful of them all, and I believe it has implications we miss entirely in our focus on partial definitions of worthiness and repentance. (I say “partial” because I do believe the popular definitions do have merit.)

    We tend to focus on and obsess over the “negative” aspects of those two principles to such an extent that we miss the “liberating” and “joyous” aspects a more full definition includes – and, thus, as Katie L. said in #101, we have good, sincere, faithful, dedicated, humble members feeling like failures and not recognizing that practically everything over which they are suffering so terribly is included in the group of things for which Jesus already has atoned.

    Again, thank you, everyone, for your thoughts. This is a prime example of why I love this site so much.

  105. ji,
    I enjoy being called a liar as much as the next guy, I suppose. Why won’t you answer the question?

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