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 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.
 That is to say, all of us.