How to be Good Enough

There is something I want everyone to understand (assuming I’m right (if I’m not right, hopefully people will forget that this blogpost ever happened). Life is a frame job. You are bound to fail.

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This is an actual commandment, given by Christ, in the Bible (and the Book of Mormon). Now perhaps it is a bad translation or a later scribe snuck it in (I don’t know enough about the textual history to say for sure), but the fact that it is repeated (with little alteration) in the Book of Mormon probably makes it an binding commandment for Mormons. One that we cannot and will not keep.

Nephi (that champion of keeping the commandments) ponders this in 2nd Nephi. He has just finished adding a lengthy block of Isaiah to his small plates. He finds, in this excerpt, prophecy regarding the eventual restoration of Israel, including his descendants, along with the prophesied coming of Christ. Having laid out the prophesied future that he will draw from, he starts trying to convince three groups to repent and come to Christ: The Jews, the Gentiles, and the descendants of the Lamanites. We’ll set aside the last two groups for this discussion and focus on his appeal to the Jews, which encompasses all of chapter 25.

After a brief preamble, Nephi directly appeals to the people he has left, whom he calls the Jews, in verse 4. He contrasts his own words and their plainness with Isaiah’s, which he loves, but which he admits can be obscured by the poetry of much of Isaiah’s prophecy. He then prophesies the coming history of the Jews, years of persecution and scattering and then the crucifixion of Christ followed by more scattering. However, in the far off future, God would provide a means for restoration via acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and that means is the Book of Mormon. Nephi asserts that the miraculous coming of and message in the Book of Mormon will stand as a witness against all who reject them, including the Jews (who reject them (the rest are cool, of course)).

By now we’ve come to verse 23, which is where the important bit for this post begins. There Nephi asserts that he and his fellow priests teach Christ because it is Christ who saves us, after all we do. Now, some people use that last dependent clause to argue that salvation is earned through righteous striving, but that’s not what the rest of the passage implies. Nephi goes on to say, in verse 24, that they follow the Law of Moses as a means to maintain their faith in Christ; verse 25 starts by stating that is the entire purpose of the law.

How does the law do this, especially since, as Nephi continues in verse 25: “the law has become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith”? Nephi says that his people keep the law for the commandments, but that they talk of, rejoice in, preach on, and prophecy about Christ so that they (and their children) can successfully repent. Note the literary oppositions here: death vs. life; Moses vs. Christ; law vs. repentance. How does the law remind us of Christ, maintain and strengthen our faith? Because we fail to keep it over and over again which fall requires us to turn to him in repentance. It is repentance that brings us to Christ’s presence, encourages us to embrace His grace, guides us in a daily walk with Him. We were sent here and given impossible commandments (from the very beginning) because our humiliation and subsequent reconciliation with Christ through repentance is the one path that God has provided, the strait and narrow way back to him. No matter who you are in life, saint, sinner, prophet, or peasant, you must repent. There is, as they say, no other way.

Nephi continues in verse 27 to contrast the deadness of the law with a life in Christ, and further notes that his children (and, by implication, the Jews) should not be upset when the Law of Moses stops being the sign of the covenant. Salvation is not found in keeping the commandments, which is good because we can’t do it. Salvation is found in repenting, which is good because we really need to do that. Nephi addresses the Jews directly once more in verses 28-30, noting their pride in their accomplishments (their ability to keep the Law of Moses, for example) and telling them that it is in Christ that they will find their salvation.

Now, one might argue that this is not necessarily the best approach to take if you are trying to convince Jews to come to Jesus (although, it is similar in many ways to how Paul approached the topic, so what would one know?). However, it is sufficient to make my point. The Law of Moses and, by extension, commandments exist because we need to have a limit that we will go past. It is sin that makes us human, it is sin that turns us to God. Not that we should sin (or should particularly desire it), but its inevitability, our frailty, and God’s justice and mercy combine to make it the surest route to our repentance and repentance is the thing.

Hugh Nibley said:

Who is righteous? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he has been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing. The man on the top of the stairs facing down if much worse off than the man on the bottom step who is facing up. The direction we are facing, that is repentance; and that is what determines whether we are good or bad. – Funeral Address for Donald Decker

He doesn’t seem wrong to me. So, that’s how to be good enough: Repent and sin no more (until you do and then repent and sin no more (until you do and then repent and (ad infinitum))).

Comments

  1. [C]ommandments exist because we need to have a limit that we will go past. It is sin that makes us human, it is sin that turns us to God. Not that we should sin (or should particularly desire it), but its inevitability, our frailty, and God’s justice and mercy combine to make it the surest route to our repentance and repentance is the thing.

    This isn’t exactly how I would put it, John, but I agree with you 100%, and have for quite a few years now. One of the key scriptures for me is Luke 17:1: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come” (NIV). In other words, occasions for sin are unavoidable, and God’s judgment rests unavoidably upon those who bring about those occasions…which means, of course, all of us. In short, we’re sinners, and were made to be sinners. Being continually weighed down by our own in capacity to do otherwise is what brings us to submission and repentance. The moment we thing we’ve succeeded at (and thus are done with) repenting, we’ve missed the point. A point which Martin Luther understood well: “God does not save those who think themselves imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong–sin boldly–but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

  2. Reading Romans right now and this seems pretty relevant. Thanks John C.

  3. Good stuff. Love that last line. I’m stealing it.

  4. Add to this Ether 12:27 “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me.” If we’re humble, we repent, and by focusing on humility – the internal, the “being” rather than the “doing,” we avoid falling right back into the SAME OLD TRAP of just *doing* in our repentance but missing out on savoring and rejoicing in God’s grace.

    Add to that 1 Samuel 16:7 “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” *I* say that we can best correct these “do vs. be” errors by putting less focus on outward appearances and more on the heart. This will difficult for control freaks to manage, but it’s the right thing to do.

  5. Ezekiel 18

  6. Love that Nibley quote. It has stuck with me since I first came across it. And here is a scripture that basically proves him right. If anyone knew about grace, it was the people of Ammon.
    Alma 24:11 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 take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—

  7. Kari Arnoldsen says:

    Thanks JohnC. You give me hope. And I love the Nibley quote. So true.

  8. I’ve always been puzzled why God would create humans as fallible and then send his Son to redeem them–what purpose would that serve? What is to be gained through such a roundabout approach that God could not simply give directly to humans? Reading this post, I wonder, is it humility? Could humility be the thing that must be learned the hard way, can only be learned by screwing up time and again?

    Jesus’ command to be perfect is reminiscent of a Buddhist parable. J: “Be perfect”. Random Christian: “But that’s not possible!” J, nodding wisely: “Now, grasshopper, you have taken the first step on the path to perfection.”

  9. It’s like shampooing your soul – “Repent, sin, repeat.”

  10. So the Atonement is the shampoo and the Holy Spirit is the conditioner? I think you have the makings of a good General Conference metaphor here.