Back when I was in high school, I was warned not to guess if I didn’t know the answer to an SAT question. It’s been years, so my memory may be off, but I believe the test awarded points for correct answers, no points for blank answers, and took away points for wrong answers. If you weren’t at least reasonably certain that you were right, not answering the question was better than risking choosing a wrong answer, and losing points.[fn1]
As of last month, apparently, that changed: wrong answers still won’t get students points, but they also won’t cost students points. Where before, students had a strong incentive to refrain from participating, now the incentives have changed.
In his Sunday talk, Elder Holland assures us that the Gospel is more like the new SAT than the old SAT. With the “gift of the Atonement and the strength of heaven to help us,” Elder Holland says, we don’t have to worry about picking the wrong answer, because “the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”
Credit for trying. That’s even more generous than the SAT. All we have to do is try—even if we fail, even if we fail repeatedly—and God will credit our sincere attempt. And that ideal that we often speak of at church? The one often reflected in the talks we hear at Conference? They’re “intended to give hope and inspiration, not discouragement.”
Elder Holland’s framing here underlines an important point: the church isn’t a sanctuary for the perfect; rather, it’s a school for those of us who aren’t perfect. Or, as Elder Holland puts it, “We take some solace in the fact that if God were to reward only the perfectly faithful, He wouldn’t have much of a distribution list.”
Of course, it is not only me who is imperfect, and who deserves the right to try and to fail. We need to recognize that our neighbors—the people in the pew across from us who don’t do their home and visiting teaching, who haven’t prepared their lessons, even the ones who hurt and offend us—are in our same position. We need to show them the same charity we hope and need them to show us. If we’re blessed for our desire to do good, “we must make certain we don’t deny [those blessings] to others.”
Elder Holland’s focus here—both on my right to fail and my neighbor’s—strikes me as incredibly important, both on the personal level and the community level. On the personal level, if I’m not willing to go outside of my comfort zone, not willing to stretch a little, I’m not going to be able to grow. But I don’t know in advance how I’ll do outside of my comfort zone; if I’m afraid God will punish me if I fail, I have every incentive to just keep doing those things I already know I know how to do. I don’t risk punishment, but I also don’t have the opportunity for growth.
And, as a community, if we demand perfection and exclude those who don’t meet our personal standards, we are and impoverished body of Christ; He didn’t demand that we cut off the lame leg, but instead that we heal it. If we won’t let the lame leg join with us, though, it loses the chance at healing, and we lose the chance to act for Christ and heal those who need His (and our) healing touch.
And why is God so generous, so new- rather than old-SAT? In what I find perhaps the most powerful section of a powerful talk, Elder Holland explained:
Brothers and sisters, the first great commandment of all eternity is to love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, but the first great truth of all eternity is that God loves us with all of His heart, might, mind and strength. That love is the foundation stone of eternity and it should be the foundation stone of our daily life. Indeed it is only with that reassurance burning in our soul that we can have the confidence to keep believing, to keep trying to improve, to keep seeking forgiveness for our sins, and to keep extending that grace to our neighbor.
A God who loves us with all of His heart, might, mind, and strength isn’t there to keep us out, but to invite us in. And Elder Holland makes clear that He does invite us in.