What does it mean to be worthy?

My husband was part of an interfaith discussion in which someone asked the LDS participants, “What’s the point of making someone quit smoking for a week before they can get baptized? Does God really care if you smoke or not?” I think the standard, or at least predictable, answer to this question is that it demonstrates a person’s commitment to what will (or should) be a new way of life, their acceptance of the church’s moral authority; it makes sense as a test of how serious someone is about baptism and how well they understand what will be expected of them as members of the church. Someone else defended the practice along those lines. Brother J, being Brother J, said, “No, actually, God probably doesn’t care if you smoke or not.”

At least, He probably doesn’t care if you stop smoking for seven days.

There’s nothing in the Bible or Book of Mormon about abstaining from tobacco products before you can be baptized. For that matter, there’s nothing in the Doctrine and Covenants (where we find the counsel against tobacco) that says you have to be sufficiently “clean” of certain substances before getting baptized. Asking potential converts to give up their cigarettes or their beer or their coffee (or all of the above) for a week before their baptism is a policy that was developed by church leaders for non-scriptural but probably practical reasons, given that they’d also decided at some point—for reasons I don’t care to guess at–that the Word of Wisdom was now a commandment rather than some helpful advice (that happened to come from God, NBD). If the prohibition against tobacco, alcohol, and coffee and tea is officially Mormon doctrine, can you really reject that prohibition and consider yourself a devout Mormon? And do you really want to baptize someone who shows no intention of being devout? Well, you might not. I can think of a lot of reasons why you wouldn’t. But does God really care?

I guess it depends on what you think God really cares about. Personally, I have no idea if God Himself revealed to whichever-president-of-the-church that it was absolutely essential that a person give up smoking and drinking coffee before getting baptized. In case you couldn’t tell by the way I said “whichever-president-of-the-church,” I’m not a Mormon historian. I don’t know exactly how these practices evolved, but I think common sense tells me why they did. The Word of Wisdom sets us apart from other people; it’s a pretty good indicator for how devoted you are to the church as an institution. If you believe this is God’s church, that devotion can easily be seen as a good indicator for how devoted you are to God. To be honest, I don’t really think much about the Word of Wisdom one way or the other because a) I’ve always lived with it and b) I’ve never had a problem living with it. I imagine this is the case for a lot of Mormons. How many of us really sit around thinking, despite all of our sins, “At least I don’t smoke or drink (coffee)!”

(Well, maybe there are more of us doing this than I’d like to think. But in my house, if one of us is going to go all “at least I don’t x,” x is always something like murder, or maybe dealing drugs, at the mildest. No one gets credit for not smoking.)

It makes some sense, given the covenants one makes in the temple, to have some “worthiness” requirements around receiving one’s endowment. Temple covenants are pretty hardcore; for the individual’s own sake, it makes sense to ask him or her to keep the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity and, I dunno, pay their outstanding child support (?) before placing themselves under the personal obligations the endowment requires.

But let’s say a person who’s received their endowment subsequently starts having (or returns to) a substance abuse problem. Does it make more sense to bar them from the temple or to allow the purifying influence of the temple into their lives? I suppose it depends on whether attending the temple is more worship or work. If the former, the primary concern should be the potential benefit to the worshiper. If the latter, maybe the primary concern should be the worthiness of the worker. Yes, of course it’s actually both. But given the current “worthiness” requirements, what is it more?

One might credibly argue that a worshiper will get more out of temple worship if he or she is “worthy.” That is, one might argue that “worthiness” is essentially spiritual preparation, necessary for the worship to be effectual for the worshiper. Possibly this is sometimes true. I have difficulty believing it is always true. Maybe it’s generally true enough to make it a rule. As I said, it makes a lot of sense to me to have some of these requirements before you make your covenants in the temple. But it seems to me that once you’ve made those covenants, it is better to go to the temple more, to remind yourself of the covenants you’ve made, than to go to the temple less and distance yourself mentally and emotionally from those covenants. (All of this is assuming that temple worship is edifying for the worshiper—which, as far as I know, is exactly what the church teaches.)

I’ve sat in endowment sessions where one of the officiators was a member of my ward, a man I knew to be well-intentioned and exacting in certain areas of the gospel. I say “in certain areas” because I also knew that he was emotionally abusive to his wife—not because she told me about it or someone else told me about it, but because I saw it with my own eyes. I didn’t suspect him of being physically abusive, but given how casually he belittled and berated his wife in front of other people, I rather shuddered to think of how he might treat her when they were alone. Frankly, if it wasn’t any worse than what he did publicly, it really didn’t matter. I found it impossible to forget this tidbit of knowledge when we were gathered in the ordinance room dressed in white and making solemn covenants before God. Yes, that was on me, one hundred percent. I was judging the crap out of that brother. (Still do, obviously!) But he held a temple recommend—was a temple ordinance worker, in fact—and a person who smoked (or didn’t pay his tithing) could not have one. What’s the difference, really? He could answer honestly—from his own perspective—all of the temple recommend questions in the “correct” manner. (“Correct” = resulting in a temple recommend issue) If he’d been smoking or drinking alcohol regularly or was (x number of months) behind on his tithing, he couldn’t have given the “correct” answers without intentionally lying. (Unless he had amnesia, I guess, which would certainly inject some ambiguity into the proceedings.)

Either way, what business was it of mine?

Maybe being an [epithet redacted] to your wife isn’t as big a deal as smoking. Maybe it’s not as big a deal as committing adultery. I mean, adultery is pretty darn wrong. You shouldn’t be able to go to the temple if you’re committing adultery, right? Except I’m sure that people do. They just can’t go to the temple after their adultery has been discovered (by the right people) or confessed (to the right people). In the case of confession (even if it follows discovery), what would be more helpful to a person on the road to repentance—being barred from the temple, or attending the temple? I really don’t know.

I don’t have a dog in this fight because the temple is not my jam, but some people find a great deal of comfort and inspiration in it. Is the temple designed to increase faith or to be a reward for the sufficiently faithful? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. I certainly don’t understand the temple better than I understand baptism. The standard answer is that “no unclean thing can enter the presence of God,” and technically the temple is God’s house, but I know for a fact that unclean things enter the temple all the time because I’ve been there. The whole place is populated by humans. (Also, they have to clean it sometimes.)

Another answer might be that adhering to the standards delineated in the temple recommend interview invites the spirit, and violating those standards makes the spirit less likely to invite itself. So a room full of people who have kept those standards is apt to be full of the spirit, but if we don’t have some sort of screening process for temple patrons, the temple wouldn’t be any more spiritual than, say, church. Personally, I’ve had more spiritual experiences in church than I’ve had in the temple, but I wouldn’t say this argument is without merit. Maybe it’s just because I was raised with this idea of “worthiness” being an essential element of spiritual experiences. It seems intuitive because it’s familiar. But the more I think about it, the less I understand it. Keeping the commandments is, in theory, its own reward (wickedness never being happiness, so to speak). Furthermore, not every blessing or revelation is a result of an individual’s worthy striving, although we often frame it that way; we’re exhorted to live “worthy of the spirit,” so that we’ll be receptive to spiritual promptings and so forth. I don’t think that’s a ridiculous notion; at the same time, I know for a fact that I have received revelation while in a condition of technical “unworthiness.” So what does that mean? I don’t know.

In any case, lots of people in the church struggle with feelings of “unworthiness” from time to time. Some people are harder on themselves than others. Depending on the situation, a bishop may tell someone to go the temple more often, or he may take his or her recommend away for a time. (Actually, this can depend on both the situation and the bishop, but that’s another story.) Some people enforce their own worthiness boundaries; they may stop going to the temple or stop taking the sacrament or stop going to church because they feel “unworthy,” that they don’t meet the high standards that the church has set, and until and unless they do, they don’t belong. But if the temple is the pinnacle of our worship, is this how it should be?


Full disclosure: I wrote the above quite some time ago and was waiting for a good time to post it at BCC when I read Katie L.’s excellent “Pastoral Critique of Worthiness Interviews” at Feminist Mormon Housewives a couple weeks ago. I admit that worthiness interviews have always made me a bit uncomfortable because I feel like these issues are very personal (and no, I’m not talking about the underwear question), but I’ve never had a problem submitting to them because, well, this is the Palmolive I’ve been soaking in all my life. I do find Katie’s arguments compelling, and if you haven’t read her post, I recommend it. I mean, it’s good enough that I pretty much scrapped the idea of posting my thoughts on the matter; but on further reflection, I decided that my angle was different enough to merit taking up space on the internet. Also, Mormons never get tired of rehashing the same crap over and over. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!


  1. Angela C says:

    After visiting the Newel K. Whitney storehouse and hearing / reading the stories about the School of the Prophets and how 22 men would cram into that room smoking and chewing tobacco (to the endless consternation of Emma) and during whole days of praying and “exhorting” (and smoking and spitting), they had a personal witness of the savior. So clearly, according to our own religious history, smoking doesn’t exclude people from divine visions. I’ve sat in the back of my friend’s mom’s Scirocco while she was smoking in the front seat with all the windows up, and I gotta say, after a while I started seeing visions.

  2. “Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?” I think that would cover the emotional abuse of a wife or husband or children or anyone else (D&C 121:34-46).

  3. Loved this. On the one hand I do get why we have temple recommendation interviews. My wife is a convert and part of what attracted her to the church was being part of a community that set standards and took those standards seriously. But part of those standards should be treating others with respect and if we enforce “no coffee” but don’t take recommends away for stuff like you described there is something wrong.

    Angela C- wish there laugh emoji on BCC for that comment. It reminds me of when I was studying the Kirtland era and found out a lot of visions took place after a day of fasting, and then partaking of bread and wine. I remember having a similar thought “hmm, maybe this is why we have less visions now.”

  4. Thanks so much for sharing! You made this a really enjoyable and interesting read.

    I believe that we need to be worthy to a certain extent. Say, if someone committed murder or wasn’t chaste, I don’t think they would be worthy to enter into the temple. But say if you drank a cup of coffee or tea, I think you would still be worthy to enter into the temple.

    I like the example of the brother in the endowment session. We don’t really look at things such as emotional abuse as a sin or “worthiness” terms, and if you think about it, why is this man worthy but not the coffee-drinker?

    I understand that we ask new converts to give up things like smoking and drinking to show their worthiness and it’s a part of the word of wisdom. That makes sense to me, but just a personal opinion.

    Thanks for the read, I really liked what you had to say!

  5. I attended a Temple wedding where the Father of the bride couldn’t attend. Good man – one could say “worthy” – but not a member. He waited in the foyer on the other side of the recommend desk. I also know he was upset and hurt, but he did his best not to show it.

    The groom’s father, a member, was one of the witnesses. Ironically, a few months later we found out he had been having an affair with a mistress for several years.

    When I reflect on the situation I find I’m more upset with the Church policy that keeps a father from his daughter’s wedding than the guy who lied to get to see his son get married. I think Katie L.’s essay on the worthiness interview helps me understand why I feel that way.

  6. chompers says:

    Great post. It’s an odd dichotomy, where a person can lie to the bishop and go to the temple, yet someone who voluntarily confesses a sin can be disfellowshipped for 12 months – wonderful discernment in both cases, obviously. Perhaps the Lord isn’t so worried about who is, and isn’t, “worthy” as much as he cares about us taking personal ownership of sins. Given that spiritual blessings (revelation, answers to prayers etc) come when we’re technically unworthy, is perfection the goal? Or is it the struggle towards that goal? Perhaps having some things denied (temple recommend, taking the sacrament etc) gives us something to work towards, even if God is willing to work with us at all times.

    Given the symbolism of the sacrament (eating the body and drinking the blood), I wonder if the ritual process (Word of Wisdom etc) is not so dissimilar to the Old Testament rituals. Sure, the form has changed, but perhaps the point is to give us something to think about. Just as baptism represents washing away sin and “rising in newness of life”, the worthiness rituals (which we’ve distorted to our own ends) should help focus our minds.

    I personally dislike the non-member barring from weddings part, especially since civil marriages and sealings are completely separate things. There’s zero practical or functional reason why you can’t have a wedding ceremony that your non-member family can attend, and then go and get sealed afterwards. It’s a stupid policy, especially when you add in the abusive way the church forces (particularly) women to get sealings cancelled.

  7. Poppa Stooks says:

    I also loved the article from Mormon feminist housewives. (Potential) Dangers lurk in places where unfit humans address/judge worthiness of other unfit humans.
    But, what about the ‘mantle’ and stuff? If you’ve been LDS all of your life like me, then you’ve seen men of differing capacities ply the statutes and dogmas. This is why the brethren feel compelled to remind us to “never speak evil of the Lord’s anointed”. Rather, “we left a human in charge and he’s gonna screw things up once in a while…cut him some slack”. And so it goes according to the traditions of our fathers. Standard operating procedure.
    I get the concept of high standards. The question I have is – how best to motivate/support someone in their pursuit of those standards. The ideas of judgement, punishment, restriction in light of a person’s behavior doesn’t resonate with me. I’m already too self-critical. I punish myself way better than the church ever could…and I’ve got the ulcers to prove it.
    I don’t know how God plans to judge me, but I would posit -neither does anyone else, including my Bishop. Or even the Prophet for that matter. My relationship with God is mine and His. My church has already taught me that I don’t need a mediator besides Jesus Christ. If my behavior gets in the way of my LDS worthiness then I’ll follow the party line, but it doesn’t affect how I see God, or more importantly, how He sees me.

  8. chico78 says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful, challenging post about such an important topic. I haven’t commented here in a few years, but I have Some Thoughts about “worthiness.” (I appreciate how often you use scare quotes in the post.)

    Two things, mainly. First, it’s a terrible word to use the way we do, because it has “worth” or “value” at its root. To be “worthy” is to be full of worth, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that when we declare someone “unworthy,” what they hear is that they’re *worthless*. But how can that possibly be, in light of, for example, D&C 18:10? It doesn’t seem possibly for our worth ever to be diminished in God’s eyes. I think this is especially a problem with young people, and in my calling I try to tell the young men I work with that “worthiness” has nothing to do with their eternal value, and is only useful if they take it as a barometer of readiness or preparation.

    Second, as the OP points out, we’ve developed culturally some strange criteria for what constitutes a “worthiness” violation, with particularly strict norms around purity violations (Word of Wisdom and Law of Chastity). I strongly recommend Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality as a way of rethinking this approach. Beck is a Protestant minister and psychologist who has studied extensively the psychology of disgust, which is activated through purity norms. As indicated on the cover blurb, “wherever we see churches regulating their common life with the idiom of dirt, disgust, and defilement, we find a predictable wake of dysfunction: ruined self-images, social stigma, and communal conflict.”

    Sorry for the long-winded response. Tl;dr you struck a chord. Thanks for a great post.

  9. Your Average Mormon says:

    I knew a man who was having an affair. His wife knew it, his girlfriend’s husband knew it, several close friends (like my husband and I) knew it, and our bishop knew it. Our bishop was firmly on the side of the wife, but also knew if this man continued his affair that he was going to be excommunicated. He encouraged the man to go to the temple (without his wife). The man hadn’t been since before he began the affair and I think the bishop saw it as a last ditch effort to help this man, even though the man so clearly wasn’t worthy of a temple recommend. Anyway, the man did go but he continued his affair and was excommunicated shortly thereafter.

    I’ve always thought that was an interesting use of the temple. In that case it was supposed to be a place of awareness and repentance for this man, and I thought it more interesting that the bishop didn’t take away this man’s recommend until afterwards, when the man continued his affair.

  10. I remember as youth my teachers and leaders emphasizes the need to be worthy so much that when I read Alma 38 on my own for the first time—“acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times”—it was really jarring. Intentionally or not, my leaders had given me the idea that to be unworthy was something that was unspeakable. And here there was a prophet saying that we had to acknowledge our unworthiness at all times—not just when we’ve messed up and need to repent, but at all times. I think we should emphasize Alma’s teaching more, and I think it would be better to not conflate worthiness with compliance with temple recommend standards. Keeping those standards qualifies us to have a temple recommend, but it doesn’t necessarily make us worthy before God. If we were really worthy ourselves, we wouldn’t need grace; so believing that I’m worthy is damning if it leads me to believe that I’ve “made it”—that I’m done repenting and that I’m worthy now until I break one of the rules and have to repent again.

    My old stake president used to say that temple recommend standards are symbolic: These rules are not themselves the rules make us worthy to be in God’s presence; instead, they are an illustration that as we have to keep the church’s rules to enter the church’s temples, we have to keep Jesus’ commandment to repent and believe in him to enter God’s presence.

  11. “Worthiness” is an elusive concept, and it’s often difficult to see why a seemingly arbitrary standard might be of Eternal Importance. Is someone who enjoys an occasional glass of wine but never drinks to excess really “worthier” than someone who abstains completely? And that line of reasoning can make us less judgemental. One of my past stake presidents liked to say that your ward wasn’t really working unless there were people in sacrament meeting who smelled of smoke.

    But, I think we should not too hastily ignore the potential intrinsic value of these commandments, casually judging Eternal Importance from our limited perspective:
    1) Rebecca mentioned individual spiritual preparation, which I think is one element: we gain spiritually by our ability to act on our faith and firmly commit to principles that we believe in (and in that regard, it probably doesn’t matter that much what the principle is).
    2) The things we are asked to do or not do create *patterns* for our lives. For example, ideally, we wouldn’t need home or visiting teaching programs, because we’d fully accept our covenant obligation to bear one another’s burdens, mourn with those who mourn, etc. But, we don’t, so we have a pattern. The program as an end in itself isn’t very meaningful, but the program as a pattern to show us what a Christlike life looks like could by VERY meaningful.
    3) By being willing to consider the possibility that these “worthiness” standards come from a source beyond us, then we can learn something through pondering the reasons for them. I’m very hesitant to comment on why I think a particular commandment was given, because what I think I understand may very well just be the reasons for ME. But in many instances, I feel that I’ve come to understand something about why it might be more than just herding everyone into the same moral corral.

  12. FWIW, the only way the modern, compulsory version of the Word of Wisdom makes sense to me is as an expression of solidarity with recovering addicts—a way to bear one another’s burdens.

  13. Franklin says:

    Have you ever considered that breaking the Word of Wisdom is not a sin considered serious enough to have to confess to a bishop? It isn’t. So, in theory, I could drink a beer on Saturday, feel some remorse about my weakness, repent by confessing to God in prayer, and on Sunday honestly answer the temple recommend question that I keep the Word of Wisdom. There’s no time limit associated with this commandment (or most others). Our repentance is our own business, and the Lord’s. We all mess up. All the time. “Worthiness” is a strange concept. If you look at the definition of the word, Mormons put their own unique spin on it. We equate it with some minimal standard of righteous living. But that’s not what the word means at all. If someone asks you if you are worthy, you should ask, “Worthy of what?”

  14. nobody, really says:

    A week before my parents were scheduled for temple sealing, the Stake President called my inactive maternal grandfather and asked him to come to the church. They sat down together and the Stake President wrote out a temple recommend for my grandfather without so much as a single question. Handed it over, then said, “I’ll leave it to you what you do with that, and what you’ll do about your coffee habit.”

    My grandfather switched to Pepsi and attended the wedding. Later in life, he served a full-time mission and became a temple worker.

    My mom’s family gives that Stake President a lot of credit – my grandfather could have sat back and stewed for the rest of his life over how he couldn’t see his own daughter get married, but took a very unorthodox approach to the problem.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    nobody, what a great story. My impression is that this sort of thing used to be a lot more common decades ago, when your bishop might be an Idaho farmer. It’s too bad that that kind of grace has become so rare.

  16. your food allergy is fake says:

    Not just Idaho farmers, a very similar story is told by none other than Boyd K. Packer, who recalled asking an inactive father to perform an ordination for his son. The experience was apparently a watershed moment for the two of them. In the same talk is an instance of Harold B. Lee doing a similar thing, telling a young man to go home and have his father give him a blessing before he heads off to war, despite that father not knowing how to do it and probably “unworthy” by usual criteria. There are no shortage of tales of Pharisaical obsession with worthiness, but we should also share these counterexamples that show a strong strain of mercy and grace in our culture.

  17. I’ve been turned off of the idea of using the Word of Wisdom (and other cut-and-dry rules like it) as a barrier to worthiness for a long time now. It’s this hedge we’ve created for ourselves, a way to tell ourselves that we must be good because we follow this one, hard and fast rule. Not only good, we must be better than [insert person/group here] because we follow this one rule. I’ve known too many people who have slowly slid away from the Church because of problems following the Word of Wisdom and I’ve known too many Mormons who use it as a cudgel (in that nice, patronizing way Mormons can have) to browbeat people into conforming or else.

    Worthiness should be more than following a set of arbitrary rules. It should be a constant endeavor. I think we’ve stumbled away from the good that the temple recommend and worthiness questions were intended to fill. I think we need to have an honest accounting of the good and ill that they do and then do better.

  18. I’m not a big fan of the “show them what they’re missing and they’ll go straight” type of story. Feels too much like the (unfortunately many) times people who have been abusers or done other serious misdeeds being placed in leadership or sent to the Temple, causing more harm. It’s great when the exception is made and everyone lives happily ever after, but I wonder at how often that exception is given and advantage taken.

    WoW I’d be willing to stretch on. Other things, not so much.

  19. The specific worthiness requirements are rooted in a tradition that is seemingly arbitrary. You can drink Red Bulls all day long and consider yourself temple worthy, but one sip of the devil’s bean juice (coffee) and you’re all of a sudden unworthy and in dire need of some major repentance. How the worthiness traditions emerged is rather complex and not entirely understood. The typical believer doesn’t think much about the origins of the tradition and whether or not such traditions are deeply rooted in what was said by a prophet or in the scriptures. They figure that these are what the culture dictates and is supported by authority, so God must have said so at some point.

    The modern LDS leaders do their best to maintain the tradition. They know that they lead an organization whose legitimacy is rooted in traditions and know that their job is to get followers to adhere closely to them. They don’t think much about the validity of those traditions unless a particular tradition is causing rifts within the rank and file and could possibly make the LDS church look so bad that it could seriously hamper its ability to maintain tax-exempt status and gain and maintain followers.

    Modern leaders use the temple recommend as a tool to keep the core membership strong. They know that the Mormon corridor is one of the most important areas to maintain a vibrant membership. It provides the bulk of its leadership and really is the center of operations for the entire LDS church. A hollowing out of the core could lead to collapse of the LDS church as we know it. The temple recommend causes the membership to think twice about doubting and making demands for change. It induces a motivation by guilt that the LDS leaders so desperately rely to make their organization run.

  20. whizzbang says:

    an aside something i’ve seen with some frequence is the solidarity practice of not going into the Temple to witness a Temple sealing. So, if the bride’s parents aren’t members and the groom’s parents are then as n act of solidarity, they both don’t go in, just the couple. So, it’s, at least what i’ve seen, had some good come from it, we all go in or all not at all. We may not be there for the wedding but we can all be there for the marriage, member or not

  21. God bless your questioning soul, RJ.

  22. Thanks for the shout-out to my post, Rebecca!

    You ask good questions, and in so doing, you reveal the line of thought that ultimately caused me to reject Mormonism in favor of orthodox Christianity. The problem with Mormonism is that as long as it has a worthiness system at all, its teachings are explicitly contrary to the gospel.

    I believe the entire temple complex to be wholly unnecessary (why, when the veil of the temple was rent in two at Christ’s death, do the Mormons feel the need to put it back up again?), but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is somehow necessary.

    You say, “It makes some sense, given the covenants one makes in the temple, to have some ‘worthiness’ requirements around receiving one’s endowment.”

    The problem is that this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. God does not make covenants with human beings based on worthiness—God never has. One only has to read the Old Testament (and not through the lens of terrible Mormon Sunday School manuals) to understand this. Genesis is full of liars and tricksters and family dysfunction, yet God chooses Abraham’s family anyway. Moses is a murderer. David is an adulterer. Solomon is an idolater. Yet these are God’s chosen leaders and anointed ones. Israel is fickle and rebellious and hard-hearted and unjust, yet she remains God’s covenant people. The narrative over and over and over again in scripture is that it is *God,* not humanity, who keeps the covenant: the covenant is sure, not because of human obedience, but in spite of inevitable human *disobedience,* because God is gracious. We can rely on God’s promises because it is God who has promised us mercy and salvation, and God is unfailingly trustworthy. The moment it becomes up to *us* to keep the covenant, we are doomed, because we are unfailingly UN-trustworthy, and those who are able to be honest with themselves about that will fall into despair in a worthiness system.

    This is why so many Mormons struggle with what you so astutely noticed: feelings of unworthiness and shame, because they can’t measure up. And they’re not wrong. But human beings have never measured up. The gospel is good news because God forgives us and pursues us and loves us and heals us despite our unworthiness, not because of it.

    Your point, again, about feeling the presence of the Spirit in a state of “unworthiness” is perceptive. That’s because it is utter blasphemy to say that God abandons us when we sin. What kind of “loving” God leaves us in the moments we most have need? God most certainly *does* inhabit “dirty temples” because there are no other kind. Or, I should say more precisely, we are made clean by the grace of Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy exchanges our uncleanliness for his cleanliness, and are vessels of the Spirit in and through Christ, not because of our own goodness.

    So you’re right to question the worthiness construct, because Mormonism gets it exactly backward. And as long as the LDS church continues to teach it and ask these interview questions, they are not teaching the gospel but something else entirely.

    Grace and peace to you.

  23. The worthiness question extends beyond the temple. Holding a temple recommend is important to my marriage – I struggle with a lot of things about the church right now and I am the only member of my family still active after the exclusion policy hit. Keeping a temple recommend is my way of telling my husband that I am committed to the church. It is important to him even though we hardly ever go to the temple. I have to renew it in a few months and I am stressed about answering honestly – I struggle to attend meetings and my faith has been in flux for the last two years.

    Beyond its impact on families and marriages, if you work for the church it can also affect your employment. So there is a lot going on there.

  24. I love the thoughts you raise here.Long time listener, first time caller. I’ve always been a big fan of the temple as a place to try and reinforce good habits and (hopefully) push bad habits or behaviors out. A carrot rather than the stick. One of my best friends and old mission companions, on the other hand, dreaded the temple. It wasn’t a place of comfort to him, and I don’t think it was because he was unworthy (met the checklist) or anything.

    I think worthiness extends to the psychology of how we view our callings in the church as well. I’ve been struggling with being a leader in the branch that we’ve been attending–I’m emotionally drained, and spiritually empty. I have nothing left to give, but I still feel racked with guilt when I’m not doing home visits or attending ALL of the early morning pre-church meetings. If I ask for a release, I have this fear that God is going to give me a giant frownie face and be disappointed in me, that I’ve failed somehow, that I’m unworthy. But I know if I keep working at this calling when I have nothing to give, I’ll eventually hate everyone and go inactive. Worthiness has just clouded my perception of my relationship with God.

  25. I think there are two really good reason for worthiness requirements into a sacred place.

    1) If we accept the idea that what is happening there is spiritual advanced compared to the mundane world that it has been separated out from, it seems to follow that a degree of preparation would be in order. What good would it be to send in a person just learning addition and subtraction into a calculus class? Not only would it likely not do them any good, the kind of confusion they might experience could be very discouraging and unnerving, i.e. harmful. Being spiritually prepared for more spiritual advanced learning/practices makes sense to me in this regard.

    2) In places or events we consider important – an element of respect for that is expected. You wouldn’t send someone unclean, disheveled, and smelling of alcohol to a wedding, funeral, or formal event – it would feel very disrespectful. Therefore out of respect for the sacred space of the temple and the sacred things that take place there, we also wouldn’t knowingly send in people who are spiritually unkempt or unclean, as it would be disrespectful to what it is.

    Having membership and “screening” interview requirements is a way to do our best to honor and respect these two elements.

  26. There’s a Duck Tales episode where Scrooge McDuck gets a hold of a harp that sings out “You are fibbing” whenever it hears a lie. I kind of would like that if our Bishops had that during interviews.
    Take the brother in the example. Perhaps he’s completely unaware that his behavior is considered as abusive. If no one corrects him on it, he’ll probably not change. But if he was in an interview, and the appropriate question was asked, and he responded with the “correct” answer, and then the Bishop received a loud and clear impression that it wasn’t true, the Bishop could inform the brother of that; and delay renewing the recommend until the situation had been corrected.
    Perhaps it’s something like the thorn in Paul’s side. God might see that this person has this thorn, and is given some slack for it, but someone while someone else might have transgressed in the same area, it’s not their thorn and need to clear that transgression up before meeting some worthiness bar.
    We know that perfection is asked of us, but we can’t reach perfection. So we have to deal with this fuzzy line of worthiness. Short of perfect, but close enough that God can start treating you differently. Does virtue garnish my thoughts unceasingly? No. Often enough? I hope so.

  27. There are things I wish were different in the temple, things that rankle, but all in all, the temple represents a whole other dimension of my gospel experience that enables me to endure all the rest. Without it, SLC would loom too large, proportionately, and I don’t know how much I could bear. It’s so desperately important that I get in there, and that I get in there often, like once a week or so. (Not saying that would work for everyone else, but I need it, or I’m a goner.) I don’t smoke or drink or mistreat family or any of those kinds of things, but I DO have to do some serious soul-searching when it comes to the “Do-you-sustain” questions. They’re on the list, so I guess they have to do with worthiness, right? I go in knowing what I mean by “sustain,” although I’m sure most of my interviewers over the decades have held to a different definition of the word.

    (Frost said that poetry is what’s lost in translation, and there’s definitely some kind of difficult poetry floating around above all our heads, not least of all in bishops’ and stake presidents’ offices.)

    I clearly need to repent of my judgment of all those men–including many very prominent men in the church–who lie and cheat and steal like the devil in their businesses, but who walk out with a temple recommend, obviously having said, “Why yes, I AM honest in all my dealings.” But if I’m critical of those bast– . . . sorry, those brethren, then I’m being a big fat hypocrite. They’ve worked things out in their brains and their souls, just as I have.

    And how delusional am I? I think I’m being honest, but am I kidding myself? I’m actually glad, jader3rd, that there’s not a magic harp in the bishop’s or stake president’s office.

  28. whizzbang says:

    One thing that is difficult for me is I when I was a youth I got informal probation for 3 months for blacking out at a dance, the Bishop told me “it doesn’t look good for a priest to pass out at a dance on friday and bless the sacrament on sunday” I only passed out because we fed the Elders that night and they and my Mom told me not to eat much as you don’t want cramps so I didn’t. That jaded me to say the least, because I knew numerous people that got people pregnant and nothing disciplinary wise happened to them. Like, I got 3 months no sacrament for this and they do that and nothing happens to them? I know nothing happened to them because pregnancy is not an exactly a private affair and people do talk. So, I guess since then I feel bad for my stuff, nothing of which is like getting someone pregnant out of wedlock 6 months off the mission mind you but for me the days of feeling uber guilty and feeling like you must confess to the Bishop are Bishop are long, long over and i’d just as rather deal with them myself or see a therapist if I need to. If nothing happens to the big stuff then my stuff, which is smaller, can’t be that bad

  29. LatamGirl says:


    Great point about the solidarity aspect with respect to the Word of Wisdom. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms; I’ve always focused on the “weakest of the Saints” aspect. In my case, the one time I had alcohol, it was on accident (mimosa in a paper cup. I thought it was straight up OJ!) but it would likely be my downfall if it weren’t for my commitment to obey the Word of Wisdom. I’ve seen too many lives ruined by substance abuse and addiction and I’m forever grateful that as long as I carry on in this one little aspect of our faith, that’s not gonna be my issue (potential future terrible chronic pain management issues aside). I appreciate the focus on the evil designs of conspiring men in the last days. The incessant marketing and advertising increases the appeal to a great degree

  30. felixfabulous says:

    Great post and comments. What am I missing? Didn’t Jesus come to a religion obsessed with rules and tell them there were other things that were more important like loving God and loving our neighbor? Doesn’t the Lord tell us in D&C 89 that the WOW is not a commandment but some good general advice? We seem to be missing some big ideas that are hiding in plain sight.

  31. Happy Hubby says:

    Rebecca – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have also been thinking of “worthiness” as of late and how it seems to almost be saying “are you worth anything?” The implication is that if you sin, you lose worth. I look at my kids and when they screw up, I don’t feel they are “worth” any less and in fact if they learn from their screw ups, I could almost make the point they are worth more as they are wiser. But I don’t even like saying that. They are WORTH something right when they came into this world. Maybe I am getting hung up on the word, but it does bother me.

    In reading your discussion seemed to (appropriately) focus on being “worthy” to be in the temple. It gave me a bit of a thought if we as a church are worshiping the temple more than our relationship with Christ. Hmm. I have to think on that one a bit more.

  32. I LOVED Katie L. Article when I read it a few weeks ago and shared parts in RS because what she said about Grace is so important.

    I think people should educate themselves to know why and how these became rules when writing on the topic.

  33. I also wonder if worthiness has to do with trajectory. Let’s say there’s a calling in the ward and the Bishop has it narrowed down to two people. Both are committing the same sin. One grew up fully active in an active family and has only recently started down a different path. The other was technically baptized as a child, and grew up in a family which was usually the wards “project” family. Now that they’re in their mid 20’s they’ve realized that they want religion in their life and are becoming the only active member of their extended family.
    Is one more worthy of the calling than the other? Is one more deserving? Would the calling help one more than other?

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