Kathryn Olsen is a guest contributor to Meridian Magazine.
One of my defining characteristics is that I am a Bostonian musician. I rode the T to rehearsals at New England Conservatory on most Saturdays, took viola lessons, sang in choirs and when I wasn’t in a musical, I was often in the pit orchestra. Friends knew when I had recitals or auditions and my mother talked me out of joining the varsity softball team because I couldn’t afford to risk breaking fingers months before my senior recital. I took my musical habits as seriously as I took my church callings.
In September 1997, I was required to play a seating audition before my orchestra conductor. I walked into a small practice room in New England Conservatory and found not only Mrs. Sandberg, but also the conductor of the Youth Symphony. He was a man I admired immensely whose orchestra I would have given my sanity to join and he was apparently helping with the seating choices for the Youth Repertory Orchestra that year.
Before I could say a single word or play a single note, my conductor turned to this renowned musician and said, “This is Kathryn Olsen, one of our violists. She will either be flawless or hopeless.”
I tell this story to illustrate a topic that I would rather I had never heard of: cognitive distortion. You may have heard of it in association with mental illness, but that is certainly not the only place where it can have an effect. I have run into it in school, in sports, even in the repentance process. The “flawless or hopeless” line of thinking is one of the distortions described as an all-or-nothing mentality.
Before discussing how this applies to our everyday lives, I’ll share another example of an all-or-nothing idea. As a Gospel Principles teacher, I often broke our class into discussion groups. On one occasion, the Bishop arrived late and I took him on as my discussion partner. The question was, “What do you think the Second Coming will be like?”
“Christ came to this world in humble circumstances with nothiing and grew up despised and rejected of men,” the Bishop pointed out. “At his Second Coming, he will receive all the power and glory he deserves as the risen Messiah and Savior of the World.”
Impressed by this perspective, I asked what mankind deserved at the Second Coming.
“Damnation.” After a moment in which I must have looked alarmed, he added, “which is why we are all in need of the Atonement.”
An Enemy to God
Let me cite a few scriptural references that agree with the Bishop’s first response:
“The unrepentant natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
“The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever.” (Mosiah 3:19)
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god.” (Romans 3:23)
“They that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29)
“They must be damned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it.” (2 Nephi 9:24)
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
All of these scriptures look upon the fallen and unworthy state of mankind. They refer to us as an enemy to god, as blasphemers, as doers of evil. These select phrases, egged on by cognitive distortion, tell us that our efforts are futile and we might as well give up now.
One of the best talks I’ve ever heard on the Atonement is Cree-L Kofford’s allegory, “The Ultimate Inheritance.” He presents us as if at the judgment bar with the natural verdict and sentencing requiring damnation. After laying out that the judge has full disclosure of your indiscretions, he utters this grim pronouncement: “You should know that our adversary is prepared to spend such time, effort and money as is necessary to deprive you of your inheritance… Our adversary brought a motion seeking an order that some of you have already forfeited your rights to your ultimate inheritance and therefore a summary judgment should be entered against you…Citing several of you by name, he said, ‘If these defendants have lived htis long and have not yet taken serious steps to qualify for their ultimate inheritance, why should we waste further time of the court?’”
Our adversary, the great deceiver, makes his living off of convincing us that we might as well give up now. He was the author of the original all or nothing and he took down one third of the host of heaven with him. He would love to have as many people as possible realize their potential as an enemy to god.
To quote Elder Richard G. Scott’s talk, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse,” “Satan…has the extraordinary capacity to lead an individual into blind alleys where the solution to extremely challenging problems cannot be found…Satan will strive to convince you that there is no solution. Yet he knows perfectly well that there is.”
Elder Scott identifies Satan as the “author of all of the destructive outcomes.” In other words, while not every cognitive distortion comes from the devil, he capitalizes on each and every one of them. Elder Scott then pleads with us, “Do not let Satan convince you that you are beyond help.”
Elder Scott’s entire talk addresses the negative feelings that any person who has ever felt fallen and unworthy experienced. Many of these are feelings of guilt for having committed sin, but they can also impair our ability to know when we should feel shame for being a bad person by our nature.
In each of the scriptures that I cited earlier, I left off the disclaimer. One of my favorite gifts as a missionary was an edition of the Spanish Bible that highlighted every promise made to mankind. That Bible was full of red passages reassuring us that salvation is neither a get-rich-quick scheme or an unattainable goal. If we marked the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price or even the General Conference talks with an eye on the promises, I suspect we would run out of red ink very quickly.
So how do we move from enemy of god to remembering that we are children of God? By going back to the crucial word in Mosiah 3:19: Unless. I advise you to go to those earlier scriptures and find the fine print that saves your eternal life. Returning to Elder Kofford’s talk for a moment, he describes our defense attorney: “Humbly, softly, meaningfully, and compellingly, he pled your case…I do remember him saying that man is a little lower than the angels and that the worth of souls is great. In one of his most majestic moments, his eyes filled with compassion and his voice quivering with indignation, he admonished, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
No matter what guilt or shame you feel, either for sins committed or flaws detected, your soul is redeemed with only a few conditions by the same man who thinks of you as a little lower than the angels. That is the single greatest argument in your favor that can be presented.
I hope that when doubts, depression and despair accost you, you will remember that defense on your behalf. I hope that you will take time to remember the unless in every scriptural description of the unatoned man. I will leave you with my favorite Biblical promise:
“When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31)
Kaki Olsen may currently live in Utah Valley, but she will never stop being a Bostonian Mormon. She has been a semi-finalist and finalist in the Mormon Lit Blitz, served a full-time mission in California, published her debut novel in 2016 and will visit her 18th country this year. More information can be found at www.kakiolsenbooks.com.