I remember as a child wondering whether life was hard or easy. Could I with a nominal effort breeze through and get a heavenly reward? Or would I face sorrow and suffering, and die having fallen short? Was there hope for a boy who was sometimes mischievous, inconsiderate, and often selfish? I worried.
We say that the gospel is good news. But it seemed like it was primarily good news for those who were better people than I. I argued with my brother, teased my sister, and resisted doing chores. What place is there in heaven for a boy like me?
Childhood worry turned into adult pessimism. I really loved the gospel and most church meetings, but I just kept doing bad things. I hadn’t murdered anyone or robbed any banks, but I was quite sure that contention, selfishness, excess, and weakness did not put me on the royal road to glory.
I kept trying. God waited patiently.
A mission taught me to rejoice in God’s magnificence. I stood in awe. I testified gladly of our amazing Father and His perfect plan. And I still grieved over my shortcomings.
Marrying the kindest person on the planet and having beloved children are inestimable gifts from a generous Father. But the demands of family life only underscored my selfishness; I preferred to read a book over spending precious moments tucking my children into bed. I was often thoughtless and unkind with Nancy. I was no saint.
God seriously threatened my gloomy perspective one Sunday afternoon when I was serving as a bishop. A woman came to see me whose life was a wreck. She had been abused and had abused. She had violated everything sacred. As she told her story, my anxiety grew. I saw no hope for her. I had no encouraging counsel for her. But God did. When she finished her grim tale and asked, “Bishop, what would the Lord have me do?” I was shocked to hear myself say, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what they were. Yet, as I pulled a piece of paper from the desk drawer, God gave three specific pieces of counsel for her. They were practical and encouraging. They were hopeful and loving. And I was thunderstruck. I realized that God was not just offering hopeful counsel to a troubled daughter but was also giving a new understanding of His heart to a befuddled son.
God wasn’t finished with me. I continued to feel desperate to be a more temperate, wise, kind, and pure disciple. And I often fell short. I remember a time of particular despair when my aspirations and my actions seemed worlds apart. My many efforts at self-improvement across many decades had failed to make me the person I yearned to be. In anguish, I prostrated myself on the floor and tried Alma’s plea: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18). I immediately felt consumed in His love. I didn’t understand! How could a vile person call on Jesus and promptly be filled with the divine? Aren’t we supposed to get a fatherly chiding and suffer in extended timeout before enjoying His embrace?
No. Nope. Wrong. When we turn wholeheartedly to Him, He runs to us and embraces us. That is what Jesus has been trying to teach us with the parable of the prodigal son and a thousand other scriptural invitations. That is what He is trying to teach us whenever we turn to Him.
The capstone lesson for me came when God shed light on a familiar passage. Once again, God upended all expectations. Here is how I have come to understand His answer to my lifelong question. Can I make it? Is there any hope for someone who has made so many mistakes? My expectation had been that, standing before the billions of earth’s inhabitants, we would watch the video of my life and I would cower in embarrassment. After such humiliation, hell would surely seem like a relief.
Of course, my expectation was completely wrong. Jesus describes what will actually occur when we are presented to the Father—by Him (see D&C 45: 3-5). Here is His description of that scene together with some commentary in brackets.
Listen to me because I am your advocate with the Father, and I am pleading your cause before Him—
[Jesus starts by promising that during the final judgment He will not be on the other side of the table inventorying and calculating all of our failings. He will not be shaking His head in dismay and disgust. No! He is our advocate. He will be standing beside us, pleading our cause to Father. Consider His words:]
Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin,
in whom thou wast well pleased;
[He is putting Himself on the line in our behalf! He is presenting His merits to win our acquittal!]
Behold the blood of thy Son which was shed,
the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
[Wow! Jesus knows that nothing could touch His Father’s heart like reminding Him of the terrible sacrifice He made. Jesus is not playing! He is bringing everything He has to plead our cause to Father!]
Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.
[What??? Where is the humiliating life review with horrific mortification? No! Instead of reviewing our fallenness, Jesus present His merits! He gives them to us because we “believe on [His] name”! Just because we kept trying and kept turning to Him and kept hoping that He could do something with us, He presents His merits in place of our tawdry wandering. That is truly beauty for ashes!]
It turns out that the gospel of Jesus Christ truly is good news. Unbelievably good! When we keep trying, keep struggling, keep turning to Him, keep calling out for Him, He takes our shambles of lives and sanctifies them through the power of His redemption. He makes us one with Father.
Phew. So, I no longer fret that I will never be “good enough to make it.” I keep trying. And I call on Him not only when I make inglorious mistakes but also every day. Every day I ask for His grace and mercy. And I have come to trust that He fully intends to redeem me in spite of my abundant failings.
And every day I look for His goodness and grace. I realize that my mortal landscape is littered with gems. I want to notice them, record them, and thank Him for His abundant mercies.
I still make far too many mistakes. But I know to what source I must look for a remission of my sins. I know the process of renewal. I know the redemptive heart of Jesus and our beloved Father.
You will find your own path. You will have your own pattern of reluctance and resistance. But, if you will let Him, God will find a way to your heart. He intends to save you. “His relentless redemptiveness exceeds [our] recurring wrongs” (Neal A. Maxwell).
And that is good news!
You might be interested in my new book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. It discusses the ways the gospel of Jesus Christ and good research can help us have better relationships with ourselves, our spouses, and our children. Get a copy for you or a loved one at your Latter-day Saint bookseller or Amazon!
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article!