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Cover image via The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints YouTube Channel.
Sincere mortals have one central challenge in mortality: figuring out what to do with our persistent badness. We strive to be good and regularly fall short. We seek to be holy but we have holes in the knees of our jeans and stains on our elbows. This burdensome fact of mortality haunts our journey, as it haunted Nephi of old: “When I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:19).
The popular American treatment for persistent feelings of inadequacy has long been the self-esteem movement. We focus on our inherent worth and try to ignore or deny our weakness and shortcomings. “I am good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” This approach has always been dishonest at best. Something must be done with the badness; affirmations can only persuade the weak minded.
Some Christian theologians have built their doctrinal structures on an assumption of human badness. The themes in this tradition are depravity, corruption, perversion, and fundamental evil.
Unfortunately, advocates of this view (e.g., St. Augustine) have often applied God’s irresistible grace to deliver only a select few from eternal torment resulting from their sinfulness. This remedy makes agency an immediate casualty—our choices have no impact on our outcome. This is a bad state with an irrational remedy.
Other people justify bad behavior by celebrating meaninglessness. “The dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its meaninglessness” (Martin Esslin). There is no sin because
there is no law. Nothing means anything (see 2 Nephi 2:13). We live painfully and greet death with characteristic ambivalence. We live without meaning and die without purpose.
Amusement is another alternative. We distract ourselves from our quandary by dangling before us this bauble and that entertainment. When the novelty wears off, we shop for more toys. We live on the hedonic treadmill. It takes great discipline to keep this approach from collapsing in a heap of meaninglessness.
There is an approach that is especially popular among earnest Latter-day Saints. We emphasize our chosenness and divine nature. We work very hard to keep sin away while we strive to be good and serve well. Clearly it is working for Sister So-and-so or President So-and-so. This provides some temporary relief… but it leaves a gnawing spiritual desperation at the core. We don’t seem to be able to do as well as the So-and-so’s and no matter how hard we try, our persistent misdeeds are too real to be ignored.
Can you see the problem here? Of all the approaches to get rid of badness, not one of them includes the One with the power to get rid of it permanently and transform us into better people.
Most of my life I was the dutiful boy: Aaronic priesthood bearer, missionary, BYU student, husband, and father. Some people may have judged me to be a pretty good Joe. I was aware of my lapses here and faults there but hoped that time and effort might subdue them.
In due course I was called to be a bishop. It seemed that the ward divided into three groups. Those bright-faced earnest strugglers like me who seemed to be making progress. Those wanderers whom we spent our time trying to reactivate. And then there were the sinners.
There was the prison parolee who was not meeting the conditions of the court (that included being current on his bills) and came to me for welfare assistance. There was the woman who had
fallen unceremoniously into grim and unsatisfying immorality. There was the couple who quit the Church and began to teach against it.
We tried to rescue these fallen ones but usually had little success. How can we get them to change their courses? How can those driving south ever hope to get north? Even now I am mining those experiences when I was bishop for new understanding. I remember the woman who confessed such a variety of misdeeds, betrayal, and corruption that I felt absolutely no hope for her soul. After spilling out her tale of woe she got to the dreaded question: “Bishop, what can I do?” Fortunately, the Lord took over. He delivered specific counsel, words of encouragement, and clear statements of love to that desperate woman. I was dumbfounded. I simply had no idea how much the Lord loves His children. How can He cherish such stained and fallen ones? How can He bring order to such spiritual chaos? What had she done to draw such grace?
In the course of my service, my favorite words became, “Bishop, can we talk when you have some time?” I came to know that when people become sick of sin and finally cried out in desperation, God delivered His greatest miracles. I was blessed to be His messenger
for some of those miracles.
I wish I could say that in my adulthood I have been only a spectator of sin—using my opera glasses to observe the drama and tragedy from a safe distance. It is not true. I have been guilty of pride, meanness, thoughtlessness, selfishness, dishonesty, and a variety of sins of omission and commission that have hindered and buffeted my soul.
The burdens have been too great for my “I’ll-just-try-a-little-harder” optimism. Self-sufficiency was crushed by reality. I am fallen. No matter how hard I try, I do not measure up. Sometimes I cannot even keep up the veneer of civility. Even decades of trying hard will not transform me into the man I yearn to be.
The fish discover water last. Why did I think that I knew Nephi but had not noted that his self-loathing was transformed into heavenly rejoicing when he acknowledged the One in whom
he trusted (2 Nephi 4)? Why was it so late in life when I realized the significance of Alma feeling crushed by sin to being vaulted into the heavenly courts by calling upon Jesus (Alma 36)? Why did the Savior’s declaration of righteousness in the story of the publican elude my understanding for decades (Luke 19)? How did I miss Jesus’ frank forgiveness granted to the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7)? How could I have missed Jesus?
The scriptures became full of surprises as I saw His power in a very personal way. It seemed that everything was turned upside down. The first are last. The last are first. Stained sinners became my heroes because they found the humility to throw themselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save.
I always thought my objective was to be righteous. Unfortunately, I have never been able to do it. Now I see my objective is to follow the only One who is righteous. I still grieve over my faults, sins, and weakness. I still work assiduously to avoid sin. But I do not look to myself as the one who can fix weakness and sin—I am not God. I look to Him who is able to do His work. My job is to become humble. His commitment is to perfect the humble.
Christ is not a decorative touch on our lifetime resolve and finest efforts. He is our only hope. As I have discovered that central fact, everything has become new. I comprehend sacred mysteries because He is my light. I accomplish things I could never do alone because I welcome Him into my life. I feel a peace that passeth knowledge because He is my comfort.
So the solution of what to do with my persistent badness is quite different from anything I had expected. I do not conquer it. I do not ignore it. I gather it up and give it to Him. He takes it away. He helps me be better. He transforms me. My greatest discovery was Jesus!
President Benson described the transformative power of Jesus Christ when he said,
“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations”,
Christmas Devotional, Dec. 1986)
The greatest discovery each of us will ever make in mortality is the discovery of Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done and will continue to do for us, and the reach of his love and everlasting kindness. Every time I bring Him into my life, I am better for it. It is He who can transform me. It is He who is my only hope. It is He who is the beginning and the end—not only for the world but for me personally.
Thanks to Annie Foster for her excellent editing of this article.