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I remember being perplexed as a kid about one question in particular. How likely was it that I would get in trouble? I often teased my siblings and stole candy from the pantry. Yet I wanted to be a good boy. If I simply avoided a hearty embrace of evil and kept trying to be better, would I do okay? Or would it require focused and sustained effort to be a good person and avoid trouble? Would it ultimately take more than I had to become a faithful disciple?
Most of my life it didn’t feel that I had really found an answer to my question. I went along trying to do good things. Yet I also made plenty of mistakes. I wanted to believe that I was a good guy but didn’t know what to do with all those foolish weaknesses and mistakes.
The challenge came into sharper relief when I did things that were stupendously stupid—even evil. At such times I knew that it was not enough to plod along with Wally’s self-development program. That was never going to make me into a true disciple. I just kept making mistakes. It seemed quite impossible that I would ever be truly good.
In desperation, I turned to the scriptures for an example of becoming good. My mind went to Alma. He and the sons of Mosiah went about trying “to destroy the church of God” (Alma 36:6). Yet he was transformed. He went from utter misery (Alma 36:12-16) to inexpressible joy (Alma 36:19-23). What changed him? What made that dramatic difference?
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: 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 36:17-18)
Alma remembered what he had been taught about Jesus. As his mind had the thought, his heart cried out for mercy. He threw himself on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save. And everything changed. He was a new creature. A new creature!
It was not long before I had a chance to test Alma’s method. When I found myself being wicked again, I followed Alma’s example. I found a quiet place to be alone. I laid down on the floor face down. I cried out: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
I was shocked by the result. For some reason I expected that Jesus would do what any normal parent would do. I expected Him to patiently nod and sigh: “I wish you didn’t keep making so many mistakes. But I do love you. I will work on you. There will be a timeout imposed on you but eventually we may be able to save you.”
But that’s not what He said. It’s not what He did. I said the words, and He immediately engulfed me in His love. I was so confused by that! How could He embrace someone so foolish and tainted? How could holiness embrace sinfulness? In that moment, He taught me: “You make yourself humble, and I make you clean. Once you are clean, I can come and dwell with you.” Suddenly I understood Alma’s exultation:
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy. (Alma 36:20-21)
There is a terrible tension between our desire for holiness and our implacable fallenness. When we run up against the really big things in life, the big trials, the big challenges, we find out how very insufficient we are. Nephi, in his great psalm, teaches us:
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)
If we trust in the arm of flesh, we will never be fully changed. We yearn for something better—something only heaven can provide. If we turn wholeheartedly to Him, He gives us His goodness in place of our fallenness.
Fortunately, “all of God’s faculties, all of his inclinations are poised and bent on blessing at the slightest provocation. Oh, how God loves to be merciful and bless his children! Perhaps that is his greatest joy. It is the inherent quality that drives him with tireless vigilance to save his children” (p. 313, Tad R. Callister, 2000, Infinite Atonement. Deseret Book)
There is only One who can fix us. And there is only one way of accessing that infinite reservoir of grace: To throw ourselves on His mercy. As long as we see Him as the frosting on our cake, we cannot be saved. His is “the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men” (Moses 6:52). He is the cake, the frosting, and so much more.
Sure, we should cheerfully do all we are able to do. But then we must “stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17).
I now cry out for mercy not just when I make remarkable mistakes but every single day.
I discovered that crying out for mercy is a common scriptural pattern: The people taught by King Benjamin (Mosiah 4:2). The brother of Jared (Ether 3). The cry of the blind man (Luke 18:35-43). The publican who was justified (Luke 18:13). King David begging for mercy repeatedly (Psalms).
I can see why calling on His mercy is the scriptural pattern. It changes our hearts and souls.
I think I finally have my answer to my childhood question—is it hard or easy to be good? The answer: It is impossible for us to make ourselves good.
“Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:26-27)
We cannot be good. But He can purify us. And He yearns to. Going to Him crying for mercy is the way. Cheerfully doing all we can do is required. Brigham Young said it this way: “It requires all the atonement of Christ, the mercy of the Father, the pity of angels and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to be with us always, and then to do the very best we possibly can, to get rid of this sin within us” (Journal of Discourses 11:301).
I am eternally grateful to the One who gladly does for me what I can never do for myself. “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17).
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The book features a wonderfully illustrated, joyful story that helps children to learn about gratitude for all of God’s creations and teaches them that they are each God’s most beloved creation. The book would make an excellent holiday gift for all the special people in your life!
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Thanks to Claudia Conner for her insightful suggestions for this article.