Sinners, all

April 13, 2004 | 13 comments
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I have some strange childhood memories. One of the most vivid is my baptism day. October 31, 1981. Unfortunately, the memories of the baptism itself are somewhat hazy, but what I remember clearly is this feeling of being completely cheated by happenstance. I had an October birthday, and our stake did primary baptisms on the last Saturday of the month. In 1981 that meant I was getting baptized on Halloween, and there lay the problem. In my eight year old wisdom, I knew that I’d be pure and sin free upon getting baptized, but I thought that the chances of getting through an entire Halloween without sinning were slim to none. I was mad that the other kids weren’t baptized on so tempting a day, and therefore their “cleanliness” would last much longer than mine. That just was not fair, in fact, it was so not fair that I distinctly remember the feeling 23 years later.

I’d like to think that my understanding of baptism and the atonement is much more sophisticated now, but honestly, there are things I just don’t understand. I can live with questions. I think that ambiguity forces us to search and think, and I appreciate the opportunity to use my mind as well as my spirit in my attempts at eternal progression. But here’s a question that I would love to discuss with the group, because I’ve never been fully satisfied with any answer I’ve come up with. How do was practically apply the atonement, specifically the process of repentance, to our lives which are filled with small, possibly unnoticed transgressions?

Again, in younger days, I was wondering how I could reconcile what I knew was the need to repent of all of my sins, with the fact that I couldn’t remember them all. I asked my dad if we had to repent and be forgiven of every one of our sins, and he said yes. That was pretty deflating, because I was pretty sure I’d never catch up. So I started these blanket prayers at night: “Please forgive me for everything I’ve done wrong today.” (Had I been a lawyer then, I would have asked for retro-active application…back to 10/31/81–the fateful Halloween…)

As I matured(?) in the gospel, it occured to me that perhaps the process of change was the most important one. Was my eye single to the glory of God? Was my heart intent on improving? As my life progressed, was I, line upon line, receiving His image in my countenance? Well….I guess I’m trying. But my life is still filled with those small sins. I take my blessings for granted, I’m prideful, I don’t always keep the Sabbath day holy, I cuss at people who cut me off in the morning commute, I gossip, I don’t magnify my calling, I “forget” to fast etc. etc. etc. If I’m really struggling with something, or it’s interfering with my life (like harboring ill feelings toward someone) then I work on it, repent, and then sadly, forget the lesson and do it again. We could all make our own lists, and they would probably look a lot the same. To use a common metaphor, these are all tiny “spots”, but if I don’t repent, they are keeping me from a perfect cleanness. They are holding me back.

How do we apply the universal atonement to our lives when we are so flawed we can’t even keep up with the repenting. Is a general shift for the positive good enough? Does the cleansing power of taking the sacrament weekly apply if we aren’t even thinking about, or recognizing, what we’ve done wrong? How do we access the Savior’s grace for the sum of our small failings?

13 Responses to Sinners, all

  1. Jim F. on April 13, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    I don’t know that this will be helpful, but for me the most important thing that changed in my understanding of repentance was when I realized that it meant becoming different. I distinctly remember when I began to pray, not that I would be forgiven for a particular transgression–though I certainly wanted that–but that I would be taught how to be different than I was. My prayer was occasioned by a particular problem, but it was more a prayer that I might become someone different than it was a prayer that my particular sin no longer count against me or that I be given the power to overcome that problem.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on April 13, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    Jim has succinctly expressed, I think, the single most important function of the atonement: through the extension of His grace, it makes us into someone new, or at least invites us to become such. You’re right that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to repent “when we are so flawed we can’t even keep up with the repenting.” The only solution that doesn’t make a mockery of repentence is to understand that it actually probably has little to do with wiping away our flaws as they occur; it has to do with our becoming someone different, someone who isn’t flawed. That won’t (perhaps can’t) happen in mortality, but nonetheless I think there is more sense of growth in asking the Lord to help us put off the old and put on the new, rather than asking Him to forgive and patch up what we already have.

  3. Thom on April 14, 2004 at 9:47 am

    While the language of the gospel often evokes a sense of careful accounting–that all of our deeds, good and bad are being recorded in a book in heaven, that we will stand to account for our deeds in this life–I find it very hard to believe that the Lord’s accounting of our sins is so nit-picky and detailed that he will one day say something to us like “sure you truly repented of some big sins and allowed me to change your heart, but hey, you forgot the time you lied to your mother when you were 12. Nothing I can do about it. Sorry. You don’t qualify for exaltation.”

  4. Gary Cooper on April 14, 2004 at 11:03 am

    I have often felt, especially after reading a comment on this subject that J. Reuben Clark made years ago, that Thom is right. When we get to the final interview with Jesus Christ, WE may be thinking “Gee, I still have trouble with my Sabbath observance, and my prayers are still sometimes just by rote, etc. I feel so inadequate here.” WE may be thinking that, but the Lord will say, “Sweet child, is that what you see when you look in the mirror? You have not looked carefully. I see that you faithfully taught your children the Gospel, despite such faults, and you stayed true to me, even in the Last Days, when so much threatened and tempted you. There will be plenty of time for you to work on these little failings, and work you will here, but please don’t let that spoil your happiness here in this place of Light. Come, and partake, mingle and converse with all your loved ones, make friends with all those here, and bask in my love. You have a right to be here–I bought that right for you with my blood, and because of your faith in me, I have already made you a different person than the one who first entered the baptismal font, even if you cannot see it. You will yet be more different in the ages to come, and one day you will be like me, and will no longer have the worries you do now.”

    This, at least for me, is the kind of future scenario I try to visualize, and it helps me keep my own little failings in perspective. I do try on a daily basis, really sort of a constant basis, to repent of individual sins as I recognize them, but I also, just in an attempt to be grateful to God and to show faith in Him (if for no other reasons), to always thank Him for the Atonement, and to thank Him for calling me out of the wilderness in 1981 when I joined the church. In any case, when I am asked by other devout Christians, as I frequently am here in Oklahoma, if I know that I am saved, or if I know that I would “go to heaven” if I died today, I can say unequivocally “YES!” Even though I haven’t had my calling and election made sure, I still KNOW that I am walking in the straight and narrow path, and I KNOW that, despite my little failings and sins, I will some day be exalted, if I just continue working and trying and praying and serving, etc. I’m sure I wouldn’t feel such an assurance if I was unworthy of a temple recommend, but this post isn’t addressing sins like adultery or drunkeness or spousal abuse or refusal to tithe–it’s addressing the “little” sins that we all struggle with, even the best of us. Also, I like Jim F.’s idea of asking God to make us different–I hadn’t thought of phrasing it that way in my own prayers. Great post, Karen!

  5. Karen on April 14, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    Thanks so much for all of your comments–I appreciate looking at this in a new way.

    As I was thinking about this post last night I realized that if an Evangelical anti-Mormon happened across our post, this would be a perfect example of what they see as “wrong” with the gospel. In my understanding, they feel that we don’t give merit to the grace of Christ–and instead rely too much on our own selves and works. My response to that is that his grace is everything. Despite my failings, those mentioned above, and the many others, I really do have the opportunity to return and live with God–a truly amazing gift considering our fallen mortal state. I do, however, feel that Christ has no power to change us if we are not willing to change ourselves. By laying all the burden upon him, we would be misusing, or not using, his gift. We cannot be passive participants in our own exaltation–our dedication and our broken hearts are mandatory precedential conditions. I think, however, that there is not enough discussion in the church about change, grace, repentance, and how it all ties into gospel living.

  6. Ryan Bell on April 14, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    I wonder if anyone else, while struggling mightily in prayer to gain the structurally corrective blessings of the atonement, feels the awkwardness of praying to the father in Jesus’ name, rather than to the Savior himself? I love Jim’s suggestion that we ask the Lord to help us become a someone new, but I also wonder why I ask Heavenly Father to do this with Jesus’ grace, rather than appealing directly to my benefactor? I hope it’s not too distracting a question– I only ask it because this little awkwardness always comes up while I think over the big questions of applying the atonement in my life, which, happily, this post has caused me to do.

  7. Grasshopper on April 14, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    Heresy alert: I have, at times, felt impressed to privately pray to Jesus directly, and I do not feel that there is anything wrong with it. There are numerous scriptural examples of prayer addressed to Jesus. My public prayers follow the pattern taught by Church leaders.

  8. Jim F. on April 14, 2004 at 5:18 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever prayed to anyone but the Father. Nevertheless, I’m sympathetic to the view that other prayers are possible–if by “prayer” one means something like “request for help” rather than “worship.” I happen to think that the latter form of prayer is more important than the former. However, when we are engaged in the former, I don’t see why we can’t, in principle, ask for help from Jesus, from one of the prophets who has passed on, or from our dead ancestors. We hear people speak of receiving help from those persons. Why couldn’t we ask that help from them, i.e., pray to them? Of course that would put me much closer to the Catholic belief in prayers to saints than many Latter-Day Saints would be comfortable with.

  9. Adam Greenwood on April 14, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Jim,
    I have to agree that asking for help from the noble dead is no more anomalous than asking for help from the living. In either case, the danger is that asking for help from these sources, exclusively, limits relationships with God. Asking for help from these sources, additionally, builds relationships with God and with them.

    I’m not sure if the distinction makes a difference, but I’m more talking about asking a dead person directly for help than I am the Catholic method of asking a Saint to intercede with God for you. Of course, even done my way the dead person is very likely to ask God’s permission to help. Or not; now that I think of it, maybe some of the confusion of this world is related to God letting angels run things and giving them some room for discretion and the making of mistakes.

  10. Jim F. on April 15, 2004 at 2:35 am

    Ryan, isn’t the doctrinal answer that it is ultimately the Father whose work brings about our salvation? He is the benefactor, so we pray to him. he accomplishes his beneficence through the Son, so we pray in the name of the Son.

  11. Adam Greenwood on October 24, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    I guess I’ve come around to the idea that even “praying to the Saints to intercede” can be baptized into the mormon faith, if what one means by it is “asking your ancestors, your departed heroes, and the various angels to pray on your behalf.”

    Like this fellow-
    http://verbumipsum.blogspot.com/2005/10/robert-jenson-on-invoking-saints.html
    -I can’t see any difference between that and asking live people to pray on your behalf. In fact, when we enter our names on the prayer rolls of the temple we are essentially asking people who have moved out of this world to pray for us. Interesting.

  12. annegb on October 24, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    Karen, I have wondered the same thing. Gary cooper, I love that quote. I hope that’s the way it is.

  13. Adam Greenwood on October 25, 2005 at 9:13 am

    Anne GB,

    This is a fairly old thread. We miss Gary Cooper a lot but he doesn’t comment around here anymore, and Karen Hall doesn’t frequently either. Hopefully the come across it some day and see your appreciation. I appreciated what Karen Hall and Gary Cooper had to say too.