Worthy?

December 21, 2004 | 22 comments
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We often speak of being worthy. We pray that we may be worthy. We urge each other to be
worthy. Sometimes we recognize that we are not worthy. But what do we mean by “worthy”? I
suspect that the meaning we most often associate with the word is “having worth.” That phrase is
ambiguous.

One can have worth as what one is; presumably we have worth as spirit children of God.
However, since that is a worth we already have, it seems not to be something we can pray to be
or urge others to be, or something we can lose, so it seems not to be the worthiness we seek.

The other side of the ambiguity is that one can have worth by“having merit sufficient to deserve
something.” Perhaps we think of worthiness in that way: if we live a certain way, then we will be
deserving of Christ’s blessings. The problem is that such a way of thinking seems to me to run
counter to many scriptures. Paul’s proof-texting in Romans 3:10-12 comes to mind (he is quoting
from Psalm 14): “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that
understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are
together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Nephi explains (1
Nephi 10:21) “Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye
are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God;
wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.” Everyone but Jesus Christ has sought to do wickedly in
the days of his probation. The result is, as Mosiah says (Mosiah 4:19), that before God we are all
beggars: we do not deserve the blessings he gives us.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives several meanings that may help us think better about what
it means to be worthy. One is “to be under an obligation to do something.” Another is
“distinguished by good qualities.” Those who have taken Christ’s name on themselves are under
obligation to live lives in harmony with him, lives led by the Spirit that “bloweth where it listeth”
(John 3:8) and, of course, to live such a life would be to be distinguished by good qualities. I
suppose that when we pray to be worthy or urge others to be worthy, we pray that we might
recognize and meet our obligation to live the life that taking on and remembering Christ’s name
demands.

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22 Responses to Worthy?

  1. Eric R. on December 21, 2004 at 3:11 am

    I have always thought of worthiness in terms of a variation of the second definition given above, something like “having merit sufficient to be eligible for something.”

    I think it makes sense to apply Christ’s blessings to this version of worthiness. Whether or not you “deserve” the blessings according to some standard of deserving, your eligibilty is still a function of your worthiness. I think this applies, not only to the obvious temporal blessings, but to eternal ones as well. The comment, in D&C 76:79, that those who are not admitted to the celestial kingdom are those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus implies that those who do gain admittance have been sufficiently valiant. Thus, within my definition, it makes perfect sense to say that our exaltation is dependent on our worthiness of it.

  2. Geoff Johnston on December 21, 2004 at 3:13 am

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jim.

    As you noted, “worthy” surely can’t mean “of worth”. The Lord himself said “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God”.

    I assume that most church members define “worthyâ€? as “having merit sufficient to deserve somethingâ€? as you mentioned. Despite the problems with this definition you bring up I think there is plenty of scriptural and experiential evidence to support that definition (which I’ll explain below). I also wonder if that definition is really in conflict with other definition you gave of being able to “…recognize and meet our obligation(s)…â€?

    The way we Mormons throw the word around is a slightly frustrating illustration of Mormon-speak. “Worthyâ€? seems to be used as a lazy catch-all word to signify being acceptably in compliance with perceived minimum requirements in the church. As in: “I was so surprised to hear a worthy member like brother so-and-so (enter transgression here)”. Worthy of what?

    That is the change I would like to see. I would like more specifics when we talk or pray about being worthy. Some worthiness is clearly defined by priesthood leaders like worthy to take the sacrament or worthy to hold a temple recommend. Other types of worthiness are between us and God: worthy to receive and understand prompting of the Holy Ghost, worthy to always have His Spirit to be with us, worthy to receive outright revelation, worthy to teach (or learn) by the Spirit. In other cases worthy might equate to having sufficient faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to do some things: worthy to heal, worthy to be healed, or worthy to enjoy any of the other spiritual gifts. In the end I suppose this faith/worthiness should lead us to the point where the Brother of Jared and others arrived — worthy to pierce the veil and enter the presence of the Lord.

    It is comforting to know that if we ask we shall receive. The Lord helps us prepare to ask the right questions when He teaches:
    “20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.�

    So maybe it is a progression of learning the laws to follow, exercising faith enough to follow them, and then being shown more laws to follow and so on — “Line upon line, precept upon preceptâ€? and worthiness upon worthiness…

    In any case, it is clear to me that I am worthy of some blessings today and not worthy of others. I’m trying to get the Lord to help me figure out what heavenly laws I’m not keeping yet to get those extra blessings and then get the faith to obey them. But sometimes I wonder if I’m worthy…

  3. Mark on December 21, 2004 at 12:01 pm

    On being worthy, see what Elder Marvin J. Ashton has to say:

    http://emp.byui.edu/SATTERFIELDB/Talks/On%20Being%20Worthy%20MJA.htm

  4. J. Stapley on December 21, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    I really don’t think our current use of “worthy� (that Geoff has well illustrated) is doctrinally sound. Let’s look at “worthy to take the sacrament�: This implies that we are without sin enough to be cleansed of our sins by the atonement. In reality it is not our level of sin, but our level of repentance that determines the efficacy of the sacrament.

    I much prefer the term “qualify�. Even the most ardent evangelicals will concede that we must qualify for the grace of Christ (otherwise we wouldn’t be going to hell, now would we). Thus we must not be worthy to take the sacrament, but we must be qualified to take it. We must qualify for his grace (though our perspective on what we must do to qualify is different than the evangelicals), not be worthy of it. We must qualify for salvation and exaltation, not be worthy of it (for none of us are).

  5. Joel D. on December 21, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Although liguistically it is a bit weird the way Latter-day Saints use the term “worthiness”, I understand it conceptually to be “the state achieved by one who enjoys the blessings of Christ’s atonement by keeping one’s gospel covenants.” While, as Jim notes, we are not going to merit much on our own, we can merit God’s blessings through our covenant relationship with Christ.

    Personally, I dislike using the term “worthy” as a proxy for “active”, as mentiond in Geoff’s post.

  6. The Only True and Living Nathan on December 21, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    Jim,

    I would agree that we all do wickedly. I would disagree, however, that we necessarily SEEK to do wickedly.

  7. J. Stapley on December 21, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    TOTLN: Speak for yourself.

  8. Larry on December 21, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    Jim,

    Could being worthy, in it’s simplest form, mean being covered by the atonement? This would mean that if we sin we repent because we know where our salvation is.
    In Mosiah 26 the Saviour said “as often as my people repent will I forgive them”. It seems to me that there is much more power in coming to Christ, unworthy as we are, than we realize.
    I say that because I see and hear so much about things we “must do” as members of the Church that go beyond what the Saviour outlined.

  9. David King Landrith on December 21, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    On the one hand, we don’t deserve the blessings that we get. On the other hand, we are promised (in at least one instance) more blessings than we can receive (a la Malachi 3:10), which is itself a bit confusing until one realizes that children are considered blessings.

    I think its safe to say that we deserve what we are promised. So (given that we aren’t worthy for the blessings) worthiness is clearly something different from desert (which is a synonym, incidentally, for worth).

    Paul poses the worthiness vs. unworthiness questions in terms of earthy vs. heavenly (I Corinthians 15:47-49). With a little poetic license, we can make a rhyme: You’re either worthy or your earthy. But even so, I’m as baffled as you are.

  10. Scott on December 21, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Jim,

    Is LDS usage of the concept of “worthiness” divergent from that of scripture?

    In the Old Testament the word “worthy” is often used in connection with punishment under the law (e.g., being worthy of death). Also, God is described as being “worthy” of praise. In the New Testament, some descibe themselves as unworthy (e.g., John the Baptist and the centurion in Capernaum).

    But there are also some uses of the word that don’t seem far off from how contemporary Mormons use it. In Matt 10:11-14, Jesus’ instruction to the apostles seems to suggest that some people might be “worthy.” In verses 37 and 38 of the same chapter, Jesus says that those who love father or mother, son or daughter, more than Him are not worthy of Him, at least implying that those who love Him more are worthy of him. When discussing marriage in Luke 20:34-35, Jesus describes some as being “accounted worthy to obtain that world.” In Luke 21:36, he admonishes watching and praying “that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass” (speaking of bad times to come).

    Paul also seems to use worthiness in a manner consistent with contemporary LDS. In Ephesians 4:1, he beseeches the saints to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” (Worthiness of calling is a usage that also appears in the D&C.) In Col. 1:10, Paul prays that the saints “might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work.” In 1 Thes. 2:12, he exhorts the saints to “walk worthy of God.” In 2 Thes. 1:5, he speaks of being “counted worthy of the kingdom of God.” (And in v. 11, he prays that they will be counted worthy of their calling.) Moroni 6:1 and D&C 20:69 speak of the requirement of worthiness before receiving the ordinance of baptism.

    Yes, there’s much in scripture to suggest that we’re all useless, unworthy backsliders, incapable of saving ourselves. But there’s also much that’s consistent with our more intuitive moral judgments (e.g., that the Pope or President Hinckley aren’t as wicked as the run-of-the-mill serial killer or sexual predator, that our choices and behaviors have something to do with our deserving blessings or punishment, etc.).

    You’ve raised an interesting question. But, since scriptural usage of the word “worthy” seems at least superficially consistent with contemporary Mormon usage, I’m not sure that we need to modify (or even seriously reexamine) our concept of worthiness just yet.

    Scott

  11. Mark Simmons on December 22, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    I taught an evangelical family on my mission that had an issue with Mormon “worthiness” – they kept on referring to the Isaiah verse “our righteousness is as dirty rags to God” (which by the way has a JST clarification that corrects the implication that any effort on our parts is futile in the eyes of God). From then on I have discontinued using that word and now use the term “faithful” when I would otherwise use “worthy.” I can’t think of an instance where the using “faithful” would be unsuitable replacement for “worthy” in the context of this thread. It seems that in the eyes of God it’s our intents that he judges more than the outcome of those intentions (i.e. effort instead of results). Can anyone think of an instance where “faithful” is not a valid substitution for “worthy”?

  12. Larry on December 22, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Good point Mark.

  13. Scott on December 22, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    Mark,

    How would you substitute “faithful” for “worthy” in the following sentences?

    (A) And the members shall manifest before the church, and also before the elders, by a godly walk and conversation, that they are worthy of it [i.e., baptism], that there may be works and faith agreeable to the holy scriptures—walking in holiness before the Lord.

    (B) Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power.

    (C) And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.

    (D) He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

    And, more critically, why would the word “faithful” be more accurate than the word “worthy” in those instances?

    Scott

  14. J. Stapley on December 22, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Scott: That is why I prefer “qualify/qualified”, see #4

  15. Geoff Johnston on December 22, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    I agree with J. that in most cases “qualified” does seem to be a better substitute. But occasionally “faithful” works better.

    “She is a worthy mother in Zion” is certainly better translated “She is a faithful mother in Zion” than “She is a qualified mother in Zion”.

    But “She is worthy to enter the temple” is better translated “She is qualified to enter the temple” than “She is faithful (enough) to enter the temple” — at least the former get to the point more succinctly.

    That illustrates the lazy, catch-all nature of common usage in the church. Is “worthyâ€? the Mormon version of “smurfyâ€?? “She is a smurfy mother in Zion who is smurfy to enter the temple”…

  16. Mark Simmons on December 22, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    There are certainly times where the usage of “qualify” fits better (D&C 4:5) when the purpose is to distinguish and classify. On a personal level (when not comparing with others), it seems like “faithfulness” fits better. “How do you feel about your worthiness/faithfulness/qualifications?”

  17. Geoff Johnston on December 22, 2004 at 6:49 pm

    I’m feeling ok about it/it/them. Thanks for asking!

  18. Jim F. on December 26, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    Sorry I haven’t responded sooner, but the holidays have had me involved in what I have to confess are more enjoyable things, like playing with grandkids. Thanks for both your responses and your patience.

    Before responding to individual responses, let me say something about what was behind my original post, and let me do so by making an analogy: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica works in something like this way: (1) begin with a question; (2) show that authoritative voices in the Christian tradition seem to be saying contradictory or at least opposing things; (3) show how the seeming contradiction can be overcome and the question can be answered in the process. I elided the particular steps of Thomas’s method, but it was behind my thinking: it seems to me that there is a problem in what we say about worthiness. Some of that problem is that our talk about worthiness often seems to contradict what the scriptures say. Some of it is that the scriptures themselves sometimes seem to be contradictory. So, how do we resolve that contradiction? Against that background, let me make a few comments about individual responses.

    Eric R. (#1): You say “Whether or not you ‘deserve’ the blessings according to some standard of deserving, your eligibility is still a function of your worthiness.� This is exactly the thing I was puzzling over. How can it be the case that I don’t deserve the blessings, but they are nevertheless given as a function of my worthiness, i.e., my desert? At least on the surface, what you say seems to be a contradiction. How do you explain it so that it isn’t?

    Geoff Johnston (#2): I think you are right that as we most often use the term “worthy� we mean “in compliance with perceived minimum requirements� for something, though I would change “perceived� to “given.� With that understanding of what we mean by “worthy,� I think you and J. Stapley (#4) and I agree that to be worthy is really to be qualified. Here, too, however, I think that worthiness has to do with meeting one’s obligations more than anything else: having taken Christ’s name on myself, I am obligated to certain behaviors. I am “worthy� if I am meeting those obligations.

    Joel D (#5) puts this in terms of covenant, which I think is exactly the right way to think of it: I have entered into a covenant, which brings certain obligations on me. Not to live up to those obligations is, implicitly, to deny the covenant, no longer to be “worthy.�

    The Only True and Living Nathan (#6): I am sympathetic to what you say, but I think it is a mistake for both logical and theological reasons. Theologically, both the psalmist and Paul teach that no one does good, and Nephi describes those who are in need of the Atonement (which we believe to be all but Christ) as those who have sought to do evil. Logically, if one does evil without having sought to do evil, then one has done it unintentionally. As I understand the teachings of scripture, unintentional evils do not count as evils we have done. In that case, then when we do evil that counts as evil—something everyone does—then we did so intentionally. In other words, we sought to do evil.

    Larry (#8): I think that there is a sense in which “worthy� could mean “covered by the Atonement.� We could say that those who have been reborn through faith, repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Ghost have been given a new worth. Whereas, prior to their rebirth they had not the value of one who can enter the Kingdom of God, now they do. But I don’t think that is the way we usually use it, nor the way it is often used in scripture.

    David King Landrith (#9): You’ve laid out well the puzzle I’m thinking about.

    Scott (#10): I should have included some of the scriptures to which you refer to show that the problem I was thinking about isn’t only a problem of contemporary usage. As you point out, there are places in scripture that use the term just as we usually do. That is partly what raised the issue for me. But I’m interested in how you can see the problem—some scriptures clearly describe us as unworthy though others speak of our worthiness—but think that problem doesn’t call for a “solution.� If the scriptures say two different things, why suppose that our current usage, which is largely in line with only one of those ways of speaking, is the right one? However, as I point out above, I’m not trying to argue that we need to reform our way of speaking. I’m trying to figure out how to make sense of that way of speaking, which something quite different and less ambitious.

    Mark Simmons (#11): I think that you’re right, that to speak of worthiness is really to speak of faithfulness. Scott (#13) suggests that we can’t just substitute “faithful� for “worthy� in various scriptures, but I think that misses the substance of your suggestion. To be worthy of baptism is to be faithful to the message and light one has received, even if we cannot substitute “faithful� for “worthy� in the sentence in question (D&C 20:69). I think the same is true of the other scriptures to which he refers.

    With J. Stapley, Geoff Johnston (#15) likes “qualified� better than “worthy� in some cases. I agree that various terms work better in different cases. But each of them seems to be a way of getting at the same concept. Our use of the term “worthy� raises the question of what we are talking about when we use it. It is no surprise that various terms work as appropriate synonyms, depending on context.

  19. Weston C on December 26, 2004 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve always thought of the word “worthy” as closely related to the concept of “prepared.” A ship is “sea-worthy” if it can keep its integrity and keep afloat and navigate reasonably amid the stresses of sailing. A soul is worthy of blessings or participation ordinances of the gospel if it can keep its integrity and stay afloat and navigate reasonably while doing so — and make no mistake, there are dangers and stresses to participation. Every one of us will take weathering from our participation in the gospel, through both our own mistakes and national wear and tear, but there are degrees of tests and strength among us that it’s probably wise to take stock in. Hence worthiness actually becomes a charitable spiritual safety call…

  20. Jim F. on December 26, 2004 at 11:52 pm

    Weston C: Nice analogy. This adds something new to our discussion.

  21. Bryan L on December 27, 2004 at 7:52 am

    The sea-worthy analogy has always been one of my favorites. I also see being covered by the atonement in there somewhere. Jim’s meeting obligation idea adds something I hadn’t considered before. Perhaps this can be extended to also being ready for additional obligation. Can all these be put together? Maybe one is worthy when she recognizes and meets her obligation to live by the level of light, knowledge and covenants previously made. Through the power of the atonement, she is helped to weather the dangers, stresses and tests of life, until her nature is changed and she is ready for further light, knowledge and covenants which bring further dangers, stresses and tests.

  22. Larry on December 27, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    Jim,

    In response to Weston’s comments in #19, I agree in spirit with what he says. But is there a contradiction between “turning to Christ” a la Alma 33:14-23 and being affected by stresses and dangers that accompany participation and that affecting our worthiness?
    I ask this because I believe the atonement has more saving power and more grace than we attribute to it. We often make it appear more as a burden than a lifting of one.
    If we accept Christ in the way Nephi describes it – “acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent…” (2Ne 31:13) then He is willing to be merciful (Mosiah 26:22,29-31) and extend His grace to us.
    We know that people are born with weaknesses inherited. For what purpose we don’t always understand. However, by turning to Him and acknowledging His sacrifice, we become His sons and daughters and heirs with Him in the Celestial Kingdom and He lifts the burden in an eternal sense but not always in a mortal sense.
    When we talk of weaknesses and sins we acquire on our own, I believe the same principles apply, with a caveat that we may be required to pay for those sins, if not fully repented of, before we can enter His Kingdom.
    The key is to turn to Christ in the manner before mentioned.
    Would we not be considered “worthy” in the “faithful” sense by applying the principle of turning to Christ?