Stopping the Flood When the Dams Burst

April 12, 2010 | 12 comments
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A friend of mine told a story from when she was a seminary student. As I recall it, one student, let’s call him Eusebius, had had perfect attendance for three years. The attendance policy allowed a fifteen-minute late window. The teacher would shut the door fifteen minutes after class started, and any students who came it after the door was shut weren’t counted in attendance for the day.

Eusebius had been prompt to class for the first three years, but during his fourth year he showed up closer and closer to the fifteen-minute mark, until he finally missed it. This destroyed Eusebius’ interest in seminary; with his perfect record of attendance ruined, he didn’t feel any desire to attend and stopped coming.

I’m sure we’ve all seen (or been) people like Eusebius. Missionaries are constantly meeting less active members who used to be bishops and branch presidents. Often they were faithful members who had lived up to the standards of the church for years. But once they slipped once, it’s like the dams of their souls were obliterated — their spiritual energy was drained in a single blow, and they didn’t know how to fill the reservoir back up.

Perhaps this is the result of a fragile identity. For example, if I believe these two statements:

  • “I’m a good Mormon,” and
  • “Good Mormons don’t do bad things,”

then what happens when I do do something bad? Depending on how tightly I associate “good Mormon” with “doesn’t do bad things”, I could find myself having lost my identity. If I’m not a “good Mormon” (and if my paradigm doesn’t have room for “less-than-good Mormons”), then that leaves me only to become something else entirely. (Or maybe this paragraph is all just pop psychology.)

I don’t have any solutions, but I think this is an issue worth discussing. When we teach our students to avoid sin, can we also add the message, “But you will sin, and that’s okay — it’s not the end of the world. Here’s what you can do…”? We teach lessons about repentance, but often in a very third-person sort of way: “Sometimes people sin” — “people” but not “you”. “Sometimes people sin” — but it’s not very often, and never in big ways. We give examples of kids cheating on tests, or stealing a candy bar from the store. Anything more serious, we speak about in ominous euphemism (or we leave undiscussed entirely.)

“Sometimes people sin” — “and if they sin badly, they need to visit the bishop. And they must be prepared for tears, and to feel guilt, and shame.” The fact is, I’ve had opportunities to confess to my bishop, and they’ve been some of the most uplifting, powerful, spiritual, and freeing experiences of my life. Can we start treating repentance less like a punishment and more like a reward? Can we start treating repentance less like a last resort? We teach about the power of Christ’s atonement to cleanse us from sin, but I still hear the message, “Oh, but how much better off is the one who never sinned at all!” — as though the ones who repent least frequently get bonus points in heaven! Somehow, I don’t imagine that the celestial kingdom has a special corner for the ones who never visited their bishops.

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12 Responses to Stopping the Flood When the Dams Burst

  1. Ben S on April 12, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Ah, good stuff. Thanks.
    We tend to go for all-or-nothing absolutes in the Church, it often seems.

  2. It's Not Me on April 12, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    It seems that when we teach others we try to walk a fine line between letting them know they can repent, and hoping they don’t think it’s ok to go ahead and sin because they can always repent. After all, look at how the “teacher” turned out.

  3. Kai on April 13, 2010 at 3:17 am

    Excellent advice. A similar phenomenon has been observed in people battling alcoholism or diet problems. Therapies dealing in absolutes tend to fail, or at least suffer serious setbacks, for when people give in to a small craving, something in them says “Oh, I failed anyway, so I might as well go all out” and then totally overindulge. If the ideal of being completely abstinent has been hammered into them, they may feel total failures and drop out of the program alltogether. A more promising approach is the one where a contingency plan is available for the inevitable situations where you transgress. The important thing is to see the transgression as a temporary setback than can and will be overcome.

  4. Paul on April 13, 2010 at 8:22 am

    So we should lie a little, cheat a little and dig a pit for our neighbor?

    Seems to me that many GC talk express the need to live righteously and a path home if we don’t. That this may not percolate down to our everyday teaching in our wards and seminary and homes may be an issue.

    Alma 39-42 is a great example of the power of repentance.

    (BTW Kai, as for alcoholism — if a person is truly addicted to alcohol, by definition he cannot drink in moderation. While relapse may be common among those who are attempting recovery, it does not mean the “therapy” of abstinence has failed, it means the alcoholic has failed to abstain. In 12-step programs, this issue is mitigated by reminding participants to take their recovery one day at a time, so that they only need to decide to abstain for one day.)

  5. Dane Laverty on April 13, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Paul, what I’m saying is that we could distinguish between lying a little and lying a lot, and that lying a little doesn’t mean you might as well go and lie a lot.

    However, you and It’s Not Me make a good point — one of the distinctive traits of our church is that our active members really do, for the most part, avoid a lot of obviously sinful behavior. If that trait is necessarily tied to a black-and-white “I’m either righteous or a sinner” worldview, then the whole premise of this post is wrong. In that case, the church could be seen as some kind of advanced studies program — it works really well for the people that it works for, but it’s really hard for the ones who don’t get it. This in contrast to, say, the Christianity of my non-Mormon friends back in high school, whose religion didn’t ask much of them behaviorally. It may be that high-risk-high-reward is a necessary trait of our church, but I hope not.

  6. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Good post (also, some good follow up in the comments). My only quibble is that maybe we overestimate the power of what we teach to change how people act. In other words, are we sure that our alleged teaching approach to sin and repentance is really responsible for how these former branch presidents act?

    My own marked reluctance to repent at times has had very little to do with what anyone taught me and a lot to do with pride, anger at having to admit wrongdoing, anger that wickedness isn’t happiness and at not getting my own way, and a sort of spiritual desert induced by the sin.

    I give rip-roaring come-to-Jesus talks to my young men all the time, all about how sweet and manly repentance is, but it doesn’t seem to make much more of an impression than anything else I say.

  7. Kevin on April 14, 2010 at 10:05 am

    I like this post. As a convert to the Church in 1981 at age 19, I brought with me none of the baggage of being raised LDS (I was raised Irish Catholic) but received all of the blessings of the Restored Gospel and the blessings of the Atonement. I also was forced to quickly learn the absolute necessity of DAILY spiritual nourishment through feasting upon the scriptures and deep ponderous prayer.

    My observations over the years lead me to believe that modifying our behaviours without leaning upon and gaining strength from the Saviour and Holy Spirit in all of our daily challenges will result in the worldly pressure to break the dam becoming too great. We cannot keep up the maintenance of the dam ourselves. However, if we take advantage of the spiritual nourishment offered us, the pressure on the dam is much less and our ability to hold it back is much greater.

    I was greatly impressed that the overriding theme of general conference last week was the importance of building spiritual defenses and the current lack of diligence by parents in the Church to inculcate these habits in their children. We get so fixated on behaviours and outside appearances that we totally neglect teaching the importance of a CONSTANT need for spiritual nourishment. Why is it so hard for us to learn that lesson? We have mastered the need for physical nourishment so well.

  8. Kevin on April 14, 2010 at 10:10 am

    “My own marked reluctance to repent at times has had very little to do with what anyone taught me and a lot to do with pride, anger at having to admit wrongdoing, anger that wickedness isn’t happiness and at not getting my own way, and a sort of spiritual desert induced by the sin.”

    Adam, this insight ranks up there with some of the greatest quotes found in the scriptures!

  9. gst on April 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Kevin, he doesn’t need the encouragement.

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    If you have been known for your righteousness, having to admit that you failed means facing (you think) severe social embarrassment, so people tend to avoid repenting, and then start to build up retrospective rationales to justify their change in behavior, up to and including “The Church is not true anyway, so what’s the dif?” and “I am now so much more worldly wise than all you naive Saints” and “The view from up here in the Great and Spacious building is really great!”

    I think this syndrome is exacerbated when the former righteous behavior has misled us into pride and a feeling of superiority. When we fail, that pride is still with us, but it becomes inverted, and we transfer our pride to our failure and rebrand it as a success, a moment of enlightenment, “Gee, I did that and got away with it and was not zapped by lightning! I am Master of the Great Secret! You can get anything in this world if you just let go of that restrictive iron rod!”

    Clearly the key to open the door of repentance is humility, it is the “broken heart”, meaning the breaking of our pride and our submission to God. If you were flying high on pride, sailing swiftly down the Strait and Narrow Path in your BMW (a deliberately mixed metaphor), and fail, you don’t have the humility necessary to admit to yourself and God that you cannot live righteously without Him, and you cannot recover.

    Some people may acquire the broken heart when they fail, when they are confronted by their own weakness, as Alma the Younger fortunately did, but when you are wounded you are not always receptive to the concept that it was your fault, and you are by definition doing things that distance you from the influence of the Holy Ghost.

    Better that we should learn to not fly on autopilot, thinking we can power the plane all by ourselves, but instead remember daily that we have a destination and need that constant guidance system to get us there, not depending wholly on ourselves to reach our goal, but becoming copilots with God, strapping ourselves into Christ’s yoke, taking up our cross which is His cross, knowing that even if our part of the team fails, the other half can get us to that celestial city.

  11. Kevin on April 14, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Raymond,

    Very true, very true. Why can’t we get such straightforward analogies and exhortations from general conference?

  12. Bookslinger on April 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Kevin, In my opinion, we do get such straightforward analogies and exhortations from general conference.

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