"After All We Can Do…"

“…For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do…”

I remember staring at the page for hours on end, my stomach in knots.  I ran a quick check in my head to see how I’d fared that day, and felt my stomach tighten even more as I replayed my little crimes over and over again.  Every unkind word.  Every flash of anger.  Every dirty thought.

Why isn’t it possible, ever possible, I wondered, to do ALL I can do?

For several years, I struggled with the meaning of this verse–and with similar teachings prevalent in Mormonism–that forgiveness or salvation is granted only AFTER you have expended your energy doing the best you can on your own.

I mean, remember Stephen Robinson’s parable of the little girl who wants to buy a bicycle?  She works so hard and saves her pennies for weeks–but when she gets to the bicycle store, she realizes she’s still a hundred dollars short.

So the father in the story gets down on his knees and holds her close.  “You give me everything you have,” he says, “and a big hug and a kiss, and I’ll buy you that bike.”

In seminary, the same message.  “This is grace,” the teacher explained.  “When you do the best you can, and leave the rest up to God.  So one person might be a 10 on a scale of 1 to 1,000.  And another a 50.   But wherever you are, so long as you’ve done your best, Jesus forgives.”

It might sound nice on the surface, but when you’re a perfectionist, I can assure you…

It’s a panic attack waiting to happen.

After all, as a perfectionist, you’re never satisfied you’ve done “the best you can” anyway; as a result, you constantly feel as though you’ll never be right in the eyes of God.

So might I suggest an alternate reading to this verse in 2 Nephi, which seems to be one of the most frequently-cited scriptural supports for the Mormon concept of a works-based salvation?

Let’s go back and examine it in context.  In the verses prior, Nephi is bearing strong testimony of Christ; and even declares that there is no other name given under heaven besides Christ whereby man can be saved (see 2 Nephi 25: 20).

Then he goes on to say that BECAUSE of the cause of Christ, he (Nephi) has been commanded to write the teachings of God so His word can go forth from generation to generation.

And after all that, he says, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

Might Nephi be speaking, not of some vague, impossible standard that is “required” of humankind before God grants forgiveness and salvation, but of the efforts he and his brethren have put forth to write and persuade?

To rephrase it, might he be saying, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that after all we can do [to write and persuade], it is [ultimately] by the grace [of Christ] that we are saved.”

Framed this way, Nephi is NOT making a sweeping statement about the necessity of each man and woman to turn to Christ only AFTER you’ve done the best you can; but instead is acknowledging that the work he does is insufficient, for it is by GRACE that he is saved, even after all he does.

Though somewhat unorthodox from an LDS perspective, I believe this reading is much more in line with the rest of the scriptues when it comes to teachings on grace.

What do you think?  Am I up in the night?  Or am I on to something here?

About Katie L

A doubter by nature, a believer by grace.

Posted on November 15, 2008, in Mormonism, Personal, Thoughts on God and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Hmmm… interesting thoughts, Katie. It’s hard for me to know what to think of this interpretation since I don’t personally believe the Book of Mormon to be inspired by God. I will say, though, that I really appreciate your efforts to interpret the BoM in light of the other scriptures and to reject false doctrines, such as the historical interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:20.

    You wrote, “Though somewhat unorthodox from an LDS perspective, I believe this reading is much more in line with the rest of the scriptues when it comes to teachings on grace.”

    This “unorthodox” blogger friend completely concurs! 🙂

  2. THANK YOU!

  3. I think that’s always been my understanding of it…but, then again, I also freely admit to being somewhat unorthodox…*grin*

  4. You know, Curtis, I’m beginning to like the way you think… 😉

  5. I really love that thought. I think you’re on to something with that. Having dealt with Anxiety/depression myself, I had to learn to break my perfectionist habits and love myself as a human with mistakes and imperfections.

    What do the LDS leaders say about this quote?

  6. Katie – what an enlightening way to read this verse! Kudos! I think most LDS try to fit “all we can do” into the box of repentance – i.e. abiding in Christ’s covenant.

    You are right – the antecedent of “we” is not 100% clear from the verse as written. Wow.

  7. I would add there is not “orthodox” position on this verse, by the way. It’s never been addressed in an authoritative forum, as far as I know.

  8. Agreed Tom.
    Quite frankly the only people who’ve had an “orthodox” view of a misinterpretation of this verse has been Evangelicals. If we’d stop trying to tear apart the scissors of salvation (C.S.Lewis metaphor for the false grace/works dichotomy)maybe we’d stop misinterpreting the BoM.

  9. This is exactly what I’m coming to see. thanks you fo writing this. I have never allowed God in because of my feelings of unworthiness. Whether it’s been said in any official context or not, growing up in the church my whole life I have felt that “after all I can do” has been a qualifier for His grace – which excluded me. I know now I’m not the only one.

  10. Oooh. I like this thought. You may indeed be onto something. At least its something to think about. Either way, I don’t interpret it any any kind of “traditional” way.

    I’ve read it like this:
    http://latterdayspence.blogspot.com/2009/05/embracing-grace.html

  11. Alex T. Valencic

    I’ve always taken a different approach to what Nephi was saying. I’ve felt that he was speaking to those who were so very pleased with all that they had done, and he was saying, “Hey guys, you know how we’ve been writing and preaching and talking of Christ? It is because, ultimately, it is the grace of Christ that is going to save you. You’re doing all sorts of wonderful things, but all that you do won’t save you. Grace will.”

    While there are plenty of other scriptures that do emphasise the need of works to co-exist with belief, this particular chapter of Nephi’s writings really hammer home that the Gospel is all about Christ, and not just about us going through the motions.

  12. Alex, yep. I think that’s exactly what that section is saying.

  13. I also concur! Great post Katie. This is the first time I’ve seen an alternate interpretation of that scripture before and I completely agree with you. The “after all we can do” passage seems to be taken out of context by the LDS teachings on it. In my opinion, the way that scripture is taught in church has led to the high depression rates we see in LDS. As you noted:

    “It might sound nice on the surface, but when you’re a perfectionist, I can assure you…

    It’s a panic attack waiting to happen.

    After all, as a perfectionist, you’re never satisfied you’ve done “the best you can” anyway; as a result, you constantly feel as though you’ll never be right in the eyes of God.”

    That is exactly what I experienced growing up LDS.
    I used to feel the gospel was a burden because I knew we were more accountable than others. Like you, I have always been a perfectionist.

    I know this is why I had trouble “believing Christ”-that the atonement was really for me.

    I also believe that the works for salvation teachings in our church from that scripture, has caused the Pharisaical Mormons we find so commonly in the Chapel. I had a good friend recently admit that she used to believe she deserved a higher reward in the Celestial Kingdom than her wild LDS friends that made mistakes and repented later. (she had been a stalwart Mormon her whole life)

    And a look at Elder Oaks recent Conference address doesn’t help: (another scripture that I believe is misinterpreted in the church)

    “Mercy cannot rob justice. And those who obtain mercy, are they who have kept the covenant and observed the commandment.”

    Why does the person who kept the covenant and commandment need mercy? Unless I misunderstood, Oaks seems to be saying that those who commit the heavier sins (who had the gospel) will not be saved by grace, and only those who lived the higher law will return to God in the Celestial Kingdom.

    I remember those lessons as a young girl in Sunday School on the 3 Kingdoms and how LDS were held to a different standard at judgment than those without the gospel.
    As a child I recall thinking it would have been better for the missionaries to let people live in ignorance and have Mormons do the proxy temple work after they die.

  14. Alex T. Valencic

    “Why does the person who kept the covenant and commandment need mercy? ”

    Seven, I have understood that a very major part of the covenant and the commandment is to repent when we sin. So if we do not repent, we are not keeping the covenant and the commandment. And how does one obtain mercy without repenting?

  15. Alex, when I was younger, I used to think that “repenting when we sin” meant remembering every sin I had committed and going through a repentance ritual of…

    1)–recognizing
    2)–confessing
    3)–forsaking
    4)–never repeating

    And if I committed the same sin again, I had to go back through those four steps over and over, because once you repeat your sin, all your former sins return.

    Eventually, I realized I would never make it to the Celestial Kingdom, because…

    a)–I didn’t even remember all my sins sometimes;
    b)–I kept messing up; and
    c)–Sometimes I sinned and didn’t even realize it.

    It was this mentality that eventually led to an emotional breakdown about three years ago — and that finally slapped me hard enough across the face to realize that there had to be a better way.

    I’m telling you this because I totally support what you’re saying, if by “repent,” you mean turning your heart to God and working with Him to turn it ever closer.

    If by “repent,” you mean going through a 4-step ritual process that I described above, I have to respectfully disagree with your approach.

  16. Alex T. Valencic

    I consider the “4-step” program to be just a tool to teach the basic concept of repentance. But it isn’t the whole process. I agree wholeheartedly that repentance is turning your heart to God, and then turning it over to Him.

    To me, repentance is saying, “Oh God, I have screwed up. And I can’t even begin to fix it on my own. Please help me.”

  17. I’m pretty much with Alex, since that’s what I taught seminary kids just a couple of weeks ago. When I tried to expand that into a set of ideas and impart the notion that they were *already* beyond hope without Him, they tuned me out.

    One way to think about it might be that the four steps process is nothing more than specifics around Alex’s picture of the process. “Forsaking” and “Never repeating” seem to me to flow naturally from the changed heart state; you don’t feel like doing whatever sin you’ve done anymore, or you have knowledge about what to do when the impulse to sin descends again, and because you don’t feel like indulging it any more, you’ve repented.

    But for a bunch of people who want nothing more than to keep parents off their backs, they need something to parrot while they decide whether or not to repent. Hence the 4-step thing. It’s better than letting them do something self-destructive in a state of ignorance.

  18. Rob, I totally disagree that “forsaking” and “never repeating” flow naturally from the changed heart sake. A desire to forsake and never repeat, okay. (Though sometimes we humans are such masters at self-deception and justification that we convince ourselves not to even desire it.)

    As a relatively “minor” example: I have a quick temper when it comes to my computer. I swear like a sailor whenever it crashes or starts acting up. Every. Single. Time.

    Though I wish I didn’t, though I feel terrible every time it happens because of the bad example it sets for my daughter, I still do it.

    That doesn’t mean my heart hasn’t changed. It means I’m still battling the flesh — a battle I anticipate I’ll be waging till my dying day.

  19. I think the 4-step process is much more useful when framed as characteristics of an overall repentant attitude toward sin in general, and less a proscribed formula for “qualifying for forgiveness” (as if such a thing were ever possible) that must be met on each individual indiscretion.

  20. Alex said: “Seven, I have understood that a very major part of the covenant and the commandment is to repent when we sin. So if we do not repent, we are not keeping the covenant and the commandment. And how does one obtain mercy without repenting?”

    If that’s what Oaks meant by his statement then I agree with it. We must meet the conditions of the atonement for Christ’s blood to wash us clean. I’ve understood those conditions to be repentance and forgiving every person who has harmed us.
    What troubles me is to see LDS misuse that scripture “mercy cannot rob justice”, by teaching that there will be eternal consequences for sins that Christ will not/cannot save us from.

  21. I think what’s helpful with this verse is to look at the context, and try to see what question it’s trying to answer.

    It’s clear to me that the question being answered isn’t “What must I do to receive grace?” The question being answered is “What saves us?” and the answer is the grace of Christ. After everything that we can do, we’re told, it is grace that saves us. It isn’t our works that save us, it isn’t what we can do that saves us, but grace that saves us.

    He’s saying much the same thing that Paul did when he wrote that we’re saved by grace, not by works. He’s affirming Paul, not flipping Paul’s words on their head.

    In context, “all we can do” is the Old Testament law which we (meaning people before Jesus came to Earth) do, not because it saves us, but because we have been commanded to (verse 25). But after Jesus comes, the Old Testament law will be fulfilled. (That means that, for us, the law has been fulfilled and is, in fact, dead, as suggested in verse 27.)

    Nephi’s intent in this passage is clear: It is Christ we look to for the remission of our sins, period.

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