I was planning to go somewhere else with this next post on why women are unhappy, but a recent conversation with a good friend convinced me that I should start here.
So let’s talk, shall we, about that familiar kill-joy for women everywhere: guilt.
It’s a word that still sends spasms of guilt shooting through my stomach.
(Hell, I think I just shuddered.)
As a kid, I remember sitting through countless Sunday School lessons about standards, commandments, worthiness, and expectations, trying to quiet the little voice in the back of my mind that had this unpleasant habit of repeating: “Katie, you’re never gonna be good enough” over and over and over again.
At the time, I let it get me down.
Today, I use it to remember how grateful I am for a Savior who loves me and forgives me anyway–despite my deep flaws.
That’s because I’ve come to realize that no one is worthy (Rom 3:10); that’s why we need Christ.
Look, I’m not arguing against the importance of keeping God’s commandments. Certainly there’s no better way to show Him our love. But I’ve become concerned lately that our “worthiness culture” may be driving some of us Mormons further from Christ, instead of deeper into His arms.
Consider the following dangers…
First, the idea of “worthiness” sometimes lulls people into a false sense of security and complacency, a la, “well, I can get a temple recommend, so I’m okay.”
Second, it can potentially lead to pride: “At least I didn’t do that, like so-and-so did. That makes me more righteous/better.”
Third, it can drive people (like me) into depression and anxiety when they realize how perfect God’s standard is and how they will never be able to attain it on their own–yet because of the “worthiness” culture there is this underlying expectation that they should be able to.
When we focus on achieving arbitrary levels of “worthiness,” I fear we may be in danger of denying what our Savior has done for us. There is nothing we can do to be right in the eyes of God, save relying on the mercy and merits of Jesus (2 Ne 2:8). Trying to work our way into God’s favor is “looking beyond the mark,” to borrow a term from Jacob in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 4:14). It’s impossible.
Just some food for thought as we consider our motives for living righteously–or judge others who may, on the surface, seem “less worthy” than we are.
Five years ago, in Pernik, Bulgaria, I sat in our cluttered living room, my head in my hands. It had been a particularly discouraging day. My mind was heavy with confusion and doubts.
“I don’t know if I have ever felt forgiveness from Jesus,” I told my companion. “I don’t think I know what the atonement even means.”
It started a few weeks before my mission began. A desperate struggle, battling guilt and despair over all the sins I had ever committed. I’d always considered myself a good person, righteous, worthy, etc. But now, in the heightened state of spiritual strain only a full-time mission can bring, as I ran the last few years back through my mind over and over again, I realized I had not exactly been a model Mormon.
The ones that hurt worst were the ones I’d done deliberately, almost with glee, sure that God had better things to do than worry about my minor indiscretions. And they were mostly minor. Watching R-rated movies, for example, or kissing boys I barely knew just for the helluvit. Oh yeah. And cursing.
It ate away at me. I plead with God constantly for an experience like Alma the Younger or Enos, who had sweet and undeniable assurances of their worthiness before God. But every time, disparaging thoughts came haunting back…They were different–they weren’t believers–you should have known–Jesus shouldn’t have to bear your load–how dare you even ask?
It lasted all through my mission. It’s probably why I had so few baptisms. I worked so hard my feet developed blisters and my body ached every night, but I taught without testimony. How could I preach the Savior when I hardly knew Him myself?
After I came home, it didn’t get better. If anything, it got worse. Persistent fear. Guilt over every mistake. I was angry at how much more difficult it was to be righteous at home than it had been in the mission field, and I began to resent my mission experience for creating an expectation for a standard I would never be able to achieve again.
Then marriage. And motherhood. Every mounting responsibility brought the looming specter of potential failure. It paralyzed me.
Around this time, Lanny began dialogging with evangelical Christians online. I watched their discussions from a careful distance. They spoke of a concept I had never understood–in fact, a concept I had Bible bashed on my mission–the concept of salvation by grace, not works. It seemed too good to be true. But considering my misery, I gave it a closer look. I spent hours reading books and talks and articles and blogs. I attended lectures by visiting Christian theologians. I felt the tug of mercy.
I began to learn that repentance isn’t a checklist, but a realization of your total dependence on Christ. That you can never be “good enough,” no matter how hard you try, and so you ask God to cleanse you–and He does. That good works can never save you, no matter how good or how plentiful they are. That you serve God because you love Him, because He created you and saved you, not because you’re trying to work your way to heaven.
It was a revolutionary paradigm shift for me. I lightened up. I found joy in living again.
It still disturbs me that I had to learn this from sources outside the Church. In fact, when I compared my newfound understanding with everything I’d learned about salvation from my Mormon upbringing, I almost left the Church entirely. The works-centric vocabulary…the constant injunctions to “be worthy”…and that incomprehensible scripture in 2 Nephi that still gives me heartburn: “After all we can do…”
In the end, I stayed because the Book of Mormon is, at its core, a Christ-centered volume. I stayed because, for all my doubts and confusion, I’ve had spiritual experiences I can’t deny. And I stayed because I hope my sweet grandma is waiting for me on the other side…and I’d sure like to be with her forever.
What’s more, I feel the winds of change in the Church. I know I’m not the only one to have suffered needlessly from an incorrect understanding of the doctrine of grace. I see it preached more openly and freely now than even 5 years ago. Perhaps it’s because now I have ears to hear. Whatever the case, I hope that in some small way I might be able to contribute to a Christ-centered revolution within Mormonism, where He takes His proper place at the core of absolutely everything we do in the Church.
*Please note that when I say “Evangelical Mormon,” I mean I subscribe to a religious philosophy that declares that salvation is through the grace of Christ, not works, and advocate that position within Mormonism. I do NOT support much–if anything–of what the Evangelical movement stands for politically.