Sin Boldly! – Part Four: Real Faith

We reach the conclusion of my four part mini-series detailing what I believe, discovered during the grappling of a very real doctrinal problem.

Living a life of passion requires real, active faith. As we pursue a life of goodness and righteousness, pushing the boundaries of our faith so that we may grow, we make mistakes, we rush things, we mess up, we fail. We draw false conclusions, believe skewed or incomplete doctrines, and make outrageous claims. God looks into our hearts and knows why. Do we do this out of selfishness, out of a need to justify or rationalize our sins, or because we seek truth and we seek God? The Atonement has nullified the effects of an unavoidable sinful life. Instead of obsessing over whether our individual actions fall under the massive scope of our commandments, wondering whether or not skipping a church committee meeting to spend an impromptu ice cream night with your children is right or wrong, or whether driving the pretty secretary home without your wife in the car with you will put across the right or wrong message (or whether leaving her to walk in the rain would send the right or wrong message), we focus on intent. We fill our lives with charity, with compassion, with love, with forgiveness, and with a strong sense of right and wrong. When people tell us we’re too brash, we’re too passionate, we need to rein in our zeal, we take note, we learn, we adjust, and we quickly learn to temper our fire with knowledge, temperance, and wisdom. We allow the Maker’s hammer to beat us against the anvil so that we can become a useful tool in His hands, rather than hope that we can stay on the shelf, shapeless, formless, and safe. This way, the lump of ore thinks, I can never disappoint. I will never exhibit any imperfection. The thinking is false – the imperfections may never come into light (though eventually, all of them will), but they never go away. The lump of ore remains untested and impure.

When we understand our predicament as people, we can’t help but fill our hearts with charity. We understand that nobody stands in a better position, that we all need help, and that no matter how vile we become, God still thinks we’re worth something. That’s a powerful belief and a powerful sentiment. Faith becomes less an expression of public standing due to our outward appearances and acts but more of an internalized expression of faith and rejoicing within the powerful redemptive force known as the Atonement.

Examine this case scenario. When Alma the Younger’s son embarrasses him by running off with a harlot, instead of telling Corianton how ashamed he was, how he could never show his face at the local ward again, how now he must endure the prying eyes and furtive whispers, Alma gently reminds his son that all actions have consequences and then proceeds to teach him – what else? – about the Garden of Eden and the Atonement. Instead of warning his son to avoid sin “or else” or lashing him verbally for all the pain and trouble and shame and embarrassment his sin had caused, he reassures him of the peaceful, loving promise God offers all of his children: “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29). Then, in an incredible move of reconciliation and love, he reinstates his son as a missionary, and the scriptures tell us that his sons go out and preach the word with incredible success. The father who had suffered the harrowing pains of hell because of his own passion completely understood his son’s sexual passion. No need to put the fear of God into this child – only to teach him carefully about the Atonement, help his son to internalize it and understand its implications, and then show the same mercy God showed him.

Sin is inevitable. God teaches us this in the Garden of Eden. There will be times when you will face impossible choices, choices that perhaps it becomes impossible to sin, even when we strive so hard to do good. Yes, perhaps we may get a little dirty along the way; this is lamentable. But it is also inevitable. Even a life of strict asceticism and self-denial will lead to sin, for there will have no opportunities to serve humanity. But even from the beginning, God had a plan to counteract the deadly effects of sin. Christ has overcome the world, and it’s our job to use this liberating gift to do as much good as possible. It’s impossible to have acted perfectly in this life, our burden to bear as imperfect mortals. But perhaps it’s not impossible to have perfect intentions in this life and that’s what Christ wanted us to have when He commanded us to be perfect and when God began to tell us a story of how He set up a very tricky, impossible situation for His first children where sinning was impossible to avoid and maybe, that’s actually not as bad as we think.

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6 responses to “Sin Boldly! – Part Four: Real Faith

  1. I must say Ted– your concern and thought are admirable. I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion, but I must admit that in general, if you are LDS– you should probably get comfortable with paradox– because before you resolve things, you may have to live with some for quite a long time.

    In addition– you claim that the explanation for the garden situation is a cultural one ( namely that Eve recognized the need to leave the garden– or at least the need for change). Do you then imply that such is entirely non-doctrinal? I hadn’t thought about that– but I’ve long thought that if several general authorities agree on something, it’s more than likely doctrinal– have none of them stated this? Or has it only been suggested by one or two?

    Finally, my own view. God deliberately created a situation in which Adam and Eve would have to prioritize commandments and learn to obey the higher law. Note that in the garden– (in all accounts I am aware of) God’s very first command was to ‘multiply and replenish the earth’. (See Genesis 1:28) Yet Adam and Eve seem to have been unable to accomplish this in the garden– in fact this has been stated explicitly by general authorities, although I can’t remember who. So– in order to comply with the first commandment (I interpret this as the ‘higher law’), they had to disobey a second (the ‘lower law’).

    Eve saw the need for change, and although the serpent attempted to deceive her, I’m not sure whether he could. She lived in the presence of God, after all– I’m almost inclined to believe she saw through the deception and picked out the truth in his words that pertained to her situation. However– that is the gospel according to ME, and not doctrine that I’m aware of.

    Thank you for the thought provoking essay(s).

    • Ted

      Thanks!

      I think the current Eve explanation is cultural for two reasons. One, I’m an amateur sociologist, so I tend to see everything as influenced by culture and society. Two, because as far as I know, the Eve explanation only cropped up recently. True, the LDS faith has always been much more charitable to Eve than most Christian denominations, but this whole idea of the “wise, feminine mystique” that Eve carried is, I think, a relatively recent phenomenon.

      The fact that multiple GAs have mentioned it doesn’t mean much to me because (1) GAs can say cultural things from time to time (case in point: Boy Scouts is always mentioned in General Conference but I would loathe to say the program is as inspired or important in the same way missionary work or the Priesthood is) and (2) it just doesn’t jive. Why would Eve be that much smarter than Adam? Again, we derive this conclusion from culture and the message is everywhere – the woman (when not busy being a lewd temptress she-devil) is the competent, wise, practical one, while the husband can’t vacuum the carpet without setting the cat on fire (just watch any commercial about cleaning supplies).

      Of course, if you’re really cynical (like some on the bloggernacle) you would say the current Eve explanation is a two-fold attempt to placate our consciences on the current state of women in the church (basically second-class citizens) and to placate women by saying they are more spiritual than men (again, I vehemently disagree with this statement). It’s the same how we tend to worship or insinuate that LDS people outside of the United States are extremely faithful and probably more faithful than us fat, lazy State-side saints – currently, non-whites are underrepresented in our global church and it’s that two-fold purpose again. But that’s if you’re really cynical. Which I’m only halfway there. 😀

      Back to the original Eve explanation, though. Both Adam and Eve existed in a bubble of innocence – they could do no evil or good. They had no knowledge of the two concepts (otherwise, why would they need to eat the fruit?). If that’s the case, Eve can’t have much wisdom beyond basic survival; otherwise, she wouldn’t have had to have eaten it. There would have been no need. The whole argument falls apart if we are to understand that before, they couldn’t sin (which has been the pretty consistent explanation of the Garden’s state – I mean, it’s right in the Book of Mormon, our basic primary source). Adam and Eve’s transgression or sin or whatever you want to call it introduced the Fall of not just Adam but the world. Death, evil, the whole Pandora’s Box. If we are to believe Lehi’s assertion that you cannot have good without evil and vice versa, since there was no evil in the Garden of Eden (it dissolved the very instant Adam and Eve began to disobey God), there could have been no good, and thus, they were in a state of awful purgatory and it would have been pretty hellish if they hadn’t been physically taken care of so well and in a state of child-like innocence.

      However, I do like your higher law/lesser law explanation. It would give more of a background and explanation to what was happening in the Garden beyond the “it’s not important to our salvation” nonsense. Again, though, breaking the lesser law was still punishable by death (and thus, serious), so I still assert that the Garden was to teach us the inevitability of sin, that He already had a plan to save us, and that we are reliant on God for salvation.

  2. Jamie

    Our purpose on this earth is to grow, learn truth for ourselves and progress all while restraining ourselves, obeying other people and “becoming like little children.”

    I don’t think we’re meant to break one in order to fulfill the other. It’s tempting to want to simply prioritize, but I’m not convinced that that message is supported by modern doctrine, or even by scripture. Progress would be a lot easier without obedience, commandments and restrictions, (just like obeying the commandments would be a lot easier without trying to grow and progress). I don’t think one requirement is higher than the other. Based on one’s personality, one is definitely more appealing. For me, learning and expanding myself is definitely more attractive, and feels much more worthwhile to the point that I find myself almost sneering at the other. Looking down on those who highly value obedience to the exclusion of agency and growth. But really, I’d be just as wrong to skip out on a church obligation to spend impromptu ice cream time with my family as someone who skips their daughter’s piano recital to better fulfill their calling.

    I think we are expected to fulfill both requirements. I certainly don’t know how we’re supposed to that, but maybe the test of mortal life is to figure that out. To learn to embrace two opposites and make them the same thing, or make them a greater whole.

    • Ted

      The tug and pull of both sides is very strong in Mormon culture, and we have a hard time finding the center of it all. That’s probably the ultimate test of life so I don’t imagine the answers come easily. The real basic point I guess is that it’s okay if we make mistakes and tip over left or right as we try to find out center because God expected it and He’s got us covered.

      Still, definitely I would not discount obedience. Obedience helps us to understand God, which helps us to make better decisions. However, I do believe that we need to be careful about what we obey – do we obey God, or cultural expectation, or the ideas of others that aren’t necessarily from God? This requires thinking and foresight.

      On both counts of both examples, I would choose family obligations over church obligations, but I guess that’s because I’m on that side of the spectrum right now.

    • While the ‘find a way to fulfill both commandments’ is certainly applicable in many situations– and is in fact an eye-opening way to look at things, I’m convinced there are situations when the higher law trumps the lower law. You indicate doubt for modern doctrinal support or scriptural support– but Jesus himself made the statement about the ‘Ox in the mire’.

      Should I go to church for the entire 3 hour block? Preferably. But I’d skip half of sacrament meeting and the rest of church to take care of a sick child (although I’ll admit that I don’t have kids yet). One’s family is the priority.

      So in general, I think the lesser/higher law approach holds up fairly often. Other times I think our conception of paradoxical expectations or situations is a notion of false binaries– we conceive of things as being incompatible, or opposite, or what have you– when really they aren’t opposites.

      One fantastic example of this is Faith and Reason– which are often pitted against each other. Truly the opposite of Reason is Irrationality, and the opposite of Faith something more like Nihilism. But still we see it in Testimonies and Sunday Schools.

  3. Ted

    I would agree with the notion that the binary system of morality is really erroneous. What it tends to do, however, is breakdown the idea of commandments as rules and more like guidelines. This upsets a lot of orthodox people but I would agree with this.

    Coincidently, just stumbled across some anecdotal experience from a former bishop who said in the late 1990s Elder Oaks spoke at their regional conference and opened up immediately with “In our church we don’t have rules. We have doctrine and principles.” I like that.

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