The penultimate chapter of my recent disgorging of religious belief. I’ve spoken extensively on the Atonement and what it means to me. Here I reject the traditional LDS cultural belief of what works necessarily means, and that perhaps we might not be as culturally far apart from the misaligned Pharisees as we think.
Then what about works? All of this sounds vaguely and suspiciously…evangelical. So all I have to do is believe in Jesus and I’m saved, no questions asked? That’s silly and naïve. Grace was too easy, there had to be a catch, some kind of small print I’m missing. I once thought this way, too.
First of all, what’s wrong with easy? After all, Christ says that His yoke is light (Matthew 11:30). The prophets lament that all we had to do was look, but because of the ease of the action, many perish (Alma 33:19-22). Naaman, the leprous man who visited the Old Testament prophet Elisha initially rejected his counsel because it was too easy for a great man like himself (2 Kings 5). Ease has nothing to do with the equation.
However, the scriptures are explicit that faith must be coupled in some way with good works. The epistle James famously declares that faith without works is dead (James 2:26); even Paul, that great proponent of faith, urges church members to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). What exactly do these good works mean?
Many church members think good works must exist as some kind of checklist; Elder Oaks famously compared the erroneous thinking as a spiritual bank account. Another group of people believed that good works meant strict adherence to the commandments alone, and Jesus openly derided them during His earthly ministry. He scolded them for their scrupulous, meticulous measurements for tithes of mint and cumin, and yet forgetting the weightier matters of the law, such as mercy and justice (Matthew 23:23). And what of Mormon’s warning that God rejects even good gifts offered up begrudgingly (Moroni 7:8)? Intention rules all when it comes to doing any good, for we begin to understand that good works themselves have no real saving power; intention empowers good acts to become manifestations of the grace of God within us. There is little power or morality derived from the things we do – morality exists within the intention, and the blessings of obedience grow as our intent eventually aligns with our outward actions.
However, we focus far too much on what someone does rather than how they feel or whether they have faith in Christ. Some of this attitude derives itself from institutional practice, which is lamentable (conflating the Word of Wisdom, for example, with having faith in Jesus Christ to qualify for temple blessings seems rather erroneous, even if from an administrative point of view some find it necessary). Still, much of it derives from our attitude towards the Atonement. When one embraces the Atonement as the key to everyone’s salvation, not just our own, we realize that our good merits earn us very little in the long run. We’ll still mess up and make mistakes. Instead of our actions as a tool to save our own skin, we begin to see our actions as tools to save others, to alleviate pain and suffering. Our decisions should focus on helping others and to show mercy to our fellow humans as much as possible.
Basic obedience is important – Christ obeyed all points of the law. However, the concept of perfect obedience becomes impossible when we understand we’ve already blown it. In addition, as an aside, Christ understood the difference between commandments of God and cultural commandments. Healing on the Sabbath infuriated the Pharisees but Christ felt that commandment held no power. Unfortunately, because of our natures, we cannot know without doubt which commandment comes from God and which from man – but it’s okay. Mistakes happen, and God already anticipated that scenario. So don’t stress it. If our religion orbits around the Atonement, then we understand that nothing matters but our acceptance of that gift and its cleansing power. All other things, such as obedience or prayer or church or attendance or the abstinence of coffee or food storage lead us to that center. When they cease to lead us to the center no matter how hard we try, perhaps it becomes time for us to reconsider their usefulness.
Still, we should devote our lives to good works. But what kind of good works? The For Strength of Youth pamphlet is a good start, but remember that Moses didn’t use the For Strength of Youth pamphlet to deliver Israel. Reliance on the Spirit and our own developing discernment is the ultimate key to good decision making, and unfortunately, we can’t exercise our discernment without making a few mistakes (silly mortals that we are). Good thing the Atonement took care of that potential disaster! We understand that committee meetings will not save us, to riff on an old, yet apt, Mormon stereotype, but ignoring the promptings to help a homeless man on the way to said meetings (regardless of our socio-political-economic beliefs on homelessness) could potentially cause us to release our grip on the Atonement. When we refuse to apply the Atonement to others and their mistakes, what does it say for us?