Tag Archives: grace

Public stoning, complicity, basketball, and shame-based punishment

Recently, if you don’t follow sports, BYU suspended one of it’s star players from the basketball team for breaking the Honor Code — specifically, according to the news, for having pre-marital sex with his girlfriend. The suspension came during the NCAA playoffs, and BYU, favored to do incredibly well, was severely crippled and lost to an unranked team.

BYU has, as expected, drawn a lot of both praise and ire. Some applaud what they term BYU’s commitment to its principles, giving up a lot of prestige, fame, and money for the basketball program in order to keep its integrity. Others attack the Honor Code itself, calling it prudish, archaic, old fashioned, and draconian.

However, neither of these things — basketball or BYU’s Honor Code* — actually matter in the grand scheme of things. As the news unfolded and exploded (this story has been covered and commented on by various news outlets, as well as the Daily Show, and Brandon Davies had been trending for days on Twitter), I started to worry most about the victims involved — the poor player, for one, and especially his girlfriend. Their lives have been irrevocably changed for the worse.

I was a bit dismayed at how cavalierly people seemed to dismiss the trauma Davies and his girlfriend must be going through. Not only has his sin been broadcast throughout the nation via sattelite broadcast, cable, internet, and Twitter, but many blame him for ruining what could have been arguably the one of the best seasons for BYU basketball in history. People have told me that Davies “knew what he signed” and that “if he chooses to transfer, he will do fine in another school,” but nobody talks about how his membership and role in the Church would  change. Not only will he be known as “that guy” for the rest of his life in the Mormon sports world — no matter where he goes — but he will no longer ever be able to function properly within the Mormon community again as well. Wherever he goes, people will know who he is, and they will probably not like him or trust him. Imagine if every time you went into the bishop’s office to confess a sin, it was broadcast on CNN and Jon Stewart commented on it. Even small sins would be mortifying; serious ones would make it very difficult to show your face at church again.

And, of course, nobody ever talks about the ramifications for his girlfriend, who will perhaps endure worse abuse. She is now the Yoko Ono of BYU basketball. She will now become the object lesson in hundreds of Young Women lessons about how important it is to guard your chastity and the horrible consequences if you fail to do so (how would you like to become the cautionary tale of how dangerous it is to be a slut overnight?). And when looking at the Church’s track record in the past on how they treat women who have sinned (especially sexually), she is in for a world of shame and degredation. It’s inevitable in a culture where chastity and virtue is taught through cakes with dirt in them and used chewing gum (that, by the way, completely ignore the power of the Atonement). What is especially unjust in her case is that she is not a high profile Mormon or an “ambassador” or “representative” of the Church. She was just a good girl who made an unfortunate mistake and now she’s going to pay in disproportionate spades for it. And though the media has (thankfully) not centered too much on her for the news, she will live in constant fear, if she chooses to stay in the Church, that someone will discover “who she is.”

What kills me about this is that it was so avoidable. Could they not have shown a little clemency with this case? Normally, when students break the Honor Code in a serious way, it is taken care of as privately as possible; it certainly isn’t discussed on ESPN. Certainly, BYU did not promote this story nor make it public, but this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Certainly they knew this would become a public scandal, especially with the spotlight so sharply lighting up the BYU basketball team. Could they not have waited until the cameras were off Davies to punish him? Even if a disgruntled student leaked the fact to the press, BYU could have claimed that they simply wanted to protect his privacy until after the season. Instead, by dismissing him from the team during such a high profile moment of the season, they all but signed his warrant to the press.

But of  course, this is no skin off of BYU’s nose. They look like heroes, staunch supporters of traditional, old-fashioned chastity and integrity. Davies knew what he was getting into (ignoring the fact that most of us make serious mistakes all the time but don’t have the news talking about it). Justice, many Mormons would say, has been served. Many probably feel betrayed, hurt, even humiliated a little. How could he betray our principles? He deserves it. And while I cannot speak for the motivations of BYU, I can’t help but feel that we assuaged our hurt at the expense of two precious lives of God’s children. Why should we consider our actions? He’s the one that sinned, right? Was it worth it?

The situation has often been framed as two decisions — either kick Davies off because he did break the Honor Code that he pledged to follow, and we should follow through with punishment; or, we let Davies off the hook, and people will see us corrupt and weak, and the sinner will go unpunished, which is not just. But there’s a third, middle way. Give Davies some clemency until the spotlight is no longer on him, and then, with a little more privacy, work towards repentance. People will say that means we’re rewarding sin, but I’m sure some people saw that when Jesus forgave the adultress who was about to be stoned. People will say the world will interpret it as preferential treatment, not mercy, but don’t we teach that the world often takes good and spins it into evil? Who cares what the world thinks? We certainly didn’t care during Prop 8, right? Why care now?

In the end, why did we really punish Davies? We had options — why did we choose the harshest one? Was it really to administer justice? And seeing how Davies’ and his girlfriend’s membership in the Church has been thoroughly obstructed and demoralized for years, if not for the rest of their lives, was this truly “just”? If not, what motivated this?

People will say I adopt a clemency stance because I am a liberal moral relativist seduced by the world and ashamed of God’s principles. They could not be further from the truth. I adopt this stance because of the example of a merciful man who was my mission president and one of the most faithful, God fearing men I know. Some missionaries complained that he was too lenient with some of the “problem missionaries” who broke the rules. We were sick of them; they dragged everyone else down, never did any work, passed up opportunities to teach people who were yearning for the gospel. Why didn’t he just send them home? In many cases, he would be justified; he admitted that it would probably even “clean up” the mission a lot and possibly boost morale. But, he asked us, after they get home, what then? Their lives in the Church would be crushed forever. If they somehow stay active, it will be despite their mission experience, not because of it. “No,” he taught, “I am concerned about the eternal consequences of these missionaries’ souls, not their short term success on the mission.”

So, we cleaned up the BYU basketball team, and showed sinners and potential sinners what’s up. The Church is serious about this sexual purity thing and they’re here to take prisoners and names. But at what cost? Davies and his girlfriend have just been saddled with an immense burden to their Church membership that will not likely go away. Those who decided to suspend him when they did most likely knew not only the consequences to their team, but also the resultant shark feeding that would descend on Davies via the media. But apparently something was more important. What? BYU’s dignity and integrity? Good old-fashioned justice? The Church’s image? And how do they compare with the potential worth of two souls, especially in the eyes of God?

A lot of people accuse the Church of being more focused on exclusive membership rather than merciful inclusion. They accuse us of using shame-based tactics and heavy-handed punishments to keep the people in line, especially when it comes to sexual matters. I had hoped that this was not true, and we proclaim that this is not true, but perhaps the Davies incident has shown what our true colors really are.

* When I talk about the Honor Code not mattering in the grand scheme of things, I mean the Honor Code in its entirety. Many of the rules of the Honor Code are based off what we teach as true gospel principles (such as honesty). However, considering that Jesus, the Son of God Himself, could not go to BYU because of the Honor Code (he drank wine and had a beard), the Honor Code is a man-made set of rules that will not matter one whit during the Judgment

/puts on fire hazard suit



Filed under life stories, religion

Sin Boldly! – Part Eight: Personal Salvation, Personal Qualification

So how does one qualify for the Atonement? This is the obvious question people ask when they realize the awesome power the Atonement holds. Here lies the battlefield of a hundred denominations, and the crux of the issue for many, many Christians. At this very doctrinal issue we argue and gnash our teeth and condemn and hate and deride and bully. How exactly does one qualify for God’s redeeming grace?

At the extreme end we find utilitarianism, the idea that anyone can qualify for God without even necessarily believing in God. At the other extreme end we find those who believe that strict obedience and perfection is the only road to heaven. Most people remain in the grey middle, drawing up lines denying access to the Atonement for some while allowing others into their hearts.

However, vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord, and He also remains the sole arbiter for the fate of mankind. Only He can look into our hearts and read our intent. A common turn of phrase in our Church says we’ll all be surprised who ends up in the Celestial Kingdom – and who doesn’t. However, few people believe this. I’ve met many a Mormon who feels that those who drink coffee won’t make it. This is, albeit, definitely one of the more extreme and ridiculous notions, but it isn’t indicative of just our denomination. I’ve also met Evangelicals who believe that people who love Harry Potter won’t make the cut. I hope that all good, loving, thinking Christians realize this is rubbish.

When God tells us not to judge, He means to tell us not to judge who will make it and who won’t. Many a breath has been spent, many an inkwell spilled, about whether or not Emma Smith will make it to the Celestial Kingdom or not. If we spent just as much time continually asking ourselves if we feel we qualify and how we could improve ourselves and help others, our Church would grow in stature and maturity. Such speculative thinking damages us on a twofold basis. First of all, the entire exercise wastes a monumental amount of time. Only God knows, and we won’t know everything until the end. Wondering who will make it and who won’t based on limited knowledge is like trying to game the stock market with a limited understanding of economics – even those who obtained a vast understanding and corpus of knowledge about the stock market will never beat it. Those who try simply because they read one investment book or watched Mad Money will get burned, simple as that. Secondly, we begin to gossip of others and worry more about how others act than ourselves. Gossip is dangerously corrosive; Satan wants us to deflect attention from ourselves towards others. This way, we lose focus of why we’re here in the first place and begin to look down on others – a dangerous trend, the scriptures teach us.

The relationship with God should be an intensely personal one – for a case study, look no further than Alma 5. Alma 5 has the reputation as the “interview chapter.” Alma desires the reader to ask him or herself a series of questions concerning his or her relationship with God. He asks them, among other things:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

Notice Alma doesn’t ask a lot of questions about various specific commandments. He doesn’t ask if you keep the law of chastity, or if your sleeves cover your shoulders and midriff. He doesn’t ask about our specific media consumption. Alma asks about intent, he asks about feeling, he asks about change. He wants to know if we’ve changed our hearts and our intentions, if we’ve experienced God’s mercy and the power of His Atonement, and (very importantly) if we remember it. Then, and only then, does he ask if we continue to do good works, because Alma understands that a desire to do good is a symptom of God’s good infection. How does he detail disobedience to God? As defiance and pride. Defiance because they refuse to hearken to God’s call, despite it being open to everyone, and pride because they feel better than others. We are “too good” to accept the Atonement – we simply cannot accept or come to grips with the fact that we – we in all of our worldly glory! – make mistakes all the time and cannot save ourselves. We cannot bring ourselves to understand that we need God everyday. This thought process contributes directly to the idea that tapping into the healing, forgiving power of the Atonement is shameful and weak, and that those who make mistakes should be shunned. The world constructed from these premises is not only delusional; it is cruel.

But most importantly, notice that Alma only asks about you. He doesn’t ask you to ask your neighbor. He doesn’t say, “Want to know if you’re gonna make it? Ask your bishop and pastor. He’ll know.” Only you can know the answer, because ultimately, salvation comes from God, not man.

So how do you know if you qualify for the Atonement? Ask God – read, pray, listen, talk to others who claim to have had similar experiences of God’s cleansing power. But ultimately, no one can tell you whether or not you qualify except for you (and God). You will know in your heart what you need to do. He’ll let you know – and only you. Are there general basic principles to help us develop a closer relationship with God? Absolutely. But can we use these basic principles to gauge where a person stands in the eyes of God? Absolutely not. Does this make it messy? Yes, it does. Does it make religion a little hectic, possibly even subjective? Maybe. But just as how Christ visited the Nephites in the Book of Mormon one by one, the Atonement is a one on one process (2 Nephi 11:15). Hierarchy, bureaucracy, theocracy – neither of these can package up and parcel out salvation. We utilize the priesthood to administer saving ordinances, but there’s a reason why we also administer saving ordinances to the dead – God understood that by leaving a portion of His work in our hands and our initiative, we would make mistakes (we are human, after all). But He didn’t plan on leaving anyone behind on account of our own mortal pettiness; we can see so little of the plan in our current position and with our current scope. God’s cosmic plan encapsulates more than this mortal life, and He made sure the Atonement was more broad, eternal, and timeless than our own temporary, human mistakes.

1 Comment

Filed under religion

Sin Boldly! – Part Seven: Fear and Trembling

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?

1 Comment

Filed under religion

Sin Boldly! – Part Six: The Atonement Isn’t the Conclusion; It’s the Premise

Recently, I wrote a four part mini-series about my faith and my conclusions after struggling with a particularly disturbing doctrinal problem. I have felt the need to further explain some of the basic ideas I believe concerning the Atonement and how they formulate the blueprints for my current theological mindset.

We often act like the Atonement is our fault. Because of this, we also treat accessing the Atonement as a form of weakness. We cluck our tongues and shake our heads when people walk mournfully into the bishop’s office to confess some grave sin and thank God that He doesn’t allow us to sin like the other weaker people around us (compare with Alma 31:17). But rather, life is the other way around – tapping into the infinite healing power of the Atonement exhibits strength of character; hiding in the shadows, our tails tucked between our legs, avoiding as much life as possible so that we can avoid sin as much as possible and thus avoid the Atonement as much as possible shows cowardice and a lack of faith in God’s promise. “I have overcome the world,” Jesus tells His followers right before their darkest moments (John 16:33). He reminds them that they need not live the same fearful, suffocating life as the Pharisees – He is about to set them free.

God planned the Atonement from the very beginning. The Atonement didn’t come about as a consequence of the Fall of Adam; rather, the Fall of Adam was an unfortunate reality, an inevitable occurrence derived from the basic fact of the Atonement’s necessity. When Eve ate the fruit and convinced Adam to as well, heaven’s courts calmly came down to the Garden to remind Adam and Eve the consequences as well as reassure them of the future Atonement. They did not freak out and scramble about for a contingency plan, pulling out blueprints and waking up Jesus from His nap to tell Him that the Worst Thing That Could Happen actually happened and now, He needed to experience the most horrific of experiences – taking upon Himself the crushing weight of humanity’s sinful nature and mortal pain – because of us and, gosh darn it, we really screwed things up.

As mentioned before, people associate repentance and accessing the Atonement with guilt – mostly because we as members impose that guilt upon others. We treat the church as a monastery for pious saints rather than a hospital for sick sinners. We forget after the years of membership within the church that we go to church every Sunday not to fulfill our calling or attend Sunday School or bear our testimonies but to partake within the priesthood ordinance of communion in order to re-baptize ourselves and cleanse ourselves from sin. We go to church because a necessary priesthood ordinance occurs every Sunday that allows us to personally tap into the Atonement and its cleansing power. We forget, sometimes, that we rely on Christ completely.

Christianity has the potential to liberate people, especially from guilt, especially from pain, especially from sorrow, especially from regret; instead, we strap people to a liturgy of commandments that we must strictly follow in all points, no exceptions. No coffee, no tea, no alcohol, no smoking. No R-rated movies, no video games on Sunday, no family brunches before church at the local buffet for grandpa’s birthday. We define church membership and our sense of belonging to the beverages we drink or the discrepancies in doctrine. We allow people to voice the idea that black people are the result of disobedience in a past life, but we refuse to give any say to people who say that perhaps homosexuality results from nature and not choice. We parcel out the monikers and categories, placing people in safe boxes labeled Good Mormons, Jack Mormons, Unorthodox Mormons, Coffee Drinking Mormons, Ex-Mormons, Disfellowshipped Mormons, Dry Mormons, and the ubiquitous Non-Member.

The Atonement, however, makes no distinctions. Christ will not turn anyone away from the Atonement. In the eyes of God, all of us sin and thus, all of us stand in need of mercy. When we begin to make distinctions we lose sight of the important fact that nobody can achieve any kind of better salvation than the other; no other categories exist. There’s good news and bad news, however. The good news is we can stop worrying about what people think and it becomes easier to forgive each other and ourselves when we realize that mistakes, slights, offensives and even really big screw-ups are inevitable. The bad news is we can never feel better than someone else based upon our adherence to the commandments alone. The one major tenant of Christianity all Christians can agree on regardless of denomination is that we all are sinners in need of some serious mercy. Even the prophet, the Pope, Rick Warren, or Billy Graham.

1 Comment

Filed under religion

Sin Boldly! – Part Five: The Atonement Isn’t a Worst-Case Scenario; It’s the Best-Case Scenario

After completing the mini-series, I’ve felt a need to expand more on my ideas of the Atonement and why I believe. This is the first part, detailing how as a church culture we often exhibit a very wrong attitude towards the Atonement of Christ.

Like the Pharisees, sometimes we may feel paralyzed from the fear of sin, or even the simple perception. We chide people who commit acts that might even have the inkling of evil. Members preach about the dangers of chocolate, because it has caffeine, and caffeine is in coffee, and coffee is against the Word of Wisdom. I knew a missionary who felt that working out was evil because then you would become physically attractive and if you were physically attractive you might break the law of chastity and even if you didn’t sleep around with beautiful women, people might think you were. We treat the Atonement as a worst case scenario – that if all else fails, if every other option is exhausted then we might think about accessing a little bit of the Atonement’s power. Our attitude towards the Atonement resembles our attitude towards food storage; it’s comforting to know it’s there, but heaven forbid we ever have to actually use it.

The truth of the matter is different, however. Rather than a worst case scenario, the Atonement is the best case scenario. We preach not the idea of perfection achieved by human will with an unpleasant backup plan. We preach the idea that despite our inevitable imperfections, God has provided a way to save us. The Atonement is central to everything we preach, yet often as members we push it aside as a periphery doctrine. I do not believe we do this on purpose, but accepting the Atonement means accepting some very unsavory concepts of ourselves – that as mortals, we lack ability to save ourselves, that no matter how hard we try, the world will sully us – this kind of thought can become disturbing for the most of us. So we push it aside. Instead, we talk about how the gospel strengthens our families, how we feel needed within our lay clergy church structure, or perhaps how without the Church, we have no idea how we could have raised our rowdy teenagers. We talk about temporal blessings or perhaps the sweet whispers of the Holy Spirit when we lie in our beds, our pillows wet with the tears of our sorrows and loneliness. We might talk about how the presence of the priesthood has blessed our homes or how our sons and daughters have become valiant missionaries. But none of this matters without the Atonement. Until we promote the idea that Christ has died for us, until we internalize the fact that the Atonement has freed us from sin, that we have no more need to fear the cold, ruthless hand of justice, until we actually begin to live as if God actually overcame the world and we no longer fear ourselves because God not only thinks we are worth something but actually put proved it, we promote nothing more than another philosophy, another ideology. We belong not to the body of Christ but to a social club where we parade our picture perfect families and swap mission stories and talk about our latest “tender mercies” while judging those who might not live as picture perfect of lives as us and quavering in fear that someone might discover our lives have become a facade as well.

“Before you were formed in the belly, I knew thee,” God reminds the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus declared to the furious Pharisees (John 8:58). God knew the type of people we would become, even before our parents conceived us. He’s existed forever; He knows the drill. The sinful nature of mortal man is a constant in the universe, like gravity or the speed of light. Before the formation of the earth, before our narrative began, God began to concoct a plan. He wanted His children to grow, to learn, to love, to experience life. But He knew the constant of the universe – mortals make mistakes. And so, He planned the Atonement. He knew nothing humanity could do could redeem itself. God will come down, save humanity, and humanity will experience the wide range of opportunities known as life without the fear of spiritual death as long as they clung to the Atonement and its promises.

“Men are that they might have joy,” the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi declares (2 Nephi 2:25). A life of joy is not a life spent in guilt. We discourage people through negative association from accessing the Atonement because we emphasize the sufferings and deprivations of sin rather than the cure as (for?) a church culture. Too many bishops feel their job is to discipline, not to forgive. As judges of Israel, they would rather pass sentence rather than rehabilitate. The Atonement is not a gift in many members’ eyes; it is a punishment. It is a walk of shame which we must endure in order to appease the anger of a jealous God. But this thinking is wrong – not only do we make our potential conversation and relationship with God horrible and painful, we estrange ourselves from his His true character. We deny the aspect of the Atonement which establishes itself firmly as a gift, not a scourge to castigate, and instead of emphasizing His mercy as His Son did, we emphasize His anger. We have replaced mercy (and the Atonement) with the stern schoolmaster, not the other way around as Paul wanted (Galatians 3:24) – he’s probably spinning in his grave (or in heaven or the spirit world – whichever you prefer). This attitude only separates us from the power the Atonement has to offer and when we see others access it, we assume weakness rather than humility and strength, all the while forgetting that stating the fact of weakness in humans is like stating the fact that humans need to breathe to exist – it’s so ubiquitous, so natural, so common-knowledge that the fact loses any sense of wonderment or fascination. So why do we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that our sinful natures are some kind of bizarre aberration of who we are? And why do we refuse to see that the Atonement is the cure, not the cross, for sin?


Filed under religion

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.


Filed under religion

Sin Boldly! – Part One: The Paradoxical Garden

This blog has experienced a long absence of anything new posted because I lost internet for three weeks. This did not mean, however, that I had stopped writing. I began working on an extensive project to lay down what I felt was the groundwork of my current theological mindset – half an attempt at therapy because of my recent rapid loss of enthusiasm for a religion I felt marginalized and disappointed me, and half an attempt to put into words what I believe.

Lately I’ve been introduced to a quote by Martin Luther which has reinvigorated my theological outlook on life. Luther infamously declared, “Sin boldly!*” While Luther and I have come to theological disagreements, two things we believe in common – the mercy of God is paramount to any Christian faith, and it is impossible to get through life without sin. Reliance on Christ is the key. When Luther made his famous declaration, he meant not to go out and sin but that it is impossible to not sin. Therefore, we cannot sit idly by, petrified that we may make mistakes. Of course we’re going to make mistakes; this is inevitable. Thus, we go out and sin boldly, doing all that we can that we believe to be right, and rely on God’s ability to read our hearts and find our good intentions, despite our imperfect actions.

This idea comes into play when my wife and I recently discussed a most distressing and perplexing situation in the Garden of Eden narrative. My wife is of the opinion that the entire story is allegorical rather than factual. I’m more reluctant to abandon the Garden of Eden as a factual narrative. However, we both agree that the Garden of Eden is useful only if we apply it to our lives as a metaphor – we’re taught as much in the temple. This brought us to a very morbid conclusion. God gives Adam and Eve contradictory commandments – multiply and replenish the Earth, and don’t eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. You can’t complete one without breaking the other. What kind of a cruel, arbitrary God would do that? He counsels harshly against the prospect of sin and yet purposely sets up a situation where sin is impossible to escape.

This troubled my wife and I greatly. If the Adam and Eve narrative is a metaphor for our lives, it would then lead that perhaps our lives are also made up of contradictory commandments. In fact, we see this all the time. We are to honor our father and mother, yet cleave unto our spouse and leave our parents. God tells us to keep the Sabbath holy, but His Son tells us that sometimes, the proverbial ox falls into the proverbial mire, and you need to do everything you can to save the ox. Sometimes, it feels like God sets up the impossible situation for us as well; in fact, we may very well suspect this to be the case. He commands us one thing and yet commands another that seemingly contradict each other. Hence, we have a multitude of varying religious beliefs and ideologies that clash and sometimes war against each other.

Needless to say, the idea of such a God disturbed us. What would be the purpose, the intention behind such a scenario? My wife and I have struggled with this concept for years; I remember wrestling with this subject during the early years of my mission while she never found any comfort in the Garden of Eden narrative – only fear.

This whole adventure starts with the question of God’s somehow bizarre behavior – why does He propose contradictory commandments? What is He trying to say about sin? My gospel scholarship began to flower many years ago when a dear mentor of mine opened up my eyes while speaking about the Garden of Eden and connecting it to the Atonement; the experience instilled within me a love of the scriptures and theology in general. Thus, it seemed appropriate (even poetic) that as I investigated the Garden once more to answer some persistent questions, it led me on an intellectual and spiritual wild goose chase that ended in an eye-opening realization of God’s true mercy for us.


* The full context of the quote is thusly: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from:Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche SchriftenDr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590


Filed under religion