Twitch Writes the Book of Life

[Alternate titles: God Is a Master Novelist, Part Five; A Toast to Eugene England]

Twitch_plays_pokemon_animated

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the recent phenomenon “Twitch Plays Pokemon.” It was an online social experiment in which a programmer on the internet set up an online, crowdsourced version of the game Pokemon Red. Anyone who desired could enter the game/chatroom, where literally everybody at once was trying to control the main character with various inputs. It resulted in a kind of chaos, where the character on screen would take a step in one direction, then go back immediately, then to the right, then to the left, and so on and so forth as an average of at least 8,000 people at a time tried to play the exact same game. Remarkably, after sixteen continuous days, they beat it. Thousands of people, each with their own personal desires and limited amounts of control, actually managed to work together sufficient to complete the game.

A fascinating experiment. And one with broader applications.

Now, I want to go back to this idea that we are authors in our own right. That God put us here on this earth as Little Creators, as agents unto ourselves to collectively build the world. That God trusts us to help write the grand story of salvation with our own choices.

We are His hands, President Uchtdorf has reminded us. We are the instruments by which He does His work. It is accomplished by our choices and our willingness to serve. In other words, as crazy as it sounds, God often puts the pen in our hands, and trusts us to help bring to pass His work and His glory.

Why do you think that is? Why does He rely upon imperfect people to do His work? Why let Twitch write the Book of Life?

It’s the same question at the heart of the dichotomy of the “church” and the “gospel.” Many people have testimonies of the gospel, but not the church itself, which is seen as a bunch of only half-committed, often uneducated people trying to work together in an unnatural way, frequently offending others in their congregation whether ignorantly or not. Even if the structure of the church might be inspired, the people filling the ranks don’t seem to be at all. The church isn’t the point, they say. It’s a flawed system, and is not as true as the gospel.

So, again: why does God rely on such imperfection to accomplish the work of salvation?

Well, some of you will remember Elder Holland answering that question, at least in part, a few conferences ago: “Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with.”

But then, why rely on us at all? Why depend on mere mortals to liberate the captives? Why give flawed souls so much power and authority? Why entrust people to teach who need to be taught?

The great violinist Itzhak Perlman gave an answer to this question that sums it up in a few words:

“When I teach others, I teach myself.”

When the divine Foreman asks His workers to dig, He does not just desire a ditch: He desires the workers to build their muscles. The workers themselves get stronger with each motion of the shovel. The work is as much for them as for the Foreman.

Likewise, the members of the church grow as they work and teach the gospel together, even and especially if there’s friction. We as agents learn more and more to be like God as we engage in our Little Creations, our choices. In pioneering the spiritual path towards a Zion people, we are not only blazing a trail for others to follow, but nearing Zion itself. That’s the church. And that is the very point of the gospel.

This principle is seen vividly in temple work. Though we often go for different reasons—to do work for our own ancestors, to feel the peace of the Spirit, to get needed revelation, to pray for a special blessing, etc.—all of the above are inevitably experienced. If we’re going just to do work for others, we’ll feel the Spirit and perhaps even get personal revelation anyway. If we’re going for our own sake, to pray or find peace, that will also unlock the gates for imprisoned souls. Just as trying to work in accord with others who may not share our level of commitment to the church is the actual work of building up the church, no second spent in the temple is ever wasted. Thus as we attend the temple, our worship there benefits our own souls just as much as it benefits the imprisoned souls set free through proxy ordinances.

And boy, does the Lord ever rely on us to do temple work! That aspect of salvation can be done no other way than by our choice to attend. That is us directly contributing to His work and His glory. That is where we are truly “saviors on Mount Zion,” where we build the kingdom and community of God. Where, essentially, Twitch writes the Book of Life.

The advancement of Zion produces less friction when we understand that principle, when we can catch the vision of what we’re working for. You’re much more likely to donate money to a cause when you can see the starving child the money’s going to, right? Likewise, the names we carry through the temple are not just ink on blue or white paper.

When we understand what each and every choice we make contributes to—and not only Zion as a community, but Zion as us, as our own hearts, as individuals—we can bear the harder parts all the better, and realize that the friction produced by rough souls rubbing shoulders together is actually grinding down that roughness into soft smoothness, like finely sanded wood. In other words, the friction might be exactly what’s necessary about the whole process. But it will only produce a smooth surface if combined with just the right movements, made with purpose and precision and parallel effort.

We are all writers in the Book of Life, all authors in our own right. But unless we learn from the Master Novelist, and take directions from His hand, we will rarely ever produce anything more than scribbles, and in all probability cross lines and create needless conflict with our fellow Little Creators. Learning to work in concert—in other words, building up the church, the community of Zion—is the end goal of the gospel. That’s why, in the words of Eugene England, the church is indeed as true of the gospel. And it’s why we’re given such heavy responsibility in making our own choices and doing the Savior’s work.

I’ll close this post with an excerpt from The Hero Doctrine:

“As bizarre as it is, God has faith in us. Just as Cooper [in Interstellar] lets his daughter do the work of the science experiment under his direction, so does God give us the responsibility of carrying out His will, relying on us to bring about His purposes. It is always shocking (to me, at least) how extensively He relies on imperfect people to further the cause of the gospel. Not just imperfect as in “mostly righteous with a few slip-ups here and there,” but people with serious flaws and serious sins in pasts both distant and near. Why?

“Because, like the layers of soil packed atop the seed, such burdens give rise to growth, and God is just as interested in cultivating our own souls as He is in sharing the gospel with those who have not heard it before. We are the work, His work, as much as any other wandering soul out there, and in spreading His gospel, we are often the ones gaining in strength, finesse, discipline, and glory.”

Let God Write the Ending

[Alternate Titles: God Is a Master Novelist, Part Four; If God Takes the Pen Out of Your Hands, Let Him]

“Decisions determine your destiny,” President Monson has been reminding us for decades. Agency is the most profound aspect of our existence, the defining trait of humanity that separates us from beasts, that makes us kin to the gods. The Lord tells us to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will.” We are meant to be authors in our own right, writers of our own book of life with the pen of our choices. As children of a god, we write our own stories and create our own worlds.

“Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power,” the prophet Joseph enjoins us.

Indeed, an empowering doctrine, our agency. We are agents: things to act, not to be acted upon.

But of course, we are only beginning creative writers. We mess up, and frequently. And sometimes there’s already writing on the page, and we only have the option of filling in a few blanks, lacking control over the whole story itself. With that fact of powerlessness in mind, Brother Joseph continues his enjoinment from before: “and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17).

In other words, when you’ve done all you can do, let God take the pen.

But even when we turn things over to God, recognizing that there are certain, indeed many, things that affect us yet lie outside of our power to choose for ourselvessuch as getting a certain job or receiving personal revelation or finding an eternal companionthere are other activities we can engage in that show our humility, prove our faith and display how much we’re willing to commit to obtain those blessings. Fasting, more in-depth scripture study, utter humility in our pleading with Him, fulfilling our callings and going to the temple as frequently and fervently as we can… We are always capable of acting, of showing God the true depth of our faith in Him, and in doing everything we can, even if it’s not directly related to the desired blessing.

Yet sometimes we do all of those things, and still the blessings do not come. What then?

I recently had this very experience. A week and a half ago, I was awaiting a certain email that would theoretically bear a potentially life-changing message. I wasn’t absolutely sure it was going to come, but I had been waiting and working a long, LONG time for it, and the timing just seemed perfect. On the last day it could have possibly come, I went to the temple, fasting, and took one name all the way though the temple from baptism to endowment. Afterwards, I came out and checked my email.

Nothing. Without going into specifics, I can tell you it was disappointment on an existential level.

The only things you can really do after that kind of disappointment are outright rebel or quietly submit. The thought of rebellion just made everything around it worse, and I realized the Lord had been quietly hinting at the disappointment in the days leading up to this one, so though I didn’t get the blessing I sought, I still had a measure of peace. And as I went to write down some thoughts that came to me inside the temple, I received this personal revelation:

Trying to force a blessing by trying to be spiritual and [going to the] temple? Well, as agents who are free to act and who should be actively engaged of our own volition, we should try to write our own stories as much as possible. But if something’s out of our control, and blessings don’t seem to be coming as quickly or immediately as we want them to, or according to our appointed time, we shouldn’t get too frustrated or exhausted. It’s actually a sign of trust that God shows in us, that we’ll be able to handle it.

[As well,] God is essentially telling us, “Don’t worry, Neal, I’ve got this. I’ll take care of it in my own time and the ending that I’m writing to your story is greater than you can imagine, and better than you have in mind because you deserve more than you think you do. Be patient, wait for my signal, wait for me to show my arm, and be ready to act when it finally comes. And it will, at the best possible and possibly last moment. I’m proving your faith, and if you hold out, the blessings will be all the greater because of the faith and devotion you showed in so much uncertainty.”

As you can probably tell, this blog post arose from this very incident. Because I believe God has in mind a similar message for all of us. There are blessings awaiting that we perhaps cannot even fathom—and that is why God keeps them from us. We just wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate them until the moment is ripe and fully earned.

A quote from Thomas Paine (heard in the Person of Interest Season 3 finale) came to mind at the same time: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives everything its value.” God was stretching me so the blessings He has in mind—if I prove faithful and of good cheer, that is—can have even greater meaning to me when they do finally come.

So what Joseph Smith said is really true. We can write all we want, but there will come a time when there are no more blank spaces on the page to fill, for those parts of the story belong to others to write—including God. And if our words are written in faith, with pure intentions and humble submission to the Master Novelist, He will take those righteous desires into account and the according blessings will be added exponentially to what they already might have been. Prayers and fasting are never wasted, even when they don’t appear to have an effect on the situation. They still have potential to add to the blessings others receive—after all, Henry Eugene Dickinson, who that morning had not even been baptized, was within a few hours a bearer of the Melchizedek Priesthood and endowed in the temple—and to the blessings we receive later on.

We take on opposition and endure it well not always so the opposition does not win out, but often so God has even greater reason to bless us when the time on our celestial clock is finally right. We therefore must respect the storytelling skills of our Heavenly Father while cheerfully doing all things that lie in our power. And then we can stand still, and wait for the glorious ending the Master Novelist has in mind to be revealed.

Christopher Nolan and the Big Picture Focus of Divine Storytelling

[Alternate title: God Is a Master Novelist, Part Three]

broken_Endurance

Let me put it bluntly: Interstellar is the most important movie ever made. Now, I’m not going to name all the reasons why; that’s for the last chapter of my book, The Hero Doctrine, to explain. And many people who have seen it once, maybe even twice or three times, are going to immediately disagree. That is because they do not see it with the right eyes.

As a piece of visual entertainment, it is a good movie. It has some eye-popping spectacle and a few incredibly thrilling sequences. Who knew a docking scene could be so viscerally astonishing? The acting was good, and it can get very emotional, and the robot is funny. But some parts were just weird and didn’t make sense. It’s hard to hear the spoken lines sometimes and not everything plays out the way we might have felt it should. They spend too long on Earth, which is boring (Earth is dying, we get it), and there isn’t enough action, and the science seems questionable and even ridiculous sometimes. How could he have survived a black hole, and why does it take him to his daughter with all those interconnected compartments and whatever? And the plot itself? It gets pretty weird, and doesn’t always make sense. But on the whole a pretty entertaining movie, even if the storytelling isn’t always clear and grounded.

That is how most people see it, because that’s how most people see movies. It’s also how most people read books. And lastly, it is how most people interpret their life on earth.

The way time plays out to us is like a movie. Bit by bit, frame by frame, seeing only things straight ahead, only ever dealing with the moment. That’s the only way we really have to experience life: linear time. So naturally we expect it to make sense in a linear fashion, the way most movies do. The filmmakers often focus much more on the scene and making it make perfect sense to the viewer as possible to get them interested in what happens next. The moment matters much more than the end result.

Watching Interstellar this way, through the lens of pure linear storytelling, will produce mixed results, though probably more positive than negative. Because it’s not a perfect film. The flow of entertainment, keeping us perfectly aware of the stakes and the factors of plot and character motivations, is imperfect. Our expectations for where the story is going are not always met. Some of the lines and how they are delivered confuse us, as well as the compacted nature of the plot. Christopher Nolan expects us to be able to keep up with every single line and accompanying image even as we’re still trying to make sense of the last scene.

The first point is this: Nolan’s priority in constructing his stories is not ease of first-time viewing experience. His focus is bigger. Much bigger. And so occasionally he’s going to give us imperfect moments that throw our understanding askew and get our minds off-track. His scenes are often more about setting up ideas and themes and little allegorical moments than setting up plot threads that lead to purely entertaining conclusions. Having imperfect beats isn’t necessarily done on purpose; rather, it’s an unfortunate side effect from having his eyes on the larger picture. And sometimes the two aren’t reconcilable.

I know this because I see my stories the same way. When I write, when I brainstorm, I am much more focused on constructing these plots and concepts and character arcs as a whole than understanding the story from the linear perspective readers are forced to experience the story through. Like Nolan, this is not done on purpose; it just shows my priorities. I get very frustrated with the nature of writing groups, as my peers can only read one chapter at a time, and cannot see the story as a whole the way I do. I’ll put a certain plot element in an early chapter as foreshadowing for its use later on in the story, knowing it’s necessary, but it will confuse members of my writing group because to them, it only exists in that first iteration, and sometimes there’s just not a perfect place to put something like that. I am much more concerned with it being there at all than with the reader’s perfect comfort the first time through. The struggle lies with ensuring that it doesn’t deter the reader from continuing on, and hoping, hoping that they remember it when it comes up again towards the climax of the book.

So, now to the real point: God is a like novelist. His priority is, like Nolan’s, not on ease of first-time viewing experience. He isn’t writing our lives so every new plot turn makes perfect sense. The dialogue doesn’t always gel with the action. The score sometimes throws us off-kilter. Ugly moments happen that jar us from our immersion in this world. People don’t always act like we expect them too. Events don’t always or even often play out like we expect them too. And certainly our very lives don’t turn out like we expect them too. So many times things just don’t make sense, and stay that way for years of our lives. Life is not comfortable, nor does it always flow smoothly.

No, like Nolan’s films, our lives are meant to be studied. Seen as a whole, with past events and memories being pondered over and reflected upon in relation to each other, and not in the linear way we experience time. Life only makes sense when we can look back over it and see connections that aren’t immediately apparent. We have memories because it is absolutely imperative that we read over past chapters, that we underline and draw arrows, that we study it out in our minds and articulate our thoughts through writing. Then, as the first few connections are made between two seemingly disparate events, our eyes began to be open, and we start seeing more. Life becomes great literature, not a story to entertain you from moment to moment, but something to read through several times, something to look more deeply at and ultimately internalize so you see the rest of existence with new eyes. If we don’t do this, “the data* makes no sense.”

Heavenly Father with our mortal experience, and Christopher Nolan with his films, are not focused on the beat-by-beat storytelling that other writers generally are. Their focus, rather, is purely on story, and it is up to us to fashion together the far higher intellectual and spiritual plot going on behind the surface plot. They have wider visions and higher ambitions than making life or a movie a merely entertaining experience. That might seem like a lot for a filmmaker or storyteller to expect of a viewer or reader, and it probably is. But I promise, with Christopher Nolan, and especially with God Himself, such close readings are more rewarding than you can possibly imagine. 

So watch Interstellar one more time. For theme in addition to the complex, compact plot. Look for gospel parables about the failure of the philosophies of man to save humanity, about God’s relationship to His children and the height of human achievement through parenthood, about rising above the dust of this world for the aim of celestial heights, where our potential to become like gods is as unlimited as the universe itself. Listen to the music, to the use of the church organ purposefully chosen by Nolan to give a religious feel to the experience, which is essentially a spiritually transcendent one. Think carefully on the allegorical nature of the Endurance, and how it was broken by Mann and brought at one again by an impossible, but necessary act. It’s all there. To what extent Nolan did all this on purpose or not is a question I intend to ask him if I ever get the chance to meet him, but he definitely has an innate sense of Mormon doctrine whether he’s aware of it or not.

And remember to look at the life story God is writing you the same way. Don’t interpret God’s arc for you as a linear progression. Study your own life the way you would a great work of literature: not as a river flowing in one direction, but as a sea of experiences and truths that collectively make a masterpiece as you carefully examine them in relation to each other. And remember that God is not the only one writing your story. And when you get a sense of that larger picture, of the three acts of our existence of which this life is but the second, your own spiritual pen will be able to fill in the gaps, and allow you to become more like the Divine Storyteller Himself. We do not live to be entertained, and neither should we expect the stories we experience to only entertain.

Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom. That includes your very own book of life.

—————-

*On that word, “data”: I read one review on the internet that just couldn’t get over Interstellar’s use when the singular “datum” should have been used. And that was all he could write about. That was all his limited mind saw. He ignored the treasure trove of truth and beauty that was the rest of the film because he disagreed with one minor rhetorical decision that could easily be reconciled with even the slightest good will. How often do people fall away from the church because they are distracted by the tiniest crack in their perception of the theology while they ignore the entire rest of this literally inexhaustible gospel?

God Is a Master Novelist: Part Two

Note: This is the second half of the excerpt from my book, The Hero Doctrine, begun last Tuesday. It is the conclusion of that story. My story.

For the last six or seven months preceding that week in June, things had been getting worse with my depression. It had fully emerged as clinical bipolar disorder and I was living with a particular type called “mixed state” bipolar. People with typical bipolar disorder swing back and forth from extreme mania (high energy and optimism) to extreme depression (sadness and low energy). But mine did something else: both extremes would hit me at the same time. This meant that at night, my mind raced so fast that I couldn’t sleep (the manic side), and it raced with horrible, miserable, self-hating thoughts (the depressive side). It was hell. I found ways to cope with it temporarily, but it was getting worse. The depression fed the sin, and the sin, of course, fed the depression.

But as I said, God had a plan. I first received word of it in church one Sunday in late spring. A voice told me: get medication; when you get medication, everything else will fall into place.

I don’t know if the happy and hopeful feeling I felt in church that day was the Spirit or my mania or both, but I now, finally, had a ray of light to follow. Later that week I called my psychiatrist, who I had not seen in a very long time. (Years ago I had been on some medication but in my pride I rejected it because I didn’t want to be dependent on something artificial for my health.) Unfortunately, my psychiatrist didn’t answer the phone and I had to leave a message. One thing about my psychiatrist is that he didn’t call back very reliably if it wasn’t an emergency, and this was no exception. Weeks went by without word from him, and I returned to my previous state of mind.

But then came the Wednesday of that miraculous June week, and I got a call. He had an opening that day, within a few hours, and would I like to come in then? I certainly would, and so I did. Miraculously, the first medication we tried turned out to be exactly what I needed. So many poor souls dealing with mental disorders have to try several different medications until they find the right one, and that journey can be stressful and full of unexpected emotions and other issues. But I found the right one on the first try. Getting that medication was miracle number one.

Then that next Sunday, a friend of mine, the only one with whom I had ever talked about my problems, issued a direct order: “Go talk to the bishop or I’ll beat the hell out of you.” The change that was being wrought in my brain at that time made this idea suddenly so…possible. Utterly terrifying, yes, but also utterly necessary. Completely unlike the past six years had been. And so I made an appointment with my bishop that very day, and confessed my sins to him a couple of days later. That caused miracle number two.

Somehow, with those miracles (and a few other small ones I won’t go into here), my chains…were broken. I can’t tell you why that week, out of all the time that had passed, was the week, but that past Thursday, the day after getting on medication, was the last day of indulgence. The addiction was cut off (though, as with alcoholics, I confess it will never leave me totally in this life). I gained control over my life, control over my soul. Though some might say I was freed by medication, I know who was responsible for putting me on that path.

After three weeks of worthy living, I took the sacrament again, for the first time in years. And because of that fact, I now truly understand the sacrament. It became the most important part of the week, the reason I went to church, and still pretty much is: to appreciate the sacrifice of Christ, to be grateful for it and to always remember Him.

I began other changes immediately. I started exercising, and I took pleasure in it, eventually losing about sixty pounds. I also switched from glasses to contact lenses. All cosmetic changes, to be sure, but reflective of the change inside me, and as a result I gradually stopped hating myself.

LDS author and BYU professor Brad Wilcox says in his talk “His Grace Is Sufficient,” “The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed.” This is what happened to me, inside and out. A friend who left on his mission while I was in my previous state, came home and literally did not recognize me for a moment, my countenance had changed so much. My previous life, defined by self-hatred, stagnation, and failure, was transformed by the power of Christ, by the power of the Atonement. I shed the natural man and was reborn spiritually. Christ had healed me. Had transformed me.

Within a few months I was ordained an elder and received the Melchizedek Priesthood. (It is a bit of personal trivia that I was never ordained a priest; I ended up going directly from teacher to the Melchizedek Priesthood.) At that point I wanted to try to repay the Savior for what He did for me, and very soon I knew it was finally time to go about preparing to serve a mission.

This I discovered in an unexpectedly concrete way. Related thoughts had been slowly bubbling up in those days, and one day I wrote in my journal the words, “I want to serve…” and stopped. For a moment I pondered what words should follow after: did I want to serve “a mission” or did I want to serve “God”? Both would have worked fine, but as an aspiring writer I wanted to use just the right words. I ended up scribbling, “I want to serve God and go on a mission.” This word choice may seem inconsequential to most people, but for me it proved significant. When I looked up D&C Section 4, the quintessential missionary scripture, it repeated back to me the phrasing I knew was influenced by the Holy Ghost: “Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work” (D&C 4:3, emphasis added). Reading that verse and taking note of that exact word choice I was inspired to use was confirmation to me that I should start working on my missionary papers. And so I did.

They were officially submitted by that next May, and like every prospective missionary I looked forward to finding out where I would go. My guesses were either Canada or Chile, where each of my namesakes (Elder Maxwell and my Uncle David) were sent. But the weeks passed, and the call didn’t come. A few months went by, and finally my stake president inquired as to what was going on. He discovered what has become one of the greatest ironies of my life: the medication that I take for bipolar disorder, the medication that saved my life and helped put my soul in such a state that I could be worthy to serve a mission, caused a red flag to go up in Salt Lake; those who take that particular medication are generally not allowed to go on missions because of the conditions they take it for. And so, after months of patience and quiet work and prayer, I was asked by my stake president how I felt about not going on a mission and moving on with my life.

Someone else may have taken this news as a wonderful excuse not to take two years out of their life and work their guts out slaving away in some backwoods village for people he didn’t know. But I felt something different in those guts of mine. Because of what God did for me, because of the healing I had received, I took that news and continue to take it in the exact opposite way: instead of merely serving the Lord for two years, I was filled with resolve that I must serve Him throughout my entire life. He healed me, and freed me. What else could I do but help Him heal and free others?

I believe that is the mark of true healing—gratitude that is shown, not just told. Joseph Smith once said, “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. God does not look on sin with [the least degree of] allowance, but … the nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” Thus, as the Atonement takes its effect, and we are gradually brought to be one with Christ, we become like Him, and see God’s children from His point of view, and seek to retrieve those eternally important souls back from the abyss, to place them in the arms of Jesus, where they can be, as I was, healed and transformed.

Stephan Peers elaborated on this point. He told me once that “One of the great aspects of the Atonement is not so much that Jesus takes on our sins. It is why he does and what he asks us to learn from it. Basically, we try to do what he does: lift burdens. As he did, you see the burdens of others which much more clarity when you have experienced your own… When we are in the depths [of pain and despair], and we look up and the Lord says, This is how it works. Whom do you want to be? THAT is when we get bold and strong and learn to lift others, and have discernment, and learn to carry burdens, magnificently most of which are not ours.”

I understand how hard and awful and miserable it can be to be locked in a perpetual grapple with sin, and how a person struggling with addiction can really and truly be good at heart. I remember how despite my inner lust, I also could not bear to tell a lie. The fact that a person is struggling, and not complacent, with addiction, is proof that they are not inherently bad; we addicts are simply in the devil’s hands and so must do what he wants us to do. Our agency has almost entirely been stripped away, and manacles been placed around our wrists. The first choice may have been ours (though often made in ignorance), but the rest usually are not.

And so I ask you, if you do not know this fight firsthand, not to look down on those of us fighting against this enemy. What we need is love and understanding, the knowledge that we are not alone and not repulsive to you. We need to know, and you need to know, that change is possible. In the mighty words of President Thomas S. Monson, “Men can change.”

We cannot change alone, that is true, but then again, remember that we are never actually alone. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland wrote, “Brothers and sisters, one of the great consolations of this Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of His gospel. Trumpeted from the summit of Calvary is the truth that we will never be left alone nor unaided, even if sometimes we may feel that we are. Truly the Redeemer of us all said: ‘I will not leave you comfortless: [My Father and] I will come to you [and abide with you].’”

The mercy of Christ is all well and good to be known intellectually. But that knowledge of the Savior’s love is nothing compared to the actual experience of it. You cannot know Christ from simply reading about Him. To know Him is to feel His eternal love, and experience it in all its capacity.

Brother Wilcox said, “The older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, ‘Let me stay.’ No, he will probably be saying, ‘Get me out of here!’ Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, ‘Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay’… The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there.”

The Atonement’s healing powers can purge those parts of us that are worldly and mortal, that are of the natural man, and replace them with divinity. For when we deny ourselves of all ungodliness, what then remains?

Though The Dark Knight is a very dark and violent film, about evil’s encroaching and pervasive presence, it concludes on a note of hopeearned hope. The very last image we see in that movie is Batman, having taken upon himself the burden of the sins of Gotham, riding up onto an on-ramp with an unseen light up ahead, blocked from view by Batman himself. Though it is night, in the absolutely final frame, his cape whips in the wind, allowing just a single ray of light to shines out into the darkness.

That light is hope. An emblem of the Savior, He who is “the light that shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not” (D&C 6:21). The hope that anyone and everyone can access the power to overcome the darkness that envelops us. Though we all have been sinners, though many of us may currently be played as puppets in the devil’s hands, our strings can be cut and we can become more like Jesus, even, one day, a being like Him, perfect in all things, and most importantly in Christlike love. That ascension is our great hope, our great potential.

We owe Him so much—not just a tithe of ten percent, but a consecration of everything we are and possess. Let us show Him our gratitude for His infinite sacrifice, His infinite blessings. Though we can never hope to repay Him completely, we can show our appreciation by doing what He did, becoming like Him, and helping others access the freely offered gift of salvation, of healing, of heavenly transformation. There is, in Christ, hope, and help, for all of us.

God Is a Master Novelist: Part One

Note: This becomes very personal, and you’re going to learn a lot about me, but I feel certain details of my life can now offer light to others. And that, after all, is the point.

Luke 8:38-39
38 Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying,

39 Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.

There is only one future ahead of us: the future we choose, one choice at a time. There might seem to be other futures, of course, possible but non-existent; they do not exist literally and I don’t believe we will ever know them. This is why our choices are so important in this life—this is the only chance we get to make them before they’re burned into our Book of Life.

But the Atonement can change the ending of that book, for God is a master novelist. With his majesty and mercy, He can weave, out of a story plagued by failures and doubts, losses and regrets, a happy ending. True are the words of the hymn, “Thy best, thy heavenly friend, through thorny paths, leads to a joyful end.” Such He did with my story.

My dark times began with brief flirtations with pornography in my early teens. It was driven by one simple thing: curiosity. How much other sin occurs in our lives, and especially in the lives of our young people, from that feeling of curiosity alone! Over several years, bit by bit, it locked me in its clutches, and I became addicted. My agency had been taken away, or rather, I had let it be taken away.

Everything you’ve heard from other addicts’ stories is true. Unbearable guilt soaked my mind constantly. Guilt coupled with fear. Of course no one could know what I was struggling with. Not peers, not parents, not priesthood leaders. What shame would it be for others to know! It was something I had to deal with on my own. But of course I had no idea how to do that. It attacked again and again and again, more and more frequently as I got older, and though I knew it was wrong, and told myself I’d never do it again, that it was a stupid, stupid problem, and how could I ever indulge in it again, it continued, and the guilt and fear mounted. They were so great that I avoided my annual priesthood interview one year by taking sleeping pills so I’d be asleep at the time appointed for the interview. I was able to get out of that one, but the next year I was caught by surprise and ushered in from a mutual activity to the interview to advance in the priesthood. It was finally there that I confessed to a bishop, simply because there was no way out of it but lying, and while I would avoid telling the truth if I could, I would never tell someone a direct lie, and certainly not a bishop.

But that confession didn’t fix anything. In fact, now that I had been specifically told not to take the sacrament, I started staying home from church to avoid the public shame. I stayed away from other social events, too, and became isolated. Loneliness became my game, touched with shame whenever I saw my peers. So I just stayed away.

But despite my inactivity, I never stopped believing. I never turned fully away from God to embrace my sin and go off on my own track. I never accepted my behavior as harmless or normal. I knew exactly where my soul was: in darkness. I just didn’t know how to find the light. Scared of what it would take. Certain it was not possible.

Around the time this problem came up in my life, clinical and chemical depression also emerged. My family has a long history of this emotional frailty, and it is no surprise it appeared at the time it did. I had also been gaining a lot of weight, and being a biological late bloomer did not help with my self-image. My spiritual load thus mixed with my fragile emotional state to create a near impenetrable sense of self-hatred. I felt myself so worthy of disgust and loathing that I was even ashamed to merely be in the presence of a girl, let alone talk to one or look one in the face. I didn’t deserve it. I was beneath them. Beneath everyone, yes, but especially girls. Fat, unattractive, unworthy and in all ways repulsive, especially to myself.

During this time, I discovered that Hell for me was, and is, comparisons. Comparing my own self and situation with those around me (or at least the surface image of their lives) destroyed me. It still does from time to time. I would look at everyone else, how successful they were, how those guys had to shave, could talk to girls without looking away, could garner their attention without even being present, and could not only take but administer the sacrament, and be examples, and go on missions, and I would hate myself all the more. They were the right kind of priesthood holder. They were good in the sight of God. They were men. The way I wasn’t.

The most embarrassing and shameful moment of my life came in a Sunday School class when I was around sixteen. The teacher, for reasons I still cannot even fathom, addressed each of the males in the class in turn and asked what office of the priesthood we were. So there, before all of my peers, including the Laurels, I had to let out that at sixteen I wasn’t a priest, but still a teacher in the Aaronic priesthood. The implication that I wasn’t worthy to advance was left hanging solidly in the air. They all got to know, by inference, that I was addicted to pornography, or something like it. I have trouble to this day forgiving that teacher.

For my senior project in high school I wrote my first novel. Its purpose was penance. A character in the story suffered from a similar compulsion, and he overcomes it in the end. As a whole it is a story of symbols, meant as a message, or rather a warning, a cautionary tale to society of the problems of sexual and pornographic indulgence, of living without rules or religion and doing whatever one wants to do. I knew how dark and deep I was, and I wanted to tell the world the true consequences to such choices, such attitudes. I wanted to warn others away from the path I took.

That was the extent to which I knew what I was doing was wrong, and how much I wanted to repent. I just didn’t know how to. It is a curious and demolishing aspect of chemical depression that it has the power to make it impossible to feel the Spirit, to render one spiritually dead, cut off from the Lord. I felt that way for six years: alone. In every way.

But I have discovered in the years since that we never truly are. Christ knew what I was going through. He knows what you, all of you, are going through, and what you’ve gone through. He knows the problems, and more importantly He knows the symptoms of the problems, and so is uniquely qualified to answer your, our, prayers. Remember: Christ, too, suffered solitude; He, too, was alone, or at least He felt alone. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said the following in his beautiful April 2009 General Conference address: “…that the supreme sacrifice of His Son might be as complete as it was voluntary and solitary, the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence. It was required, indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.”

That is what those of us struggling with the powers of darkness must realize: that Christ has been in exactly our situation, and knows how to comfort us in whatever stupid thing we’ve done or whatever unfair thing has been inflicted on us (usually a combination of both).

Consider the symbolic nature of moonlight: though at night you can’t see the sun, you can almost always see the moon, shining. And then remember that the light of the moon is actually sunlight, reflected off the moon’s surface, proof of the sun’s continued existence. Like the sun, God is always there, even if can’t see Him, or even His hand, directly.

But how difficult it is to internalize that truth! Partly because of the untreated depression, partly because of my spiritual state, I considered suicide, and often. But never seriously. I wanted the pain to go away, the loneliness, the sin, the repeated attacks from the unbalanced chemistry of my brain, that was all. Three things kept me from ever attempting suicide: one, I knew, knew that God was there, and I wasn’t supposed to do that; two, it would break my parents’ heart forever; and three, it would leave my pet cat, my Keyta, alone and friendless. If you’ve read Chapter Four you know my Keyta was like an angel to me, sent into my life at almost the exact same time these dark times began. She was a near-constant presence of comfort through every crashing wave. You might remember that later in my life, when I was ready to move out and begin a life away from home, she disappeared suddenly, and I never saw her again. I know that God took her home to Him because I no longer needed her and it was time for me to find a higher companion, my eternal companion. I have no doubt that that cat will be among the first to greet me when I pass into the next life. It was all a part of the plan.

I testify that God has a plan for all of us. He had a plan for me. As a master novelist, He knows the end from the beginning. Elder Neal A. Maxwell reminded us often that having faith in God means having faith in God’s timing. And there was indeed a timing to all this, a plan and miracle God had been waiting for just the right time to provide—a “celestial clock” as one particular priesthood blessing called it. For six years I struggled and fought and failed and fell, again and again and again and again. A never-ending cycle, so it seemed. But there came a certain week in June where, all at once, Christ, through the powers of the Atonement, shattered the shackles with which I was bound, and set me free.

To be continued Thursday.

Monday INTERLUDE: Zion and the Nerve-Wracking Experience of Setting Apart for the First Time

[Alternate titles: Monday Is a Personal Day, “Did He Get EQS? Good for Him!”, There Needs to Be a Mormon Magazine Called EQ]

On a personal note…

Yesterday I was set apart as the secretary in my elders quorum. I immediately had to assist in setting apart a newly called EQ teacher and three new district supervisors. That was a fun new experience at first—the first time I ever helped set anyone apart.

And then there was the fourth person to set apart. And I was the brand new fourth member of the EQ presidency. And yes, I was asked to do it.

I have never given any kind of public blessing before. Where a congregation of fellow priesthood holders with probably a lot more experience is listening, and right after listening to the EQ president and counselors do their setting aparts and blessings. I can write books well enough, but I’m not a public performer. Some people like John Bytheway can do both; I can’t. Suffice it to say, it was a nerve-wracking experience.

Rest assured, I feel perfectly comfortable giving blessings, at least to people I know. At least, that is, to my wife. The words come easy and I know her very well and we’re one on one, so it’s no big deal. And yes, any blessing is supposed to be a spiritual experience, with the words ultimately coming from the Spirit. But let’s face it: in a situation like that, to a guy like me who’s entering his first priesthood quorum presidency since early Aaronic priesthood days when there were only four or five of us in a quorum at any given time—by which I mean someone who is not used to receiving and vocalizing revelatory language for others in a public setting—it’s largely a matter of performance.

The words did eventually come, but only after stumbling through the actual setting apart part, and having a big moment of silence afterward as I searched for where to begin. Honestly, I felt more like I was being set apart by the quorum for my inexperience, though that was probably only me doing it to myself. Our second counselor was also new to the game, having as little experience in such matters as myself, but I didn’t notice a single hitch in his blessing. Still, he was just as nervous as I was, as I found out afterwards, and we sympathized with each other a bit during the proceeding lesson. I think we’re going to be good friends.

Truth be told, and all embarrassments aside, I already love all my fellow presidency. They’re people I’ve already looked up to a long, long time and now I get to work with them and learn from them—and contribute to them. Because that’s the real point: we’re here to contribute, to be agents of change. Change in ourselves, change in our brethren, and change in the world entire. That’s Zion.

So it doesn’t matter if I’m a little embarrassed at stumbling through a setting apart blessing; if anyone holds my inexperience against me, that’s not Zion! We’re all here to learn and get better, and to HELP each other learn and get better. So we’re all going to be embarrassed from time to time, but guess what? The lesson turned out to be on President Benson’s talk, “Beware of Pride,” so embarrassment itself is a thing needing to be done away with, because it implies a certain amount of pride. I’m embarrassed because I haven’t turned out to be as amazing at giving blessings in public as I think I should be? Pride. I thought I was better than I was. Pride brought low. Humbling. I have to accept, then, that embarrassment, with the realization that probably no one really noticed or cared that much except for me.

On the other hand, expectations of others is also a kind of pride, and not letting your expectations be tailored to the subject at hand and their own level of experience I consider to be unrighteous judgment. Such things just heap on shame, which only further quashes the desire to try again or to attempt to think any higher of yourself than your lowest point.

The same goes for expecting higher things of yourself than you’re currently capable. A balance needs to be struck in understanding your own capabilities so that you don’t think too highly of yourself, but not too lowly, either. Don’t hate yourself, but also know that you can achieve higher things than you probably are right now. Again, the same goes for how we treat others. We all need to be engaged in understanding those around us and letting them develop at their own pace and supporting them as they do so, helping them see their potential and loving them all the way. I sure need that from my fellow elders, and knowing my quorum as I do, I bet I’ll get it.

And that’s Zion.

Judge Not: Different Times on Our Celestial Clocks

[Alternate titles: Check Your [Spiritual] Privilege (except I hate that phrase), Comparisons Are Hell]

My wife is a beautiful singer. She doesn’t do it professionally, but she’s been in choral groups and I can’t wait to watch her sing to our baby girl next year. I, meanwhile, am not a strong singer. So sitting next to her in church, I naturally compare mine to hers to see if I’m hitting the notes right. But I can only hear hers amidst all the others in the congregation, so it’s not totally clear. But what I do make out convinces me I’m not always hitting the right note, and I sometimes feel a little ashamed.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were singing an opening hymn for our little FHE. Doing that with just the two of us is somewhat new to us so I wasn’t used to singing alone with her. But, wanting to fully commit to the FHE thing, I start to belt out the hymn with some confidence. We’re alone, anyway, right? And at first I listen to her and question my ability once more. Then I realize: she’s not singing the main part. She’s harmonizing. And I start to listen to my own voice and realize that I was actually hitting the notes correctly, and probably was in sacrament meeting more often than I thought.

Sing the music you’ve been given in the way you know how. God judges us according to that, not to how well others are performing. You never know if they’re reading music totally different than yours. And if the time they’re singing in is according to an entirely different clock, unique to their soul and the beating of their own spiritual heart. 

Likewise, those struggling with addiction don’t need to be seen as something lesser, or even as something Other. Just knowing we’re being seen differently from our peers is enough to heap ever more punishment, ever more shame upon our own backs, a burden that actively keeps us from healing. So do not compare. Do not judge, others or yourself. It is too easy to do so, and too easy for the sinner to feel it. We are sons and daughters of God, and more often than not are aware of our sinful behavior and trying to do the right thing. And we already have so many other beautiful voices to compare our struggling vocal chords to. Please don’t add to it. Please don’t respond to our confession with shock and horror, even indirectly.

Instead…

Remember the story of the handcart pioneers? The Willie and Martin ones, specifically. I have ancestors that came in the Willie company. One of them was just two years old, and yes, he survived it. Brigham Young found out about their imminent arrival on a Sunday, and at once he cancelled all that day’s meetings. He urged the saints to go out and prepare to receive the beleaguered pioneers with blankets and food and love. Never did he question their choices, nor did he instruct others to do anything other than rush to meet them with open arms and lift them up as if they had just been through hell.

Because they had. Some of us in our day have, too. And though it might have been avoidable with a better choice earlier on, if they are coming out the other side, it almost certainly means they’ve met God. They’ve become close with their Savior, perhaps closer than any other way would have allowed. That’s why He gives us weakness, after all: so we have cause to visit Him, to be healed by Him, and to be better than we could have ever been just being our own kind of good.

So these people, emerging from their personal hells, have most likely seen the Savior’s face in some way. Do not begrudge them that experience. Let them heal, and you’ll see they might be better than they could have ever been before. That dark song they may be singing may yet be part of the pattern God has laid out for their lives. Part of their development, necessary so they can learn what God wants them to learn. For if they are aware of their sin, and are making a sincere effort to change, God will lift them out of that prison at the right time in his plan, according to His own celestial clock.

He did for me. And next week I’m going to share with you that very story, a direct excerpt from my book. 

INTERLUDE: Wednesday Thoughts on Luke 9

Jesus asked His disciples who the people thought he was. “They answering said, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others say, that one of the old prophets is risen again.” A philosopher, some say, or a peacemaker, and some even a prophet. A wise man, a teacher, whom words were put into his mouth about angels and messiahs and God that just weren’t his. To some an activist, a protester, a radical. Even a crazy man, or someone who never existed at all, just the fabrication of hopes and dreams.

“He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

“Peter answering said, The Christ of God.”


The controversial phrase, “He that is not with me is against me,” from Matthew 12:30 is here delivered differently: “for he that is not against us is for us.” Fascinating! Could that mean other religions whose goals are in line with the church’s, even if the theology is different? Or any other political or philosophical cause that believes in pluralism and has no problem with the spreading of the gospel? What a marvelous rearrangement of those words! It makes people friends, rather than enemies. I wonder which version Christ actually said.


In the next verses, the apostles ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on a village that refused them entrance. He rebuked them, telling them they were of the wrong spirit: “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

In the sci-fi television show Person of Interest, the character of Harold Finch says something very, very similar when his team is more willing than he is to kill a relatively innocent person at the behest of a godlike machine. Finch protests that the machine was created to save lives, not destroy them, but the rest of the team believes the machine gave them this person, like a drunken Laban, to kill so that many others could be saved.

At first I compared their situation to Nephi’s, and thought it best that the team actually murder this man. They weren’t desiring his death for personal gain, or vengeance, or bloodthirst, or anything like that. He wasn’t an entirely innocent man; he was in a position of power and abusing that power to the extent of letting very dangerous people gain even greater power than he had. Killing him would block off that channel, keeping the world that much safer. But was he, himself, worthy of death for such a thing? He might have been, I don’t know. His death might have been necessary. But the machine, and God, came to save lives, not destroy them.

Guess I’ll trust God’s word over a machine, even if that machine is as omniscient as a god.


We’ll be seeing more Person of Interest here on this blog, partly because it’s generally very thought-provoking, but mostly because after it reaches a certain point in its story, it can be seen as an almost perfect reconciliation of science and religion, showing the perspective of reasonable, grounded faith in a godlike being. How that sci-fi deity deals with mortals is shockingly parallel to how God works with us. To break into informality, it’s pretty rad.

But I’ll wait till my friends who are watching it are all the way caught up before going into spoiler territory. I’ve got to get caught up too.

Is Harvey Dent Worthy of Our Pity?

[Alternate titles: Our Defense Attorney Is also Our Judge, Check Your [Mental] Privilege (Except I hate that phrase)]

Elder Allen B. Haynie, two days ago: “The scriptures teach that every individual must be judged by the holy judgment of God. On that day there will be no opportunity to hide among a larger group, or point to others as an excuse for our being unclean. Gratefully, the scriptures also teach that Jesus Christ, He who suffered for our sins, who is our Advocate with the Father, who calls us His ‘friends,’ who loves us unto the end, He, ultimately, will be our Judge.”

I had an interesting conversation the other day after watching The Dark Knight with friends (for maybe the hundredth time). A new question arose after this viewing: that of the accountability of Harvey Dent.

harvey_dent

I think it’s a little too easy to morally judge someone like him. Were his actions wrong? Well, killing several people out of personal vengeance and ultimately threatening the lives of an innocent family, guilty by association only in his twisted mind? Yeah, that’s certainly wrong. But ay, there’s the rub: in his twisted mind. Harvey Dent’s brain had clearly been broken. His acts were evil, yes, and needed to be stopped. The law is equipped to put a stop to evil, but the law, whether a civil government’s or even God’s, is not equipped by itself to judge the state of a man’s soul. Where does that final judgment rest? If Harvey Dent were real, in the hands of God, or more correctly, the Savior. Nobody, or no thing, else.

We often judge others as if all brains are on a perfectly level playing field, as if minds aren’t as fragile as any other part of the body. Truth is, a mind can break. And between broken and whole there are a world of degrees, an entire spectrum of sanity with differing levels of self-control and cognitive capabilities. That affects our behavior, including our sins, and thus our accountability.

It’s true that nowhere in the scriptures does God talk about neural pathways and chemical imbalances. He talks about the righteous and the wicked, and slaying the wicked with famine and pestilence and the sword. He talks about sinful behavior and how its spread must be stopped else it infect the righteous. Things are generally pretty black and white in the scriptures.

And yet he uses that blackness and whiteness, that condemnatory language not in judgment of the individual, but as a way of dissuading anyone and everyone from sinful behavior if they were thinking about it. Why? Because whether bad choices are understandable or not, they really do only cause misery and engender even more sinful behavior than before, and this is absolutely a fate to be avoided, if possible.

But I’d point out that rarely does God in the scriptures offer the final judgment of a human soul. I think those judgments are going to be, at the bar, very personal, and highly tuned to, yes, each and every variable in our lives that differentiates ours from others. Neural pathways and parents, spiritual gifts and inborn proclivities, what our actual potential was and how much Satan and his angels went after us more or less than others, the influences of both righteous people and others’ sinful behavior.

Remember, the unthinking, unfeeling Law is not our judge. Christ, the One defending us, is. And He knows us better than anyone or anything else could.

Do you think in that day He will say to us, Well, why weren’t you as good as my servant Gordon B. Hinckley?

No. He knows the vast amount of variables each of us live with. Young Gordon grew up in a different town, a different family, different school, with different friends, different teachers, different life tragedies, different spiritual gifts, a different rate of physical development into adolescence (that can be a bigger influence than we give it credit), different mental and spiritual dimensions, different inborn habits, different weaknesses, different EVERYthing. Including life mission and foreordination in the pre-mortal realm.

So how dare we try to judge ourselves based on the achievements and abilities of others! Comparisons, brothers and sisters, are hell.

Rather, God is going to be looking at us and judging us based on what He has given us. Neal, did you measure up to what I gave you? Did you use the blessings I gave you and blessed you with an awareness of? Did you search out your own potential and use the precious, limited time I gave you to the best of your ability?

He doesn’t change the law/standard because that’s what we all need to aspire to. What we actually achieve will be according to what we started with and what we were given along the way, nothing more. In other words, our singing voice is judged by what sheet music we were handed and how much training we received before being put on the stand to perform, not on the basis of comparison to the work of a maestro, even if we can still be inspired by him.

It’s the parable of the talents. We’re judged according to what we’re given. Harvey Dent was given a lot, and then, because of the fact that he was trying to do good with those talents, it was taken suddenly away by evil. That seeming betrayal permanently altered the way his mind functioned, and his whole life consequently spiraled out of control. He consequently had not much to work with.

I think we can therefore look with some pity on Harvey. Justice demands law, and the law demands that he be stopped, yes, those things are true and right. He is hurting people, after all, and is capable of perpetuating brokenness in others as a result of his own. Jim Gordon’s family, for instance, breaks up because of how the events of The Dark Knight affected them. But in turn, mercy and Christlike compassion ask that we help heal Harvey’s wounds and give him the opportunity to change. The same, of course, goes for all of us. That’s the essence of the Atonement, the balance between justice and mercy, judgment and compassion.

This series of articles do a better job than I could of summing this all up in more professional, clinical ways and offer the reader a look into the lives of people who have been broken either from birth or a storm-tossed life. On Thursday I’ll share some more thoughts on judgment, and then next week go into some of the winds and waves of mental illness that threw me off balance in my own storms, and how the Savior parted the clouds and calmed the raging tempest.

Why I Don’t Believe in Sin

[Alternate titles: Why I Believe in Only One Sin, A Heart Sealed in His Courts Above Is Still Prone to Wander]

At least, not how we usually think of it.

Of course certain choices are sins, in that there are undesirable behaviors that go against God’s law and/or cause unnecessary pain and suffering. I do not dispute that such things exist and that they need to be changed. But I think there are nuances to be had with this, particularly in the difference between sins and mistakes, and especially where it concerns patterns of sin like addiction. That difference lies entirely in attitude. Looking at it this way allows us to filter through all the externalities of undesired behavior to get at their core, and thus funnel down all those things we call “sins” into just one, which I’ll subsequently reveal. After which, I’ll explain why, with this perspective, such undesired behavior can be seen as something else entirely.

This Liahona article (please read it!) does a fantastic job differentiating sin and weakness. What it doesn’t do, however, is make clear that what we usually call sin happens as a result of weakness. They are not exclusive things, but rather complements; weakness presents itself, reveals itself, in the form of sin. Sin is the natural offshoot of spiritual vulnerability, and I don’t believe there is as sharp a distinction between them as the article implies. It talks of “mistakes,” but the question is, at what point does a “mistake” cross over into a “sin”?

One might imagine it lies in the nature of the mistake, the seriousness of it in God’s eyes. But I think the answer lies more in the idea of commitment. Do we embrace our weakness? Pornography, for instance, is generally regarded as a sinful thing. But for those struggling with addiction to it, is an indulgence—which is to the point of compulsory in many cases, due to several factors that I’ll reference in the next paragraph—an out and out sin, or is it a mistake one makes on the road to recovery?

Obviously the key factor is, are you on the road to recovery? And that’s the point I’m driving at. The difference between a sin and a mistake lies in the overall direction your heart is leading you. That can be discerned in how frequently the error (to use a term that can straddle the sin/mistake line) occurs, and what the immediate reaction to the choice is afterward—does the person find solace in further darkness or turning up to the light, even if it hurts the eyes to look? The depth of the addiction must also be considered, to what extent agency remains and how much of it is exerted in the face of compulsions.

As a recovering addict, I can tell you that in the midst of addiction, there come times even and especially in the recovery process where the varying pressures of life converge in just such a way, or perhaps an unwanted thought refuses to flee the mind—even after such defensive maneuvers as singing a hymn, and sometimes even after saying a prayer or trying to read scriptures—or a situation where the explicit thought is indeed held at bay, but leaves a residue of chemical buildup in the brain that refuses to be flushed out—where all or any of these things together trigger the mind to make it think it has no other course of action but to partake, even if it hates itself throughout the act. (See here for a very informative summary of the mental and emotional pressures that lead to indulging in addictive behavior, aka how pornography changes your brain and steals agency away.)

It’s such a moment where, as the Liahona article describes, the addict does indeed trust Satan’s relief over God’s, but the pressure is incredible—not something the free agent can understand unless they’ve been there themselves. And if the addict is exercising their agency to the best of their limited ability, then are not occasional wanderings off the path indeed mere emanations of weakness rather than indications of outright rebellion? In other words, mistakes rather than sins?

And suppose the addict in question really is generally a good person, who reads their scriptures, says their prayers, and is really, really trying? Pornography is a horrible thing to indulge in, but is it really a sin or just a mistake? The reason I think it’s hard to tell the difference is that we’re dealing with offenses against sacred things. To the addict it was just a mistake, but because of the nature of the particular addiction, the actual act is normally classified a sin. That can get confusing to outsiders and even more so to the guilty party, who is the one that actually has to live with the abstract mental consequences of such spiritual confusion—usually further self-loathing and more shame hoisted upon their own backs.

It is to them that I compose this section of this post. If any of you broken souls are reading this, know that when your heart is turned to God, you are not in need of condemnation. Correction, yes, but that’s the case with all of us whose hearts are turned to God. They are turned, they are broken, in humility, in willingness to be corrected. Anything other than humility, regardless of whether it is a matter of addiction, is sin. And that’s where I draw the line between sins and mistakes: whether or not we are willing to be corrected.

I can really only conclude, then, is that the only true “sin” is a lack of humility. If what we’re doing is traditionally categorized as a sin but it happens while our hearts are humble, and willing to receive correction, then whatever it is, that’s a mistake! It’s a mistake because of the very fact that we recognize it as such, and that from then on we will try to do it differently, to work on exercising greater control over our bodies and minds. If we are doing anything, anything at all, without humility, without a willingness to be corrected by either God or our leaders or even sometimes our peers, then that’s rebellion. That’s sin.

However frequently we stumble and however we classify such stumblings are immaterial if the stumbler recognizes that such behavioral patterns, those grooves of thought that sweep our souls off their feet into sin, are remnants of neural pathways that, regardless of origin or designation, need to be eradicated. Such change can’t happen immediately, and so as the addict tries—and such attempts can only really occur when the moment of temptation comes; it’s impossible to practice in a safe training ground without potential consequence of sin—as she tries, let’s say, His grace is sufficient to redeem and to justify, and she can be forgiven as long as she turns back to God as quickly and as starkly as she can. There will always be a bit of hell to pay, sometimes necessary guilt and sometimes unnecessary shame, but forgiveness can come to the addict even when Christ knows we’re going to mess up again.

Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it. Prone to leave the God we love. If we can still love Him, if we can seal our hearts in His courts above, then even when we do wander, we will come back, and He knows it. So even if we’ve fallen to the ground because of the weakness of our spiritual legs, if our heart is facing the Savior, it is pure. That’s why I believe that with the imperfect but recovering addict, hearts can be pure even if hands are not always clean.

For I believe He cares far more for our will and the desires of our heart (a broken heart and a contrite spirit) than what we are physically capable of in any given moment. Our will is, after all, what is going to rise most prominently with us in the next life, and it’s how God knows us in this life. So when you commit a sin, don’t think that you’ve somehow drastically changed in God’s eyes. You haven’t. That weakness was there before you did it, and God knew it, and so He knew you were prone to it, and that you’d do it. What matters, therefore, isn’t that you committed that sin as much as that that vulnerability and proclivity is still present. It is the vulnerability in our nature you, we, need to go about changing, and “sin” will naturally vanish with it. If we remain weak all our days but technically unable to do sin and so commit no sin, where are we at the end of our lives? Still weak, still with a propensity to sin, still with a fallen nature.

And here we arrive at another reason to think of sins differently than we usually do. The final judgment is not based on how many sins we’ve committed or good deeds we’ve done, but by the state our soul at the end of our mortality. Sins, then, can be seen in the meantime as useful instances where weakness is exposed for what it is, in the same way a root protruding from the ground indicates a whole root system beneath. You don’t take a saw to the root; you take a shovel to the ground and start digging. In other words, sins are generally symptoms, not the heart of the problem itself. Seeing it this way allows us to take moments of temptation as times in which we get to learn who we really are, when we get to take stock of our souls, measure our natures to see how far along our development is by what we choose to do and who we choose to be. That’s the reason God allows us to be tempted at all. A test, not for our final judgement, but for us to see how we’re doing, and, most likely, where we still need to improve. If sins are being committed with regularity, that means something beneath the surface needs changing. 

You test the strength of a sword by striking it to see if or where it breaks. Then you go about reforging it. That’s the Savior’s philosophy. That’s the point of this earth. And it’s also why I don’t believe in “sin” the way we usually talk about it.

I assure you that, however we classify such deviations from the path, Christ’s grace covers all of us as we look back to Him, and as we sincerely want to do better. And as Brad Wilcox says, it’ll cover us as long as that process actually takes. It might take a long, long time, but so does all of God’s work. Does God answer prayers immediately? Does His plan of salvation play out immediately? Is the work of saving souls complete? No? Then we are not done either. We cannot be fixed in one miraculous moment because that is contrary to God’s law. Yes, Alma the Younger’s heart was changed in three days of utter misery and hell, but I bet it took a while for his bad habits to catch up after he woke up. Likewise, we cannot expect ourselves to have fully overcome a sin just because our hearts are genuinely penitent. It takes a lifetime to be fully God’s. And it takes an eternity to be fully gods.