[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.