Nathan was assigned to talk about Elder Holland’s October 2017 General Conference address “Be Ye Therefore Perfect – Eventually”.
I served as a missionary in South Korea. There are four missions there: two in Seoul, one in Pusan, and then the one you haven’t heard of. That was mine.
There are some languages where missionaries seem to be fluent before they leave the Missionary Training Center. Korean is not one of those. There are those other languages where it takes you the whole two years to reach fluency. Korean isn’t really one of those, either. I used to joke that, at the time of the Tower of Babel, the Koreans must have been doing something terrible. They never found that as funny as I did.
During my first year, the time finally came for me to become the senior companion. Except it was one of those transfers where the junior and senior companions who are serving in an area are both transferred out at the same time. So here I am, still trying to figure out what people are saying, and now responsible for leading a missionary who had even less of a clue than I did. Not only that, we didn’t have bikes or cars in our mission, so I had to figure out public transit in a new city. In Korean.
The outgoing elders told us how much they loved this place. The members were always inviting them over for dinner. They were getting lots of appointments to teach about the church. It’s gonna be great.
Except that was not our experience. Not a single member invited us over. The few investigators we had cancelled appointments or stopped talking to us. Week after week, we had nothing but an empty calendar and lots of time tracting in massive apartment complexes, where everyone had a camera doorbell and could tell they didn’t want to talk to us without even opening the door.
Until finally… a church member invited us to lunch. It was like a beam of sunlight shooting through the clouds. This family lived a ways outside of town, but he told us where to catch the bus, and to ride it until you got to the tool factory, and then use the payphone that would be right there, and they would send one of their kids to come get us. We found the bus, and asked the driver if this went to the tool factory, and he said yes and he’d let us know when we got there. So we got on and rode right down along the coast—it was absolutely beautiful, but we seemed to be riding for a long time. And finally he stopped and let us out in front of the tool factory, and we found the payphone, and called to tell the family we were there. And they said, “No you’re not. We’re looking out our window right now, and you are not there.”
It turns out that they lived across from the tofu factory. The return bus wasn’t scheduled to come for another 45 minutes, and by that time the family would have other appointments. I sat down on that bus stop bench in the middle of nowhere, turned a bit so my companion wouldn’t see me, and just cried. I thought, “Heavenly Father? I quit. I’m not good enough. There is nothing I can do to fix this. I give up.”
And suddenly I felt the Spirit wash over me like a hug, and the words came to my mind: “That is what I have been waiting for. This is my work, and you must step back and allow me to do it.”
My mission was also the first time I really began to understand that I was struggling with depression. I went to a therapist for a while as a teenager, but at the time I figured that was just something teenagers did. It wasn’t until my mission, and going to college afterwards, that depression began to have an adverse effect on my life, and I began to see depression for what it was.
Over the following decades, I tried medication and various kinds of therapies, but that cloud of gloom has always followed me, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout my life and even my discipleship.
So when Elder Holland said this in General Conference, it felt like he was speaking directly to me:
Around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.” I hear this from teenagers. I hear it from missionaries. I hear it from new converts. I hear it from lifelong members… Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making.
It felt like he was speaking directly to me, and yet that list he gives—teenagers, missionaries, new converts, lifelong members—actually includes everyone in the church. In a way, this makes sense, because if it is true that we have our eye single toward the glory of God, then, because God is infinite and perfect, it is inevitable that we will feel inadequate. Because we literally are.
In Ether 12, the Lord speaks to Moroni, a prophet who struggles with his own lifetime of sorrows and feelings of inadequacy, and tells him that, “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.”
When I hear people talk about this, a lot of times they automatically add a plural, so that God is showing us our “weaknesses”. But I don’t think that’s exactly what it’s saying. The word the Lord uses is “weakness”, the quality of being weak. As we approach God, we realize more and more that we can’t do it ourselves. The gulf between Him and us is too far to cross on our own. Or on a simpler level, he shows me that I am so weak that I fall into the same sin that I told myself just this morning that I was going to stop for good.
“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things”—That’s where it becomes plural! Now he’s talking about those specific weakness-es. “…then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
So, if Heavenly Father knows we are unable to fix these sins that stick to us like stickle burs on our socks, and if he has given us visions and commandments that reveal to us our own inadequacy—is He really just setting us up to fail?
No. He is not.
Elder Holland says:
I believe in [God’s] perfection, and I know we are His spiritual sons and daughters with divine potential to become as He is. I also know that, as children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. No! With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants.
He says that what the Lord asks of us is a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness. That’s it. Everything else is covered by the grace of the atonement.
I think that, in our church, we get stuck on a misunderstanding of 2 Nephi 25:23, which says “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” We think that the phrase “after all we can do” means that we are the ones doing the heavy lifting. We think that, first, we have to prove ourselves deserving of God’s mercy, when, in fact, that’s not how mercy works. That is the opposite of mercy.
But do we really believe that a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness are sufficient to qualify for the greatest blessing of all? Do we really believe that the atonement can heal not just our sins, but also our imperfections? I mean, I think I know what sin is, but there are also a lot of things about myself that aren’t sins, exactly, but that I really don’t like. What if all my sins are washed away, and what’s left underneath isn’t worth saving?
(If you feel that, by the way, you are probably depressed. And it’s okay to get help.)
A number of years ago, I discovered a kind of thought experiment that changed the way I understood the atonement and how it applies to me.
We know that Jesus paid the price for our sins, right? The question is—if Jesus suffered to pay for this discrete unit of bad behavior called a sin, where does that sin actually start? Does it start in the sinful act itself? Or does it start in the desire that came before that act? Or does it start in the thoughts that fed the desire? Or does it start that first time that you didn’t turn away when temptation presented itself, which led to the thoughts? Or does it start with the series of previous choices that weakened your character sufficiently that you didn’t look away when temptation came? Do you see the problem?
Sin doesn’t have a discrete beginning or end. It’s not a kidney stone. Sin is any deviation of your self from its perfect, godly nature. You don’t leave sins like breadcrumbs in the path behind you. You carry them with you as an altered spiritual state.
Accordingly, when the Savior cleanses you from sin, he is not just cutting off the bad parts. He heals you. And if you push that thought to its ultimate conclusion, it seems to suggest that the Savior took upon himself the entirety of your imperfect life. All of it. Every failure, every embarrassment, every sickness, every petty squabble, every broken heart. He can heal all of it. And he understands us perfectly because, in that mysterious God-time way, he has already experienced it as personally as if he were right there with you.
We will be made perfect. Just not yet. We’re not done cooking. And all that he asks of us is a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness.
I want to share one last perspective that has helped me in getting through my times of struggle.
We are often told here in our church that our premortal spirits came down to earth to be born into these mortal bodies so that we could learn. Right? But what on earth could we possibly learn here that we couldn’t have known in the presence of Heavenly Father? He knows everything! We had to have known more there than we will ever learn here. Have you ever thought about that? So then, what’s the point of coming here to learn?
To me, the answer is that the most important learning we are doing here is not book learning, but skill learning. Like learning to play the piano. No one becomes a great piano player by reading all of the books about it. Likewise, no one is prepared to reach their full stature as children of God and inheritors of eternal life without practicing those skills. After all, God is not perfect because he is ignorant of evil, but because he only chooses good. This life is a specifically calibrated learning environment created for us to practice the skills of being like our Father in Heaven. And if you think it’s hard to be godly around some of the idiots you have to deal with here on earth, imagine dealing with billions of us at the same time.
We’re not there yet. You’re not perfect. And that’s ok.
I love the Nelson Mandela quote that says, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” This truly is a church of “Latter-day Saints”. You belong here. Don’t give up, that’s all that is required. Have a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness. As long as we keep getting back up each time we fall, then Satan has already been defeated, because the atonement is perfect, and it can make up the difference.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ.