The following is based on a talk I gave in sacrament meeting. I was asked to speak on the topic of worthiness.
The worth of souls
I want to start my talk out with one of my favorite scriptures of the Restoration:
Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.
For behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.
And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.
And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!
Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.
And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father! (D&C 18:10-15)
I start my talk to remind us of the worth of a soul. It is always great, unconditionally great. But my talk is on a word of a slightly different meaning. Worthiness, a word we use quite regularly in the church but rarely fully define. But baked into the concept is the idea of our works, our acts, our deeds, determine whether we are in good standing with God and with the Church. And that, to some extent, it can be measured.
An exercise in scrupulosity
I was plagued with guilt through much of my youth, though I wasn’t guilty of any horribly large sins.
I remember when I was about eleven years old, I didn’t feel worthy to receive the priesthood. I remember a lesson on the sacrament where we learned that we renew our baptismal covenants, and it is like our sins are washed away again. I latched onto it, it was a saving grace after I weighed myself down with feelings of guilt over the smallest things. But I was still hyper aware of how much I sinned. I forgot to pray one night. I went weeks without reading in my scriptures. I fought with my siblings.
Things got worse. I’m not sure where I heard it– a Sunday School lesson, a church talk, or a church leader– taught the following from Miracle of Forgiveness:
Those who receive forgiveness and then repeat the sin are held accountable for their former sins.
I could just imagine a huge pile of sins accumulating in the scales of justice, like some abominable snowball. There was no hope that many sins would ever go away. Surely, enough small sins add up to one large sin? How many fights with my sibling equate to breaking the Word of Wisdom? Or murder?
Even later after my mission, I kept a notebook where I would tally how many times I judged someone. I had internalized the concept of key indicators, which had been another source of guilt, as I had rarely if ever achieved the expected 20 lessons per week.
I spent the first twenty-two years of my life questioning whether I was truly worthy.
I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self that the gospel, the good news, wasn’t so you could drag guilt around with you constantly, wondering if you’re living up.
Joseph Smith felt condemned too
An anxiety of our worthiness isn’t something new. In fact, the story of the Restoration begins with a young boy of fourteen wanting to ascertain his standing with God. In Joseph’s day, preachers were waving bibles condemning “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Joseph recounted his feelings before going to the grove to pray: My mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins. The Lord pronounced upon Joseph, Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments.
But the anxiety about the state of his soul didn’t leave him there. He recounts in Joseph Smith History:
During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three– having been forbidden to join any of the religious sects of the day, and being of very tender years– I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been…
In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections.
Marvin J. Ashton and hope and work
Apostle Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk back in 1989 addressing worthiness, because he saw youth like myself having the same internal wrestle:
Over the past number of weeks I have had some conversations that have made me ponder the meaning of the word worthy. As I recently talked to a young twenty-year-old man, I discussed his attitude about going on a mission. He said, “I want to go, but I am not worthy.”
“Who made that judgment?” I asked
“I did,” was his answer.
On another occasion I asked a young lady who was contemplating marriage if she was going to the temple. She said, “I would like to, but I am not worthy.” In response to the same question of who determined her unworthiness, she too said, “I did.”
A member mother who had known for many weeks that her daughter had planned a temple marriage was asked if she was going to attend the temple ceremony. “No. I am not worthy to get a temple recommend,” she answered.
Each of these people seemed to have made his own determination about worthiness. We do not have to be hindered by self-judgment. All of us have the benefit and added wisdom of a bishop and stake president to help us determine our worthiness and, if necessary, to assist us to begin the process of becoming worthy to accomplish whatever goal we wish to achieve. When we take it upon ourselves to pass self-judgment and simply declare, “I am not worthy,” we build a barrier to progress and erect blockades that prevent our moving forward. We are not being fair when we judge ourselves. A second and third opinion will always be helpful and proper.
Now I did talk to my bishop and other leaders quite a bit. My bishop reassured me that I was forgiven. But I think I had misunderstood key doctrine of repentance, forgiveness and the Atonement. I don’t think I am alone either. Elder Ashton outlined 3 principles further in his talk that stuck out to me.
First, worthiness is a process. Worthiness is a process, and progression is an eternal trek. We can be worthy to enjoy certain privileges without being perfect.
The process of self-reflection during the sacrament, of acknowledging your mistakes, but not beating yourself up about them
Second, our direction is more important than our speed I am also convinced of the fact that the speed with which we head along the straight and narrow path isn’t as important as the direction in which we are traveling. That direction, if it is leading toward eternal goals, is the all-important factor.
Third, hope and work are what we can measure worthiness by. Somehow we need to bridge the gap between continually striving to improve and yet not feeling defeated when our actions aren’t perfect all the time. We need to remove unworthy from our vocabulary and replace it with hope and work.
All have sinned
In a way, my teenage self was right. None of us are truly worthy. Paul says in Romans 3 There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God… there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
But you know the answer– the Savior takes up the slack. Nephi says, we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. You can be sure I overthought that last part. How do I know I am doing all I can do? At one point does the Savior’s grace kick in?
I had an Institute teacher pose it to the class in this way: How much of your salvation is covered by you, and how much is covered by Christ? Is it 20%? 10%? 5%? There is a very similar scene in The Good Place where they calculate a single numerical score from adding up the collected weights of all your righteous deeds and past mistakes. That single number determines whether you get into heaven or into hell.
You already know deep down that is wrong. That isn’t how it works. But where is the lie? Don’t we treat it that way, at least when evaluating ourselves?
The answer is covenants.
The Oxford English dictionary has one definition of worthiness that sheds light on this. It defines worthy as to be under an obligation to do something. I find this beautiful, if we seek to live up to our covenantal obligations, we can be confident to stand before the Lord. Turning to Mosiah 18, we read about our baptismal covenants:
First element, the desires of our hearts. Behold, here are the waters of Mormon. And now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
And second, a willingness to do good. Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may me in, even until death. Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
It is our righteous desires, and our willingness to do good– even when we slip up, we get back up again. If you can do that, you are worthy.
The Pharisee and the Publican
I close my talk on worthiness with the parable of Christ about the Pharisee and the Publican, because I think this is the clearest demonstration of the Lord’s standard.
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
It was the Publican who went away justified in the eyes of the Lord. Do we measure worthiness like the man listing his acts of religious devotion? Or do we try more and more to look through heaven’s eyes, in our humble petitions for God’s mercy, and our efforts to love more and be more like Christ?