Mistakes, Sins, Failure, & Grace
The following is a talk I gave in Church in October 2016:
A new business was opening and one of the owner’s friends wanted to send flowers for the occasion.
They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card; it said “Rest in Peace”. When the friend found out, she became angry and called the florist to complain. After she had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry she was, the florist said.
“Madam, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry you should imagine this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, “Congratulations on your new location”. (http://www.jokebuddha.com/Mistake#ixzz3zjoTkFpO)
This brings to mind something that the comedian Red Skelton said and may actually hint at one of the more hidden refining benefits of marriage, “All men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner.”
On a more serious note, what do the scriptures say about mistakes? In Doctrine and Covenants 1:25,27 it reads: “And inasmuch as they have erred it might be made known.…And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent.” In a speech given at BYU, Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out the difference between erring or making a mistake and sinning. He said,
“Both can hurt us and both require attention, but the scriptures direct a different treatment. Chewing on a live electrical cord or diving headfirst into water of uncertain depth are mistakes that should be made known so they can be corrected. Violations of the commandments of God are sins that require chastening and repentance. In the treatment process we should not require repentance for mistakes, but we are commanded to preach the necessity of repentance for sins.” (BYU Speeches, Sins and Mistakes, Dallin H. Oaks April 1994)
Elder Oaks went on to define both mistakes and sins:
“Sins result from willful disobedience of laws we have received by explicit teaching or by the Spirit of Christ that teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong. For sins, the remedy is to chasten and encourage repentance.
Mistakes result from ignorance of the laws of God or of the workings of the universe or of people he has created. For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the actor.”
I believe that we need to have a proper understanding of the difference between sins and mistakes. Now, not all sins are weightier than any mistake. For example, it may be a mistake and not a sin to step out in front of a moving car or to post mean things about your boss on Facebook, but certainly these BIG mistakes can have irreversible or long-term consequences over a small sin.
We must always eschew sin and seek to quickly repent when we do willfully disobey a commandment we know that we should keep. Perhaps the most difficult part of this repentance, this change, is the humbling of ourselves to acknowledge our incorrectness and need for change/repentance. When it comes to mistakes, though, Elder Oaks taught:
“We should seek to avoid mistakes, since some mistakes have very painful consequences. But we do not seek to avoid mistakes at all costs. Mistakes are inevitable in the process of growth in mortality. To avoid all possibility of error is to avoid all possibility of growth.”
Avoiding mistakes at all costs can lead to analysis paralysis or all the negative anxiety that we have heard of that can accompany a debilitating obsession with perfection. Too often the enemy of doing something good is the desire to wait further until the good is perfect. However, as the the Savior himself taught with the parable of the talents, at some point, not doing something good for fear that our good isn’t good enough or isn’t perfect, makes us unprofitable servants.
In Matthew 25:4–30, the Savior tells the parable of the talents. The Lord gives 5 talents to one servant, 2 talents to another, and one talent to a third. The first two servants take their talents and when the Lord returns, they return double what the Lord gave them. When the Lord asks the third servant, he says, “…I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo here that is thine.” When it comes to doing good things, are we afraid? Are we too afraid of making mistakes? Are we afraid that we might fail?
In July 2011, Brad Wilcox gave what may be the best talk on Grace and explaining the atonement and how grace works that I have ever heard or read. In it, Brother Wilcox tells of a young BYU student who approaches him and says that she doesn’t understand grace. The conversation went like this:
“She said, “I just don’t get grace.”
I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?”
She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.”
She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing because she’s a Mormon that she wasn’t doing.
She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?”
She then went on to tell me all the things that she shouldn’t be doing because she’s a Mormon, but she was doing them anyway.
Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.”
Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots — one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead.
Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?”
She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot.
I said, “Wrong.”
She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.”
I said, “No. The truth is, there is no line. Jesus filled the whole space. He paid our debt in full. He didn’t pay it all except for a few coins. He paid it all. It is finished.”
She said, “Right! Like I don’t have to do anything?”
“Oh no,” I said, “you have plenty to do, but it is not to fill that gap. We will all be resurrected. We will all go back to God’s presence. What is left to be determined by our obedience is what kind of body we plan on being resurrected with and how comfortable we plan to be in God’s presence and how long we plan to stay there.”
Brother Wilcox then gives an analogy of grace and practicing the piano.
“Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher…. Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No.
Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used — seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said, referring to President Spencer W. Kimball’s explanation, “The repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change” (The Lord’s Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991], 223; emphasis in original). Let’s put that in terms of our analogy: The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.”
Brother Wilcox goes on to remark that we are here on earth and in families trying to “learn Heaven,” we are practicing and preparing for it. It would be completely unrealistic for either me to expect my daughter or my daughter to expect herself to be able to sit down and play a new piano piece without mess ups. And if she did mess up, it would be completely ridiculous for her to throw up our hands and declare, “I can’t do this piano thing. I’ve failed. I’m just not cut out for it.” While she may have certainly felt that way, it wouldn’t be true. So then, what would failure in this case be? Failure would be giving up. Throwing in the towel. The timeframe for which we consider failure is much too short. We may wish to go a day without yelling at our kids, and we fail to do this. But have we failed in the long run? Will we let our short term failures, define our long term? Do we believe in defeat or only temporary setbacks?
In high school I went through a series of trials and depression that was extremely difficult for me, my parents got me a talk on tape that spoke on persistence and diligence and keeping on trying. The speaker read 2 Peter 1:4–8,10:
4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ….
10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:”
And that last “fall” he said, imagine that as “fail.” Basically, be diligent or keep trying and you shall never fail. And then the kicker: “I’m not judged by the number of times that I fail, but by the number of times that I succeed, and the number of times that I succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times that I fail, but keep trying.” We only really fail if we’ve given up and then only for as long as we continue to give up. We only fail to become pianists by giving up on our daily practice regimen. We only fail to become Celestial by giving up on our daily “learning Heaven” regimen of Gospel living.
Brother Wilcox puts this beautifully and so I will quote from his words:
“But Brother Wilcox, don’t you realize how hard it is to practice? I’m just not very good at the piano. I hit a lot of wrong notes. It takes me forever to get it right.” Now wait. Isn’t that all part of the learning process? When a young pianist hits a wrong note, we don’t say he is not worthy to keep practicing. We don’t expect him to be flawless. We just expect him to keep trying. Perfection may be his ultimate goal, but for now we can be content with progress in the right direction. Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven?
Too many are giving up on the Church because they are tired of constantly feeling like they are falling short. They have tried in the past, but they always feel like they are just not good enough. They don’t understand grace.
There are young women who know they are daughters of a Heavenly Father who loves them, and they love Him. Then they graduate from high school, and the values they memorized are put to the test. They slip up. They let things go too far, and suddenly they think it is all over. These young women don’t understand grace.
There are young men who grow up their whole lives singing, “I hope they call me on a mission,” and then they do actually grow a foot or two and flake out completely. They get their Eagles, graduate from high school, and go away to college. Then suddenly these young men find out how easy it is to not be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent. They mess up. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “I’ll never do it again,” and then they do it. They say, “This is stupid. I will never do it again.” And then they do it.
The guilt is almost unbearable. They don’t dare talk to a bishop. Instead, they hide. They say, “I can’t do this Mormon thing. I’ve tried, and the expectations are just way too high.” So they quit. These young men don’t understand grace.
I know returned missionaries who come home and slip back into bad habits they thought were over. They break promises made before God, angels, and witnesses, and they are convinced there is no hope for them now. They say, “Well, I’ve blown it. There is no use in even trying any more.” Seriously? These young people have spent entire missions teaching people about Jesus Christ and His Atonement, and now they think there is no hope for them? These returned missionaries don’t understand grace.
I know young married couples who find out after the sealing ceremony is over that marriage requires adjustments. The pressures of life mount, and stress starts taking its toll financially, spiritually, and even sexually. Mistakes are made. Walls go up. And pretty soon these husbands and wives are talking with divorce lawyers rather than talking with each other. These couples don’t understand grace.
In all of these cases there should never be just two options: perfection or giving up. When learning the piano, are the only options performing at Carnegie Hall or quitting? No.
Growth and development take time. Learning takes time. When we understand grace, we understand that God is long-suffering, that change is a process, and that repentance is a pattern in our lives. When we understand grace, we understand that the blessings of Christ’s Atonement are continuous and His strength is perfect in our weakness (see
2 Corinthians 12:9). When we understand grace, we can, as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “continue in patience until [we] are perfected” (D&C 67:13).
My wife and I are trying to teach my daughter the piano. We’ve employed a piano teacher and we have implemented the conditions of practice and we’ve resorted to all sorts of various kinds of external motivations to ensure that that practicing occurs. But I will tell you one challenge that my daughter is having to overcome, and that is her own unrealistic expectations regarding her abilities to play the piano perfectly or at least very well without first putting in the time to practice. This has made me realize that when our expectations our misaligned with our abilities, we cause ourselves grief. I feel that this is important enough to repeat:
when our expectations our misaligned with our abilities, we cause ourselves grief.
I have heard this concept referred to as our stories. When the stories we tell ourselves are not true stories that reflect how things actually are, we cause ourselves grief. There are two ways to remedy this situation to relieve our grief: to adjust our expectations or change the stories we tell ourselves in order to match our abilities — or to change our abilities and the way things are.
Sometimes it is our stories/expectations that are off, other times we really just need to improve our abilities and change the way things are. Sometimes it may be a mix of both that is necessary.
When Heavenly Father thought up his Plan of Happiness, as a part of that, from the very beginning He knew this would require a Savior. He knew that we would make mistakes AND He knew that we would sin. And even now, we’re all going to make more mistakes in the future and we are going to sin in the future. So He provided a way for us to get over those and He defined and taught a process, repentance, that could and will change us gradually over time to become like Him. And then He gave us the power to act, the power to choose. And while He does want us to become like Him and He wants our ultimate, eventual perfection, He does not want us worrying about it to the point that the fear of imperfection paralyzes us (for which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his statute?) (Matt. 6:27). In this scripture, the Lord tells his disciples to go out into the mission field and not worry about purse or scrip and that the Lord will provide. In our efforts for implementing positive change in our own lives we should likewise be quick to choose to act, to move forward, quick to do.
I recently read a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. The gist of the book was basically the concept that is taught in Alma 37:6: “By small and simple things, great things are brought to pass.” The idea being that small, simple easy-to-do things compounded over time leads to greatness and happiness and success. If this is the case, then why don’t so many people do these small, simple, easy-to-do things? Because if something is simple and easy-to-do, it’s also easy- not-to-do. For example, it’s easy to read at least a scripture a day, it’s also easy not to do this.
But over a period of years, the practice of daily scripture reading can make a world of difference in one’s spiritual development and knowledge of the scriptures. If we’ve chosen to do the easy- to-do, but easy-not-to-do things and read our scriptures daily then we’ll have reaped the compounded benefits of this daily practice. But if we haven’t then we’ll have missed out on the compounded, consistent benefits. The problem is that initially the easy-to-do, simple, small things may start out as slightly uncomfortable or slightly inconvenient, while the easy-not-to-do things require no such effort. However, following the easy-not-to-do path over time leads to regret and greater discomfort, while the easy-to-do, but slightly uncomfortable efforts over time lead to greater comfort freedom, happiness, and success. One last example, it’s easy not to eat healthy and to not exercise and initially is probably more comfortable, but compounded over time this will lead to great discomfort in obesity and related health problems. However, if one starts with an easy effort to do just one small thing to exercise or increase movement and healthy eating and then compounds this daily effort over time, then that person will eventually be healthy, trim, and more comfortable. Each of us faces each day with choices, one choice compounded over time leads to unhappiness, the other to happiness. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
If up ’til now we’ve been traveling the road most traveled by, each day we get to choose anew. That’s what’s great about the atonement and grace. We can repent. We can change, we can acknowledge mistakes and start again. Repent and we’re not judged by the number of times that we fail, but by the number of times that we succeed, and the number of times that we succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times that we fail, but keep trying! And as we’re successful in keeping trying, in practicing and learning Heaven, and doing the simple, easy-to-do efforts that may be slightly inconvenient or uncomfortable but that improve our lives, over time we’ll find that these small, simple things have brought great positive changes to our lives. We only truly fail when we’ve stopped trying or we’ve put off trying until it’s too late. And if you’re human and breathing, you can change and it’s not too late.
Are you feeling like you’re failing? Are you feeling like you’ve just made too many mistakes? Do you have a sin that you keep going back to again and again? Do you feel bad when you keep praying and asking forgiveness for the same thing? Have walls gone up in your marriage? In the words of Winston Churchill, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Don’t give up! Do you understand grace? Are two roads diverging in a yellow wood in your life? Take the one less traveled by! It will make all the difference!
We’ve talked about mistakes, about sin, about failure, and about grace. But what is success? Again I quote from Brad Wilcox’s talk:
In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus.
Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.”
Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.
But 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.
And that is success. To have used grace and practiced and learned Heaven by doing the easy-to- do, but also easy-not-to-do, daily gospel efforts compounded over time until we’ve changed and we feel at home in our home in Heaven. And then when our time to go does come, it will not matter if the funeral home makes a mistake and sends us flowers that read, “Congratulations on your new location!”
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
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