At the beginning of November 2007 I was fledgling, bright-eyed missionary, just arrived at my first area in the southern outskirts of Niigata, Japan. Just days after getting acclimated to the area, I was whisked away to my first zone conference where we were treated to a special visit from the Asia North Area President at the time, Elder David Evans. I wish I could say I remember much of what was said at that meeting—let alone at the vast number of meetings I have attended since then—but one moment still pierces my memory to this day. During the last segment of the conference, Elder Evans opened up the time for missionaries to ask questions and, driven by my young missionary zeal, I asked the one question that most desperately concerned me: “How can we know we are doing enough when there is always room for improvement?” Elder Evans noted the question along with the others on a large white board and proceeded to answer each in turn.
As fate would have it, just as Elder Evans finished answering the question preceding mine, he signaled that we had run out of time. My question was left unanswered, and it is one that I have been thinking deeply about ever since. My thoughts today are primarily directed to those of you who may be wrestling with the same question—those of you who never quite feel you are doing enough, overwhelmed by how often you fail to meet the expectations you set for yourself, and the expectations you believe God holds over you.
Though I don’t think I realized it at the time, my question is a restatement of a much older dilemma: how are we to understand the necessity of good works in light of God’s infinite grace? In fact, my question to Elder Evans could easily have been rephrased as follows: “How do I know when I’ve qualified for God’s grace when there are always more works I could perform?”
In truth, I never found a satisfactory answer to this question during my time as a missionary. Though I loved my mission dearly, and consider it to be one of the seminal periods of my life, even a cursory review of my mission journals reveals a frequently despondent soul who never felt like he was measuring up to expectations. Mission mantras like “Obedience is the price” reinforced the idea that we earned our success as missionaries, and that blessings were predicated on our ability to perform. Though most of us worked extremely hard and saw varying levels of success along the way, guilt over never “doing enough” was the byproduct of this paradigm—at least for me.
This mindset of works-based righteousness is, unfortunately, not exclusive to overzealous missionaries. Indeed, I suspect it is something that plagues many, if not most, lay members of the church. And yet, we Mormons are often quick to reinforce our support of this works-based-righteousness ethic, usually at the expense of grace. Indeed, what Mormon has not heard James’ famous maxim, “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone”[i] quoted in quick defense whenever the subject of salvation by grace is proposed? I speculate that Mormons are generally allergic to grace-based salvation because we fear the consequences of what Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: “[T]he preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, . . . grace without discipleship, [and] grace without the cross[.]”[ii] The logical extreme of cheap grace is perhaps best described by Nephi, paraphrasing Isaiah: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.”[iii] In conjunction with fears about cheap grace, and perhaps as an outgrowth of our predominantly conservative culture, some of us may abhor the thought that an “unwise and slothful servant”[iv] be given any free handouts—whether in this life or the next.
The opposite extreme of cheap grace is salvation through pious works, more technically known as “legalism”; and though it bears equally unfavorable fruits, in my estimation legalism is a much more common pitfall for Mormons than cheap grace. Perhaps most insidious, a devout legalist may unconsciously begin to see God as more of an exacting Lawyer than a compassionate Father; one that works for us primarily on a quid pro quo basis. Here is a popular verse interpreted through a legalist lens (which, as it turns out, isn’t much of a departure from how we usually read the original): “I, the Lord, am bound when ye scratch my back; but when ye do not scratch my back, ye have no promise that I will scratch thine.”[v] This legalist belief that our blessings, especially our salvation, are earned by our pious works distorts the gospel into an elaborate system of carrots and sticks. Indeed, the widespread acceptance of this philosophy among Mormons is most apparent in the way we commonly teach the commandments, where the promised carrots, or blessings, receive greater emphasis than the ethical or moral significance behind them.
This paradigm of legalism inevitably gives birth to what might be dubbed “The Checklist Saint”—the believer who, in an effort to attain the carrots God has promised to bestow upon those worthy, compartmentalizes his or her religious living into a series of checklist actions which must be completed daily or weekly in order to curry God’s favor. This is what happens when we come to believe that the kingdom of God, like our 21st century workplaces, functions like a meritocracy, where the hardest working saints get the choicest blessings, and the slackers get the bottom of the barrel (if they’re even allowed to be considered part of the kingdom at all).
Unfortunately for legalists, one pundit has noted, accurately I think, that “[a] God of grace will endlessly frustrate those who’ve built their lives upon an economy of merit.”[vi] The burnout we are very likely to experience from living the life of a “Checklist Saint” reflects our fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who boldly declared that those who would “take [His] yoke upon [them] . . . will find rest for [their] souls . . . for [His] yoke is easy, and [His] burden is light.”[vii] While I do not believe Christ meant that the life of discipleship would be easy, per se, I certainly believe He intended discipleship to be more than an overbearing burden that we “endure” to the end for the sake of a heavenly reward, which is how I observe some members approach discipleship. I strongly believe that if our discipleship is causing us overwhelming stress, anxiety, fatigue, and/or burnout, it’s safe to assume that something is amiss. The likely cause is that we do not understand how grace works (no pun intended).
Gratitude & Christlike Character
We’ve now explored the extremes of grace and works: on one hand, grace without works leads to “cheap grace,” a close neighbor of hedonism, and on the other, works without grace leads to legalism. Neither is desirable for our spiritual and mental health, and neither reflects the gospel. Is there a middle ground between the two?
Mormon scholar Adam Miller has suggested that in order to find a balance between grace and works, we must first acknowledge that grace was the plan from the beginning: “[We are sometimes fooled into thinking that] God’s original plan was for us to bootstrap ourselves into holiness by way of the law and then, when this didn’t quite pan out, God offered his grace—but only the bare minimum—to make good the difference and boost us into righteousness. This is exactly backwards. Grace is not God’s backup plan. Jesus is not plan B. God’s boundless grace comes first and sin is what follows. Grace is not God’s response to sin. Sin is our embarrassed, impoverished, rebellious rejection of God’s original grace.”[viii]
In recent years, Mormon author and educator Brad Wilcox has popularized a metaphor, often referred to as “The Parable of the Piano Lessons,”[ix] which elucidates how grace and works might be balanced in way that is quite helpful and easy to understand. Just as a child who practices the piano does not in any way compensate their parents who pay for the piano lessons, so to do our works not in any way pay for our salvation. Christ pays the whole balance; we are saved by “the righteousness of [our] Redeemer,”[x] the “merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”[xi] As eloquently phrased recently by President Uchtdorf, “Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God.”[xii] A child who practices the piano in light of their parent’s generosity shows two important things: (1) their gratitude for the parents’ sacrifice, and (2) their desire to be a better piano player. This is the proper place of works in the gospel: a response to grace received, not a petition for that grace. Like Adam Miller said, grace comes first, and our response—sin or righteousness—is what follows.
To some in the audience, the idea that we in no way pay for salvation may cause some consternation. What about saving ordinances? What about covenants? What about the commandments? Why bother with them if we’re already saved? To me, that’s a bit like a freshman college student asking, “Why should I bother doing anything if I’ve already been accepted into college?” If we believe education is primarily about grades, acceptance letters, and degrees, we’re missing the point—education is, first and foremost, about genuine learning and character development. So, too, with our spiritual development. The most important moment of our spiritual journey may well be when we cease to see our works as important for some heavenly GPA, but rather as a reflection of our desire to follow Christ and imitate his virtues. Salvation, as defined as being granted access to heaven, is no more the end goal of our existence than getting into college is the point of college.
Building on Wilcox’s parable, I believe we perform the works and rituals of salvation to show our gratitude for God’s gift of salvation, and to show our desire to grow in Christlike character, thus becoming like our Heavenly Father. When we sin, we are not putting our salvation in jeopardy; we are distancing ourselves from our godlike potential. When we repent, we are not paying for debts; we are deliberately choosing to put off the old man of sin and put on the new life in Christ.[xiii] When we keep the commandments or enter into covenants, we are not merely attaining blessings or avoiding punishments; we are expressing gratitude for all that God has done for us, showing our desire to live a life of holiness.
When the need for grace and works is understood in proper balance, it is powerfully transformative. In fact, Paul—perhaps the greatest exponent of grace—believed that saints who accepted God’s grace in faith would naturally produce good works—not out of compulsion or fear, but out of genuine desire. As explained by Pauline scholar E.P. Sanders, “Paul held that faith in Christ was the sole requirement for membership in the group of those who would be saved. . . . [That said, he believed] Christians should live morally blameless lives. . . . Paul thought that correct behavior was the inevitable consequence of becoming one person with Christ: a member of Christ’s body lived accordingly, naturally producing the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ . . . [W]e must conclude that he and his converts thought that their membership in the body of Christ really changed them.”[xiv]
I now return full circle to the original question I posed as a young, naive, overambitious missionary: “How can we know we are doing enough when there is always room for improvement?” The question is, as it turns out, fundamentally flawed, because we can never “do enough,” and there is, indeed, always room for improvement. As Joseph Smith noted in one of his last major public addresses, “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them.”[xv] How important it is for us to recognize that it will be “a great while after [we] have passed through the veil” before we become as God and Christ—perhaps millions of years by our reckoning of time. How much more kind and patient we ought to be with ourselves and each other, regardless of our multitude of sins and wherever we may be on the spectrum of progression.
God has provided his gospel not as legal contract detailing how we are expected to save ourselves, but rather as a hopeful guide on how to become like Christ. I hope each of us, particularly those of us who are habitually overwhelmed by church duties, programs, and expectations, may find peace in this thought, and cease from trying to “run faster than [we have] strength.”[xvi] Indeed, let us remember the hopeful words of Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”[xvii]
[i] James 2:17 (KJV)
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 44-45
[iii] 2 Nephi 28:7 (cf. Isaiah 22:13)
[iv] D&C 58:26
[v] D&C 82:10
[vi] A.J. Swoboda (mrajswoboda). September 6, 2015. Tweet.
[vii] Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)
[viii] Adam Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan, pp. 3-4
[ix] Brad Wilcox, “His Grace Is Sufficient.” Brigham Young University. July 12, 2011.
[x] 2 Nephi 2:3
[xi] 2 Nephi 2:8
[xii] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace.” LDS General Conference. April 5, 2015.
[xiii] Romans 6:3-6 (KJV)
[xiv] E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 81, 84
[xv] Joseph Smith, “King Follett Discourse.” April 7, 1844.
[xvi] Mosiah 4:27
[xvii] Romans 8:35, 37-39 (NRSV)