Some of the college entrance exams we took when we were young adults were designed so that few, if any, test-takers received perfect scores. Their purpose was to discriminate among us so that our individual performances could be compared. It can be argued whether such tests effectively predict success in school and life, but tests are often used to rank students from least to most capable. In this function, it is important that students not cluster at the top.
For example, if 75% of those who took college entrance tests were to get perfect scores, the test would be nearly useless to the university admissions personnel. They want student scores spread out widely, so they can discriminate between students who are extraordinarily promising and those who are less likely to excel.
The difficulty of these tests is not due to unkindness or snobbishness of the test designers. Rather the tests are designed to challenge the students because an easy test is not a very useful one considering the test’s intended purpose.
The Test of Mortality
Now let’s examine God’s plan of salvation to see if we can discern any evidence of His intent regarding the test of mortality. Was it God’s aim to discriminate among us in order to rank us—getting as much spread in scores as possible? If so, only One student among billions has gotten a perfect score. No one else has gotten even close. Most of us cluster way down the scale.
We might be tempted to suppose that there are some who came close to acing the test of life. Moses, the Brother of Jared, and Joseph Smith all come to mind. Did they get near-perfect scores?
To me it does not seem so. Moses struggled through mortality and was not allowed to lead Israel into the Promised Land. Even the amazing Brother of Jared is as famous for his heavenly reprimand as for his veil-ripping faith. Joseph Smith, remarkable as he was, was sorely chastened by the Lord more than once. I think Joseph would be the first person to admit his errors.
Failing the Test
It is my guess that even the best among us score no better than about 40% on the tests of mortality. Maybe that estimate is too high. Every human is flawed and falls far short of God’s standard of perfection. In fact, most of us may be clustered around 1-5%. In a test as hard as mortality, this might be a decent score. But, in traditional grading, whether we get 2.7% or 40%, we still qualify for failing grades. So the best among us get F’s. And the worst among us get F’s. This seems pretty hopeless.
Some might say that a gracious God must grade on the curve. He certainly does not want to send all His children to hellfire and damnation. So maybe He slides the expectation scale down to meet us where we live so that at least the best among us make it into His presence. This would mean that those who try hard, break fewer commandments, and attend more meetings get the heavenly seal of approval. For example, a score of 39% might get them into heaven. However those of us who only score 27% in the test of life might be relegated to a lesser kingdom. Vast numbers of us would fail God’s test even if He grades on the curve.
God Designed a Different Kind of Test
I don’t believe that God grades on a curve to compensate for our failings. I don’t believe He designed the test of life with the intent of flunking vast numbers of us. I think that God surprises us with a very different approach. First, He throws out the test criteria that we tend to use—piousness, prominence, respectability, and success—and substitutes His own: humility, faith, repentance, and covenant-making.
Second, His test is not designed to discriminate, but to establish mastery. Just like anyone who demonstrates a mastery of driving passes the test and is awarded a driver’s license, all those who master Heavenly Father’s criteria can return to Him. He wants to enable His children to learn the lessons life was designed to impart. And then He wants His children home with Him again. He is not trying to shut any of us out. So He has designed the test of life so that there can be numberless successes. All of His children can get all the glory they are willing to receive (D&C 88:32).
What are God’s Criteria?
Jesus has repeatedly tried to teach us about the critical criteria for pleasing God. Millennia ago He told a story about a Pharisee who got a top score in pious attitudes and righteous living and a publican who got low scores on those same attributes. And He asked us: Which one will make it?
We humans always give the wrong answer. We are always impressed by piousness. But Jesus says that the poor old publican who recognized his need for God was the one who made it—contrary to all expectations and appearances (Luke 18:9-14).
Jesus made the same unexpected point as He sat with Simon the Pharisee and found more virtue in the broken-down sinner who washed His feet with her tears than in the accusing Simon who was a spiritual leader in his community. Jesus loved the filthy and broken because they may have been more likely to pass the tests that mattered: throwing themselves on the merits, mercy and grace of Him who is mighty to save.
There really is only one criterion for passing this mortal test: being valiant—earnest, energized, and focused— in the testimony of Jesus. This truth is taught relentlessly in the scriptures. When He is in our hearts, our attitudes and actions are transformed.
After teaching the people to humbly recognize their dependence on God and to stand in awe of God and His goodness, King Benjamin challenged his people: “And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which I have told you” (Mosiah 4:8).
Jesus is not a decorative finishing touch on our lifetime resolve and finest efforts. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our only hope.
God offers us a completely different type of grading system for our test of life. If we humble ourselves and repent of our failings, He offers us unlimited chances to erase our poor scores and try again. That is the point of those precious opportunities—faith, repentance, and covenants. And if we continue to return to Christ to be taught (being valiant in our testimony of Jesus), He offers us the amazing opportunity to go to our final evaluation in partnership with Him, the Lord Jesus Christ. The only One to achieve a perfect score will give us His score. We become “perfect in Christ” (Moroni 10:32-3).
Yikes! That’s a different kind of test! The key criterion is not how well we do but how completely we turn to the One who can perfect us. Of course all our efforts to live righteously help us learn the lessons God wants to impart to us, and they demonstrate our earnestness. But we should not deceive ourselves. We are not making ourselves good, holy, or clean through those efforts.
We make ourselves humble and He makes us clean.
A New Way of Thinking
How does this way of considering the tests of life change our thinking?
1. We should realize that we do a poor job of judging people’s failures or successes. Many of those who look like failures to us are among God’s valiant ones.
2. Rather than judge and compete with each other, we should help each other. When we try to beat others, we fail the test. Only by showing charity and helping each other can we pass the test. Life is not a competition.
3. We should not be discouraged by our own failings. We should never believe we are a “lost cause” or that it is too late for repentance and change. We should return to Christ again and again pleading for the change of heart and change of score that only He can provide.
4. We should focus on Christ and testify of Christ tirelessly. He really is the only way any of us will get from our failing grades to passing grades. There is no other way.
We humans tend to think of tests in terms of norms and percentiles. We compare and compete. God begs us to knock it off. He thinks in terms of the simple criteria: turning our lives over to His beloved Son. When we turn ourselves over to Him, He gives us His perfect score as if it were our own. Can you imagine? We become star students by His generous gift!
Will He help a flawed and irresolute character like me? He assures each of us:
He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God. (2 Nephi 26:33)
God wants to give each of us His Son’s perfect score.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her excellent input on this article.
YouTube videos on the Atonement