Father, I pray … for those whom thou hast given me out of the world, because of their faith, that they may be purified in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one.
(3 Nephi 19:29)
Woe is me! For I am undone;
because I am a man of unclean lips;
and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips… Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand…
and he laid it upon my mouth,
and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips;
and thine iniquity is taken away,
and thy sin is purged.
In this world many of us feel a separation, a gap between our ordinary, everyday mind, and the nourishing presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. We may think, at some level, “I want to come to Thee, but I need to wait until I am more together— more worthy.”
Worthiness is a recurring issue for each of us. My husband and I have had the privilege of serving in three temples. We welcomed many people through those doors. Many of us, who grasp what the temple really is, bring a certain sensibility there —a hesitancy, a little discomfort.
And that all people who shall enter upon the threshold of the Lord’s house may feel thy power… a place of thy holiness. (D&C 109:13)
Stepping upon the threshold of the temple, sensing the force of holiness there, we may feel some inner conflict about worthiness. It is the very impact of this felt holiness that may arouse confusion about coming to the temple. Sometimes we may fear that we will somehow reveal our deep sense of unworthiness or inadequacy—all of which may preclude our experiencing what is there. Or maybe we’re afraid we won’t feel anything. But most of us come with a desire to experience something divine—but can we? “Worthy” can be such a bothersome notion.
And then sometimes people who have gotten quite accustomed to the temple seal over their hearts trying to avoid the deep searching that goes on in that spiritually energized atmosphere. We have to protect our sensitivities from that Spirit because we are afraid to acknowledge what is truly in our heart. The psalmist declares: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord or who shall “Worthy” stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart” (Psalms 24:3-4).
Yet who of us has a truly pure heart?
Because, not too far under the surface, we find that we’re critical, prideful, angry, resistant, vengeful, defensive, abrupt, cold, rough with others, unbelieving….—we have these impurities in our heart. And we have to hide all of this, if we can, wearing a mask of our worthiness. And yet, our spirit knows what is in our heart, and we sense this void between our self and the presence of the Lord.
As we read the scriptures we notice that the greatest among us fully acknowledge their unworthiness: Father Jacob cries out: “O God … I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Genesis 32:10). The brother of Jared cries, saying, “O Lord, do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee” (Ether 3:2).
Consider this experience of President Hugh B. Brown who remarks on his own personal sense of where he is with respect to “worthy”:
Whenever I enter any of the temples I am hushed and humbled because I am reminded that I am actually not only entering the house of God, but to the degree that I may become worthy, entering into the presence of the Lord.
When I say we come into his presence, of course I do not mean to intimate that he is on all occasions bodily present in the temple, although there have been occasions when he was, but I do mean that his Spirit is here, and if our spirits are right, and if we can … tune out anything that would cause static, and tune in to that Spirit – then each of us may know that we are in his presence. Anyone who comes into that presence will be purified as by fire.
So each week I ask myself as we meet in this temple, “Are you worthy to enter here?” And that leads me then to a prayer for forgiveness because I have never yet been fully worthy.1
If even the most spiritually developed among us still feel a sense of unworthiness, perhaps it would be good to re-examine what the Lord is requiring in order that we might experience Him more. And perhaps there is another way to come to the temple, or even into the bosom of the Lord Himself, that can open our fearful heart to the love abounding there.
As we peel back the layers of our being, we necessarily find painful confusion, old buried sorrows and fears, weaknesses, and failures. Considering what we might have to give up, we may notice that we’re not sure about how righteous we even want to be. Our weaknesses loom like unmovable mountains, and we may not be sure that we even want that mountain moved. It’s just easier to close the heart and continue on in our ordinary life, making our lists, more or less reconciled to the lone and dreary wilderness.
However, there is another option.
Perhaps, after all, the very thing we hide and fear most, provides the key to our moving to new levels of spirituality. It is honest, fearless awareness and admission that begin to loosen up the hold of our flaws and errors on our carefully protected heart.
The apostle Paul puts all this in a new perspective: “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32, NIV) We learn from this verse that our Heavenly Father has deliberately put us in circumstances where we would necessarily sin and be sinned against in our descent from the heavenly realms. Paul’s intent in this revelation, of course, is not to give us license to sin, but to point out to us that we are all technically “unworthy” of the sanctifying love of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is good news. It means that the only way any of us can come to Christ is in a state of unworthiness.
How could any of us come in any other state? It appears that we only come to deeper spiritual awareness by struggling with contradictions, conflicts, inconsistencies, inner confusions, and moral failures—thus the genius of the Lord’s Plan of Happiness.
Think of all the instances in the scriptures where people entirely unworthy of the Lord’s love received miraculous visitations, cleansings, re-creations, as with the Nephite and Lamanite dissenters who found themselves encircled about by a pillar of fire, and whose hearts the Holy Spirit did fill as if with fire, causing them to lay down their hatred and impurity of their hearts (Helaman 5). Or Paul, whom the Lord did not condemn as He visited him on that dusty road, but rather to whom He spoke compassionately, with full comprehension of the man. These were instances in which the people were blessed far above their own personal merit. And could not each of us tell stories of the Lord’s kindness to us even when we felt so steadfastly unworthy of it?
The starting point for coming to Christ, then, indeed the ongoing characteristic of a relationship with the Lord, is to come in faith, notwithstanding our inescapable unworthiness. “Oh Lord, forgive my unworthiness,” Alma counsels us to pray; “yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times” (Alma 38:14).
This being welcomed in our unworthiness is beautiful to consider. Would not the perfect way to change people be—not to leave them languishing in debtors’ prison—but to invite them into the safe, warm bosom of the Lord Jesus Christ? This radical love then provides the refuge where desire to sin would fade and transformation in the midst of supportive love could occur.
Moroni understood what is needed when urging us to come to Christ in order to be “perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32). The prophet says we must deny ourselves of all ungodliness; but also, we must take care not to deny this perfecting power. To deny oneself of all ungodliness in the safety of the Lord’s love has a powerful transforming effect on our lives.
Richard Rohr writes:
God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change. Only love effects true inner transformation, not duress, guilt, shunning, or social pressure. Love is not love unless it is totally free. Grace is not grace unless it is totally free.2
This means then that we must let the Spirit be an inner lamp to show us what lies down under the layers: “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 … then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).
To set our foot upon the quest for conscious oneness with Him sets us on a sometimes painful path of emptying ourselves of our ungodliness as we come to realize that anyone who wants to save his life will lose it in Him. In our daily life we can submit to His transforming power as it goes about its purifying work within us.
Fortunately He lets us in on our own inner secrets, revealing our sins to us gradually, so we can absorb and bear what we have done over time. We could not even bear the fullness of this process without the support of the Lord—there being much over which we might feel shame and humiliation. But it appears that we must develop an unrelenting inner honesty, a watching of just what does come and go in our heart so that we may make more liberating choices. We must come to know our own mind, our own soul.
Gradually we see our persisting ungodliness. We dig deep for the willingness to have those things removed—or, failing that, we dig deep for the willingness to be willing to have them removed —Even if ye can no more than desire … let this desire work in you, even until ye … can give place for a portion of my words.” (Alma 32:27).
But where we may get into trouble is with the heavy-duty guilt, that guilt not consumed by our repentance. Alma says to another son, this one repenting of some apparently serious things, “Let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.” On the other hand, he says, “Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sin . . . but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility” (Alma 42:29-30). Humility, by the way, is not the same as low self-esteem.
It is better not to do this inner work with guilt and self- recrimination, but rather with fearless trust, within the embrace of the Lord, who picks us up, dusts us off, and whispers, “We have work to do. Let’s get on with it.”
I think we could not stand this inner honesty work were it not for the gentle, understanding love of the Lord, allowing us and helping us to let go of the things that are not working for us. We must, then, having no merit, “[rely] wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19).
It has occurred to me that continual preoccupation with the issue of “worthiness” keeps us from coming “boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16), and is therefore a dysfunction. Our Enemy plays on our vulnerability to the issue of worthiness and seeks to shut us down over it, as he succeeded for a time with Nephi, who cried out, “Oh wretched man that I am!” (2 Nephi 4:17). But then he repents of that: “Awake my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul” (2 Nephi 4:28).
The poet George Herbert wrote a poem that seems perfectly to capture the Savior’s attitude toward us. This is a little dialogue between Love, who represents the Lord Jesus Christ, and a sinner welcomed by Him, apparently at a feast of abundance:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”; Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?” “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.” So I did sit and eat.3
This poem describes how it is. The right to come to Him is a free gift, no matter how much dust and sin.
The temple makes an appropriate context here because it raises the issue of worthiness perhaps more acutely than other Church activities. It is, in fact, in a temple discussion that the Lord gives one of the reasons that we are to partake of temple ordinances, “that I may make you clean …that I may fulfill…this great and last promise, which I have made unto you, when I will (D&C 88: 74-75). The promise, He says, is the unveiling of His face to us (D&C 88: 68-69).
In the temple, as also in other places, these forces work for the most part beneath our conscious awareness, meaning that we will not always feel that purifying going on, but we will see the effects of it in our life as we the establish the intention in our soul to be perfected in Him, His way.
Repeating the scripture that we began with—and adding a part:
“And that all people who shall enter upon the threshold of the Lord’s house may feel thy power… a place of thy holiness…. And that they may grow up in thee” (D&C 109:13,15). Instead of struggling on our own, may we truly grow up in Him.
1 Continuing the Quest, 37.
2 Rohr, 41
3 George Herbert, “Love (III).”