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In early adulthood, I graded myself in each of 27 different areas every day. Was I kind to my sister? Was I thrifty? Did I use my time well? Did I do my homework?
I most gave myself C’s. But also a lot of D’s and F’s (It was hard to be nice to my sister!). In spite of earnest effort, my self-administered GPA was probably around 1.3.
I just couldn’t be good enough to meet my own expectations of perfection. I felt like a failure. And feelings of failure undermine motivation. Pretty soon I was underperforming and over-miserable.
How did I learn to torture myself? Did LDS culture aggravate my tendency to judge myself against an impossible standard?
Fast forward about 30 years. I remember a good friend joshing me: “Wally, happiness is a good thing. But you’ve taken it too far.” We both laughed.
What made the difference? What turned me from a somber teen to a rejoicing adult? How can all of us be more serene and happy? There are many things that changed in my life in the intervening years but I want to focus on one: Rather than keep track of my underperformance, I keep track of God’s brilliant graciousness. I recognize my dependence on Him and call on His mercy to cover my weakness.
Still, God had to trick me out of my misery. I knew that I often and deliberately chose pleasure over goodness. I was sure that I did not deserve God’s love. That’s when God tricked me.
A woman came to see me as her bishop. She recounted a story of awfulness and misery that stretched to every corner of her life. She had abused and she had been abused. She had deceived and conned. As she told me the story of her life, I was overwhelmed. I wondered if a bishop was allowed to counsel members to get to the spirit world by any means as quickly as possible so that she could get free of the terrible messes that surrounded her.
After a terrible tale of woe, she paused. “What would the Lord have me do?”
I was surprised to hear myself saying, “There are three things the Lord would have you do.” I had no idea what they were. But I pulled a piece of paper from the desk and wrote the number “1.” As I wrote the number, words of specific counsel came to mind. I wrote them down and we discussed the counsel. The same happened with #2 and #3. The Lord gave specific and helpful ideas. And, much to my surprise, they were hopeful, loving, and encouraging. There was not a hint of chiding—only encouragement, love, and affection.
I was dumbfounded. When that sister left, I closed the door behind her and fell to me knees. “Father I had no idea you loved your children so much! I just didn’t know! I couldn’t have imagined.”
I had delivered His message of practical and loving counsel to one of His children whose life was a wreck. At the same time He had tricked me. I could no longer refuse to accept His love for me when He had had me deliver His amazing love to one of His most spiritually destitute children.
Decades later I still make lots of mistakes. I still fall short in most of those 27 areas. (Though I have learned to be nicer to my sister.) But, when I act foolishly, I now promptly turn to Father: “I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better. Please forgive me.”
In fact, every day of my life I pray my own version of the Brother of Jared’s prayer (adapted from Ether 3):
- Father, Thou art holy and dwellest in the heaven. Thou art glorious beyond description and gracious beyond comprehension.
- Because of the fall, my nature has become evil continually. I’m a mess and I know it.
- Look upon me in pity. Turn away thine anger. Have mercy.
- Grant according to my desires.
I regularly pray for the same things: forgiveness, a change of heart, healing for those I have injured, protection from harm and evil, heavenly inspiration, and to be useful.
Daily I call on His grace to refine my character.
So, we each have the choice of keeping track of our failings or drawing on His goodness. Our choice makes all the difference in our happiness and our spiritual progress.
Next time you are discouraged by your failings, try throwing yourself on the merits, mercy, and grace of Him who is mighty to save. Call out for mercy. Also, try to prevent discouragement by being more aware of God’s goodness to you.
I encourage every person to read and re-read Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ.