Problem 1: Guilt, Repentance and Perfectionism

One of my earliest religious memories is of turning eight years old. I remember that people told me that once I was baptized, my sins would be washed away, and I would be clean.

I was a perfectionist even then, and at that moment my perfectionism mixed with my religion. After being baptized, I didn’t want to ever be unclean again.

I remember apologizing for the smallest things and asking for forgiveness. The obsessive-compulsive mindset was in full sway.

Even my young peers noticed that something was off, and told me to stop apologizing. But I was never one to be unduly influenced by peers. I’ve always been someone who refuses to give in to peer pressure.

Unfortunately, the adults around me didn’t seem to be able to differentiate clearly between symptoms of OCD and signs of an unusual commitment to God and spirituality. In reality, both aspects were there, so I don’t blame them. Maybe they did try to help me but I just can’t remember. Regardless, my home was an exceptionally stable and loving environment, and my parents had the best of intentions. But still, I ran into this oft-referenced Mormon Problem: How can I avoid getting sucked into feelings of guilt and inadequacy which prevent me from feelings of spontaneous joy and self-contentment?

I can’t provide an “official” answer, but this page is about my story, and I intend to tell it. As has often been the case for me, I eventually discovered that the answer to this problem was more Mormonism, not less. It was actually my limited understanding (and perhaps the limited understanding of people who taught me about religion) that kept me in cycles of guilt and perfectionism. Again, I don’t blame them. We all have limited understanding, but love makes up for that in the end.

Perhaps the fundamental thing I hope the reader comes away from when reading this entire blog is this: If you want to avoid getting spiritually stuck by imperfect dogma, you have to be willing to gain your own understanding, beyond what can be gained from any book, even those written by General Authorities. You have to think of the gospel as something that only the Holy Ghost can perfectly communicate. Otherwise, you will be road-blocked by imperfect human reasoning. Of course we listen to General Authorities, but it is the Holy Ghost that does the real teaching if we are prepared.

I eventually gained a very different understanding of repentance than how I thought of it when I was eight. I will teach my children much differently than I was taught.

One critical piece of this understanding was a clearer view of the plan of salvation. I realized that life is about constant improvement. It is a journey to a destination. It is not about already BEING at the destination (being clean) and anxiously trying not to fall off of the pedestal, like I seemed to be doing as an eight-year-old. This new understanding fit perfectly with the exalted doctrine of our eternal destiny to become like our Heavenly Father—which is so far away that we of necessity think of it as a gradual process, and as an epic journey that we can enjoy along the way even though the destination is so distant.

Changing my focus to my eventual destination, rather than to my state of purity/impurity in the moment, gradually healed me. I like to think of it like a hike: are you focused on your beautiful destination, or are you focused on making sure you never step on a sharp rock along the way? One way of thinking leads to anxiety and hyper-vigilance (and to diminished progress), and the other lets you enjoy the journey even if it occasionally hurts. Of course you try to avoid the rocks, but you never let them become the focus. As an eight-year-old, I thought God was more concerned about my present state than where I was going. I was wrong.

The second critical piece of understanding came to me from the Book of Mormon, in Alma 34:31 (emphasis added):

“…if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.”

As a child, I felt like I was taught that when I made a mistake, I needed to deliberately “feel bad about it”— that making myself feel bad for a time was part of the repentance process. I used to use that belief as an excuse to wallow in guilt for a time, until I had punished myself enough. But what this scripture taught me changed my perspective dramatically. The very MOMENT we manage to un-harden our hearts and change the underlying cause of our negative behavior, redemption can come. Sorrow can be replaced with hope, and eventually, joy. It really only takes a moment to end the distress—if we have developed the necessary faith in Jesus Christ in advance. Faith in Christ allows us to believe that we can truly change, and that we can even overcome the consequences of our actions in time.

Of course we will “feel bad” when we mess up. Such an emotion is actually how we KNOW that we have messed up. But if we have the necessary faith, we can immediately turn that sorrow into hope of improvement through Christ who “suffered these things for all” (D&C 19:16).

None of this means, however, that sometimes it won’t take a long time for someone to fully un-harden their heart, or to gain the necessary faith to really believe that they can be forgiven, especially after serious sin. But I fully believe that even for serious sin, the moment a completely un-hardened heart meets sufficient faith to be healed, redemption will come immediately. In other words, hope will be restored, and even though some effects of the sin might continue, the tormenting part of it will be gone instantly. Fortunately for me, I have already built up the faith necessary to simply move on from the types of mistakes I make on a day-to-day basis—with a firm knowledge that everything will be fine in the long run.

This understanding of repentance actually makes Mormonism the most positive belief system I have ever heard of. I doubt if even the secular critics who complain about LDS guilt-mongering manage to so quickly recover from their mistakes and regain their positive outlook, and yet at the same time maintain a personal growth and self-improvement mindset (a sometimes sticky paradox). It really is only through Christ that this is possible, in my humble opinion. The journey to arrive at this understanding took time, but I’m glad I stayed for the ride. In my mind, this type of repentance is the bedrock foundation of true positivity—much more powerful than any of the “self-help” mental coaching that is marketed in the world today. True positivity is simply reality, when we understand the gospel.

Sincerely,

J.M.B.

 

 

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