A friend of mine told a story from when she was a seminary student. As I recall it, one student, let’s call him Eusebius, had had perfect attendance for three years. The attendance policy allowed a fifteen-minute late window. The teacher would shut the door fifteen minutes after class started, and any students who came it after the door was shut weren’t counted in attendance for the day.
Eusebius had been prompt to class for the first three years, but during his fourth year he showed up closer and closer to the fifteen-minute mark, until he finally missed it. This destroyed Eusebius’ interest in seminary; with his perfect record of attendance ruined, he didn’t feel any desire to attend and stopped coming.
I’m sure we’ve all seen (or been) people like Eusebius. Missionaries are constantly meeting less active members who used to be bishops and branch presidents. Often they were faithful members who had lived up to the standards of the church for years. But once they slipped once, it’s like the dams of their souls were obliterated — their spiritual energy was drained in a single blow, and they didn’t know how to fill the reservoir back up.
Perhaps this is the result of a fragile identity. For example, if I believe these two statements:
- “I’m a good Mormon,” and
- “Good Mormons don’t do bad things,”
then what happens when I do do something bad? Depending on how tightly I associate “good Mormon” with “doesn’t do bad things”, I could find myself having lost my identity. If I’m not a “good Mormon” (and if my paradigm doesn’t have room for “less-than-good Mormons”), then that leaves me only to become something else entirely. (Or maybe this paragraph is all just pop psychology.)
I don’t have any solutions, but I think this is an issue worth discussing. When we teach our students to avoid sin, can we also add the message, “But you will sin, and that’s okay — it’s not the end of the world. Here’s what you can do…”? We teach lessons about repentance, but often in a very third-person sort of way: “Sometimes people sin” — “people” but not “you”. “Sometimes people sin” — but it’s not very often, and never in big ways. We give examples of kids cheating on tests, or stealing a candy bar from the store. Anything more serious, we speak about in ominous euphemism (or we leave undiscussed entirely.)
“Sometimes people sin” — “and if they sin badly, they need to visit the bishop. And they must be prepared for tears, and to feel guilt, and shame.” The fact is, I’ve had opportunities to confess to my bishop, and they’ve been some of the most uplifting, powerful, spiritual, and freeing experiences of my life. Can we start treating repentance less like a punishment and more like a reward? Can we start treating repentance less like a last resort? We teach about the power of Christ’s atonement to cleanse us from sin, but I still hear the message, “Oh, but how much better off is the one who never sinned at all!” — as though the ones who repent least frequently get bonus points in heaven! Somehow, I don’t imagine that the celestial kingdom has a special corner for the ones who never visited their bishops.