Varieties of Grace

Fig_TreeI’m not susceptible to guilt. I’m sensitive to social pressure, for sure, and can be “guilted into” doing or saying things I don’t really mean. I feel terrible when I’ve failed to meet an obligation or hurt another person. But I don’t really feel that I’ve sinned — I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness. I just want to repair my mistakes, or feel frustrated if I can’t. I sat in an Episcopal Easter vigil a few days ago, and the liturgy dwelled for a time on human sinfulness. I thought for a moment about my sins, and I actually couldn’t name anything specific at first. After a few minutes I lit on a relationship with one of my children that I have been been damaging with my actions, and I began to think of that as real sin, not just my being emotionally inadequate to the task of mothering. But that way of thinking — I’ve sinned, I’m guilty, I need God’s forgiveness and rescue — is not my first reflex. That’s just not the way my psyche works, for whatever reason: maybe my upbringing, or my brain structure, or my life experiences.

I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed of it, either: it’s just how I am. I think it probably hinders my ability to empathize with others in some situations and veils a central part of human experience from me; it probably also makes me less scrupulous about private religious observances. Of course, maybe I’m a horrible sociopath and just don’t see it — I guess you’d have to ask my friends and family about that.  On the other hand, my missing guilt receptors have probably saved me some needless anguish and kept me on a pretty even emotional keel that allows me to serve others and contribute in the community.

All this to say that I listened to Elder Uchtdorf’s Sunday morning talk, “The Gift of Grace,” with great interest and respect, but without the overwhelming emotional response that many people experienced. I felt happy for their sakes, happy that their burdens were lifted and their souls watered. But the talk didn’t really re-frame my own felt relationship to God in a deep way, because sin and forgiveness just aren’t the channels through which that connection flows. William James distinguished between “healthy-minded” and “sick” souls, without attaching moral judgment to either one: the healthy are those who feel fundamentally at home and right with the world, and the sick those who feel fundamentally broken and out of place. I’m a healthy-minded soul.* I would imagine that James’s “sick souls” are those who most fervently respond to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk.

While sin and guilt have scant purchase my soul, death stalks my imagination. I am terrified of death — my own death, the death of those I love, the death of the sun and the scattering of a cold universe. I’m afraid too of the death-seeking drives of human nature, our indenture to fleshly instinct and our lust for status, Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal” and the Preacher’s lament that all is vanity and striving after wind. All flesh is grass. This fear should be assuaged by a robust sense of Christian grace — after all, in the resurrection Christ vanquished hell and death. But this witness has not yet been given to me, or I have not yet allowed it to penetrate my hard heart. I live in hope that it may someday, but for now the veil over my mind is lead.

Maybe my mostly sunny nature seems like a contradiction, then. But it doesn’t feel that way to me: I fear death as I do because life is so fine. I want a thousand miraculous April 7ths, when everything improbably blooms overnight and the air is sweet and velvet. I want to plant a thousand seeds, raise a thousand children, learn a thousand piano concertos. I want a thousand years of mud under my fingernails and fat earthworms slipping through invisible tunnels in the rotting leaves. I want to hike every dry canyon, shovel snow for days, nurse every baby. I want to read every book to my children under every shockingly spring-green tree, and together memorize the exact pattern of the leaves against the sky. I want to fly for miles with the wind in my hair and my son in my arms. The turning of the seasons, the passage of the holidays and the marking of that passage with my children fills me with belonging, at-homeness, connection to past and future and every leaf and stone. I feel that the world was given to me — no, that I was given to the world. I can only interpret this feeling as divine. As grace, in fact.

When Nibley writes about grace, he sets the scene in Eden. But it’s not the Fall he focuses on, it’s the Lord’s gift of creation, a new world in which Adam, male and female, is placed in every sense of that rich, earthy, growing, dying word. Place, for me, is grace. My deepest spiritual perceptions do not take the form of a cross; this probably makes me a poorer disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. They take the form of a tree. But there is grace there, too.


 

 

*With the exception of the months after each of my babies were born, when I suffered from terrible post-partum depression and anxiety. These experiences changed me, not least in bringing into focus the well-being that I am fortunate to experience as normal at other times.

 

30 comments for “Varieties of Grace

  1. “The turning of the seasons, the passage of the holidays and the marking of that passage with my children fills me with belonging, at-homeness, connection to past and future and every leaf and stone.” Rosalynde, you’re saying something beautiful here. It’s a beautiful thing with which my own probably essentially Lutheran soul cannot quite spiritually connect, but whose beauty I can admire, as I love and admire, with her, the gifts which the seasons and the world graces us with, every day.

  2. “I want to hike every dry canyon, shovel snow for days, nurse every baby.” I love that whole paragraph. I always console myself that heaven, if it is heaven at all, must have its own (better) version of this. Or at least the leisure to re-watch all those fleeting earth moments. Heaven as the ultimate home movie?

  3. Doctrine and Covenants 97:8-9.

    Verily I say unto you, all among them who know their hearts are honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and are willing to observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command—they are accepted of me.

    For I, the Lord, will cause them to bring forth as a very fruitful tree which is planted in a goodly land, by a pure stream, that yieldeth much precious fruit.

  4. “All this to say that I listened to Elder Uchtdorf’s Sunday morning talk, “The Gift of Grace,” with great interest and respect, but without the overwhelming emotional response that many people experienced. I felt happy for their sakes, happy that their burdens were lifted and their souls watered. But the talk didn’t really re-frame my own felt relationship to God in a deep way, because sin and forgiveness just aren’t the channels through which that connection flows.”

    Amen! I’m fine if some really connect with that, but I’m irritated that this kind of contrition and breast beating is increasingly seen as the right way to “come to Jesus.” The upswing in grace-talk among Mormons is less along the lines of Adam Miller and more like the weepy, evangelical “I’m nothing without Jesus” version. No thanks.

  5. J.,

    The upswing in grace-talk among Mormons is less along the lines of Adam Miller and more like the weepy, evangelical “I’m nothing without Jesus” version. No thanks.

    Personally, I’m rather dubious of the attempt to maintain a principled, philosophical distinction between the quasi-mystical, object-less, openness to/gratitude for God’s infinite and always-already-present gifts such as is associated with Adam Miller’s important work on the one hand, and the “weepy” stuff you dislike on the other. But if you think you can be sure of the difference, more power to you. God’s grace enters the myriad of human hearts in a myriad of different ways, methinks.

  6. I probably came off a little strong because I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering if my lack of broken heart contrition before Christ is a spiritual failing. Who knows maybe it is, but, like the post says, it hasn’t really struck me as such.

  7. Thank you Rosalynde for having the courage to express this on an LDS blog. I say courage because, as J Lawrence also notes, the LDS bloggernacle seems to be ever tilting toward the weepy evangelical posture, and anyone who cares to say otherwise is quickly called to out for being someone who doesn’t love Jesus and Grace or the people who love and cherish them.

    The bloggernacle trump card seems to be more and more the lament that, “we don’t talk enough about Christ,” which is usually used as a catch-all condemnation of other Mormons as well as a self aggrandizing pat on the back by the commenter who, of course, is spiritually attuned enough to notice this grave situation. To me that is the evangelical paradigm which ultimately leads to the televangelist who can’t say a sentence without injecting Jeeezusss into it. I much prefer the Shaker paradigm where even a well made chair, or a talk about food storage, can testify of Christ if done in the right spirit.

  8. My own overwhelming response to Uchtdorf’s talk had less to do with easing my own burdens and more to do with a hope that a proper understanding of grace will lead us to stop acting like we are saved by works — all the scrupulosity and perfectionism in the world won’t get us into heaven. Doing good works as a response to grace provides a feeling of abundance, where too often I see anxiety and over-work instead.

    I wonder if the lack of feeling sinful is related to the way sin is taught in Mormonism. At least in my experience, it’s mostly presented as an array of sort of unconnected acts. Lying, breaking the law of chastity, smoking, etc. Even the sins of omission are sort of discrete and unrelated — failure to pay tithing, failure to home teach. It seems possible, in that framework, for a healthy-minded person, who’s done more or less what he or she should, to look back over a week and not (at least at first glance) notice any particular sins.

    By contrast, for the last few months I’ve been attending Episcopal services, which regularly include a collectively-recited confession that “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Recasting sin as primarily a failure to obey the two great commandments makes me look back over my week with different eyes. Even healthy-minded souls who don’t feel particularly broken might still look back to see where they were less than whole-hearted in their love of God, or less than fully empathetic in their love of neighbors. It doesn’t make me feel fundamentally broken or out of place, but it does allow me to see where, with the grace of God, I can relate better to God and to the world.

  9. What Mike R said.

    I’m tired of the story of grace being told as the power to just DO more. Over the last year I was diagnosed with lupus and went through a flare up so severe I couldn’t lift a jug of milk. Bednar’s Grace wasn’t doing much for me. The superhuman accomplishment of works doesn’t earn our salvation. And facing those in my faith who use that MO as I’ve partaken of the atonement and grown closer to Christ in my weakness. I don’t feel sinful, but I don’t think anyone should feel wholly worthy. All I have to offer my Savior every week is my broken heart and contrite sprint. If that makes me evangelical, so be it.

  10. Mike R. (#9):
    We’ve probably all seen scrupulosity and perfectionism driven by love, like a spouse desiring to make an anniversary meal special, and scrupulosity and perfectionism driven by ego, competitive nature, professionalism and work ethic. The latter can certainly contain negative elements. But the first, a desire to demonstrate one’s feelings of love and a desire of oneness can become all-consuming.

    Taken in a positive way, I believe that it is a good metaphor for the Gospel and atonement. When a person falls in love with the Gospel or initiates a covenant relationship with Christ, service to others and the Church becomes less burdensome. Saints are passionate about their religious service. But with that passion and grace, the hierarchal ladder of callings so many conceive as an attribute of LDS social life becomes nearly meaningless. Priesthood and priesthood holders simply provides ordinances. Grace appears everywhere, it is recognized in people, nature, relationships and events. Past sins and current and past hurts gain meaning,forgiveness and wisdom flows from our darkest moments and light fills our lives.

  11. RW, you are so healthy minded it’s sick. That’s the problem with the bloggernacle. It’s hard to find a real, live sinner these days.

  12. My whole soul resonated with this post. You just painted my whole soul. Knowing I’m not alone in these feelings has made the world even more worth staying in!

  13. As someone who grew up in the Church, if you cut me I bleed guilt. I have had harrowing experiences that I think the Lord is trying to show me not be like that. My life totally fell apart when I was in my mid 20’s and now I am in my mid 30’s and still trying to piece it all back and leave out the bad pieces! I think in the meantime I have had my worldview changed and so that I am better able to help someone. I am the ward mission leader here and I think it’s my role to help the missionaries in their time here and my time in the calling and I think………..I had some experiences to learn how to help and what to say and notice who is struggling

  14. I worry about people who claim an absence of guilt and shame. Those feelings are most human’s greatest motivators for virtue. Knowing that someone is watching us and desiring their approval connects and aligns us with our fellows and the infinite. Simply seeking our own personal bliss in the absence of our God, our fellows, and our conscience’ judgement? The term sociopathic comes to mind. I’ll take the guilt and shame, and the reward in overcoming.

  15. That’s awfully harsh, Mike. It seems to me that it is perfectly possible to have a conscience and a moral compass without feeling the kind of guilt and shame Rosalynde is describing. And “seeking our own personal bliss” is hardly the only alternative to shame-derived “virtue.” (Incidentally, Rosalynde wrote a dissertation on conscience, so she of all people would know what that’s about.)

  16. Frog (15),

    The mighty change of heart is experienced differently by different people. The same Book of Mormon that discusses the mighty change of heart in Alma 5 also claims that a vast number of Lamanites were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost and they “knew it not” (3 Ne 9:20).
    I can’t relate to Rosalynde’s perspective, but I would guess that at least half the people I go to Church with every Sunday are way more like Rosalynde than me, and they serve wonderfully with very little drama. Again, I can’t relate, but that’s not an indicator of anything wrong with either them or me.

  17. Mike Maxwell (#17):

    I’m going to help you out just this once. Here’s a free edit for you.

    “I worry about people [who commit terrible acts against others] and claim an absence of guilt or shame.”

    There you go.

  18. Guilt is an unreliable indicator of wrongdoing. It has more to do with upsetting social expectations than actual sin. If I were taught my whole life that eating ice cream is a sin, I would feel guilty the first time I ate ice cream.

  19. @21 – What, then, would you consider a reliable indicator of wrongdoing, if I may ask? It isn’t just about societal expectations, though that certainly plays a part. And reading the OP and thinking about the scriptures, I think the lack of ability to feel that one has indeed sinned would be quite a stumbling block for someone in seeking to apply the scriptures to themselves, and feeling an acceptance of and gratitude for the atonement of Christ. I’m not asserting that Rosalynde doesn’t feel that way, perhaps she does, but I have a difficult time understanding how, given her statements above.

    “I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness”.

    There are several parts to that statement. For the first part, I don’t think God is necessarily unhappy with us all the time. We’re fallible, we struggle, He understands. For the second part, unworthiness is likewise something that I don’t think necessarily persists as a perpetual state for everyone (although perhaps King Benjamin disagrees with me). But the third part, the lack of feeling a need divine forgiveness strikes me as dangerous. I may not have done anything terrible in the last hour, there may be no horrible, grievous sins weighing on my spirit right this minute, but the need for divine forgiveness is ever-present. We rely upon it, whether we immediately recognize it or not.

    I am not trying to adopt a condemnatory tone here, because I don’t believe Rosalynde has done anything wrong, per se. I simply am concerned about such an outlook in general. Perhaps it works for her, and I like to extend the benefit of the doubt. But it seems to me, generally, an awfully dangerous road to travel and not one I would recommend.

  20. I don’t know if this is an error or intentional change in format, but this article is fully displayed on the main page. Previously you had to click through and it was easier to see recent prior posts.

  21. J Town (#22):

    Once every three or four months my work requires reading over trial transcripts where victims and perpetrators testify about things that literally make me ill. Here’s my current thinking when it comes to guilt (subject to persuasion otherwise):

    (1) God is not running the show when it comes to guilt. What I see out in the world is that victims feel devastating guilt and perpetrators feel none. Surely if God were in charge of guilt, we’d see another dynamic, no?

    (2) I think the capacity to feel guilt is first and foremost a matter of biology–some simply do not experience guilt, or experience only very diminished guilt.

    (3) Guilt is taught and learned, by people. Guilt serves a vital purpose, but it can be manipulated to serve nearly *any* purpose. That is, different cultures use guilt to meet wildly divergent ends.

    For reasons of my own I feel this statement is true for me as well (and I’m not a sociopath):

    “I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness.”

    Yep. That’s about right.

  22. “maybe my upbringing, or my brain structure, or my life experiences.”

    No doubt a portion of all – but mostly your upbringing. People who are overwhelmed with the need for forgiveness and rescue generally suffer from an excess of shame – a condition that most often occurs as a result of having grown up with a parent who shamed them or through vicariously bearing the untreated shame a parent carried.

    Thanks for a beautiful post, I share every sentiment.

  23. @24-I’ll be a second witness to what you say. I had a Bishop that when we were 12 gave us copies of the MOF by Pres. Kimball with the instruction to read it. I don’t know about anyone else but I read and it nearly killed me many times. Through the festival of errors that comes with being a teen and in the Church and him being a total control freak he wanted me in his office on a regular basis, I don’t know about anyone else but I confessed everything. I vividly recall being around that age, not working because of child labour laws and him saying that I paid no tithing so I needed to repent-like for what? being 13 years old? and not working in the Mines anymore? We got a new Bishop and my life got better and worse and long story short I got divorced in my mid 20’s and my life exploded and I spent ten years cleaning up with emotional and financial mess. Things are better now but I still feel guilty for literally everything and I don’t know how to shake it without feeling numb to guilt and the spirit.

  24. I think we can be in danger of conflating “godly sorrow” (2Cor 7:10) or the admonition of James who criticized people who rejoiced in sin (James 4: 8-9) with a sense of inadequacy or self-reproach. It is only rarely that “guilt” or “guilty” is a descriptive of feeling in scripture, it usually refers to one’s standing before God, and then we need to read James 4 or the O.T. prophets who admonished people to humble themselves in sackcloth and ashes. If one feels guilt and actually is guilty, it is a good sign corrective measures can be taken. But the sinful do not necessarily feel guilty, nor are those who feel guilt necessarily guilty in God’s eyes, as the many pathologies which plague humanity attest. I would argue that spiritual sensitivity (empathy, aesthetic sense, justice, etc.) must be cultivated. So many are past feeling.

  25. whizzbang,

    I speak from some experience. Cultivate a healthy self-esteem. Break down those negative thoughts. They are usually irrational. Put the light of day on them, they usually break down. Keep a journal as you do so. Remind yourself of your victories. If there is anything that you can’t put right, serve someone. Express love to people with confidence. And when you see smiles on their faces, say to yourself that no matter how flawed we both are, we can reflect God’s love into the corners of human existence. Pay fast offerings, donate just a little bit to charities you believe in. And put those instances in your journal. Real, concrete actions, no matter how tiny, heal our broken inner voices. Then the Holy Spirit has material it can confirm to our minds.

  26. I feel in many ways like you, with, perhaps, the sharp difference of having an easy time recognizing my sins. I just don’t feel greatly burdened by my sins. I know that I make mistakes, that I sometimes willfully sin against God and what I believe to be the right way to act, but I also know–thanks to some good discussions with my parents as a youth and my own scripture study–that I can live in joy because of the Savior’s grace. I see my mistakes and my sins as part of my progression toward one-ness with the Lord, brought about through continual (healthy-minded) repentance. I know that he has already paid for my sins, and I willingly accept his grace. I try to live with love of God and all men and to make the Lord’s two great commandments the be all and end all of my existence. Everything else, as Uchtdorf said, flows out of gratitude and love to the Savior, with recognition that he has paid for my failings and made possible everything good, both in this life and in the life to come. This is why I rejoiced in Uchtdorf’s talk. It didn’t hit me because it was something new or didn’t reflect my current understanding. It hit me because I do feel that too many members are burdened with unnecessary guilt and have a ‘list mentality’ or ‘works mentality.’ I feel that we so often get it backwards in the church, including in official teachings, and that we totally misintepret the ‘after all we can do’ scripture (2 Nephi 25:23). It is because I love my fellow Latter-Day Saints that I *loved* Uchtdorf’s talk.

  27. Mike Maxwell, I just saw your comment. I appreciate Kristine’s kind defense of my character, but at the same time I know exactly what you mean. I agree that guilt and shame serve useful social and personal purposes, and I try not to be too sanguine about my relative insensitivity to those feelings. Fortunately, I suppose, I remain exquisitely sensitive to social pressure, if not religious guilt! :)

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