Let the water and the blood, From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.
—“Rock of Ages,” Hymns, no. 111
Every person alive stays alive by destroying things. Be as environmentalist and vegan as you like, shop only at the most ethically sourced grocers, and the fact remains: we are members of kingdom Animalia and cannot produce our own food. Instead, nutrients painstakingly assembled by other living creatures must be taken from them by force, usually killing them or their germinal offspring, and then smashed into a paste, drowned first in acid and then in bile, fed to foul-smelling bacteria, and gradually converted into excrement. When they cease to be useful they’re disposed of and forgotten, but by then we’ve already moved on to our next victims.
It’s not optional. You do that or you die. But let’s be honest—we don’t want it to be optional. We like eating. We like it so much we plan our days and our years around it; the old word for “holiday” is “feast,” and from “Turkey Day” to Fourth of July barbecues, it still fits. Even our religious service often revolves around eating. We weekly commemorate the holiest moments of human history by consuming the crushed remains of grass seeds and the scorched corpses of microorganisms that we murder by the millions just to make the grass seeds more pleasant to consume.
This is what it means to be human—to be, as Tocqueville put it, the beast with the angel in him, our rational and spiritual natures shot through with desires that would be instantly recognizable to a wolf or a weasel. Solzhenitsyn expressed deep wisdom when he said the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. But in fact, you can rarely see the line; in fact, good and evil are usually twisted up together even in the best things we do. Did Bach write the St. Matthew Passion looking up to God in humble worship, or looking down his nose at his better-known and better-paid contemporaries who couldn’t dream of composing such a thing? Does an exhausted mother walking a frustrated child through long division show us Christ-like patience or the same selfish Darwinian need for successful offspring that sent Lori Laughlin to prison? Being human means the answer is almost always “both,” both good and evil together in some ever-changing mix that even we ourselves cannot certainly measure.
The foregoing reflections were prompted by my feeling that, despite its merits, Fiona and Terryl Givens’ book All Things New is missing some important truths—truths as necessary to discipleship as the gentler truths the book emphasizes instead.
The Givenses are concerned that many Latter-day Saints struggle with guilt, inadequacy, and fear that they will not qualify for salvation. According to the Givenses, these Saints can blame their struggles in part on a false story our culture has inherited from Augustine (by way of Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards), a story of “sinners in the hands of an angry god,” a wrathful sovereign proving His majesty by creating a whole human species that deserves to be damned and then, for no reasons outside His own arbitrary will, electing some few of them to save from their rightful fate. Why can’t sin be both woundedness and guilt?
Why can’t sin be both woundedness and guilt?
The “traditions of the fathers,” embedded in an inherited religious language, continue to injure us. Language calculated to operate on nineteenth-century minds (and those of earlier epochs) may not be the most efficacious for our moment in history. The work of Restoration, to be complete, must include the casting off of those traditions, presuppositions, frameworks, paradigms, and vocabulary that still fill the garden of the gospel like tenacious weeds. The “plain and precious things” restored cannot attain their full splendor unless and until they are fully unencumbered by those traditions that still pervade our language and our conceptions alike. We need a new vocabulary, a new gospel grammar, freed from the corruptions of our Christian heritage.
To that end, the Givenses make a “tentative effort” to redefine key Gospel words. Sin should be understood not as “guilt” but as “woundedness,” salvation not as “rescue” but as “realization,” and justice as “restoration” rather than “punishment.” The Fall of Adam becomes the “ascension” of Eve, and the penal substitutionary model of the Atonement is replaced with “radical healing.”
I find much of this interesting and valuable. I had never realized, for example, how much of the Restoration aimed to correct errors specific to Protestantism rather than Christianity at large, and I’m sure there are people who, as the Givenses claim, do not appreciate the extent to which God is on their side, doing everything He can do to help them repent and be healed. I expect many of those readers will benefit from the Givenses’ book.
My problem is with the Givenses’ implied either/or: Why can’t sin be both woundedness and guilt? Why can’t salvation both fulfill our natures and also repair our (rather obvious) flaws? Why can’t the Atonement, as the hymn teaches, “Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure?” After all, though the Givenses have found scriptural evidence for their preferred side of each binary, scripture gives us plenty of evidence for the other side, too.
“The natural man is an enemy to God”: It’s not a rhetorical flourish dropped carelessly into a single Book of Mormon sermon. It would make a decent subtitle for the whole book, which begins with God telling a prophet His own chosen people are so corrupt that He’s about to destroy them, and then plays variations on the same theme for most of the next 530 pages. Over and over, God calls prophets to tell people to repent; over and over, the people respond by trying to kill the prophets. Sometimes they repent a bit, usually when they’re enslaved or death is imminent, but usually, it doesn’t stick. When God delivers them from their enemies or sends rain to end the famine, they pray gratefully and then, sooner or later, go back to their old ways. Sometimes it only takes a year or two, and often they end up worse than they were before.
The book ends with two different civilizations, each given every opportunity to repent, deciding almost to a man that they would literally rather die.
And Restoration scripture doesn’t get any more optimistic as it goes. The Doctrine and Covenants presents itself as a warning to a wicked people that desperately need to repent but mostly won’t, which is why the Saints have to “go out” from Babylon instead of turning it into Zion. The book of Moses teaches that humans are “conceived in sin” and proves it by recounting the invention of fratricide, of genocide, and of secret combinations through which much of mankind literally “covenanted with Satan.” Then the book of Abraham begins with the patriarch’s own father volunteering him for human sacrifice. As the Givenses famously teach, the Pearl of Great Price reveals a God who weeps. It also reveals a human race that gives Him a lot to weep about.
The Givenses briefly acknowledge some of this, writing (for example) that “we are complex beings, with complex motivations, and we are seldom wholly guilty or wholly innocent of any misdeed,” and that people are “capable of sin in the sense of a deliberately chosen action that is wrong and harmful.” They acknowledge that by choosing to sin, humans block the current of God’s love, interfere with His designs, and cause “pain, suffering, [and] alienation.”
But they also ask us to see sin as “Needful. Fruitful. Productive of good”—“a necessary part of our education.” They dislike the word sin because it is “so drenched in connotations of the vile, the evil, the malicious,” and they prefer to replace it with metaphors that minimize human guilt and responsibility: bitterness, for example, or their favorite metaphor woundedness, a sort of damage that happens to everybody and needs healing rather than expiation or justice.
The Givenses aim to heal souls suffering from self-recrimination, and their healing message seems to be something like “sin isn’t really you.” You sin mostly because your free will is limited and “contaminated”; your responsibility for sin is always “mitigated” and “extenuat[ed].” The real you, they seem to say, is the part “that never assents to sin nor ever shall.’” It’s the part that “tend[s] only toward God as its true end. … [S]in requires some degree of ignorance, and ignorance is by definition a diverting of the mind and will to an end they would not naturally pursue” (emphasis added).
What then of the Book of Mormon’s teaching that the natural man is an enemy to God? The Givenses first argue the natural man is a person corrupted by society: “it is not a statement about … inherited nature, or innate attributes.” Later they write that the “enemy to God” is “our natural Darwinian selves” left “unchecked”—our inherited “instincts, appetites, and tendencies toward self-preservation.” Whether sin ultimately comes from social man or from biological man, however, the Givenses’ key meaning is clear: the natural man, the enemy to God, is “not our innate self.”
But why is it supposed to comfort me that my “innate self” is free of the natural man when the “self” I live with plainly isn’t? What does it matter if the enemy to God is the social man or biological man when everyone I know is both?
I can’t escape by blaming my sins on my “corruptible flesh and blood” or the way others have wounded me. That’s like a drunk on trial for murder saying the liquor did it—yes, defendant, but who made you drink?
We’re not Gnostic sparks of divinity, tied up in corrupt matter through no fault of our own and becoming more truly ourselves as we escape our fleshly entanglement. We as premortal spirits chose our embodiment, and as postmortal spirits, we’ll miss it once it’s gone. Our imperfect flesh is us, just as much as our imperfect spirit is; its corruption is our corruption and its sins are our sins. The same is true of our relationships: we chose life knowing it would involve relationships that wound us, and our wounding relationships are as much a part of us as our flesh and bones. We are responsible for what they lead us to do.
And further: we are responsible not merely because we chose to be born and thus put ourselves in temptation’s path; we are responsible because, even now, we would not have it any other way. We like devouring other creatures to satisfy our bodies’ hunger, and that is hardly the only biological urge we’d be sad to lose. The worst of these come from the social side of our genetic inheritance: we like craving and winning status; we like feeling superior. We like resenting it when others wound us, like it so much that we stop our wounds from healing, and maybe open them a little wider, just so we’ll have more to resent. We also dislike it, of course—dislike the pain it causes and the imperfection it represents, but our desire for what hurts us persists, and even in our best moments none of us has wholly repudiated it.
If sin is woundedness, then we like our woundedness.
What then would I say to Latter-day Saints like the ones who write the Givenses, people struggling with guilt, inadequacy, and fear that they’ll never qualify for salvation?
To begin with I’d ask them, “Are you sure you should be asking me?” You need inspired counsel from people who can receive revelation on your behalf, and you need to receive revelation yourself. I believe what I’ve written here is true, but the truth about these subjects is often made of paradoxes: both woundedness and guilt, both mercy and justice; salvation as both an unearnable gift and the fruit of long repentance. My story here is only one side of this paradox and maybe not the side you need to hear right now. The Pearl of Great Price reveals a God who weeps. It also reveals a human race that gives Him a lot to weep about.
The Pearl of Great Price reveals a God who weeps. It also reveals a human race that gives Him a lot to weep about.
Imagine going one by one through your sins and finding reasons you’re not responsible: your addiction is a neurological disorder, your temper is from your upbringing, and so on. For each sin you might be perfectly right, but what happens when you do the honest thing and apply the same process to your virtues? Your professional achievements are a combination of the genetic lottery, chance connections, and hard work, and your hard work is a habit you were dragged into, literally kicking and screaming, by your mother. You learned kindness from Grandma, and you learned how to make a marriage last by watching your parents. Your gift for teaching the Gospel is a fire kindled by those who taught you.
I’m not saying you should take the blame for the bad so you can take credit for the good—if you’re really struggling with guilt, that tradeoff won’t attract you. Rather, I’m asking a question: if you start pointing to parts of yourself influenced by our fallen world and saying, “That’s not really me,” then what will be left of you when you’re done?
When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, He did not say, “Father, take this cup from me—these sins I’m suffering for aren’t my fault!” He did not seek to escape our shame on the grounds that we’re actually good people, deep down, and He didn’t atone only for the eternal God-like intelligence in each soul while leaving the rest of the spirit and body to their fate. Instead God “made Him to be sin for us” even though He knew no sin, and Jesus drank the bitter cup without a filter. He accepted and bore it all.
I hope, when I stand before my God, that I will follow His example and accept responsibility for everything: my wisdom and my foolishness, my work and my laziness, my sin and my virtue—for wounds suffered and wounds inflicted—for my daily steps toward repentance (three forward, two back) and the million steps left to go. It is all me, I own it all, and I cannot claim it merits salvation. The wages of sin is death.
But although I own it all, I do not own myself. I sold that to the Savior in a font in West Jordan and—not because of who I am, but because of who He is—I do not doubt that He will save me.