Friday, March 4, 2016

Sinners and Fools

Every Primary child knows the story of the Wise Man and the Foolish Man. The Savior taught:

Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon the house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27).

Like the fool who built his house on a poor foundation, we have all made mistakes and errors in judgement. On a wilderness backpacking trip many years ago, my brother and dad and I set out to cross a particular mountain range over the course of about a week. After climbing a particular pass, we decided to leave the trail for what appeared to be a shorter path over a flat mountain summit. We thought our shortcut would give us more time to relax and go fishing.

Over the next couple of hours we crossed the rocky mountain tundra until we came to the top of a tall and seemingly impassable cliff face that stretched the entire length of the mountain. Below the cliff was a loose rock scramble to the base of the mountain. We did not have the equipment or expertise for either the cliff or the scramble, but we had also used the last of our water supply and were not anxious to walk back the way we had come.

It only took a few moments to decide to throw our backpacks off the cliff. We watched them bounce, roll and slide to a stop near the base. Then we began scaling the cliff face. It was slow going, but we made it to the scramble and slid down the loose rocks to recover our packs. Exhausted, but fortunately uninjured except for the 18-inch hole in my new pants, we recovered our packs and climbed over the last few boulders in the scramble to reach the meadow beyond. Now several hours behind schedule, we walked only a few paces to find the nicely groomed trail we had left hours earlier.

Our errant judgement had made our hike more difficult and cost us in time and the money I now needed for new pants. Ultimately, it also meant that we would not make it to our planned destination in the time we had. But though our mistakes were regrettable, they were not sinful nor were they without educational benefit.

The apostle John taught that "whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4). Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught that sins result from willful disobedience of the laws we have received by explicit teaching of the scriptures, prophets, parents, teachers or the Spirit of Christ, our conscience, that teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong and provides a defense from situations that are spiritually harmful ("Sins and Mistakes", BYU Speeches, August 1994). We can transgress the laws of God by doing things we've been commanded not to do, such as lying or stealing, and by doing not doing things we have been commanded to do, such as keeping the Sabbath Day holy and sharing the gospel. Sins are, in essence, rebellion against God; certainly our blunder did not amount to rebellion.

The mistakes and folly common to us all, like the foolish man's construction on sandy ground, result from ignorance of the laws of God, the workings of the universe or the people God has created. Our mistakes may be choices to do something good rather than something better or best. Though our navigational error was regrettable, it was, like all mistakes, also educational. I learned the value of staying on the trail, having a plan for water and making decisions based on the best way forward rather than where I've been. If we learn from our mistakes, we diminish our ignorance and will make better decisions in the future.

It is important to distinguish between sins and mistakes in our own behavior, and the behavior of those for whom we have stewardship, because the Lord has commissioned different responses for each. The Lord taught the early leaders of the church that "any member of the church of Christ transgressing, or being overtaken in a fault, shall be dealt with as the scriptures direct" (D&C 20:80). Having separated transgression and fault as separate types of offenses, he later explained the difference between error and sin and gives instruction for the correction of each: "Inasmuch as they erred it might be made known, ... And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent" (D&C 1:25, 27).

For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the actor. The foolish man did not need to be humbled or penalized but rather to be taught how to find good ground for his house. When we make errors, we ought not to rant at ourselves for our stupidity but rather correct our mistake and move forward. Likewise, often those who are led astray from the Church or with whom we have political or other arguments are in error rather than transgression and merit correction, not chastisement or denouncement as sinners.

Of course, children of any age cannot sin until they have learned what is right. If they have not been taught, the scriptures say their sins are upon the heads of their parents (D&C 68:25). But it should be no surprise that most of our children's errant actions are borne of ignorance, not rebellion, meriting our teaching and correction rather than our condemnation and punishments.

An illustration of this principle may be found in a short story to which we can all relate. One night shortly after his daughter had begun dating, Brother Keith Merrill found himself anxiously waiting for her to come home. He had given her a strict curfew and had been suffering for twenty minutes because she was late.

"When she came in," he later said, "I immediately read her the riot act. I forgot my policies. I forgot all my positive thinking. I forgot all the great things that I knew I should do. I just simply said, 'You promised to be home at 12:00. You were not home at 12:00. I worry about you. We made a call. You weren't where you said you would be. You said you would call.' And I went right down the list---bing, bing, bing, bing, negative, negative, negative."

After some time, Brother Merrill's daughter responded. "'Stop!' she said... 'We haven't been drinking, we haven't been smoking, we haven't been immoral or unchaste. We didn't go to any R-rated movie. We haven't been to a party where there were drugs. We weren't out shooting speed or doing anything else. We haven't been making out, we haven't been doing anything bad, Dad. I'm 15 minutes late for curfew, so let's keep this in perspective'" (“Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” Families Are Forever, television series on VISN cable network, 1989).

Brother Merrill was able to find the humor in his own overreaction, and no doubt joy in his daughter's goodness, and spent the next several minutes laughing on the floor. It doesn't always end as well. One way we can improve our response in such situations, as the young Sister Merrill pointed out, is to keep things in perspective by correctly categorizing the offense and responding appropriately.

None of this is to say that mistakes are always okay. Some mistakes may lead to sins or become sins at an extreme level. We may disagree vehemently with a friend or family member, but contention is always a transgression. A big mistake, like stepping in front of a bus, may have more severe impacts than a small sin or may prevent us from reaching our desired eternal destination. Other times, the same act may be a mistake or a sin depending on the intention of the actor. The idea that ignorance is bliss is false because while ignorance may cause error rather than sin, intentional ignorance is in itself a sin. It is necessary for us to all make mistakes so we can learn and grow; we do not all need to sin.

In any case, our responses to ourselves and to those around us should be full of love. Our focus should be on those we serve and mercy should go hand in hand with reproof.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen has taught:

Mercy and repentance are rehabilitative, not retributive. The Savior asks us to repent not just to repay him for paying our debt to justice but also to induce us to undergo the personal development that will purify our very nature... When the Atonement and our repentance satisfy the laws of justice and mercy, we are, in effect, free from sin. But just as the sinless Christ was 'made perfect' through interaction with his Father's grace, so his atoning grace can move us beyond the remission of sins to the perfection of a divine nature. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are 'just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood' (D&C 76:69, emphasis added)("Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ", Ensign, April 1997).

Though the Lord chastises us for our sins, everything is done in the interest of our progression and happiness. Rather than sitting comfortably on the thrones of power to look down and command those weaker than him, he descended below us all and suffered for us in Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha, so that he would have grace to give when we fall short. Certainly he has grace to give those who may be falling short around us; it is our honor and responsibility to accept that love and grace for ourselves and reflect it to our children and others around us even when sinful behavior requires us to chastise and call them to repentance.

The scriptures carefully distinguish between sinners and fools. Each of us has certainly been both of these from time to time. We can learn from and correct our mistakes. We should not willfully rebel against God and must be chastised and repent when we do. Understanding the difference between sins and mistakes helps us to better feel the love of our Father in Heaven and the Savior who suffered on our behalf, to respond and be better as parents and stewards, and to teach Christ-like responses to a world increasingly leaving the trail to build their easy lives upon the sand.

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