Shame has no place in God’s love.
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;”(Doctrine and Covenants 18:10)
Our church has a worthiness problem.
Last Sunday, our discussion on the apostle Paul in Acts 22 took a thought provoking turn. The teacher, a sweet man in his mid-forties, brought up his son. His now 24-year-old son decided to leave the Church after receiving social and internal backlash for choosing not to serve a mission.
People assumed that he was unworthy. Unworthy to serve a mission, unworthy of their time, unworthy of a listening ear that would treat him with dignity and respect. It really didn’t matter to them. He didn’t serve, so his “unworthiness” made him worthless to them.
Women, originally interested in pursuing a relationship, dropped him after learning he wasn’t a return missionary (RM).
Every Sunday in his singles’ ward was a three hour block (at the time) of mission stories and proud testimonies of enduring to the end of the two years.
Conversations either began with “Where’d you serve your mission?” or “When will you be putting your papers in?” and often ended with disappointed or shaming scowls.
He had enough. He left a church he felt that worshiped conformity over its namesake. He left his familiar community in favor of ideologies that would treat him as an equal, worthy of dignity and respect. He did his best to look for his worth elsewhere since he wasn’t able to find it in church.
At the telling of this man’s story, hands—young and old alike—shot up, ready to voice similar feelings of worthlessness at one time or another or express the need to show love to young people in this predicament.
I was pleasantly surprised. In past wards (home family ward, singles’ wards, and a married student ward), I’d never heard people be so open or compassionate to a stranger in need.
We just moved into this ward, and I already felt their warmth.
One woman, I believe she was the bishop’s wife, said this on the matter:
“There is a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is accepting that you have a problem. Shame is believing you are a problem. Guilt leads to change, while shame leads to feeling worthless. That is not of God.”
“Guilt is accepting that you have a problem. Shame is believing you are a problem.”
The son felt worthless because of the shame that surrounded him for not going on a mission. He felt like a problem. He went to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and left feeling like a problem.
No one who surrounded him knew or even needed to know why this man didn’t go on a mission; they only knew he was a child of God. A neighbor. Someone they were supposed to love unconditionally.
I speak boldly here because I’ve done this, too.
When I was in Young Women’s, I was a very different person than I am now. At thirteen, a girl showed up to church in faded jeans and a hoodie, and I sat far away and stared at her. She’d come to church before, so I knew she knew what dress standards were expected of her. At fifteen, I whispered to my friends at a stake-sponsored Young Women’s swim party about three girls who showed up in revealing bikinis, then did little to hide my “you should’ve known” face when leaders told them to put T-shirts on over top of their swimsuits. I even had a few dreams around sixteen where I told off some friends of mine in track for wearing booty shorts when exercising. Apparently, my psyche was so appalled that it had to let it out somehow.
I was an insensitive, judgmental jerk, to say the least.
As much as I’d like to follow this with how much I’ve changed or how blinded I was by the only culture I knew, becoming a “better person” doesn’t undo what was done. Changing, listening to other perspectives, apologizing to those I hurt, was the least I could do to make it right.
I’d hurt them. I’d added to the strain on their relationships with God. I’d added to voices in their mind chanting that they were unworthy and therefore worthless. That doesn’t go away just because I now make an effort not to let my words cause more harm.
The way we treat others can do lasting damage to our spirit siblings’ self worth. Too often, as we strive to meet the standards of the Church and encourage others to do so, the culture we establish can tear people down rather than build them up. Flippant judgments and assumptions about someone’s worth and progression cause unnecessary suffering to those whose burdens we’re meant to lift.
Christ already suffered so we could reclaim our worthiness. No one else should have to feel the sting that shame can bring.
A fundamental principal in the church is that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God,” but how often do we keep reading?
“For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.
“And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.
“And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!”(Doctrine and Covenants 18:11-13)
Christ died for us so we could repent—sincerely change—and return to Him. We are so valuable and important that He gave His life so we can change and reach our full potential.
That means that Christ believed we were valuable enough to die for, knowing that we’d make mistakes. He knew that we would be so flawed as to fail time and time again, make brash errors of judgment even when we knew better, and He still thought we were worth His life. He rejoices when we choose to change and improve because He believes we’re worth the wait.
People make mistakes. People walk different paths. People can hurt themselves and others almost carelessly. But our shortcomings are not what define us; He died to ensure that our errors don’t have to prevent us from fulfilling our potential, from recharting our futures.
If there was no repentance, no way to right wrongs and learn and grow, we would all be lost.
Members and nonmembers, theists and atheists, LGBT+ friends and heterosexual men and women, people of every race, creed, and background: we are all united by our worth to God and our capacity to reach our potential.
But, if all of us have worth, what is worthiness?
Worthy, defined, is “having or showing the qualities or abilities that merit recognition in a specified way.”
The decisions we make every day can affect our worthiness in some regards, but our decisions have no effect on other aspects of our worthiness. To illustrate, try replacing the word “worthy” with “qualified”: sometimes, you have to do specific things to be qualified, but sometimes, your qualification is inherent.
Because I earned a B.A. in English with a technical writing emphasis, I am qualified to write and edit manuals for tech companies. Because my parents are both American citizens and I was born in the US, I am qualified to be a US citizen.
One of these was earned through daily choices and sacrifices; one of these was inherent because of the circumstances of my birth.
Following Church standards can qualify you to enter the temple; following the terms of service can qualify you to use certain online platforms; following company policy can qualify you to retain your position and possibly get promoted. But, you will always qualify for God’s love; you will always qualify for your own self-respect; you will always qualify for repentance.
As a final note, I want to talk about what worthiness is not.
The Sunday School teacher’s son chose not to go on a mission, something that is expected of all young men. That does not mean that he wasn’t worthy to serve, nor does it mean that he was unworthy of acceptance.
Too often, I think, members in the Church confuse worthiness with conformity. If someone meets the standards set by the Church for a temple recommend, they are worthy to serve there. If someone meets the standards set by the Church to go on a mission, they are worthy to serve one. If someone keeps their covenants and repents frequently, they are worthy to accept the service of the sacrament.
Too often, members in the Church confuse worthiness with conformity.
If someone does not attend the temple at a frequency you think is right, if someone does not serve a traditional or full-length mission, if someone does not live their life the way you or your culture think is right, that does not mean that they are unworthy or worthless.
That also does not mean that they do not live their life in accordance with what God wants for them; it only means they do not live their life in accordance with what you want for them.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions because everyone is entitled to receive personal revelation for what is right for them. However, if someone does not conform to what you, your culture, or your personal revelation dictate, that is between them and God. Their level of conformity has no effect on their relationship with God or worthiness of His light, love, and direction. It is damaging to withhold charity and kindness in the Church or their social sphere if they don’t conform to the culture.
The worthiness problem in the Church is not in the guilt of those seeking correction; it is within the shame spread in place of compassion.
Christ loves and values everyone at all stages of their progression. You, a mortal without omnipotence or complete perspective who claims to follow and try to be like Him, ought to do so, too.
Because, like everyone else, your worth is not tied to how well you follow the crowd, but stems from a love that’s granted you at your worst, best, and everywhere in between.
No matter what, you are not worthless. If someone has made you feel that way, I implore you to seek help from God, licensed therapists, and those you trust around you. They can remind you how important you are.
Every soul is worth love. Every soul is worth knowing they have worth. And you, dear friend, are no exception.
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