Welcome to the Sinners’ Club
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin… For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: (Romans 3:20,23-24)
This week I picked up a children’s book called “The Not Even Once Club” by Wendy Watson Nelson at the library. The main character is a boy named Tyler, who has just moved to a new area. He is meeting up with children from his primary class in hopes of joining their secret club. When he climbs up to the treehouse he is excited about all the games, art supplies, treats, and candies (supplied by the primary teacher as long as they all keep the promise). The other children say he has to pass a test and make an oath to join the club–that he will never sin, not even once. So he does. On his way home he sees cigarettes in the road and tosses them in the trash. End of story.
Wow, I hope I am not the only one concerned about this plotline. The secret club with an oath and test of membership may not be as disturbing to some as it is to me. I felt a bit traumatized by my temple experience, and this seems to be an allusion to that. Then, there is the bribery, in the form of treats and games appealing to young children. They will only get to do those fun things if they make the oath. And the oath itself is extremely heavy for a young child. In fact, it is an impossible oath for anyone, much less a child. So this kind of story induces an inordinate amount of shame and guilt for human mistakes. I am also particularly concerned at what a strong in-group–out-group dynamic this sets up. It encourages judgement of the ‘out group’- anyone who doesn’t conform to the perfect standard. If you don’t promise and succeed at all these things, you are in the out-group. There is no way back in, because this is ‘NOT EVEN ONCE’. The allegory completely leaves out the Savior, the most important part of the plan of salvation. A Savior who sought out and embraced marginalized peoples, especially sinners. The story ignores the fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes in life. Unfortunately, this children’s book author is not the only one whose teachings are missing a pivotal point of the gospel.
Last Saturday in Las Vegas, President Nelson, said, “your ultimate safety in this life lies in never taking the first enticing step toward going where you should not go and doing what you should not do.” To me, this sounds eerily like the same message – that we can somehow avoid sin and earn our salvation through exact obedience to church leaders.
I’m concerned at the implication that we can do anything to protect ourselves or save ourselves from sin. That idea completely misses the point. Mormon doctrine teaches that we were sent to earth to gain experience, whereby we can distinguish between good and evil. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden demonstrates this paradox -the commandment to not partake of the fruit and the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. Both could not be followed. They had to determine for themselves which was the better choice. Eve desired knowledge and motherhood and in wisdom partook of the fruit, knowingly transgressing a commandment. Because the point of life is to seek the highest good for ourselves and others. We cannot avoid sin. We can learn from it. Most choices in life are not black and white, good and bad, but instead a matter of studying, exploring, weighing out options, and creatively trying to come up with better solutions.
Jesus told a parable of 2 brothers. One sought his inheritance early, a preposterous notion. Even more preposterous, the father in the story gives it to him. Then this son runs off and wastes it in riotous living. The other son stays perfectly obedient to the father. He works extra hard in the field. When the first son comes to himself and realizes that even servants in his father’s house have it better than him, he penitently returns, hoping only for a place as a servant. Then, most surprisingly of all, the father welcomes him as a beloved son. They are reconciled. The father throws a feast to celebrate. The second son, coming in from his extensive labor in the field is angry. He never got a party. He also hasn’t come to know his father. He doesn’t realize that all the work in the field was not going to earn him the love of his father. His father already loved him, and wanted him to come in from the field all along, everything the father had was already his. The abundance showed by the father – love, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity, is NOT earned. It can’t be. Our safety is not in never taking a step through sin, but in coming to our father and letting him wash our feet. In accepting the grace and love he offers as a free gift. We should try our best to follow Christ’s example, but we will inevitably go a lot of places we should not go and do some things we should not do in life; perhaps something like judging a wayward brother and envying his ‘fatted calf’. The important thing is that we ultimately come home, and accept the gift.