I have two very wise mothers. My own mother will often be heard to say, “We’re all a mess,” which is meant to be a graceful equalizer, not a criticism, to remind herself and me to cut other people some slack. As well, my mother-in-law will often be heard to say, “We’re all doing the best we can,” which is also a graceful equalizer. She uses it to remind herself and others (including me) that though we may want more from others, (or sometimes ourselves) that we should understand that with few exceptions, we are all doing the best we can—or all that we’re presently capable of. And I would add my mother’s phrase…because we’re all a mess.
It’s the truth. Even those of us who look put together on the outside are a mess on the inside due to weakness, trials, past hurts and future fears. Even those of us who seem to do the outward commandments well struggle to bat .500 on the more internal commandments. And it goes the other way. People who seem to be a mess on the outside are not always the mess we assume them to be on the inside. Even those who may not seem to do all the outward commandments well may be much better than we could ever be on the internal commandments.
We’re all a mess—in some way. We’re all—with few exceptions—doing the best we can, or all that we’re presently capable of, despite the fact that we’re a mess.
We all sin differently. We all try differently. Most of keep trying even when we struggle or fail.
My very wise mother and I recently talked in detail about a very popular scripture.
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to be believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Ne 25:23)
The problem with this scripture in the conversation of grace, is that it is horribly misunderstood and falsely interpreted. So many people beat themselves up day in and day out trying to earn grace by doing their “best,” hoping that it will be enough for God to accept so that He’ll do “the rest.” As if it’s solely a cause/effect relationship. It’s not.
This is not an accurate interpretation of this scripture—in this limited sense. The reason it is so inaccurately interpreted is because it is so often quoted out of context. Nephi goes on to talk about how he and his people keep “the law,” because it points them to Christ, “For this end was the law given…[to point us to Christ]” and “we keep the law because of the commandments” (2 Nephi 25:24-25, brackets added).
Two key doctrines here:
- The law of ordinances and covenants brings us to Christ and points us toward Him
- The commandments of God point us to Christ and help us obtain ordinances and covenants with God
Nowhere in these verses in the implication made that the law, or commandments, save us. Paul was right. The law, by itself, is dead (Galatians 2:21). It is Christ who saves us through grace. It is the law, ordinances, covenants, and commandments that bring us to Christ, point us toward Him, and help us become like Him—through grace. They have a purpose, just not the one we often think.
Do you keep your covenants perfectly? No, you’re a mess, remember? We all are. Do you keep every commandment perfectly? Of course you don’t. But, you are pretty much doing the best you can within your present capability, most of the time. So, if we had to do the “law” and “commandments” perfectly before God would save us or even help us, there would be no purpose to this life, or the atonement of Jesus Christ. It would be a silly system because there would be no chance for ultimate salvation and exaltation.
So, why did God allow us all to be such messes and yet give us a law asking us to not be a mess?
I take you to another frequently misquoted and possibly misunderstood scripture:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)
When most people read this scripture they say, “weaknesses.” And yet, it doesn’t say that. So, what’s the difference between the possible interpretations and doctrines to be found in this scripture by ensuring we read it as weakness and not weaknesses? Here’s one that I suggest may be helpful, after many years of discussions with my wise mother and husband.
In comparison to God, what is our greatest weakness? My answer to that is mortality. And, by mortality I mean the conditions necessary for us to have and maintain agency in this life. These mortal conditions are:
- Mother nature acts independently and indifferently to us. No mortal can control or gain favoritism from Mother nature.
- We can be hurt, or killed, (mentally, emotionally, and physically) by everything and everyone, including ourselves. The actions and reactions of every person on the earth impacts us (and nature).
Now, if we read this scripture with the word mortality in the place of weakness it reads quite a bit more powerfully (in my opinion):
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their mortality. I give unto men mortality that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make mortal things become strong unto them.
So, what’s the big deal?
Well, we’re all a mess because we’re mortal. God didn’t give us specific weaknesses. He didn’t make some people blind and some lame and some short and some fat. But, He did give us mortality, which in its indifferent state (which is necessary to maintain our agency and power to choose and be fully accountable) brought about the individual weaknesses we all suffer. Did God know which weaknesses mortality would bring upon us? Yes. But that is not the same thing as handpicking weaknesses for us. And for me, that has incredible impact on my ability to trust and have faith in God. And to understand both His plan for me and His over-arching plan for us all.
God didn’t purposefully choose for me to bust out my two front teeth in fourth grade (right after getting my permanent teeth). But, He did make me mortal which meant my teeth were capable of being busted out by sufficient impact with asphalt. Will I get them back someday in the resurrection? Yes. But that moment is not now and so it’s a huge physical weakness. I’m always worried about my dental work. That song All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth is often one I sing in my head. No joke.
God gave us mortality so that we could progress in His ultimate plan for us to become like Him. Mortality is a gift. But, it is also our primary weakness. We can’t prevent eventual death. We can’t prevent natural disasters. We can’t prevent all the symptoms and results of most diseases. We can’t predict genetic mutations (due to nature and our independently functioning DNA). We can’t go in and reprogram our bodies. There is so much about mortality that leaves us weak. It is in this weak state that mortal things, mortal problems bring about myriads of weaknesses (plural here). Thus, we are all a mess so that we can humble ourselves and submit to the godly learning process.
No matter our mortal things, we can become strong in Christ—through grace. That is what God is saying—at least to me.
Now, the last thing my mother and I talked about recently, was what has come to her. And, for her, she words 2 Nephi 25:23 a little bit differently to reflect this understanding about the grace we all constantly receive because we really all are doing the best we can. She words that final phrase like this:
It’s by grace we are saved after all the obedience we are capable of.
This really rings true as we consider God’s own words about the innocence of children. He does not say they cannot be taught to repent and to keep His commandments, but He is very clear that their accountability is dependent upon their ability to commit sin.
So it goes with us all. Each of us has differing levels of capability, knowledge, instruction, etc. God, through grace, not only enables us to obey Him—when we desire to do so—He slowly perfects us and increases our capability to obey as we try. This is what some people misunderstand. They procrastinate obeying or only partially obey because they don’t feel they can, or can’t maintain it. Not knowing that the effort made will be amplified by grace and increase their capacity to obey over time. Covenants and obedience to God are how we receive more grace and power to become like Him. It’s a beautiful system…all powered by grace.
Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin… Behold baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins… For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent… (Moroni 8:10-11, 22)
People forget that sin is rebellion. I’m not saying we shouldn’t repent of transgressions, omissions, or mistakes. But it is quite a different thing to truly desire goodness and react unfavorably to stress, provocation, and trials than it is to purposefully and knowingly act out against God and others. Obviously, we still need to recognize these transgression and work to be more godly. But because we are all a mess, God accepts even our weakest efforts. He knows we are always doing pretty much the best we can, or what we are presently capable of. And He consistently offers to increase that capability through His grace.
Now, lest anyone panic and think that people can become like God without ever becoming accountable. Simply remember God’s mandate to preach the gospel to both the living and the dead. Eventually all must be taught and become accountable, because we cannot be saved in ignorance (D&C 131:6; 136:32).
My final thought on this scripture (2 Nephi 25:23) is tearing apart the word AFTER.
Some definitions of the word AFTER that I particularly like to place in this scripture are:
In pursuit of or in quest of; behind; next to or following in order of importance.
Now, let’s put this all together:
It is by grace that we are saved in pursuit of or in quest of all the obedience that we are capable of.
It is by grace that we are saved following in order of importance of all the obedience we are capable of
Aren’t these cool! We are all in pursuit (or have been given the opportunity to pursue) godhood. To be even as He is, joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). Grace saves us while we are in this pursuit of learning to reach the level of obedience of God!
Or, grace follows in importance our obedience. Why is obedience first? Because it is an act of will, of agency. God won’t force anything on us—not even His grace. We must choose it. Obedience points us to Christ, as Nephi so clearly points out in 2 Nephi 25:24-25. Obedience is not how we earn grace. It’s how we say “Yes,” to increasing portions and levels of grace. God has far more grace to offer, more power to offer, as we desire to increase our capability to obey—and become godly. Thus, we must first accept—through the obedience we are capable of—before we can receive more grace, and more grace, until our capability to obey reaches that godly fullness, or perfect day (D&C 93:19-20; 50:24).
So, yes, we’re all a mess. But, if we really are all doing the best we can, or offering all the obedience we are presently capable of, then God will not only remit our sins, He will give us more grace and increase our power and capability to obey. It’s such a beautiful thing.