The Saving Power of Works

by: Guest

September 5, 2013

One of Jesus’ most transformative insights is that spirituality is an inside job. At a time when righteousness was equated with exact observance of rules, Jesus taught that God is concerned not so much with our actions as with the motivations behind them. There are only two commandments, and they are both love.  Originally posted at RationalFaiths.com as Satan’s Plan 2.0:  Deseret Book Edition, today’s post was authored by Edward Jones.

What, then, is the role of works? Paul teaches that loving intentions [footnote: I mean here true intentions, not the kind of weak intentions that are little more than a wish] will naturally result in good works. But it is dangerous to focus on works at the expense of love, because even the greatest works are spiritually meaningless without love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3.

This is wonderful theology but an administrative nightmare, because love is difficult to measure. A system that finds it necessary to assess the spiritual worthiness of individuals will almost inevitably fall back on works because they are concrete and measurable. Either you have paid your tithing or you haven’t. Only God can know whether you paid your tithing out of love, so human administrators gradually lose interest in intentions altogether. Focusing only on correct actions, we find ourselves back with the Pharisees.

This, of course, is the current state of the Mormon church. We give constant lip service to Christ’s atonement, but our highest aspiration is never to come within a hundred feet of it. If only we can prevent people from performing wrong actions, we think, they can return safely to heaven, untouched by the world and I would add, untouched by Christ’s grace.

This clearly is the view of Wendy Watson Nelson, author of the new Deseret Book publication, The Not Even Once Club, “an adorable and appealing . . . story that will help [children] choose for themselves to keep the commandments and to never break them. Not even once.” (http://deseretbook.com/Not-Even-Once-Club-Wendy-Watson-Nelson/i/5097848)

In the book, Tyler, a boy who is new in his ward, is invited to a kids’ clubhouse filled with candy and games supplied by the kids’ Primary teacher, Sister Croft. Tyler gains entrance to the club only by passing a test of ordering lemonade rather than coffee, tea, or alcohol at an imaginary restaurant and promising never to “break the Word of Wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, or break the law of chastity. Not. Even. Once.”

Not_Even_Once_interior_spread_2_detailThe problem with Sister Nelson’s book is that it is evil. Satan wanted to shepherd everyone to heaven by coercing us to perform correct actions, regardless of our intentions. Version 2.0 of Satan’s plan replaces hard coercion with soft coercion: a lonely Tyler agrees to obey the commandments so he can be accepted into a group, and the other kids get “jars of pretzels and popcorn and candy” from Sister Croft “as long as we keep the promise.” (Sister Croft will surely buy each of the kids a car if they go an a mission, too.)

Missing from this story is the central element oThef Christ’s teaching and atoning sacrifice: love. What if Tyler wants to follow the commandments because he loves other people so much that he would not want to hurt them by lying, cheating, stealing, or bullying? What if Tyler chooses to live the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity because he loves God and wants to show his gratitude for God’s gift of a body?

Perhaps the gospel is not about avoiding “stains” of the world, but about filling ourselves with a love so powerful that it transforms our very being, changing us from selfish wretches into people who will give our lives to our precious sisters and brothers and to that God whose love lights the whole world. The reward for this kind of dedication is not pretzels and candy or a mess of pottage, but the realization of our own divine nature.

Then there is the standard of perfect obedience to commandments. This is, of course, a doctrinal impossibility. Romans 3:23. But it also has serious psychological repercussions. Richard Beck writes [http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/05/elizabeth-smart-and-psychology-of.html] that we tend to think of sin in one of two ways. We sometimes use the food-based metaphor of purity in which a person, like food, becomes permanently contaminated by sin. Or we use metaphors of mistake or stumbling, in which we correct our errors or pick ourselves up and continue on.

Beck notes that Christians generally use the purity metaphor only for sexual sins (loss of female virginity in particular), but Sister Nelson applies it here to all sins. Even a single sin breaks the promise and leads to expulsion from the club (and loss of candy!). This book does not anticipate failure or provide guidance when a child inevitably sins. [footnote: In the parent’s guide at the end of the book, in tiny print, there is a section on repentance. It comes right after a paragraph urging exact obedience.] One of Satan’s great tactics is to cause people to believe that Christ’s atonement does not exist, that they are permanently irredeemable. This book plays into that thinking, setting children up for shame and humiliation.

As it turns out, mistakes are not only inevitable but are necessary for growth. There is some scriptural evidence of a positive correspondence between the magnitude of our mistakes and our potential for growth. Jesus taught that the debtor who owes the most is the most grateful when the debt is forgiven. Luke 7:36-50. Jonah jumped ship, Peter denied Christ three times, Paul persecuted the faithful, and Alma the Younger seems to have committed every single sin on Sister Nelson’s list. [footnote: There is no word yet on the availability of narcotics during Book of Mormon times or whether Alma the Younger wore an off-the-shoulder tunic.] Not a single one of these prophets—or any prophet, or Sister Nelson, or any human being—comes anywhere close to the Not Even Once Club. The purity standard is not only impossible; it prevents us from growing to become like God.

What I wish with all my heart to tell Tyler is that God loves him no matter what. God’s love is the very air in which we live, and move, and have our being. The only suitable thanks for such an incomprehensible gift is to embody it, to reflect that love back to God and to all of God’s children. That love is its own reward. There is no other test or prize. There are no ruined flowers or licked cupcakes. There is simply One whose heart swells wide as eternity with love. That is the only story worth telling.

Thanks to Margaret and Paul Toscano, who helped me develop these ideas in a lively conversation.

Note: Please join us in our campaign to have Deseret Book remove this title from its shelves because of the spiritual damage it will inflict on children. You can email your thoughts and requests to Dave Kimball at [email protected] (Please be nice to Dave but go ape on the book.)

Also, consider adding your own review to Deseret Book, Amazon, Goodreads, the Barnes & Noble website, and wherever you shop for books. (These links will take you directly to the book to review it.)

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23 Responses to The Saving Power of Works

  1. Will on September 5, 2013 at 4:15 PM

    “The problem with Sister Nelson’s book is that it is evil”

    That’s not a very loving judgment. Encouraging people to do good is of God.

    I would go to her Husband’s commentary on God’s Love “God’s love is infinite, eternal, and perfect; but it cannot be properly classified as unconditional”

    God’s love, per this great sermon, is conditional. Elder Nelson goes into the commentary about the conditional nature of God and his love for his children. The plan of salvation you cited, for instance, is conditional. It allocates some to never see the face of the father ever again and others to be eternal angels and a select few to exaltation. As Jesus properly taught “straight is the way and narrow the gate that leads to eternal life (exaltation); but broad is the way to damnation”

    Actions do matter. No matter how much we love God or others, or how much God loves us; our actions do determine our destiny. It is a conditional arrangement.

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  2. Brett on September 5, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    I’m sure her intentions were good. I was raised this way and spiritual damaging is right. Now, in my thirties I still struggle with excessive worry and guilt over the dumbest little sins. That’s how my perfect earthly father raised me. His works many times came before his own family as he works his way into heaven. The way I see it I’m eternally sealed to him and since he’s perfect, I’m sure he will help me get into heaven. Not sure i want to be tied to him eternally, but,…. All kidding aside, our salvation depends on Christ and us individually. It’s our joy that will be great if that one soul we bring to him is us, not everyone else. Does it really profit us to bring 1,000 souls to him but forget our own? Grateful for repentance and Moses’ reminder to us of our nothingness.

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  3. nate on September 5, 2013 at 5:22 PM

    I also remember the “God’s love is conditional” also caused quite an uproar. Husband and wife seem to be on the same page.

    But I think this post is misguided. Yes, it is true that “Not Even Once” presents a completely works based theology. This is obviously incomplete. But it is not evil or Satanic. Rather, it presents the Law. It is the very definition of the Law that one must commit NEVER to break it. It is only by understanding how serious disobedience is, that forgiveness can be appreciated. Forgiveness must not be taken for granted, and that starts with a correct understanding of The Law, and The Law says, “Don’t commit sin, Not Even Once.”

    Children who understand The Law will grow to love and understand grace, because they will break the Law, and be broken by it. That will be the sequel to “Not Even Once.” But for there to be a sequel, there has to be a prequel, and that is a correct understanding of Law. The book is the Law of Moses for children, the Ten Commandments, screaming: Thou Shalt Not. It’s not Pharisaical. It’s simple. It’s God telling Eve, “Don’t eat the fruit! Not even once!” God didn’t explain anything about the atonement until after the Fall.

    Wendy Watson is setting up these children for failure, which is exactly what all good parents do, and what God does. Let them fall, and then let them learn of grace.

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  4. Martin on September 5, 2013 at 6:38 PM

    “As it turns out, mistakes are not only inevitable but are necessary for growth”

    Really? Inevitable, but necessary? I don’t see evidence for that position. Did Jesus need to screw up to grow? Or did he not need to grow?

    I personally reject the notion that Adam had to disobey God for God’s plan to work. I think God simply knew it was going to happen, and He worked it into the plan.

    It’s ridiculous to me to suggest that sin makes us better. I also don’t think anyone can really appreciate Jesus until she truly understands that no unclean thing can enter the kingdom of God, and that nobody incapable of living celestial law can inherit celestial glory.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on September 5, 2013 at 6:47 PM

    nate: ““God’s love is conditional” also caused quite an uproar. Husband and wife seem to be on the same page.” I forgot that was E. Nelson. Interesting.

    Martin: I actually think you are completely off your rocker. But I do appreciate having an opposing viewpoint to consider. I believe in a Jesus that was fully human, not just divine, and in eternal progress, meaning that yes, we must make mistakes to grow. We learn more from failure than we learn from success because in failure we are more teachable and humble and learning can happen. As to your assertion that Adam’s fall wasn’t necessary, I’m not sure why you think that. First of all, Eve was the one smart enough to figure it out, credit where due. But most importantly, it’s clear Mormon theology that “Adam fell that men may be.” Unless the plan was that men not be (that we not gain our bodies by coming to earth to claim our second estate), I don’t see how you can conclude that the fall was unnecessary. They couldn’t procreate in their innocent state, and there was no death. The theory is that without the fall, they would still be there, toodling around the garden naked.

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  6. Martin on September 5, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    Hawk: opposition is clearly necessary. Sin is not clearly necessary (though maybe we ought to separate “making mistakes” from “sin”, if it makes a difference). I see no reason that Adam/Eve was required to transgress God’s command in order to experience earth, and the temple ceremony itself suggests there was an alternative. Remember, Satan was trying to frustrate God’s plan. I don’t think you need to sin to grow, just the opportunity to sin. I don’t believe Jesus sinned. He may have burned his toast or misplaced his sandals, but I don’t believe he needed to sin to grow.

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  7. KT on September 5, 2013 at 10:22 PM

    Wow. I do not have words. I can’t believe someone wrote a book like that, or that people are buying it. Not healthy. I wouldn’t wish for my daughter to be ‘perfect’. I hope she does make mistakes. The most interesting and thoughtful people I have met have made the most mistakes. They have lived. And they now do the right things for the right reasons. Not spiritual coercion.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on September 6, 2013 at 12:04 AM

    Martin: “I don’t believe Jesus sinned.” But he was the only one who didn’t.

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  9. nate on September 6, 2013 at 2:36 AM

    Martin, I think you are in good company with your idea that “Sin is not necessary” for salvation or growth. I think that Pres. Kimbal advocates that position in The Miracle of Forgiveness. He notes that some people are glad they sinned, because of the experience they gained from it, but he says this is a lie, and it always would have been better not to have sinned.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with Pres. Kimball. I’ve heard many people say they were grateful for their sins, because unless they had gone down that path, they never would have had to crawl to Jesus for help, and never would have experienced that incredible humble relationship with Him. This is a constant refrain at Addiction Recovery. This is also what Eve says: “Were it not for our transgression, we never would have known the joy of redemption.”

    That is why Mormon theologists have been obsessed with turning Eve’s sin away from a sin, and into “a transgression” If Eve sinned, then the scripture in Abraham gives evidence that sin has benifits, or that it is nescessary. But if Eve just “transgressed,” which is apparently something less than sin, then we don’t have to deal with the messy idea that sin has benefits. This seems to be the position of the new temple movie, which makes a grand deal of how Eve’s decision to eat of the fruit was “the greater good,” and she was sort of forced into an impossible decision.

    But early LDS prophets, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, both referred to Eve’s transgression as a sin. This nuance of the difference between transgression and sin came later in LDS theology.

    I’m with Hawkgrrrl, I think sin is nescessary for growth. I think Eve sinned. I think that every time we sin, we vicariously partake of the forbidden fruit, and become like Adam and Eve. But God transforms our sin into something for our benefit. It’s not that we decide to sin FOR personal growth, like they say Eve did. We grow through coming to a clear understanding of the sinfulness of sin, and the work it takes to become free from it.

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  10. Paul on September 6, 2013 at 6:29 AM

    Something else caught my attention as I read over the list of things in the pledge for this club. These activities (breaking the Word of Wisdom, lying cheating, stealing, bullying, dressing immodestly, etc) have somehow morphed into the “unpardonable” sins, the kind that lead to personal spiritual isolation and destruction. I have recently been studying the rise and fall of the various churches of Christ in the Book of Mormon. There is striking consistency regarding the sins and activities of the people that have led to their spiritual demise. There are many sins that are specifically mentioned, and the contents of Mrs Nelson’s list are nowhere to be found (granted, there wasn’t anything known as the word of wisdom at that time). Instead, the sins that are specifically mentioned include: pride, seeking for power/authority over others, and pursuit of riches and the vain things of the world. All else is lumped in the non-specific “all manner of iniquity” category.

    Yesterday I was reading in Alma 5, where Alma relinquishes his political office to address the growing apostasy in the church of his day. He accuses the members of the church in Zarahemla of “[trampling] the Holy One under [their] feet,” and proceeds to list off the specifics ways. He never mentions sexual sins, substance abuse, swearing, or any such sins by name, instead lumping them in with the generic term “wickedness.” But here is what is specifically mentioned:
    1. Puffed up in the pride of your hearts
    2. Wearing of costly apparel
    3. Setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world
    4. Supposing that ye are better one than another
    5. Persecution of your (more humble) brethren
    6. Turning your backs on the poor and needy

    These sentiments are mirrored in 1 Nephi 22:23, 3 Nephi 6:14-15, 4 Nephi 1:23-30, and Mormon 8:34-41 (and likely other places).

    My main beef with this book is that it is the wrong list. The sins that truly destroy the spiritual character of those who profess to know Christ and belong to his church are simpler and more insidious than a cigarrette, a swig of coffee, a tattoo, or bare shoulders.

    And, before what I say becomes misinterpreted as justification for breaking the Word of Wisdom or giving the go ahead to sexual indiscretion, let me clarify. Breaking any commandment has real consequences. I just think it is easy to forget what the Nephites actually did to abandon the ways of the Lord. The things Mrs Nelson mentions are not among them.

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  11. Rigel Hawthorne on September 6, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    Maybe a ‘not even once’ tactic might work for smoking. In fact, as I provide anti-smoking guidance for teens in my practice, I even say that tobacco becomes so addictive and quitting is so difficult, that the best way they can approach it is to never smoke in the first place. Then again, this element of the WOW was called a principle adapted to the weakest of all the saints. I, personally, fell from the alcohol element of the not-even-once club while on a mission in Japan where I was served a canned beverage that looked like soda, but on deciphering the small print kategana, I realized it was 8% alcohol. So, I guess I should have skipped the whole mission thing so I could still be in the club eh?

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  12. Martin on September 6, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Hawk: I agree that Jesus was a special case. So are Adam and Eve, especially since we don’t know how much of the story is literal and how much is figurative.

    Nate: The problem with saying sin is necessary to growth is that the next question is “how much sin is necessary for growth?” The more you sin (and repent), the more you grow? From what I’ve seen from those who have sinned extensively, it looks only harmful. Or is a single sin enough? One time to realize you don’t want to do it any more? Is one enough incentive to appreciate your Savior? If both of those extremes seems silly, suggesting that one should sin in moderation seems even worse.

    If an apprentice does things exactly as his master instructs, his work will turn out like his masters’. If he varies, it won’t. It’s not clear he needs to make his own mistakes, especially if he can see the results of others’ mistakes. The only reason to vary would be to try to improve on the master’s work, ie. innovate, experiment. That makes complete sense in our world where the craftmasters don’t know everything, but no sense where the master does.

    To put things another way (and I honestly don’t mean to be disrespectful), if God commands, how do you know when it’s in your best interest to obey and when it isn’t? What growth would you be missing out on?

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  13. Martin on September 6, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    Nate: So you don’t think I skipped your last paragraph, I do agree that growth can and does come from sin and subsequent repentance, and the only reason that path is an option is because of the atonement. While an inevitable path, I claim it is neither necessary nor preferable, and the only reason this fine distinction matters is that I’m afraid too many of us don’t realize how bad sin really is. We justify in committing a little sin.

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  14. Not Even Once? | Sailing to Byzantium on September 6, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    [...] of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that goes address gospel issues more [...]

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  15. nate on September 6, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    Martin, those are great questions, and they illustrate the paradoxes inherent in the Fall, wherein becoming as the Gods means both obeying, and disobeying them. It’s the question Paul asked: Shall we sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.

    Actually it’s the opposite of what Paul says, by emphasizing the Law, as Sister Warton does, grace abounds, because the purpose of the Law is to make “sin exceedingly sinful.” And the more sinful, the more grace will be needed.

    So we don’t ask, “how much sin,” but “how sinful?” To a Saint, the very least of sins could be a gross and shameful stain. The closer one gets to God, the more sinful even little sins become, and thus grace is always needed in abundance.

    So Sister Watson emphasizes the Law, and thus makes looking at billboards exceedingly sinful, that abundant grace must be needed to overcome it. These children, before the Law was given by Sister Watson, they were free and could not sin by looking at a billboard. But now they are bound by another almost impossible commandment, and thus will need Christ’s grace to live with their weakness.

    If a pledged child decides to look at a billboard, it will be the same as Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit, and they will be cast out of the garden of innocence, whereas their peers look at the billboard without shame. But Sister Watson opens their eyes, and they are ashamed.

    You and I are on the same page I think, given your last comment, you understand the value of sin, but are anxious, as am I, that sin is understood as truly evil and wrong. The purpose of the Law is to make “sin exceedingly sinful” as Paul explained.

    Sister Watson is filling an essential role in the Plan of Salvation, to give the Law and stain the hands and hearts of these innocent children with lust, that they may cry out for grace in their wickedness.

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  16. dpaullamb on September 6, 2013 at 3:35 PM

    I thought I was the only Mormon that read Beck. His books and blog have had a huge impact on me over the past several years. It’s also fascinating to me to see that liberal and progressive christianity in general has almost the exact some problems and issues that liberal/progressive mormonism does.

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  17. DB on September 7, 2013 at 6:53 AM

    “I personally reject the notion that Adam had to disobey God for God’s plan to work. I think God simply knew it was going to happen, and He worked it into the plan.”

    I’m completely uncertain what you mean by this. Do you mean that before God made his plan he knew that Adam would disobey whatever plan he created so he developed the plan around that disobedience, or do you mean that God made his plan, realized that Adam would disobey it, then changed the plan to accommodate the disobedience?

    To say that sin is unnecessary is to say that the plan of salvation is unnecessary. Because, if we could be sinless and perfect, we would not need to be saved and would not need the plan of salvation. It was Satan who came up with the idea that sin was unnecessary.

    The temple ceremony and the scriptures make absolutely no suggestion that there was an alternative. What they teach us is that had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would have continued to live immortally with no children. They would have continued in that same static existence indefinitely, and they did continue that way indefinitely until they sinned, which allowed God to introduce the plan of salvation.

    There is also absolutely no suggestion in the temple or in the scriptures that either Adam or Eve “figured it out” before sinning. Neither made their choice in order to effect the plan of salvation. Eve sinned because she was tempted (i.e., she was presented with a choice with both options being desirable – either stay in the garden and continue with her peaceful, immortal, but ignorant life, or be cast out, face certain death, and gain great knowledge) and Adam also sinned because he was tempted (i.e., he was presented with a choice with both options being desirable – “You can either stay here alone or you can come with me.”) It was only in retrospect that either of them realized that their choices had been necessary.

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  18. Paul on September 7, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    DB,

    While the events that transpired in the Garden of Eden point to the necessity of a Savior, D&C 45 challenges the claim that sin is necessary for the plan of salvation. If it were, why would the Lord indicate otherwise regarding those who live and mature during the millennium?

    58 And the earth shall be given unto them for an inheritance; and they shall multiply and wax strong, and their children shall grow up without sin unto salvation.

    59 For the Lord shall be in their midst, and his glory shall be upon them, and he will be their king and their lawgiver.

    By the logic of your argument, the plan of salvation will cease to be necessary in the millennium, as there will cease to be sin. I suppose that is indeed possible, but is not a theory I am well versed in.

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  19. Joseph Abraham on September 7, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    Perhaps the issue is not with sin, but with weakness?

    27 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.

    Or, in another sense…

    On Yom Kippur we evaluate ourselves. On Yom Kippur we are critical of our failings. On Yom Kippur we don’t deny our sins – we build on their memory for spiritual growth.

    http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/theme/Yom_Kippur_The_Blessing_Of_Failure.html

    Just a thought.

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  20. Bruce on September 7, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    The pledge she promotes contains the promise not to look at pornographic billboards. I think Sister Nelson must be referring to the billboards promoting the Church owned City Creek Center. I for one loved the low cut dress on the cute brunette holding the full wine glass. There she was…big as life on I-15 enticing me to sin. Or does the promise not to use sex and alcohol not apply when promoting Church owned, revenue generating, enterprises?

    Anyway, I must admit…the pornographic billboard worked. I traveled to City Creek Center and went to the Cheesecake factory and sinned greatly. My only excuse is that I am in good company. I can say with Adam:

    “The billboard thou hast shown me, and commanded me to shop there, enticed me to sin…and I did eat.”

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  21. hawkgrrrl on September 7, 2013 at 6:40 PM

    Those cheesecakes have about 6000 calories per serving. I’m queasy just thinking about it.

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  22. [...] by a GA’s wife was a big discussion topic this past week! It seems that it emphasizes some culty aspects separating Mormonism from mainstream Christianity. (Well, sort of — purity pledges and making [...]

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  23. MH on September 12, 2013 at 8:49 PM

    Denver’s latest post:

    Thursday, September 12, 2013
    My Sympathy

    Elder Russel M. Nelson presides over the Strengthening the Members Committee. His wife has created a great deal of controversy with a children’s book she has written. Some active LDS psychologists have denounced the book as “child abuse” and used very unkind terms against both the book and her.

    I wanted to express my sympathy for Elder Nelson and his wife. I know what it is like to have written a book with the intent to help others, only then to become the object of public criticism. I hope there is no church action taken against her.

    Posted by Denver Snuffer at 7:12 AM

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