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.
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.”
The 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 of 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@example.com. (Please be nice to Dave but go ape on the book.)