A few months ago, I participated in a choir that sang in an LDS Stake Conference. I had attended several rehearsals during the weeks before the conference and then at the final rehearsal, a few people came who hadn’t been before, even though the performance was just a few days away.
I tapped into my phone the following Facebook status update: It kind of bugs me when people skip all choir practices and then attend the last rehearsal or two before the performance. Doesn’t seem fair to the rest of us.
My sister-in-law responded with this post that made me laugh out loud: That’s probably how you’ll feel about me, when after death bed repentance, I come waltzing in to join you in the Celestial Kingdom.
I love the way she phrased this comment, especially the use of the verb “waltzing” — it made me laugh hard, but it also really made me think.
Once I was complaining about something not being “fair” and my father shared with me one of the parables of Jesus in Matthew 20. It describes a man who really needs help bringing in the harvest from his vineyard, so he hires several workers early in the morning. During the course of the day, he returns to the marketplace to get more workers. Recognizing that the work won’t be completed in time without more help, the master returns to city to hire workers for the very last hour of the day. These workers are paid the same wage as those who had labored all day. Of course, the early morning workers now think that their payment amount wasn’t fair. When I first heard the parable, I agreed. How could it be fair that the guys who started work at the crack of dawn and worked all day long should get the same payment as those who only worked the final hour? My dad was trying to teach me some important lessons.
First, the parable suggests that those who were hired in the last hour of the day had desired to work but didn’t have the opportunity (i.e. “no man hath hired us.”) They were not willfully lazy and unproductive. They simply didn’t have the chance to work. Similarly, many people simply haven’t had the chance to hear the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why should they be penalized for not receiving the gospel if they weren’t given the opportunity? If they accept the gospel when given the chance, shouldn’t they be entitled to all the blessings that life-long active members receive? Okay, that makes sense, right?
However, what of those who DO have the opportunity to learn the gospel, but choose to reject it and live a life of sin, only to repent later? Can they receive the same blessings as those who lived it all along? The parable of the prodigal son helps answer that question. In the story, the elder brother who remained loyal to his father is angry when the wayward son is accepted back into the family after he wasted his inheritance with “riotous living.” The older brother asserts that this arrangement isn’t fair. The father gently rebukes his eldest son reminding him that he has been blessed to enjoy the association with the family all these years, while the younger son’s actions deprived him of those blessings. Those who go astray for a time lose out on the spiritual progression they could have had if they had remained true.
If my attitude that “it’s not fair” that some people “get to sin” and still receive the same reward, then my heart isn’t in the right place. If I truly have a heart that is broken (in total harmony with Christ), I wouldn’t view keeping the commandments as something I “have to” do. Good works and keeping covenants would become a pleasure, while sinful behavior would become wholly unattractive. I never want to view living the principles of the gospel as a burdensome means to an end — that I’m sacrificing and serving so I can “earn a great reward.” Do I pay tithes and offerings, go to the temple, keep the Sabbath day holy, keep the Word of Wisdom so that I can “earn enough points” to get into the Celestial Kingdom? If my sole motivation for keeping covenants is only so that I can get into heaven, I think I’ve missed the point. Living gospel principles blesses my life HERE and NOW. I’m not just paying my dues now for some future reward. Living the gospel is its own reward. When viewed in this light, it makes questions of what’s fair seem irrelevant.
We all need the grace of Christ equally. A dear friend of mine recently shared a scripture in James 2:10. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” At first this scripture startled me and I felt discouraged. But my friend reminded me that the standard of justice is perfect compliance to God’s laws and even one sin disqualifies us from our eternal reward. That’s why Christ’s grace is so essential for all of us. It’s a very humbling thought, one that engenders love and compassion and eschews judgment and pride.
I am striving to sincerely rejoice when anyone partakes of the atonement, regardless of when or how. I learned this lesson in a powerful way in the fall of 1996 when I was a student at the BYU Jerusalem Center. I had the chance to visit many historically significant sites, including the Garden of Gethsemane. This place is a pivotal location in my religious worldview as I believe it was in this place where Jesus Christ wrought the eternal atonement. I had been there a few times during the semester, but never felt anything particularly different or inspiring. The spiritual experience I had hoped to receive by visiting that significant place wasn’t there.
On my last visit, our student group found a quiet corner of the garden where we could bear testimonies. One of my fellow students told our group about how her brother had been struggling with some serious sins and was now repenting. I am ashamed to admit that in that moment, I thought: “That guy needs the atonement a lot more that I do.” In that very moment, I felt a very real spiritual rebuke from the Holy Ghost. It was one of the most powerful and painful moments I had ever experienced with the Spirit. I immediately felt in my soul a very strong message from heaven: Andrew, you need the atonement just as desperately as everyone else.
Tears filled my eyes as I realized how prideful I had been. How could I have been so self righteous to think those thoughts? As soon as I surrendered to my desperate situation, the power of the atonement filled my soul and I finally had the experience I had been seeking. The power of the atonement was manifest in my life in a powerful way that I will never forget.