Spiritual Education Through Sin

[ 6 ] Comments

by jendoop

neal a maxwellWe are often told that the only thing that we truly have to give to God, that he doesn’t already possess, is our will. (Elder Neal A. Maxwell) At the same time I feel that this life is my opportunity to begin to really understand my agency. In this sphere I have the ability to choose not to follow. Through doing so I find out why I should want what God wants. Yes, this is the path of sad experience, but it is also one of mortal learning. Sometimes there is no other way for us to truly incorporate the doctrines of the Father into our lives unless they are seared into our hearts through unpleasant consequences. Pleasant consequences also carry an impact, but for me it is less memorable than those soul-wrenching consequences. If we could learn and know all that we needed without experiencing it, we wouldn’t need to come to earth at all.

I believe that this is an aspect of the plan of salvation that we too often skip over. We encourage each other to do what is right so that we don’t have to deal with unpleasant consequences. But consequences are one of the best teachers. Christ came and offered his life for us, so that we could exercise our ability to choose and thus experience consequences, positive and negative, and still retain the ability to gain eternal life. Do we sometimes push ourselves so hard to do what is right, so that we will not need the atonement (as if we had the power to lessen the burden of the atonement on Christ), that we do not learn what we were sent here to learn? We attempt to squeeze ourselves into perfect obedience,  rarely relying on the merits of him who is mighty to save.

jars of clayThis squeeze into perfect obedience conjures two images in my mind. Imagine a vessel, a clay pitcher that would have held wine in Christ’s day. At the top it is narrow, then widens to hold a large amount of liquid. Imagine trying to stuff a fluffy pillow into the pitcher. Even though the pillow is soft and pliable it wouldn’t easily go into the pitcher. Now imagine wine pouring into the pitcher; it flows easily through the smallest opening, while also spreading to fill the vessel’s available space. The wine is yielding and completely pliant, while also richly developed by time and of great worth. Both of the materials we are trying to put into the pitcher are pliable, we could say they are obedient to our will to put them in any position we wish. But one is distinctly different from the other.

The pillow, while moldable, retains something of the shape of itself, only molding in its own parameters. The wine, on the other hand, is ultimately moldable and does not have a shape without the containing force of the vessel. Our ultimate goal as followers of Christ is to become like the wine, finely and precisely developed over time. While we don’t currently use wine for our sacrament it is well worth our while to consider the symbolism in the winemaking process, something about which most Mormons know little.

grape

The wine process starts with harvesting fruit, usually grapes. You could compare this to the harvesting spoken of in scripture, our call to the kingdom of God, resulting in baptism and membership in the kingdom. It is important that the fruit which is harvested contain a large amount of sugar, as that is critical to the fermentation process. This could symbolize our sweetness, or our willingness to submit to the Lord and whatever life brings us with a cheerful heart and hope for the future. This sweetness cannot be underestimated. This initial characteristic is vital throughout the process.

Second in the winemaking process is the winepress. The scriptures mention the winepress as the “winepress of the wrath of God.”  My view is that these are the consequences of sin and of living in a fallen world. Christ tells us that he trod the winepress alone. This means that ultimately he is the one who bears the wrath of God for us. Christ also tells us that if we don’t repent we will suffer as he suffered, that we will walk our own sort of winepress of the wrath of God.

winepress

 This winepress could also be seen as the consequences of sin, the wrath of God which we invite when we disobey. And because we are imperfect we all experience the winepress of life, if only a simple taste because Christ saves us from the full impact.

Mustfromthewinepressing

It is interesting to note that the freshly-pressed fruit juice, containing the skins, seeds, and stems, which results from the winepress is called must. This is an interesting symbol, pointing to the fact that to develop into what God wants us to become we must experience some of the pain of sin. Next in the winemaking process is fermentation. This is a process that needs no help; it naturally begins to occur when the must is left to sit. I think of this as the pondering and meditation that is necessary for the pains and trials of our lives to develop into something of value. Simply going through a trial will not result in holiness; it is quiet, still moments of communion with God that can turn our pains into triumph.

Clarification is the next step in the process. It includes carefully siphoning the wine into another vessel, which leaves behind the heavy particulates (skins, seeds, and stems). This step also includes some filtering. I see this as active learning through scripture reading, attending Sunday School or seminary, and other gospel study. We clarify our understanding of what is happening in our lives by comparing it to the true doctrines of Christ. His example enables us to see how doctrines apply to everyday life. We can also see more clearly God’s purposes unfolding in our lives when we clarify our understanding.

wine barrels

The next step is aging. I’ve yet to experience the later psychosocial stage of life, which Erick Erikson called maturity. This stage is age 65 until death and involves looking back on the totality of life’s experiences, searching for a sense of fulfillment. If a person finds that his or her life has had meaning they develop satisfaction and wisdom even in the face of death. As I think about facing this stage of life it seems critical to me that to have any sense of satisfaction I must be able to forget my sins and truly believe that Christ’s atonement has blotted them out.

sealed wine

Lastly, the wine is bottled. This is when we are called back to the presence of our eternal Father and sealed as his because we will have completed this life in accordance with his commandments. This does not mean that we were perfect; remember we all went through these refining processes because we were not whole. Christ’s role as our Savior is essential to each stage of the process.This process at the hands of the winemaker enables us to fill the measure of our creation, much as wine fills the vessel it is poured into.

This pursuit of progression, developing into wine which is capable of filling the measure of our creation, is more than forcing ourselves to do what we are told. God wants disciples capable of understanding not just one-line commandments, but the doctrines behind them and the consequences associated with them. He doesn’t want just obedient children; he wants understanding, progressing, willing, wise, obedient children.

I want to be careful here that I don’t make utilization of the atonement a light thing. The atonement is the most sacred and profound gift that has ever been given. Utilizing it is most significant and serious but our learning and improvement are also sacred and profound, so much so that God had worlds built and a great plan implemented for us to learn and improve: to progress. We focus on the atonement, and rightly so, but we too infrequently ask why.

What is more important to God than the life of His Only Begotten Son? Our process. Our learning. Our progression. It feels as though our process of becoming what God wants us to be includes making sinful choices and following through with learning from those choices, opening ourselves to the education we can receive from sin and negative consequences. Sometimes we run too quickly from our sins, hoping to drop them at the Savior’s feet and run away before we comprehend what we’ve done and why it’s a sin. This is not repentance.

Repentance is a process of spiritual education. It is finding ourselves in sin and turning to God, submitting to the winemaking process.This is why bishops meet over and over again with people who are under the burden of serious sin; repentance is a process. If the repentance process is to result in a worthy finished product, it requires a brief walk in the winepress,  fermentation as we humbly take our sins to God in communion, clarification as we learn the doctrines which increase our ability to resist sin, aging which gives us the perspective of seeing what the Lord has made of us in our willing obedience and repentance, and finally a sealing of our lives by death when we are taken home to our Eternal Father through the mercy and grace of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Spiritual education is the difference between a sinner and the examples given in scripture. After all, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Noah got drunk, Alma the younger fought against God, and Joseph Smith lost 116 pages of scripture. Spiritual education, including the ongoing repentance process, turns a sinner into a saint.

Photo credit: ruben alexander via CompfightVladimer Shioshvili via CompfightFernando via Compfight, aspenglowCreative Commons License Carlos Madrigal via Compfight,  Victor Bezrukov via Compfight

About jendoop

Jen writes, reads, paints, walks, prays, eats and sleeps. Paul is her co-conspirator in teaching these skills to 4 children.

6 Responses to Spiritual Education Through Sin

  1. Shauna says:

    Very insightful post, thank you. You’ve given me a lot of material to ponder. I appreciate learning a bit of the wine-making process, because yes, I am Mormon and didn’t know anything about it, except that stomping around in a vat of grapes looks like fun.

    These particular sentences cause me to stop and think: “We encourage each other to do what is right so that we don’t have to deal with unpleasant consequences,” and “Do we sometimes push ourselves so hard to do what is right, so that we will not need the atonement (as if we had the power to lessen the burden of the atonement on Christ), that we do not learn what we were sent here to learn? We attempt to squeeze ourselves into perfect obedience, rarely relying on the merits of him who is mighty to save.”

    I do not agree with them entirely, though I think I understand what you are driving at; that we wrongly think at times that if we live righteously enough, we will not experience a great amount of sadness or need the atonement, and therefore will not require the fruits of the atonement, as much as “the other person.” But I don’t think of obedience in that light. Sometimes obedience does carry temporal consequences that are unpleasant to experience, such as me having a different media viewing standard than the rest of my family, thus creating a sort of void or area of tension in our relationship. I encourage people (my husband and children mostly) to do what is right because we are commanded to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. It seems related to talking about eternal families in our church because that is the highest standard we can achieve, yet there are many people not currently “achieving” this standard because of divorce, infidelity, wayward children, etc. We still strive for the celestial standard.

    Are you advocating choosing the wrong so that we can gain more experience? If you are, I must respectfully disagree with this notion. Nephi (as in 1 Nephi) is one of my favorite scripture heroes, and as far as we know, he didn’t have any huge mess ups. He does lament his weaknesses (2 Nephi 4:15-35), anger and “slackening his strength” being two that he mentions, and in these verses he gives beautiful voice to his poignant dependence on the Savior for his strength and redemption.

    You also mentioned the need for the Atonement, and rightly so, of course. I have gained some a testimony of how the Atonement strengthens and enables me to learn and become the saint that Heavenly Father wants me to be. You stated, “Utilizing [the Atonement] is most significant and serious but our learning and improvement are also sacred and profound. . .” I think the Atonement should be used during our learning and improvement as well. Maybe you were implying that and I missed the point. My four-year old daughter is sitting on my lap and talking to me while I compose this. :)

    • jendoop says:

      Shauna,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this post. I’m glad you asked about choosing wrong. No, I don’t advocate open rebellion as a learning tool. That will bring increased consequences because not only would a person be sinning against Heavenly Father by breaking a commandment, but they would be doing it with full knowledge of what they are doing – which seems to be similar to sinning against the Holy Ghost (if not the very definition). I think what I’m trying to say is that while sin is serious, it can be turned for good – as God is able to do with anything that appears horrid.

      There is space between receiving the commandment and receiving the witness. We can be taught a concept and not thoroughly understand it and keep it – like Adam in the garden making sacrifices. He doesn’t know why, but he does it because he was commanded, then the angel teaches him why and he receives a full understanding, solidifying the commandment.

      There are other times that we are at odds with ourselves, or our circumstances, or with truth. We don’t understand, we don’t feel a witness, or fail to seek it. I see this like Adam partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He was stuck between the commandment to not partake of the fruit and to multiply and replenish the earth. He made a choice which was a sin, but without which we would not exist. This is our probationary state – the time between the first sin of Adam and the sealing of this world and our fates – this is where we have the privilege of making choices, learning and utilizing the atonement to free us from the damning consequences. This space between premortal life and the judgment is a much more beautiful and graceful space than we appreciate.

      Because of recent circumstances in my life I feel very strongly that God is willing to give us so very much latitude and grace if we would just look up and forward. He doesn’t want us staring at the floor of crumbs, dirty shoes, and sin; but wants us to look up to the sky at our ultimate potential and to Him. If we stumble because our head is in the clouds He is happy to pick us back up and set us back on the path that leads upwards. As Micah 7:18 says, “He delighteth in mercy.”

  2. Bonnie says:

    I think the idea that we will all go through the “winepress of life,” no matter how carefully and obediently we prepare, is a thing I understand better in my middle years. I tried so hard to be good, to do good, to protect my children. As I grew older, I changed my mind about things, sometimes dramatically, which cast my earlier choices in an entirely different light. I was sorry, thinking that these choices were failures, and they certainly brought significant consequences from which I learned a great deal.

    We don’t have to go out of our way to experience life. We are best served if we expend our every effort to make it the best, purest life possible, but just as the must sits and the process works, living is enough to squash our grapes and set them working. A young man spoke in Sacrament meeting the other day and identified actions characterized by 5 “i”s that invite the atonement: innocence, ignorance, inability, injustice, and intentional. I’ve thought about that since a great deal. Intentional sin is only one of a vast variety of choices that make us over as we allow the atonement to work on us.

    • jendoop says:

      I think that is some of what I’m realizing Bonnie – that all my efforts to push myself to be good, to do good, to fix things, is really about doing things my way. Even though it creates a level of obedience, it is done for the wrong reasons, and might benefit me nothing. Of course at the basis of my desire to obey is my testimony, but I wonder if other parts of my obedience are about pride, or appearance, or one upsmanship, or “earning” my way to heaven.

      That best, purest life is something I’m slowing down and embracing. I feel like that is so much a part of why Christ died for my sins. So that I could walk slowly through this life, pondering, learning, embracing, listening to birdsongs to realize God’s love, walking slowly to feel the breeze on my face even if I’m a few minutes late, saying family prayer because I’ll miss my children why they’re gone and I want God’s blessings on them for the day – not because I feel obligated and guilted into doing it. Our intellect and feelings are important. Becoming a child of God is about the whole of us, taking the time for each part of ourselves to understand and rejoice.

      I’d love to see a post from you about those 5 “i”‘s :)

  3. I really agree with you that unpleasant consequences are a vital part of our time on earth. They’re the very reason we came here. I do think it’s important to tease apart the two kinds of unpleasant experiences into distinct categories—what I call sorrow and misery.

    The sorrow of mortality (sickness, failure, pain, limitations, etc.) is completely necessary and we would do well to not expect a life free from it, because like you said, “If we could learn and know all that we needed without experiencing it, we wouldn’t need to come to earth at all.”

    On the other hand, the misery of sin (despair, spiritual darkness, distrust, malice, squandered time, etc.) is completely unnecessary and we would do well to steer clear of it every time. Of course when we sin and repent, the Savior is so skilled at filtering those terrible sinful experiences that, with time, we end up shedding all the negative aspects and only retaining the good lessons and expanded capacities we developed from the process. But I think it’s crucial to recognize that regarding sinful experiences, that is not the only way we could have learned those lessons. I think the Savior could have taught us the lesson a different way, else he wouldn’t have commanded us not to commit the sin.

    For anyone interested, I’ve tried to detail this distinction between necessary pain (sorrow from mortality) and unnecessary pain (misery from sin) in a series called “The Path of Sin.” The layout is currently kind of messy, but I’ll link to the parts here. Part 2 is especially relevant, as well as a separate article called The Fall of Adam and the Fall of Me.

    Part 1: The Benefits of Sin?
    Part 2: I am the Way … Unless You Find a Better One
    Part 3: Paradise Lost Forever?
    Part 4: As Though It Never Happened
    Part 5: Knowing without Doing
    Part 6: Bastiat and Repentance

    • jendoop says:

      Nathan,

      Thanks for your comment. I think I see a few things differently. While I know that Christ’s atonement is eternal and everlasting, there are some consequences of sin that cannot be undone, ever. An example would be a young couple that has a child without being married. While many good things can come of their repentance, there is no denying that their lives have been changed forever, and the child is born in circumstances that will effect its future. All things will one day be restored, but something cannot be restored that didn’t exist in the first place. Despite this minor difference, in the eternities the blessings of the faithful who repented will be so great we’ll have no cause to mourn anything that may have been lost to sin in this life.

      If you look at my comment above in reply to Shauna, you’ll see that sometimes sin is necessary – catch 22 type situations. We cannot escape sin because of the nature of this existence and our natural bodies. We are sinful creatures, and to deny that is to deny the reliance we must have on Jesus Christ. We cannot avoid sin at every turn. To think that we can is to believe that we are something that we are not. In some ways this is Satan’s plan, that he promoted in the pre-existence: to obey all the time. Why did God not like that plan? Because it was not based on our development and progression, it was about obedience and force. Believing that we can avoid sin if we just have enough willpower seems to whisper the same thing. Obedience is not the ultimate purpose of our existence.

      That same comment above agrees with your comment that there are ways for us to learn that do not involve sin. But there is only one life that was without sin. All of us who are not Christ have lives that involve sin, so we need to consider how our learning can increase when we seek a spiritual education through our sins and trials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>