Spiritual Education Through Sin
We 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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.