Like most people who have reached middle age, I’ve lived many different lives during my time in mortality. I’ve changed professional careers more than once; my hobbies and reading preferences and political interests have evolved. In one of those former lives, I was passionate about needlework.
I’ve shown you one of my embroideries; here’s a piece of crocheted lace I made 25 or more years ago:
What did you notice first? The classic pattern? The fact that it is wrinkled and unblocked? The stains and holes?
This panel was one of the casualties in a domestic storage disaster of a few years ago. For a long time it was black with mold and red with rust, both of which ate holes into the fabric. But I couldn’t bear to throw it away. It was one of my favorite pieces. It was made with size #150 thread, which no manufacturer in the world makes anymore. It broke my heart, but I couldn’t part with it. Every once in a while I learn about a new cleaning technique, and gradually the worst stains have faded and the purity of the original whiteness is returning. The lace is too fragile to stretch and block, and I haven’t yet got a clue how to repair the holes, but there has been amazing progress. There may yet be more progress. Hope continues.
The use of object lessons in Church classes has been roundly condemned in the past couple of weeks, in light of Elizabeth Smart’s reference to a particularly bad object lesson. I join in condemning any teaching method that reduces a human being’s value to a surface physical condition, and nothing I’m about to write should be twisted as meaning otherwise. I agree that object lessons can be bad, can be misapplied, can be pushed too far. They are analogies, after all.
But one of the statements frequently used to condemn object lessons really bothers me. And what’s a blog for, if not to air a grievance?
Although I don’t remember that I ever witnessed this analogy used in a Church setting, it is supposedly one widely used: Nails are pounded into a smooth board, representing sin entering an innocent life. The nails are removed, representing repentance. But everybody can see that there are still nail holes in the board. Bloggers protest that this teaches a warped view of repentance, that repentance plus the Atonement restore a life to its pristine condition. Bad object lesson! bad! bad!
I agree, in principle. What bothers me, though, is how quickly objectors pass by the element of repentance in order to get to the part where they can condemn the object lesson because it isn’t a perfect analogy to the Atonement.
We do ourselves a disservice by implying that repentance is quick and easy, and by pretending that the Atonement always and instantly wipes out all trace of a repented sin so that we can always go merrily along through mortality as if the sin had never been committed. There is no question that if we are truly repentant, the Atonement will eventually make all things right – but that clearly isn’t instant and universal in mortality, even when the Holy Spirit assures a repentant soul that he has been forgiven. Forgiveness is only one part of the Atonement.
Forgiveness may come quickly in some cases – a mother may instantly forgive a tearful toddler who apologizes for cracking eggs all over the kitchen floor. But there are lingering consequences for that naughtiness: Somebody has to clean up the mess, and the family (including blameless siblings) may have to forego some treat because there are no eggs left for the planned baking.
There are (always? almost always?) consequences to wrongdoing that leave nail holes in the board, for the time being. There may be legal penalties to pay. There may be long-term health consequences. There may be loss of trust and confidence that take longer to rebuild than to forgive (you may forgive me for stealing from you, but that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to hire me as your cashier). Even when the sin has been fully erased, there may be long- or short-term opportunities lost because someone was first sinning and then dealing with the consequences. And there may well be innocent parties who suffer because of another’s sin – your repentance doesn’t necessarily mend the holes you have torn into my life.
I believe that, eventually, the Atonement will make all things right. Not only will the Savior take away guilt – after we have done our part, which may not be as quick or easy as we pretend – but the Atonement will also make right the wrongs we have caused to innocent people, and in all ways compensate for the consequences of sin.
But we do ourselves a real disservice to focus so exclusively on the end result of the Atonement and gloss over the potentially long-lasting mortal effects of sin. Better not to have committed the sin in the first place, no matter how thoroughly repentance plus the Atonement eventually erases that sin.
In the meantime, I have my own imperfect object lesson in the form of that damaged yet still loved piece of crocheted lace. I’ve long since repented of delaying the home maintenance that would have prevented the storage disaster … but the consequences of that procrastination may never be fully removed. Thank heavens – very literally – that the Savior has offered a way to erase completely the stains and fill in the holes in my life, someday. If I value this stained and torn bit of the “workmanship of mine own hands,” how much more God must love the work of His hands.