Worthiness

My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.

About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years.

To push that even further, with reference to the sacrament at least, I’m currently reading this amazing spiritual memoir called Take This Bread, by Sara Miles, a lifelong highly secular left-leaning political activist lesbian, who experienced something life-changing upon walking into a church and taking communion for the first time at the age of 46, and ended up converting to the Episcopal faith and doing all sorts of cool things. Unsurprisingly, given her experience, she is critical of the restrictions placed on communion in most contemporary Christian churches (like that you have to be baptized in that denomination, or at least in a denomination friendly to the denomination that you’re attending; or that—in the words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—you have to not be living “a notoriously evil life.”) Miles notes the historical shift in which “instead of being God’s freely given gift of reconciliation for everyone—the central point of Jesus’s barrier-breaking meals with sinners of all descriptions—communion belonged to the religious authorities.”1 She describes attending a particular local church which, in contrast, “believed that because Jesus ate with sinners, breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, offering communion to all without exception, was the ‘one true sign of God.'”2

I’ve been sitting in on Episcopal confirmation classes, and in a recent week we read the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. In coming back to this text yet again, I was struck by the way the notion of “worthiness” functions in the parable. The prodigal son, after “coming to himself,” decides to go back and tell his father, “I have sinned against heaven and earth before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”3 And when he returns, he does indeed make this declaration of unworthiness. But as you all know, it doesn’t seem to matter to the father, who simply wants to celebrate the return of his lost son.

Worthiness is a very big deal in Mormonism, of course. While you’re not required to be perfect to participate in ordinances, you do have to be “worthy.” I have to admit that growing up as a somewhat neurotic Mormon, I was probably overly prone to conflate the two. But I do think it’s a legitimate concern to observe that the strong emphasis on worthiness in LDS teachings can lead to perfectionism and excessive self-doubt. The key question here, of course, is what does it mean to be “worthy?” Ask a random group of Latter-day Saints about this, and I imagine that you’d get a whole lot of different answers—though probably many of them would be along the lines of “doing your best” or “trying to keep the commandments,” which seem to be, at least in contemporary LDS popular culture and discourse, the go-to phrases when it comes to what’s needed as far as human actions that complement that work of grace. But people definitely vary when it comes to, say, the question of when you should or shouldn’t take the sacrament. In my own life, I’ve tended to probably err too much on the side of not doing it even when I technically could (that is to say, I wasn’t on any formal ecclesiastical probation). When I was in a horrible mood and didn’t want to be at church (which happened often), or was harboring lots of anger and bitterness at someone in my life, or just didn’t feel all that committed to religion, I’d skip it. And all the well-meaning talk about how what matters isn’t ultimately what you’re doing, but that your heart is in the right place—a valiant attempt to shoot down at least one strand of perfectionism—fell flat for me, because my heart never seemed to be in the right place.

Out of curiosity, I searched for “worthiness” at lds.org, and the first entry addressed the “personal worthiness” requirement for prospective missionaries. It makes four suggestions: learn about the standards of worthiness, take the sacrament (and repent of your sins before you do “so that the Holy Ghost can be with you,”), obtain and make use of a temple recommend, and talk to your bishop to clear up any issues. One of the things that most strikes me in reading this, as well as other LDS framings of the subject, is that worthiness seems to be something that either you have, or you don’t. It’s a binary: either you’re worthy (and thus qualified for ordinances, as well as the continuing presence of the Spirit), or you’re not. There doesn’t seem to be much room for any possibility of a murky middle ground. Additionally, worthiness is generally described in a static way: it’s a state you’re in (and one primarily defined negatively, by what it excludes), not a process.

I find myself wondering if there are other ways to talk about worthiness that don’t fall into these particular pitfalls. But I have to admit that I also sometimes wonder about the value of having a worthiness requirement in the first place. It does arguably convey, intentionally or not, the message that to really come unto Christ you need to first be good enough—which seems to go against the teaching of 2 Nephi 26, where Nephi devotes five solid verses to repeating the point that God does not turn anyone away, concluding, “Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.” (v. 28) When it comes to access to grace, all [humans] are “privileged.” They aren’t carefully sorted into “worthy” and “unworthy.”

I’m imagining how people might defend the worthiness requirements in Mormon practice, and thinking that you could perhaps make the case that committed discipleship is necessary for the authentic Christian life, and people need to be held accountable for actions that move them away from this. The same issues would come up, I would imagine, as arise in discussions of the dangers of “cheap grace” (namely, if we preach too much grace, will anyone bother to be righteous?) I do think that in the hands of the right leaders, the ideal of “worthiness” is not a rigid requirement, not a club to beat people down, but an invitation to be better, and a way of calling sinners to turn back. And yet, the more I think about it, the more uneasy I find myself with the notion that you have to be “worthy” in order to take the sacrament, or to have the Holy Ghost as your companion, because it sets up a God who stops offering help when—in the words of my student mentioned above—we need it the most.

The temple poses some particularly interesting questions. From a sociological point of view, I can see some obvious value in maintaining certain requirements for people to be able to participate in the highest forms of LDS worship. It means, for one thing, that the behavioral expectations of the community have real teeth, because there real consequences if you violate them. The worthiness requirements also seem to indicate that purity is a central value for Mormons, even to the point of having exclusive sacred spaces which the unclean are forbidden to enter. (A bit tangentially, I think the use of “worthiness” language about the temple is incredibly unfortunate in the way it gets applied in particular to non-members who are excluded from the weddings of their loved ones. Whatever you think about the theological issues at play, informing people that they won’t be allowed to attend, and then explaining that it’s because they’re not “worthy” to be there is—at least in my experience—pretty much a recipe for terribly hurt feelings and deeply negative impressions of the church.) Somewhat more positively, I can genuinely see the value of having a kind of structure in your life that demands that you take your religious commitments seriously, and pushes you to periodically re-examine and reflect on how you’re doing. But I have my biases around this, and I have to admit that I’ve always found the “secret club for God’s special people” aspect of Mormon temple worship to be incredibly off-putting.

Years and years ago, maybe even the very first time I went to Sunstone, way back in 1992, I heard a debate about the issue of requiring people to pass a worthiness interview to enter the temple. One person made the radical suggestion that we should throw it out entirely, and open the temple to all. Another person responded, so you’re saying that child molesters should be allowed to participate in temple worship? The first pointed out that that was undoubtedly already happening, given that there are people who are simply lying to their ecclesiastical leaders. At the time, for all my forays into unorthodoxy, the idea of a completely open temple with no gatekeeping whatsoever went much further than I was comfortable with. And even now, I’m not one hundred percent sure what I think about the whole thing.

But I will say that in looking at my own life—and this may to be some degree be idiosyncratic, as I am an admittedly neurotic person with strong tendencies toward scrupulosity—I think the notion of “worthiness” has done more harm than good. It’s felt like an ideal I could never achieve, a constant burden of divine expectation from which I could never get a break. Again, this may not be the case for everyone, but I’ve personally found that letting go of constant worry about whether I’m sufficiently “worthy” has actually been a spiritually healthy move.

  1. Sara Miles, Take This Bread (New York: Ballantine), 76 []
  2. Ibid., 82 []
  3. Luke 15:18-19, emphasis added []

7 comments

  1. The whole Mormon obsession with “worthiness” is a bit odd. “Worthy” is a word we have hijacked and given a unique Mormon meaning. In LDS parlance, it means “righteous.” Normally, worthy isn’t used alone, as in “Are you worthy?” If you asked some non-LDS person that question, he or she would probably say, “Worthy of what?” We usually use “worthy” in the sense of “He is worthy of death” or “She is worthy of our distrust” or “He is worthy of our scorn.” But to just say that someone is worthy is really an incomplete thought; it’s a statement with no context. And being “temple worthy” is a bizarre Mormonism. We talk about “worthiness” as if it were a catch-all term meaning righteousness. In my dictionary, “worthy” means “having worth or value, . . . honorable, . . . having sufficient worth or importance.” So, “worthiness” would mean something along the lines of “value, honor, or importance.” We really are a peculiar people.




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  2. Sounds like you are making excellent progress by focusing your worthiness standard more on the internal (love of the Lord) than the external (love of the world/pride) and receiving the commensurate blessing of ‘letting go of constant worry’.

    God is so merciful that one of the greatest blessings he grants those in hell, those who love themselves and the world, is that they twist the truth emanating from Him through their own flawed perceptions and are consequently allowed to live in the comfort of their own delusions and insanities. By analogy, they really truly believe they are living in a beautiful mansion when in reality they are mucking around in the outhouse’s poop container. And even more is that they love the smell of poop and slimy feel of it on their skin.

    Of course, if they ever try to see things as they really are then they usually recoil back into their delusions. Everyone is following the path their true love leads to just like a scent.

    Thus, one of the great blessings to the humble of the restored Church with personal worthiness interviews by those holding priesthood keys is the assistance of a third-party view on our individual situation that can help us see what we may not be either able or willing to see ourself. And with ordinances we are granted additional truths; of course, the downside being that it enables us to reach an even greater degree of falsity.

    Hence, the interview process so that we are choosing it willingly. If we mock God then we get to go even deeper into the hell of our own self-love, pride and love of the world.




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  3. Wally, that’s a super interesting point! Does anyone else use “worthy” in the kind of global sense that Mormons do? (Tangentially, this reminds me of a disagreement I had years and years ago with a BYU roommate. I said that we all were worthy of hell, because we were all sinners, thinking that was a fairly uncontroversial theological statement for a Christian to make. She objected and said that she thought we were in fact worthy of heaven. But we eventually realized that we were completely talking past each other; I was using “worthy” as code for “perfectly righteous,” and she was using it in a sense more along the lines of us having infinite worth and thus being legitimately “worthy” of God’s love.)

    Anonymouse, while I’m not going to moderate this comment like I did your last one, I am going to be unusually direct and say that the self-righteousness and lecture-y feel of your tone (which rather conveys the sense that you believe yourself to be one of the enlightened few who, to use your terms, isn’t covered in poop) is really getting in the way of my being able to hear anything useful or worthwhile that you might have to say.




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  4. For what it’s worth, I look to the plain language of the covenant. Am I willing (note it’s willing, not able) to keep all the commandments, take His name upon me, and always remember Him? Then, barring appropriate Priesthood intercession I’m worthy. Do I hang on to my sins, such that aside from my capacity I am simply unwilling to keep His commandments? Then I am unworthy. And that makes perfect sense – if I’m unwilling to keep the covenant, why would I choose to make that covenant?




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  5. I have found the concept of worthiness as discussed in Mormonism to be a hindrance to my confidence and my relationship with deity. A large portion of the problem probably stems from my personality type, but I always found the emphasis on needing to be worthy to receive answers to prayer and God only saving us after all we can do to be doorways to intense self-doubt. I think that may have been a large part of the reason I never developed a positive relationship with God even though I tried my best, especially in my teens and early twenties, to be righteous. Other people said they knew God loved them, but I was never sure. Whenever someone would say God loved or was pleased with me in a blessing, it was like they were throwing me a life-preserver. I just wasn’t good at receiving answer to prayers, even though I desperately wanted them, and I always felt it must have been something I did. Fast forward to my faith crisis and I now have quite the collection of reasons I’m flat out afraid of God (turns out adding temple language and historical research into polygamy to a preexisting suspicion that God doesn’t like you very much isn’t a great recipe for being motivated to get to heaven).

    I did have an experience once taking communion in another church where they invited anybody who wanted to partake. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had with the sacrament, I think partially because of the liberality of the invitation.




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  6. Jonathan, I think that can be a really helpful approach, to talk about “willingness” rather than living up to particular behavioral standards, and I think you’re definitely on solid ground theologically in drawing on the actual language of the covenant. It’s so much better than a checklist approach, for sure. But while I can see how people can and do find such a model helpful, I still struggle a little with it. I keep coming back to Paul’s description of the divided will; I’m thinking of Romans 7:15, which the NRSV renders as “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How does that fit in with “willlingness,” I wonder. In other words, what if you’re not all the way willing, just sorta kinda with a lot of reservations and reluctance and conflicting desires? Is that enough? Though to be fair, I imagine that you could make the case that neurotic people like me are way overthinking this! 🙂

    Marigold, I can very much relate to the self-doubt you describe as arising from the emphasis on worthiness. That sounds so frustrating to have been in a position of trying to be righteous, and seeking answers and connection to the divine, and never (or rarely) getting much affirmation in response. And of course, as you say, the cultural narrative is one that tends to cast the blame for such a situation on the individual, to assume that the person wasn’t measuring up in some way. I can also totally understand how temple language and the looming spectre of polygamy could exacerbate fears of God! Such hard stuff.




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