On May 28th, 2021, Riley Jeffs and I interviewed Brad Wilcox about the role of a Bishop in repentance on our podcast—The Repentance Podcast—and were thrilled to see him use our interview as the basis for his talk, Worthiness is Not Flawlessness, given in the Saturday Evening Session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In this article, I’ve included the words from Brad’s original talk and added additional insights that he shared in our podcast interview that didn’t end up in General Conference. Enjoy!
Worthiness is Not Flawlessness (Extended)
By Bradley R. Wilcox
Second Counselor in the Young Men General Presidency
God Loves Us Enough Not to Leave Us Just the Way We Are
I once sent a message to my daughter and son-in-law using the voice-to-text feature on my phone. I said, “Hey, you two. Sure love you.” They received, “Hate you two. Should love you.” Isn’t it amazing how easily a positive and well-intentioned message can be misunderstood? This is what sometimes happens with God’s messages of repentance and worthiness.
Some mistakenly receive the message that repentance and change are unnecessary. God’s message is that they are essential. But doesn’t God love us despite our shortcomings? Of course! He loves us perfectly. I love my grandchildren, imperfections and all, but that does not mean I don’t want them to improve and become all they can become. God loves us as we are, but He also loves us too much to leave us this way. Growing up unto the Lord is what mortality is all about. Change is what Christ’s Atonement is all about. Not only can Christ resurrect, cleanse, console, and heal us, but through it all, He can transform us to become more like Him.
Brad: It's worth it. We have too many people in the world and too many people in the Church who just give up and settle. "Well, I'll never be able to break this habit. So I'm just going to settle for it. It's just going to be part of my life, the rest of my life. And I'm never going to be able to go to the temple. So I'll just settle for it." And so we've got so many people who are settling or worse saying, "Well, the very fact that the Church has these high expectations is the problem. If the Church didn't have these high expectations, then we'd all feel better about ourselves." And we forget that this upward reach within us is within us. It's not that the Church has high expectations or that God has high expectations and that's the problem. Grace is not the absence of God's high expectations. Grace is the presence of His power, and it's worth it. It's worth the climb because the minute we settle, the minute we give up, the minute we say, "I don't care. I'm just going to drink. I'm going to party. I'm going to do drugs. I'm going to have sex with anybody who walks past me in the street. I'm just going give it all up and do everything that the world says will bring happiness." And yet look at people who've made that choice. It doesn't take you long to see that they're not happy. See, we live in a world where everybody wants to look happy. They don't care about whether they are happy. And I just want to promise anybody who's [reading] this that real happiness, what we would call "joy" is available. Not once you fix everything, but right now, while you're in the process, because joy is the presence of Christ in your life. And even in a crisis, you can feel joy. In the Book of Mormon we read, "Man is that he might have joy." Look at the footnote. The footnote says "potential to become like God." That's the definition of joy. And we can be engaged in that process. And we don't have to settle for how we are. "Yeah... But Brad, God loves me just the way I am." Yeah, he does. He does. Just like I love my grandchildren just the way they are, but it doesn't mean I don't want them to learn to read. It doesn't mean I don't want them to learn to talk, learn to write, learn to ride a bike, and learn to improve. Yeah, I love them just the way they are. But perhaps the testimony I can give you as we conclude is that our God and our Savior love us enough to not leave us just the way we are.
Repentance and Recovery Often Take Time
Some mistakenly receive the message that repentance is a onetime event. God’s message is that, as President Russell M. Nelson has taught, “Repentance … is a process.” Repentance may take time and repeated effort, so forsaking sin and having “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” are lifetime pursuits.
Brad: It boils down to a misunderstanding of the Atonement and a misunderstanding of grace. I feel like young people in the church understand that the Atonement is about cleansing. They know that, and they know that confession is part of the repentance process so that they can be clean, so that they can be forgiven, but they rarely look past forgiveness. So it just becomes this cycle of: I sin, I repent, I'm forgiven. I sin, I repent, I'm forgiven. And they don't look beyond the forgiveness and realize that the Atonement, the grace that flows from the Atonement of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ's enabling power, His grace can actually help us throughout this transformation process. That it can strengthen us and that it can change us. But then we expect that change to be quickly, "I confess, I forsake, and now it's all done." And then they mess up again and they say, "Oh, wow... I must not have really repented because I confessed, I forsook (and that's what the Doctrine and Covenants tells me to do), but then I sin again." They don't understand that forsaking is often a long-term process. In Preach My Gospel, it says that repentance and recovery often take time. And so when somebody is trying to break a bad habit, as sincere as that confession is, as sincere as the desire to forsake is, there's a habit that one is dealing with that has to be dealt with over time. And so instead of setting a goal, like "never again, this will never happen again." And everybody has set that goal. In fact, everybody set that goal on the 1st of January, every stinking year of your life, right? And then we blow it and then we think, "Oh, see, now I've blown it." We're looking at confession and repentance as kind of a once and for all. That's why you always hear people say, "Well, I'm not going to confess because then I know I'm going to blow it again. So I'm better off. I'm actually being more noble. I'm showing more integrity by not confessing and not trying to repent than if I am confessing and trying to repent." That's not true. Since when is trying to make positive changes, the wrong choice? It's always the right choice. We just have to remember that sometimes that process takes time. And sometimes we measure growth in small pieces over time. Time is the medium through which the power of Christ's Atonement is made manifest in our lives. Time is the medium through which the power of Christ's Atonement is made manifest in our lives. So we have to just recognize that "never again" is a great long-term goal, but between there and now there's a lot of short-term goals that need to be reached.
Life Is Like a Cross-Country Road Trip
Life is like a cross-country road trip. We can’t reach our destination on one tank of gas. We must refill the tank over and over. Taking the sacrament is like pulling into the gas station. As we repent and renew our covenants, we pledge our willingness to keep the commandments, and God and Christ bless us with the Holy Spirit. In short, we promise to press forward on our journey, and God and Christ promise to refill the tank.
Brad: I had a girl in one of my classes once say to me, "Brother Wilcox, I know the Atonement is there. My goal is to never have to use it." Now, my first thought was "good luck," but my second thought was, "She doesn't understand." She doesn't understand the shift we're talking about. She's saying, "Well, I know the Atonement of Christ is there if I sin, but I just don't want to sin in the first place." Great goal. Great goal. Great long-term goal, but she's looking at it wrong. She's looking at the Atonement just as soap [or] cleansing. Instead, we need to look at it [like a] journey. I said to her, "You're on a cross-country trip here. You're going from one coast to the other coast. You're going all the way to perfection. And that is a long-distance journey. So how silly is it to say, 'I know the gas station is there, but my goal is to never have to use it'? No, the goal is to use it! Because you're not going to get anywhere unless you use it." So when we look at the Atonement, the grace that flows from the Atonement, not as just a cleansing source, but as a power source, then we realize we need to stop in that gas station regularly. And that's what we do each week is we take the sacrament. We say, "God, I promise to keep going, flaws and all, bad habits and all, I promise not to give up." Then, God says, "And I promise to fill the tank," and He fills the tank up. And then the next week we get right back to that sacrament table and say, "I promise to keep going." And He says, "And I promise to fill the tank." And that's how we're going to reach this long-term destination. Maxwell: Yeah... So essentially what you're saying is that perfection is a destiny that God is promising to all of us. And in turn, He's just asking us to promise that we'll keep trying. And, just like you're saying, it's not our power that gets us there. It's His. Perfection really is just this gift that we get to receive each week, as we continue to promise to God that we're willing to keep moving forward. Brad: And remember that you're not promising to never again make a mistake. That goes against the learning process, that we're here in life to experience. You promise to keep going despite your mistakes. One young man talked to me and he said, "Oh, I feel like such a hypocrite because I've said I won't do this and then I do it. I'm just a hypocrite." I said, "No, you're not a hypocrite. You're a disciple! Are you hiding this? Or have you had the courage to talk to your Bishop?" "No, I talked to my Bishop about it." "Then you're not a hypocrite! A hypocrite is somebody who's putting on a fake mask. Somebody who's pretending that it's not a problem, pretending that everybody does it, so it's okay. That's a hypocrite... But somebody who's sincerely trying to make positive changes is a disciple." When you start looking at yourself in that light, then instead of beating yourself up and saying, "I'm such a hypocrite," you say, "No, I'm a disciple. And I am not going to give up on my followship. On my learning. I'm not going to give up on that for anything. I'm just going to keep going."
Worthiness Is Not Flawlessness
Some mistakenly receive the message that they are not worthy to participate fully in the gospel because they are not completely free of bad habits. God’s message is that worthiness is not flawlessness. Worthiness is being honest and trying. We must be honest with God, priesthood leaders, and others who love us, and we must strive to keep God’s commandments and never give up just because we slip up. Elder Bruce C. Hafen said that developing a Christlike character “requires patience and persistence more than it requires flawlessness.” The Lord has said the gifts of the Spirit are “given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do.”
Riley: One thing you said in Changed Through His Grace, you talk about "worthiness" and you reference the hymn that says, "Thus onto eternal perfection the honest and faithful will go." And you talk about how worthiness is honesty with self, God, and priesthood leaders, and trying again. Brad: Riley, I'm so glad you caught that. I'm so glad you caught that because it's a little different perspective on what constitutes worthiness. And if we're being honest, and if we're trying, then we can be considered worthy. Even if we're not flawless, worthiness is not flawlessness. It's being honest. And it's trying, it's continuing, some kid goes into some bishop and says, "Oh, bishop, I screwed up with some girl. Sorry, but you know, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Boys will be boys. It's just normal. All my brothers did too. It's no big deal." Now compare that to a kid who comes in and says, "Bishop, my girlfriend and I messed up, but we feel terrible about it. And we want to do whatever it takes to make this right now." Do you see how it changes things? It changes everything. That's how come one kid can be told let's hold off on the sacrament for a few months. And the very next kid could say the exact same thing to the bishop, but with a different spirit of repentance and he could be told you don't need to wait on the sacrament. The bishop might be holding the sacrament back from the first kid, because he needs to recognize that what he's doing is wrong. It's not just "boys will be boys." And it's not just, "Well, everybody does this so why are you giving me a hard time about it?" It's a matter of being honest with yourself, honest with God, honest with your priesthood leaders. And if you're being honest, then you can be worthy. When my missionaries would come to me and say, "President, you're going to have to send me home." I'd say, "Why?" And then they'd tell me, and I'd say, "Have you told me everything?" "Yes." "Is there anything you're leaving out? Is there any little thing? I mean, are you saying this happened once, but it really happened nine times." "No, I'm telling you everything." And I say, "I'm the judge in Israel, not you. And I say, you're worthy because you've been honest. And because you're trying, I'm the judge in Israel, not you now get back out there and get to work. You're worthy." "Yeah... But I'm not perfect." "And who is? Worthiness is not flawlessness. Worthiness is honesty." And if those words meant something to you, Riley, it makes me happy that you found them. Riley: Yeah, they did. And another thing kind of in tandem with all of this, you talk about people who withhold from the sacrament on their own, which I've, I've honestly done that in my life... Brad: Well, you read in the scriptures that, "If you take it unworthily, then you're taking it to your condemnation." And so people get a little anxious about that. But who's the judge in Israel? The bishop. Riley: And so that's why I love the honesty with Bishop, honesty with yourself, and with God. If you're doing that and then striving to move forward. I feel like there may be a lot of people, especially my age, who don't take the sacrament of their own choice or of their own judgment. Brad: I know, you go to some singles wards and it's cool to not take the sacrament. It's like the more people who pass on it, then the better everybody feels. But you have to understand that it's the bishop who can tell you, "Please, don't take the sacrament." If the bishop isn't telling you to not take the sacrament and he knows what's going on and you're not hiding it from him, then take the sacrament. That sacrament should be a motivation for you to say, "Okay, I'm going to try again. I'm going to try again. I'm going to try again." The same thing would be true of the temple. If a bishop takes your recommend and says, "Let's hold on this for awhile" then, you need to hold. But if the bishop says, "No, I'm not going to take your recommend." Then you need to be in the temple. You need that strength. "Yeah. But Brother Wilcox, you don't understand. I did X, Y, and Z." If the Bishop knows and he hasn't restricted you, then you need that power. You need that strength and you are worthy to be able to go and present yourself as a disciple to God, a learner, and you are worthy to present yourself and feel the strength, the endowment of strength that we receive in the temple.
One young man I’ll call Damon wrote: “Growing up, I struggled with pornography. I always felt so ashamed that I could not get things right.” Each time Damon slipped, the pain of regret became so intense, he harshly judged himself to be unworthy of any kind of grace, forgiveness, or additional chances from God. He said: “I decided I just deserved to feel terrible all the time. I figured God probably hated me because I wasn’t willing to work harder and get on top of this once and for all. I would go a week and sometimes even a month, but then I would relapse and think, ‘I’ll never be good enough, so what’s the use of even trying?’”
At one such low moment, Damon said to his priesthood leader: “Maybe I should just stop coming to church. I’m sick of being a hypocrite.”
His leader responded: “You’re not a hypocrite because you have a bad habit you are trying to break. You are a hypocrite if you hide it, lie about it, or try to convince yourself the Church has the problem for maintaining such high standards. Being honest about your actions and taking steps to move forward is not being a hypocrite. It is being a disciple.” This leader quoted Elder Richard G. Scott, who taught: “The Lord sees weaknesses differently than He does rebellion. … When the Lord speaks of weaknesses, it is always with mercy.”
We Can Turn to God for Strength, Not Just Forgiveness
That perspective gave Damon hope. He realized God was not up there saying, “Damon blew it again.” Instead, He was probably saying, “Look how far Damon has come.” This young man finally stopped looking down in shame or looking sideways for excuses and rationalizations. He looked up for divine help, and he found it.
Damon said: “The only time I had turned to God in the past was to ask for forgiveness, but now I also asked for grace—His ‘enabling power’ [Bible Dictionary, “Grace”]. I had never done that before. These days I spend a lot less time hating myself for what I have done and a lot more time loving Jesus for what He has done.”
Riley: One of my favorite professors would say, "We're all full of inconsistencies, but those are not hypocritical things." Brad: Right? Inconsistency doesn't make us hypocritical. Inconsistency just means we're learning and growing. Now, what makes you a hypocrite is if you pretend that [your sins are] not there. That's why confession is so important because it's finally your chance to just put it out on the table and say, "Look, here I am. This is me." And that puts you in a position of humility before God where you say, "There is no way I can change myself. It has to be with my hand in Thine." Dan Judd, who's the Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University did a study. He got 695 BYU students. Hmm... I Wonder where he found them? And these young Latter-day Saints did this study. And he found that those who understood grace—not as a "favor" God is granting us or a "free pass" or a "get out of jail free card"—but those who understand grace as divine help, enabling power, an endowment of strength, those who understand it in this way had lower levels of perfectionism, lower levels of scrupulosity or the feeling like you always have something to confess, lower levels of shame, lower levels of depression, lower levels of all of those things. And this isn't a drug we're talking about. Now I'm all for drugs that can help people who are in situations where they're dealing with depression and chemical imbalances. I'm not speaking against drugs, I'm speaking in favor of doctrine. And when people truly understand this doctrine, it makes a difference because suddenly they feel like it's not all on my shoulders—heaven isn't continually out of my reach. Once you confess, once you forsake, once you repent, once you behave yourself, once you don't slip back, then heaven is there and God will help. No, [God] will help us right here and right now, and once we understand that, then we realize it's not on all on our shoulders. We're not alone in this journey. We're not walking to Christ. We're walking with Him. And when we understand that, then we can be a little more gentle with ourselves. We can be a little more patient with ourselves. And, and we can be a little more patient with the process that we go through as we are being sanctified, as we are being made holy. That's not something that happens overnight. And it's not even something that's finished in a lifetime. That's a process in which we are engaged throughout eternity, but because of His grace, it's possible. It is within our reach. Some people say, "Well, why not just wait then? I mean, why not? Why not just sin all we can and then go to the spirit world and repent in the spirit world? Why should we worry about doing that now?" Well see... Again, if we're looking at repentance as a means to be forgiven, then yeah. Save up everything repent two seconds before you die, or just repent in the spirit world. Right? But remember what we said earlier, the goal isn't just cleanliness. The goal is to be changed, to become like Christ. And for those who understand that, the sooner we get started in that process, the better off we are and the happier we are. You don't have to postpone happiness until your bad habits are finally broken. You don't have to postpone happiness until finally you're keeping all the commandments all the time. You can feel happy as you're engaged with Christ in the process of learning. And that's what these young people are discovering that, that Dan Judd was researching. They're realizing that they can be happy right here and right now, and that His grace can help them no matter where they are.
Set Goals That Allow You to Build on a Series of Successes Instead of a Series of Failures
Considering how long Damon had struggled, it was unhelpful and unrealistic for parents and leaders assisting him to say “never again” too quickly or to arbitrarily set some standard of abstinence to be considered “worthy.” Instead, they started with small, reachable goals. They got rid of the all-or-nothing expectations and focused on incremental growth, which allowed Damon to build on a series of successes instead of failures. He, like the enslaved people of Limhi, learned he could “prosper by degrees.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson has counseled: “To deal with something [very] big, we may need to work at it in small, daily bites. … Incorporating new and wholesome habits into our character or overcoming bad habits or addictions [most] often means an effort today followed by another tomorrow and then another, perhaps for many days, even months and years. … But we can do it because we can appeal to God … for the help we need each day.”
Brad: Now you're saying the advice I got from my bishop didn't help. Well, most bishops will give you a lot of advice about things you can do kind of on a positive side, right? Pray, read the scriptures, stay around positive friends, come to church. And those are definitely good steps in a positive direction, but sometimes we have to actually deal with the negative behavior. We have to look at what's behind the negative behavior. What are the needs that that behavior is filling that could be fulfilled in other more positive ways? And sometimes we have to just recognize that we can set small goals of abstinence. "Never again" is a long-term goal, and I'm always going to fail, but "Not until Friday"—that's a goal that I can reach. And then I can say, "Okay, now, not until the next Friday." And then I can say, "Not until the next Saturday"—I can just start pushing it out. Then, we're building on a series of successes instead of a series of failures. And those successes will then lead to success. So look at short-term goals. A bishop can hold you accountable, or he might point you to somebody else in the ward who can hold you accountable and make sure that you're reaching these short-term goals that pretty soon start stretching out into long-term goals. If I say, "Hey, I want to lose 50 pounds by next week." That's an unrealistic goal. And don't think I haven't set that one. Every time we say, "We're going to have pictures on such and such a day." I'm like, "Oh, 50 pounds. I gotta lose 50 pounds before that day." Well, that's an unrealistic goal, but if I can look for consistency, then I can look back and see change over time.
Grace is Not Just a Prize for the Worthy or a Reward for the Righteous
Now, brothers and sisters, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy for anyone, but the isolation associated with quarantine restrictions has made life especially difficult for those struggling with bad habits. Remember change is possible, repentance is a process, and worthiness is not flawlessness. Most important, remember that God and Christ are willing to help us right here and now.
Some mistakenly receive the message that God is waiting to help until after we repent. God’s message is that He will help us as we repent. His grace is available to us “no matter where we are in the path of obedience.” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said: “God does not need people who are flawless. He seeks those who will offer their ‘heart and a willing mind’ [Doctrine and Covenants 64:34], and He will make them ‘perfect in Christ’ [Moroni 10:32–33].”
So many have been hurt by broken and strained relationships that it is difficult for them to believe in God’s compassion and long-suffering. They struggle to see God as He is—a loving Father who meets us in our need and knows how to “give good things to them that ask him.” His grace is not just a prize for the worthy. It is the “divine assistance” He gives that helps us become worthy. It is not just a reward for the righteous. It is the “endowment of strength” He gives that helps us become righteous. We are not just walking toward God and Christ. We are walking with Them.
Brad: Somebody might say, "Well, I'm still struggling with this same bad habit." "Yeah, but you're doing better than you were a year ago. You're doing better than you were when you were 16." "Yeah, I am." "And who do you think has helped you? Jesus. Who do you think is helping you take those steps? Jesus. He's not waiting for you to break your bad habits so that you can go to Him. He meets you where you are and He is working with you throughout that perfecting process." That's what young people need to realize is they think, "Oh, I'm not worthy to pray. I'm not worthy to ask for help. I'm not worthy to turn to God. I'm not worthy to take the sacrament. I'm not worthy of going on a mission. I'm not worthy to go to the temple. I'm not worthy to..." And they forget, we don't pray because we're worthy; we pray because we need help. And we don't go take the sacrament because we're perfect; we [take the sacrament] because we're willing to be perfected over time. And we don't go on a mission or to the temple because we've made it in our Latter-day Saint society; we go to these sacred places and positive environments because that's where God is making us more like Him.
Across the Church, young people recite the Young Women and Aaronic Priesthood Quorum Themes. From New Zealand to Spain to Ethiopia to Japan, young women say, “I cherish the gift of repentance.” From Chile to Guatemala to Moroni, Utah, young men say, “As I strive to serve, exercise faith, repent, and improve each day, I will qualify to receive temple blessings and the enduring joy of the gospel.”
I promise those blessings and that joy are real and within reach for those who keep all the commandments and “him that seeketh so to do.” When you feel like you have failed too many times to keep trying, remember Christ’s Atonement and the grace it makes possible are real. “[His] arm of mercy is extended towards you.” You are loved—today, in 20 years, and forever. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Listen, Share, Review, and Send Feedback
We hope you enjoyed the additional insights that we have shared from our interview with Brad Wilcox on The Repentance Podcast.
There are many more insights that Brad shared that didn’t make it into this article so we’d encourage you to take some time to listen to the full episode (Brad Wilcox: The Role of a Bishop in Repentance), share it with friends or family in need, write a review, and/or send us feedback through the contact form on our website or by e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
And, remember, worthiness is not flawlessness!