For years, the words O to grace how great a debtor/Daily I’m constrained to be (Hymns, no. 70) in one of our hymns disturbed me. “How on earth did those Protestant words ever get into our hymn book?” I thought. “I do what I’m supposed to do; I’m not in debt to the Lord.”
I preferred to think that salvation was entirely my responsibility, a consequence only of my good actions.
Somehow, depending on myself was easier than depending on my Father in Heaven, and the idea of salvation by works was an idea I could easily equate with things I already knew. Good behavior earned approval and reward from my parents; bad behavior made them unhappy and brought punishment. Later, I came to understand the concepts of purchase, exchange, obligation, guarantee, contract, and value given for received. Unfortunately, I equated such concepts with the process of salvation.
In a way, this kind of thinking has some elements of truth in it. I do have to do my part. But I had reduced the entire, beautiful eternal plan to the terms of earthly contracts. In my assumptions, I imagined my Heavenly Father to be like a shopkeeper who had to sell me his goods if I walked in with the right currency, or a divine behavior modification supervisor who was required to graduate me from his program as long as I had earned enough points.
Over the years I have learned the limitations of such an attitude. In fact, the system I imagined to exist in reality does not. A checklist may be more manageable; it may be easier to think about and work with. But in my case, the checklist prevented me from sensing the full beauty and the power of the gospel. It also gave me a false sense of adequacy, a feeling of doing it all by myself.
One example of the limiting effects of a checklist attitude is demonstrated by my music students. Every afternoon I teach two or three violin students. These boys and girls are so young that settling down to practice every day is difficult for them. At this stage, they think about their practicing contractually: “What do I have to do before I’ve done enough and can stop?” I would love to be idealistic and just reply, “Practice because you love to practice and stop when you are satisfied with the day’s progress.” But I know that won’t work. Violin sounds are not very rewarding, most of the time, for a beginner.
So if any practicing is going to happen at all, each student and I have to define our contract, our checklist, very carefully. Usually I must say something like, “Spend the first five minutes reviewing old pieces, ten minutes on your String Builder book, five minutes on scales, and ten minutes on your piece out of the Easy Violin Favorites book. Then you will have finished your thirty minutes of practicing, and you can put a mark here in your notebook.”
But of course, clock-watching and check marks don’t reflect the attitude of a musician. Unless my little violinist can progress beyond his daily requirements, he will never be more than a student. Usually this progress comes in small steps. One day he will really enjoy playing his Easy Violin Favorites piece, and when he looks at the clock, he will find he has practiced an extra five minutes! His first instinct will be to subtract those five minutes from the next day’s practicing; after all, the thought of going beyond the minimum is completely new to him. But as he continues to find joy in the music itself and to forget the practicing requirements, he gradually becomes a musician.
In some aspect of our lives, most of us have experienced a similar important turning point when a higher motivation or love transcends a checklist, a prescription, or a requirement. A woman who is determined to become physically fit may have to begin by forcing herself to jog, grimly and reluctantly fulfilling a set program. But she doesn’t actually achieve her goal until she discovers a deep joy in what she is doing, thus setting herself free to go beyond her set routine to achievements she has never dreamed of.
As it is with music and jogging, so it is with the gospel. Until we are able to abandon our checklist mentality, we cannot find the real joy in serving out of love for God and his righteousness.
For me, this ability to go beyond my checklist is one of the gifts of understanding grace. This understanding came as I studied the scriptures and statements by General Authorities emphasizing the transcendent and essential nature of grace. I came to understand the great gifts of love and redemption offered me by the Savior. (Gerald N. Lund’s article in the April 1981 Ensign, “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?” gathers many of these statements together.) As I came to that understanding, a feeling of love filled my soul, so that I could go beyond my checklist approach to gospel living to an approach that allowed me to joyfully and creatively be a true disciple of Jesus.
Of particular help was King Benjamin’s reminder that nothing that is in my power to do on this earth—literally nothing—can do for me what Jesus alone did for me through his atoning sacrifice. I came to appreciate as never before the love and forgiveness he offers me after I have tried and tried and then made mistakes. (See Mosiah 2:21.) No amount of obeyed commandments alone will buy my salvation, will earn the love and forgiveness my Father so freely gives me through the Savior’s atonement. This knowledge of the Savior’s grace and of my opportunity and need to be his joyful disciple has brought many gifts into my life.
Perhaps the most immediate gift was that I became less judgmental concerning my own and others’ mistakes, and less easily discouraged. A friend of mine who had been gaining an appreciation of the value of the Atonement expressed her newfound sense of freedom from excessive guilt and self-criticism with this comparison:
“I am not a very accurate typist. I despise typing, because a mistake has always meant that I had to begin the page again or that I had to get busy with eraser and correction fluid. After considerable mess and delay, the corrections would still scream to the world that I was a terrible typist.
“But then I traded in my old machine on one that has an automatic correcting key. That key is a wonderful invention! And what has happened to my typing skills is paradoxical, in a way. With my old typewriter, I lived in dread of each mistake because correction was so difficult and ineffective. But that dread caused me to make more errors, not fewer. Now that I know the correcting tape on my new typewriter will lift any error from the page without a trace, I find that I can type much more quickly and accurately than ever before.”
She had found that in her spiritual progression, her increased faith in the Atonement had accomplished something similar: her errors no longer paralyzed and depressed her. And in the same way, I no longer feel weighed down by my errors and shortcomings. I know that my efforts at trying to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matt. 5:48), whatever I manage to achieve in this life, will be negligible when set beside the example of our Lord Jesus Christ; and yet, because of his atonement, grace is there to bridge the gap. Repentance—and forgiveness—are possible; my mistakes need not destroy my hope. The realization that grace works in my behalf in spite of my mistakes fills me with awe and gratitude.
My growing appreciation of grace also releases me from the pride I have felt as I surveyed my good works. I have not often heard the subject of pride discussed in our Church. Yet surely this is the correct label for the feeling that grows within me whenever I start wanting to clutch my obeyed-commandment checklist tightly, to wave it before others, to present it to the Lord as a payment for desired blessings. Who am I to attempt to direct or obligate the Lord by my obedience? Hasn’t he given me all I have, as King Benjamin says? Hasn’t he promised me everything? My greatest efforts will never be worthy of that gift.
Perhaps the greatest gift of my new understanding is an ability to throw away the checklist and to serve the Lord just because I love him and feel grateful for this gift.
This type of motivation changes a person’s approach to living the gospel. A home teacher who really loves the Lord and the families he teaches is not concerned with filling in the space for 100 percent home teaching on his checklist. Rather, he generously and compassionately extends himself to meet the needs of his families and the 100 percent record takes care of itself.
The value of learning to serve out of love is possibly even more clear in a family setting. A man who really enhances his wife’s contentment and growth has not become that model husband by checking off “Seven Rules for a Model Husband.” He has done so by lovingly and prayerfully searching for ways to fulfill his wife’s needs. A woman aspiring to be an excellent wife may foil her own efforts if she merely tries to fit some preset pattern of good wifehood; it will be her prayers and careful thinking, motivated by love for her family, that will help her fulfill her role in a way that is possibly very individualistic.
I count it one of the great blessings of my life that in my family we do not very often find ourselves keeping track, in a self-defensive way, of what another family member “owes” us by way of favor or thanks (or invitations or phone calls). We seldom make note of some privilege or present we should receive to compensate for what another has received so that things will be “fair.” We don’t give merely to receive a just reward. We give because we love each other and desire to serve each other. We try, consistently, to serve as an advocate for the others’ happiness and well-being. I don’t mean to suggest that lists, patterns, and rules serve no purpose; a “quiz” of some sort may be undeniably useful as a reminder or a starting point. But the actual task of being a successful parent, or husband, or wife—or Christian—requires such flexibility, spontaneity, and creativity that a list of generic suggestions can only hint at what we might wish to do. Then, as we let go of our checklist mentality, we set ourselves free to go beyond the limits of the list.
This is true in all aspects of our lives, including our quest for exaltation. As we more fully accept the gifts of grace, we are freed to go beyond the narrow strivings for our own salvation and welcome the additional tasks that the Father may have in mind for us. His gifts and his kindness transcend all we can do, and I rejoice in that knowledge.
Karen Lynn Davidson, a faculty member at the Glendale Conservatory of Music, is a member of the Church Music Committee and the Cultural Refinement teacher in her Glendale, California, ward.