Overcoming Our Mistakes

By Lowell L. Bennion

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    I had a friend who not long ago spent an hour and a half telling me about his wife who a few years back made a big mistake in her life and who does nothing now but brood over it. She has lost her purpose and joy in living and has even threatened to commit suicide. All of her wonderful potential as a human being has come to a halt, and this is tragic for her and her family. Furthermore, because she is so unhappy within herself, she makes life almost unbearable for her friends and her husband.

    Historians have said you can’t fight a war on two fronts; if you do, you generally lose. I find, too, that you can’t carry on personally two battles in life—one the outside battle and the other the battle within yourself. And he who fights himself least is better prepared to fight the outside battle best. In fact, the outside battle is always there. To enjoy life is to acknowledge that it is a battle and there will always be problems. There will always be disappointments, and one must learn to enjoy the battle rather than the successful outcome.

    All of us make mistakes, and some of us very serious ones. Any thoughtful person feels a kind of failure because of his sins or moral failures. If there are any sinners in the Church besides myself, I am talking to you, and I’d like to suggest what we might do about coping with our failures of the past so that they don’t immobilize us for life today and for fighting the outside battle.

    Here are just a few suggestions on what we might do to overcome our feeling of failure, our feeling of wrongdoing, and learn to live with all our power in the present without dragging the mistakes of the past with us.

    One doesn’t get clean by rolling in the mire. One doesn’t get clean and whole by brooding unduly over the past, although we can certainly learn from our mistakes. I’ve learned that there’s no strength in weakness; there’s no strength in sin; and we don’t overcome our mistakes and our sins by fighting them directly. I think we may succumb to them if we dwell upon them too much.

    The second suggestion I have is that we ought to realize that no matter what we’ve done in life, no matter what we do, God and Christ still love us just as much as they did before we failed. God and Christ do not separate themselves from the sinner, from the wrongdoer.

    I remember a missionary who had just recently returned from the mission field who came into the Institute of Religion when I was there. He had committed a grave mistake that caused him to think that his life was ruined forever. And I said to him, “God loves you just as much today as he did last Thursday,” and he couldn’t believe it. The thought had never occurred to him. He wept like a child. You know, sometimes we think that God loves us to the extent that we please him, to the extent that we’re good boys and girls, good men and women. Love from God is not earned. It is not merited; if it is, it is justice and reciprocity and reward. Love comes from a loving heart, and God’s love is unconditional. And he loves the worst of us and the best of us equally, I believe. We cause him to suffer when we do wrong, when he sees us live our lives in ways that destroy us, and when he sees us hurting other people—this must cause him pain.

    Fathers, when you’re worried about your sons, you don’t love them less, and when they’re in trouble, you’re not less anxious. You really love them more. I can understand why Jesus said that when the shepherd went after the lost sheep and brought him home there was more rejoicing in heaven over the one that was lost than over the ninety and nine that were safe in the fold.

    We once had a child who was very very ill and on the borderline of possible death. Our other children were well at the time. We loved the child who was ill; we rejoiced at the time of his recovery more than over the others who were well. At the moment that seemed to be the most important thing in our lives. And I think that that’s the way Christ and God must feel about the person who has done wrong and who comes back. Even before he comes back I think God is forgiving, whether he repents or not. He asks us to forgive. He doesn’t say forgive when people repent. He says forgive seven times seventy. I don’t think God would ask me to be forgiving when he is not. I think somehow that the principles of the gospel are his principles, too. Therefore, the reason we have to repent is to be able to forgive ourselves and to be able to get in harmony again with the principles and laws of good living. We don’t have to repent to earn God’s love, even though some scriptures portray him as being very angry with the sinner. Others portray him as angry with sin, not with the sinner.

    Another way to overcome the past is to make amends. We know when we’ve done wrong, but sometimes we’re afraid to go to those whom we’ve wronged. We are too proud to admit our failures. But when we have the courage to do it, we find that a great reconciliation takes place. It’s the offended person’s responsibility to react to our efforts to be reconciled. And when we can’t compensate a person for a wrong, when it’s too late or impossible, then we can bless other people. We all belong together in this world. We’re brothers and sisters with the same Eternal Father; we belong to the same human community. There are others we can bless, though we can’t repair the damage we may have done to some of his children.

    The past that some of us regret at certain points is not as fixed and rigid as we ordinarily think it is. If you have shameful moments in your past, you’re prone to isolate them, to make them rigid, and to think of them as being fixed. You can change your past. You can’t change single events in the past, but you can change the past as a whole the importance of every event in one’s past is constantly changing because of the kind of past that we’re building.

    Years ago, a young girl confessed to my wife and me a very tragic period of her life. I won’t tell you about her life, but it was a tragic life, and I’ve never seen a girl with sadder eyes than this lovely girl of eighteen. And in trying to give her some comfort and hope for the future, I realized that we’re adding to our past; we’re building onto it each day we live. Life is not a rigid, fixed, quantitative kind of thing. It’s a growing, qualitative, whole thing. And the whole is greater than any of its parts, and gives meaning to its parts. My arm by itself hung on the wall is one thing; my arm as a part of my body and servant of my mind is another thing. An event in that girl’s past, or even ten events, were one thing at eighteen when she was in the depths of despair. And then she came into the fold, was baptized into the Church, found some faith in Christ, converted her husband, reared a fine family, and her life has been going like this ever since. This valley of failure in her life is one thing by itself; it’s another thing when it’s one dip in a long beautiful life. This idea makes life dynamic: it’s comforting and exciting to know that you can improve.

    I think God feels this way about our lives. Here is a familiar verse from Ezekiel. He says, “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him …” (Ezek. 8:21–22). The past is only significant in terms of what it has made you become.

    Ezekiel continues: “All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done, he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:22–23). And Isaiah said: “… though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. 1:18.)

    This I believe. If God loves us, his only interest is in us. “Let no one be called unhappy ’til his death. Measure not the work until the day is over and the labor is done.” I would say, don’t measure life ever—even into eternity—we’re still building on it; we’re changing it.

    We ought to be aggressive in our desire and effort to do what is right. Many of us do wrong because we’re not thinking of the right. Our concept of the gospel is very general—we feel good about it; we have a testimony; but we don’t define what we believe in. We don’t say, I’m going to be honest, and what does honesty mean? And what does chastity mean, and what is the spirit of it, and what is the nature of it? I think we get caught unprepared when we don’t define for ourselves, repeatedly, what we believe, what values we hold to. We don’t tell ourselves why we believe in these values so that they become our very own—a part of us. They’re not God’s laws only; they’re our laws, too, because we’ve tested them and we believe in them. You don’t sit back apathetically and see what happens to you. You do better than your opponent.

    Now why not be aggressive—and I don’t mean with words to boast or to be loud—why not clarify what values we believe in? This applies to you whether you’re a believer or a nonbeliever—Latter-day Saint, Catholic, Jew, Protestant, atheist, or anything else. Every man has to be whole within himself. Every man has to be one to be a man. He has to have integrity. You can’t have integrity without clarifying your convictions or values or goals. You can change them, but you must always have some. And so you clarify your ideals and you determine to act according to them. If you’re going to work in a bank and handle money, don’t decide while you’re handling money whether or not you’ll be honest. Decide before you go into the bank, before you accept the job. Say in your morning prayer, “Lord, help me not to take money today!” Money is such a temptation when your wife needs so many things. It is so easy to replace, we think. This is the way we get caught in dishonest actions. The apostle Paul said, “Wherefore, take unto you the whole armor of God … Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth and have on the breastplate of righteousness and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” (Eph. 6:13–15.) These words don’t mean much to us as symbols in this day, but “put on the armor of God,” and face life with whatever ideals you believe in, and uncertainty will disappear.

    Make a friend of Jesus Christ. In the sacramental prayer each Sabbath day we hear and say that we bear witness to the Father that we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ, and always remember him, and keep his commandments, that we might have his Spirit to be with us. Now what does it mean to take upon us the name of Christ? What does it mean to always remember him? How many of us make him part of our daily lives without being fanatical, without behaving as if we belonged to some other world but still living in the world? How do we draw upon the strength that comes with fellowship with our Savior? Do we leave it to Protestants to talk about fellowship with Christ?

    I had an experience in the mission field that is very memorable to me. A man came to me after Church—he was twice my age, a very unhappy person—and told me that he had committed a grave sin before he joined the Church, that his wife would not forgive him, would not divorce him, and constantly reminded him that he was a worthless person. He said, “I’ve come to think of myself as she thinks I am. How can I be whole again and pure of heart, clean in my thoughts?” I said, “What have you tried to do for this problem?” He said, “I’ve fought it. I’ve fought it.” I told him there must be a better way than to fight sin. We knelt in prayer together, and afterwards I gave him a book to read—As a Man Thinketh in His Heart, So Is He—and then I put my arm around him, gave him a firm handclasp, and told him that he could overcome his problem. And then by inspiration or coincidence I said to him, “How would you like to prepare the Lord’s supper for Sunday School?” (He was a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood.) He said, “Do you think I’m worthy to do this?” I said, “No, I don’t think any of us really are. But I think Jesus would be pleased if you would render him this service.” And so he proceeded to set the Lord’s table each Sunday morning. After about six weeks I met him coming up the aisle before Sunday School. I put out my hand to reassure him. He put his hand behind his back and said nothing. I said, “Have I offended you?” He said, “Oh, no. I’ve just washed my hands with soap and hot water, and I can’t shake hands with you or any man until I’ve set the Lord’s table.” That’s the most beautiful reverence I’ve seen in that simple act of setting the Lord’s table. I was so pleased. In another six weeks he came to me after church again and said, “I’m a new man.”

    Then I asked him to give a talk in church on some principle of the gospel of Christ that he really believed in and why. I kept thinking about the Savior. Well, serving the Savior in a simple way and thinking about him during the week, this man became a new creature. It was beautiful. And I realized that I’d never used the Savior in my own life in the same way. I don’t mind telling you that I did after that. I had the wonderful thrill of overcoming what I thought was a weakness in me by thinking of the Savior and making him the center of my prayers and my life.

    Well, my young friends, the biggest tragedy of life is not to live—not to function with your full soul, with your whole life, with enthusiasm, with spirit, with faith, with love. And so, I humbly pray that none of you will be so burdened by mistakes, by failures, and by sin that you won’t have the courage and the wisdom to turn to the ideals of the gospel, to the wonderful Son of God, and to each other to find the strength to live life as it is meant to be lived. It’s a beautiful existence we have, and it is not too late for any of us to enjoy it to the fullest.