In discussions with people who used to be Mormon, I often hear that they lived with “Mormon Guilt.” They’d hear all the things Mormons are supposed to do and feel guilty because they weren’t perfect or couldn’t get it all done. They eventually decided to leave, hoping that if they weren’t Mormon, God wouldn’t hold them accountable anymore, which, of course, isn’t accurate, but that’s another article topic. Today, we’re going to talk about how I learned that Mormon Guilt was not a commandment.
As a Mormon convert, I do understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. My very first church class left me scared to come back. In those days, Mutual lessons (classes for teenagers) were held on a weekday evening. That Wednesday, they were learning the standards a person had to meet to enter the Mormon temple. The teacher had made a poster and I panicked when I saw it. It seemed I would have to be perfect if I ever chose that route, and I couldn’t be perfect. Only a friend’s cheerful invitation got me to return the next week.
Over time, I came to understand that if I became a Mormon, no one was going to expect me to be perfect. In fact, they might just find all that perfection discouraging! What the teacher had meant was that I needed to be living some standards exactly, but others were things I should be working to improve on. I was to repent when I slipped. I needed only to be working towards perfection. There were plenty of commandments, but only Jesus Christ was perfect. The rest of us were expected to do the best we could, to repent when we made a mistake, and to keep getting better over a lifetime.
While it still seemed scary, I was fortunate to have people in my LDS life who helped me learn how to view this whole business of imperfection. I didn’t need to spend my life feeling guilty. I didn’t need a list of all my sins, crossing them off as I went along, but agonizing over the uncrossed ones. Instead, I was taught to see the commandments in a positive way.
God knows who I am capable of being. He has a much more optimistic view of me than I have of myself. While I often put too many limits on myself, God has faith that I can do all sorts of things if I put my mind to it. He knows how happy I will be if I keep each commandment, because each one comes with blessings. He wants me to be as happy as possible and He gives me every opportunity to do that. I began to see the commandments as a compliment from God and a sign of His love. As a mother, I had high standards for my children because I knew those standards would keep them safe. God is a perfect parent, so His standards are even higher. I saw the commandments as an act of faith on His part also—trusting me to be able to work towards perfection.
I came to understand that while perfection in this life wasn’t possible, there was a certain amount of satisfaction to be found in steady improvement. It is easy to coast through life. I had not, during my teen years of searching for a church, been impressed by people who figured that once they accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior they could then do anything they wanted because Jesus would cover it. To me, it seemed like some of those people were wasting the rest of their lives. It wasn’t helping them to become all they could be and I suspected they didn’t understand their own religions properly.
The sacrifices I made as a result of my commitment to keep the commandments helped me to grow and to mature. I developed more self-esteem, more self-control, more understanding of who I am. I became aware of my weaknesses, but I also became aware of my strengths. Each time I mastered something new, I felt pure joy at becoming one step closer to living up to God’s vision of me.
At first, I was often motivated most by blessings or punishments related to the commandments. That, of course, is typical of children, and as a new convert, I was a child in God’s world. Over time, though, my religious leaders and teachers taught me to develop a deeply personal relationship with God and with Christ. My love for them grew and in time, I found my obedience to be motivated by love, not rewards. In fact, I seldom gave thoughts to the possible rewards or punishments. I focused on making God proud of my progress and on giving Him a gift of thanks for all He had done for me. I talk to Him throughout the day, discussing my downfalls and successes. We talk about my progress and my feelings—my days of frustration and my days of happiness. I learned to feel His love and encouragement even on my least successful days.
Today, I don’t spend my life sitting around feeling guilty or like a failure. I monitor what I’m doing well and what needs work. I set my goals to get better. The constant progress makes me feel good about myself. I like knowing that day after day, I am closer to being what God sees possible in me. It gives life a meaning it never had before.
Choose joy in the journey—it’s what God sent us to do.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.