When in Doubt, Choose Mercy

 


I had a student last year who drove me absolutely mad. I knew I kind of signed up for insanity when I took a job teaching seventh grade, but this kid—who will be known as Dallin for the sake of confidentiality—was my living nightmare.

In his honor, I’ve composed this acrostic poem using his fake name:

Disrespectful

Apathetic

Loud

Lazy

Inconsiderate

Naughty

Dallin’s horrible behavior peaked just as I’d returned to work from my maternity leave. I wasn’t getting any sleep, so the exhaustion combined with the workload stress combined with the guilt for leaving my baby every day combined with the crazy postpartum hormones combined with the worst student in the history of all students was just too much.

Despite his display of less-than-admirable behavior, Dallin was actually quite brilliant. He certainly had potential, and that fact manifested itself in his work from time to time. He was easily capable of earning an A in my class, but come the last week of school, he had a C+. And truthfully, I’d thought that was a generous grade considering the quality of his work.

He surprised me, though, when just days before summer break he begged me for some extra credit to raise his grade.

Outwardly, I was professional. I asked him to give me until the end of the day to think about it. And think about it I did. My thoughts went something like this:

You honestly expect me to help you after you’ve made my life miserable all year?

Do you not remember bringing me to tears? TWICE.

Do you not remember humiliating me in front of the entire class?

Do you not remember the mess you left at your desk every single day? The candy wrappers, the pencil shavings, the crumpled up sheets of paper.

Do you not remember lying to me about why you were wandering the halls?

What about all those times I caught you cheating?

Do you not remember talking back to me and interrupting almost daily?

Do you not remember disregarding every word I’ve said to you the past two months, or whispering rude things about me under your breath?  

Do you not remember triggering several emotional breakdowns?

Do you even care?

Determination to teach this kid a lesson coursed through me. Yes, I wanted revenge…on a twelve year old. Before I’d entirely made up my mind about the extra credit, the Spirit conversed with me in a very frank, very life-changing way.

Do you not remember all the times you’ve let Him down?

Do you not remember forgetting Him too quickly when things seemed to be going right, or blaming Him when they were oh so wrong?

What about those moments of ingratitude? You know there are too many to count.

Do you not remember putting forth minimum effort and STILL receiving an abundance of blessings?

What about all the times your decisions completely frustrated Him? (If a perfect God is even capable of that emotion)

Do you not remember your collection of bad habits that you just can’t seem to kick?

Do you not remember how often you’ve brought pain to His other children with your insensitive words and actions?

What about those times you did only the bare minimum for a church calling? Or all those Sundays you showed up to take the sacrament half-heartedly?

What about all the complaints you’ve hurled His way? Or phases of absolute selfishness?

What about all the things you take for granted without even knowing it?

Do you not remember placing him on the lower end of your list of priorities when life got busy?

Surely you haven’t forgotten the infinite moments of weakness, inadequacy, and failure. And let’s not forget all the times you deliberately sinned.

I think these words by Elder Uchtdorf highlight how I felt in that moment: “We must recognize that we are all imperfect—that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy?”

As I mentally reviewed my own list of shortcomings, I felt wildly ashamed. But I knew that despite all the crappy things I’d done in life, God didn’t want to teach me a lesson. He stood ready to offer second, third, and infinite chances because He is so much more than a judge; He is a loving Father who wants me to succeed. He has loved me through every sin, weakness, and failure with a vision of what I can someday become through the Savior. To think that He loved me, and you, and all of us enough to allow His perfect Son to suffer so infinitely in a lonely garden and on a horrible cross is beyond humbling.

Peace and gratitude filled my very soul because I realized that when God has a choice to make, He always chooses mercy.

Elder Holland puts it beautifully:  “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”

And if He could exercise mercy toward me all those times that I did not deserve it, then Dallin most certainly deserved what relief and forgiveness I could offer.

So with a humbled heart and swelling appreciation for my Father and my Savior, I created an extra credit project for Dallin that was both challenging and doable. As he bounced out of my classroom, I wanted to hug the kid (yes, hug—not “teach him a lesson”, not get my revenge at last—HUG) because forgiveness does heal our wounds and replace the hurt with an uncanny sense of love for those who have wronged us.

When Dallin submitted his extra credit assignment the next day, he was a different kid. He was polite, grateful, and even very pleasant. He thanked me profusely for giving him the extra credit opportunity, and his project was evidence of that potential I mentioned earlier. It did indeed raise his grade.

I thought about Dallin a few times over summer break. I revised his poem by the way:

Daring (He summoned the courage to ask for extra credit didn’t he?)

Able

Lively

Lovable (forgiveness can do that you know)

Intelligent

None of the above adjectives mentioned in the previous poem

Each time I thought about him, I thought of how that second chance transformed Dallin into a new student. I thought about how Christ replaced my negative feelings with abundant charity for a kid I thought I could never love. But mostly I thought of my God and how maybe, just maybe in the future, He’d remember that one time I extended mercy, so that He could do the same for me.

 

Two Truths & a Lie

Have you ever said or done something others just won’t let you forget?

Once, when I was between the ages of, um, 5 and 13, I asked my family while on a beach vacation, “Is Bear Lake bigger than the ocean?”

They’ll never let me live it down.

My little sister followed suit with an equally stupid (although that’s up for debate) question. “Is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or California?”

She joined me in the Hall of Shame that day.

Sometimes we say or do stupid things. And sometimes people like to remind us.

To get a little more serious here, that is Satan’s favorite game. When it comes to the mistakes we’ve made, he loves rubbing it in, especially after we feel we’ve repented and even experienced the miracle of forgiveness.

And that can feel like a sucker punch to the heart.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been one of his targets. I have this self-harming habit of revisiting past sins, mostly when I am making an extra effort to live righteously. I find myself agonizing over who I once was and I cannot believe I did or said something so…..wrong. The adversary capitalizes on those feelings.

It’s as if Satan exploits my desire to be good by reminding me of the less-than-admirable moments of my past. He dethrones my happiness and I inadvertently invite him to wreak havoc on my peace.

In short, he tries to convince me of this overarching, spiritually destructive lie:

If I can remember my mistake this clearly, I haven’t really been forgiven.

I spent several weeks earlier this year obsessing over a time in my life I’m not proud of. I opened a wound that I thought had healed, and the self-loathing started to bite. Even though I’d repented, counseled with a priesthood leader, and cried countless tears of remorse at the time, guilt for mistakes from YEARS ago creeped back into my life.

I just couldn’t stop dwelling on it. I needed answers. I needed closure. So I resolutely began a study of repentance and forgiveness. I’ve learned and felt two truths that have helped combat the adversary’s lie:

 

  • We can simultaneously remember a past mistake AND feel peace about it.
  • The reward of complete repentance is complete gratitude.

 

So let’s talk about truth number one.

Satan isn’t stupid. He knew us in the premortal life. Just like an obnoxious sibling, he knows how to get under our skin. He knows what tactics to use to discourage us and halt our progress, and for many of us that means smothering us with guilt so much so that we forget the grace that once gave us a fresh start. So of course he’ll throw every stupid mistake back in our face.

Said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Satan will try to make us believe that our sins are not forgiven because we can remember them. Satan is a liar.”

The Lord promises that He will “remember [our sins] no more,” but He never said that we would not remember them. What would be the point of going through it all if the experience and the lesson and the change of heart were just wiped from our memory?

Elder Tad Callister teaches, “The memory of guilt is a warning, a spiritual ‘stop sign’ that cries out when similar temptations confront us:  ‘Don’t go down that road. You know the pain it can bring.’”

The mistake I mentioned earlier did bring me a lot of pain. I never want to feel that way again. And if ever a similar temptation or situation is on my horizon, I’m counting on God to remind me of the pain and the guilt I never want to repeat.

When I accept those memories of guilt as warnings from my all-loving God, I can feel peace. I can stop second-guessing whether I was truly forgiven. And if I can recognize that, then I must be living worthy of the Spirit.

That brings me peace. Peace about where I stand with God and peace about what I once did. I can separate my current self from a past sin. As Elder Callister says, “The memory ceases to be part of how we see ourselves.”

That brings me to truth number two.

On my quest for answers, I asked God what He wanted me to learn from all this, why the memory of this particular mistake kept popping up.

I had somewhat of a revelation.

Recalling that mistake serves as a great reminder that I never ever ever want to feel that low again, but more importantly, it is a reminder of my Redeemer’s mercy and the person He saved me from becoming.

And that just renews and intensifies my gratitude for Him. Insignificant me was worth His significant sacrifice.  

Without Him, my sins and weaknesses would be quicksand, but with Him, I can be exalted.

Maybe the intermittent feelings of guilt are worth the love and gratitude and appreciation I feel for my Savior.

So while complete repentance might leave you with a memory of the mistake itself, it leaves you with the superior reminder that Christ loved you enough to save you.

I’d like to close with some words of wisdom by Elder Dale G. Renlund:

“In His mercy, God promises forgiveness when we repent and turn from wickedness–so much so that our sins will not even be mentioned to us. For us, because of the Atonement of Christ and our repentance, we can look at our past deeds and say, “’Twas I; but ’tis not I.” No matter how wicked, we can say, “That’s who I was. But that past wicked self is no longer who I am.”

So remember, remember:  

  • Even the world’s smallest ocean—the Arctic—is vastly larger than Bear Lake.
  • The Golden Gate Bridge is in BOTH San Francisco and California.
  • Heavenly Father and His Son loved us enough to save us.