Dr. Gary G. Taylor
Don't Confuse Becoming Perfect with Being Worthy.
When to feel guilty and when to simply fix a problem and move on.
Perfectionists tend to confuse perfection with worthiness, which can have negative spiritual consequences. Quoting Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, “Occasionally, for well-motivated and highly devoted Latter-day Saints, confusion occurs about the differences between worthiness and perfection. Worthiness and perfection don’t mean the same thing at all! We can be worthy while still needing to improve” (Cecil O. Samuelson, “What Does it Mean to be Perfect”, New Era, January 2006). It’s sad and a bit frustrating when a Mission President hears one of his best missionaries tearfully reveal how unworthy and unsuccessful he or she feels. He knows that such missionaries will have a hard time staying motivated; and that enjoyment of their mission will suffer. It’s unfortunate when they miss the confidence and peace of mind that they actually deserve.
Unless they come to see the truth, some with this problem will simply endure and persevere, but under an unnecessarily heavy burden. Others will develop health problems to the point that they will need to go home for treatment. And still others will decide to quit trying. They then just float along and bide their time until release. In all cases, feeling that one must be perfect to be worthy of the Lord’s blessings will have a negative impact. It’s too hard to keep beating one’s head against the wall trying to do the impossible.
Something is bound to give. And sometimes that something is one’s testimony. Some end up thinking something like “living the gospel is supposed to make me happy; but I’m miserable.” They then blame the Church rather than recognize that the problem lies in their misinterpretation of the gospel’s demands. Others drop out of activity in the Church due to the discomfort of forever falling short of expectations. Of course, dropping out of activity for whatever reason is likely to have spiritually fatal consequences.
But then, sometimes, probably more often than not, we are falling short of where we need to be and repentance and improvement are necessary. The guilt good people feel in those situations is helpful and can motivate them to do the hard work required in repenting and moving forward. The problem is when that guilt is exaggerated or unnecessary. In those cases we make Satan smile. He knows such guilt will oppress us and can sometimes derail a disciple when overt temptation will not. Many missionaries are beyond temptation to do something overtly evil; but they may still fall to a temptation to go overboard with a good thing.
The truth identified here naturally leads to a question about when guilt is helpful and when it is not. Here are six questions that might help when trying to figure this out:
1. Would whatever you feel guilty about disqualify you based on the worthiness questions in the temple recommend interview? Is it something that would make you unworthy to partake of the Sacrament; or jeopardize your Church membership in any way? If so, then guilt seems to be very appropriate. If not, it may be better to simply fix the problem and move on. Don't worry or feel guilty about it.
2. Likewise is it something that would seem silly to confess? Would your priesthood leader wonder why you are worried about such a thing? If so, there is no value in the guilt felt.
3. What is the result of the guilt? Is it motivating you to do good things; or is it contributing to negative feelings and a loss of motivation to do what's right? Guilt, to be of value, must motivate one toward repentance, not toward depression and anxiety.
4. What do people you respect think about it? Is it something they agree is cause for repentance?
5. Is the guilt you are feeling the result of an innocent mistake that you didn't intend to make? Is it something that you obviously couldn't control? In these cases, guilt would not be helpful or necessary.
6. And most importantly, what does the Spirit tell you? This can be hard to determine since spiritual promptings and guilt can be intertwined. It remains, however, the ultimate source of truth regarding any issue in question.
Hopefully, all missionaries can learn to use guilt to advantage rather than be overcome by it. This is certainly a trait that will be required again and again as missionaries finish their service and move on through their life.