Excerpt from Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell for Religious Scholarship, 2014), 17-23.
Used by Permission of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. For FairMormon blog only. Not to be redistributed or copied.
Being a good person doesn’t mean you’re not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won’t solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell.
Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things and your own way of thinking about things. But “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.
Sin is endemic to the story you’re always telling yourself about yourself. This story shows up in that spool of judgmental chitchat—sometimes fair, sometimes foul—that, like an off-stage voice-over, endlessly loops in your head. This narration follows you around like a shadow. It mimes you, measures you, sometimes mocks you, and pretends, in its flat, black simplicity, to be the truth about you. This story is seductive. It seems so weightless and bulletproof and ideal. But as a shadow it hides as much as it reveals. You are not your shadow. No matter how carefully you line up the light, your body will never fit that profile. Sin is what happens when we choose our shadows over the lives that cast them. Life is full of stories, but life is not a story. God doesn’t love your story, he loves you.
Your story, like everyone’s, is a bit of a Frankenstein. Without your hardly noticing or choosing, it gets sewn together, on the fly, out of whatever borrowed scraps are at hand. You may have borrowed a bit from your mother, a bit from a movie you liked, and a bit from a lesson at church. You may have stitched these pieces together with a comment overheard at lunch, a glossy image from a magazine, and a second-grade test score. Whatever sticks. More stuff is always getting added as other stuff is discarded. Your story’s projection of what you should be is always getting adjusted. Your idea of your shadow’s optimal shape gets tailored and tailored again.
Like most people, you’ll lavish attention on this story until, almost unwittingly, it becomes your blueprint for how things ought to be. As you persist in measuring life against it, this Franken-bible of the self will become a substitute for God, an idol. This is sin. And this idolatrous story is all the more ironic when, as a true believer, you religiously assign God a starring role in your story as the one who, with some cajoling and obedience, can make things go the way you’ve plotted. But faith isn’t about getting God to play a more and more central part in your story. Faith is about sacrificing your story on his altar.
Everyone knows that little blush of pleasure that comes when you feel like your life and your story match. And I’m sure you know the pinch of disappointment that follows when you feel like your life hasn’t measured up. These blushes and pinches tend to rule our daily lives. They push and pull and bully us from one plot point to the next. “Now I should be this,” we say, “now I should have this, now I should do this. . . .” Meanwhile, the pedestrian substance of life gets shuffled offstage in favor of epic shadows.
Think about what it’s like when you buy a new shirt. You slip, hopeful, into the dressing room. Backed by doubled mirrors, you model it and ask, “Does this fit my story, does this match my shadow?” As a teenager, I never had much luck with this. In junior high, I grew fast, we didn’t have much money, and my clothes never seemed to fit. My sleeves were short and my pants were flooded. I was always yanking at my cuffs, trying to make them longer. Late one fall, my mother took me to buy a new coat. I picked a kind of knockoff ski jacket, bright blue and trimmed with red and green. We even bought it a size too big. When we got home, I put it on and went out for a long, cold walk along our empty country road. For a long time I walked back and forth, back and forth, on a half-mile stretch, imagining with great pleasure what a stranger might say if they saw me, what they might imagine about who I was or were I was going in that new jacket. I was buttoned up safe. The coat seemed like exactly the kind of prop I needed to tell myself a more convincing story. And a more convincing story seemed like exactly what I needed to better protect me. That coat was just one of the many, many stories in which I’ve tried to hide.
But even if you can get a story to work for a while, you’ll still be afraid. And when it fails to meet the measure of life, as all stories do, you’ll feel ashamed and your shame and guilt will manifest once again in that familiar pinch of disappointment.
Shame and guilt are life’s way of protesting against the constriction of the too-tight story you’re busy telling about it. The twist is that shame and guilt, manifest in this pinch, end up siding with your story and blaming life. Guilt doubles down on the self-important story you’re telling about yourself. Guilt is sin seen from the perspective of your sinfulness. Even if you feel guilty about how you’ve hurt others, that guilt remains problematic because your guilt is about you and about how you didn’t measure up to your story. Guilt recognizes your story’s poor fit and then still demands that life measure up. It recognizes that your shoes are too small and too tight and then blames your feet for their size. Repentance is not about shaving down your toes, it’s about taking off your shoes.
Jesus is not asking you to tell a better story or live your story more successfully, he’s asking you to lose that story. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Hell is when your story succeeds, not when it fails. Your suffocating story is the problem, not the solution. Surrender it and find your life. Your story is heavy and hard to bear. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). Put down the millstone of your story and take up the yoke of life instead. You will find Jesus’ rest only in the work of caring for life. Let his life manifest itself in yours rather than trying to impose your story on the life he gives.
Obedience is important but this isn’t just about obedience. For sinners like us, the problem is not just that sin follows when we break the law. The problem is that sin severs God’s law from life and then, rather than discarding it, cleverly repurposes it. In sin, the law, rather than rooting us in life, gets pressed into playing a leading role in the story you’re trying to tell. Maybe in your story the law plays the role of an accuser: “You can’t measure up, you’re worthless!” Or, maybe in your story the law plays the role of an admirer: “You’re so great, you keep the law, you do measure up!” But either way, reduced to the role of an extra in your story, the law kills you because it abets your preference for tidy stories over living bodies.
Keeping the law doesn’t earn you heavenly merits and breaking the law doesn’t earn you hellish demerits. Both merits and demerits are about you. The purpose of the law is to point you away from yourself, free you from the self-obsessed burden of your own story, and center you on Christ. You don’t need to generate merit in order to be saved, you need instead to come unto Christ and “rely wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:19). The law points wholly to Christ and his grace. Keeping the law is the work of relying on Christ’s merit, not the work of generating your own. This is still hard work, but it is work of an entirely different kind.
When you sin, you sin not because you’ve failed to measure up to your story but because you’ve privileged your story in the first place. Privileging your story, you don’t treat others or yourself with the care life requires. By freeing you from your story, Christ frees you from your guilt. He saves you by revealing that even your own life was never about you. Bought-back and story-poor, Christ frees space in your head to pay attention to someone other than yourself. You don’t need rigid rules and expectations, you need Spirit. You need to be sensitive and responsive. Rather than filtering other people’s voices through the shame-making screen of your story, you must learn to be responsible for the work of caring for what you share with them.
Jesus doesn’t want you to feel guilty, he wants you to be responsible. Your stories aren’t the truth, life is. And only the truth can set you free.