How would you like to be known, through the ages, for the worst mistake you ever made?
Perhaps even your name has been forgotten to the passage of time. You are simply the man who cheated. The woman who stole. The person who betrayed. Consider “the woman caught in adultery” from the New Testament. Even if she went and sinned no more, becoming a committed disciple of Christ for the rest of her life, she will forever be known for a single moment. What if that was you?
It is a horrific thought. Yet, we often live our lives as if this is the case.
We define ourselves by our mistakes. We ruminate, we stew, we stress. We clench our grip tight into our imperfections and refuse to let go. Rather than seeking to be cleansed, we wear the stains of our sins like scarlet letters before God.
Do we not remember?
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Why do we so often define ourselves, and others, by our mistakes? What does the gospel teach us about letting go and going on?
Why Do We Ruminate On Our Sins?
There are multiple reasons why we ruminate, or compulsively obsess, over our sins and mistakes. Some are biological, while others are spiritual principles run amok and distorted.
Psychological studies have shown that we ruminate in an attempt to accept a situation where we feel we have failed or that has caused us some sort of trauma. In some ways, we are even hardwired for negative thinking as a means of survival. If we attend to our negative thoughts and experiences, something in us subconsciously thinks we will be able to fix ourselves or avoid the problem in the future. This is especially true when we, or someone we love, breaks a moral or religious code we have committed our lives to.
Sins, whether our own or those of others, can deeply affect our lives. In the Book of Mormon, prophets describe the pain caused by sin as “eternal torment,” with Alma stating, “Oh,…that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body.” If you have ever felt this way, chances are you would give anything to forget. Why would we ever want to remember such a time? Yet that is what God asks of us.
By remembering our mistakes and being aware of our weaknesses, we can learn to rely on God and avoid pitfalls in the future. However, this is where we can get trapped by the adversary. When we begin obsessing over our sins, we lose our ability to problem-solve, to forgive ourselves, and to believe in God’s grace. Satan would have us ruminate on our sins forever; Jesus Christ would have us use our sins to improve the nature of our souls to become more like him as we repent.
How Do We Leave It Alone?
When we have transgressed or sinned, we must repent. We must be willing to take whatever steps are necessary to make amends, confess, and humble ourselves before God. However, one of the most important steps of repentance that we often forget is moving forward with faith. At some point, we need to leave the past alone and trust what we have sorrowfully placed in God’s hands will be made right.
President Boyd K. Packer once referred to “spiritual disorders and spiritual diseases that can cause intense suffering” and how we can find a Balm of Gilead. His advice was to “leave it alone.”
“Purge and cleanse and soothe your soul and your heart and your mind and that of others. A cloud will then be lifted, a beam cast from your eye. There will come that peace which surpasseth understanding.”
Have you frantically sought to be healed from disturbing and persistent thoughts? Have you done everything in your power to repent or forgive someone else? Do you need help quieting your mind and letting go? Turn to God in prayer for help to loosen your grip, open your heart, and keep your eyes on your eternal exaltation.
Defining Others By Their Mistakes
Just as we would not wish to be defined by our worst mistakes, it would be just as tragic to brand someone else for all of eternity by theirs.
It is hard to forgive. God is patient with us as we strive to do so. But we must strive! Ask yourself:
Have you minimized someone with a blistering brand of their sins? Do you refuse sincere attempts at reconciliation? Do you judge someone solely on what you’ve heard? Do you close your heart to seeing others as Christ sees them?
Christ knows the woman caught in adultery. He knows her name. He knows her life. He knows the intent of her heart, her desires, and what she did with the rest of her earthly probation. If we are to believe Christ, we must believe he knows her not as the woman caught in adultery, but as a precious daughter of God. He sees others in glory. He sees us in glory. He defines us not by what we are or what we have done, but by what we can ultimately achieve with his help.
Are we willing to learn this definition for ourselves?