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Mormons and Worthiness

November 3, 2011

Over on the Exmormon Reddit, inthebigskycountry linked to Elder Bednar’s talk from the April 2011 General Conference entitled “The Spirit of Revelation.” Now, April was a long time ago in internet time, but I remember live-tweeting that session of conference, and a lot of people (especially liberal and unorthodox) really appreciated what Elder Bednar was saying. After all, how can you not like a talk that says?

I have talked with many individuals who question the strength of their personal testimony and underestimate their spiritual capacity because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions. Perhaps as we consider the experiences of Joseph in the Sacred Grove, of Saul on the road to Damascus, and of Alma the Younger, we come to believe something is wrong with or lacking in us if we fall short in our lives of these well-known and spiritually striking examples. If you have had similar thoughts or doubts, please know that you are quite normal. Just keep pressing forward obediently and with faith in the Savior. As you do so, you “cannot go amiss” (D&C 80:3).

Of course, even with a benign talk, or even a talk that seems to address issues that many people seem to have, there will always be something to sour some people.

With respect to Elder Bednar’s talk, it was this line, as pointed out by a commenter to the reddit discussion:

“Most frequently, revelation comes in small increments over time and is granted according to our desire, worthiness, and preparation.”

The word in question this time was worthiness, (although I could see ways that people could challenge the desire part too.) As commenter kolobian wrote:

Being worthy enough is their fall back answer to anything. Your patriarchal blessing didn’t come true? You weren’t obedient and worthy enough. God didn’t answer your prayers? You weren’t worthy enough. If you were obedient and worthy enough, you’d see the light and gain a testimony of TSCC.

The thing is that worthiness permeates through so much of the Mormon experience. Your temple recommend is based on your worthiness. After receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, one may have its constant companionship…if one remains worthy. With such emphasis on worthiness throughout the church, one may not even second guess it. It’s just so natural to think that worthiness matters. Who would think otherwise?

But just today, I realized that in other systems, worthiness doesn’t matter. Perhaps because in these other systems, no one will ever be worthy on their own accord. When I thought about “worthiness,” the foil to it that came to my mind was the Calvinist concept of unconditional election. From wikipedia:

In Calvinist and some other churches (Waldensians, Katharoi, Anabaptists, Particular Baptists, etc.) this election has been called “unconditional” because [God’s] choice to save someone does not hinge on anything inherent in the person or on any act that the person performs or belief that the person exercises. Indeed, according to the doctrine of total depravity (the first of the five points of Calvinism), the influence of sin has so inhibited the individual’s volition that no one is [willing] or able to come to or follow God apart from God first regenerating the person’s soul to give them the ability to love him. Hence, God’s choice in election is and can only be based solely on God’s own independent and sovereign will and [not] upon the foreseen actions of man. Scholastic Calvinists have sometimes debated precisely when, relative to the decree for the Fall of man, God did his electing – see supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism – though such distinctions are not often emphasized in modern Calvinism.

The Reformed position is frequently contrasted with the Arminian doctrine of conditional election in which God’s eternal choice to save a person is conditioned on God’s certain foreknowledge of future events, namely, that certain individuals would exercise faith and trust in response to God’s [offer] of salvation.

The idea of unconditional election is sometimes really hard for me to grasp, because every time I try to think it through, I sneak in some kind of condition.

I can definitely think of reasons against the “unconditional” approach…I mean, at some point, religion needs to produce tangible changes in behavior in this life to matter.


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  1. Seth R. permalink

    When I haven’t been sparring with online secularists, I often used to get into debates with online Calvinists.

    Their entire position basically falls apart when you simply confront them with:

    “OK, so what is it you want me to DO to be saved or become elect?”

    When they give you the usual “well you don’t have to DO anything” lines, you simply point out that obviously they want you to do something – otherwise, why are they talking to you?

    Unconditional Election is a comforting doctrine – until you actually start asking how you know whether you are “elect.” And what’s more, asking how you know that you haven’t fallen out of grace somehow in the meantime. Is it possible, once you’ve been “saved” to become un-saved?

    The truth is, most of the hard Calvinists I’ve encountered online are just as concerned about doing good works to reassure themselves that “they’ve still got it” as the most works-driven lady in your local Relief Society. Unconditional Election usually winds up being a lot of triumphalist, or self-esteem driven rhetoric, with no real substance.

  2. Seth,

    One thing about unconditional election is that you don’t know if you’re elect. (This reminds me of a story I was linked to…or maybe it was just a comment…where one person knew this woman who insisted that she was not saved/elect, even though she went to church, believed in Jesus/Bible/etc., was a fabulous person, and to other Calvinists was elect.)

    So, unconditional election can go both ways for self-esteem, because even if you’re doing everything, you just don’t know.

    • Seth R. permalink


      On a certain level, I don’t mind the human desire to simply acknowledge that maybe our fates are beyond our control. There’s a lot of evidence for that, and acceptance can be useful.

      But I just don’t find that the notion does that much for me as an overall framework for contextualizing the universe.

      • I dunno, God seems like that much of a dick to me. forgive my french.

        • Seth R. permalink

          Not sure we want a debate on the theodicy right now.

          • prob not

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