It seems that two fundamentally different views on worthiness exist in LDS culture. The first, and most predominant, is that we are a worthy people. When we talk about other members of the Church, particularly those that are quite active and/or have high callings in the Church, we often refer to them as “good people.” We go to meetings and read scriptures and serve in callings, and view these things as outward manifestations of our inner goodness. Church reminds us of all the things we need to do each week to maintain our worthiness. Those that sustain this view believe that we are not just good, but culturally good at being good. They tend to believe that because we are members of the one true Church we become, by logical extension, the one true people. They tend to think of Mormons as the most righteous people on earth. If other people were as good, they reason, they would be led to join the Church. And since they don’t, we must be better than the rest. Another belief reinforcing this view is that the many blessings we as a people enjoy are a function of our goodness. Because of this righteousness=blessings association, this belief tends to be held more strongly by Mormons of higher socioeconomic standing. And because they tend to equate possessions with goodness, they are able to completely ignore core parts of the gospel like:
“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you,” (Jacob 2:17)
Such members of the Church rarely if ever think about the wealth gap between the Saints in the U.S. and those in other place like the Phillipines (where the Church is continuing to grow), even though our per capita income is 33x greater than theirs.
The other view on worthiness is quite different. It aligns with Jesus’ response when the rich young man addressed him as “Good Master.” Jesus responded:
“Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18)
It seems those who are truly closest to God have a downright negative view of their own worthiness.
Consider Nephi’s view:
“Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.” (2 Nephi 4:17-18)
The Brother of Jared:
“O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires. (Ether 3:2)
“And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. (Mosiah 2:25)
“I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.” (Mosiah 4:11)
My belief is that as we come to feel and crave God’s love, we begin to recognize the vast difference between the love He offers and the darkness and confusion that man and this world offer. Only as I stop pushing to make my way prevail and turn to Him and seek to follow His way in all things do I begin to see and feel the stark difference between His ways and mine; more particularly between His love and mine. Only when I stop thinking I am worthy do I begin to be humble enough to draw close to God. Is it possible that focusing on being worthy and simply wanting to be close to God and feel His love are actually mutally exclusive feelings or ways of being? Is the extreme humility that comes from desiring to be close to God over all else a prerequisite to being born again?
“And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them.” (Mosiah Chapter 4:2-3)
“For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state…” (Mosiah 4:5) Until we fail painfully in our attempts to chart our own course here on this earth, it seems unlikely we will become convinced of our own nothingness.
I think that’s what Mormon was trying to convey when he explained:
“O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world!
Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths!
Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.
O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth.” (Helaman 12:4-7)
If we as a people have fallen prey to this common natural-man delusion and believe in our own inherent worthiness even when the lack of angelic interaction testifies otherwise, we are in for a bumpy ride:
“And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.” (Helaman 12:3)