Celeste Davis, a Brigham Young University graduate with a Masters in Sociology wrote an article titled, “Biggest Barrier to our Connection to God” (LDS.org).
She wrote that the story of the prodigal son, the son who leaves and spends all his inheritance in “riotous living” eventually “comes to himself” and wants to return to his father, but he is afraid and feels unworthy to do so. When he eventually does come back, some of his first words are “I … am no longer worthy to be called thy son.” (See Luke 15:11–21.)
This line sheds some interesting light on why at times we barricade ourselves from a connection with God. We mess up and we no longer feel worthy of that intimate relationship. And that is the biggest barrier to our connection to God - feeling unworthy.
I’d like to propose three ways we can keep our connection to God good and strong even when we make mistakes: Believing we are worthy of love and connection, understanding the difference between guilt and shame, and realising our innate worth.
In order to have a strong sense of love and belonging with God, we have to believe we are worthy of love and belonging!
Brené Brown, a social science researcher who has dedicated her career to studying human connection, has interviewed thousands of people wanting to know why some people are able to forge strong, deep, and long-lasting connections with others, while some people struggle with this their entire lives. She said:
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy” (“The Power of Vulnerability” - TED Talk, June 2010 www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability).
While this research deals with human relationships, it applies very well to our heavenly relationships too.
Since we all sin, the problem is not that we are not worthy to talk to God; it is that we don’t feel worthy to talk to God, and thus we create a major barrier in our connection to Him.
When we mess up, it is so easy to let our sense of worth, our sense of believing we are worthy of love and belonging, to slip as well. It is crucial, therefore, that we find a way to not attach our sense of worth to our behaviour.
One idea that can help in disconnecting feelings of worth from mistakes is understanding the difference between guilt and shame.
Throughout our lives we easily misunderstand guilt. We know on some level we needed to feel guilty in order to bring repentance, but we never seem to get the balance right.
So we thought true repentance meant we had to feel really bad about ourselves for a long time. That’s how it works, right? Wrong. We were mistaking guilt for shame.
So what is guilt? It is knowing that I did something bad, something not in line with my values with who I am. And shame is believing I am bad.
For example, let’s say you haven’t read your scriptures all week. If you think, “Ugh! I’m the worst! I’m never righteous enough,” that is shame.
If you think, “Hmm, this business of not reading my scriptures all week. That is not in line with my values. I made a mistake. I better fix it,” that is guilt.
Shame can lead to all sorts of negative behaviours: seeking validation from others, defensiveness, feeling threatened, and burying our emotions.
Feeling the right kind and the right amount of guilt, on the other hand, should lead us to repentance, changes to what we are doing, and humility. Once those have been achieved, the guilt should stop. But shame never knows when to stop.
How do you tell if you are experiencing guilt or shame? You’ll know it by its fruits. Does it lead you to repentance and peace or to relentlessly beating yourself up and avoiding changes for the better?
Elder Holland reminded us that wallowing in shame comes from Satan, not God, when he gave this excellent definition of repentance: “You can change anything you want to change, and you can do it very fast… It takes exactly as long to repent as it takes you to say, ‘I’ll change’—and mean it” (“For Times of Trouble” - Brigham Young University devotional, March 18, 1980, speeches.byu.edu).
The definition of repentance at its core, is a change of heart. It is true that we must own up to our own limitations in order to change, and often this is an uncomfortable and painful thing to do, but it ultimately leads to peace of heart.
I think knowing who we are deep down and realising our innate worth is key to not letting our guilt spiral into shame when we mess up.
The surest, most solid thing on which to base our self-worth is the fact that we are children of God. We have loving heavenly parents, meaning we have some God stuff right there inside us all the time: something divine within, that can never be taken away by our mistakes.
Which brings us back to the prodigal son’s understandable, but mistaken, idea: “I am no longer worthy to be called thy son.”
Satan knows just where to hit us to keep us from connecting with God, and distrusting we are worthy to connect with Him and be called His children is one of his most powerful tools.
Don’t fall for it. The prodigal son’s father immediately disavows any idea that his son (though he messed up royally), is no longer worthy to be called his son. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). And more than just affirming their unimpaired father/child relationship, this loving and forgiving father calls for the best robe, a ring, shoes, and the killing of the fatted calf, as well as a celebration in his honour.
If this story were portraying an earthly father, he would seem quite justified in shunning his son or at least not going all out to honour him before the son had really proven he’d corrected his mistakes or earned the money back. But this story is a parable portraying our Heavenly Father, who is infinitely capable and anxious to love and welcome even His most imperfect children home.
You are a child of God. You can’t ever become more child of God by your merits, and you can't ever become less a child of God by your imperfections. Trusting deep down that you are loved by an eternal father is also the key to believing you are worthy of connecting with Him all the time, even when you mess up.
So connect with Him. You are worthy to do so.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints