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Past Transgressions

Christian J - August 4, 2010

In the October 2009 conference of the church, I heard something that I had never heard before. An apostle revealed one of his past transgressions.

Sure, by the world’s standards, Elder Christofferson’s tale of childhood theft was extremely mild – even cute. But there it stood. It caused me to reflect on my own stint with the five finger discount. After we were finally caught in the act when I was 10, I was never the same. My mother taught me about the healing power of Jesus – for the first time it was real.

Not too long ago, a brother in my ward stood up and related a similar story. He had taken something from a store, his father taught him about God’s grace and mercy. I wasn’t alone.

I’ve thought about this concept of sharing our sins since my mission. I have a fairly colorful past and I believe it gave me a unique kind of empathy for those I found struggling in sin. Of course, we were told never to share past transgressions. It proved difficult as I consulted with people about changing their lives. “You don’t know what I’m going through”, was the phrase I often heard. It took a great deal of restraint to stay quiet. They thought we were perfect. And therein lies a problem.

Our Protestant brothers and sisters can teach us a thing or two about this issue. I’ve observed more than one congregation or individual where public/semi public confession of a sorted past was a natural part of community building. We’re all sinners right? Let’s make sure we all know it. Jesus accepts us as we are. Of course, I’ve also met those who can’t discuss anything but their past – even carry it as a badge of honor. As to say: “I appreciate Jesus more than you do – because he pulled me up from the depths.” I see this as a problem too.

It’s a complicated issue – I know. I don’t think testimony meeting should be a time to hang our laundry out to dry. There are certainly details that should remain in private space. But we should cultivate opportunities to be more publicly honest – about our past, our doubts and deepest fears (is God really there?). Not only for ourselves, but especially for others.

When I was a youth, I had a substance abuse problem. At the end of their rope, my parents sat me down for a talk. As a last resort my father, with my mom’s explicit disapproval, told me of his own experiences as a delinquent youth. His words I will never forget – there is more to life than this – much more. Believe me, I know. My mom thought it would give me license to continue in my behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth – and although I didn’t change immediately, my father sharing his past burned in my heart and mind. It gave me an honest picture.

After all, the greatest stories from the scriptures are of redemption and God’s everlasting mercy toward the wicked and disobedient. Paul even suggests that the reason Jesus saved him was to show an example of the depths of Christ’s mercy and grace. If Saul of Tarsus can be redeemed…

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1: 12-16 (NRSV)

I’ll leave it at that – for now.


  1. CJ,

    Thank you for your frank introspection. I think you’re right that testimony meeting isn’t the place to trade battle scars, but that there are times when they should be shared. It’s probably enough to wait to be moved by the Spirit to do so. Like you, I’ve had a colorful past. My kids don’t know about it, and my wife doesn’t know a lot of it. I haven’t had the need or compulsion, or saw the point, in sharing it. That being said, I don’t think I’d hesitate to tell someone if I received the prompting to do so. Thank you again. This is a good subject.

    Comment by David T. — August 4, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  2. Amen

    Comment by gilgamesh — August 5, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  3. I think there are sometimes good reasons for not disclosing everything about your past to people generally. Certainly F&T meeting is not typically a good place to do that. I don’t think that a parent should usually disclose past sins to his/her kids or a bishop to members of his ward.

    Disclosure may have some value in a one on one setting where the goal is to let a particular person know that you understand what they are experiencing and that the difficulties can be overcome.

    Also, if you’re going to marry someone, you should trust them enough to tell them everything about your past. Even things for which you have repented and been forgiven. You don’t want them finding out things later from family members, friends, past girlfriends or boyfriends, etc. and it’s a good test of your relationship to determine if they love you even knowing everything about you. If they can’t get past your past, then it’s important to know that up front.

    Comment by MCQ — August 5, 2010 @ 11:00 am

  4. MCQ,

    Yes, but then we’d have to bring the police into it, and then here comes Nancy Grace…

    I’ve repented. Let’s move on.

    Comment by David T. — August 5, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

  5. I think this is a great point, and not being open about past sins creates a vicious circle. Everyone thinks they are the only real sinner, which adds to a shame spiral and not to healing and improvement. We have to quit expecting people to be perfect, especially ourselves.

    I am reminded of a situation at BYU when I had idealized this boy I was dating thinking how perfect he was. After 4 years of on-off dating & friendship in which he knew my warts and flaws, he told me some things he had done that were certainly in the ballpark of things I had beaten myself up about. I was kind of blown away that he had sat on that the whole time I had shared my low feelings about myself and how perfect I thought he was without disabusing me of that notion. I think we create a culture where people care too much what others think of them to simply be who they are. That’s why we are criticized for a lack of authenticity.

    But I am not interested in confession-amonies in F&T either. I do think we need to be honest in our journals and more willing to share honestly with our kids and friends.

    Comment by hawkgrrrl — August 5, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  6. CJ–

    There is another aspect to those who have repented that isn’t mentioned often. The Savior taught this in the following parable:

    41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
    42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?
    43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.

    (New Testament | Luke 7:41 – 43)

    Those who have experienced to any degree the miracle of forgiveness understand this parable in a special way.

    There is wisdom in appropriately sharing one’s past sins if done with the purpose of testifying of the Savior’s redeeming power.

    Comment by Jared — August 5, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  7. Thanks hawkgrrrl – for summing it up better than I could.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — August 5, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  8. There is wisdom in appropriately sharing one’s past sins if done with the purpose of testifying of the Savior’s redeeming power.

    Right on Jared.

    Comment by MCQ — August 5, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

  9. That is really nicely said. Thank you for sharing that.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 6, 2010 @ 7:22 am

  10. Well said, CJ. This was one of the things that made the mission so vital to my life as it was there that I started to finally understand this principle, both for myself, my companions, other members and those we tried to teach.

    Comment by Bret — August 6, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  11. There is definitely times where sharing past sins is TMI. I sat thru and an inappropriate talk of a young man and I was so grateful that my children were young enough to be clueless. Hearing about how fun this guy thought his sins were was pretty awful, especially knowing about a few particular people in the audience.
    Anyway, I definitely think full disclosure is important to spouses.
    I think letting the spirit guide when disclosing sins is a good way to go.
    I think it would kind of suck to be a kid who had parents who sinned a lot and the parent says do as a say not as I did. So finding a way to work that out would sometimes mean be discreet and sometimes mean be upfront.

    Comment by jks — August 8, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

  12. jks,

    Your point about the kid with the sinning parents reminded me of something that happened between me and my 14-year-old daughter the other night. One of our joint-guilty pleasures is to watch “Pawn Stars” on the History Channel. We were catching up on TiVo’d episodes the night before last, when someone went in trying to sell the very first edition of Playboy. The show made the mistake of showing one of the inside pages with some strategic blurring. My daughter commented, “I didn’t know they had naked women in the magazine. I thought they were, like, wearing lingerie and stuff.” I muttered, “No… they’re naked.” Then she turned to me and asked, “Did you ever read a Playboy?” Well, I don’t lie to my kids, so I said, “Well, yeah… when I was a teenager.” She turned back to the TV and got really quiet. I feebly added, “It was before I joined the church. I didn’t know better.” She just nodded, not looking at me. After some more quiet, I asked, “Are you mad?” She shook her head, no. “Just disappointed.” Ouch.

    Comment by David T. — August 10, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  13. Wow, David. Sorry. At some point we all come to the stunning realization that our parents aren’t perfect, but it’s a difficult day when you see that realization dawn on your own kids.

    Thankfully, because of a combination of my glaring faults, my kids above-average intelligence, and my wife’s helpful habit of pointing out my faults at every opportunity, my kids figured this out when they were still very small, so they’ve had time to decide that they will still try to like me anyway.

    Comment by MCQ — August 10, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

  14. CJ, you’ve given about as good a defense of sharing past transgressions as I’ve heard. Paul and Alma gave lengthy confessions, but I think it’s significant that their sins were *already well-known* to the church–the news was grace, not sin. Almost all of the examples I can think of in my own experience weren’t good, and it was very hard for the person to see why it wasn’t good. After all, they were renouncing sin. Some of my missionary companions told tales of their scandalous pasts with such flair, it was almost a fond reminescence mixed with a sense of having special, exclusive knowledge that all the “good ones” (those who didn’t recount their sins) didn’t have. One even said, “I know I’ll be condemned, but at least I can save others!” Wow, what a hero.

    Not everyone who confesses feels that way and talks that way. But still, I think being sinners we constantly underestimate the badness of sin, and how much we’re still in it. ‘I learned from it.’ ‘Everyone makes mistakes.’ ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ That’s too arm’s-length for me. Sin isn’t my past. It’s my present, too. Christ erases sin, but I don’t think he transforms it into something good. There was a guy in my college ward who, whenever he needed a poigniant story for a talk or testimony, would bring up the night he was driving drunk and crashed, killing his best friend who was in the car with him. His friend’s parents forgave him. The Lord forgave him. But his whole self-image seemed to be the jerk drunk whom everyone forgave. It seemed like he liked being that person, rather than the ordinary, prideful slouch God forgave, because he had the distinction of having committed dramatic sins.

    So I think that the confessional American evangelicals have it mostly wrong. Most of their tearful confessions strike me as self-indulgent. It must be true that those who have been forgiven more must love more–I believe it because Christ said it. But do they have to rub my face in it? Or do I have to trot out my sins, too (even if they disgust me), to prove that I’m as wretched, and thus as grateful and grace-filled, as they are? Rock bottom for the progidal son was eating pig slop. That’s the humiliation, the shame, and the repulsiveness of sin. It doesn’t usually make a great personal story.

    Comment by Jeremiah J. — August 12, 2010 @ 12:36 am

  15. Rock bottom for the progidal son was eating pig slop. That’s the humiliation, the shame, and the repulsiveness of sin. It doesn’t usually make a great personal story.

    Great line Jeremiah. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — August 12, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

  16. I think being sinners we constantly underestimate the badness of sin, and how much we’re still in it. ‘I learned from it.’ ‘Everyone makes mistakes.’ ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ That’s too arm’s-length for me. Sin isn’t my past. It’s my present, too. Christ erases sin, but I don’t think he transforms it into something good.

    You nailed it.

    Most of their tearful confessions strike me as self-indulgent.

    Self-indulgent and often self-promoting. I think if we really got it we would probably shut up about our sins except to apologize.

    Comment by MCQ — August 12, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

  17. CJ, Jeremiah gave an example of why missionaries are told not to recount past sin. Those who do often do so in a way that appears to brag about what they got away with. I served with some missionaries like that. Some didn’t recount sinful exploits with regret for having done them, or with gratitude towards the savior, but more of a bragging about how cool they were, or about what they were able to get away with before they turned 18/19, or to illustrate how bad-ass they were.

    There’s rules and there’s exceptions. Church leaders teach the rules. The Spirit teaches the exceptions. A standard, often unspoken, exception to almost every rule in the church is: unless the Spirit dictates otherwise.

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 13, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  18. I wish I’d read this thread before blabbing about past sins to people who turned out not to be either trustworthy or kind. You live, you learn. There are good reasons not to talk about past sins in general. They are certainly never something to brag about. Realizing just how much you need a Savior is a humbling experience, not something to wear as a badge of coolness later.

    But I do wish there was more talk about being forgiven for actual sins. There seems to be a trend now, to call things “mistakes” or “weaknesses,” as if it would be offensive to label something a sin. Sometimes I want to interrupt the speaker who is calling things a “mistake” and say, “guess what? I’ve committed actual sins, and I can be forgiven for those too!”

    Comment by Melinda — August 20, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

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