At first this sounds great, which it is--oh so much better than actually having to atone for ones actions alone without Christ to take on most of that burden. Yet, truly being “born again” is not as easy as it sounds. It requires extreme sacrifice. It requires going through a veil, of giving up the old self, and allowing faith to create something new. After all, if my Heavenly Father is to remember my sins no more, I must do the same. That is hard stuff because that is my life wrapped up with my sins. No matter how much pain and sorrow my old life brought me, no matter how heavy the void that hung around my neck, it was still my life, and there were good times mixed in with the misery.
I teach English at a residential treatment center for boys, and I saw one of my students struggle with this. In his former life he was a street graffiti artist and small time dope dealer. While at our school, he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and had slowly rebuilt his life based on gospel principles. He was at a relatively safe place when he wrote a descriptive essay for me about his former life as a graffiti artist. It was an amazing piece, describing the city in the early dawn and the peace and solitude he felt tagging right before the city awakened. As writing, it was good stuff. Had he been a shop owner washing down the sidewalk before opening shop it would simply be a pleasant memory. But this moment of connection for him, because the life choices he had made, was attached instead to an illegal act and a former lifestyle that brought more pain than peace. Yet, as the memory was pleasant, I could see it pulling him back to a life he needed to let go.
When he turned in the essay, I had two thoughts: 1) this is solid writing and 2) if I don’t help him, this boy is in danger of returning to a life of misery. Because of my past, I knew I had to be honest. Warnings about “Don’t go there” would only make him resentful. After all, it was his life, not mine. What right did I have to tell him that the peace he felt that day was a lie? I didn’t have that right at all. And I knew that peace myself. For me, it was city lights reflected at the bottom of the concrete channel of the Rio Grande from the Santa Fe Bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas after a heavy night of drinking. My life was miserable because of my choices but that stopping point on a bridge between two countries was none-the-less moving. I still see that glassy, slightly rippled water, hard and slick as wet obsidian through the diagonal grid of the chain-link fence.
So, instead of lecturing him, I talked about giving up good things for better things. He had lots of support from staff and has since married in the temple. He chose to move forward not backwards. But, I know that choice wasn’t easy.
Here is the warning I give my children and future grandchildren: Live your life so that you never have to “go and sin no more.” Christ does provide us with fresh starts, but every time we have to be “born again” to move forward in happiness, we have to leave part of us behind. Life is messy and good times get mixed in with our poor choices. To truly start over, we have to leave the past behind. In leaving the past behind, we leave a chunk of ourselves with it.
Live so that all your greatest memories can apply to the life you want to end with. How grand it must be to be eighty years old, look back at your life and remember that your first night of intimacy was with your wife who is pushing your wheel chair when you are eighty. Does that mean you can’t have a meaningful marriage if you had premarital sex with another woman or went through a divorce? Of course not, a loving Heavenly Father does allow us to start over. But not even the grace of God can unify a narrative that happened chaotically, without a plan.
True, one learns from mistakes. One learns wisdom and empathy. But learning is part of life. You’ll gain wisdom regardless of your path. Yet only one path leads to a life where all memories can remain in the narrative that ends with a resolution of joy not disjointed by sin. It’s good to be able to say, “I was lost, now I’m found”; it is profound to be able to look back on your life and not need to edit anything out to move forward.
I love my life, sin and all, and if I had to do it all over again, without any changes, I’d be fine with that because I know I’d end up here, at a place of faith and the resulting joy that comes from being worthy of receiving the Holy Ghost. Yet, I have to live with the knowledge that I could have lived another narrative, one where I never stopped speaking to my Heavenly Father. No matter what I accomplish in this life, no matter how much joy I feel, no matter how close I draw to my Heavenly Father, I know that other narrative is better. It is a fact I have to live with. If I could teach my children the ultimate lesson, it would be this:
Live the life God intends for you NOW so that you never have to edit out chunks of living to move forward. Every hard, right decision becomes a permanent detail to move the narrative forward. Every wavering is an error that will eventually have to be erased through the revision and editing process of the atonement before the narrative is right. Those scraps, those dribbles of less-than-perfect text, at some point must be set aside to move forward. Imagine what it must be like to be Christ—for every word, every deed to be worthy of including in your life story. You can’t accomplish that, but get as close as you can, and you will be happy for the majority of the narrative, even in moments of sorrow and pain because the Holy Ghost provides a joy deeper, better rooted, and stronger than circumstance.