Latter-day Saint Life

Dr. David T. Morgan: The role of self-compassion in improving emotional resilience

Neither Do I Condemn Thee, by Eva Koleva Timothy
Neither Do I Condemn Thee, by Eva Koleva Timothy

I was particularly inspired by two stories from the Savior’s life in my recent Come, Follow Me studies. A portion of these accounts spoke to my psychologist brain, as I’m constantly seeking to better understand tools for increased emotional resilience. A different portion of these accounts spoke to my disciple heart, helping me better understand the Redeemer’s love for all of us. Both stories can help us better understand and cope with life’s difficult challenges.

Who Did Sin?

The first account is found in John 9:1–7:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

This account is like many in the Savior’s ministry: the Lord encountered someone with an affliction, had compassion on them, and performed a healing miracle. But the way it begins is unique; it begins with a mistaken assumption on the part of the Savior’s disciples.

Christ Healing a Blind Man, by Sam Lawlor
Christ Healing a Blind Man, by Sam Lawlor

With the disciples’ query “Who did sin?” the assumption is that someone must have done something wrong to cause the man’s blindness. Either his parents sinned and were therefore punished through their son, or the son sinned, and he received his own just deserts. I suppose it is a reasonable assumption for mortal minds. Bad things happen to bad people, right? Perhaps that is partially true. But it’s also true that bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people.

To look externally at a circumstance and presumptively infer root causes is way beneath our pay grade. See that family that has all their children married in the temple and active in the Church? They must have never struggled along the covenant path. That’s not necessarily true. See that family where the children are inactive and marriages are strained? They must have done something wrong to be in such a circumstance. That’s not necessarily true.

The Savior’s answer to “Who did sin?” is instructive. “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” There is no inference that sin has no consequence or that certain negative behaviors don’t lead to dire consequences. I believe He is saying that in this case, there was no sin related to the man’s condition. There was no misstep or personal weakness that led to a difficult outcome.

This man’s blindness was present so that God Himself could work a miracle, blessing the lives of that man, his family, and countless others who would be directly or indirectly affected by this man’s healing. Indeed, we are still talking about and learning from this miracle more than two thousand years later. Disputing the idea that “bad things happen because people are bad,” the Lord taught the truth that in this specific instance, the misfortune may have existed at least in part to bless the lives of others. And there are many other possible reasons why misfortunes exist for others.

Can I invite us all to think a little differently about these issues? Can we leave judgment to the Lord, and stop making worthless suppositions?

“Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he has an addiction?”

“Who did sin, this woman or her parents, that she has been unable to bear children?”

“Who did sin, this youth or his parents, that he has chronic emotional struggles?”

Can you see the folly in these assumptions? Can we stop making such judgments and show greater compassion and love for those that suffer? Alternatively, can we also stop pointing such blame at ourselves? “What sin did I commit, that I have this negative experience?”

To be clear, I’m an advocate of diligent personal responsibility. If there is something I’ve done that has caused a negative outcome, I should be accountable and strive to make amends. But could it also be that sometimes, things happen that are not a result of our poor choices? That we might be afflicted with a condition for many possible reasons or for no perceivable reason at all? In such cases, we can trade self-condemnation for self-compassion. We can “take pleasure in infirmities” (2 Corinthians 12:10), knowing that the gift of weakness can eventually lead to perfection.

Hath No Man Condemned Thee?

The second account is found in John 8:1–11:

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?

She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

It’s important to note two things in this situation. First, the sin of adultery is a very serious sin. Second, the Savior did not forgive her sin at that time. There are many New Testament examples of Jesus forgiving sins on the spot, literally saying, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” but this was not one of those times. If the woman followed the steps of repentance, including the Lord’s charge to forsake such behavior, then forgiveness would come in time. But at that moment, the stain of her sin remained intact. The woman, kneeling at the feet of the Redeemer, was yet guilty of a grievous sin. Yet there was no condemnation.

The scribes and Pharisees, in all their hypocritical hype, piled condemnation upon this woman. I can’t even imagine the terrible things they may have said as they dragged her to the Lord. Perhaps they were equally as excited to see her get her comeuppance as they were to entrap the Savior in a snare. Yet the one who would suffer for her adultery—the one who would suffer for all sin—refused to condemn and rather treated her with kindness and love.

In my experience, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be brutally self-condemning in situations far less grievous than the woman taken in adultery. Instead of following the example of the merciful Savior, sometimes we act in concert with the scribes and Pharisees, heaping excessive guilt and shame on ourselves without relent. I don’t believe this is helpful. Further, I don’t believe it is consistent with gospel principles.

It is very appropriate to feel spiritual sorrow and regret for poor choices; that’s part of the repentance process. But when we beat ourselves up over and over, we miss the mark. Repentance is designed to be a hopeful, joyful process. Emotional self-flagellation is a pattern of the adversary that he is all too skilled in getting us to employ. If the Savior refused to condemn a humble, repentant woman for a very serious sin, perhaps we can go a little easier on ourselves for less serious personal challenges.

I’m not suggesting a pendulum swing to a complete lack of accountability, but to a merciful middle where accountability and acceptance coexist. I believe as we treat ourselves with greater compassion and understanding, as the Savior does, we’ll be better disciples in general and more able to navigate life’s trials. Personal responsibility and self-compassion are not incompatible. On the contrary, they are complimentary character traits that are consistent with the Lord’s perfect example.

When faced with personal trials and emotional issues, let’s strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Be responsible at all times. Understand the sources of trials. Give ourselves compassion for mistakes and misdeeds, always striving for a better day.

▶ You may also like: Your worst critic is you—things to remember when you feel like tearing yourself down

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