Life Rafts and Bullet Holes

Imagine it’s 1942 and you are a soldier aboard a ship in the middle of World War II.  Your ship has been hit by a German U-boat and is quickly sinking.  You scramble aboard a life raft with several of your fellow soldiers and plunge into the icy water.  “Things just can’t get any worse,” you think to yourself.  Suddenly your life raft is under fire.  The firing doesn’t last long, but when it’s over you realize there are several bullet holes in the raft and it is taking on water quickly.

Luckily someone knew that this type of scenario would occur and has packed an emergency kit.  Upon opening the kit you find several of the wooden cone-shaped items shown in the photograph.  These are puncture plugs.  You shove the small end into the bullet hole and turn until the leak is stopped.  The threads hold the plug in place and keep your tiny raft from sinking.

An unknown author once wrote:

All the water in the world,
However hard it tried,
Could never sink the smallest ship
Unless it [gets] inside.
And all the evil in the world,
The blackest kind of sin,
Can never hurt you the least bit
Unless you let it in. 
Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a fabulous talk in which he quoted that poem.  It happened to be during my first General Conference as a missionary in the MTC and it had a profound effect on me.  In his talk Elder Packer mentions several things we can do to combat temptation, such as saying a silent prayer, singing a favorite hymn or brushing our thumb against our wedding ring.
Each of these acts are small and seemingly insignificant, but they are very much like the bullet hole plugs the soldiers used to keep their life rafts afloat.  Try them out or come up with some of your own.  I know that I have been saved many times from drowning in the depths of sin because of small and simple things.

Back to School

I’ve been communicating with a friend about God’s plan of salvation and I’ve been thinking about the best way to explain it.  Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, but I think it helps to look at God’s plan in terms of a classroom, particularly a chemistry class – given that chemistry is simply heavenly  🙂

God is the perfect teacher and we are His students.  His goal is for us to come to this life and learn the many lessons He has for us.  He wants us to become more like Him, but in order to do so we need to learn about Him and develop our attributes and skills as we strive to follow Him.  There are a couple of attributes we know about God that vital to this discussion: He is perfectly just, perfectly merciful and is no respecter of persons (which means He will provide every person with the opportunity to receive the blessings available through His plan).

There are several ways that this classroom could be set up, so let’s try thinking through each scenario to see what the results would be.  Let’s assume that in every scenario the teacher is clear about what the goals are (to learn the material and develop necessary attributes).  The teacher also gives a clear syllabus outlining what is a passing grade and what is a failing grade.

There are two basic conditions that must be met in order to get credit for this class: first, the students must have gained the essential knowledge, attributes and skills (as evidenced by a passing grade); second, the students must be able to pay the tuition bill which comes due at the end of the semester.  If either of these conditions is not met the student can not receive credit for the course.

The teacher has also given each student an amazing scholarship which will not only cover the tuition bill at the end of the semester, but also the cost of textbooks and even living expenses.  The scholarship is basically limitless when it comes to funding, but such an amazing scholarship is challenging to keep.  In fact the students are clearly told that in order to keep the scholarship they must maintain a perfect score throughout the semester.  In other words, the first time they make a single mistake they forfeit the entire scholarship immediately.

So, how could the teacher set up this course…

Classroom #1 – Obedience by force
The teacher decides to force each individual student to do the right thing every time.  This means the teacher literally takes a student’s hand during an exam and forces them to choose the correct answer.  During exercises and lab activities the students can do nothing of their own free will.  Instead the teacher forcefully guides each movement.
Results: Although the students have never answered a question incorrectly or made a mistake of any kind it’s clear that they have not learned a single thing.  As a result the teacher has failed.

Classroom #2 – No mercy
The teacher sees that the students make mistakes often, in fact by the end of the semester every student has messed up somewhere along the line.  Therefore, every student loses their scholarship and no one receives credit for the course.  This is a pity because some students were making some real progress with their learning and lab skills.
Results: The teacher has been just.  The teacher set the standard and the students didn’t live up to it.  Also, the teacher has not been a respecter of persons – they have applied the rules equally to every student.  The problem is that there in no mercy in this situation and therefore no hope for the students.  The teacher has failed.

Classroom #3 – Only mercy
Again, the teacher sees that every student makes mistakes often.  But the teacher feels bad for the students and therefore changes the rules and allows every student to keep their scholarship and pass the course, despite their flawed performance.
Results: The teacher has been merciful, but not just.  They saw flaws in the students, but instead of correcting those flaws the teacher instead let every student pass the class.  Again, all students have been treated the same and so the teacher is not a respecter of persons.  But the students haven’t learned the material and haven’t developed the necessary attributes and skills and therefore the teacher has failed.

Classroom #4 – Some mercy
The teacher sees the students making mistakes and, once again, feels bad for the students and therefore chooses some students who will be allowed to pass, despite their flawed performance.  The remainder of the class receive no credit for the class based on the rules.
Results: The teacher has been merciful to some students, but not perfectly merciful to all.  The teacher has also been just to most of the students: the students weren’t perfect, so they received no credit for the course.  But the teacher has not been perfectly just because they have allowed some students to pass despite their mistakes and therefore breaks the rules written by the teacher.  Many of the students that passed still haven’t learned the material and haven’t developed the necessary skills and attributes and therefore the teacher has failed.  Besides the teacher has discriminated against the remaining students because they weren’t given the same opportunities, making the teacher a respecter of persons.

Classroom #5 – Mercy & justice
As before, the teacher sees the flaws in the students and feels pity towards them.  The teacher knows that no one will pass the class by their own merits (based on the demands of justice), but at the same time the students should be given a hope of passing the class (as dictated by the law of mercy).  The only way to achieve this is for the teacher to introduce a star pupil.  This pupil will undergo the same tests and trials as the rest of the students, but is perfect in every way.  This means he will never make a mistake in class and therefore will pass the class and receive credit for it on his own merits.  But the star pupil also goes out of his way to help and tutor the other students.  The students can model themselves after this star pupil and begin to improve thanks to his guidance.  They are still not perfect, but they are learning the material and improving their skills and attributes along the way.

However, the teacher (and the star pupil) know that at the end of the semester the rest of the students (even those making the most progress) will not receive credit for the course because they will not be able to pay their tuition bills.  Remember that all have lost their scholarships because the scholarship requires maintaining a perfect score and they have all made (and continue to make) mistakes.  The star pupil, however, has kept his scholarship (with its limitless funding) and thus is able to step in and pay the tuition bill for the remaining students, giving them hope of still receiving credit for the class.  The star pupil suffers the punishments of justice for each and every student, but the students must still choose whether or not to accept this sacrifice.  The star pupil sets requirements (forming study groups, working on the assignments instead of slacking off in class, etc.).  The terms are difficult, but not impossible.  All of the requirements are necessary, not for some arbitrary purpose, but to help the students learn what they need to learn by the end of the semester.  Some students choose to follow the star pupil and spend the rest of the semester striving to meet his requirements (and find it is easier to learn the material thanks to his help), but other students choose not to.  Some students begin to follow the requirements, but decide not to follow through because it’s not easy and they see many of their classmates goofing off.  At the end of the semester, some students meet the requirements set by the star pupil and thereby pass the course and receive credit for it and some students fail the course.

Results: The teacher has been perfectly just.  The students lost their scholarships (as dictated by the terms of the scholarship), but the tuition payments have still been made.  The punishment demanded by justice has been met by the only person who could suffer the punishment for others – the star pupil.  The students that followed the guidance of the star pupil and met his requirements were able to receive credit for the class, not on their own merits, but due to the star pupil.  But in the process they have been able to learn the class material and were able to improve their skills and attributes.  That was the point of the course and therefore it makes sense that they should pass.  Those who were unwilling to follow the star pupil’s guidance did not learn the material and therefore it makes sense that they should fail and not receive credit for the course.  Mercy has also been satisfied.  Mercy was extended to each and every student, but it was still up to the individual to accept the mercy and spend the rest of the semester working to learn and grow.  The teacher is no respecter of persons since all students have been given the same opportunities.  The teacher has succeeded.

Classroom #6 – Stacking the deck
The scenario above leads to an interesting scenario.  If the teacher knows everything, including which students will pass and which will fail (based on the star pupil’s requirements).  The teacher could “stack the deck” by only allowing “good” students (those who will pass) into the class.  If no “bad” students are allowed into the course, the teacher will have a 100% pass rate and no one will have to fail, right?
Results: The results are subtle, but damning.  The teacher will have no need to create a failing grade because no students would fail.  The teacher is perfectly honest and couldn’t deceive the students into thinking it’s possible to fail so this would be shown on the syllabus.  Imagine what would happen on the first day of class: students would look at the syllabus and see that it is impossible to fail the course.  The only possible grade is a passing one.  Therefore there is no need for the students to struggle to learn the material and better themselves.  The teacher would be forced to pass the students (given that their is no failing grade anymore) and yet the students haven’t learned anything and therefore the teacher would be a failure.  Without a chance of failure there can be no true success.

Classroom #7 – Incompetent students
In this scenario the students are truly incompetent.  Not a single student has the capacity to get an answer correct (even by random guessing) ever.  This means that during the entire semester the students not only fail each and every test, but fail each and every question on those tests.  The teacher knows how incompetent the students are and therefore introduces the star pupil (as in scenario #5), but this does not completely solve the problem.  The star pupil can take the punishment and pay the tuition bills, but the students are incapable of learning anything.  Therefore the teacher decides to force some of of the students to do the right thing.  As in scenario #1 the teacher takes control, but only of some of the students.  Those students suddenly do fabulously well from that point on in the semester and receive passing grades.  The rest of the students fail, based on their own incompetence.
Results: This combines the downfalls of several of the previous scenarios.  Because the teacher has to force some of the students to do the right thing those students learn nothing from the class (since they didn’t actually do it themselves) and therefore the teacher has failed even though some students have passed the class and received credit for it (thanks to the sacrifice of the star pupil).  To make matters worse, the teacher has not treated all the students in the same manner and is therefore a respecter of persons.


The only scenario that satisfies both justice and mercy and truly allows the students to learn, grow and meet the objectives of the course is scenario #5.  Obviously, in the scenarios above our Heavenly Father is the teacher and Jesus Christ is the star pupil – the Savior of the world.  Through Him we are given hope of redemption, but only upon the conditions He has set.  The road isn’t easy, the path is straight and narrow and we will fall countless times, but through Him we are given hope.  We are given the chance to fall short and learn from our mistakes and yet learn the lessons that God would have us learn and become the men and women that God would have us be.  I am truly overwhelmed by this thought – that God would truly love all mankind (including me individually) enough that He would sacrifice His perfect Son for us.

Debtors’ Prison

One of the scariest ideas I’ve come across is the idea of Debtors’ Prison.  Since ancient times if a man is unable to pay his debts, he can be sent to debtors’ prison where he will be held until he can pay the debt.  Now this seems like a horrible idea because how in the world could you earn enough money to pay your debts if you are stuck in prison?

I have a few documents that really drive home the reality of this concept.  The first (shown in the photo above) is a set of three arrest warrants from the state of Vermont written in 1806.  They order the sheriff to arrest the debtors named and produce them in court to pay the money they owe.  The second is a debtor judgement case from Salem, Massachusetts from the year 1863.  In it a man by the name of Frank D. Richardson is ordered to debtors’ prison until he can pay the debt he owes (a little over $400).

February 2014 053

Every time I look at these documents it reminds me of the massive debts I have accumulated – not financial debts, but instead the spiritual debt of sin.  I have made so many mistakes and if there were no redemption possible I know I would be trapped forever in a prison of my own making.  But Christ has paid the penalty for sin – including yours and mine.  He has opened the prison doors, but it is up to us to accept His conditions.  Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a great talk about this, which has been made into a brief video.

One of the hardest parts for me is the task of forgiving myself.  I’m often harder on myself than I would be on anyone else.  And so, unfortunately, even after repenting and changing my ways and feeling the healing power of Christ’s atonement, I still insist on carrying the baggage of guilt and beating myself over the head with it every chance I get.  It’s as though Christ has unlocked the door to the debtors’ prison and loosed my shackles and yet I sit there in the dust berating myself instead of stepping out into the sunshine and praising Him for releasing me.