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_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great Dilemma

Posted by joespencer on June 13, 2012

The first of Robinson’s chapters is short enough that I’ll deal with it in a single post. It’s short because it’s meant only to set up the problem without beginning to spell out the solution. Indeed, it says so little about the solution that Robinson has to say, with emphasizing italics, on the second page: “Now whatever you do, don’t stop reading here.” This chapter doesn’t inspire much hope, but it’s short, and it itself pleads with the reader to go on to the good news.

So how does Robinson set up “the great dilemma”? He calls it a “dichotomy” consisting of “two simple facts.”

The first: God can’t “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). Robinson spells this out a bit, emphasizing absolute strictness: “God’s standard, the celestial standard, is absolute, and it allows no exceptions” (p. 1). That’s fine, but one might get a bit nervous when Robinson goes on to translate this first fact in the following way: “God cannot, will not, allow moral or ethical imperfection in any degree whatsoever to dwell in his presence” (p. 2). Wait, “sin” here amounts to “moral or ethical imperfection”? What does that mean? And then he says: “If there is even one sin on our record, we are finished” (p. 2). Hang on, is this a matter of actions and events or of traits and characters? Is this about moral or ethical imperfection or identifiably transgressive acts? I realize, as I said in my last post, that this book isn’t meant to be rigorous theology, but this looseness is a bit dangerous. I wonder if it doesn’t play into all the misconceptions that lead to the problems Robinson means to overcome. Hadn’t we better spend a bit of time clarifying the nature of sin?

Robinson, however, goes on to the “other horn of the dilemma”: “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Robinson summarizes: “all human beings, even the best among us, have committed sins or have displayed imperfections that are incompatible with the celestial standard and that God cannot tolerate” (p. 2). He oversimplifies a bit: “After all, one little sin was sufficient to get Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden and out of God’s presence. While they were totally innocent, they could walk and talk with him–one transgression, and they were gone” (p. 3). I’m not sure that’s really the message of Genesis 2-3, but perhaps that can be forgiven. At any rate, there’s little reason to disagree with what Robinson’s saying about this second “fact.” We’re sinful (whatever it means to be sinful).

The problem comes, of course, when these two facts are taken together. If sin in any degree excludes us from God’s presence, and if we’re sinful, then we’ve no way out of the dilemma.

But I think there’s good reason to come back to the first of these two “facts.” What exactly does sin mean? And what does it mean when God says that He makes no “allowance” for sin? These are questions worth thinking about a bit more carefully. And frankly, it seems to me that Robinson entirely overlooks a third possible way of thinking about sin, one that is arguably more scriptural. Sin is neither a matter of moral or ethical imperfection nor a matter of identifiably transgressive acts. Sin, at least according to the Paul on whom Robinson himself draws, is a certain relationship to God. Sin is less a question of what we ourselves are or have (or have not) become, or a question of what we do or have (or have not) done, than it’s a question of how we are vis-a-vis God. Do we fight against him, “chang[ing] the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Romans 1:23), or do we “live by faith” (Romans 1:17), “thankful” as we glorify God “as God” (Romans 1:21)? Sin is a question of suppressing God’s truth, of transforming Him into something other than what He is, of denying our createdness before Him. Sin is, in a word, already a rejection of grace.

Why is that clarification important? Because Robinson’s way of setting up the dilemma is already, I think, a problematic move. He sets up the dilemma as if grace, still to come in the next chapter, were the way out of the dilemma, when the dilemma itself is constituted only by assuming a certain sort of relation to grace. Grace isn’t the solution so much as the source of the dilemma, and the dilemma is less the reality we face that might drive us toward grace than the imaginary situation we create for ourselves in order not to have to face up to the nature of God’s gracefulness. If God can’t tolerate sin, then, it’s not because sin has an ontologically positive status that somehow conflicts with God’s nature. It’s because sin is explicit rejection of God’s gracefulness. God’s refusal to make allowances for sin is nothing but His refusal (or inability?) to force anyone to be happy.

Robinson closes the first chapter by telling a story about punishing his son, Michael. He sent him to his room and then promptly forgot about him. Hours later, when his son came haltingly out of his room asking whether they could ever be friends again. He then explains: “Spiritually, we are all in the same boat that Michael was in. We all know what it feels like to be ‘sent to our rooms’ spiritually, that is, to be alienated from our Heavenly Father, to be cut off and alone” (p. 5). We know that feeling, but we have to be very careful here. That feeling is part of our own self-deception. We tell ourselves that we’ve been sent to our rooms, when we’ve actually locked ourselves in there, screaming through the keyhole at God that His love is something we don’t want to deal with. Del Parson got it wrong, in other words. Christ doesn’t stand calmly outside a door without a handle, knocking patiently to see if we’ll open up. He pounds on the door with one fist and tries desperately to open the handle with the other while we cower in a corner of the room inside with all the furniture pushed up against the door. We couldn’t be more afraid of Jesus, more worried that He’s going to take away all our private desires, frustrate all our beloved fantasies, cancel all our hopes and dreams and wishes. We don’t want His love and grace because they’re too demanding. We want something else: to be left alone.

So let me conclude by introducing the theme I’ll be harping on over and over and over in this series. Robinson ends the first chapter by saying this: “In the grip of such sins and in the midst of guilt and despair, in our terrible aloneness, cut off from God, we raise our eyes to heaven and cry out, ‘Oh, Father, isn’t there any way we can ever be friends again?'” (p. 5). What Robinson makes difficult to hear, due to the way he frames “the great dilemma,” is God’s crucial answer. In response to our over-dramatic plea to the heavens, mostly offered in order to pretend that it’s God who has cut us off, there comes a voice that simply asks: “Are you ready to stop pouting yet?”

I’ll have to see if I can’t make clear how that could be God’s response starting with my next post.

35 Responses to “_Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great Dilemma”

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  3. Robyn Iverson said

    Nicely put: “That feeling is part of our own self-deception. We tell ourselves that we’ve been sent to our rooms, when we’ve actually locked ourselves in there, screaming through the keyhole at God that His love is something we don’t want to deal with.” I think that about sums up my own experience.

  4. YvonneS said

    Joe: I really like the final question, “Are you ready to stop pouting yet?” It seems so simple that it is overly so. To whom much is given much required. There are numerous hosts of mortals who cannot be said to have sinned against God’s laws because they don’t know what they are. For the rest of them who do know what they are it is fair to say they have all sinned.

    Everyone gets sent to their room metaphorically when they are born into mortality. And every one is welcomed back into God’s presence without doing one thing at all. The resurrection of all persons is a free gift. We only have a dilemma when we start trying to quantify sin and decide what it that makes a particular action sinful for one person but perhaps not for another. The way has been provided for us to escape the effects of sin and that is repentance. Grace may be sufficient, but faith and repentance are necessary as is enduring to the end. .

  5. CEF said

    I am a little fascinated by what you are saying. Not sure I really understand it. So just what was it that Adam and Eve was pouting about? I think an answer to this question might help me follow what you are claiming. At least I hope so. :)

    • joespencer said

      We, all of us, pout about not getting our way, about God not bowing to our every desire. That’s what devastates us.

      As for Adam and Eve, specifically, that’s a more complex story—involving worn paths leading up to the dead end of Eden’s closed entrance, commandments concerning prayer and sacrifice, the sudden visitation of angels, the bestowal of priesthood keys, and the reorientation of human life. That’s all a crucial story as well, but it’s not the story I meant to tell. I meant to talk about our rejection of grace….

      • CEF said

        Sorry for the distraction, it was not my intent. I discovered grace several years ago when I read Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace”. It was a heart changing/life altering event. I thought, if a jerk like me can find it, then anyone could find it as well. That does not seem to be the case, at least for members of the Church. They seem to be afraid of it. We don’t even have “Amazing Grace” in our hymn book.

        I used to give Yancey’s book to everyone I could get to take it, but as I said, I gave it up a few years ago. I was causing more harm than good. Anyway, I admire you for what you are trying to do and wish you the best. I will continue to read what you have to say, but will stay out of this.

  6. M. Dearest said

    I need something a bit subversive to embroider on a sampler. Thanks! Perhaps as I’m focusing on the trivia of fabric, thread and needle, I’ll contemplate growing up. And maybe even take some tentative action in that direction.

  7. […] comments M. Dearest on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great DilemmaCEF on _Believing Christ_ Revisited, 2 – The Great Dilemmajoespencer on _Believing […]

  8. BHodges said

    Great post, Joe. Like your framing and the conclusion. Also, I presume God, unlike the dad, doesn’t forget the son is up in his room.

  9. LT said

    “We couldn’t be more afraid of Jesus, more worried that He’s going to take away all our private desires, frustrate all our beloved fantasies, cancel all our hopes and dreams and wishes. We don’t want His love and grace because they’re too demanding. We want something else: to be left alone.”

    You just described me perfectly. Thanks for writing this, it makes a lot of things much more clearer for me.

  10. mjberkey said

    Fantastic ending! I love it. And I think you’re spot on when you say that our feeling that we’ve been sent to our room, that we’re being punished, is just part of the self-deception. God isn’t trying to punish us for our sins, he just wants us to stop sinning (aka repent) and accept his grace. The fact that we turn his grace into wrath by imagining that we’re being punished, even though it’s obvious from our scriptures that Christ’s suffering saved us from punishment, shows that we’re just ashamed of our own dependence on God.

    Kim and I are reading along in the book and we’re enjoying your posts. We’re wondering, though, if you can show the third way of understanding sin (essentially that sin is a rejection of grace and so grace precedes sin, if I’ve understood you right) a bit more clearly in scripture. I do see what you’re seeing in the Romans passages, but only because I’ve read Adam Miller’s work on Romans.

    • joespencer said

      Short answer, yes. Long answer, not yet. I used Romans 1 because it’s so remarkably compact. The Book of Mormon spells all this out in great detail, but it doesn’t do it in ten verses! I’ll be getting to all this as I continue through Believing Christ. (I’ll also note, though, that Miller’s book isn’t necessary to this understanding of Romans 1….)

  11. NathanG said

    I like it. I had a similar line of thought recently, but with different terms, as I tried to understand the difference between transgression, sin, sinner, and wicked or wickedness. My conclusion was that being wicked is, in the end, what you talk about as being sin, the rejection of Christ’s grace.

  12. aquinas said

    Joe, thanks for suggesting that we might benefit from a reexamination of the axioms of Robinson’s thesis. I’m not entirely sure that I understand your position. Is your position only that you disagree with how Robinson articulates the dilemma? Or, are you saying that it is wrong to assume a dilemma in the first place?

    Second, I’m not certain the distinction between becoming, acting, and relationship, provides additional clarity here (at least so far in the series. I’m interested in hearing more on this point). It would seem that often in Mormon discourse these things are interconnected. Oaks, as one example, argues that “Desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. The desires we act on determine our changing, our achieving, and our becoming.” How is relationship not related to who we are or what we do?

    Third, while I seriously dislike the common understanding of Del Parson’s Jesus, or the a wandering salesman who gives up very easily and moves to the next door when we won’t answer (and what “natural man” answers the door anyway?), I see this as illustrative of the extremely strong value we give to human choice within Mormonism. The idea is that God is powerless to save unless man acts. Even the way you have articulated sin seem to me to resonate with this idea that sin is a choice. “Sin is a question of suppressing God’s truth, of transforming Him into something other than what He is, of denying our createdness before Him. Sin is, in a word, already a rejection of grace.” Mormon discourse, in my mind, often couches sin as choice, and teaches that the way out of sin is to exercise the very agency that got us into the mess in the first place. Are you saying that the way out of the dilemma (however you define it) is human decision? Paul, it seems to me, suggests this is problematic: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15, 19).

    Finally, I noticed that you chose the adjective createdness. What do you mean by this adjective? Traditionally, this gestures at the Creator-creature distinction common within traditional Christianity, and suggests that God did in fact create our very being. When you use this within the Mormon context, especially from Joseph Smith’s sermons that man is uncreated and eternal, what sort of meaning do you assign to this phrase? How does this influence the notion of grace?

  13. joespencer said


    Thanks for these (crucial) questions. Let me take them one at a time.

    (1) I am indeed saying that it’s wrong to assume a dilemma in the first place. More exactly, I’m saying that the dilemma is something imaginary, something we imagine/create precisely in order not to deal with grace. We set up the dilemma in a way that makes grace a divine response to a human predicament so that we can put grace off for a while longer. But repentance isn’t a grace-bringing solution to the dilemma; repentance is a rejection of our imaginary dilemma, a refusal to sustain any longer the self-deception we employ to keep grace at a distance.

    (2) I’m not at all sure I understand this question. Where do I draw this distinction? Or what do I say that implies that I draw it? I don’t think I have a problem with the idea that relationship is related to who we are or what we do. So I’m a bit confused here.

    (3) This is your most important question, but I’ll answer it in response to your comment on the next post, since you say quite a bit more about it there.

    (4) I myself was a bit nervous about using “createdness” for the very reasons you articulate. But here’s what I’ve got in mind: I’m referring here not to our ontological createdness, our having originally come into existence at all, but to our relational createdness, our having originally come into relationship. Though we are radically independent of God at the ontological level, on Joseph Smith’s account, I don’t know that there’s any intelligible sense in which we can say that we are radically independent of God at the relational level. All we’ve ever meaningfully done, we’ve done in response to God’s call to us. This is what I hear in Joseph’s claim in the KFD: “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge.” Whatever our ontological independence amounts to, it doesn’t trump our relational dependence. And that relational dependence grounds our agency, as I’ll try to explain in response to you on the other thread.

  14. JKC said

    That reading of Romans 1 is also consistent with Doctrine and Covenants 59:21, which suggests that in order to kindle God’s wrath, one has to “confess not his hand in all things” in addition to “obey not his commandments.” It is much more about our attitude toward him (and his handiwork), that is, our relationship with him, than it is about transgression of a rule.

  15. mjberkey said

    In the image you suggest as a response to Del Parson, you have a very aggressive Jesus pounding on the door, trying to force it open. I realize he’s “not a tame lion”, but isn’t it really a wrathful Jesus you’re portraying? If so, is that actually what he’s doing, or just how it appears to us?

    • joespencer said

      Not wrathful! I don’t see Jesus pounding on the door so that He can get in and punish us! I see Jesus pounding on the door so that He can get in and coax us out of our self-enclosed misery!

      • Carey said

        I’m reminded of an analogy that CS Lewis used in A Grief Observed where he related us to a drowning victim and God coming to try and save us but he unable to until we stop panicking and calm down and accept his rescue.

      • joespencer said

        Yes (Robinson uses a similar image, interestingly; I hadn’t thought to see if he’s borrowing it from Lewis unacknowledged).

      • Carey said

        I did a quick Google search for the Lewis reference and found it, I’m actually surprised I remembered that at all, but I had read that book when I was going through a very difficult time and that imagery really resonated with me.

        “And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” -from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/ownwords/grief.html

  16. aquinas said

    Joe, thanks for your comments. So I hear you saying that sin is not a “thing” (ontologically positive) but the absence of grace, somewhat in the same manner as Augustine argues that evil is not a thing, but the absence of good. Therefore, because sin is not a thing, the idea that this “sin” is blocking us from God is somewhat of an illusion. Is that correct? Or am I still misunderstanding you?

    But it seems you go beyond this point to argue that the concept of “sin” serves a valuable function in that it allows us to reject God into our lives because we want to be left alone. In other words, you attribute a kind of motive to this concept of sin. But wouldn’t you allow for the possibility that the reason people believe sin is a “thing” is because the language of the scriptures lend themselves to that reading? “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). I’m not quoting scripture to argue against understanding sin as a lack of grace, but merely to suggest that its likely few people deliberately use the concept of “sin as a thing” because they have discovered it is useful as a means to keep God at a distance. Rather, they do so because they think this is what the scriptures are saying. If we say we are baptized for the “remission of sins” I can’t blame anyone for believing sins are things that can make one impure or need washing away. Indeed, the language of “washing sins” seems to reify the idea of sin as a stain or an immoral act. That being said, I’m interested in looking at these issues from a different perspective and seeing how they play out.

    Also, let me say that I like the language of “createdness” and we should bring that back into discourse for many of the same reasons that you give.

  17. joespencer said


    I’m not exactly saying that sin is privatio gratium. (Indeed, I don’t think there can be such a thing as a “lack of grace”!) I’m saying, rather, that sin is a certain relationship to grace, one of two major sorts. Sin is a way of being, one that suppresses grace. What we come to see in conversion or repentance, then, is that it’s this way of being that makes us miserable—not a set of past actions that, inherently evil, have some kind of ontological reality.

    That said, I think you’re right that it’s the scriptural and cultural language of talking about “sins,” etc., that in part leads us astray. But even here we’re doing a good bit of obfuscation. What does it mean to talk about a sin rather than, say, sinfulness? Quite simply: a sin is something we have done in order to suppress grace….

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  19. Robert C. said

    Nice stuff, Joe. (I’m just writing this so I can click the “notify me of follow-up comments via email!)

  20. Blake said

    Joe: Are you saying that sin is voluntary (in some sense) alienation from God when he has already accepted us as a matter of grace?

    • joespencer said

      I’ll be coming to the details of this in a subsequent post, but for now:

      That’s more or less what I’m saying. I’d quibble with the word “accepted,” because I think acceptation is foreign to the question (at least in that direction; certainly there’s a business here of us accepting God!).

  21. Michelle said

    “the dilemma itself is constituted only by assuming a certain sort of relation to grace. Grace isn’t the solution so much as the source of the dilemma, and the dilemma is less the reality we face that might drive us toward grace than the imaginary situation we create for ourselves in order not to have to face up to the nature of God’s gracefulness.”

    This is profound. I would tweak it a bit because I don’t really picture Christ pounding on the door, and feel like our role is more to simply let that grace in rather than ‘face up’ to this truth (my experience with grace has been much more gentle…I still feel the invitation is more with Him waiting and us needing to learn to choose to trust that grace more fully). But I am coming to know and understand that I really have been my worst enemy with regard to finding His grace, and coming to understand that in the last little while has been nothing short of life-changing.

    FWIW, for me, it took some concrete tools to help me have this breakthrough in my life. I knew I had some unhealthy emotional coping skills and had sought therapy. But interestingly what has had the most impact in my life was feeling impressed to share the stories of addicts and their loved ones on my site. THOSE are people (those who find recovery) who really understand grace! They moved me in a way that made me want to understand grace more, and so I decided to use the tools that helped them…to work my own 12 step program (I am reading a variety of 12-step materials to try to get the principles more into my mind and heart). And so now I am one to say 12 steps are not just for addicts! (Or, better said, we are all addicts in some way — we all hold tightly to patterns of thought and behavior that hurt us and keep God’s grace at bay…which to me is the message of your post.)

    So interestingly, it’s the principles in the 12 steps that have opened this truth up to me and allowed me to reengage all that the gospel teaches with new eyes — because for the first time I am able to really start looking honestly and concretely at the barriers to His grace that I’ve been holding onto since I was a child. But for the first time, I’m not as afraid of myself and my weakness. I used to think He was as frustrated with me as I was. Now I am coming to know a completely different Being. (Which is why for me the pounding door analogy doesn’t work.) It’s a whole different kind of work to be honest about how I tend to push God away without being afraid of such honesty, and to really trust Him to care for me if I will let Him, starting right now, where I am, not ‘someday,’ when I have it all figured out and feel ‘worthy’ to ask for His help!.

    It has also helped me to come to understand how “natural” it is to fight God in this way. Being human (part of “the natural man”) means that we develop coping mechanisms — sometimes before we’re old enough to be accountable for anything, before we even know what we are doing — that take root and take over until we are at a point where we can let go of those defense, being-acted-upon response patterns (as you note, the self-deception), and let Him in. I imagine it’s going to take me another 40 years to really learn let this become a part of who I am, but I think I’ve tasted what you are talking about here and it is truly sweeter than all that is sweet.

  22. mormonwomen said

    feel like our role is more to simply let that grace in rather than ‘face up’ to this truth

    I take that back. What else is real honesty but ‘facing up’ to truth? (It just sounded kind of harsh to me, as though we are stupid if we don’t get how to do that yet (see how I can get defensive with even little things?). I think this is the stuff of mortality, and we only learn it by experience and lots of trial, error, and tests of faith.

  23. joespencer said


    I don’t mean to suggest that grace is harsh. My point is rather that we turn it into something harsh, into something frightening….

  24. Michelle said

    Right. I got it. ;)

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