Feast upon the Word Blog

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Our Capricious God

Posted by BrianJ on June 4, 2014

“Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”

Jesus saith unto him, “I say not unto thee, ‘Until seven times’: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

That’s how many times Peter will forgive you—but what about God?

D&C 58:42 puts no upper number on God’s forgiveness. Rather, the requirements appear merely qualitative: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”

Seems pretty simple—and encouraging as well.

D&C 64 begins in a similar vein:

 7-9 …I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death…. Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

But then comes verse 10, wherein the Lord claims his right to selectively mete forgiveness: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”


Two stories from the Old Testament seem to illustrate this point. First, let’s look at David. I know that some readers won’t be at all bothered by this one, reasoning that David’s guilt in murder goes beyond the ability (or something like that) of God to forgive. I cannot refute that argument. I can, however, admit that it leaves me feeling cold.

I have no doubt that David sinned. More importantly, David had no doubt. His collection of Psalms testifies of his guilt and remorse, his ongoing struggle to reconnect with God, and his sincere gratitude for and faith in God.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It’s one of our most beloved and inspiring verses. And yet, apparently David did want:

Psalm 84

My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young….

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.

Psalm 89

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have raised up a young man from among the people. I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him. My hand will sustain him…. My faithful love will be with him…, I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail.

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust… Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword and have not supported him in battle. You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground.

How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?

Remember how fleeting is my life!

For what futility you have created all humanity? Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

D&C 132 has been used to suggest that David will never be forgiven: “…in none of these things did [David] sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit [his wives and concubines] out of the world, for I gave them unto another.” I’m not sure if the Lord was talking specifically about losing only his “wives and concubines,” or David “falling from his exaltation” in general; i.e., that David will never be exalted in any way.


Moses’ story disturbs me even more. Two accounts describe Moses miraculously delivering water for the children of Israel in the desert. First, Exodus 17, Moses smote the rock in Horeb and out gushed water. Second, in Numbers 20, a bit more detail seems to be added to the story. Here, we learn that God told Moses to speak to the rock, but instead Moses smites it. For his disobedience, the Lord tells Moses, “Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”

Hard news for Moses—especially in light of the earlier news (Numbers 13) that the children of Israel would wander the desert for 40 years before entering Canaan. At Meribah in Horeb, therefore, Moses is condemned to lead his people in the harsh wilderness for four decades and then die at the edge of the promised land.

Many would take that news differently than Moses. Many would feel justified in quitting right then. Many would blame the Israelites—it was, after all, their complaining that forced Moses to deliver the water in the first place. Many would scream back at the Lord, at least once during those 40 years, that he was cruel, unjust, and unforgiving.

Perhaps you feel that David got what he deserved—he murdered and there was no way that he could make restitution—but that doesn’t apply to Moses. His sin was in “not glorifying God.” After being condemned at Meribah, Moses spent the rest of his life patiently, dutifully, and unceasingly leading his people, always striving to bring them closer to their God and to the promised land that he would see but never touch.


Quoting Luke 5 in April 2013 General Conference, Elder Craig A. Cardon of the Seventy said, “The Savior confirmed to all of us this infinitely more powerful spiritual truth: the Son of Man forgives sins! While this truth is readily accepted by all believers, not so easily acknowledged is the essential companion truth: the Savior forgives sins ‘upon earth’ and not just at the Final Judgment.”

I want to believe Elder Cardon, but David’s and Moses’ stories speak loudly in my ear.

I want to believe John when he taught, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I want to believe God when he promised, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

But I also have to believe Paul:

“Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, “Why hast thou made me thus?” Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:18-21)

Indeed. Who am I? I am just a man—a man who, in accordance with D&C 64, will forgive all women and men. Likewise, I have great hope that I will be forgiven by other women and men.

But the Lord forgives whom he will forgive.

16 Responses to “Our Capricious God”

  1. Matthew said

    To me the cases of David and Moses illustrate that the timetable for forgiveness is unpredictable. I think that makes the blessing of forgiveness like every other promised blessing. There are sincere people who seek for a testimony for their whole life and never receive it. As for the quotes about David, is this a situation where modern revelation trumps scripture?

    “We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”


    Of course, some people want to allow for “salvation” but not “exaltation” in the case of David. I fail to see how that position is compatible with the position that the atonement is “infinite and all-encompassing.”

    • BrianJ said

      Matthew, thanks for the comment. As you may have noticed, this topic disturbs me greatly.

      Your point about people seeking testimony their whole lives is appropriate. In that light, how can we make sense of the so-called “Moroni’s promise”? Or the oft-repeated, “Ask and ye shall receive”?

      I didn’t know of the Deseret News announcement. I must say, I find it helpful, but I would find it much more helpful if:

      1) it were in something more “official” than a newspaper. We’re talking about trumping canon (and a whole lotta history).

      2) it were more explicit in defining “salvation possible for all people.” Is it parsed to make the salvation/exaltation distinction you mentioned? If so, it’s rather meaningless: “Good news: you can’t come to the party, but we will let you wait in the foyer.” I also wonder if the statement was meant to hinge on the word “possible”; i.e., forgiveness was possible, but David forfeited it and so it is now no longer possible.

      • Matthew said

        I was wrong to say that this article should trump scripture for the simple reason that there is nothing in scripture for it to trump. As you point out in your original post D&C 132 does not say that David cannot be exalted, but only that he won’t [caveat before finishing this sentence: I find the whole discussion of “having multiple wives in eternity” difficult and would prefer avoiding it all together because I don’t really know what to make of it] have the same wives he lost–not that he can’t be married at all.

        2) it is my argument that to be infinite and all-encompassing (as I believe it is) the atonement should provide hope to even the worst sinner that with proper repentance they can receive the full blessings of the gospel that include exaltation. Certainly that view is compatible with scripture and the Church’s statement above. All it seems left then is to say that we could read things in a less charitable way. We could, but why would we?

        re: Ask and ye shall receive
        I think there is a simple answer here and a harder one. The simple answer is that promised blessing come to us on the Lord’s timetable. The most obvious, most talked about example, are promises made to single people who never marry but want to. The harder answer is one I cannot give because I don’t understand it. Here is my question and maybe at some point in time you can post something to help me work through it.

        Today if asked to speak or teach on promised blessings I likely wouldn’t fail to mention that not everything we think we ought to receive is good for us and not every good thing is given to us in the time we would like it. Call this the big caveat to “ask and ye shall receive.” Then the question is why is the big caveat so much missing from the scriptures, or to make the question stronger–why is it missing from the gospels? Was it something about Jesus and his role? Or was it something about the writers of the gospels? or did it have to do with the needs of the early Christian church and the audience for the gospels? In other words, what accounts for the need to emphasize the big caveat now and so often repeat “ask and ye shall receive” without the big caveat in the gospels?

      • BrianJ said

        Matthew: Your response and question gave me a lot to think about. I don’t have an “answer,” only a response—that will come across in very much the same tone of frustration that the original post was written in.

        Re point 2: I want to believe the simpler, universal and all-encompassing version of the atonement that you describe. But that view is incompatible with statements I very often hear at church—from leaders or not—and despite being so common, if they were to be “officially” refuted, then that denial happens far less often than the allegedly erroneous statements. So, am I in the minority because I’m trying to believe only in doctrines that fit my world view?

        I will have another post soon that maybe sorta has something to do with “ask and ye shall receive.” Kind of. In the meantime, “what accounts for the need to emphasize the big caveat now?” Lack of faith, perhaps? Not that I necessarily believe that answer, but I think it is compatible with scripture and would imply why the Gospel writers didn’t dwell on it. Alternatively, maybe the Gospel writers intentionally oversimplified—but why?

      • Matthew said

        re point 2: I guess I either don’t understand your point or I don’t agree. Likely the former but let me respond as if it is the latter so you can help explain to me.

        If you are seeking truth you shouldn’t be too troubled by the fact that you end up believing something that is commonly contradicted. If you think the common views are likely correct then you wouldn’t need to trouble yourself thinking about stuff much at all.

      • BrianJ said

        Matthew, on one hand, I am quite comfortable seeking truth and accepting it solely because it is truth—not because it is popular or easy or whatever.

        On the other hand, I’m wary of the many errors that I could make on my own.

        Sometimes you’re in the minority because you’re the first to arrive at the truth; sometimes you’re in the minority because you’re wrong.

        And just to be clear: I’m talking about being in the minority “of active Latter-day Saints”; i.e., this isn’t The Believers versus The World that I’m talking about.

        Being in the minority is troubling because it implies that either I am wrong or a vast number of my fellow members and leaders are wrong. That dissonance leads to many troubles.

      • Matthew said

        I agree with you that it is wise to be cautious when you are in the minority in a case like this. And I would add that in my mind it is quite likely that the vast majority of us are wrong on a number of points.

  2. Robert C. said

    Awesome post, and discussion.

    Perhaps one way to think about this issue is in the somewhat cryptic (koan-like) way: If grace were guaranteed it would no longer be grace.

    Basically, my thinking is that God will of course be generous and forgiving. But if we are too certain of that guarantee of forgiveness, it is too easy to become slothful and use that guarantee as an excuse to avoid doing things we’d rather not do (like repent of certain vices). So, by being a bit cryptic about this in the scriptures, we are forced to search and pray — or, in the scriptural phrase, “fear and tremble” — about our salvation.

    I know this leaves several questions that have been raised here unanswered, but I do think this approach does address some of the central, underlying tensions at work.

    Also, I see the thought I’m trying to articulate as a variation of what Jim Faulconer suggests in his “Rethinking Theology” article where he suggests a very interesting approach to the problem of evil (http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/papers/rethinking_theology.pdf) — basically, that we aren’t supposed to try and resolve the problem of evil, but we are supposed to respond to it. Similarly, we are not supposed to try and figure out a carefully worked out theology of repentance — rather, we are supposed to respond to the call of repentance by repenting.

    Or something like that….

    • Robert C. said

      (Also, I’m thinking largely here of D&C 19 where eternal punishment is a phrase used to effect repentance, not to really describe what is really going to happen. In a sense, it seems like there’s a kind of noble lie at the very heart of the atonement — a lie that helps in overcoming what I’m inclined to think about in terms of moral hazard, as we economists like to say. That is, if I knew I would be saved without doing so much work, I would have a hard time motivating myself to fully repent. Believe me, I have some favorite sins and sinful habits that I’d prefer not to work so hard at overcoming. I often justify my persistence in these sins by thinking about what I think is ultimately a rather doctrinally correct notion of universal-like salvation, but consciously thinking about this doctrine often undermines my determination to make progress against certain bad/sinful habits that I have. So, I purposely focus on the “repent or be damned” — esp. the one in Alma 34, I think, about procrastination — kinds of scriptures to help motivate me to repent now, even if I believe I will always have a chance to repent later….)

    • BrianJ said

      Robert C, while I am sympathetic to the concern with a belief in a “vending machine God” (put in your money, punch in your demands, and the machine has no choice but to produce), I don’t think I agree with the idea that, “If grace were guaranteed it would no longer be grace.” If God, in his generosity, chose to guarantee grace then it would still be grace—he is only “forced into it” insofar as he forced himself by extending that promise.

      True, God could lie—renege on his promise—but we know what the scriptures say about him doing that.

      I’m not even comfortable with the idea that God could have chosen not to guarantee his grace. It’s like, being merciful and just and full of grace is what he signed up for when he became God. He can’t not act godly if he’s going to be God. (This thought reminds me of people who can’t wait to “get to heaven” so they can be rid of all the annoying people!)

      I’m also unsure about the idea that forgiveness is purposefully hidden or obscured. What would be the point? You say it is to keep the sinner in constant fear and trembling. While I can see how “hiding the carrot” could be motivating, I don’t see how it is more motivating than allowing the penitent to indulge in the overwhelming feeling of saving grace that accompanies forgiveness. The one method says, “Trust me: the carrot is super-delicious; keep searching.” The other lets the sinner say, “Wow, this fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits!”

      Similarly, we are not supposed to try and figure out a carefully worked out theology of repentance — rather, we are supposed to respond to the call of repentance by repenting.

      That’s fine, but I expect God to respond to that call as well.

      • Matthew said

        How about this…we may think we are sincerely repentant and not be. God may forgive every person who sincerely repents and still there may be times when we think–okay, I’m ready and God says “uh, not yet.”

      • BrianJ said

        Matthew, I think it’s fair to question whether or not we truly have repented—as you put it: “we think, ‘Okay, I’m ready,’ and God says ‘Uh, not yet.'”

        …just as long as God actually says, “Uh, not yet.” Where I see a problem is when we respond to the call of repentance and God says…nothing.

  3. NathanG said

    Your question is interesting. I won’t attempt to try to resolve any of the concerns you have, as I have realized that your questions are uniquely part of you, and no matter how well you may (or possibly may not) articulate your concern, there is a whole lifetime of experience and concern underlying your question that cannot possibly be communicated. I’ll just share the thoughts that come to mind from your question and from my experience (that probably poorly represent my feelings after a shorter lifetime of experience:)).

    First, it is required of us to forgive one another. This is in distinction to God, who is not required to forgive anyone. I don’t think that scripture is meant to make God’s forgiveness mysterious or to make us question who is granted forgiveness, but rather to point out that it is essential that we learn to forgive everyone. It is very instructive for us to learn to forgive in all situations, regardless it seems, of the effort the offender has made in making any restitution for the sin committed against us. Why should that be? I think it’s far more essential for us to learn first to love rather than to learn to judge or learn to condemn, they may come later, but after we learn love. God, on the other hand, does not forgive to teach himself how to love. That has been mastered. His forgiveness is to allow us (I think a very long, complex answer goes here) peace in this life and life with him in the next life. If he simply forgave everything as we are required to do, perhaps we would be like those who partake of the fruit of the tree of life and then become ashamed and turn away from it.

    As for me, I believe in forgiveness. I felt the most significant forgiveness and peace after years of trying to repent as I understood it. After years of going through the “steps of repentance”, after years of praying for strength to overcome, after years of studying the scriptures for answers, I finally gained an understanding that was sufficient for my own sins of what it means to trust in the Lord and not put my trust in the arm of flesh, or my own resolve, understanding, strength. Words I had known all my life, but words that finally gained meaning that was particular for my life. After a time of even wondering if I would ever be forgiven, the humbling realization that I had been essentially trying to do it on my own and had yet to understand what it meant to trust in Christ, hit home and I feel much better. So, I guess I’m glad that it didn’t work all those years, but even in saying that, I feel Christ was there with me in my struggle, maybe as a parent teaching a child to ride a bike is there, hovering, allowing falls, but ready to assist if things are really getting out of hand. The struggle was instructive to me.

    As for David and Moses. Not a clue. However, my gut response is that those stories are not included to discourage us from repenting or to leave us wondering if after attempting repentance, we still have to wonder if it will work. Repentance is the fruits of faith. Faith leads to hope. Hope is that confidence that it really does work.

    • BrianJ said

      Nathan: thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your distinction between us and God—which I think most importantly emphasizes that we must forgive immediately (or asap) because to do otherwise leaves us sitting in some sort of judgment (among other problems). That’s not a problem for God because, well, he should sit in judgment.

      So okay: We need to hurry up but God can take his time. But how much time?

      Thanks for sharing your own personal experience.

      • NathanG said

        Maybe it’s not until you have written 100 psalms:)
        Perhaps we need the time to sort out our feelings about our sin, who we may have offended, where we are because of the action, or where we hope repentance will take us. Perhaps by prolonging the days of our struggle we can then understand the struggle well enough to understand how to help others in there struggles. Psalms is in part more inspiring because of David’s prolonged struggle.

      • BrianJ said

        Yes, David’s prolonged struggle due to God withholding forgiveness inspires us during our own struggles due to God withholding forgiveness.

        Why wouldn’t someone who had felt God’s presence through forgiveness, having tasted that fruit, be more motivated to consider the welfare of others and the need to remain in God’s good graces?

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