At times in my life when I feel really connected to God, I think I will never lose or sever that connection. How could I? Everything is so great! Then there are times when God seems so far away, I’ve forgotten what a close connection to Him even looks like.
In theory, I always desire a close connection to God and I know He always wants a close connection with me, but why does it seem so hard sometimes? What keeps me from keeping that connection constant?
In the story of the prodigal son, the son who leaves and spends all his inheritance in “riotous living” eventually “[comes] to himself” and wants to return to his father, but he is afraid and feels unworthy to do so. When he eventually does come back, some of his first words are “I … am no [longer] worthy to be called thy son.” (See Luke 15:11–21.)
This line sheds an interesting light on why at times we barricade ourselves from a connection with God. We mess up and we no longer feel worthy of that intimate relationship.
I think the biggest barrier to our connection to God is feeling unworthy of that connection.
I’d like to propose three ways we can keep our connection to God good and strong even when we make mistakes: (1) believing we are worthy of love and connection, (2) understanding the difference between guilt and shame, and (3) realizing our innate worth.
Believing We Are Worthy of Love and Connection
In order to have a strong sense of love and belonging with God, we have to believe we are worthy of love and belonging!
Brené Brown, a social science researcher who has dedicated her career to studying human connection, has interviewed thousands of people wanting to know why some people are able to forge strong, deep, and long-lasting connections with others while some people struggle with this their entire lives. She said:
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy” (“The Power of Vulnerability” [TED Talk, June 2010], www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability).
While this research deals with human relationships, I have found it applies very well to our heavenly relationships.
Since we all sin, the problem is not that we are not worthy to talk to God; it is that we don’t feel worthy to talk to God, and thus we create a major barrier in our connection to Him.
When we mess up, it is so easy to let our sense of worth, our sense of believing we are worthy of love and belonging, to slip as well. It is crucial, therefore, that we find a way to not attach our sense of worth to our behavior.
One idea that has really helped me in disconnecting my feelings of worth from my mistakes is understanding the difference between guilt and shame.
Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame
For most of my life, I’ve misunderstood guilt. I knew on some level I needed to feel guilt in order to bring me to repentance, but I could never seem to get the balance right. I thought true repentance meant I had to feel really bad about myself for a long time. That’s how it works, right?
Wrong. I was mistaking guilt for shame.
Guilt = I did something bad, something not in line with my values.
Shame = I am bad.
For example, let’s say you haven’t read your scriptures all week. If you think, “Ugh! I’m the worst! I’m never righteous enough,” that is shame. If you think, “Hmm, this business of not reading my scriptures all week—that is not in line with my values. I made a mistake. I better fix it,” that is guilt.
Shame can lead to all sorts of negative behaviors: seeking validation from others, defensiveness, feeling threatened, and burying our emotions. Feeling the right kind and the right amount of guilt, on the other hand, should lead us to repentance, course correction, and humility. Once those have been achieved, the guilt should stop. Shame never knows when to stop.
How do you tell if you are experiencing guilt or shame? You’ll know it by its fruits. Does it lead you to repentance and peace or to relentlessly beating yourself up and avoiding course correction?
Elder Holland reminded us that wallowing in shame comes from Satan, not God, when he gave this awesome definition of repentance: “You can change anything you want to change, and you can do it very fast. That’s another satanic suckerpunch—that it takes years and years and eons of eternity to repent. It takes exactly as long to repent as it takes you to say, ‘I’ll change’—and mean it” (“For Times of Trouble” [Brigham Young University devotional, Mar. 18, 1980], speeches.byu.edu).
I find that definition of repentance incredibly hopeful. At its core, repentance is a change of heart. It is true that we must own up to our own limitations in order to change, and often this is an uncomfortable and painful thing to do, but it ultimately leads to peace of heart.
I think knowing who we are deep down and realizing our innate worth is key to not letting our guilt spiral into shame when we mess up.
Realizing Our Innate Worth
The surest, most solid thing to base our self-worth on is the fact that we are children of God. We have loving Heavenly Parents, meaning we have some God stuff right there inside us all the time—something divine within that can never be taken away by our mistakes.
Which brings us back to the prodigal son’s understandable, but mistaken, idea: “I am no longer worthy to be called thy son.”
Satan knows just where to hit us to keep us from connecting with God, and distrusting we are worthy to connect with Him and be called His children is one of his most powerful tools.
Don’t fall for it.
The prodigal son’s father immediately disavows any idea that his son (though he messed up royally) is no longer worthy to be called his son. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). And more than just affirming their unimpaired father/child relationship, this loving and forgiving father calls for the best robe, a ring, shoes, and the killing of the fatted calf, as well as a celebration in his honor.
If this story were portraying an earthly father, he would seem quite justified in shunning his son or at least not going all out to honor him before the son really proved he’d corrected his mistakes or earned the money back. But this story is a parable portraying our Heavenly Father, who is infinitely capable and anxious to love and welcome even His most imperfect children home.
You are a child of God. You can’t ever become more child of God by your merits, and you can’t ever become less child of God by your imperfections. Trusting deep down that you are loved by an eternal father is also the key to believing you are worthy of connecting with Him all the time, even when you mess up.
So connect with Him. You are worthy to do so.