“Question and Answer,” Tambuli, Mar. 1981, 10–12
Larry Hiller, Bishop of the Taylorsville Ninth Ward, Taylorsville Utah Central Stake and Managing Editor of the International Magazines.
In order to answer that question, let’s first review some very important truths. Of all the burdens people bear in this life, sin is by far the heaviest. And having that burden lifted through following the necessary steps of repentance is one of the most gratifying, soul-satisfying experiences anyone can have. If it were not for the Savior and his atoning sacrifice, we would not only have to bear the burden of sin in this life but throughout all eternity. We would be cut off from the presence of God, and we would be subject to the devil.
Words cannot truly convey the great significance of the atonement in our lives. But the Lord has given us an ordinance to continually remind us of the atonement and to help us develop a continually growing appreciation for it.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that all who ever live on the earth will someday be resurrected. But the atonement for sin applies only to those who acknowledge Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and are baptized in the right manner and by the right authority. Forgiveness of sin comes through the atonement of Christ and through our repentance. The act of baptism is the means by which we show we are entering into a covenant with the Lord.
We usually do not have the strength to remain completely sinless after baptism, and so we must make continual use of the principles of faith and repentance. To help us keep the great atonement in our hearts and minds, and to enable us to renew our covenants made at baptism, the Lord instituted the sacrament.
The emblems of the sacrament remind us of the broken body and spilled blood of the Savior, and in the sacrament prayers are repeated the covenants we made at baptism. They are that we (1) take upon us the name of Jesus Christ, (2) always remember him, and (3) keep his commandments. In return, the Lord promises that we will always have his spirit to be with us.
Just as we are required to repent before baptism, we are required to be repentant before we take the sacrament. In the Book of Mormon we read: “See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament unworthily” (Morm. 9:29).
The Lord has commanded us to become perfect, and the sacrament is a vital part of the perfecting process. If during each week we seek to overcome our sins and to prepare to take the sacrament the next Sunday, we gradually take sin out of our lives. Our consciences become more sensitive as we become more responsive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. In other words, as we continually remember the Savior and strive to keep his commandments, we have the Holy Spirit with us as promised.
Now, when should one not take the sacrament? Since the sacrament is part of the perfecting process, the Lord surely does not expect us to be perfect before we take it. On the other hand, the scriptures do contain warnings about partaking unworthily, as we have already noted. Speaking to his disciples on the American continent the Savior said: “Ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it;
“For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul.” (3 Ne. 18:28–29).
Paul gave a similar warning to the Corinthians. And with that warning he gave us another clue as to how we may know we should or should not take the sacrament. Paul said, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup” (1 Cor. 11:28; italics added).
From what the Savior told the Nephites, we understand that those who administer the sacrament have a responsibility not to allow those who are unworthy to partake of the sacrament. As the presiding authority over the ward, this responsibility falls on the bishop. A person who comes to his bishop to confess a sin may be counseled by the bishop not to partake of the sacrament for a certain period of time—depending on the seriousness of the sin, the degree of repentance, and other factors that only the bishop can decide based on each individual case. Those who are disfellowshipped or excommunicated by a Church court are automatically disqualified from taking the sacrament until they are reinstated or rebaptized.
Also, from what Paul tells us, we have a major responsibility to examine our own worthiness to take the sacrament. Obviously, if we are guilty of a sin that is serious enough to require confession to the bishop, then we should not partake until we have properly cleared up the matter. “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43). If upon self-examination you have doubts about whether or not something needs to be confessed, I would urge you to discuss the matter with your bishop. He cares; he keeps confidences. He can help you put the matter into perspective and can help you know what you must do to obtain forgiveness and feel good about yourself once more.
And what about matters that do not necessarily require confession? Here we must look into our own souls. Are we aware of our sins, and are we trying to overcome them? Are we truly repentant? Are our hearts filled with hatred or anger or bitterness toward another, or do we feel at peace? Are we living more righteously this week than last? Do we truly appreciate what the Savior did for us? These are some of the questions we might ask ourselves before we take the sacrament. I think that if we truly care, the answers lie in our own hearts.
When you pause to ask, “Am I worthy?” you are in one sense far ahead of those who partake routinely without giving it any thought. And if you have the courage not to partake when you feel unworthy, you have taken a very important step in the repentance process, because you have begun to care more about what the Lord thinks about you than what others may think.
The Sunday School’s gospel doctrine manual for 1967–68 contains this worthwhile statement: “If a person finds himself unworthy and does not repent, he should attend sacrament meeting but have the courage not to partake of the sacrament. Those present who see another not partaking should not speculate about the reasons. We should all accept that one can allow the sacrament to pass by if he does not feel he should partake. One should neither miss sacrament meeting if he is not worthy to partake, nor partake because he feels social pressure. “For whose eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul …” (3 Ne. 18:29) p. 187; italics added.