You have problems.

August 21, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 12:39 am   Category: Life

Everyone struggles with something-at least I think so. We all go about in life trying to portray ourselves as well-adjusted and normal. We have flaws and quirks, sure, but for the most part we are on top of things. Most of the time the subterfuge works out pretty well and people buy into our projected persona.

Now, I may be wrong, but I feel confident that the bishops and therapists out there will back me up when I say that most of us have problems, and not always the little kind. Those of us who don’t have big problems most likely have had big problems at one point or another.

When I talk about “problems” here, I don’t really mean sins, per se. I am thinking of things like gambling, alcohol, drugs, depression, cigarettes, p0rn, weight, and anxiety. In this very partial list, some of the items are sinful while others are not. Your struggle might not be on my list. My point is to list a few of the things people struggle with over long periods of time. In fact, the temptation to separate these into sins and non-sins and rank the sins by “seriousness” gets right to the point I want to make.

It seems to me that people spend a lot of time telling themselves why their problem is different than the very bad problems other people have. The person who struggles with gambling may think everyone is making a big deal out of something that is really no different than trading in the stock market. The person who struggles with their weight takes comfort in the fact that being overweight is not a sin like gambling. The person who is hooked on p0rn wonders what is wrong with p0rn in the first place. It’s not like adultery where other people are directly affected.

My point is not that people rationalize-of course we rationalize. My point is that we should be using our own struggles to empathize with other people instead of using our struggles to remind ourselves that we really are better than everyone else despite our problems. We are intolerant of people who have different struggles than we do and there is no excuse for it. So what if being overweight is not sinful and drinking alcohol is, that doesn’t prevent an overweight person from empathizing more fully with an alcoholic by knowing what it is like to struggle with something for years, wanting to change but not knowing how to make it stick. No one who is hooked on cigarettes should ever look at an overweight person and wonder why they don’t just stop eating so much. There is no reason a person who is struggling to overcome p0rn can’t use that experience to better understand a person suffering from depression. Yes, they are different struggles, with different solutions, but there is something fundamentally similar about the experience of struggling that should help us to love one another, as Jesus does.

Aside from general thoughts/reactions, I am interested in any strategies you’ve developed to help you get past the tendency to look down on other people’s problems while rationalizing your own.

[Associated song: Fishbone – When Problems Arise]


  1. My point is that we should be using our own struggles to empathize with other people instead of using our struggles to remind ourselves that we really are better than everyone else despite our problems.

    I’ve actually experienced the opposite, in that I *do* try to use my (and my family’s) struggles to emphathize with others, but those people deny that I could possibly understand–“Oh, you have the perfect family and have no idea what it is like for me….”

    A similar thing happens with my weight. I am not very overweight, and so people assume it is easy for me. “It would be nice to be skinny like that and able to eat anything.” Hello?! The two do not necessarily go together. I am at the gym four days a week, ride a bicycle 9 miles each workday, and practice scrupulous portion control and lowfat cooking.

    So yes, I am not currently much overweight, but I struggle a great deal to stay there. I appreciate that other folks do all that I do and still can’t quite keep the weight off, so I don’t judge others. And I wish they would not judge me, by assuming that I don’t struggle.

    And a lot of folks struggle to be able to sit in the church pew each Sunday, too.

    It makes me sad when people tell me that they can’t come to church because of their problems, many on your list (and resultant feelings of unworthiness), because I know they would be among peers if they would make the effort to walk through the door.

    Comment by Naismith — August 21, 2006 @ 4:05 am

  2. Good points Naismith. Other people saying you can’t possibly understand them is another interesting manifestation of the same problem of everyone thinking their problems are different than everyone else’s. Sounds like you are on the right track, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Jacob — August 21, 2006 @ 8:31 am

  3. Some years ago while serving in a calling which hears confessions, a man committed a grevious sin which deeply hurt his wife and children. Along with the sin there was a good deal of arrogance, flippancy, and disregard to anyones feelings but his own. He showed no interest in repentance. This was a well known situation in our stake and he was looked upon as a very vile human being and a heap of ill feelings were generated toward him. I had some myself. One night he showed up at the church and wanted to talk to me. We sat down in the office and within just a moment or two I had a most interesting experience. I was filled with compassion, concern, and love for him (and I hadn’t even liked him much before the sin). It was as though I could see his eternal spirit. I sensed the love that God had for him. I consider this to have been a gift from the Lord and no reflection of some great charity that I had developed within myself. This did not mean I minimized his current sinful condition or became ‘soft on sin’. A few weeks later I got a call from his mother, whom I did not know. She wept and described her son to me in the same way that the spirit allowed me to see him that day in the office. I realized that that is how I see my own children. I see their eternal souls and when they make mistakes or sin or have weakness – none of that takes away my vision of their eternal soul. So, Jacob, you asked for strategies we have developed…well, this is mine. I try to ask myself “how would I feel about that person if they were my own child.” I find that helps me be less condemning and more understanding.

    Comment by Hal H. — August 21, 2006 @ 9:46 am

  4. Interesting post Jacob. I’ve appreciated the comments too.

    I’m afraid I fall into this type of thinking quite easily. I’ll be interested to hear more strategies to deal with this.

    Comment by Kristen J — August 21, 2006 @ 4:21 pm

  5. I’ve found that when ever I feel superior to other through judgement of their faults the Lord swiftly and accurately finds a way for me to experience their suffering on a personal basis. I found after going through some of those trials, it is easier for me to be compassionate than judgemental. Except, of course, when I criticize the wealthy and their arrogance. It bugs me to death, yet I’ve never had the experience of wealth, so I could learn to be empathetic to their situation. Sure wish I could though.

    Comment by chronicler — August 21, 2006 @ 9:42 pm

  6. I have many personal failings, but I’m not sure whether this is one of them.

    I’ve rarely felt the need or impulse to rationalize my own sins, or look down on the sins of others (relative to my own). I don’t say this boastingly – I certainly have my own flaws, failings and troubles, in full share. All I’m saying is that to each is given different gifts. I have mine and you have yours.

    The main reason that I never rank sins is because I don’t believe in the premise. I consider ALL sin equal. There is no ranking. Even the smallest sins are equally capable of estranging you from God. Sneaking cookies from the cupboard is QUALITATIVELY just as capable of “denying you admittance to heaven” as kidnap and rape. Sin is sin, and nothing impure can dwell with God, no matter how “small” the sin.

    The process of the Atonement reconciles all this, of course. But the key deciding factor boils down to one question, and one question only:

    “Are you repenting and have you chosen to follow God?”

    That decision is equally available to all people, regardless of the sordid particulars.

    How am I supposed to decide whether my Bishop is answering that key question in the affirmative while a child rapist still at large is not?

    The answer, of course, is that I can’t. It may be entirely possible that the child rapist has made the internal orientations that make him actually far more likely to enter heaven than my bishop. Or it may be the other way around, who knows?

    As far as I’m concerned, I truly am no better than any other man or woman. As far as I know, I may indeed be the lowliest of men. I couldn’t be less interested in how I measure up to people on Jerry Springer, or Dr. Laura.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 22, 2006 @ 8:35 am

  7. Sounds like you are quite a “saved almost entirely by grace” kinda guy Seth. I think the problem with the view you hold is that it treats character or “heaven” as simply something we get. But it seems to me that the reality of the matter is that Celestial, Terrestrial, or Telestial are things that we are (as a result of a lifetime of free choices) not things we get (via a free gift). So contrary to what you have implied, there is a massive difference between a righteous bishop and a child rapist regardless of their “internal orientation”. The righteous bishop became something more Godlike over a lifetime of freely chosen character improvement. The child rapist became a reprehensible monster over a lifetime of freely chosen character degradation. God will not magically change what they fundamentally are — only time and slow, gradual, freely chosen personal changes on their part can do that.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 22, 2006 @ 9:15 am

  8. Hal H,

    Nice comment, thanks. I like your strategy.

    Comment by Jacob — August 22, 2006 @ 10:47 am

  9. Seth,

    I think you are making the classic blunder of confusing intermediate judgments with a final destinations. Heaven, as a final destination, cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, so your point about any sin possibly keeping us out of heaven makes sense in this context. Intermediate judgments (like the so-called “final” judgment) do not require perfection yet, rather, their purpose is to see who is on track to someday be perfect. Thus, intermediate judgment is about whether we are repenting and whether we are going in the right direction.

    However, putting these together to say that no sin is any more serious than another is just ludicrous. Do you really believe there is no reason to feel any worse about raping someone than about sneaking a cookie ? Although you said this, I just don’t believe you actually believe it. Do you agree with Geoff’s excellently concise #7? If so, I might just be misreading your comment.

    Comment by Jacob — August 22, 2006 @ 10:52 am

  10. When I was a teenager in sunday school a teacher taught that ‘all sin is equal.’ When I heard it at the time it didn’t feel right to me. Now 40 years later I’m convinced that it is not true. I have heard very few people teach that in between then and now. Seth, I agree we aren’t here to measure ourselves against others, but what has that got to do with sins being equal? Do you feel you have any prophetic or scriptural support for that idea?

    Comment by Hal H. — August 22, 2006 @ 11:44 am

  11. I understand that the only way that all sins are equal is that any single one of them, purposely unrepented of, is sufficient to keep one from an inheritance in the kingdom of God. Salvation requires the willingness to sacrifice all earthly things. Only those who are willing to obey their covenants by sacrifice, yea every sacrifice which the Lord shall command, are accepted of him (cf. D&C 97:8).

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 22, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

  12. There is only one decision of importance for any of us.

    Are you “for God” or not.

    To clarify, I don’t believe that all sin is literally equal. Obviously a murder hurts a lot more than snitching food.

    But for purposes of personal salvation it is the invocation of the process of repentance that matters. I’m not a “grace without works” kind of guy. I do think that what you DO matters. I also believe that the repentance process will be vastly different for an ex-murderer than for the local ward gossip.

    My point is that I’d favor a repentant ex-murderer’s chances of exhaltation over those of an unrepentant ward gossip. I’m not saying the gravity of sins doesn’t matter. But as a matter of salvation and exhaltation, it is the repentance process that is determinative, not the sin itself.

    The caveat I have added here is that the repentance process is shaped and defined by the character of the sin. But, in the final analysis, it is the humility and repentance of an individual (their own choice to be “for God”) that makes the difference.

    That status of repentant or unrepentant isn’t quite so black and white as a criminal conviction. It’s largely internal, and therefore, invisible to me. This is why I don’t see much point in viewing a seemingly nice Bishop as “superior” to a convicted criminal. I’ll take the good in life where I find it. But final judgment is best left to God.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 23, 2006 @ 6:13 am

  13. Hal, I like how your mind works.

    Seth, I’m a saved by grace kind of gal, as well.

    I think sin is equal, as well. For our purposes, because obvious sin, like smoking is so condemned, but being a jerk who doesn’t smoke, well, I think they’re at least equal.

    I am grateful for my ability to talk in a self deprecating way. Because people will totally open up to me and pretty soon we are laughing and crying at the same time. A woman said to me the other day at a party, “I’m so messed up.”

    I just said, “I know, me, too.”

    And we had a good talk.

    Comment by annegb — August 23, 2006 @ 10:09 am

  14. Annegb,

    Your anecdote describes exactly the sort of behavior I am advocating here. I love it. Thank you.

    Comment by Jacob — August 23, 2006 @ 10:30 am

  15. Great topic, Jacob. I think a primary purpose of life is to develop love/empathy/compassion. And I think a primary purpose of the scriptures is to teach/reminds us of this–Mosiah 4 and the Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount are favorites of mine for this reason. I also think that great literature anda art can be judged by how much compassion it engenders in us. Also for this reason I’ve always liked the Joan Baez version of There But for Fortune.

    Comment by Robert C. — August 23, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

  16. For those of you who think that all sin is equal, do you also believe that the repentance effort/time/pain is equal for all sin?

    Comment by Hal H. — August 23, 2006 @ 3:25 pm

  17. Hal H,

    In #12, Seth said he doesn’t think the repentance process is the same for all sins.

    Comment by Jacob — August 23, 2006 @ 4:07 pm

  18. I see now that he did. Thats what happens when you ponder over the strain of the blogs for awhile and then comment without rereading. So here is another question: How do you all feel about the idea that we can be ‘farther’ away from God at certain times, than other times? Or, some people can be more spiritually dead than other people. Its not our job to judge that…but is it a true concept? And if so, doesn’t that suggest that all sin in not equal?

    Comment by Hal H. — August 23, 2006 @ 9:35 pm

  19. In case you are addressing me as well, of course all sin is not equal. Killing someone in cold blood is not equivalent to ingratitude, for example. The “further” thing is real, and roughly corresponds to how spiritually intertwined we are with the Spirit of the Lord. Draw near unto me, and I will draw near unto you, etc.

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 23, 2006 @ 9:47 pm

  20. I was blessed with the most accepting, non-judgmental, unconditionally loving parents in the world. I never really thought about it until a junior high school class exercise where everyone had to give another classmate a compliment, and a girl told me she liked that I didn’t judge people.

    One trick to use to not judge: Make up an excuse for someone else’s annoying/bad behavior. That jerk who cut you off didn’t see you. That woman saying snippy things has low blood sugar. Etc.

    Comment by Susan M — August 27, 2006 @ 12:15 pm

  21. Thanks Susan. Your trick is one I have used often, and I find it works out pretty well for me. I am convinced (and it is born out every time I really get to know someone and what they’re dealing with) that more often than not there really is an excuse like those you mentioned which would make me more forgiving if I only knew about it. So, even though I make them up out of thin air, it still helps me to think of excuses like that.

    Comment by Jacob — August 27, 2006 @ 3:36 pm