From the time we were very small, we Mormon children sang
I am a child of God,
And he has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear.
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday.
I always thought that believing that we are one of God’s children is a positive thing, that it gives people an innate sense of self-worth, as opposed to those poor Protestants who believe that everyone is a “depraved” sinner. But as I’ve sorted through a lot of things in the recent past, I’ve come to a new awareness of what being a child of God has meant in my life.
As the verses above tell us, we are God’s children, but He sent us to earth to teach us the things we “must do to live with Him someday.” Everything about this life was, in essence, a test to see if we were worthy of coming back to Him. And passing the test meant doing what we were taught to do; anything less wasn’t enough for our Father.
The second verse of the song speaks of our needs:
I am a child of God,
And so my needs are great;
Help me to understand his words
Before it grows too late.
But the “needs” spoken of aren’t love, safety, happiness. No, our “great” need is to understand God’s words “before it grows too late.” In other words, we need to understand what God wants us to do so that, again, we can be found worthy of His presence. And we’d better hurry up, “before it grows too late.”
The final verse is a little more hopeful:
I am a child of God.
Rich blessings are in store;
If I but learn to do his will
I’ll live with him once more.
If we’ve understood God’s word and done what we must do, then “rich blessings are in store.” But notice that the blessings are always conditional. Russell Nelson explained that
“While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us-and certain divine blessings stemming from that love-are conditional.
“Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly ‘unconditional’ can defend us against common fallacies such as these: ‘Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …’; or ‘Since ‘God is love,’ He will love me unconditionally, regardless …’ These arguments are used by anti-Christs to woo people with deception.
“The full flower of divine love and our greatest blessings from that love are conditional-predicated upon our obedience to eternal law. I pray that we may qualify for those blessings and rejoice forever” (“Divine Love,” Ensign, Feb. 2003, page 20).
Thus, God is a parent who will love His children only if they understand His words and do what they are taught to do. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I realized just how much of this kind of teaching I had absorbed in my own life.
My mother was talking to me about my struggles with depression (I was telling her how I’m doing really great these days and that the depression seems like a distant memory). I mentioned that one thing I had to overcome was the belief that my self-worth was conditioned on what I did for others. I always put others first, but I never felt good about myself.
My mom asked me where I had gotten that belief, and I told her that all of my siblings and I had been taught in church and at home that we were to put others first, that self-sacrifice was the ultimate act of love and only true way to happiness. That said, no one had ever told us we should take care of our own needs, that we should feel good about ourselves, even if we couldn’t do everything we thought we should.
“I always thought it was a given that you feel good about yourself,” my mom said. “Yes, you serve others and try to meet their needs, but you have to feel good about yourself first.”
“I never felt good about myself,” I said.
“Then you were listening to the wrong people,” she said. “I’ve always thought you were a wonderful person with great potential.”
I wondered who I was supposed to be listening to, because no one had ever said anything like that to me. In my family, praise was served up in tiny slivers, if at all. I don’t remember my mother or father saying “I’m proud of you” until I left for my mission. But it made sense: if self-worth is a “given,” you don’t need any praise. You just feel good about yourself.
I thought about the praise I got growing up. I remembered that, in fifth grade, I won a short story contest at school. I have no recollection of my parents’ reaction, but my uncle, who looking back must have sensed my needs, read my story and then said it was so good that he wanted to buy a copy. So, I wrote out a copy, and he gave me a silver dollar for it. It seems silly, but 35 years later, that moment stands out because it was one when I felt good.
My senior year in high school, I won the district Lincoln-Douglas debate competition. My parents weren’t there, but my teacher, Mrs. Dix, who had encouraged me from the beginning, gave me the trophy and a big hug and told me how proud she was of me for working so hard and becoming a skilled debater.
But that’s all I can remember. When I was a newlywed, my wife said, “I can’t believe I got to marry such a handsome man.” She didn’t believe me when I told her that no one else had ever told me I was good looking.
I suppose on some level I recognized my strengths and weaknesses. I always thought I was rather unattractive, but at least I was pretty smart, at least enough to do fairly well in school. Even when I won an award for being the top first-year grad student in my program, I was convinced that I got it because the board had felt pity for the poverty of my young family.
These days I feel good about myself, which is a major accomplishment for me. I don’t have to kill myself looking for other people’s approval, and I don’t have to spend my life serving everyone’s needs but mine. And I do not feel responsible for the success and happiness of others.
If there is a God out there (and most of the time I believe there is), surely He loves us “regardless” of our personal failings. I’m not perfect, but I’m good enough. And knowing that has made all the difference.