Every subculture has its own jargon, and Latter-day Saintism is no exception. For Latter-day Saints (the word “Mormons” has become taboo), the unique language usually takes the form of words understood one way in the culture at large being given different definitions.
Thus, for the Saints, what most Christians call a sanctuary or nave becomes a chapel (which is different than a small church). What most people call a basketball court becomes a cultural hall. A seminary is for teenagers, not postgraduates. What most Christians call Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist becomes the Sacrament (rather than a sacrament). What most people call rain or snow becomes moisture, and so on.
Most of the Saints’ unique lingo is merely interesting, and sometimes humorous. But there is at least one word that Latter-day Saints use in a different way that causes harm. That word is “worthy”; its derivative, “worthiness,” is used in the same way.
In everyday English, at least in the United States, “worthy” has at least two distinct meanings. The first, the one listed first in most dictionaries, involves having worth or value. So the opposite of this type of “worthy” is “unworthy” or “worthless.” This isn’t the definition that Saints tend to use. They tend to use the second dictionary meaning, which involves being deserving or qualified for some honor.
This use of “worthy” abounds in church practice and culture. To attend the temple, which at least in theory is one of the highest honors an ordinary church member can attain, one has to be deemed worthy. Even to be baptized, one has to be deemed worthy. If you want to get married, you have to make yourself worthy of a worthy spouse. If you want certain unpaid church jobs callings, you need to be found worthy. If you want to participate in a baby blessing, you need to be deemed worthy. If you want to attend one of the church-sponsored universities, you need to be deemed worthy. And the list goes on.
One problem is that by this definition, it takes only the slightest misdeed to become “unworthy.” Drinking a glass of tea is all it takes, and most of us Saints, since we’re human, struggle with worse than that. And that makes us unworthy at best, and in our minds maybe even worthless.
The irony is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its formal theology has perhaps the highest view of humankind of any of the major Christian denominations. In Latter-day Saint belief, there is no such thing as original sin, and all persons are born with literally divine potential, making us in a sense the same kind of creatures God is. “The worth of souls is great in the sight of God,” a verse in 19th-century scripture tell us.
But all this talk about worthiness and unworthiness negates the Church’s own lofty teaching. It’s easy to forget that we’re born as children of God in more than a figurative sense when we constantly have to strive to be worthy.
It’s difficult to find examples where church leaders have used “worthy” in a way that recognizes we all have inherent worth. Probably the most notable is in a sermon that President Dieter Uchtdorf gave at the April 2016 General Conference in referring to the Parable of the Lost Sheep:
Does the sheep need to know how to use a complicated sextant to calculate its coordinates? Does it need to be able to use a GPS to define its position? Does it have to have the expertise to create an app that will call for help? Does the sheep need endorsements by a sponsor before the Good Shepherd will come to the rescue? No. Certainly not! The sheep is worthy of divine rescue simply because it is loved by the Good Shepherd.
More recently, President Joy D. Jones recognized the problem of “worthy” in her talk at the October 2017 General Conference:
Let me point out the need to differentiate between two critical words: worth and worthiness. They are not the same. Spiritual worth means to value ourselves the way Heavenly Father values us, not as the world values us. Our worth was determined before we ever came to this earth. “God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever.”
On the other hand, worthiness is achieved through obedience. If we sin, we are less worthy, but we are never worth less! We continue to repent and strive to be like Jesus with our worth intact. As President Brigham Young taught: “The least, the most inferior spirit now upon the earth … is worth worlds.” No matter what, we always have worth in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.
Jones gets it: No matter how unworthy we are in the Latter-day Saint sense, we are never unworthy in the everyday sense of the word.
Interestingly, the official Spanish translation Jones’ talk uses two unrelated words to translate “worth” and “worthiness.” It uses valor, a word related to “value,” to mean “worth,” and dignidad, a word related to “dignity” but with a meaning tied slightly closer to behavior, for “worthiness.”
And that suggests a solution to the problem of “worthy”: Perhaps we should quit using the word altogether when it would make more sense to talk about being qualified or prepared. Unqualified to do something? That is something most of us can deal with. Unprepared? Yeah, we can do something about that. They are simply not the same as being unworthy or worthless.
Our continued use of “worthy” and “unworthiness” the way we do conveys the message that we are somehow “less than” when we make mistakes (or even when we are judged unfairly), that we don’t have as much worth. Even worse, when the idea of worthiness is tied to church participation in any way, it conveys the idea that God’s love is tied to our behavior.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Loving Father (he was the one with the prodigal son) tell us otherwise. Whatever we do, we are worthy; whatever we do, we have infinite worth, simply because of who we are and Who made us.