The apostle Paul counseled the saints at Thessalonia: "As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory" (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
The idea of worthiness is a constant theme found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are told that we must be worthy to be baptized. We are instructed that we must be worthy to be ordained to the priesthood. We are reminded that we must be worthy to enter the temple. The injunction to magnify our callings implies the need to increase our worthiness for service in God's kingdom. With all of this attention to worthiness, it becomes easy to feel that our salvation is solely dependent on our own efforts. As such, the concept of God's grace is not given much focus. In fact, when speaking of God's grace we usually quote the words of Nephi when he said, "for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). Even this scripture reinforces the idea that unless we become worthy by the things we say and do, that our salvation is in jeopardy.
On the other hand, most other Christian faiths stress the concept of God's grace as being something that is unmerited. As Paul stated, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). As such, to them, the idea of personal worthiness, especially through our own efforts, is not consistent with their beliefs. On the other hand, the idea that grace is an unmerited, unearned gift seems to be inconsistent with our beliefs.
So which is the more correct understanding?
Perhaps the other religions may have a better grasp on the subject of grace than do many Latter-day Saints. God's grace is unmerited. We are undeserving of His blessings, despite all that we do to make ourselves worthy. But if that is so, then why do we put such stress on the idea of worthiness? That question implies that we either are saved by God's unmerited grace or we are saved by our efforts to emulate Christ. However, the truth is that we are saved by both our efforts and by God's unmerited grace.
To illustrate what I mean, let's look at one of the great men in the Book of Mormon - Ammon, the son of King Mosiah. As a bold and fearless preacher, he converted many Lamanites to a firm belief in Jesus Christ. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Alma he recounts how great his efforts had been among those who once were their enemies. As he went on and on about the number of people who were converted, "his brother Aaron rebuked him saying: Ammon, I fear that they joy doth carry thee away unto boasting. But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom: but behold, my joy is full, yea my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God. Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:10-13).
Ammon was certainly a worthy servant of the Lord and had performed his labors with diligence and great perseverance, yet he does not boast in the strength of his own efforts. Throughout his entire ministry he makes no statement that can be interpreted or even implied as alluding to his worthiness or his faithfulness to God's commandments. In fact, just the opposite is true. He freely admits that he is nothing and gives God all the glory for any good that he might have accomplished.
In the Pearl of Great Price we read, "And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10).
Along with our worthiness, we stress the fact that we are children of God and are more important to Him than anything else in the entire universe. But still, even at that, Moses learned "that man is nothing!" When compared to God, we are pitifully weak, ignorant creatures. Whether we are talking about strength, knowledge, understanding, wisdom or power, we can't even begin to compare to what Christ has. Even our best efforts are puny and ineffective in comparison to His.
No one felt this more than the apostle Paul. Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee and the son of Pharisee. That means, all of his growing up years, he was taught to believe in God the way the Pharisees did. When Jesus came along, Saul was just as outraged by this prophet as were the other Pharisees. After Christ's resurrection, when His apostles began preaching the name of Jesus to receive salvation, Saul became enraged. In his own words, he said that he was "exceedingly mad against them" (Acts 26:11). To him, these people were preaching blasphemous doctrines and they had to be stopped! Saul took it upon himself to personally put an end to such an unholy movement, and he sought every means available to destroy and lay waste the Christian church.
With letters of authority from the leaders in Jerusalem, Saul set forth to Damascus intent on apprehending, binding, and imprisoning every one who called upon the name of Jesus. But before he could reach his destination, Christ appeared to him in a very vivid and powerful way that Saul could not dispute. Although blinded temporarily, Saul began to see more clearly the path of godliness. In that one effective vision God had saved him from the destructive way he was living by showing him the true path to salvation.
The question Paul asked himself was, "Why me? What did I do to deserve God saving me?" The answer was, "Nothing!" Peter, James, John and the other apostles had accepted Jesus as the Christ right from the beginning. They traveled with Him and stood by Him everywhere He went. But Saul hated Jesus from the beginning and sought to destroy everything connected with His cause. Yet, despite this kind of behavior on his part, God still reached out and saved his life. This made a profound impression upon Paul and all throughout his life, he felt unworthy of God's gift of salvation. That's why he talked so much about "grace" -- God's unmerited favor toward man!
Paul taught that the law of Moses was meant to bring men to Christ (Galatians 3:24), but he learned that as a Pharisee, it actually took him away from Christ. Is it any wonder Paul spoke out against the Pharisaic, ritualistic observance of the Law? That kind of observance almost damned him to hell. Why should he support those who wanted to continue that kind of practice in the Christian church?
As such, through out his Christian life, Paul felt a tremendous burden of debt that he owed God for saving a sinner like him, which he had done nothing to deserve. As such, he spent the rest of his life trying to repay that debt. He wrote: "For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16).
King Benjamin echoed this same sentiment when he taught his people, "I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another--I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants" (Mosiah 2:21).
I doubt there would be any argument that an unprofitable servant would also be considered an unworthy servant. Yet King Mosiah states that if we were to serve the Lord with all of our whole souls, yet we would be unprofitable, unworthy servants. There aren't too many LDS members who can say in all sincerity that they truly serve the Lord with their whole soul. And if that's the case, then how much more unprofitable servants are we? This is the way Paul felt about himself.
Later on in the same sermon, King Benjamin told his people, "I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering toward you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily" (Mosiah 4:11).
Jesus Himself taught, "But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:7-10).
When we talk about the concept of worthiness, we often associate it with the idea of becoming Christ-like. In other words, to many, becoming worthy means that we conform ourselves to the way Christ is. He then is our example, our role-model, and the standard by which we define worthiness. However, no one has ever risen to that level; not even the President of the church. Each of us has sinned and therefore has fallen short of God's glory. In fact, most of us fall far, far short of that glory. So when we talk about worthiness, it's really a relative word. In comparison to Christ, we are very much unworthy.
Then what do we mean by "worthiness?"
When Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they were a rag-tag group of slaves who became a roving nation of nomads. They wandered the deserts of Sinai living in tents. When the Lord spoke to Moses, He commanded the prophet to build a tabernacle in which God could dwell among His people. That tabernacle was nothing more than an oversized tent. Imagine that! God, the creator of the whole universe, living in a tent!
Yet, as poor as these people were, they used the very best material they had at hand and the best craftsmanship they possessed, and built the most exquisite tent they could make. As inferior and inadequate such a place was for the Great Jehovah, He still accepted it. Why? Was it truly a place worthy of God? Not at all, but the people had given everything they had, and, as little as that was, God still accepted their humble offering of a tent.
When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, it was magnificent. In fact, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Yet, in comparison to the place where God lives, it was sort of ugly. The wall around the city of God has twelve foundations, each made out of a precious stone (jasper, sapphire, emerald, topaz, amethyst, etc). The gates of the wall are made out of pure pearl. The streets of the city are made out of pure gold, and the throne where God rules is made out of pure crystal (Revelation 21:10-23). As great as the Temple of Solomon was, it was far inferior to the kind of place God is use to living in. But God accepted it because, as poor as it was, it was the best the people could give Him.
In the same way, the best of behavior on our part is far inferior to that of Christ. No matter what we do, no matter how well we do it, no matter how faithful we strive to be, all of our efforts fails to measure up to the full stature of Christ. There is only one who is truly worthy and that is Jesus Christ (Revelation 5:12).
Then what's all the fuss about us becoming worthy?
When we see a toddler struggling to walk, we applaud his every move and make a big deal of his efforts. However, if a long-distance runner jogs out to his mailbox, no one gives it a second thought. The reason is that the infant is struggling with all he has just to take a step or two, while the long-distance runner is working far below his capacity when merely jogging to his mailbox.
The same is true for us. When we put forth the widow's mite, we are exerting all the effort we're capable of doing. As insignificant as it may be, God still accepts it, not because of any real "worthiness" on our part, but because we did the best we could with what we had available to us at the time.
When we focus on our "worthiness" we tend to think in terms of ourselves and how well we're doing. The tendency of this kind of thinking is to pat ourselves on the back and take pride in our accomplishments. Before long there is the urge within us to become a humble boaster. However, the reality is that when we think we've done a lot for God, we're really done very little.
On the other hand, when we think in terms of God's grace toward us, it tends to humble us as we contemplate how much God does for us in return for us doing so little for Him. Consider how Nephi, the son of the prophet Lehi, bemoaned, "Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted" (2 Nephi 4:17-19).
If anyone in the Book of Mormon lived a life of worthiness and faithfulness to God's commandments, it was Nephi. And yet, he exclaims that he is a wretched man who's heart is full of sorry and his soul grieves because of his iniquities and the sins which he commits so easily. Rather than taking pride in a life well lived or taking credit for great spiritual accomplishments, Nephi cries out in despair about how unworthy he is of God's many blessings to him.
As King Benjamin put it, "we are all beggars." The blessings we receive from God are not so much because of any real, intrinsic "worthiness" on our part, but rather it is truly an unmerited gift that comes from a loving God because of His graciousness toward us.