Someone who previously had lapsed from the faith decides to return. This person has the best of intentions and has lofty spiritual goals. Within a few months, however, he or she is more or less back to their previous position, but now feeling guilty.
Rather than thinking of such situations as ones in which a person either is or is not what they ought to be, as if no longer being addicted, having the right training, living in an orderly way, and being faithful were like an electric switch, either fully on or fully off, we ought to think of them as we do matters of maturation, as things that happen over time, processes rather than one-time events.
We are not either readers or not-readers, with nothing between. Rather, we learn to read. Then we learn to read better. And we continue that process for some time, usually a long time. Matters of the spirit are similar: we learn to take proper care of ourselves or to live a spiritual life, but we cannot do either all at once; we learn them, then we learn them better and continue to do so.
All of us know that about ourselves. Most of us know it about our spouses and children. But too often when it comes to others we have different expectations.
The motto of the LDS Relief Society (the women's organization of the LDS Church) is "Charity Never Faileth," from 1 Corinthians 13:8 and Moroni 7:46. In 1 Corinthians the word faileth translates a word that means "to fall": charity never falls down; it continues.
If we believe that, then we also believe that when we do our work in the church and it doesn't have the results we hoped for, or when those we thought we had helped backslide or continue on the same unfortunate path, if we fail to continue to work for and with those who need our help, then we have failed to love.
That doesn't mean that we must force our help on those who don't want it. It doesn't mean that we can never decide that we can no longer help a particular person who isn't responding to our attempts to help. As human beings, we have limited resources and must decide best how to use those resources in charitable work.
It does mean that the difficulty of bringing about change in lives, our own as well as others, cannot be an excuse for ceasing to work for that change. As the Doctrine and Covenants teaches, we must work "by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile" (D&C 121:41-42). Spiritual maturity can take a long time, and our spiritual maturity depends on recognizing that and living patiently with that fact.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.