I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go to Heaven?–An Interview with Anthony Sweat

Anthony Sweat is a full-time religious educator, currently teaching seminary at West High in Salt Lake City, and a regular speaker at Especially For Youth and Education Week conferences. He is the co-author of the bestselling book WHY? Powerful Answers and Practical Reasons for Living LDS Standards, and the author of the newly-released I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go to Heaven?. Both books are published by Deseret Book. He’s also an artist, a PhD student at Utah State, a father of five, an expert finisher of basements, a highly competitive SingStar participant, and my little brother. (And no, he’s not the same brother that some of you may know from his once-popular but now-defunct blog Normal Mormon Husbands. That brother lives in North Carolina and is freakishly tall. Tony lives in Utah and is merely respectably tall.)

The reason I wanted to talk to Tony about his book isn’t just because he’s my brother. It’s because I wish a book like this had been available when I was a teenager, and because I know I need to be reminded of the principles he explores even now. So, on to the interview!

Tell us a little bit about I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go To Heaven? What was the impetus behind your writing it?

I wrote the book after doing some informal polling with seminary students and other LDS youth attending EFY conferences around the country. In those polls, I found that over half of these youth don’t think they will make it to the celestial kingdom. Over half! And these are the youth who are actively engaged in the gospel, who are generally trying to do what is right. When I ask them why they think this way, the most common answer goes something like this: “Well, I’m not horrible and a murderer or anything, so I don’t think I’ll go to the telestial kingdom. But I’m not perfect or like my grandparents or my Bishop or the prophet, so I don’t think I’ll go to the celestial kingdom either. So, good thing God made three kingdoms, because I’ll probably go to the middle one where average people like me belong.” Here are the numbers from an anonymous poll of a group of 184 9th grade seminary students in Salt Lake City who answered the question: “If you died and were judged today, which eternal kingdom do you think you would go to?”: 30% celestial kingdom, 54% terrestrial kingdom, 16% telestial kingdom. I have heard too many of our youth say they don’t think they can’t make it to heaven, so I thought I’d write a book to help them understand why they can, even if they aren’t perfect.

This book takes a very serious topic—the atonement—and approaches it in a rather non-traditional way. You’ve basically created a fictional classroom with you as the teacher and eight “students” who represent a cross-section of the types of kids you might find in an average seminary class. These students are introduced with Facebook-like profile pages and interact with each other and with you in ways that are typical of teens. Each student has an avatar that lets us know when he or she is speaking—much like the avatars you see beside people’s comments in blogs like Segullah. Why did you choose to write the book this way? What were the benefits and challenges you encountered as you wrote?

More than anything, I wanted the important doctrine that is taught in the book to be understandable and engaging to teenagers and to your average reader. The doctrines discussed in the book are big and serious doctrines—perfection, covenants, works, grace, judgment, the atonement, just to name a few—and I felt that a traditional chapter book would lose the average teen reader in a mountain of text. A class discussion with student questions and comments seemed the most logical way to approach the book to make it more readable, as teens are used to the discussion formats from their classes at school, conversations with friends and family, and of course on the web through social media.

The challenge, of course, was to make the discussion seem genuine. The format required me to move into a little creative fiction and write in the voice of different types of teenagers as they made their comments and asked their questions. Luckily, I’ve been with teenagers long enough and taught this subject to them often enough that I could pull from real life dialogues I’ve actually heard teenagers say in the classroom. When we read a scripture about being “damned,” I know some kid in the class will usually say “Whoa. You just swore,” so it was fun to be able to put those little lines in there. A specific and more serious example is the opening chapter when Katie (one of the fictional students) expresses her frustration and despair she feels when talking about who will make it to the celestial kingdom. Those lines and many others were almost word for word transcripts from real students I’ve heard express those very feelings. Although it was challenging to accurately represent the different students’ perspectives and voices, it was enjoyable at the same time, and I think it makes the book more readable and understandable. Hopefully the different characters represented in those dialogues help the youth who read it say, “That is what I would think or say…I’m a lot like him” and get more into the book and what is being taught.

The heart of the book seems to be encapsulated by these lines near the end: “Because [Christ] was perfect, we don’t have to be. . . . We don’t have to qualify ourselves for the celestial kingdom, but instead qualify ourselves for Christ, and He will bring us into the celestial kingdom.” Could you explain this concept, and why you think it’s so difficult for some Latter-day Saints (including LDS youth) to understand?

Although the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches about grace, we seem (at least from my personal and teaching experience) to not really get it sometimes. We think that somehow our works will qualify us for heaven, and they won’t. They simply can’t. King Benjamin tells us that even if we served God with our “whole souls” we would still be unprofitable servants—we would still be in the hole (Mosiah 2:21). Sometimes we think that if we can just bake enough casseroles, set up a few thousand metal chairs for meetings, visit all our visiting and home teaching families (early in the month even!) then we will qualify ourselves for heaven. That just isn’t true. I love when Nephi says that we will be saved by grace “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). I think what Nephi is saying isn’t that we need to do everything in our power and then, and only then, will Christ’s loving grace kick in. No. I think more what he is saying is, “Try as you might, in spite of everything we do, we still will need to be saved by Christ’s grace. He is the only way. We cannot save ourselves.” The beauty of that idea is that it should relieve the burden of perfection off our shoulders. We don’t need to be perfect, because Christ already was. What we need to do is figure out how to join ourselves with Christ—to be linked with him. Instead of trying to qualify ourselves for heaven (which is impossible), we need to look to our Savior and qualify ourselves for Christ. This is done through making covenants with him, and this is where our “works” figure into the equation. If my works can qualify me to make and keep covenants with Christ, I will make it to heaven, in spite of my imperfections. Covenants are the key. Covenants are what make us “the children of Christ” as King Benjamin said (read Mosiah 5:5-10 for a powerful summary of this idea). I think this idea is difficult for some of us, adults and youth, to understand because it takes faith. It takes truly believing in Christ and his perfection, and not relying on ourselves and our own independence and works. It takes both true faith and true humility.

Your book is full of a lot of hope and positivity. Do you think there’s any danger in telling youth that they don’t need to worry about being perfect? Is there any value to the long tradition of scaring kids straight?

No, I don’t think we need to scare kids straight. I think the gospel is a gospel of hope. Christ didn’t come to the earth to condemn the world, but to give life and hope to the world. I see more youth and adults who give up on the gospel because they don’t feel worthy, or because they feel like they can’t measure up to some impossible yardstick of perfection, or because they feel like they have messed up their chances for salvation because of a mistake, than I ever see youth who use the idea of faith in Christ’s perfection as an excuse to sin. Love and hope and optimism are consistent with the spirit of the gospel, whereas fear and discouragement are usually tools of the adversary.

In your ten years of working with LDS youth, what trends do you see among them that fill you with the most hope? What trends worry you most?

In terms of conversion and dedication to the gospel, these youth are better than my generation. They just are. As a whole, they know the scriptures better, they can teach the gospel better, they are more perceptive of the Holy Ghost. They have to be. The divide seems to be widening between righteousness and sin, so youth are forced to decide which side of the line they want to be on sooner than previous generations. One thing that worries me is that the abundance of sin in the world, and the social acceptability of so much of this sin, means we cannot take spiritual things lightly in our youth. It can be very difficult for teens who start to stray young, who have the idea that they can “get serious” about the gospel before a mission or during their twenties, to get back on track. Of course, they can get back on track—this is one of the main messages of my book—but it can be a hard road. We need to be spiritually strong and mature younger than perhaps we ever have before. But what gives me hope is that the whole of the youth today are up to the challenge of their day. I see it on a daily basis, and it is inspiring.

There are many parents of teenagers who read Segullah. How can the message found in your book help parents as well as teens?

That is a great question. Although the book is written for teens, I would hope adults could also learn a lot and gain a better understanding of the doctrines of perfection, covenants, and the atonement if they read it. I learned a lot writing it. As parents and leaders of youth, we are the ones who help shape their original ideas and thinking in their formative years. If we understand and have faith in these doctrines, and have the hope in Christ that springs from them, then naturally our children will benefit from our knowledge and faith as they are trying to develop their own testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Talking to Tony made me wonder: when you were a teen, did you see the Celestial Kingdom as a kind of distant impossibility? Are you unsure, even today, about where you’ll wind up when you die? How do you navigate the terrain between works and grace, and how to you teach these concepts to your children?

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

22 thoughts on “I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go to Heaven?–An Interview with Anthony Sweat

  1. The books sounds like a teen-friendly version of Believing Christ–I’m excited to read it!

    Almost embarrassing to admit, I did think I would make it to the Celestial Kingdom when I was a teen because I thought pretty highly of myself when it came to spiritual things. It took some emotional crash & burns in college and on my mission to see myself more clearly and to realize I didn’t understand grace, works and the atonement right. Robinson’s “Believing Christ” was absolutely essential to my better understanding of how it all works.

    I think, because it was such a drastic learning experience, that I remember the principles pretty well. Though I would have to say, if anything, I now err on the side of grace and sometimes I have to remind myself to not take the Atonement for granted, to repent of little things, etc. It’s definitely a more peaceful path than feeling like there’s no way to make it.

  2. Robert Millett wrote a similar book aimed at adults. I thinkit was called “Are We There Yet?”.

  3. I’m impressed to see Deseret Book thinking outside the box on both style & substance of its books aimed at youth. Bravo Anthony Sweat, for pushing the envelope on “digital-native friendly” presentation of solid LDS doctrine. I liked his Why? and look forward to reading this one & passing it along to my teens.

  4. This looks like a great book. I’ll have to put it in my arsenal for when my kids get there. My 8-year-old already thinks she’s a teenager so it may be sooner rather than later.

    Here’s another reason why books like this are important: when I was a teenager I was a new convert and the only member of the church in my high school. I remember walking the halls of the school and thinking, “All these people, and I’m the only one who’s going to make it to the Celestial Kingdom.” Maybe Anthony’s next book can be geared toward snotty teens like me learning some humility.

  5. This book sounds perfect — as a teenager, I often worried over my salvation because I wasn’t perfect. It took me a long time to figure out that WITH the Savior I could be enough. Not perfect, but enough. I now work with the young women and see them struggle with themselves in the same way. I love the concept that we only have to qualify ourselves for Christ — awesome. That is an idea I will be using. Thanks!

  6. Anon, Believing Christ was very helpful for me as well. This book explores some of the same concepts, but the format makes it easy for teens to engage with some pretty weighty doctrines. Like Jeans said, kudos to Deseret Book for taking a chance on a different format, in both this book and in the Why? book.

    And Shelah, one of the best discussions I had with my 13-year-old son while he was reading this book had to do with the state of his friends and neighbors who weren’t members of the church. It didn’t seem fair to him that he was born a Mormon, but that those who weren’t born into the church might “miss their chance” to go to the Celestial kingdom if they didn’t let the missionaries in if they knocked on the door. The book does a great job explaining God’s ultimate fairness and love for all his children, no matter the religion they’re born into. To me, understanding the way that judgment really works is some of the best news of the Gospel, and it was a concept I didn’t truly understand until I was well into my twenties.

  7. Many LDS adults struggle with feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt. I believe that we do not teach enough about Christ in our Church meetings, including His nature, grace, love, atonement, and compassion. In Church classes and talks, we tend to rehearse over and over again the commandments we must obey to become celestial without including the fact that none of is will ever be perfect that that only through the grace of God will any of us be saved and become exalted.

  8. Carol — I whole-heartedly agree. It really disappoints me when speakers and teachers do not tie their talks and lessons to Christ and the Atonement.

  9. Angela & Anthony (or Ang ‘n Toad Head as I’m more used to calling the both of you),

    Thanks for the excellent interview. I’ve got a copy of Anthony’s book and it is outstanding, both in concept and in content. I work closely with the youth in my ward and can see how I can use this book to help them understand that, yes, you (and we) can go to heaven.

    Keep up the good work, both of you.

  10. Thanks for your review, Angela. It sounds like a fantastic book!

    And um, ahem, I had to go and read the whole kidney stone story on NMH. I think I could spend all day in those archives.

  11. Books that reassure people they will make it to the celestial kingdom are all based on making and keeping covenants. They don’t talk about repentance. You have to repent of your sins if you want to go to any of the kingdoms at all. It seems to me that Mormons assume that we’ve already repented, so now it’s on to making and keeping those covenants. We skip talking about that vitally important “repent” step, or we barely mention it in passing. I didn’t see repentance mentioned in the interview at all. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to repent.

    I visit teach a lady in her 60s whose husband has used porn their entire 40-year marriage. He has never once tried to repent. Other than the one conversation where she sobbed out the misery of being married to a porn addict for two-thirds of her life, she and her husband have a nice marriage. They were married in the temple. I have heard both of them get teary with joy in F&T meeting about their eternal marriage and expected exaltation. He’s made those covenants and kept those covenants and has a temple recommend. He’s managed to avoid any thought that he might need to repent. He’s been a porn addict for so long that he probably doesn’t even consider it a violation of the law of chastity anymore. He’d love a book like this. Of course he’s going to the celestial kingdom! Christ will get him there, porn or not, just the way he is.

    When we say ‘make and keep covenants’, in my opinion, we give the impression that if you just keep doing what you’re doing, then you’ll go to the celestial kingdom because Christ will make up what we aren’t doing. Well, if we aren’t repenting of our sins (big and little), Christ can’t get us into any kingdom at all, regardless of whether you get married in the temple and hold a temple recommend your entire life. And repentance takes a deliberate spiritual effort – it’s not something you just assume you’re doing when you’re taking the sacrament every week.

    Maybe if we talked more about repentance and less about how we’re doing great just as we are, there would be less shame and guilt because people would know to turn to Christ, rather than trying to bury the shame and guilt and insist they’re great just the way they are. Relying on Christ means repenting, not concluding that the way we are now is good enough. Repentance doesn’t mean we’re perfect; it means we’re humble enough to turn to Christ. Making and keeping covenants is something we can do by our own efforts – “I keep the Word of Wisdom, pay tithing, and go to Church. I’m keeping my covenants.”

    Do you see what I’m saying? I don’t need Christ’s help to pay a full tithing, or keep the Word of Wisdom, or get myself to Church every week. Keeping those covenants are solely my own efforts, and I can congratulate myself that I’m doing fine. But I need Christ to repent of my tendency to hold grudges, my inability to love unconditionally, my ability to say hurtful things when I get angry, and my pride.

    I’m sure subsequent commenters will say that repentance is obvious, but it isn’t obvious to some people. Satan is great at deceiving people about their own behavior – “you don’t need to repent; you’re keeping your covenants.” I kept my covenants and blithely assumed I was headed for the celestial kingdom for decades before I realized I needed to repent.

  12. Melinda, I understand what you’re saying, but I think that the experience you recount is an example of a definite mis-understanding of what it means to make and KEEP covenants. I also know that Tony’s book places a great deal of emphasis on the principle of repentance. In fact, I have an early draft version of the book saved on my hard drive (I was one of his early readers), and after doing a search I found that the word “repent” or “repentance” occurred 106 times.

    I can understand you dismay over people who misunderstand the idea that once they’ve made their temple covenants then they’re good to go–but in this book (and in other books I’ve read on the subject) the emphasis is on a continuing CYCLE of repentance and covenant-making, which is the whole purpose of the sacrament and renewing our covenants each week.

    But you’re right: without repentance, our covenants are meaningless. This is the whole purpose of the atonement and the plan of salvation. I know this concept is very clear in this book, at least, and if it wasn’t touched on in the interview it was my fault for not asking the right questions.

  13. Melinda,

    Thanks for your comments, and for your focus on repentance. Like Angela said, the book does talk a lot about the need for repentance. In particular, there is a whole chapter called “The Righteous Cycle” that I think you would enjoy, all of which is centered on the idea that we must continually have faith and repent to make and keep covenants. One line from this chapter says, “Repentance is the key.” I think you are spot on in our need to come unto Christ and continually repent and part of the process of making and keeping covenants.

  14. This book sounds wonderful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Recently we had a GA visit and give training to YW leaders. She emphasized the need to teach repentance more to the YW, every chance we get. So I’ve been doing that. The problem is, you don’t get the same response with a repentance lesson as you do with a divine nature lesson. Everyone leaves class knowing that there is something they need to work on, if the Spirit has been there. So instead of getting hugs, smiles, and happy faces after a lesson you get droopy heads and sideways glances, it can be hard as a leader. I am trying to balance my lessons, to let the YW know how much God loves them and that’s why they should turn to him to repent. But it just seems like the word “repent” has bad connotations and the youth think it’s just for people who are “bad”.

    Melinda, I hope I misunderstood this: “Christ will get him there, porn or not, just the way he is.” Actually Christ won’t. As part of the repentance process he will have to change and become a new person through the blood of the lamb. Repentance isn’t a magic wand that makes everything all better. Change is part of Repentance. Repentance is change through Christ.

    Related to this whole idea I think in the church we have misunderstandings about what actually constitutes a sin.

    Anthony- I was a student at West High seminary many moons ago. It changed my life. Thanks for your service there and for all the youth you impact!

  15. This topic is a crucial one for youth. I also teach at EFY and work with local youth, and I’ve seen exactly the kind of discouragement you’re talking about. It also ties in a lot to the other recent Segullah post about confidence in the family and the youth’s misperception about their own ability to form eternal families and reap the blessings of those covenants. Thanks to you and your brother for emphasizing this message– one of the key points of the atonement: our ACCESSIBILITY to it.

  16. Quote from jendoop: “Melinda, I hope I misunderstood this: “Christ will get him there, porn or not, just the way he is.” Actually Christ won’t.Melinda, I hope I misunderstood this: “Christ will get him there, porn or not, just the way he is.” Actually Christ won’t.”

    No, you didn’t misunderstand it. I was reporting the way I think he believes, based on what I’ve heard him say in F&T meeting. I don’t think Christ can save an unrepentant porn addict either. I know his wife is counting on an eternal marriage with him. I don’t understand their doublethink.

    Anthony, thanks for the personal response. I don’t have teenagers, but maybe I’ll pick up your book anyway.

  17. When I was 17 I fell away from the church- partly from choosing a life of sin and worldly pleasure, and partly because I couldn’t stand to be around all of these “celestial bound” people who I thought were too “puffy”, “fake” and “hypocritical”.

    I was away from the church for almost 10 years and came back to the church with a different new found attitude. It was while I was away from the church that i realized that the “spirit” still was with me guiding me, helping me. I also found that there were a lot of people outside the church who are guided by the spirit. It gave me a boost knowing that a lot of my early indoctrination in mormonism is based off of ideas and theories and not a lot of hard evidence.

    It was about the time I came back to church that I realized that our “plan of salvation” as expounded upon in the holy Book of Mormon was almost nonexistant in latter day interpretation. Latter day doctrine in our time espouses the idea of a multi-tiered heaven where even some of the most “unrepentant” wicked people are saved. In stark contrast, the Book of Mormon is quite clear that Christ has no ability to save the unrepentant. It was a hard time (still is in some degree) for me realizing that the “plan of salvation” has a lot of problems that need addressing. In mainstream Christianity they have a very strict dichotomy of heaven and hell as found in the New Testament. Even our Book of Mormon echoes this same exact dichotomy as found in the Bible. I guess it bothers me quite greatly now when we hear so much repeated every Sunday in church about the different kingdoms and who is going where. I think some things need to be re-examined because the truth is not what we assume it to be. For starters- Christ has no power to ever save any unrepentant whoremonger from hell, even if that whoremonger aknowledges the Savior.

    As was mentioned before, without repentance- sincere repentance followed by baptism, no one will ever find their way out of the devils grasp. Our Book of Mormon makes that very clear.

    Where have we gone wrong? By assuming that somehow Christ can get around some eternal fixed law and save the wicked into a realm of glory. he has no such power- I promise you that! What is it that is said?…And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

    (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 28:21)

  18. Melinda, sorry for the misunderstanding, I should have read more carefully.

    Rob, your comment reminds me of a scripture- “And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins.” Alma 11:37

    We can be redeemed from sin, but we cannot be redeemed with our sins still intact. At least I think that’s what you’re saying.

  19. jen,

    Yes that is what I was saying. I feel we place a lot of weight on an idea that Christ can or will save someone from their sins. It is this reason I believe that we assume pretty much most of the world can be saved in their sins into glory. By this I specifically mean that we assume that many will be saved without repenting and baptism. It

  20. (continued) It is my belief that a false view of heaven will temporarily dissapoint those who upon reaching the other side will realize it is pretty much all or nothing- we are either all in with Christ or we are none of his. This however is overwhelming to a lot, especially young people who are having difficulties overcoming smaller sins.

    The plan of slavation is a plan to exalt us, not merely save us by barely scraping by. God did not create us to be scrapers. He also did not institute a plan that only exalts a few. It is truly a masterful and sound plan when we finally realize its true aspects. But we are not going to get there until we realize that the path leading to salvation is a path of perfection- we will become perfect someday overcoming our obstacles one by one.

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