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What are the Differences Between Mistakes and Sin?

My son recently watched a movie where a young boy, after having made some extremely poor choices, responded simply, “Mistakes were made.” While we sat together watching the film, this tagline grated on my nerves. We all make mistakes, but we have to own them, or we don’t learn and grow.

Let’s be clear though. What is the difference between a sin and a mistake?

In a talk given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks regarding the subject, he said, “Sins result from willful disobedience of laws we have received by explicit teaching or by the Spirit of Christ, which teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong. For sins, the remedy is to chasten and encourage repentance. Mistakes result from ignorance of the laws of God or the workings of the universe or people he has created. For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the individual.” 1

One of the main purposes of mortality is to learn by our own experience. We do that by choosing for ourselves, making lots of mistakes and trying again. We shouldn’t be chastised for growth. What a great insight as we serve in callings, have children or interact with any human ever!

Sin is intentionally disobeying the Lord or widening the distance between Him and ourselves. When we are choosing to break away from our God, we must recognize it and bring ourselves back to Him through the atoning power of Jesus Christ. Our sins can be swept away. The Lord promised, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18) We can be renewed and made whole.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. highlighted the distinction between an unintended act and an intended one in his famous observation that “even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked” (The Common Law [1963], 7). 1

Some mistakes may be as small as forgetting to wash the dishes on your night but as serious as stepping in front of a car. The consequences of a mistake may be lifelong. There are sometimes consequences that come along with sin that do not go away but the guilt and the pain of our disobedience can be taken by our precious Savior.

Simply put, we choose to sin but make mistakes by accident. The Lord knows the deepest desires of our hearts. He can identify whether we walk foolishly into something by error or by design. For this reason, it is imperative that we listen to the still voice of the Holy Ghost who will help us be right with our Father in Heaven through the perfect gift of His Only Begotten.

May we always be quick to forgive and slow to condemn as we experience growth through trial and error in our own personal journey of mortality.

“Sins and Mistakes,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, October 1996 General Conference 

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