This is a concept I began to believe in an abstract way through my interactions with others. Watching someone live a truly GOOD life outside of "the true church" you can't help but feel that God is more liberal than we often assume Him to be. That His heart and His arms are more inclusive than we anticipate.
A few years ago, my family was discussing a relative (a brother of my grandmother) who was a wonderful and honorable man -- a man my dad and all my uncles looked up to and admired -- who had left the church. My uncle surprised me by turning to me asking if I thought a man like this would be excluded from the Celestial Kingdom. In that moment, recalled in my mind a lesson from an institute class, where we had attempted to figure out the percentages of those that would be saved using the scriptures (for example: more than 50% of those born on earth die before the age of accountability [most in infancy] so we are already seeing the majority saved!) and with that in mind I responded "I think God will save a lot more of us than we give Him credit for." My uncle smiled and agreed with me, and it wasn't too long after that I had that validated in my mind and heart again. I was reading Stephen E. Robinson's book Following Christ and I came across the parable of the diver:
“Many years ago, when I was somewhere between nine and eleven, I participated in a community summer recreation program in the town where I grew up. I remember in particular a diving competition for the different age groups held at the community swimming pool. Some of the wealthier kids in our area had their own pools with diving boards, and they were pretty good amateur divers. But there was one kid my age from the less affluent part of town who didn’t have his own pool. What he had was raw courage. While the rest of us did our crisp little swan dives, back dives, and jackknives, being every so careful to arch our backs and point our toes, this young man attempted back flips, one-and-a-halfs, doubles, and so on. But, oh, he was sloppy. He seldom kept his feet together, he never pointed his toes, and he usually missed his vertical entry. The rest of us observed with smug satisfaction as the judges held up their scorecards that he consistently got lower marks than we did with our safe and simple dives, and we congratulated ourselves that we were actually the better divers. “He is all heart and no finesse,” we told ourselves. “After all, we keep our feet together and point our toes.”
“The announcement of the winners was a great shock to us, for the brave young lad with the flips had apparently beaten us all. However, I had kept rough track of the scores in my head, and I knew with the arrogance of limited information that the math didn’t add up. I had consistently outscored the boy with the flips. And so, certain that an injustice was being perpetrated, I stormed the scorer’s table and demanded and explanation. “Degree of difficulty,” the scorer replied matter-of-factly as he looked me in the eye. “Sure, you had better form, but he did harder dives. When you factor in the degree of difficulty, he beat you hands down, kid.” Until that moment I hadn’t know that some dives were awarded “extra credit” because of their greater difficulty. . . . ."
“Whenever I am tempted to feel superior to other Saints, the parable of the divers comes to my mind, and I repent. At least at a swim meet, we can usually tell which dives are the most difficult. But here in mortality, we cannot always tell who is carrying what burdens: limited intelligence, chemical depression, compulsive behaviors, learning disabilities, dysfunctional or abusive family background, poor health, physical or psychological handicaps—no one chooses these things. So I must not judge my brothers and sisters. I am thankful for my blessings but not smug about them, for I never want to hear the Scorer say to me, “Sure, you had better form, but she had a harder life. When you factor in degree of difficulty, she beat you hands down.”
"So, enduring to the end doesn’t have much to do with suffering in silence, overcoming all life’s obstacles, or even achieving the LDS ideal (“pointing our toes” and “keeping our feet together”). It just means not giving up. It means keeping—to the best of our abilities—the commitments we made to Christ when we entered into the marriage of the gospel. It means not divorcing the Savior or cheating on him by letting some other love become more important in our lives. It means not rejecting the blessings of the atonement that he showered upon us when we entered his church and kingdom." (Stephen E. Robinson, Following Christ: The Parable of the Divers and More Good News [Salt Lake city: Deseret Book, 1995], 34-38.)
Comprehending and appreciating this means seeing that God really is aware and accepting of the trials and difficulties of our lives, and that while this doesn't change his expectations of us and for us, it does make Him much more merciful that we often think of Him to be. (Or are ourselves towards others. 1 Samuel 16:7 "...the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.")
I came to believe this in a more real and personal way through my own experience of God's mercy. The author of that first article wrote that "being surprised by God is part of the process of repentance" and I can testify to the truthfulness of that statement (Aaron R.). It has been in the moments following my mistakes, the ones that leave me asking "who am I to do something like this?" and feeling as though I could never reclaim my former self, that I have, through repentance, been surprised at how easily I am forgiven and how quickly I am able to return to a full spiritual life. God's mercy has surprised me.
In Matt 23:37 the Savior laments "...how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings but ye would not." I think at times we "would not" because we think that in our sinful state (in our "messy house") we cannot be gathered. And while "we ‘have every reason to believe Him to be’ a certain way because we inhabit a world that is laden with false assumptions or misapprehension about God’s purposes or plan. The gospel is a call to enter into a covenantal relationship within Him in order that He can reveal Himself to us, and through that process disabuse us of those false notions. In that process, there will be moments when we realize that God must be a ‘very different individual from what [we] have every reason to believe him to be’ " (Aaron R.).
These will be the moments where we are surprised by how open God's arms really are.