The secrets of Godliness
I’ve heard some members who were born in the Gospel wish that they had been born outside the Church and then converted later in life. These members look back and say, “I wish I could have actually had fun in my youth– sow my wild oats, carefree, without worrying. Get married, hear the Gospel, join the Church, and then live all the rules after I’ve really enjoyed life.” In the minds of these members, converts get the best of both worlds– they experience the pleasures of temptation in their youth and then the light of the Gospel once they’ve had all their fun.
The Lord has a strong message for anyone who who wishes they could go back in time and “live a little” and repented later.
Wishing you sinned is just like planning to sin
Let’s be clear about one thing right out of the gate: in God’s book, wishing to do something is tantamount to actually doing it. “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” therefore, “our thoughts will also condemn us.” As Elder Holland taught:
[Christ] said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart…
And what of those who just want to look at sin or touch it from a distance? Jesus said with a flash, if your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off.
Pres. Oaks gave a sober warning to those who wish they had “a few free ones” before they were baptized:
Such persons want the present convenience or enjoyment of sin and the future effects of righteousness, in that order. They want to experience the sin but avoid its effects…
Latter-day Saints who wrongly think repentance is easy maintain that a person is better off after he has sinned and repented. “Get a little experience with sin,” one argument goes, “and then you will be better able to counsel and sympathize with others. You can always repent…”
The idea that one can deliberately sin and easily repent or that one is better off after sinning and repenting are devilish lies of the adversary.
Remember, “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.” To a God without the limits of time, wishing you had sinned in the past is the same as premeditating sin in the future, and I believe we will be held equally accountable for both in the last day. When we willfully choose sin in our hearts, now, in the future, or wistfully in an alternate timeline, we show that we either do not understand or do not truly appreciate the Atonement of Christ. We are intentionally adding inexpressible suffering to Christ’s load in Gethsemane and on the cross, drawing dangerously close to the description of those sons of perdition, “crucifying to themselves the Son of God afresh, and putting him to an open shame.” Remember Lot’s wife; God will not be mocked.
Satan’s tactic: confuse us about sin and obedience
If you ask most religiously observant people why they follow such strict rules in ten words or less, they would probably answer with something like the following: “Self-denial now brings greater joy in the future.”
Isn’t that the essence of why we often follow the commandments? We pay tithing, follow the word of wisdom, honor standards of chastity, forego inappropriate media, and bear through the bedlam of Family Home Evenings with young kids because we value the future blessings that will come as a result of our obedience today. We acknowledge that the pleasures of the world bring a temporary happiness, but like the kids in the famous “marshmallow experiment,” we believe there’s more joy in store for those who are patient, control their appetites, and follow the rules. “Self-denial now brings greater joy in the future:” the bumper sticker description of why we obey.
I think if you were to take ask the prophet Moroni what he thinks about our little bumper sticker, he would say “Be careful– you’re still giving Satan too much credit.” The moment Moroni took over the responsibilities of his father Mormon, he gave modern-day readers a warning about the philosophies of men which encourage us to “eat, drink, and be merry:”
There shall be many who will say, Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, for the Lord will uphold such at the last day. But wo unto such, for they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity.
I imagine if he were here today, he would point to that verse and underline the words “they are in the gall of bitterness.” Present tense. Alma might then join him and point us to his own testimony, born by painful experience, that “wickedness never was happiness.” Ever.
We sometimes look at the wicked and say “Sure, they’re happy now, but just you wait and they’ll be miserable when God takes them to task!” But that’s completely wrong! The wicked won’t just be miserable at the judgment day– they are miserable now! Wickedness is never happiness– not even temporarily. They are in the gall of bitterness now. When we sin, we trade our birthright for a mess of pottage, only to find that Satan can’t even supply the pottage.
Just as sin brings both long-term and immediate suffering, so too does obedience bring both long-term and immediate blessings:
[God] doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you…
Consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.
God doesn’t wait for the eternities to reward us with “peace that passeth all understanding.” The righteous are blessed today. That’s why the premise of “self-denial now, exquisite joy in the future” is flawed. Obedience is not a choice between one marshmallow now or two later– it’s the choice between gonorrhea or a buffet, and that choice applies to both now and later. There really is no contest. Those who wish they had been able to “have fun and then join the Church” must have never talked to a convert. Ask everyone who once walked the other path– even unknowingly– if they wish they could wind back the clock and find the Gospel earlier in life. No one who truly values the Gospel would ever wish for more time without it.
Commandments: the secrets of godliness
Which brings us to this final question: why even make the blessings conditional on our obedience? Why, then, is every blessing from God predicated on obedience to a “law, irrevocably decreed?” Satan may not offer much, but what he gives, he doesn’t make us earn, after all. What ever happened to Nephi’s sales pitch that “salvation is free?” Why must eternal joy come with the price tag of obeying restrictive rules and commandments?
I remember a training on my mission I will never forget. My mission president referred to D&C 59 where the Lord promises to bless faithful Saints “with blessings from above, yea, and with commandments not a few.” He then asked us if it seemed a little weird that God would reward our obedience to His rules with… wait for it… even more rules. I perked up when he said this. I imagined Christ telling me “Good job being obedient, Elder. As a reward, I’m adding another 100 pages of rules to your missionary handbook. You’re welcome.”
That thought didn’t exactly thrill me. But then my mission president wrote the following words on the chalkboard:
Commandments are the secrets of Godliness.
All of the sudden, everything clicked. Why would Heavenly Father give us commandments? Why does He do anything? “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world.” The purpose of everything God does is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” He wants us to grow up and be like Him!
Satan would have us believe the commandments are arbitrary, obligatory hoops God requires us to jump through and demonstrate we’re faithful little pets. This is how he tempts us to reject them and follow another path. But the Gospel light shows us the truth: As Bro. Brad Wilcox (now in the Young Men General Presidency) taught, when we follow God’s laws, “we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven.” Commandments are God’s instructions for us to learn how to be like Him. He is teaching us how to be as He is. Eternal progression consists of a growing list of raised bars. Heavenly Father doesn’t give us commandments He Himself would not keep with all perfection, nor that we will ever be exempted from ourselves.
So if you are wishing you had been born outside the Gospel, or if you are just planning to put up with all these restrictions during mortality to earn freedom to do whatever you want in the eternities, you may want to re-think your attitude. Maybe you’ll qualify for the celestial kingdom. But if more and more commandments is the future, would you actually want to stay there?