“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

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My “office”. A little drafty but it does the job.

Today, while sitting in my “office” (see above) and working on other things, I began thinking about temptation. This wasn’t for any especial reason, and this is not a confession post. But I’m as human as anyone else, and all of us face or have faced temptation, including the Saviour himself, even though he never succumbed. And I was thinking about what I have learned about those things that have helped me in repenting and those that have not.

As I was doing so, my mind began thinking about the temptations Christ suffered in the wilderness, but particularly the first:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

(Matthew 4:1-3).

It struck me, in considering this account, how this reflects the temptations we suffer. It was understandable, after fasting for such a prolonged period, that Christ was hungry. In fact it is more than understandable, but entirely justified. The human body needs food to survive, and Christ had a mortal human body, as we do. Being hungry was not a sin, but a legitimate need.

Satan’s temptation was not to make the Saviour feel hungry. His temptation was to suggest an illegitimate way to meet that need, one that involved the misuse of Christ’s power.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that this is often true for us. Many of the sins we wrestle with are often connected with some deeper issue or need, which we may not even be aware of. I’ve seen this in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of others. These may be desires for love, security, comfort or intimacy, or even simply the rudiments of survival. And it strikes me that seeking these things is not wrong. The problem is that Satan preys upon those needs, tempting us to meet unhappiness, or loneliness, or deprivation, or whatever with drugs, or sexual sin, or greed or dishonesty or all manner of things. And of course, these are not only wrong, but also cannot really meet our righteous needs. But we are often unaware of the very need at stake, and so Satan deceives us (and we often deceive ourselves) that these are the things that will somehow make us happy, often unaware of why we might find a particular temptation tempting in the first place.

Satan, who desires our misery above all other things, will always seek to pay us in false coin. And we, especially when we are unaware of what we really need, often seek solace from the wrong sources.

While I was contemplating this, I recalled a statement I’ve heard attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: “Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”. Some investigation reveals lots of sites attributing that quote to him, but without sourcing it. However, as far as I can tell they’re actually paraphrasing the following statement, which certain captures the same thought:

Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.

(Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader”, The Ensign, August 1978)

I don’t believe anyone can accuse President Kimball of seeking to excuse sin, and there’s no excuse for it here. Sin is still sin, and needs repentance. But it seems to me that so often our approach to sin is symptomatic: we simply seek to stop the symptom of our outward sins. But such an approach can be as unsuccessful as simply trying to eliminate symptoms in physical medicine. To truly treat an illness, one must treat the causes. I believe this applies individually, but is also the case for any leaders counselling someone else wrestling with some sin: it is not enough simply to urge the stopping of sin, nor enough to simply encourage an increase of devotional acts, as good as they are. All too often this may leave an individual’s needs unmet and unrecognised, and leaves true repentance – change – incomplete, and a person vulnerable to falling back into former sins.. Rather, in addition to these things, we should seek to identify the needs or deeper issues at stake. I believe doing so can help us to recognise that what Satan is offering is an imposter, something that does not and can not and will never give us what we truly want. We can seek to pursue legitimate means to meet that need, if it is possible at that time. Above all, we can learn, and seek, and experience how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power not only to bring forgiveness of sins, but to meet all our deepest and dearest needs.

Christ not only cleanses us from sin, but is the great physician, healing us on the inside if we let him. And for our repentance to be successful – and for the repentance of anyone we happen to be counselling for those who are leaders – we must seek to let him.

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Helaman 13

It’s been a long while since I’ve written one of these, and I feel that I’d like to do better at it. To recap, this is part of a series generated by my personal reading of the Book of Mormon, in which I happen to comment on one or two (or occasionally more) things that leapt out at me during my reading. It doesn’t aim to be an exhaustive or comprehensive examination of the chapter (the former I’d argue would likely be impossible), but simply commenting on something that struck me during my reading.

While reading Helaman 13 this morning, several points of varying importance came to mind:

  1. Firstly, I was curious about the fact that Samuel the Lamanite mentions several times (Alma 13:5, 9) that the Nephites face destruction in under “four hundred years”. Alma the younger has already mentioned the figure in Alma 45:10, although that is privately to his son Helaman. I am curious as to whether Samuel’s audience dismissed his remarks because it all sounds so far away. Of course, Samuel is also discussing more imminent events (and gives more imminent dates for those in the next chapter), but I guess many people’s natural response is to not worry about what will happen in four hundred years.
  2. One line that struck: “nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Helaman 13:6). I think this is true (and think it is being used here) both individually and collectively. But, individually and collectively, we often have a tendency to look towards different sources of salvation, whether it be the “right” political leaders, wealth, our own powers or intellect or whatever. In an ultimate sense, however, we all need to depend upon those two principles.
  3. Overall the chapter spends a lot of time talking about wealth, and it becoming “slippery”, so that the people are unable to find or keep it. I was wondering about why the focus on this, and think that part of the reason is the relationship people have with their riches here is emblematic of several serious sins. On one hand, one major sin is that the people do not remember and thank God for their material blessings, instead becoming prideful (Helaman 13:22); ingratitude may be a far more serious sin then we realise (see D&C 59, in which thanking God is specifically listed amongst the commandments given in vv. 5-13, and “confess[ing] not his hand in all things” is described as invoking God’s wrath in v. 21). On the other hand, the people trust in their riches (rather than God) and depend on them to preserve them from their poverty (Helaman 13:31-32), or to work or defend themselves (the mention of tools and weapons in particular in v. 34). The treasures becoming slippery teaches both that He who gave them can take them away, and that such material things are not dependable and to be trusted in.
  4. One to tag onto the list of “scary passages”, Helaman 13:37-38 is a particularly imposing passage:

Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.
But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.

 

Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

2 Nephi 30

And now behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you; for I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish; and because of the words which have been spoken ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed.

For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel.

(2 Nephi 30:1-2)

I’ve mentioned before that a key theme of the Book of Mormon – including 2 Nephi 25-30 – is the restoration of Israel and conversely judgment upon the Gentiles who have oppressed them. Yet these verses help correct any misapprehension we may have of that: Israel will be restored, collectively. On an individual scale, however, it is personal repentance and faith that make the difference. We will not be saved based on who our ancestors were, nor on what our nationality is, nor on nominal membership of the Church; we cannot be complacent and think everything is okay because we belong to the “right” group. We are all going to be held accountable, for God is just. Likewise He mercifully extends his salvation to all, on the same conditions.

2 Nephi 4

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

(2 Nephi 4:15)

I don’t think any commentary is necessary on this verse.

I can’t say I like the title “the Psalm of Nephi” that some people have given the latter part of this chapter (though I can’t think of any rational objections). But the chapter itself contains many passages in which my soul “delighteth” or that my heart “pondereth”:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

(2 Nephi 4:17-19)

O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

(2 Nephi 4:26-30)