I love finding opportunities to read books together with others, because I can share in the enthusiasm and excitement of new ideas and thoughts. I am currently reading The Spiritual Roots of Human Relations with my dad and my brother. I had it recommended to me by an Institute teacher a few years ago, but I have never gotten around to reading it. I have read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I have heard that this is the original where everything began. I’m just in the first few chapters, and already I feel inspired to be a little better, and I find myself scribbling ideas down as I read.
I wanted to share one idea I found very profound. In his discussion of temptation, Stephen Covey shares a quote from Church president David O. McKay:
Nearly every temptation that comes to you and me comes in one of those forms. Classify them, and you will find that under one of those three, nearly every given temptation that makes you and me “spotted,” ever so little as it may be, comes to us as: (1) a temptation of the appetite; (2) a yielding to the pride and fashion and vanity of those alienated from the things of God; or (3) a gratifying of the passion or a desire for the riches of the world or power among men.
Now, that’s a handy little categorization tool. You may ask, why bother classifying sin? Sin is sin. I think it handy to see where these sins originate. Temptations of the appetite are sins of the flesh: overeating, sexual indulgence, drug and alcohol addiction. These kinds of sins are the ones we Mormons typically label as sin. But number two and three are important too: sins of vanity I think of as seeking popularity and trying to fit in or be cool. And the final sin is worldly status– seeking wealth, prestige, and power rather than the things of God. Covey adds an important corollary to McKay’s teaching:
I may be oversimplifying, but I have come to believe that until we conquer to a considerable extent the first temptation, we will be unable to conquer the second one; that is, unless we acquire control of our appetites, our flesh, our bodies, we will not be able to control our passions and our emotions and place them in subjection to our spirit. Similarly, unless we conquer the second temptation to a considerable extent, we will be unable to successfully consecrate ourselves. We will, instead, find ourselves victims of our passions and thereby would naturally yield to the temptation of seeking or aspiring to our own glory in the form of wealth and dominion, prestige and power.
Covey makes clear markers on the pathway to discipleship; if we even hope to become like Christ, we first have to master and be in control of our appetites and passions. That’s the starting point. But I feel that we often get stuck there; sometimes we don’t even think of vanity as a sin– just bad habits or character flaws. Being overly concerned with our image or our Facebook profile seem innocent enough, right? Or being dedicated at work; that can’t be a sin. When I mentioned this seeming hierarchical approach to sin with my wife, her first reaction was: that can’t be right. Sexual sins are the gravest of sins. Vanity and pursing wealth can’t rival that. I don’t think it’s necessarily about the severity of the sin, but I do think we can be damned in a sense of lack of progression if we make adherence to the law of chastity the only qualification for a Christian.
I think part of this comes from our Victorian approach to sin that we get from Alma in the Book of Mormon. Alma is calling his son Corianton to repentance:
And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.
Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.
Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
Mormons have it hammered into their brains that sexual sin is the second worst thing they could ever do. As youth, merely dating was like navigating a landmine in some cases; you didn’t want to accidentally cross the necking or heavy petting lines (whatever those are), so better safe than sorry and just don’t even hold hands. No steady dating either. We had our own family rule to never go out on a date with the same girl twice in a row.
But limiting our sense of sin to sexual transgressions ultimately handicaps our spiritual growth as well. I remember having an aha moment when I read these lines from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual. The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me; they are the animal self and the diabolical self; and the diabolical self is the worst of the two. That is why a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course it is better to be neither.”
Now, a Mormon probably wouldn’t entirely agree with that statement (I mean, it’s next to denying the Holy Ghost!). But Lewis illustrates just how bad those other sins can be, those ones that we might just consider character flaws. I whole-heartedly agree that a church-going individual could be worse off spiritually than a prostitute, but that doesn’t seem to register to us.
Dorothy Sayers makes clear that its not just us Mormons either; Christianity has been teaching this for centuries:
Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word immorality has come to mean one thing and one thing only. By a hideous irony, our shrinking reprobation of that sin has made us too delicate so much as to name it, so that we have come to use for it the words that were made to cover the whole range of human corruption. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.”
It’s true that we have similar teachings regarding the more cold-hearted and seemingly respectable sins that Pharisees weave into virtues. I think the Church’s new ministering efforts are a new thrust in that direction, moving us beyond keeping the mere letter of the law. Another source that hit me just as strong as Lewis’s was Neal A. Maxwell’s Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father when we was contrasting sins of omission and sins of commission:
These deficiencies just illustrated are those of omission. Once the telestial sins are left behind and henceforth avoided, the focus falls ever more on the sins of omission. These omissions signify a lack of qualifying fully for the celestial kingdom. Only greater consecration can correct these omissions, which have consequences just as real as do the sins of commission. Many of us thus have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission, but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions.
We typically think that as long as we don’t do anything flagrantly bad and keep going to Church, that we should by right make it to the celestial kingdom. Elder Maxwell stated pretty clearly that that’s not the case. He illustrated with a returned missionary who stops progressing when he comes home, and a sister involved in civic efforts, but neglects her church responsibilities. We have to have the faith to go beyond sins of commission.
More recently, Elder Holland taught a similar principle with an analogy of a steadily rising path:
Obviously as the path of discipleship ascends, that trail gets ever more narrow until we come to that knee-buckling pinnacle: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” What was gentle in the lowlands of initial loyalty becomes deeply strenuous and very demanding at the summit of true discipleship. Clearly anyone who thinks Jesus taught no-fault theology did not read the fine print in the contract! No, in matters of discipleship the Church is not a fast-food outlet; we can’t always have it “our way.” Some day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ and that salvation can only come His way.
The point is, we have plenty to work on as Mormons. We are pretty good at keeping a few basic commandments, but, at least speaking for myself, I know I have a lot of spiritual sins I would like to shed. I hope we can find ways to help each other on this shared path of discipleship.