Moral Discipline

This entry is based on a talk given by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the October 2009 General Conference.

Elder Christofferson began by relating a story told by President James E. Faust, who says he was interviewed whilst he was in the army and the questions turned to religion. They asked “In times of war should not the moral code be relaxed? Does not the stress of battle justify men in doing things that they would not do when at home?” After debating within himself whether to give the more popular answer or the answer he knew to be true, he said “I do not believe there is a double standard of morality.” President Faust, believing he would have scored low, was surprised when he learnt he had passed the interview. He recognised we all have moral agency but we must have moral discipline so we can make the correct choices, even when faced with uncertain situations.

Elder Christofferson explains moral discipline as “self-discipline based on moral standards. Moral discipline is the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard.”

The scriptures are abundant with stories of people who have chosen the right in difficult circumstances. We read of Joseph, who was tempted by Potiphar’s wife. He said to her “There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) Even then she persisted – later “she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled…” (Genesis 39:12). He could have easily succumbed and no one would have even known – but he know it was wrong, and that God would have known. He had moral discipline.

In the world, there is a problem with moral discipline. We are reliant on laws and governments to enforce standards of a moral nature. Elder Christofferson quoted Walter Williams, a columnist, who said “Gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. …Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.” If we truly were civilised as a whole group of individuals, there would be no need for laws to prevent violations of moral standards. Even then, some of those moral standards do not meet the Lord’s standards. As a result, the world as a whole loses entitlement to the full blessings and support of God. Elder Christofferson further explained “Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin…”

Another scriptural example of moral discipline were the sons of Helaman. These valiant young men were a great exemplification of moral discipline. “Yea, they were men of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him.” (Alma 53:21), “…yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” (Alma 56:47) They had been taught at a young age about moral standards and when the difficult decisions came, they did not falter in exercising their moral agency to defend their families and the right to worship their God.

This example of the army of Helaman leads onto another reason why it’s important to teach our children the principles of the Gospel which we cherish. Elder Christofferson said “I have heard a few parents state that they don’t want to impose the gospel on their children but want them to make up their own minds about what they will believe and follow. They think that in this way they are allowing children to exercise their agency.However, we know that in D&C 68:25 that “…inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” The reason for the need to teach children about the Gospel is clear – if we do not teach them, then how will they know about it? In order to use their agency effectively then they need to know what the ‘choice’ is. Satan is not going to allow anyone to go through this life without his ‘curriculum’, so we need to teach the Lord’s way also. If the Gospel is not taught, then they only have one choice placed in front of them…

“In some cases, temptation may have the added force of potential or actual addiction. I am grateful that for an increasing number of people the Church can provide therapeutic help of various kinds to aid them in avoiding or coping with addictions. Even so, while therapy can support a person’s will, it cannot substitute for it…” Elder Christofferson went on to say. In order to overcome any addicition or habit, professional help can intervene. Even Church led help can support. However, if we ourselves do not engage our moral discipline and our faith in Christ’s Atonement, then our efforts to overcome such addictions will not be successful. “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the ungodly out of temptation…” (2 Peter 2:9). As long as we have faith in the Saviour, then He has told us “will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27) – it is possible through faith in Jesus Christ!

Finally, we can take hope in the fact that as we are morally disciplined, others around us will see that and they’ll be more likely to do the same. This is why Paul counselled “…be thou an example of the believers…” (1 Timothy 4:12) so that it may transfer the effect to someone who needs that example to improve. It will also have a beneficial impact for us in this life – “…let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power…to see the salvation of God…” (D&C 123:17) – we will be blessed with strength and for eternity as we make decisions which uphold the moral standards which we strive to attain, even when it is difficult to do so.

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