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.

Locusts of Life

Locusts are nasty little things, eating everything you’ve worked so hard to plant and cultivate. However, there is a scripture in Joel 2:25 which uses these creatures as a good allegory. It says “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…” – for most of us our main concern is not to worry about physical locusts eating our livelihood but figurative locusts which make us waste our precious moments in life.

One example of a locust that can rob us of potential produce, or rewards, is a sense of apathy. Shirking responsibilities offered by the Lord indicate we do not have faith in Him or the fact that the leaders of His Church receive revelation to guide His flock. If we pass up the opportunity to serve God and our fellow man then we show to our Heavenly Father that we have lost our trust in Him to a degree. As such, we lose out on possible future blessings the Lord would have given to us. Blessings and years are eaten away…

Also, technology can ‘eat away’ a lot of our time. If used for good purposes and in moderation, ways of communication, social media and recreation can be useful and provide a rest. However, when one puts these distractions before developing personal spiritual strength, building family relationships or fulfilling duties then it we can lose vital time. “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea…this life is the day for men to perform their labours.” (Alma 34:32)

Of course, one major swarm we have to be aware of is sin. Sin leads us lose the Spirit and the blessings and progression we can have in our life can be eaten away. Satan won’t have the life we do, ever, and so it’s his desire to make men miserable like himself. As Amulek continues in Alma 34:35 “…if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his…and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.” If we want to achieve all our Heavenly Father wants us to achieve, we need to try to avoid allowing these locusts of life eat away from our time. 

The Word of Wisdom

President Gordon B. Hinckley once said “I recall a bishop’s telling me of a woman who came to get a [temple] recommend. When asked if she observed the Word of Wisdom, she said that she occasionally drank a cup of coffee. She said, “Now, bishop, you’re not ging to let that keep me from going to the temple, are you?” To which he replied, “Sister, surely you will not let a cup of coffee stand between you and the house of the Lord””
What this bishop said was very true, we shouldn’t allow anything to stop us from going to the House of the Lord – we can’t even allow a cup of coffee because “…no unclean thing can dwell with God…” (1 Nephi 10:21) 

The ‘not allowing’ of drinking coffee relates to the Word of Wisdom, which can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Why was it revealed? Part of the answer is linked to a question, which was often the case in the early days of the restoring of the Lord’s Church. It was revealed as a result of a question from Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma Smith. However, the counsel that our body is sacred and should be respected is not new. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Our spirits are the offspring of God (see Acts 17:28) and so, we need to keep the tabernacle in which they reside in pure.

Not only does the Word of Wisdom protect us, but it is further evidence that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God. When this revelation was received in 1833, the principles given about what not to take into our bodies were far advanced for their time – most of the items and substances prohibited  had not yet even been thought of as harmful, never mind proven as harmful. In fact, some doctors, when faced with a patient with a cough, would ‘prescribe’ them to smoke tobacco! Therefore, at the time, the Word of Wisdom would some counterproductive in protecting the body – although today’s scientific evidence proves the potential danger of these items.

Even D&C 89:4 is a prophecy that has been fulfilled. It says “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days…” This revelation was given in part because people will be tempted. Some of the items listed will not have significant damage to the body if taken in the correct moderation. However, because of ‘conspiring minds’ wanting to sell their wares, they make their products seem desirable for consumption, making people tempted to partake more than they should.

I will not attempt to make an exhaustive list of items suggested for consumption and items prohibited here but those wanting to find out can look on, or in Doctrine and Covenants 89.

The First Presidency in October 1942 declared “Drunken with strong drink, man have lost their reason; their counsel has been destroyed; their judgment and vision are fled…Drink has brought more woe and misery, broken more hearts, wrecked more homes, committed more crimes, filled more coffins, than all the wars the world has suffered.”

James O. Mason in the September 1986 Ensign put these statements forward regarding another prohibited item in the Word of Wisdom:
“Each year tobacco use causes nearly 2.5 million premature deaths worldwide. Tobacco use also harms millions of innocent victims. For example, smoking by pregnant mothers passes on toxic chemicals that interfere with fetal development, afflicting apporximately 3 million babies each year. These babies have lower birth weight and increased risk for neurological and intellectual delays and for premature birth. Other innocent victims include non-smokers who regularly inhale second-hand smoke. These people have much higher rates of respiratory illness and are three times more likely to die of lung cancer than those who do not inhale second-hand smoke.”

We see the  damage that not following the guidelines of the Word of Wisdom has. These quotes mention only the fatalities and impact on families. Consider the economic effects too:
President Heber J. Grant outlined “Consider the amount of land, money, and other resources that are used to produce harmful substances, advertise them, purchase them, and treat the consequences of their use. For example, in 1985 the cost in America of health care and lost productivity related to the use of tobacco was approximately $65 billion. The costs of the production and use of alcohol are also very high.Consider the potential economic impact of using these resources for beneficial purposes rather than destructive ones.”

It could be argued that the revenue brought in from producing tobacco pays up for it (I haven’t done the research myself so I have no idea), however, the fact that it could be used for greater purposes is still extremely valid.

Of course, the Word of Wisdom is not just a list of don’ts. There are many things listed that are recommended for us to eat as well as this counsel found in D&C 88:124 which says “…retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.” President Brigham Young commented “Instead of doing two days’ work in one day, wisdom would dictate to [the Saints] that if they desire long life and good health, they must, after sufficient exertion, allow the body to rest before it is entirely exhausted. When exhausted, some argue that they need stimulants…But instead of these kind of stimulants they should recruit by rest.” Very simple guidance but can be hard to do – but this wise counsel will help us lead a happier, healthier life.

Having said all this, do all people who live the Word of Wisdom live a perfectly healthy life? Of course, some who live by it’s principles do suffer from physical ailments produced from the prohibited substances (although it is arguably a much smaller proportion). Two points answer this issue. First – why raise the chances? Second – even if they struggle with a physical issue, they will still receive the spiritual blessings of living the Word of Wisdom. Elder Boyd K. Packer said “I have come to know…that a fundamental purpose of the Word of Wisdom has to do with revelation…If someone ‘under the influence’ [of harmful substances] can hardly listen to plain talk, how can they respond to spiritual promptings that touch their most delicate feelings? As valuable as the Word of Wisdom is as a law of health, it may be much more valuable to you spiritually than it is physically.” Keeping the Word of Wisdom can help us be more in tune with the Spirit – allowing greater ability to receive personal revelation. Not only that but it gives us greater self-mastery and emotional strength.

Just look at King Benjamin’s address to the Nephites in Mosiah 2:41 “…consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, 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.” Through the Word of Wisdom we are blessed spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally – what a great blessing to have this principle and be able to receive the promised blessings!

Moral Agency

The thoughts expressed here are based on an article by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the June 2009 Ensign.

Free Agency vs Moral Agency
We usually talk of free agency, which is correct, for we are indeed “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27). However, the actual phrase ‘free agency’ is not found in the scriptures – ‘moral agency’ is though. Adding the adjective ‘moral’ puts a whole different perspective to our agency – it means that we are people free to choose, but are also responsible for the outcome of our choice. We cannot personally choose the consequence of our actions but we decide the choices we make which lead to the consequences.

What is Moral Agency?
Elder Christofferson then listed three elements of moral agency:

“First, there must be alternatives among what to choose…” – there would be little point in giving freedom to choose if there was nothing to choose from. In 2 Nephi 2:11, Lehi counsels Jacob “there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness…” We need these choices in life so that we can learn and grow from the outcomes. These alternatives must also have an outcome, positive or negative, or in some cases both. There must be consequences “the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:22) As we have been the Light of Christ, every single one of God’s children, we are responsible for our choices as we sense what kind of outcome there will be.

Now of course, not everyone has a perfect knowledge of what the consequences to all of our actions will be, and some have more knowledge or experience than others. However, this leads onto the next element Elder Christofferson stated – “Second, we must not only have alternatives, but we must also know what they are…If we are unaware of the choices available, the existence of those choices is meaningless to us.” Due to the choice of Adam and Eve, we each have a knowledge of good and evil, therefore “we attain a state of accountability and we can recognise the alternatives before us.” Now, we do have to remember that some have more awareness than others – the Gospel of Jesus Christ illuminates and enhances perspective, making us aware of dangers and pitfalls that Satan has placed along the way. We, therefore, have better use of our moral agency to bring happiness, bringing into context the phrase ‘the truth will set you free’ – we are more able to choose our outcome because we are more aware of the alternatives. Elder Christofferson continued “Many of God’s children fall into unanticipated traps and unhappiness because they either lack or ignore gospel light. They are unaware of their options or are confused about the outcomes of their choices.” – they are limited in their choices.

The final element of moral agency is “Third…the freedom to make choices,” or, put scripturally “ye are free to act for yourselves.” (2 Nephi 10:23). This freedom of choice is a gift from God. Without this freedom to choose, there would be little point in even coming to Earth as all decisions would be made for us. We know that we had this agency as far back as the pre-mortal life, we are told by the Lord in latter-day revelation that “the devil…rebelled against me, saying “Give me thine honour, which is my power; and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency.” (D&C 29:36) Notice the irony that in order to give up their agency and follow Satan, those of Heavenly Father’s children had to use their agency to decide that. Not only has God given us moral agency, but he “is preserving you day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will…” (Mosiah 2:21) – meaning that He gives us the life we have in which to use this agency…that He has also given us! Now, it must be remembered again that despite the fact we have moral agency, we can not decide the outcome of our actions. Because of this, some would say that we are not free to choose – for example, someone might argue that they would like to steal something they cannot afford, but because there would be negative consequences they aren’t able to choose that. On this point, Elder Dallin H. Oakes said “We are responsible to use our agency in a world f choices. It will not do to pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are ot free to exercise it without unwelcome consequences.” We can still decide to do what we want…we just have to be prepared for the consequences.

A Vital Part of the Plan
Now, to understand the importance of this moral agency again we look back to the Council in Heaven. A couple of points need to be made. First, look at the two plans – Heavenly Father’s and Satan’s. Satan said “…send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it…” (Moses 4:1) Satan offered to save every single one of God’s children – what more could Heavenly Father wnat? Well, one thing actually…moral agency. Our Father in Heaven would rather give His children the choice and lose some from His presence than force everyone to be saved and follow Him. That is one reason we can assume that moral agency is so vital to us. Also, “…there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…” (Revelation 12:7) – a war was waged to preserve this agency and agency prevailed! Surely we should think carefully how we use this God-given moral agency.

Since that time, Satan has done everything he can to destroy the precious gift of agency we have. He entices God’s children to do things which will take away that agency, things which drive away the Spirit and therefore limit our choices as we are slowly put under Satan’s power. Addictive behaviours, once Satan pulls us onto those paths, diminish our agency as we find we have less power to choose not to partake in them, whatever they may be. In the mind of a person going down the path of addiction, they simply cannot choose not to partake, and moral agency is destroyed. There are also people influenced by Satan who seek to carry out his original plan here on Earth, probably not even realising it! Amalickiah was such a person. In Alma 46:10 it says he did “seek to destroy the Church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them…” – those who desire to take away other people’s moral agency to choose are in the world today.

Of course, without this adversity from Satan, as has been said before “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery…neither good nor bad.” (2 Nephi 2:11) There would be no point in having moral agency if Satan was not there to tempt us. “It must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves…” (D&C 29:39).

The Role of the Saviour and His Gospel in Agency
As always, our Saviour plays a vital role in this. First, He was an upholder of the original plan of happiness, or agency. He said “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Moses 4:2). Not only that but, as the Saviour, He makes it possible for us to return to live with our Heavenly Father again. We all sin, we are fallen. No matter how hard we try to exercise our agency for good, we will fail overall. And once we have fallen short of perfection, that’s it! We have sinned and so, can not return to the presence of God. That is – if we did not have our Saviour. “And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.” (Alma 42:14). Without Christ, we’d be free to make choices, but for what reason? We would all fall short of perfection. “But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God…to be judged according to their works…” (Alma 42:23) – what a great scripture! Alma testifies to his son, Corianton, that because of Christ’s atonement, we will be resurrected, meaning we can be judged and therefore, our moral agency is once again, proven to be of valuable worth.

Jumping back a bit, how can obedience to God’s commandments really give us more ability to choose? Surely we are limiting our agency to set guidelines? Professor Daniel H. Ludlow said “The extent of our individual agency…is in direct proportion to the number and kind of laws we know and keep.” As we understand the gospel doctrine and principles more, primarily by obeying them, we can see things more clearly, enlightened by the Spirit, and our agency grows as we can see more alternatives and their potential outcomes. Elder Christofferson explained “Think of a ladder – each new law or commandment we learn is like one more rung on the ladder that enables us to climb higher…”

Decisions Determine Destiny
Now, despite using our agency for good, we will all still be tested – in Christ’s parable of the wise man and the foolish man (see Matthew 7:24-27), the rain fell on both houses, not just the foolish man’s. However, all tests and trials can be for our benefit. The Lord taught Joseph Smith “…if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7). We learn from all tests we face, as we learn outcomes from certain choices – we improve ourselves and become better. Elder Dallin H. Oakes said “The Final Judgement is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts – what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts – what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions…The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” Using our agency to make the right choices today will ultimately have an impact on who we become. This final character of who we are will determine our future, or, as President Thomas S. Monson puts it “Decisions determine destiny.”

Our Father in Heaven loves us. He cares for us. He wants us to return to live with Him, in our eternal families – we make the choices, it is up to us. We can receive guidance through the Spirit by our Father in Heaven, but in the end, because of the atonement of Christ, we can determine where we go after this life. THAT is the gift of moral agency.