Righteous or Wicked?

I once asked a sage I know, “Do Mormons believe the nature of man is good or evil?”
He answered, “Yes.” How wonderful, how zenny, how true.

The Gospel is full of paradoxes. Why should this matter be any different? While we teach that we are not to be punished for Adam’s (or anyone else’s) transgressions, we also teach that “the natural man is an enemy to God.” The term “original sin” is not used in Mormon nomenclature. There are conditions of our mortality that have made our human experience conflicted. Here are two of my favorite scriptures on this topic:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19)

…to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do….For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind…Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…Romans 7:18-25.

I sense in at least the culture of Mormonism the assumption that humans are good by nature and the freedom to choose doing “good” over doing “evil” is what eventually will “prove” our worthiness. (Yes, I’m being a little provocative here.) The Romans passage especially resonates with my experience, with my recognition that my best efforts are always flawed, with my frustration, awe and gratitude.

Accepting the given that Christ’s grace makes up for our lack, why then are we (especially in the scriptures) prone to divide people into “righteous” and “wicked.” Where did the idea come from that obedience (not love) is the first law of heaven? Our critics claim we stress morality to a fault – faith without works may be dead, but works without a loving faith? Where does that get us? Did I really read an Ensign article making it sound is if the unconditional love of God is in fact conditional on our obedience…which apparently by the nature of our human condition is impossible for us by dint of will.

Gospel living is more than a dint of will, duty, effort, a Sisyphean exercise to be obedient enough. Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote whose tone I’d love to hear in more talks over LDS pulpits:

Morality is indispensable; but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear – the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fun come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise beautiful, and drenched in joy.

As long as our watchword is “strive” instead of “surrender” will we ever understand that kind of Divine Life?

28 comments for “Righteous or Wicked?

  1. March 5, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    “Where did the idea come from that obedience (not love) is the first law of heaven?”

    I think it was the place of Abr 3:25 in our conception about the plan of salvation. However I always thought focusing in on it as *obedience* was slightly misleading. I prefer the notion of being in harmony with the spirit and thus with God.

    The contrast between the metaphors of “strive” and “surrender” is interesting. I think though that obedience captures both. To obey is to surrender ones own will and to strive for God’s will. If one adopts one or the other but not both, one has lost something fundamental. The idea is to be a joint-creature I think. (The example best set by Christ who said, “thy will, not mine, be done”) To be a *joint* creature is not just to surrender and then do nothing. But to surrender and then *act*.

  2. March 5, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Obedience as the “first law in heaven” is a canard for me. We are obedient to laws. How can we be obedient to obedience? How is it even a law? It’s what we apply to laws. I don’t have time to discuss this as much as I’d like, but I’ll be back.

  3. March 5, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    I think by saying “we obey laws” is incorrect. We obey people and the people we obey are those interpreting the laws.

    I suppose an other way of saying this is to ask what a law is. Surely when we say we obey a law we mean that we are in harmony with the meaning of the law. But the meaning of the law has no meaning independent of people.

    This to me is the difference between a living law and dead legalism. Dead legalism forgets that laws are based upon intents and have meaning.

    Now Bob raises the interesting point of cirucularity. The first thing we are to be obedient to is obedience. But when we view obedience as harmony then this makes very good sense. How can we be harmonious without being in harmony? We can’t. How can we be obedient without being obedient.

    I’d also say that the first law of heaven isn’t obedience in the abstract but obedience to *God*. i.e. it isn’t a tautology but explains what it means. This is important as in this context it is usually contrasting the laws of the celestial realm with other realms.

  4. March 5, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    You probably did read an Ensign article positing that God’s love in some ways is conditional. The scriptures are replete with this concept. For instance, Nephi’s vision of the tree of life. He interprets the tree as being the “love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.” Of course, we know that the tree is a type of Christ, and he is the greatest manifestation of God’s love. John 3:16. But we have to come to the tree to partake. Thus, God’s love, in some ways is conditional on us meriting the benefits and blessings of the manifestations of His love. It is not conditional in the sense that all are invited to come. But we will not be forced to accept His love, nor will we be forced to love Him back.

  5. March 5, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    I agree love is an essential precondition to obedience, but how do we show our love–by obeying. Remember Christ taught “if ye love me, keep my commandments.” Saying we love God is essentially meaningless unless there is some manifestation of our love for Him. Fortunately, God can see our thoughts and the intents of our heart, so notwithstanding our failure to be as obedient as He or we might like, we can still be found worthy at any given time. (I think He also takes into consideration where we are along the path of having light and truth.) Thus, before we surrender we must strive. I think you are absolutely correct that until we surrender we will never understand the divine life, but before one can ever surrender, he must first be willing to strive for obedience.

  6. March 5, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Brent, one way of looking at this is God’s love is sent to all but we have to open ourselves to receive it. The tree of life was there for all but not many would pick the fruit to receive it. It isn’t God’s love that is conditional but love as a *two way* relationship requires us to act.

    This is where I tend to differ from certain Evangelicals as I think this is where we differ from them.

  7. Greg Call
    March 5, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Elder Nelson’s article on “conditional love” is here: http://tinyurl.com/3bpxb
    If you do a search of the term “unconditional love” in the databases, you will see that Elder Nelson’s talk represents a revolution in the terms we use to describe God’s love. I thought the talk made some great points and it certainly seems scripturally sound. (Coincidentally, I know a member who has been making the “God’s love is conditional” argument for years and years and was continually told by his local leaders that he was in danger of apostasy. I’m sure he’s happy now).

    Anyway, I do wonder about the practical implications of Elder Nelson’s talk. That is, if we are to love as God loves, and God’s love is conditioned on our obedience, what does that imply about how we are to think and feel about, say, our children who reject the gospel?

  8. March 5, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Clark, I agree with what you are saying and I think it may be really an issue of semantics. Joseph Fielding McConkie liked to talk about God’s love (as in his favor, blessings, etc.) as being conditional, which would always get people in class in a huff. But, as you point out, his “love” truly is not conditional–God’s love is sent to all, but are we willing to accept it. (In one sense, however, aren’t we saying that God sends his love, and if we accept the conditions, we can receive all of it. If we accept lesser conditions, we receive some of it, etc. I am thinking of the Celestial, Terrestrial Telestial blessings attendant to certain levels of obedience/surrender whichever term you desire). Nephi describes both the unconditional and conditional aspects of God’s love in discussing the people of Israel’s acquisition of the promised land. See 1 Nephi 17:32-40. He told his brothers that the people of Israel weren’t given the land because there was anything unique about them. They kept God’s commands and the prior inhabitants were unwiling to. Nephi says if the other inhabitants had been willing to listen and obey, then the land would have been blessed for them.

  9. March 5, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    Yeah. I fully agree that it is a semantic issue as well.

  10. greenfrog
    March 6, 2004 at 11:49 am


    I have a longing that your comments brought back to the fore. A longing for a kind of one-ness with God that I have not found in diligent work to constant improvement.

    Candidly, it find instances of it seldom in what I think of as organized Mormonism, though that is more a function of myself, I suspect, than Mormonism. It was there in the celestial room one day. It was there as I tended nursery (getting bonked with blocks and slimed with half-eaten Pepperidge Farm goldfish).

    But I find it more frequently in solitary canyons or in the meditation and yoga practices I’ve adopted from my Buddhist friends. For me, I’ve come to conclude that surrendering is as important as conquering.

    I’m not sure what that means in the context of my religious practice. But those who know me well enough to notice it tend to chalk it up to the Buddhist side of my Mormonism.

  11. March 6, 2004 at 2:39 pm

    Clark, while it is true that colloquially we speak of being obedient to people, I think that the scriptures support the view that the obedience spoken of in the gospel can be better understood as pertaining to laws than to people. Interestingly, the scriptures seem hesitant to use the term obedience as applying directly to people.

    Some examples of not obeying people:

    As has been quoted, Christ says to keep his commandments (not to obey Him personally).

    The ten commandments say to honor (not obey) thy father and mother.

    D&C 121 teaches that “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;” I read this as saying that priesthood leaders shouldn’t expect to be “obeyed” by virtue of who they are or the authority they hold. They still need to persuade and convice people to follow their counsel.

    Also in the D&C (130:20-21):

    20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

    Not only does this show that we obey laws, but I tink it also sheds light on the semantic issue of God’s love being conditional. From this scripture we see that God’s _blessings_ are conditional, but I don’t think His _love_ is.

  12. March 6, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    Logan, more or less what I was getting at is that when we say “obedient to a law” we really are speaking of “obedience to lawmakers.” i.e. you can’t speak of the law without speaking of the arbiters of the law.

  13. March 6, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    “That is, if we are to love as God loves, and God’s love is conditioned on our obedience, what does that imply about how we are to think and feel about, say, our children who reject the gospel?”

    Greg brings up the reason I never think of God’s love as conditional. Can we honestly assume God’s *love* for us is dependant on our deeds? I always like to apply Godly principles in my own life. So, if God’s love was truly conditional, then I could probably rank the love my parents have toward each of their six children. I probably wouldn’t be at the top. But what I am saying? This, for me, is an unhealthy way of looking at things. As my parents have told me time and time again, they love each of their children equally. Now, how much they trust, help, etc. each of us is not ever dependent on love. It holds true the other way around; love is never dependant on trust and/or help.

    Dare I say, I believe Elder Nelson did not mean what he said, which can often be the case with any talk by any human being.

  14. March 6, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    “you can’t speak of the law without speaking of the arbiters of the law.”

    Clark, why not? I follow and speak of laws all day, but very rarely know anything about the lawmaker. Laws (especially eternal ones), in my opinion, stand on their own.

  15. March 6, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    Bob, how do you tell if you broke the law? Obviously your belief that you are obeying the law isn’t the determining factor for whether you are obeying the law. If a police officer comes up behind you and disagrees with you his interpretation of the law clearly exceeds yours. But even that is open to challenge with laywers, jurors, and judges.

    The point is that the law means nothing without those acts of interpretation.

  16. March 6, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    Clark, we know because of the natural consequences. Invoking D&C 130 again, we either don’t get the blessing, or we may even get the punishment. The thing about these laws of God, is that for practical purposes (and maybe in reality — who knows?) they exist independently of God. The police officer doesn’t catch you every time you speed, but God is “bound” to give you the consequence every time you obey or disobey a law, meaning that we can observe a true cause and effect based on our own actions, and not on the arbitrary nature of the enforcement of the law.

    This certainly doesn’t apply to every single commandment, but because Joseph Smith said that whenever we obtain *any* blessing, it is “by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated”, we can begin to understand how “laws” may be different from other commandments. We say “the law of chastity” or “the law of tithing”, but not so much “the law of not killing” or “the law of not getting more than one pair of earrings”. It seems like there’s a difference there — that not all commandments are laws — and maybe this is helpful in figuring out why there’s a distinction.

  17. March 6, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    OK. I see what you are arguing now – that they are natural law. I’m not sure that I buy that for most of what we term law.

    One argument, although hardly a slam dunk, is that D&C 130, which you quoted, talks about a law *decreed*. I’m not sure how to reconcile the notion of natural law with the Mormon notion of God and this notion of decree.

    Getting back to the original issue of obedience, I’m not sure it makes sense to really talking about obeying natural law. If it is truly natural law, the way say the laws of physics are, then we can *never* break them. (i.e. no one talks about obeying the law of gravity)

    Now some might talk about natural moral law as “oughts.” But then we still have the issue of interpretation. If God is who punishes and not something “natural” then clearly we still have the appeal to a lawmaker/law arbiter. i.e. we really are talking about obedience to God the person.

  18. March 6, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    Well Clark, natural law is your term not mine. I don’t necessarily want to go so far as to associate my thinking with natural law, but I don’t think it’s that hard to reconcile.

    D&C 82:10 says “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say”. With that being the case, whether or not God decreed each law or not, He promises that He will bless us when we obey every time — the law is “irrevocable”. He is “bound”.

    I realize that I’d need to develop a more complete new model of obedience to go much further down this road, but a possible way of looking at could be that we never break other laws either (if they are truly laws, and not just commandments in general). “Breaking” a law could be more like trying to jump off a building and fly instead of fall. It’s just that we don’t understand the consequences.

    But it’s not like I can “prove” that that’s what laws are. I guess when I think of obedience to laws, I think more of understanding how they work and using them to get more blessings. Using the law of gravity as an example again, obedience would be more like the way physicists can use a planet’s gravity well to go into orbit or get a gravity assist when they shoot a vessel past a planet. When the scriptures talk about obedience, I think this is closer to the principle that will work toward our salvation. I personally think that doing what God says just because He says it has some value, we limit our growth if we think of everything solely in those terms.

    As for “obedience is the first law of heaven”, the first instance of that I’ve ever seen is in good ol’ Mormon Doctrine. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone else can trace it back further.

  19. March 6, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    As I often say, I’m not well versed on ethical philosophy. So I don’t want to push natural law too much lest I once again put my foot in my mouth.

    I’d say though that what you discuss still requires the individual. Someone still has to *interpret* the “law.” The issue of decree still is important. That really is the crux of my position since it is where intentionality enters in. If the law is somehow eternal and compeletely independent of God, one must ask how we understand it? How does God decide to be bound by it? Is this a *conscious* decision or is it simply natural like a natural law?

    The point is that to me any non-physical law must have a mediator who interprets it. But in such a case what we really are obedient to is that intepreter and *not* the law itself.

    My own view is that when we speak of obeying God there are two levels. One is the legalistic one which is the attempt to represent his nature. The other is his nature itself. I think that this eternal law you are trying to speak of which isn’t given law, is just God’s nature. But in that case we are still being obedient to God as he is. i.e. we can’t separate out the law from God’s nature.

  20. March 7, 2004 at 12:03 am

    Clark, one of the ideas I’m trying to express is that our common way of thinking about obedience — a compliance with orders or requests from others — is not quite what the scriptures mean by the term. Obedience is a more active process of interacting with the universe in ways that help us grow spiritually, influence others, and work miracles. The more faith we have, the better we understand the nature of each law and the better we can obey it. This is why we don’t need anyone to interpret it for us. Sometimes we speak of “the law of the harvest” — we reap what we sow. At the end of harvest season, the farmer doesn’t wait around for some government official to audit him and decide if he deserves to get any crops this year. The better he sowed, the better he reaps.

    It is true that the Church has imposed some “interpretation” limitations to some of our laws, mostly concerning temple worthiness: you must pay your tithing (although many of the intricacies and details are left up to your own conscience and testimony as how best to obey the law to get as much benefit as your faith will allow), the Word of Wisdom (the Lord’s “law of health”) has been reduced to a list of don’ts (although an examination of and experience with the principles involved can surely lead to better blessings of health than just the required minimum), and so forth, but I think that the reason for that is more to have some standard by which we can be measured than to say that there’s a discrete condition of obedience to these laws, after which we don’t need to progress any further.

    I really don’t think it matters *how* God has decided to be bound by these things. He tells us that He is bound to bless us in certain circumstances, and whether that’s because he actively does it each time or because it’s just how the universe operates independently, the subjective human experience is the same.

    I think you’ve lost me when you talk about representing God’s nature and His actual nature. I’m not sure what that means or what you’re getting at.

  21. March 7, 2004 at 12:59 am

    I think we’re saying much the same thing as that is what I’m aiming at as well. i.e. not seeing obedience as blind adherence to statements but harmonizing with a person.

  22. Greg Call
    March 7, 2004 at 1:22 am

    I’m sure Elder Nelson meant what he said. It is a careful, thoughtful, and scriptural sermon, and it is evident he was wary of being misinterpreted. The way I think about the issue I raised above is informed by the scripture that says something like — “I the Lord will forgive whom I will, but of you it is required to forgive all.” To me this means we are not to use God’s judgment as a reason to withhold love. When Jesus said “as I have loved you, love one another” I don’t think he was talking about what Elder Nelson was talking about. Jesus was teaching us to love in the way that He did when He was on the earth (which included loving the publicans and sinners). But I raised the issue because I was (and still am) curious as to how others approach it.

  23. March 7, 2004 at 2:40 am

    Greg, Marvin J. Ashton and Neal A. Maxwell are among the apostles that have specifically said God’s love is unconditional. What do we do when this happens? This is similar to Brigham Young vs. Bruce R. McConkie on whether or not God progresses. Someone obviously isn’t saying what he/she means or is just wrong. So, I just assume the “don’t say what they mean” approach because it sounds better than “wrong”. But really, who knows? I could be wrong along with Maxwell and Ashton. But if someone were to ask me to pick a side, you’d know where I’d be.

    In the Church, however, we avoid discrepancy and/or confrontation like the plague because we fear some will take it to mean the Church isn’t true. This isn’t the case for me. I tend to learn quite a bit from discrepancy. The interesting thing is that it wouldn’t be discrepancy if apostles said, “I think” or “in my opinion” but they are leaders and rarely want something to sound like opinion. That’s fine, but only if they’d coordinate better… Either that or actually come out with official Church doctrine on the subject.

    One last thing, I don’t like thinking of God’s love as being conditional because it just goes against the grain for me. Think of a Church talk that reads something like this, “Be Christ-like in all you do… unless, of course, we’re talking about love. In which case, don’t follow Christ because your love should be unconditional but His is based on certain conditions.” What?! Christ-like love would have a whole new meaning that I wouldn’t like.

    If you’ve read this far, thanks for listening, it’s late, and I apologize for any cynical undertone this may have.

  24. Greg Call
    March 7, 2004 at 3:25 am

    I think the talk represents a (rather significant) shift in *usage*, much like the shift instigated by Boyd K. Packer in using “moral agency” rather than “free agency.” I really don’t see it as doctrinal disagreement (though I have no problem with the fact that our leaders may disagree from time to time). Why doesn’t my account above adequately address your concern about the implications of the sermon?

  25. March 7, 2004 at 5:07 am

    I put a bit on this on my blog:


  26. March 7, 2004 at 11:04 am

    Greg, here’s the problem. Intellectually, it may be interesting to twist words around so that you can say, in a sense, that God’s ove is conditional. But the implications to such a shift are tremendous and potentially destructive.

    Psychological, educational, and parenting literature is filled with references to Unconditional Positive Regard. Different schools of thought place different emphasis on this concept, but it is nearly universally recognized as an important component of the relationships between therapist and client, teacher and student, and parent and child. It is stressed that it is extrememly important to separate the caring and loving for the child from his or her actions. Behavior does not have to be accepted, but the individual does. Saying, “I’ll only love you when . . .” can be very harmful in the teaching relationship. The concept of Unconditional Positive Regard is not only central in psychology, but also as a factor in motivating and teaching anyone.

    Elder Nelson’s argument is that since God only blesses us upon certain conditions, His love must therefore be conditional. There is a sense in which he could mean exactly that. The problem is that the words he is choosing to represent that imply something that I am quite sure he does not mean — that God only cares for us, accepts us, wants us to be happy, and is interest in our spiritual progression when we do what He says; in other words, that He doesn’t care about us unless we’re “good little children”. If Elder Nelson wants to bring about a shift in terminology, I’m very disturbed that he wants the new terminology to mirror that of a destructive psychological process.

  27. March 7, 2004 at 3:11 pm

    “Why doesn’t my account above adequately address your concern about the implications of the sermon?”

    I reread all your comments thus far, and I’m not sure to what you are referring. I had this concern long before this post was written. But you did help instigate my participation here with “…if we are to love as God loves, and God’s love is conditioned on our obedience, what does that imply about how we are to think and feel about, say, our children who reject the gospel?” and then later you say, “When Jesus said “as I have loved you, love one another” I don’t think he was talking about what Elder Nelson was talking about.”

    I guess it’s not enough for me to say, “well, love is used here and there… scriptures, conference, etc. But so-and-so saying the opposite of so-and-so just means they’re not “talking about” the same thing.” How are they not talking about the same thing? One says love from God is conditional, the other says love from God is unconditional. If they’re not talking about the same thing [love], then someone doesn’t “mean what they say” and should choose his/her words more carefully. For me, love being unconditional doesn’t have nearly the negative connotation that conditional love has (i.e. read Logan’s comment above).

  28. Aaron Brown
    March 7, 2004 at 5:55 pm

    Would someone please provide a definition of “love,” ANY definition of “love,” such that the following two claims (both made by Elder Nelson) are true:

    (1) God’s love for us is not unconditional, but rather, conditional upon our keeping his commandments (The theme of the sermon).

    (2) “Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. … The Savior loves both saints and sinners” (A quote near the end of the sermon).

    Like Bob and Logan, I have a number of concerns with the implications of Elder Nelson’s sermon, but my primary problem is with its apparent internal self-contradiction.

    Aaron B

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