I believe Nephi spoke for all humanity when he exclaimed, “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of my 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.” (2 Nephi 4: 16-18)
Which of us upon a path of yearning and seeking for righteousness has not said equivalent words, and mourned that we are so weak, so prone to return to the same old sins, to hear the same old temptations, and to be attracted to the same old sins and addictions? Who among us has not promised in prayer to never again – and then faltered again?
The truth is – we all have. I can say this with great certainty, not because I have also walked this marshy path, but because it is the human condition.
Let me back up a few billion years and try to make sense of what we are now experiencing.
We do not know how long we lived as spirit children in the pre-mortal world, but it was most likely billions of years. The earth itself is billions of years old, and no matter how recently Adam was placed upon it, the creation of the earth was a very ancient event, and we as spirit children existed prior to the creation of the earth. With Joseph’s permission W.W. Phelps published a letter in the Times and Seasons which taught that Christ began his ministry as our Savior 2.5 billion years prior to the creation of the Earth. (The Times and Seasons 5:758)
It is my belief that during all of those billions of years we were learning and growing in ways far too magnificent for us to comprehend now. I believe we participated in the creation of the earth and everything appertaining to this earth, the sun and system in which it revolves. We learned how to create worlds, plant life, animals and to sustain them upon the earth. We learned how to ignite a sun and keep it burning for millions of years. We did this because it was our heritage.
We talk about someday becoming like God over a long process of experience, obedience and atonement. But, that process began long before our birth as mortals. We saw God, our Father do these things, and we inherited from Him the desire and capacity to do the same. We learned from Him, and participated in those labors. We were those who said, “We will go down.”
The earth and everything about it was created to be flawed. Opposition was ordained by God. Every good thing would be balanced with an evil thing. Every element of life balanced with looming death. Every act of love was to be balanced by hate, good by evil and right by wrong. All of these things we had to experience were opposed so that we could have agency and thereby demonstrate that we would obey. (2 Nephi 2)
Father Himself described the purpose of the earth thus: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these (meaning, you and I) may dwell; and we will prove them herewith (via mortality), to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God (Jesus Christ) shall command them.” (Abraham 3:24-25)
Because our bodies are made from the earth, they are subject to the laws of mortal opposition. In fact, mortal bodies are the veil we experience in mortality. I believe that premortal knowledge returns for righteous souls shortly after the spirit leaves the body through death,. The spirit within us, that eternal part of us which learned vast things, commanded great knowledge and possessed sweeping truths and righteous accomplishment, was completely hidden by the flesh at birth. In other words, everything which Nephi was lamenting as “wretched” was that part of Him which was mortal.
His words were, “Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of my iniquities. I am encompassed about (because the flesh is all-encompassing) because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.”
With all of his prophetic strengths and experiences and righteous desires, he could not stop the mortal part of him from acting its ordained role. He could not stop his mind from evil thoughts, nor his flesh from desiring sin.
As long as we are mortal, these pollutions inherent to mortality and to our flesh will not cease. But, by yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit we may “put off” the natural man, (Mosiah 3:19). The flesh still connects us to opposition, but in obedience to Christ we are innocent even though the stench of opposition still surrounds us.
Consider someone who quite accidentally falls into a septic tank. They struggle to the surface gagging and hating everything about it. Floating in sewage, desiring a much better circumstance, yearning for deliverance and crying for help does not make them evil. Floating in sewage does not make one into sewage – it makes them in a sewage condition.
Yet, most mortals look at their bodies and say, this is me. They look at their temptations and thoughts and think, this is how I am. They feel the constant tide of temptation and think, this is who I have become, and then assume guilt where there is none. They berate themselves and shrink in shame for the mortal condition. And, yet it is not true.
You are in fact a great and powerful being with billions of years of righteous growth, wisdom and knowledge. You are an eternal son or daughter of God who assisted in the creation of many worlds, and who as a condition of becoming like Father, accepted the necessity of the very temporary mortal condition. Your body is a covering for your spirit. It is so perfectly concealing of your premortal greatness that even you cannot detect who you are unless you have at some point had it revealed to you by direct and powerful revelation.
So, here we are on earth, unavoidably mortal, swilling in evil, and we look to Christ to deliver us. He speaks to us via the Still Small Voice, and when we set a course for our lives of obedience to Him and repentance through His name, then He covers our mortal condition with His grace. He counts us worthy even while the mortal condition continues. We become “perfect in Christ” because in Him, we can remain in the mortal condition, yet be counted clean.
Here’s the thing we are prone to overlook. Even when He applies the atoning blood and washes us clean, He does not deliver us from the mortal condition. He forgives us of our sins, but does not silence the temptations or abate the addictions. He counts us worthy and blesses us with great and glorious views, miracles and majestic love, but He does not lift us from the sewer of temptations. The feathers of prior disobedience remain on the wind and the mortal condition continues as long as we draw mortal breath. There is a renewing process of rebirth and rejuvenation whereby the feathers on the wind are gathered in, and the consequence as well as the accountability for past sins is wiped away. But, it is not arrived at quickly, and the pull of mortality never lessens.
Too many people stop themselves in their journey because they judge themselves unworthy to proceed. Their natural man screams profane things too loudly, they think, to be clean. The adversary helps them think “If I was really forgiven, or born again, or if I was really a disciple, or if I was really a latter-day saint, or righteous father, mother, daughter or son, I would not still be tempted by these old sins. O wretched man that I am!
Let us stop judging ourselves by our mortal condition, and rather by our relationship with Christ. Let us believe that His grace is sufficient when we humble ourselves in obedience to His voice – even though the war rages on.
Christ said, “I give unto men weakness”. In other words, it comes from Him, from the mortal condition, and it is not an intrinsic part of who we are. Weakness, passion, temptation, lust, selfishness, greed, moral weakness, demands of the flesh, even hunger, fatigue and desire are all weaknesses mortality overlays upon our being.
“I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27)
The strength He gives us occurs while the weakness rages on. When we do not partake, when through obedience to His voice we turn our faces and hands away from evil, the fact that the war rages on around us cannot soil the spotless white of who we really are.
© June 2012, John M. Pontius, all rights reserved. Non-commercial reproduction permitted.