Today I would like to discuss with you a delicate subject—the Lord’s standard of morality. I pray that I can be clear and concise and unambiguous in presenting that standard, yet still be discreet and tasteful in my comments.
Some years ago my father, who was an attorney, was trying a lawsuit. For his authority, he cited only one case—an old California Supreme Court case, issued many years before. His opponent cited a number of lower court decisions of much more recent vintage. The judge finally said to my father: “Mr. Callister, don’t you have a more recent case than this?” My father looked at the judge and replied: “Your honor, may I remind you that when the Supreme Court speaks on a matter, it only needs to speak once.” The judge nodded with approval. He was reminded that the Supreme Court trumps all lower court decisions, however numerous or recent they may be. So it is with God our Father—He only needs to speak once on the issue of morality, and that one declaration trumps all the opinions of the “lower courts,” whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, parents or would-be moralists of the day.
It is almost unbelievable to think that God gave to man that power which was most prized and sacred to Him—the power to create other men. Because God gave to us this power, He, and He alone, has the right to prescribe how it should be used. Contrary to much public sentiment, there is nothing negative or restraining about God’s moral standards. Rather, they are positive and uplifting and liberating. They build relationships of trust, they enhance self-esteem, they foster a clear conscience, and they invite the Spirit of the Lord to bless our individual and married lives. They are the proven standard for happy marriages and stable communities.
Some years ago one of my high school friends visited me. We talked over old times. Unfortunately he had chosen a life of moral transgression. At one point he broke out in tears and exclaimed, almost like a broken record, “I want to be clean, I want to be clean, I want to be clean.” To his credit he eventually changed his life to conform to the moral standards he knew to be correct. Like my friend, I believe there is an innate desire in every man and woman to be morally clean—oh, there may be some moments of rationalization, or expressions that yield to the peer pressure and fashions of the day, but in the quiet, reflective moments of life, when one ponders who he really is and what he really wants to become, there emerges a God-given desire to be clean, to be holy, to be right with that very being who created him and planted within him the creative powers.
What then is the Lord’s standard for use of this creative and sacred power—His standard of morality? In truth, the Lord’s standard of morality is not so much a list of do’s and don'ts, but a principle, which I believe can be expressed as follows: The creative power is to be exercised in the marriage relationship for two key reasons: (i) to bind and strengthen ties between spouses and (ii) to bring souls into this world. These uses have the blessing and endorsement of the Lord. On the other hand the creative powers are not to be exercised outside the husband/wife relationship. Accordingly, any conscious thoughts or voluntary actions that stimulate or result in the expression of those creative powers outside the marriage relationship are disapproved by the Lord. That I believe is the principle.
More specifically, however, I now cite some of the Lord’s standards of morality so as to minimize any misunderstanding or ambiguity.
First Standard: Fornication and Adultery
The Lord forbids fornication and adultery in spite of how the world feels on these subjects. These acts constitute the ultimate use of the creative powers with someone of the opposite sex with whom you are not legally married. It is fornication if neither party is married; it is adultery if either or both parties are married. The Apostle Paul said: “For this is the will of God…that ye should abstain from fornication.”1 Paul also said: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God…neither fornicators, nor adulterers.”2
Sometimes people do not realize the seriousness of these transgressions, or in some cases, rationalize it away. Corianton did not seem to realize the seriousness of what he had done when he sinned with the harlot Isabel. Alma, his father, put it in perspective: “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?”3 Next in gravity to the sin of murder is that of fornication and adultery. Joseph spoke of these great evils. When he was tempted by Potipher’s wife, who said “Lie with me.” he replied, “How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”4.
Second Standard: Inappropriate Touching
Inappropriate touching is the smaller sister of fornication and adultery. It is designed to arouse the creative powers. Accordingly, it is contrary to God’s moral standard in the premarital setting, to touch the private or sacred parts of another’s body, whether or not such person is clothed.
Third Standard: Self-abuse The Lord condemns self-abuse. Self-abuse is the act of stimulating one’s own creative powers. President Boyd K. Packer, spoke on this subject as follows: “Do not be guilty of tampering or playing with the sacred power of creation. It is not pleasing to the Lord nor is it pleasing to you. It does not make you feel worthy or clean.”5
Fourth Standard: Same-gender Relationships
This is engaging in intimate physical relationships with someone of the same gender. There are some who would have you believe that the Church’s stand against same-gender relationships is a temporary policy, not an eternal doctrine. Such a belief as this would be at odds with the scriptures, with the words of modern prophets and with the Plan of Salvation, all of which teach the necessity of eternal marriage between a husband and a wife as a condition to exaltation. A same-gender relationship is inconsistent with God’s eternal pattern that husbands and wives not only have children in mortality, but eternal increase in their exalted condition.
Having said that we recognize that everyone is a son and daughter of God and deserves to be treated as such. We all struggle with imperfections, some not of our choosing, but we also believe in an infinite Atonement that has the capacity in this life or the life to come to endow us with every power necessary to convert our weaknesses and imperfections to strengths. The Lord promised us: “for if they humble themselves before me and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”6
If someone has same-gender tendencies then it is his or her duty to (i) abstain from immoral relationships just as a single heterosexual must do, and (ii) do all within his power to avail himself of the refining, perfecting powers of the Atonement. In the interim, however, those who do have same-gender tendencies but do not act on them are worthy to hold Church positions and receive a temple recommend.
For a few moments now may I share with you some danger signals that precede some of the sins of which I have spoken. In some regards Satan is like an octopus with all of its tentacles trying to capture us. If one tentacle does not work he will try another and another until he finds one that will take hold—one weakness that will yield to his grasp. Following are some of the tentacles of the evil one, each designed to cause us to break God’s standard of morality.
First Tentacle: Pornography
God is desirous that none of His children watch any movie, TV show, web site, or view any magazine that is pornographic in any way. Pornography is any picture or narrative that feeds the carnal man within. It is repulsive to the spirit of the Lord.
The story is told of the lone Indian brave who ascended a high mountain top. The weather was bitter cold at the summit. He looked around and saw a rattlesnake. He withdrew a safe distance.
The rattlesnake then spoke to him in pleading tones, “Please take me to the valley below where the weather is warmer and I can survive, otherwise I will die.”
The brave replied, “But you will bite me.”
“No,” came the reply from the snake, “I will treat you differently, you will be special. I promise I will not bite you if you deliver me to safety below.”
The believing brave picked up the snake, held him next to the warmeth of his body and carried him to the valley below. Just as he released him, the snake struck and bit the young brave. He cried out, “But you promised.”
To which the snake replied, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”7
No one can claim to be fooled by the effects of pornography when he “picks it up” —believing there is any such thing as an innocent glance. It is a poisonous, venomous, unforgiving snake that will strike the moment one takes his first look and continue to strike with a full portion of venom at each look thereafter. Pornography is a sure way to repel the Spirit of the Lord.
If you are afflicted with this malady then you need to do all within your power to overcome it. It may require confession, intense prayer, fasting, more immersion in the scriptures, replacing idle time with constructive time, putting boundaries on computer usage, counseling, and the like, but you can overcome it. Part of it will require old fashioned willpower. There is not a pill or counseling technique to solve every addiction—at some point willpower is an indispensible ingredient. Sometimes we have to answer hard questions: What means more to me pornography or my temple recommend? Pornography or my relationship with my current or future spouse? Pornography or the right to enjoy the spirit?
The Lord has promised, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”8 In otherwords, no one can claim as an excuse at the judgement bar that he was tempted above his ability to resist. Everyone has sufficient moral agency to overcome any weaknesses, including pornography.
Second Tentacle: Immodest Dress
Our dress not only affects our thoughts and actions, but also the thoughts and actions of others. Accordingly, Paul the apostle warned, “Women adorn…[yourselves] in modest apparel” 9. The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure. Elder Matthew Cowley once commented on the long flowing dresses of the Native American Indians—as I recall he said, “How beautiful—how modest—they leave everything to the imagination.”10 Men and women can dress sharp, they can be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women particularly can leave a lot to the imagination and in the process contribute to their own self-respect and to the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.
Third Tentacle: Unclean Thoughts
It has been said: “You can watch the birds fly by, just don’t let them build a nest on your head.” There is nothing wrong with noticing the pretty young lady or handsome young man as they walk by—that is normal—but if those thoughts turn to lust then the nest is being built. One cannot avoid seeing every improper billboard or every immodestly dressed person, but we can drive out the improper thought once it arises. The sin is not in involuntarily seeing something improper; the sin is in entertaining the thought once it comes. The scriptures tell us: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”11
In essence, our thoughts become the seeds of our actions.We do have the power within us to take control of our lives and our thoughts. Good and evil thoughts cannot simultaneously coexist in our minds anymore than light and dark can coexist at the same time and in the same place. At some point one must decide which will be his invited guest. If we so desire, we can drive out every evil thought and immediately replace it with an uplifting song or poem or scripture. Just as darkness flees at the presence of light, so evil flees at the presence of good.
The Lord has not only invited us, but commanded us to have clean thoughts, and has given a magnificent promise to those who do so, “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God”12. In other words, if our thoughts are pure we can have a clear conscience and approach God with confidence that He will answer the righteous desires of our hearts.
Fourth Tentacle: Secluded Places and Tempting Friends
There are certain times and places, no matter how strong we are, when we have less resistance than others. Such times and places may be in secluded locations, late at night, or in the company of certain friends or acquaintences. Some of the best of men and women in the worst of circumstances have fallen. It happened to the Prophet David as he watched Bathsheba, at first from a seemingly safe distance, and then the fall came. None of us should think we are too powerful, too immune to succumb. Secluded locations, late night activities, and morally loose friends have incredible magnetic fields to draw us into Satan’s clutches. They are the devil’s playground—the place where he has homefield advantage. When Joseph of Egypt found himself in such circumstances the scriptures record, “He got him out.”13
Unfortunately, we may occassionally have friends or acquaintances who are constantly tempting—pushing us to the edge of our moral resolve—and sometimes beyond it. If we have such a friend or acquaintance then we need to help him or her adopt the Lord’s standard of morality, and if unwilling to do so, we may need to make the hard, but correct choice to seek company with someone else who will encourage us to be morally clean, rather than test our moral resolve at every occasion.
Fifth Tentacle: Rationalization
There are two oft repeated rationalizations to support one’s moral transgressions. The first is, “I loved her.” Satan is the great counterfeiter. He tries to palm off lust as love. There is a simple test to detect the difference. Love is motivated by self-control, obedience to God’s moral laws, respect for others and unselfishness. On the other hand, lust is motivated by lack of discipline, disobedience, and self-gratification. If one engages in premarital relations, what are the prompting factors—is it self-gratification? Is it disobedience to God’s standard of morality? Is it a lack of discipline? If the answers are yes, then you may know it is lust, not love that is the motivating force.
The second rationalization is that “no one will ever know.” The Lord has dispelled that myth on multiple occasions. The Savior declared, “The rebellious shall be pierced with much sorrow, for their iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and their secret acts shall be revealed.”14 This truth, as spoken by God, is in startling contrast to the banner I saw hanging in an airport of a city known for its licentiousness, which reads, “Whatever you do here stays here.” There is no field so dark or corner so secluded that no one will ever know. God will know, and you will know if you violate His moral law.
What if I want to be morally clean but have difficulty resisting the temptations that confront me? In otherwords, what can I do to build my moral resistance? While serving as a church leader I had a young man come to me who had difficulty keeping his thoughts clean. He said that unclean thoughts would often pop into his mind and then he would strive to drive them out. I asked him if he had a song he would sing or a scripture he would recall that helped him. He said he did and it helped, but some improper thoughts still came. I pondered for a moment and then an impression came.
I said, “You like to play basketball don't you?”
“Oh, yes!” came the reply, “I love basketball.”
“Well, suppose for a moment that at your next game the coach called all the players together just before the tip-off and said, ‘Tonight, players, no one is to take a shot. We are going to save all our energy and play the best defensive game that anyone has ever played, but in the process no one will shoot.’ What is the best your team could hope to do?”
He looked somewhat puzzled and replied, “Break even, a zero to zero tie.”
“That’s right,” I replied, “and that’s exactly what you are doing. You have been playing defense. When some evil thought comes you try to drive it out. That is good, but it is the lesser part of what you ought to be doing. You need to take the offense. For in truth, the best defense is a good offense.”
I then asked him if he prayed daily.
“Not always,” was the response.
I asked about his daily scripture reading; it was limited. Did he attend all his church meetings regularly—“No,” came the answer. His spiritual offense was sporadic at best.
Satan is a formidable opponent. He has had years of mortal experience tempting mankind. Wherever he goes he leaves a trail of carnage—children out of wedlock, abortions, unfaithful spouses, broken homes, guilty consciences, and the list goes on and on. He employs the scorched-earth policy with sinister perfection—there is no mercy, no survivors, and no happiness. He is our archenemy. You can never win playing Satan’s rules.Following, however, are some promises and resources God has given us to help us take the offense against him, and in fact, conquer him.
First—repent.If we have made some moral mistakes in our life, then, fortunately, because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ we can repent. That is the first and foundational step to living a morally clean life for the future—to repent of past transgressions—to exchange a foundation of sand for a foundation of rock. Often that commences with confession.
Repentance, however, is not just a matter of time, or forsaking a sin, or making a confession, all of which are important, but most of all it is an honest change of heart, a burning resolve to live a morally clean life, not because you have to, but because you want to.
Second—pray with intensity. We can take the offense against Satan by offering powerful, meaningful prayers, both morning and evening. I do not mean the casual prayer when we climb into bed, put our head on the pillow and pray that we will be the next Miss Idaho or football superstar. While there is nothing wrong with those things in and of themselves, I am speaking for a moment about the prayers pleading for answers that have eternal consequences. We can pray that the Lord will help us be morally clean; we can pray He will help us find a good spouse; we can pray that He will help us overcome our weaknesses and develop our talents. Our Father in Heaven loves us immensely and wants to respond to and answer those prayers that have eternal import in our lives.
I believe there are many good young people, who have their evening prayers but may neglect their morning prayers. For me personally, it is the most impactful prayer—it forges my attitude and goals and desires for the day. The evening prayer, while certainly important, is too late to reshape the day. Which of you, if you had lived in Book of Mormon times would have marched out to the heat of battle without a breastplate and shield and sword to protect you against the potentially mortal blows of the enemy, but how many of us march out each morning to the most dangerous of all battlefields, to face the enemy of all enemies—Satan—without his or her spiritual breastplate or shield or sword that come from the protective power of prayer. The Lord himself said, “Pray always…that you may conquer Satan.”15
Third—be consistent scripture readers. Years ago our daughter, who played the cello, participated in a cello recital. At the conclusion the teacher asked the parents if they had any questions. One parent responded by asking, “Does my child need to practice the cello every single day?” Of course we all knew what answer that parent wanted the teacher to give. To our surprise the teacher started out by responding, “No—your child does not need to practice the cello every day; she only needs to practice on the days she wants to eat.”
That is the counsel that I would give with regards to reading the scriptures. You do not need to read the scriptures every day; you only need to read them on the days you want to eat, and if you ate that day physically, then you eat that day spiritually by reading the scriptures. How many of us go to bed at night, put our head on the pillow and have never thought of feeding ourselves physically the entire day. Yet how many go to bed at night, put their head on the pillow, and never fed themselves spiritually during the day. Our spiritual body needs food and sustenance on a daily basis, just as our physical body does. You cannot take the offense against Satan by tip-toeing through the scriptures; you must immerse yourself in them, and as you do so an inner strength and resolve to be clean will emerge.
Fourth—fast with a purpose. Ironically, fasting is a form of spiritual feasting. It is a divinely given means of strengthening our spirit and disciplining our passions. As we learn to say “no,” to food, even when our body craves and cries out for it, so too we learn and gain the power to say no to other physical desires and passions of even greater magnitude.
Fifth—learn your identity and purpose. Once we truly understand our identity and purpose—that we are childern of God and that our goal in life is to become like Him—then the desire to be clean, to be holy, to be Christlike transcends our desire to do otherwise. Reading our patriarchal blessings frequently and attending the temple regularly can help us in that effort to understand our divine identity and destiny.
What if I made a mistake and violated God’s standard of morality—is there any hope for me? Of course there is. God made it clear that His standards cannot be violated without suffering the consequences, but because He is loving and compassionate beyond measure He gives us this glorious hope, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.”16 For every honest soul who changes his heart, and forsakes his sins, God has promised, “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow.”17
What greater promise could we hope for than to know that if we repent we are white as the driven snow? Lest there be any misunderstanding, however, it is always better to remain clean than to sin and repent thereafter. Why is that? Because (i) certain adverse consequences of sin may remain even after repentance, such as disease or a child born out of wedlock, or damage to one’s reputation, and (ii) our goal in life is not just to be clean, but also to be perfect, and the quest for perfection is accelerated when we are clean, but it is temporarily stymied when we are not.
A Book of Mormon prophet taught, “Wickedness never was happiness.”18 One cannot break God’s moral laws with impunity and be happy, because God, who created us, placed within our souls a moral compass known as our conscience. Anytime we violate God’s standard of morality that conscience goes to work—it gnaws at us, it triggers feelings of guilt and remorse and it acts as a divine witness testifying to the truth of God’s standard of morality.
We may try to ignore it, we may try to suppress it but there is no escape from it. God’s standard of morality cannot be dismissed; it cannot be diluted or compromised; it can only be obeyed or disobeyed. One may fight it or embrace it. His choice will largely determine his happiness in life.
The blessings of living a clean and moral life are overwhelming. Such a life will bring self-confidence and self-esteem. It will result in a clear conscience. It will make us eligible for a spouse of like-purity and it will provide for the expression of the creative powers in the marriage relationship to be sweeter and more rewarding because we have reserved them for the time that has been endorsed by the Lord Himself.
Because the Lord loves us immensely and wants us to be happy He has announced his intentions for His children in these latter days, “For I will raise up unto myself a pure people, that will serve me in righteousness.”19 You are the ones to whom He is referring. May each of you be a part of that pure generation and embrace the Lord’s standards of morality, I so plead, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Thessalonians 4:3
1 Corinthians 6:9
Boyd K. Packer, “To Young Men Only,” 1976 General Conference.
Robert Harbertson “Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood,” Ensign, July 1989, 77
1 Cor 10:13
1 Timothy 2:9
10. Cowley, Matthew, Miracles (World’s Finest Sermons Collection), no date given.