A speaker at this year’s Sunstone Symposium opined that the natural man cannot be perfected by keeping commandments. He offered as evidence the fact that Mormons attend church for three hours every Sunday where we are exhorted to keep the commandments, but we don’t see a general increase in righteousness and perfection among the members. I’ve blamed our general lack of improvement on the fact that repetition isn’t the best teacher, but I think this good brother hit on something more profound.
Tackling a list of commandments is external and often leads to external measurements of improvement such as numbers of meetings attended, amounts of money donated, substances not ingested. Changing the natural man or woman—the one the Book of Mormon tells us is an enemy to God—requires going within—getting acquainted with the ego that runs our show—the deceptions it practices and the illusions it maintains. This requires personal time for prayer, meditation, contemplation—quiet time—time not often found in our group religious practice.
A person who understands herself is far less likely to harm others either physically or emotionally and can function with far fewer rules than a person whose behavior is extrinsically motivated. My dad insisted that anyone who didn’t believe in God would be a total degenerate with no fear of hell or hope of heaven to keep him in line. But my circle of friends and acquaintances includes many non-believers who not only refrain from crime, but show compassion in individual and community service to others.
And we all know, via the news if not personally, regular church attendees who bilk their neighbors, abuse family members, and cause enough misery to justify a lightning bolt frying them to an unhallowed crisp. When I taught at Utah State Prison, I found a high degree of religious belief in the inmates—but they weren’t able to translate their belief in God into living a crime-free life.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Maybe we need to spend more time seeking for the kingdom within.