This life is the time for this life. By this, I mean that I think that many of the things that the church concerns itself with are important, but not for the reasons you may think. I want to start by considering the purpose of the commandments.
In 2 Nephi 25, Nephi has just concluded his extended quotation from Isaiah. Nephi’s purpose in quoting these passages is to create a context for understanding the doctrine that follows. That context is the repeated cycle of scattering and gathering Israel. Nephi believes that his three audiences (Lehites, Jews, and Gentiles) all need to understand this cycle.
Nowadays we call it the pride cycle. God blesses his people. They get cool stuff and become cool people. But cool people have a tendency to find their worth in their own actions and their own things. So they start to rely on God less. So they start to go astray, sinning (more than usual). So, generally speaking, God smacks ’em. They realize that they are being prideful and either a. they turn back to the Lord or b. they keep being prideful. We’ll deal with option a for now and set aside option b.
If we choose option a, what does that entail? Well, it entails realizing that we’ve been sinning and being willing to do something about it. Here is the rub: we can’t do much. Often, when we are caught in sin, we are more disappointed at being caught than we are genuinely repentant. Any repentance in those circumstances seems suspect to ourselves and to others. Even if we are genuinely repentant, we often find ourselves desiring those sinful behaviors later. If we never wanted to sin, it would be easy not to, but oh how we do. The great problem of sin is always our desire for it and desire is hard to change.
Getting back to 2 Nephi 25, we find Nephi discussing this very thing. Starting in vs.9, Nephi begins to discuss Jewish history and temperment (sad and prideful, respectively). This continues until vs. 16 where Nephi begins to consider the circumstances of the gathering of the Jews and the return of the true Messiah. In vs. 20 Nephi argues that the truth of his prophecy is like the truth of the events recounted in the Torah (the five books of Moses). This is critical because it explains the nature of Nephi’s project in scripture. Having cited the Jewish “Law,” Nephi argues that the words he is writing will continue forward (as the Torah does) and become a law unto its later interpreters.
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.
Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away. (2 Ne 25:23-27)
To the Jews and to his people’s descendants, Nephi argues that the purpose of law is to direct our thoughts to Christ. But how? The symbolism is important, of course, but there is a better way, that we often ignore. We try to live the law, because we know we will fail at it. The law doesn’t save and, frankly, doesn’t truly delineate the good from the bad. We all fall short. We all must seek Christ.
Consider this, if you never sinned, would you feel a need for God? If you never fell short, would you turn to him in humility? Christ is exceptional, not just because his is the First Begotten, but because he humbled himself without having to. We tend to feel that if things aren’t broken, they don’t require repair. And so, we’d fail without the law, because we’d succeed. We’d be the sort of people who eat the tree of life, without first eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Not bad, but not progressing.
So how do we progress anyway? We can’t. In spite of what my therapists may tell me, I can’t change my character by thinking about it, keeping a journal, stopping and counting to ten, and so forth. Even when I succeed in avoiding bad behavior, I still want to indulge and secretly wish I could. Mormon has informed us of the value of the gift ill-given. What do we do?
I’m going to play fast and loose with history for a moment, under thematic duress. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehis considered the depths of their sins, they, like the missionaries who converted them, were horrified. They had killed people, innocents, lives they could not restore. Following the 5 Rs was never an option. So what did they do? As Anti-Nephi-Lehi, their leader, eloquently stated:
And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to atake them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain— (Alma 24:11)
Now this is just the beginning of the speech (they go on to talk about their swords and burying them), but I’d like you to focus on the parallels between Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s speech here and Nephi’s in 2 Ne 25:23 above. What if all we can do is repent?
I submit that our purpose in life is not foremost to live an exemplary life (although I think God would be pleased if we did that). It is to repent, because repentance is ultimately the way that we become like God. When we sincerely repent, we beg our Lord to make our weakness a strength. We ask Him to remit our sinful desires, to place His law in our hearts. We ask Him to make us like Him. Sin always reminds us of how far we have to go. Repentance is the means for getting there.
Therefore should we seek sin? My first answer is that it would be wasted effort. It comes whether you seek it or not. My second answer is of course not. The lives of unrepentant sinners are miserable. They lose friends, family, health, and sometimes wealth and life. I think that living according to the standards of the church will tend to lead you to have a better mortal life than otherwise. Speaking generally, the commandments are about our mortal happiness, not our eternal worth. Or rather, keeping them will help us be happier now; repenting when we’ve broken them is the means to becoming like him (and breaking them less).
How? That’s for tomorrow.