Cold Sins or Liahona vs. Iron Rod in Disguise?

I recently read an address given by the Reverend Canon Dr. Lauren Artress in which she discusses the work of the twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard had been pledged to the Church as a young child and served as a nun the remainder of her life, but it was not until she suffered a severe and prolonged illness in her 40’s that she developed a deep relationship with God, began to see visions and to tap into her wellspring of creativity.

After recovering from her illness, the abbess wrote of how the Church had missed out on our spiritual connection to the universe and had developed a doctrine of a Christ as a policeman of small sins rather than a loving God of creation. Reverend Artress interprets Hildegard’s ideas:

The Christian tradition divides sins into two categories, warm sins and cold sins. We pay a great deal of attention to warm sins, sins of the flesh, and we ignore the cold sins, sins of the hardened heart. We covet our excessive resources, greedy and without care for those who have no food or shelter.

Now, I find this to be a criticism of us in the church today as well — and the practice of religion in general through the ages. I think it is much easier to follow rules than to follow our hearts. Thus, we learn as converts to religion and as children raised in the church to follow particular rules and to progress in life through developing obedience to particular commandments. These are the warm sins. Many people operate as if they can be a ticket-holder to the celestial kingdom (whatever that means) by abstaining from coffee, tea, alcohol, cigarettes, sex outside of marriage, by paying tithing, attending church and staying awake for some portion of the meetings. These things are not taught to the exclusion of listening to the spirit and developing deeper meaning in religion. However, I think we are encouraged by our leadership and by our own lack of self knowledge to stop at this level of warm sin and not move on to breaking through our cold sins.

There is a lot of value in not committing warm sins, so don’t mistake this post for a justification for cheating on our taxes or having a sip of wine. My theory on sin is this: many commandments (warm sin ones) give us the guidance we need in order to have open minds and loving hearts. They eliminate unhelpful distractions and place a modicum of responsibility on our shoulders towards our fellow persons. But they don’t go far at all in teaching us how to be truly loving and giving in the way that we must be in order to come to Christ. Of course, it is not meet that we be commanded in all things. Is this just something we have to figure out in our own hearts?

The question I am putting is, not why are there warm sins and cold sins, but why do we care so much about warm sins? I guess I am reacting to the perceived self-righteousness of many “religious” people in this world who may abstain from certain activities associated with warm sins, but whose hearts are cold to the needs of humanity. I don’t like it. Is this a problem, or am I just too much of a Liahona Mormon?


  1. “I think most orthodoxly religious (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) folks tend to approach it the same way. “

    I understand the warm sin emphasis side and how that plays out, but it’s not clear to me that the opposite is true — that non-orthodox religions are any better at helping their flocks avoid ‘cold’ sins. After all, discourse about diversity and tolerance can in practice lead to intolerance and judgemental behavior as well as a certain smugness that doesn’t seem to me to be in line at all with true feelings of charity and humility.

    In other words, it’s not at all clear to me that orthodox or liberal groups are any better than the other when it comes to ‘cold’ sins. The self-righteous problem flows through all streets.

    Also: isn’t the whole point of avoiding the ‘warm’ sins is that to engage in them damages our standing and relationship with God, and it’s only through that relationship and our closeness to the spirit that we can truly actively ‘commit’ [to] the actions and attitudes we are supposed to, that we shouldin’t ‘omit’?

  2. “Is it chicken or egg — do we focus on warm sins because the line is drawn there for temple attendance, or is the line drawn there because of our focus?”

    Or is the line drawn there because, as I mentioned earlier, warm sins are typically the product of willful disobedience which may render an individual unprepared to make even more covenants.

  3. Although I’m coming into the post quite late, I wonder if Christina could flesh out the argument. Are you asserting that the predominant focus of a majority of church members is on warm sins, and this is at the expense of cold sins? While it may be true (unfortunately, I believe) that WoW and chastity seem to be the thresholds for acceptance into the community of Saints, it isn’t my experience that members in my ward unduly focus on warm sins. However, perhaps it is the case that the members who focus on warm sins at the expense of cold sins may be the more outspoken members of the wards, which could give the impression that the practice is more prevalent.

    With regard to the comments on the temple recommend interview, I agree that these are largely warm-sin oriented. However, the temple ceremony itself, which I think we consider to be the most important teaching instrument, seems to be completely cold-sin oriented. Temple worship itself seems to be more of the focus than merely holding a temple recommend.

    And what cold sins do you have in mind when you mention the needs of humanity? That seems to be more of a political question.

  4. Another thing that has been largely ignored in this discussion is the element of willful disobedience. Warm sins are typically the product of willful disobedience while cold sins are not.

    This key element is, in my opinion, why warm sins may generally be regarded by Church members as more grave than cold sins. And this, in conjunction with the measurability and obviousness of the sin, is probably why warm sins are more likely to become gossip fodder.

  5. Ben: “”warm/cold” expresses a psychological insight, rather than a grammatical distinction.”

    Good enough for me. I like the warm/cold insight as well. As for Christina’s chicken-egg analysis, I see it more of a practical matter — it is easier to give commandments with relation to warm sins.

  6. Christina,

    I don’t think I was making an assumption, I was simply reading your characterizations:
    …Iron Rod Mormons. They see life in black and white terms, right and wrong and value obedience over many other things.
    …Liahona Mormons, who, although they value obedience to the commandments and precepts of the gospel, feel that spiritual development comes from finding their way on this more amorphous path of feeling and thinking and listening

    Here you give Liahona Mormons much more credit than the iron rod type. I could go on about the poor choice of symbols (and yes I know their origin and that you didn’t invent them) making conversation on the issue difficult, but that is off topic here. I also think there was some miscommunication, which is my fault. I was speaking to your comment above on Liahona vs Iron Rod Mormons, not on the warm/cold issue where it doesn’t apply as well. However this confusion bolsters my contention that the two categorizations do not overlap much.

    While I still think that warm/cold corresponds neatly to the comission/omission categorization I agree that a fundamental change of character is needed to have true charity. Perhaps once that happens much of this categorizing and list making of sins that we tend to do falls by the wayside. Christ certainly made things simple by summing things up in two commandments, yet we all struggle with both of them.

  7. Christina,
    You say the abbess came to these conclusions in her 40s after a severe illness–I wonder how much that has to do with it. I tend not to live a very reflective life–I’m always doing, and when I’m not doing, I’m watching or reading. But figuring out how to be truly loving and giving takes time, reflection, and effort; maybe (at least partially) it takes age and experience, neither of which I have much of yet.

    The flip side of the age thing is, if we never try to approach others with charity and love, then the extra years of experience can leave us inured to the suffering around us. So I don’t think “getting older” is the answer to how we avoid the cold sins, but I think that maybe the closest I can come to an answer is to become empathetic through our experience (i.e., it doesn’t require much experience to abstain from drinking alcohol, while it may take a lifetime of experience to begin to understand where our neighbor is coming from).

  8. Christina, to say you “don’t like” the willful disobedience perspective isn’t a very persuasive argument. Why don’t you like it? Do you think it’s wrong? If so, why?

    Rueben, the word “love” is used in the ceremony.

  9. Christina, what’s the difference between the warm/cold distinction and commission/omission? The two would seem largely to track each other.

    Your post seems to say that we should avoid being too hot or to cold with regards to our preaching and our conduct. This sounds like the Golden Mean all over again, but Of course, if we were neither hot nor cold, the Lord would spew us out…. (Rev 3:16) :)

  10. Cold sins? Well, I think one has to internalise the lessons the Scriptures teach us, in order to even become aware that we are indeed committing cold sins. Plus, things like, say, whether or not one is showing the right amount of charity to one in need cannot be measured objectively, and hence the problem of trying to figureo ut whether or not one is even guilty of committing the cold sin. Given the ambiguity, I think, it becomes easier to neglect examination fo this issue. Warm sins are easily figured out, one is either following the WOW or not. hence, probably the emphasis on the Wam over the cold.

  11. eek! Too much information, Lyle!!

  12. D. Fletcher says:

    Fascinating post.

    The warm sins are more “measurable,” both in terms of temptation, and resistance — one feels the pull each way.

    The problem with cool sins is, one may not know one is sinning. Unawareness is the problem.

    Should there be a greater emphasis in our Church on awareness of an anti-loving attitude or behavior? I think so.

  13. Ben Huff says:

    Great post, Christina! I think the “warm/cold” terms are very revealing, and the substantial alignment with sins of commission vs. sins of omission doesn’t justify switching to the latter terminology, because “warm/cold” expresses a psychological insight, rather than a grammatical distinction.

    I totally agree that the warm sins must be avoided in order to avoid driving away the Spirit, but the goal in avoiding them isn’t just to avoid them, but to move on to live by the Spirit. Is that something we Mormons say very often? I’ve thought that for a while, but I don’t know who else I’ve heard say that.

    I can see how that would seem to suggest that cold sins are actually more grievous, since they seem to be the opposite of the most important thing, but I actually don’t think that’s so. Both warm and cold sins are serious departures from warm righteousness, and I don’t think there’s a simple comparison to be made between them for overall badness. But warm sins are more damaging, and there is a good reason why the boundaries of our community of faith are defined in terms of not committing certain warm sins, more than in terms of not committing cold sins.

  14. great question. I’ll let others elaborate on answers social signalling, politics of identity, majority v. minority, etc.

    I just like the question. In my own experience, as my heart softened to others & the poor/needy…i actually comitted a warm sin. Prob. why I like the question…I’m still trying to understand how my heart became soft towards others, yet harder towards God & church leaders. If my experience were typical…the best answer to your question would be:

    concerns over apostasy (i.e. if you can’t obey X, you have no hope of doing Y…)

  15. How do you guys know whether “love” appears in the ceremony and when it does? Clearly, I need to visit the temple more often. Does the absence or lack of focus on a single word really go to the argument of what is taught in the ceremony, though? I’m unconvinced.

  16. I like Melissa’s perspective, and it goes to the heart of the issue as I see it. My post wasn’t to advocate doing away with warm sins in order to deal with cold sins, but rather to point up the problem of our undue focus on warm sins. I think our community is obsessed with warm sins (see Melissa’s comment), and I think it is related to how we draw the line for temple recommends. Is it chicken or egg — do we focus on warm sins because the line is drawn there for temple attendance, or is the line drawn there because of our focus?

  17. I still don’t think *love* is used in the endowment ceremony unless in the unscripted prayer in the circle. As I think about the covenants and charges it appears to me that the emphasis is on warm sins. I don’t intend this to be a criticism. The endowment ceremony is highly symbolic and perhaps I am not yet able to understand the symbolism to the extent of seeing a greater emphasis on cold sins. I certainly hope that nothing I write will detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the blessings of temple worship.

  18. I think people who are very focused on obliterating warm sins – the ten commandments, sins of commission – are Iron Rod Mormons. They see life in black and white terms, right and wrong and value obedience over many other things. Those who focus more on cold sins – those of ignoring the needy, keeping our hearts cold and unforgiving – are more like Liahona Mormons, who, although they value obedience to the commandments and precepts of the gospel, feel that spiritual development comes from finding their way on this more amorphous path of feeling and thinking and listening. That’s why I draw the parallel, it’s not necessary to the conversation, I just thought it was an interesting Mormon connection to these ideas.

  19. I think the discussion of warm and cold sinds is very interesting, but I don’t see how this links to the Liahona/Iron Rod issue. Could someone help me here? Why would one or the other be predisposed to warm or cold sins?

  20. I think the more obvious “Mormon” parallel is to sins of omission and sins of comission rather than the Liahona/Iron Rod comparison. While I where you are coming from, it certainly sets up Liahona types as superior, being able to avoid both types of sin. I don’t think that strict obedience to the commandments makes someone more likely to be cold-hearted, quite the opposite in fact.

    I think that the terminology being used here is limiting. While I can see why the terms were choosen, I think that “warm”, “cold”, “Liahona” and “Iron Rod” carry symbolism and weight that overshadow their meanings in this context.

  21. John,
    I guess that just shows my bias, doesn’t it? I didn’t make up the warm/cold, or Liahona/Iron Rod designations, and as analogies, they both take us further than literal language and limit us to their symbolic meanings. I only mean to use them in that sense.

    I don’t think it is fair for you to assume that I mean that those who don’t commit warm sins will be less likely to conquer cold sins. My point is different, that we have an unhealthy emphasis in organized religion on warm sins, to the detriment of our spiritual progression.

  22. Marko, It seems to me that the ceremony is focused primarily on warm sins. I don’t believe the word *love* (the greatest comandment) is used in the ceremony.

  23. More directly, cold sins aren’t really sins in the eyes of the Church. We are warm-sin sensitive and cold-sin tolerant.

    Agreed, Dave. Isn’t this dismaying? You are correct that this is not limited to Mormons – I think most orthodoxly religious (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) folks tend to approach it the same way. I think of it like jazz. You have to understand and follow the rules of chord structure and change in order to play, but real jazz is improvisation, which goes much beyond those rules. Warm sins are only the rules that get us off the ground, religiously speaking, yet most of us stop about there.

  24. Nah, it’s doesn’t, you’re right, Marko.

  25. Nice distinction, Christina. I think warm sins are seen as clear cases of rulebreaking; they are clearly defined sins of commission well-suited to bureacratic oversight and regulation. Cold sins, on the other hand, look more like character flaws than rulebreaking.

    From a judgmental (or Mormon) perspective, it’s hard to nail down a sin of omission. “I haven’t been very charitable lately” isn’t likely to trigger church discipline unless one’s lack of charity is manifest by committing some warm sin. More directly, cold sins aren’t really sins in the eyes of the Church. We are warm-sin sensitive and cold-sin tolerant. In fairness, I don’t think this condition is limited to Mormons.

  26. Rather than answer the question, I’ll disagree with the premise. I don’t think there’s that much more focus on “warm sins.” Honestly, when was the last time you sat in a class where the teacher exhorted you not to drink or sleep around. I think lessons on charity, love, forgiveness, etc. seem much more prevalent.

  27. Rick –

    I think we’re talking about apples and oranges, in many instances. You say “honestly, when was the last time you sat in a class where the teacher exhorted you not to drink or sleep around. I think lessons on charity, love, forgiveness, etc. seem much more prevalent.”

    There’s the issue of what is taught in class and then there’s the issue of how we, as a culture, act. I don’t hear a whole lot of people gossiping or wagging their tongues when someone fails to comitt over acts of charity. However, goodness forbid someone’s teenager gets drunk one Saturday night or someone violates the law of chastity – just watch us, as a culture, go to town on that.

    Hmm, there’s a thought. Do we focus on warm sins because they’re easier to gossip about???

  28. Rick, “love” isn’t used as part of any covenants, which may be what Reuben was getting at….

  29. Rick, I don’t like this “willful disobedience” perspective, although you are on to something with the conquering of warm sins being preparatory to being ready to tackle cold sins (although not necessarily to the point of mutual exclusion). I think of it like this: God isn’t going to give us more complex tasks to handle until we show him that we are listening and willing to follow through. I don’t think drinking alcohol is inherently sinful at all, but doing so when we have committed not to demonstrates a lack of humility and perhaps some immaturity to God.

  30. Rick, I think it’s more evenly balanced than you’re saying, but certainly we do seem to have a lot of ‘cold sin’ lessons. That being said, apathy and coldness are the most difficult and wide-spread issues we have in the modern USA church…. curious.

  31. Sam, agreed that it takes experience in order to not commit cold sins, although I wouldn’t commit to experience equaling age. I think a young child can be taught to have compassion and can learn for herself the joys of loving other people. Which still begs the question of why we have such a hard time as members of organized religion committing to doing away with cold sins with the same degree of energy and attention we pay to abstaining from warm sins.

  32. Steve, I think at first blush, it does correspond to the commission/omission distinction. But that only goes so far. We fail to move beyond ourselves and help others, and that is a sin of omission as well as a cold sin. But I think the issue of cold sins involves more than a lack of action. The issue is the change of character and vision we ought to undergo in this life, and can only undergo if we engage in trying to move beyond the cold sins we commit.

  33. steve…sorry for the confession. take your pick among the warm sins, as i certainly didn’t disclose that.

  34. Warm is such a comfortable word or a “comfort word.” When I think of the word “warm” I think of blankets, hot chocolate, cute babies, puppies, etc.

    I’m not quite sure how to deal with the phrase “warm sin.” Is that a sin I would want to commit but should not commit? I don’t know.

    Maybe I’m getting too hung up on the terminology though.

  35. Well, since as a church we focus on warm sins in the temple evaluation process, I think it was a natural progresson – for the lazy slothful wretches that we are – to decide, as a culture, that the low threshold necessary for a temple rec was not only good enough, but the ONLY important indicator.

    Much easier to wave our nicely laminated recommends in our hands, and show them off to the Jones’s, to prove to ourselves and the world how righteous we already are….

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