Just as there are different levels of eternal rewards, perhaps there are different levels of truth and different levels of well being. To go from heathenism to reluctant respect for law is a step forward.
However, for someone who had already embraced wholehearted loving and serving to move to grudging respect for law would be a serious step backward. Civility may be better than barbarism but it is not better than charity or true discipleship. Or, said in terms of eternal destinations, terrestrial is better than telestial but still far beneath celestial.
Maybe this is akin to psychological growth. It is better to be self-sufficient than dependent—but it is best of all to rely on God. It is better to be in recovery than addicted—but it is best to be filled with sacred covenants. In fact, some people who give up addictions to substances seem to become addicted to recovery. The whole world is seen through the lens of addiction and recovery. In contrast, when people are most healthy, they become absorbed in love and service. They are taken over by Christ. Beyond recovery is discipleship.
Limits of the addiction approach
Wendy Kaminer has written a tart critique of the recovery and self-help movements. She writes that “intense preoccupation with addiction and abuse reflects an ominous sense of powerlessness . . . It offers absolution and no accountability and creates entitlements to sympathy, support, and reparations. . . . Recovery gives people permission always to put themselves first, partly because it doesn’t give them a sense of perspective on their complaints . . . . No one seems to count her blessings in recovery” (pp. 152, 153, 27).
The addiction approach to alcoholism and other “addictive” behaviors is challenged scientifically by some research. Baumeister, Heatherton, and Tice (1994) observe that the “rise in addictive behaviors may be similarly fueled by the belief that people cannot control their desires for drugs or alcohol” (p. 251). Addiction approaches undermine a sense of control or responsibility. According to Seligman (1993), “there is no sign of an alcoholic personality” (p. 209). While recovery programs may point people in the right direction, they are unlikely to provide the right balance of personal responsibility and divine grace.
I think recovery is lots better than addiction. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there is something still better. I am inclined to turn to a book with a unique claim. According to Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (Documentary History of the Church 4:461.). I believe that the Book of Mormon is also more effective at bringing us right with God than any program.
A better approach
My favorite therapist from the Book of Mormon is a man who did not use the jargon of psychology. Yet his insights are timeless and sharp. We call him King Benjamin. This amazing servant-leader taught his people a program of spiritual development that was delivered to him by an angel (Mosiah 3:2). Let’s consider the phrases of a single vital verse from King Benjamin’s final message to his people (Mosiah 3:19).
For the natural man . . .
Note that Benjamin does not talk of addicts. He puts our dilemma in spiritual perspective. We are natural. We have not been changed and enlivened by the power of God.
. . . is an enemy to God,
God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (D&C 1:31). We are all tainted and therefore alien, foreign, and offensive to the divine. The immediate question is, how can we get out of our desperate situation?
. . . and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever,
Ouch! Our situation seems hopeless. We will always be enemies to God engaging in behaviors that do not serve us or Him well as we journey through life
. . . unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,
Thank heaven for that “unless.” There is a way! God sends a lifeline—the Holy Spirit—His helper and messenger. Notice that this helper is not an indifferent observer. He is enticing us to come to God.
Enticing, inviting, pleading, urging.
What is the thing we must do in order to be rescued? We must yield. This seems akin to 12-step programs that require participants to acknowledge that they are helpless and dependent upon “a higher power.” The vital truth that Benjamin adds is that there is a specific form of yielding—to God’s special messenger, the Holy Spirit.
. . . and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint
I would very much like to put off that ornery, contrary natural man and become a saint. I have found that my efforts to do that have not paid off reliably. So, with Enos, I ask, “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1:7) This is the great truth on which all hope of growth hinges. The answer for Enos and for all of us is “thy faith in Christ” (Enos 1:8). This fits beautifully with King Benjamin’s observation:
. . . through the atonement of Christ the Lord,
The Atonement—the central power in the great plan of happiness. “For why not speak of the atonement of Christ!” (Jacob 4:12) Why not? Let us “talk of Christ, . . . rejoice in Christ, . . . preach of Christ, . . . prophesy of Christ, and . . . write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source [to] look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
. . . and becometh as a child,
Childlikeness does not come easily to humans. Willfulness, stubbornness, and contrariness are more natural. Becoming as a child includes being: “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (source)
There is a wonderful irony here. Twelve-step programs encourage participants to turn their lives over to God. So does King Benjamin. The difference is that the gospel of Jesus Christ puts a face on that God. We are not just declaring ourselves to be powerless, we are covenanting ourselves to be His. When we draw the power of Christ into our lives, we feel very powerful. But we know where the power comes from.
Ammon was a “recovered” (The Christian word is converted) sinner: “Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things” (Alma 26:17).
I knew a man who had an especially disagreeable and destructive “addiction.” As his bishop, I felt directed to have him study the great repenters of the Book of Mormon. What great lessons! Alma was transformed when he totally turned himself over to Jesus. Nephi moved from despair to joy when he focused on the One in whom he trusted. I believe that there is more power in the doctrine to heal us than we ever imagined.
There are many ways of drawing power and truth from the scriptures. We can search the Book of Mormon for the doctrine of Christ. We can feast on the great Atonement speeches (Hebrews 9, 2 Nephi 2, 9, Mosiah 3, 4, Alma 34, 42, 3 Nephi 27, D&C 19). We can look for the “have mercy” pattern in scripture. (You might be surprised how many of the righteous cry for mercy.) We can study the process of covenanting.
To overcome the natural man we need more than the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. We need pure, energizing doctrine. Elder Packer’s keen insight is worth serious and repeated study: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel” (Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, October 1986).
There certainly are places for professional help in our tortured mortal journey. We should use all wise supports. But if we want to be truly transformed, we must go beyond the language, methods, objectives, and mentality of the world. We must immerse ourselves in the doctrine of Christ. “When you choose to follow Christ, you choose to be changed” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, November 1985). No program or set of tools should become our focus. Our focus should continue to be immersing ourselves in the doctrine of Christ. There is no purer source for that doctrine than the great sermons and stories in the Book of Mormon.
The one step to heaven is to turn our hearts, minds, and lives over to Christ. That one step may take many tries and many decades, but He is the panacea. There is no malady that He cannot remedy. While we should wisely apply all the wisdom the world can offer, we must never elevate it above God’s own instructions and processes. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Baumeister, R. R., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1994). Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Kaminer, W. (1993). I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional: The recovery movement and other self-help fashions. New York: Vintage Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). What you can change and what you can’t. New York: Fawcett Columbine.