Why do we do the bad things we do?

A former student wrote me recently and asked why I had done some things I had done. Some were helpful. Some were hurtful. The student was confused. Were the helpful deeds accidental or manipulative? Were the hurtful acts the truest measure of my flawed character?

Those are painful questions for anyone who has faced the stark reality of personal mistakes and persistent weakness. I try to do better but my badness doesn’t disappear. It sticks to me.

I wonder if Paul was dealing with similar feelings when he wrote:

“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19).

Why do I do what I do when I know what I know?

I take comfort in Hugh Nibley’s observation that righteousness is not a place where we relax or retire after working hard to defeat our weaknesses. No. Righteousness is repenting. Righteousness is the willingness to keep fighting sin and stupidity in our souls. It is the yearning to be filled with Him. In mortality, the battle for righteousness is never finished. I think this is what King Benjamin was saying:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .

We must always fight against sin. Even after a lifetime of fighting against sin, I will not be made right–

unless [I] yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint

How do I become a saint, a true follower?

Through the atonement of Christ the Lord (Mosiah 3:19).

None of this is intended to excuse sin. It is merely an acknowledgment that we cannot make ourselves righteous. We fight against sin every day of mortality, but ultimately it is He who makes us right. The main thing we can do is to be humble.

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27, emphasis added)

We make ourselves humble and He makes us clean. He can make us what He is: Righteous. But we must hate sin and love Him. That is the only way for us to cast off our sins.

What are your thoughts? Are you ever burdened by your shortcomings? How do you conquer them?

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  • Reply Candleman February 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    For me it is like J. Golden Kimball is reported to have said, “I may not have walked the straight and narrow, but I crossed it often as I could.”

  • Reply Diana Gourley February 14, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    I am not a blatant sinner. It is not in my nature to intentionally hurt or offend anyone. Because of this, I am most burdened by matters of the heart. I tend to be overly hard on myself, so when I do make a mistake, whether real or imagined, negative ruminations feed upon each other, distort, and become grandiose compared to the event that prompted the original distress. I have learned that to horriblize weaknesses and turn them into more than mortal learning experiences is a tool Satan uses with the righteous to destroy peace and undermine faith.

    The Savior said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

    In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33)

    I find that as I focus on the Savior’s love and His redemptive power, my peace is restored, and He empowers me to keep moving forward in faith. I also keep in mind that direction truly is more important than speed. Line upon line He is teaching me to trust Him to truly love Him.

    So what do I do when I find myself caught up in the thick of thin things? I check my thoughts. Are the uplifting? Do they lead me to believe in Christ? If not, then I repent and do a 180 with my thinking. To help me accomplish this, I made two list; one is filled with dozens of negative words and phrases such as hopeless, darkness, you’re not good enough, fear, worry, and despair. I call this list the anti-Christ list. The second list is filled with dozens of positive words and phrases such as abundance, light, patience, faith, hope, and trust. I call this The Disciple of Christ list. As I made the two lists, I noticed how they made me feel. The first list was darkness to me. I felt depressed after reading it. The second list filled my soul with truth and light—it led me to believe in Christ. Now when I feel discouraged, I remember what list the word “discouragement” comes from and I change my thinking to reflect words from The Disciple of Christ list. Such as, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). So, the best way I have found to overcome burdens and shortcoming is with godly thinking, which stems from my faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. For He said,

    Fear not to do good, my sons [and daughters], for whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap; therefore, if ye sow good ye shall also reap good for your reward. Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail. Behold, I do not condemn you; go your ways and sin no more; perform with soberness the work which I have commanded you. Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not. Behold the wounds which pierced my side, and also the prints of the nails in my hands and feet; be faithful, keep my commandments, and ye shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. Amen.(D&C 6:33-37 emphasis added)

  • Reply Jim February 16, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I’m not perfect by a long shot, but for me it is easy enough to avoid doing bad. The question then becomes, “why don’t I do more good? When I know what I know, why don’t I do more?”

    Whether it is doing wrong or not doing right, maybe the answer is the same, as you quoted: we are mortal, “natural men” that have not become sufficiently submissive.

    At the same time, I think we have to remember that perfection is not to be achieved in this life. Still, we do our best, and perhaps realizing that it is more about process than destination will help.

    I do love Diane’s idea of recognizing when Satan’s lies have started to sink in and to then change thoughts to those of a disciple of Christ.

    Of course repenting and truly changing our hearts is the key….

  • Reply admin February 21, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I have been on the road again. Sorry to be so slow and sporadic in responding.

    I have just started reading a new book that promises to increase my understanding of this principle: Positivity by Barbara L. Fredrickson. I’ll say more about it as I read farther.

    Blessings to all,

  • Reply intrigued February 25, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Dr Wally

    I have a question. . . how do we deal with the dual emotion of hating a sin – but loving it too? To use the example of anger: We hate anger. We know what it does to us and to our relationships. Yet in a moment of weakness we delight in the opportunity to explode, to be cutting. The same might be said of all sins – dishonesty, pride, immorality, vulgarity, and so on.

    I’m also curious about Positivity… you’ll have to review it here.

    • Reply admin February 26, 2009 at 11:10 am

      Good question.

      I think we can both love and hate a sin at the same time because we have two parts warring within us: the natural man and the man of Christ. The natural man loves to be angry, to make his feelings and preferences the standard for judgment and to diminish anyone and anything that threatens his way. This is exactly how Satan, the ultimate natural man, reacts to Peter, James, and John.

      In contrast to the natural man is the man or woman of Christ. Rather than get angry at others, the true believer looks for a way to bless. In our role as parents, this may involve Listening to and maybe even setting a limit for a child. In our relations with peers, this will often entail the recognition that the other person is trying to tell us something that we have not been able or willing to understand. We may need to stretch our perspective to see as our “enemy” does.

      Our job is to increasingly listen to the man of Christ (or light of Christ) within us. The nature of Christ can conquer the natural man–if we allow Him to.


  • Reply Claudia March 30, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Like many others, I am often burdened by my shortcomings — I just seem to have so many! (This becomes more apparent to me the older I get … is this part of what is meant by the wisdom of age?) And just when I feel I am doing better, I find out it’s not only the intentional sins I need to worry about, but I often sin unintentionally, as in offending someone by a careless remark I have made. (As a college teacher, this happens to me more often and easily than I would like … but it happens at home, too.)

    I do believe that Satan is overjoyed when we feel burdened so, because feeling this way is exactly the opposite of what the Savior offers: “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).

    When I feel overburdened by my shortcomings — and I find the term overburdened more useful than burdened in this instance, for if we never felt burdened by our shortcomings, would we ever feel the motivation to change? — I remember that Heavenly Father does not want me to feel overburdened. He wants me to be happy. — “Men are, that they might have joy.” Being happy or joyful is part of the plan, and I learn that I DESERVE a happy life! And not only do I deserve a happy life, but so do the people around me. Thinking about this principle helps give me perspective that no shortcoming is so great that the Savior can’t take care of my mistakes, and the mistakes of others, too. It really helps me avoid feeling overburdened, but I can still acknowledge and work through my shortcomings, which I believe is also part of the plan. I have HOPE!

    Realizing I deserve joy and that this is what the Savior and my Heavenly Father want for me also helps me in the daily choices I make. It actually helps me to resist temptation. I can ask myself if my contemplated actions will help me (and those around me) to have happiness and joy, or no … (see Moroni 7). Perhaps this is a rather selfish way to think about avoiding temptation and overcoming shortcomings, but I don’t think so, if we remember the admonition to “Love they neighbor as thyself.” I am showing respect for myself as a daughter of God when I consider the consequences of my actions, and being able to choose the right on a more consistent basis allows the Spirit to work more fully through me.

    Relying on the merits of Him who is mighty to save is really an amazing principle when I think about it. Beautiful in its simplicity, but not always easy to live. Satan would pull us aside from our true missions with negative, incorrect thinking and the intellectual run-around that so characterizes some of the philosophies of men.

    Wally, I love how in all of your posts you remind us that God’s ways are not man’s ways. There are definitely higher laws WE CAN ACCESS for our own good and the good of others if we can conquer our pride and the natural man. Warmly, Claudia

    • Reply admin March 31, 2009 at 10:54 pm

      Good points, Clauida. I agree completely that God wants us to be joyous! With respect to feeling burdened, I appreciate the counsel of wise (and inspired) Alma: “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29). The key is to dwell on our shortcomings only enough to send us submissively to Christ!


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