A young mother once turned to a wise old man for advice. “What should I teach my son?” she asked. The man replied, “Teach him to deny himself.”
Is self-denial wise because there is something wrong with our passions, or because there is something right with our passions? Alma taught his son: “See that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love.” (Alma 38:12; emphasis added.) He did not say we should suppress or eliminate our passions but rather bridle them—harness, channel, and focus them. Why? Because disciplining our passions makes possible a richer, deeper love.
Yet in today’s world, where people clamor for rights and freedom, the reasons behind self-denial are often lost. Many unmarried members of the Church yearn for fulfillment of righteous feelings and desires, and the world tells them that waiting to explore those desires is unnecessary.
The prophets have taught of the peace and happiness that come through obedience to the law of chastity, as well as the misery and unhappiness that follow in the wake of willful disobedience of this sacred law. The plague of AIDS illustrates the negative reasons for these teachings: promiscuity can literally kill us. And beyond destroying the body, “whoso committeth adultery [also] … destroyeth his own soul.” (Prov. 6:32.)
However, the positive basis for chastity may be less familiar. We restrain our passions and seek virtue not because romantic love is bad, but precisely because it is so good. It is not only good; it is pure, precious, even sacred and holy. Indeed, the satisfying sacredness that is possible within marriage is but one illustration of the gospel’s unique yet profoundly re-assuring doctrines: the Lord seeks to satisfy, everlastingly, our deepest human longings.
Jacob said: “Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, …
“Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy … ; and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.” (2 Ne. 9:50–51; emphasis added.)
Jacob’s admonition to “feast” in some permanent way and not to labor for “that which cannot satisfy” implies that we should labor for that which can satisfy. But isn’t the religious life by definition a life of fasting, not feasting? The Savior told the rich young man, “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and … take up the cross, and follow me.” (Mark 10:21.) And Peter told the Lord, “We have left all, and have followed thee.” (Mark 10:28.) These passages imply that to follow the Savior is to live a life of self-denial, in which we renounce the human urge to be satisfied in favor of strict obedience to heavenly laws. Isn’t that what the Word of Wisdom and fast Sunday and the Ten Commandments are all about?
Consider the doctrinal context for this question. Traditional Christian teachings are rooted in the belief that because of Adam’s and Eve’s original sin, all men and women have an inherently evil nature. This theology assumes that most of life’s natural delights are evil reflections of a fallen world—hence the false medieval idea that the highest form of spiritual life is to reject marriage, to deny other human passions, and to withdraw monastically from the world.
Much of modern civilization rejects this dark view of human nature, having built on Greek humanism’s confidence in man to believe that man is by nature good. However, in the last generation, our society has also abandoned the strong sense of restraint that marked classical Greek thought. As a result, the world now presents us with two extreme but false choices about human intimacy. The apparently “religious” view is that God is displeased when we find deep fulfillment in human relationships or natural beauties. The “worldly” alternative is that we should pursue our sexual urges wherever they take us, utterly without limits.
The light of the restored gospel pierces through this dark confusion, illuminating the pathway to happiness and meaning. Ours is a revolutionary doctrine: children are born neither evil nor good by nature; rather, they are born innocent. (See D&C 93:38.) They then encounter the free choices of mortality in order to develop the capacity to experience a fulness of joy. If they choose to follow Satan, they will ultimately become like him: evil by nature and eternally miserable. However, if they accept the disciplined yoke of the gospel, they may one day have a divine nature. Their souls will then overflow with satisfactions derived from “that which perisheth not.” (2 Ne. 9:51.) As the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, “The nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin.”1
The human soul’s universally recognized longing for fulness thus finds more expression in the gospel than in any man-made philosophy of life. God is the author of our passions. If we “bridle” them by the bounds he has set, our passions will be fulfilled. In its pure form, our natural yearning for everlasting romantic love calls forth and satisfies our highest instincts. But in its adulterated forms, it allures and dazzles, but finally, it only betrays.
So we accept divine limits in order to find—not to deny—the abundant life. As part of that acceptance, our self-denial in the short run makes possible our self-fulfillment in the long run.
For example, our family once watched a segment of the children’s television program “Sesame Street” in which the Cookie Monster won a quiz show. What a moment it was! After Mrs. Monster joined her spouse on the stage, the emcee congratulated the couple and offered them their choice among three big prizes—a $200,000 dream home next month, a $20,000 new car next week, or a cookie right now. Mr. and Mrs. Monster furrowed their furry brows and carefully weighed the pros and cons. As the timer buzzed, a big smile broke across Mr. Monster’s face, and he greedily announced his choice: “Cookie!”
Now, there is nothing wrong with a good cookie. The problem is not that the cookie is bad, but that its satisfaction cannot last. Not should not, or might not, but cannot last. Yet, whether the subject is love, education, or investing scarce resources, Satan deludes us into believing that a cookie is more valuable than a dream home—because we can have it right now. His manipulation is full of irony, because his long-term intent is that “all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)
Nonetheless, it can be hard to think wisely about the future. In our high school days, we often heard the popular song, “There’s no tomorrow, when love is new. There’s no tomorrow for lovers true. So kiss me and hold me tight. There’s no tomorrow; there’s just tonight.”
But because we have the restored gospel, we know there is a tomorrow. Thank God there is a tomorrow. Tomorrow, like today, is everlastingly part of life. And because there is tomorrow, all our yesterdays have meaning and purpose. If we hold someone tight whom we really love, the last thing we want is no tomorrow. A shallow, impulsive infatuation that wants to shut out tomorrow is but a tiny flicker compared to the roaring blaze of genuine belonging in a commitment built to last literally forever.
Once more: the truth is not that worldly gratifications are too satisfying, but that they are not satisfying enough. That was Jacob’s point when he taught his people to “delight in fatness” (2 Ne. 9:51): the Lord desires that we find fulfillment to the height of human capacity. It is Satan, not God, who seeks to numb our sensibilities until we are eternally miserable.
If we then discipline ourselves and delay our satisfaction—sometimes for many years, sometimes even for a lifetime—what kind of romantic belonging awaits those who patiently prepare for it? Consider three illustrations of how, while bridling our passions, we “may be filled with love.” (Alma 38:12.)
First, physical intimacy grows from and reflects an unlimited commitment. It cannot be detached from its intricate context, and it cannot flourish outside of a complete, healthy relationship. As Jeffrey R. Holland, then president of Brigham Young University, put it, intimacy between two people symbolizes a total bond that is “the union of all they possess—their very hearts and minds, all their days and all their dreams. They work together, they cry together, they enjoy Brahms and Beethoven and breakfast together, they sacrifice and save and live together for all the abundance that such a totally intimate life provides. And the physical manifestation [only symbolizes] a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding of eternal purposes and promise.” President Holland pointed out that to give only the physical part without also giving “the gift of your whole heart and your whole life and your whole self is its own form of emotional Russian roulette.”2
Second, loving intimacy grows naturally from its bonds of interdependence and cannot be coerced. There may be the appearance of love, but if those expressions are not freely given, the relationship cannot meet the conditions that yield lasting satisfaction in the Lord’s own way. President Joseph F. Smith taught that God ordained sexual intimacy not only to perpetuate the race, but “for the development of the higher faculties and nobler traits of human nature, which the love-inspired companionship of man and woman alone can insure.” Perhaps this is partly because the desire to be freely and fully loved will motivate us to be both lovable and worth loving.
Either a man or a woman may try to coerce a partner. A man may be tempted to treat a woman as his subordinate or even as his inferior, thereby subtly commanding her loyalty. If the couple are married, she may be under covenant to honor him, just as he is under covenant to honor her. But if manipulated, those covenants can be forms of coercion. As Doctrine and Covenants 121 makes clear, where there is unrighteous dominion, the priesthood cannot be operative.
A woman may be tempted to flirt or fascinate for the purpose of manipulating a man to give her something she wants. From Samson to Salome, the Bible recounts variations on this theme, as when Salome’s dancing “pleased Herod” and he “promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
“And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head.” (Matt. 14:6–8.)
When men or women are true to their deepest natures, they will nurture sensitivity and kindness as part of their dating habits and, after marriage, as part of their marital fidelity.
Third, the satisfactions of love’s highest fulfillment weave themselves into a complex emotional fabric that includes the prosaic drudgery of daily responsibility. Lucifer, the enemy of our desire for fulness, tries to convince us that we must escape our dull routines and seek the dramatic gestures of “romance” outside the home; his false premise is that life’s petty burdens and chores impede romantic desire. This viewpoint, continually portrayed by the popular media, has nothing but contempt for ordinary marriage, “which it finds hopelessly boring and middle-class.” Thus one can hardly “imagine Romeo and Juliet routinely sitting down to breakfast.”3
It is even more difficult to imagine Romeo and Juliet keeping their passion alive in the midst of household clutter, unpaid bills, the crying of children, and the sheer battle fatigue that often concludes our every day. But if two married lovers simply understand how natural is the untidiness of their lives, that understanding can nurture rather than smother the sparks of passion.
Jacob said we should “labor” for that which satisfies. And as Kahlil Gibran put it, “Work is love made visible.” Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee and his wife, Janet, once shared with the students of BYU the story of President Lee’s traumatic struggle with cancer. They recounted the details and doubts of being hospitalized for five months of chemotherapy, during virtually every day of which Janet was by Rex’s side. They described how the sterile loneliness of an urban hospital somehow had the effect of refining their love for one another. When Rex was so sick that he couldn’t even read his favorite literature—Supreme Court cases—Janet read the cases aloud to him while tenderly rubbing his bare feet. In a multitude of such moments, the roots of their love, including their affection, stretched ever deeper. President Lee said he knew Janet loved him before, but now their love has a depth they could not otherwise know.
In romantic love, as in other contexts, real joy mixes with opposition as gold mixes with ore. Our joy thus means more when we are fully conscious of the contrasting context that gives it meaning. The story of eternal love is like the missionary labors of Ammon and his brethren, who recounted “their sufferings in the land, their sorrows, and their afflictions, and their incomprehensible joy.” (Alma 28:8; emphasis added.)
President Spencer W. Kimball once said that “marriage can be more an exultant ecstasy than the human mind can conceive.” (Speeches of the Year, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1976, p. 147.) There is some kind of mysterious magnetism that draws us toward one another, like homing pigeons looking for home. And when we have paid the price of patient preparation, self-discipline, and an irrevocable commitment to another person’s happiness, we can taste the sweet joy of authentic human love. To be encircled about eternally in the arms of such love is to fulfill our deepest longing for security and belonging.
The positive case for chastity is even stronger when we see the magnitude of its doctrinal foundation: our potential to fulfill our romantic yearnings is but one illustration of the Lord’s larger promises of joy and eternal fulness. We find another illustration in our relationship with him—a relationship made possible through his atonement. For the holy power that seals a couple together also promises to seal that couple to the Lord.
As we faithfully weather the mortal experience, his atonement ultimately makes us “at one” with him, as he is at one with his father. Imagine being welcomed into his arms on that day when we, like the ancient Nephites, may “bow down at his feet, and … worship him; and … kiss his feet,” until we “bathe his feet with [our] tears.” (3 Ne. 17:10.) In that day, we may know, as they did, what it means to feel the height and breadth of being fully satisfied in the Lord’s own way: “So great was the joy of the multitude that they were overcome,” and the Savior himself said, “Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full.
“And when he had said these words, he wept.” (3 Ne. 17:18, 20–21.)
All this can be ours if we learn self-denial and prepare for the day when we take the hand of an eternal companion and step into the Lord’s presence. We must be individually worthy of exaltation, but we cannot be exalted alone. Even if we have no companion until after this life, we are exalted together, or not at all. And just as we may be sealed in the eternal bonds of married love, if we are “steadfast and immovable,” then “Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his.” (Mosiah 5:15; emphasis added.) Both forms of sealing, both forms of fulfillment, are worth waiting for, worth trying for and crying for, through all the days of life. Even now, we may taste and anticipate this fulness when we feel the stirrings of human love, or when we sense the movements of God’s spirit on our hearts.
Human nature hungers to be filled. We wander to and fro, trying to fill our inner void. The world would fill it with pleasure, power, and material things. In response, most of us partake of the world’s offering—often at great cost. Yet after we do, our soul hunger is still with us. We remain incomplete until we drink from the fountain of living waters: “Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. …
“Wherefore, do not spend … your labor for that which cannot satisfy. … Come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not.” (2 Ne. 9:50–51.)
Does the Lord want us to be satisfied? Absolutely. The gospel teaches self-denial not to stifle our passions but to fulfill them everlastingly. Thank God there is a tomorrow.