Overcoming the World


F. Burton Howard
Truths revealed so abundantly in the Book of Mormon are intended to help Church members avoid pitfalls of sin and error surrounding us in the latter days.

In a remarkably prophetic address in April conference of 1980, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “Nor are the days of our greatest sorrows and our deepest sufferings all behind us. They too lie ahead. We shall yet face greater perils, we shall yet be tested with more severe trials, and we shall yet weep more tears of sorrow than we have ever known before” (Ensign, May 1980, 71).

As a people we now live in the days of which Elder McConkie spoke. Forces beyond our control threaten to corrupt or destroy the things we hold most dear. Traditional beliefs and values are attacked on every side. We have inherited the concerns of the past but also are beset by problems our ancestors never knew.

Drugs, fractured marriages, alternative lifestyles, AIDS, violent crime, terrorism—all of these and many more social ills provide an unsettling atmosphere in which we all must live. The moral support society formerly provided to our families is eroding. Legal and social developments have made it difficult, if not impossible, for public schools to teach honesty, virtue, or patriotism effectively. Courts exclude prayer from public life. Faith is belittled or despised by those whom some of our youth accept as role models. The poet William Wordsworth said of his day in the title and text of a well-known poem, what is even more telling of our own day: “The world is too much with us.” In many quarters it takes real courage to live the life of a Latter-day Saint.

This should not surprise us. In 1 Nephi we read of “numberless concourses of people” pressing forward, many holding fast to the rod of iron and being mocked because of their desire for the fruit of the tree of life. Some, “after they had tasted of the fruit, … were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Ne. 8:21, 28).

Thomas Griffith, an editor for Time magazine some years ago, wrote of our era: “We are so caught up in the complexity and clamor of our way of life that we do not realize how much all of these powerful efforts to attract or divert us are a tax on our spirit: they do a double harm, in the triviality of what they offer and the fatigue which they engender, that keeps us from doing something more profitable with our time. Even to screen out that portion of our culture that we do not want becomes an effort of will. Simplicity of life is no longer ours to begin with, as it was in the days of remote farms, and of school lessons written on the back of a shovel. In a world of congestion, shattering noise and an infinity of seductions, we must, in the midst of a carnival, find and insist upon our own decent simplicity” (The Waist-High Culture [1959], 188).

So it is that many voices from the “carnival” compete with the sweet simplicity of the gospel. Many of these competing voices did not even exist in the first half of this century, to say nothing of the time of the pioneers. But all of us, particularly our youth, must find a way to live in the world and not be a part of it. We dare not minimize or ignore the evil around us. Elder McConkie warned:

“We see evil forces everywhere uniting to destroy the family, to ridicule morality and decency, to glorify all that is lewd and base. We see wars and plagues and pestilence. Nations rise and fall. Blood and carnage and death are everywhere. Gadianton robbers fill the judgment seats in many nations. An evil power seeks to overthrow the freedom of all nations and countries. Satan reigns in the hearts of men; it is the great day of his power. …

“The way ahead is dark and dreary and dreadful. There will yet be martyrs; the doors in Carthage shall again enclose the innocent. We have not been promised that the trials and evils of the world will entirely pass us by” (Ensign, May 1980, 73).

It is tempting to parents and leaders to blame the world for the moral and behavioral chaos we see around us. But finger-pointing will never substitute for prevention because much of sin’s sorrow is avoidable.

The challenges and temptations we face, while not unique to our era, are more prevalent now than at any other time in the history of the world. Unless recognized for what they are, they can cause us to loosen our hold on the iron rod and leave the protection of the fold. But much of the guidance and direction we need to confront the trials of our time is found in the Book of Mormon.

“[The Book of Mormon] was written for our day,” President Ezra Taft Benson said. “The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times. It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, 6).

Thus we can confidently expect the Book of Mormon to address the real problems we face, even issues that may not have existed in Joseph Smith’s time. Let us look at some of the major challenges which come to us today from outside the fold. How does the Book of Mormon deal with things which could not have reasonably been foreseen in the year 1830?

Some of these challenges include (1) the misuse of time, (2) prosperity and riches, and (3) a degenerating society. The Book of Mormon has genuine solutions to these problems.

The Misuse of Time

One of the distinctive teachings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is its concept of a mortal probation. This concept is at the heart of the plan of salvation, and a correct understanding of it is essential to comprehend man’s relationship to God. Many religions teach that the way one lives in this life affects his standing in the next life, but only one church offers an adequate explanation of why this is so. The explanation is found in truths restored by revelation—knowledge of our premortal experiences and of how this mortal probation affects eternity. Some of these truths are expressed most eloquently in the Book of Mormon.

The dictionary defines probation as “the testing or trial of a person’s conduct, character, qualifications, or the like.” Equally significant is the fact that probation is “the state or period of such testing or trial” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1971 unabridged ed.).

Mortal probation is the “timed test” by which our place and standing in the next life are determined. Everyone must take the test and give an accounting to the Holy One of Israel, not only for what was done but for what was left undone. In 1905 Elder George Albert Smith said, “We are not here to while away the hours of this life and then pass to a sphere of exaltation; but we are here to qualify ourselves day by day for the positions that our Father expects us to fill hereafter” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1905, 62).

As Alma succinctly taught: “Behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” He continued: “And now, … I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32–33).

Jacob, the brother of Nephi, said, “But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!” (2 Ne. 9:27).

Never before in history has such a high proportion of the earth’s population confronted the issue of leisure time. Retirement is something our forbears knew little of. What should we do with this time, we ask? It is not surprising that the Book of Mormon has answers.

It teaches that each individual has an obligation to make wise use of his or her time. Notwithstanding all we must do, we are enjoined to learn wisdom (see Alma 37:35), to search the scriptures and understand the mysteries of God (see Mosiah 1:5–7), and to pray always for divine direction in our activities (see 2 Ne. 32:9). We must magnify our offices with soberness and assume responsibility to teach the word of God with all diligence (see Jacob 1:19; Jacob 2:2). We must press forward with hope and steadfastness and have a love of God and of all men (see 2 Ne. 31:20). We have important things to do, and the Holy Ghost will show them to us (see 2 Ne. 32:1–5). We must prepare to render an accounting of our mortal probation to the Holy One of Israel at that place where no servant is employed (see 2 Ne. 9:41).

The Problem of Prosperity

As a corollary to the challenge of too much leisure time, much of today’s society, including members of the Church, must also confront the dangers of materialism. We may use our income to purchase automobiles, boats, cabins, computers, expensive home entertainment systems, and power-driven machines of all kinds. We fill our leisure time with the use of many things.

Some equate the good life with economic prosperity and believe that consumption brings contentment. But the effort to achieve prosperity often prevents consideration of the great questions of life, including asking ourselves when enough is enough—and when it is too much. We sometimes discover too late that God’s greatest gifts cannot be purchased with money. The parable of the great supper, as recorded by Luke, is very instructive:

“A certain man made a great supper, and bade many:

“And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.

“And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused.

“And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused.

“And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:16–20).

Biblical scholars without the light of modern revelation note that the tradition in the Middle East was to appoint dinner invitations far in advance. The master of the house would often send a servant shortly before the dinner to again remind those who had been invited to come. Traditional interpretations of the parable of the great supper indicate that those who failed to come were the Jews. Afterward the invitation was extended to others who were not of the house of Israel.

While this may well be one application of the parable, there is another which is clearly set forth in the 58th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. There the Lord explained to the Prophet Joseph Smith that the elders of the Church were sent to earth so that “a feast of fat things might be prepared … ;

“Yea, a supper of the house of the Lord, well prepared, unto which all nations shall be invited.

“First, the rich and the learned, the wise and the noble” (D&C 58:8–10; emphasis added).

If the Lord is providing his own commentary on the parable of the great supper—and it seems that he is—then it is frightening to note that those who declined the invitation were those more concerned with temporal problems—for example, a piece of ground, a yoke of oxen, or a wife who did not understand the significance of the supper. As we look at the part riches play in this parable, we can see that there is great risk in them—risk that concern for material things may cloud our view of what is eternally important.

The Book of Mormon chronicles a seemingly never-ending cycle of prosperity and pride. In nearly every instance where the Lord’s people were blessed abundantly with material things, they quickly turned away from him. Over and over the cycle was repeated. Pride, riches, oppression of the poor, and other associated evils were the reason Nephi, the son of Helaman, gave up governmental office and with his brother Lehi spent the remainder of his days teaching the gospel to members and nonmembers alike (see Hel. 5:1–4).

Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Great Thoughts [1985], 367). If we are to avoid the corruption that so often follows prosperity, we too must learn the lessons taught in the Book of Mormon. It speaks directly to members of the Church who have been blessed with more than they need. We would do well to consider some of its counsel.

“Behold, [the Lord] saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you” (Hel. 13:21).

Nephi details the hazards of material prosperity in these familiar words:

“Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark.

“And the blood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them.

“Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

“Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

“They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up” (2 Ne. 28:9–13).

Nephi’s brother Jacob counsels: “Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken; 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. 9:51).

The Book of Mormon clearly points out the dangers that can come to Church members as a result of prosperity. More powerfully and more persuasively than any other book, it warns against the complacency and self-satisfaction of carnal security. It warns bluntly against being at ease in Zion (see 2 Ne. 28:21, 24).

More importantly, the Book of Mormon offers to all who will study its pages escape from the carefully contrived snares of the adversary. This sacred record teaches that individual salvation is available to all who will keep the commandments of God and will serve their fellowmen. The book also offers countless suggestions on how to do this, including visiting the sick, caring for the poor, serving in callings, and preaching the gospel. It teaches that we must learn to act for ourselves and not be acted upon (see 2 Ne. 2:26). We must love and serve others, both living and dead, in order to follow Christ in doing the will of our Father, and the book teaches that we will be judged according to our works (see 3 Ne. 27:13–15).

A Degenerating World

We know this to be “the fulness of times” (D&C 27:13), a time when all that was promised has been given and the great purposes of the Lord are being fulfilled. Ours is a wonderful age. Never before have there been such scientific and educational advances. Many diseases have been eradicated. Much of the world’s misery and ignorance has disappeared. At no other moment in history has there been a people with enough time and resources to fulfill “the promises made to the fathers” (D&C 2:2) to serve their fellowmen and redeem their dead. Never before has there been a people with the monetary and technological means to proclaim the gospel to “the ends of the world” (D&C 1:23).

Unfortunately, ours is also an age when the most potent weapons and snares of the adversary have converged in a monumental effort to thwart the work of the Lord and frustrate the great plan of happiness. Our day is the time of Satan’s greatest power. We live in a world “ripening in iniquity” (D&C 18:6). If it was ripening when the Lord made that statement to Joseph Smith in 1830, it is surely ripening now. This is a time of opposition in all things (see 2 Ne. 2:11–15). The Book of Mormon teaches us that this opposition is necessary and that man must learn to act for himself; it explains that “man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Ne. 2:16).

And so we live in a day of enticements. That which is good is counterfeited. That which is holy is mocked. That which is sacred is profaned. Faith is frequently challenged, and our personal testimonies must be strong enough to withstand the taunts of those who question “How do you know?” or who dare: “Show me.” In all of our necessary interactions with the world, we must stay far away from those rooms in the “large and spacious building” (1 Ne. 11:35) that are devoted to criticism of our doctrine or our inspired leaders on the basis of worldly wisdom.

Aware of the difficulty of living in such a time, the prophet Moroni counseled: “Be wise in the days of your probation; strip yourselves of all uncleanness; ask not, that ye may consume it upon your lusts, but ask with a firmness unshaken, that ye will yield to no temptation, but that ye will serve the true and living God” (Morm. 9:28).

Those who have accepted Christ and gone down into the waters of baptism have received a remission of their sins, but becoming a member of the Church does not guarantee that the challenges of mortal probation will have an end. The Savior taught this doctrine clearly to his disciples in the Book of Mormon. He plainly told them that the rain would descend and the floods would come and the winds would blow and beat upon the house of both those who hear and do his sayings and those who do not (see 3 Ne. 14:24–27; Matt. 7:24–27).

The Book of Mormon provides specific help for members of the Church who desire to keep the commandments and be faithful to the end. In a ringing and important declaration, King Benjamin set forth the formula we should follow.

“As ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.

“And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4:11–12).

The Book of Mormon clarifies what it is that an individual must do in a degenerating world to live the gospel and progress toward exaltation. Each individual must enter into sacred covenants with the Lord, commencing with the covenant of baptism. The Book of Mormon teaches that both the making of the outward covenants and also the internal keeping of the covenants are important to salvation. That inspired record teaches that personal worthiness and righteousness are essential elements of our mortal probation and that we must learn and keep the commandments, repenting when we transgress, so as to always retain a remission of our sins.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, writing about the relevance of the Book of Mormon to today’s society, has said:

“Its narrative is a chronicle of nations long since gone. But in its descriptions of the problems of today’s society, it is as current as the morning newspaper and much more definitive, inspired, and inspiring concerning the solutions of those problems. …

“Without reservation I promise you that if you will read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your life and into your home an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to his commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God” (Be Thou an Example [1981], 100, 102).

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh