As Jesus traveled through the cities and villages of Galilee performing miracles, a man who was possessed with a devil was brought to Him; the man was also blind and unable to speak. Jesus healed him, causing many to be amazed and wonder if He was the promised Messiah (see Matt. 12:22–23). When certain Pharisees heard that Jesus had done this, they said, “This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” (Matt. 12:24). Jesus dismissed their ridiculous logic and taught, “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men who receive me and repent: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven unto men” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 12:26).
A group of scribes challenged this teaching, saying, “Master, it is written that, Every sin shall be forgiven; but ye say, Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven. … How can these things be?” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 12:37). Jesus then gave what has become known as the parable of the empty house:
“When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none; but when a man speaketh against the Holy Ghost, then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth him empty, swept and garnished; for the good spirit leaveth him unto himself.
“Then goeth the evil spirit, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last end of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 12:38–39).
A person who commits sin without repenting does not have the protective influence of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, an evil spirit enters and dwells therein, thus leaving him “unto himself.”
The spiritual danger pointed out by this parable is real. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) has explained: “When a man is baptized for the remission of sins … by the power of the Holy Ghost; when he becomes clean, and pure, and spotless before the Lord; … if he then sins against the Holy Ghost and loses the Spirit of the Lord as his companion, he is left in a fit condition to be swallowed up in every form of evil and iniquity. The house that was once swept and garnished, that was once a fit habitation for the Holy Spirit of God—that house is now vacant. The Spirit of the Lord will not dwell there longer, and the spirit of evil returns—returns to a vacant house, with a force and vigor exceeding anything of the past.”1
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) has explained how this principle applies to the process of repentance:
“The devil knows where to tempt, where to put in his telling blows. He finds the vulnerable spot. Where one was weak before, he will be most easily tempted again.
“In abandoning sin one cannot merely wish for better conditions. He must make them. … He must eliminate anything which would stir the old memories.
“Does this mean that the man who has quit smoking or drinking or had sex pollutions finds life empty for a time? The things which engaged him and caught his fancy and occupied his thoughts are gone, and better substitutions have not yet filled the void. This is Satan’s opportunity. The man makes a start but may find the loss of the yesterday’s habits so great that he is enticed to return to his evil ways, and his lot thus becomes infinitely worsened. …
“Many who have discontinued bad habits have found that substitution is part of the answer, and have conquered a bad habit by replacing it with a good or harmless one.”2
True repentance, then, is not merely eliminating the negative in our lives; it also must involve replacing the negative with positive attitudes and actions.
This reminds me of a lagoon in French Polynesia. It is one of the largest lagoons of its kind in the world. It is of beautiful turquoise color because of its white sandy floor. The water level lowers and rises ever so slightly with the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. The lagoon is peaceful and calm, but the pass through which the tides rush is treacherous and filled with sharks that await an easy meal. One day a few tourists swam too close to the pass and began to be dragged toward danger. The peacefulness of the lagoon had led them to be careless and lazy in keeping themselves from the sharks. Gradually they had floated on the soft current toward the pass. Eventually they went too far and found themselves beyond the point where their own abilities could save them. Outside help was necessary, so a speedboat was sent to rescue them.
As the swimmers in this lagoon should have done, we need to put forth a consistent, positive effort every day in order to remain in safe waters. We need to develop good habits that can replace old, bad ones. Satan desires that we become lazy and complacent. Daily scripture study and prayer, service, repentance, and following the promptings of the Holy Ghost can keep us safely in the spiritual waters of the Lord.
Many of us may already find ourselves in serious spiritual danger and in desperate need of rescue. Jesus Christ, like the operators of the speedboat, has power to save lost souls. Let us all, whether we feel we are in safe waters or not, swim to Him, our Savior and Redeemer. Then the “good spirit” will never leave but will always be with us (see D&C 20:77).