The evil practice of slavery has existed in various civilizations throughout the history of the world. We are astonished that men, women, and children could be a commodity bought, sold, and subjected to prolonged misery to further the interests of others. We recoil at descriptions of “man’s inhumanity to man” in these accounts, and we are horrified at reports of slavery existing in some parts of the world even today.
How is it, then, that many willingly relinquish their freedom and submit themselves and their loved ones to captivity by that master whose only purpose is to make them “miserable like unto himself”? (2 Ne. 2:27).
Many think of captivity only in terms of imprisonment by other people. Physical captivity is abhorrent, but the effects may not endure eternally. The greater bondage is to the father of lies—a form of captivity that is far more devastating and potentially longer lasting. Remarkably, this spiritual captivity results from personal choice as one yields to uncontrolled desires and passions. One can be in captivity to sin or to the pursuit of worldly honors such as fame, wealth, political power, or social standing. One can also be in captivity through obsessive preoccupation with activities such as sports, music, or entertainment.
A particularly powerful source of captivity is tradition. Traditions exist in every culture. In some countries, tribal traditions run deep. Some of these traditions are wonderful, preserving culture and defining social order. Other traditions are contrary to the gospel and priesthood government and, when followed blindly, result in captivity.
Even individual and family traditions can lead to spiritual captivity. Traditions that are contrary to gospel principles offend the Spirit and, if followed, obscure one’s ability to be guided by the Spirit to recognize righteous choices that would expand freedom. For example, consider family traditions regarding the Sabbath. How does your family feel when a major sports event conflicts with Church responsibilities? Yielding to unrighteous influences diminishes your freedom and amplifies the danger of captivity.
Freedom to choose all that is “expedient” is a gift given by God to His children. Thus, we can choose liberty (freedom) and eternal life through Christ, or we can choose captivity and death according to the power of the devil (see 2 Ne. 2:27). It is often said that we are free to choose whatever course we desire, but we are not free to avoid the consequences of that choice.
Spiritual captivity rarely results from a single choice or event. More often, freedom is surrendered one small step at a time until the way to regain that freedom is obscured.
A young man once pleaded with me for help. He had become addicted to pornography, which he accessed via his home computer. It burdened him with such guilt that he could not feel good about attending church or participating in priesthood assignments. It adversely affected his social life. He was powerfully drawn to spend hour upon hour alone in front of the computer viewing that which he acknowledged brought only frustration and despair. It was as if he were chained by a master whose only purpose was to make him miserable.
He did not decide at once to become a slave to the computer screen. Rather, he decided at some earlier time that viewing destructive images “just this once” would not hurt and would satisfy a “curiosity.” Once became twice, and twice became several times, until a powerful addiction had lessened his power of choice. Only after he was enchained by his addiction did he recognize that he had willingly submitted to captivity.
If we are succumbing to spiritual captivity, we may not recognize the growing loss of freedom in our lives. Yet the more spiritual captivity we experience, choose, or permit, the less freedom of choice we feel in matters of spiritual importance.
Some seek to explain spiritual captivity as something out of their control. Is it really out of their control? Typically, freedom to make righteous choices is measured by a willingness to sacrifice that which is the object of desire or passion. Hence, sacrifice is a guiding principle and is the key to setting oneself free from captivity.
Couples who are physically and financially able are urged to sacrifice to serve full-time missions. Clearly, poor health, inadequate financial resources, and other circumstances influence the ability to serve. However, careful attention to the reasons for not serving may reveal a risk of being imprisoned by worldly desires. Concern about the house, car, or boat; preoccupation with investments; plans for travel; a desire to enjoy a summer home; and similar obstacles compel the question: do you feel free to choose to serve a mission? If not, why? Have you chosen to be held captive by worldly things?
Consider the choice made by one faithful couple. After recently purchasing a farm for their retirement, they felt prompted to accept a mission call. They were called to serve in a village far from other Church units. They built their own housing, dug their own water well, attended to all their personal needs, and proselytized by bicycle. While the living conditions were extremely difficult, they enjoyed wonderful success in teaching, training members, and bringing converts to the gospel.
In the course of their mission this couple received a letter from a family member reporting that thieves had broken into their farm and stolen all their farm implements and machinery. They were urged to return home and seek to reclaim their much-needed property. The mission president gave them the option to do so. This couple considered their choice and decided to stay. They were not held captive by their worldly goods. They were free to choose the Lord’s service, and they so chose.
I am intrigued by the story of the Old Testament prophet Balaam, which teaches us much about captivity and freedom. Balaam was an Israelite prophet residing near the borders of Moab at the time Moses was leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Balak, the Moabite king, fearing the incursion of the children of Israel journeying through Sinai, appealed to Balaam for help in cursing them. Balaam sought the will of the Lord in the matter. In response the Lord said to Balaam, “Thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).
When Balaam made the Lord’s response known, the king’s ministers tempted Balaam with ever greater promises of gifts: great riches and worldly honors. While Balaam at first refused to oppose the will of God, the Moabite king tempted him with wealth, position, and political influence. Step by step Balaam compromised his divine calling as his desire to gain the king’s honor grew. At last he was so consumed with the desire for those gifts promised by the king that he conspired to bring a curse upon the children of Israel (see Num. 31:16). He made choices that put him in bondage to his desire for the wealth and power promised by the king. In so doing he lost his life to the sword of Israel—and he lost the spiritual freedom he once had (see Num. 31:8).
Some people feel they are in captivity because of their poverty. Poverty can indeed be disabling, limiting some of the choices one can make. However, poverty is not a source of captivity in the eternal sense.
The mortal Jesus had few possessions, and He relied on others for His food and keeping. Yet He was not in captivity. His willingness to sacrifice all that Heavenly Father required and to keep all the Father’s commandments brought Him ultimate freedom.
The Lord requires sacrifice to test the faithful. He asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. He asked the rich young ruler to “sell that thou hast, and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). The Prophet Joseph Smith and the pioneer Saints sacrificed much to establish the Church “in the top of the mountains” (Isa. 2:2). The Lord asks us to sacrifice too.
Father Lehi, in his last recorded discourse to his sons, pleaded with them to “shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe” (2 Ne. 1:13). His words evoke the Savior’s message: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34).
How, then, does one “shake off the awful chains” of spiritual captivity? As we purify our hearts through repentance and turn to the Savior with a firm determination to obey His commandments, He will enlarge our strength through the power of His grace. Each righteous choice we make can then lead to future righteous choices. The struggle to escape spiritual captivity and regain our freedom is not always an easy process; indeed, it may lead us through the refiner’s fire. But because of the Atonement and the great gift of repentance, “though [our] sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).
The Savior promised, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). Let us implement in our lives those principles that we know to be true. Rather than submitting to captivity, let us make righteous choices and “continue in [the Savior’s] word.” Then we shall be truly free.