For centuries philosophers and theologians have debated the question of human nature. Over the years three general philosophies have taken center stage: that people are basically good, that they are fundamentally evil, and that they are neutral (a blank slate to be written upon). We can be thankful that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ reveals the true nature of man and gives purpose, meaning, and direction to life’s challenge of putting off “the natural man” (Mosiah 3:19).
A Dual Nature
Because of the Fall of Adam and Eve “all mankind became a lost and fallen people” (Alma 12:22). King Benjamin taught that fallen man or “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19).
President David O. McKay (1873–1970) taught that because of the Fall we have a dual nature: “One, related to the earthly or animal life; the other, akin to the Divine. Whether a man remains satisfied within what we designate the animal world, satisfied with what the animal world will give him, yielding without effort to the whims of his appetites and passions and slipping farther and farther into the realm of indulgence, or whether, through self-mastery, he rises toward intellectual, moral, and spiritual enjoyments depends upon the kind of choice he makes every day, nay, every hour of his life.” 1
Our spirits come from the presence of God, and “every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning” (D&C 93:38). Our physical bodies are also gifts from God. One reason we wanted to come to this earth was to become more like our Heavenly Father, who has a physical body. Consequently, one of our challenges in mortality is to learn how to manage, care for, and use our bodies properly. If we can govern the natural tendencies of the flesh, we will rise toward the kind of spiritual life President McKay described. But if we let “the natural man” govern, we will find ourselves at enmity with God and His purposes (see Mosiah 3:19).
Elder Melvin J. Ballard (1873–1939) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that “all the assaults that the enemy of our souls will make to capture us will be through the flesh, because it is made up of the unredeemed earth, and he has power over the elements of the earth. The approach he makes to us will be through the lusts, the appetites, the ambitions of the flesh. All the help that comes to us from the Lord to aid us in this struggle will come to us through the spirit that dwells within this mortal body. So these two mighty forces are operating upon us through these two channels.
“… If you would have a strong spirit which has dominance over the body, you must see to it that your spirit receives spiritual food and spiritual exercise. …
“The man or woman who is taking neither spiritual food nor spiritual exercise will presently become a spiritual weakling, and the flesh will be master. Whoever therefore is obtaining both spiritual food and exercise will be in control over this body and will keep it subject unto the will of God.” 2
Elder Ballard identified several forms of spiritual food and exercise: praying, partaking of the sacrament, and serving one another. The scriptures and the prophets remind us of others, such as attending Sabbath meetings, serving in the temple, and studying the scriptures.
Changing Our Nature
Spiritual food and exercise can strengthen us in our quest to govern the body, but this endeavor becomes much easier if the body can be sanctified from its corrupt, or “natural,” state (see Moro. 10:32–33). This sanctification comes through the grace of Christ and the ministering of the Holy Spirit. Elder Parley P. Pratt (1807–57) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that “the gift of the Holy Spirit … quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections; and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use.” 3 Passions are not inherently evil. Passions in righteous people can be a vehicle to create great goodness.
The message of the gospel, then, is that we don’t have to surrender to our weaknesses and the yearnings of the flesh. The good news of the gospel is that through the Atonement of our Savior and the appropriate use of agency we can experience a fundamental change in our nature. President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught that the world attempts to “shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” 4 Indeed, as Peter declared, by the Lord’s power we can “be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (see 2 Pet. 1:3–4). Through the Atonement of Christ we can put off the natural man and become saints, “submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love” (Mosiah 3:19).