The Stern but Sweet Commandment


Neal A. Maxwell

I will deal somewhat differently with the standards associated with chastity before marriage and fidelity after. All these standards are a part of the stern but sweet seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14), which is perhaps the least popular of the Ten Commandments.

Not a usual topic in our day, the seventh commandment is one of the least heeded but most needed laws of God. It is a prime example of how much The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from the world on very basic issues of behavior. The world cares very little for the keeping of this commandment, so long as people appear to be admirable in any other respect.

I have long believed that deep inside some of the hardest doctrines are some of the greatest truths and the most precious principles. But these cannot be discovered casually or irreverently. Obedience actually brings both blessings and additional knowledge as Peter promised; obeying correct principles increases understanding (see 2 Pet. 1:8). Such is the case with the seventh commandment.

Quite frankly, brothers and sisters, we should be preparing now to live in a better world. This life is so important, but it is such a small moment. And if we are too quick to adapt to the ways of this fleeting and flawed world, that very adjustment will maladjust us for our life in the next—a life that will last forever! No wonder those who break this commandment “lacketh understanding and destroyeth his own soul”. (Prov. 6:32).

There are, of course, some concerns associated with the seventh commandment that we share with the world. Both in the kingdom and in the world there is a desire to avoid venereal disease. A mutual desire is also shared to avoid pregnancies in unwed mothers. A third concern shared somewhat between us and the world is that sexual immorality adversely affects marriage and family life, increasing the divorce rate.

Fortunately, the kingdom’s reasons for keeping the seventh commandment go far beyond these three concerns, real as these are.

The primary reason for obedience to all the laws of chastity is to keep the commandments of God. Joseph understood that reason clearly when he resisted the entreaties of Potiphar’s predatory wife (see Gen. 39:9). Joseph, who clearly noted his loyalty to his employer, Potiphar, concluded, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph’s obedience was an act of loyalty to himself, to his future family, to Potiphar, to God, and yes, even to Potiphar’s wife!

Another major reason for obeying is that disobeying the seventh commandment evicts the Holy Ghost from our soul. We lose the great value of his companionship, because he cannot abide in a sinful soul. And without his help, we then become less useful, less perceptive, less functional, and less loving human beings. In a sense, we are then unable to perform the work of the Lord, at the very time when we are so much needed.

Sexual immorality is also dangerous because it is so desensitizing. Lasciviousness can, ironically, cause people who wrongly celebrate their capacity to feel to lose their capacity to feel! They become, in the words of three different prophets in three different dispensations, “past feeling” (see 1 Ne. 17:45; Eph. 4:19; Moro. 9:20).

Norman Cousins warned: “People who insist on seeing everything and doing anything run the risk of feeling nothing. Our highest responses are being blunted without our knowing it.” (“See Everything, Do Everything, Feel Nothing,” Saturday Review, January 23, 1971, p. 31).

When we lose our capacity to feel, it is because we have destroyed the soul’s ability to feel. We have blunted our capacity to appreciate those refinements, that graciousness and empathy that belong to that better world toward which we are pointed.

Our whole selfish society tends to travel light, pushing away from anyone who might be an obligation—discarding “used” friends, relatives, and even partners. This disposing of people is one of the final stages of selfishness in which the individual is not willing to risk a commitment of any enduring nature, nor to be depended upon for anything.

Yet another reason underlying the need to keep the seventh commandment is that unchastity lowers self-esteem because we are actually sinning against our nature and who we really are (see 1 Cor. 6:18, 19). In my opinion, we are also breeching previous promises made in the premortal world, promises that are imprinted, subtly but indelibly, in our soul.

Unchastity also impacts severely on others. The father who gets the strange idea that his adultery is uniquely justified does not fully gauge the impact of that act upon his wife and children. His disobedience to this commandment affects others too.

As a bishop of a student ward adjacent to the University of Utah campus about 18 years ago, I tried vainly to hold a young marriage together. The wife had been unfaithful, and as I sought to help and to understand, I learned that as a child this woman had an adulterous father. Though unjustified, she acted out her feelings about men. What she then did was not love. Several years after my release as bishop, I saw a story in the local paper about her having been arrested for prostitution. I know not where she is today, but I cannot put out of my mind the words of Jacob, who decried unfaithful fathers who had lost the confidence of their children because of their bad examples (see Jacob 2:35).

Likewise, the tens of thousands of young people who are unmarried but living together represent a major breach in the family way of life. The consequences of that breach on our social environment will be felt for generations to come. A wise French philosopher, Bainville, warned, “One must want the consequences of what he wants.”

Just as our basic values are interactive, so are our basic institutions. We cannot corrupt our families and expect to have good governments! For instance, when we suggest by our behavior that the commandments do not really matter, then it is chaos. A parent may justify embezzlement, the grown child may justify adultery, and the grown grandchild may justify treason. If disobedience is not wrong, then each can select which commandments he will break.

These, and other concerns, go far beyond the world’s concerns over disease and pregnancy. But the Church must resolutely be, as Paul said, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Church’s concern with keeping the seventh commandment—as measured in the Church’s regular pattern of interviews of its leaders and members—borders on being exclusive in today’s world, and is not accidental!

Another of the consequences of gross sexual immorality with its desensitization is that it begins to rob man of hope. As an individual is emptied of hope, despair quickly enters in, for as one prophet said, “Despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moro. 10:22). Thus wickedness and despair are terrifyingly self-reinforcing.

More than we know, the alienation abroad in the land is due in significant measure to the gross sexual immorality—before which faith, hope, and charity all fall.

Will and Ariel Durant in their monumental history of mankind observed that sex is like a river of fire—it must be controlled by a hundred restraints; otherwise both the individual and group will be destroyed.

My closing counsel to you is contained in these additional observations:

1. Resist the persuasion of the world, and you will find that, if you resist, so will others—some surprisingly.

2. Since you don’t let people come in and walk around in your house with muddy feet, do not let them walk through your minds with muddy feet.

3. Build your strong personal link in a chain of chastity and family fidelity, so it can proceed forth from grandparents to parents to children and then on to their posterity. To be so welded together is to be drawn together in the strongest kind of bond. It is to affirm through your actions that you believe in the commandments in spite of what is going on in the world around you.

4. Do not spend time with fornicators—not because you are too good for them but, as C. S. Lewis wrote, because you are not strong enough. Remember that bad situations can wear down even good people. Joseph had both good sense and good legs in fleeing from Potiphar’s wife.

5. Along with the traditional, predatory, selfish male there is now the predatory, selfish female. Both, driven by appetite, have a false sense of being free. It is the same sort of empty freedom Cain possessed (after he had broken a commandment by slaying Abel) when, ironically, he said, “I am free” (Moses 5:33).

6. Where mistakes have been made, remember we have the glorious gospel of repentance. The miracle of forgiveness awaits all who are seriously sorry and who will follow the necessary steps. Remember, however, these are situations in which the soul must first be scalded by shame, for only with real cleansing can real healing occur. But the road of repentance is really there.

7. Where the impulse to do wrong appears, act against that impulse while the impulse is still weak and while the will is still strong. Delay or hesitation merely means that the will weakens and the impulse grows stronger. Keep anxiously engaged in good things, for idleness has a way of wrongly insisting, again and again, that it is ourselves we must think of pleasing.

8. We must come to despise the sins of the world. We must not hold the people of the word in contempt; we must love them. But we must come to have contempt for the sins of the world. The scorn and derision of the world is fleeting. James, who was not shy concerning truth, counseled, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).

9. Remember, those who are in error must not decide how you should live, because those who boast of their sexual conquests are only boasting of that which has conquered them—in the same way that people who make nervous jokes about drunkenness are only mocking that which has come to mock them.

By avoiding the evils and consequences of unchastity, we gain entrance and access to such blessings as always accompany those who keep the commandments. If you keep the seventh commandment, surely the following will result:

A. You will be blessed by being in harmony with God and his law.

B. Obedience will also bring the blessing of knowing and achieving our potential. The gospel helps us think of ourselves both for what we are and for what we have the power to become.

C. Keeping the seventh commandment will bring the blessing of self-esteem.

D. The keeping of this commandment blesses us with freedom from the most oppressive tyranny of all: the tyranny of appetite. Therefore we have more freedom.

E. We come to know the blessing of expanded free agency by learning to act wisely for ourselves rather than merely being acted upon by appetite (see 2 Ne. 2:26).

F. There is, too, the significant blessing of progressing more rapidly that always comes when we practice decision-making in which we both reject wrong and choose the good. It is not enough to reach a point when we no longer take pleasure in sin; we must hunger and thirst for righteousness.

G. Additionally, there is the important blessing of the integrity of soul that leads to personal wholeness and unafraid openness.

My young friends, deviations from the commandments of Jesus Christ make you less Christian. Part of being a true Christian is to keep the seventh commandment. May we recognize that only through maintaining chastity before marriage and fidelity after marriage will our joy be complete. This is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

[illustration] Abortions, like unchastity, produce … conditions in which many hearts die, “pierced with deep wounds”.

[illustration] If your mind is filled with wrong things, there will be no place in it for true love of God and our fellowmen.

[illustration] Without acknowledging in action these great … truths, we will be imprisoned in the “single well-lit cell of one” impulse and one appetite.