The Desires of Our Hearts


Dallin H. Oaks
From a devotional address delivered at Brigham Young University, 8 October 1985.

Each of us desires the ultimate blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom. Even when we fail to live as we should, we desire what is right. That is my subject—“The Desires of Our Hearts.”

I am interested in this subject because it shows the contrast between the laws of God, as revealed in the scriptures, and what I will call the laws of man, as set out in the national and state laws with which I was concerned in my thirty years in the legal profession.

Laws—Man’s and God’s

The laws of God are concerned with spiritual things. Spiritual consequences are brought about by our thoughts or desires, as well as by our actions. But the laws of man are mostly concerned with our actions.

Let me give a simple example to illustrate this contrast. Suppose your neighbor has a beautiful car parked outside his house. You take no action, but you look at that car longingly, and covet it. Even though you have done nothing, you have broken one of the Ten Commandments. (See Ex. 20:17.) Spiritual consequences will follow.

Up to this point you have not broken any of the laws of man. However, if you drive away in the car, you will have committed a wrong that could be punished under the laws of man. To assign a punishment, the law would try to find out your intent in taking the car. If you simply intended to borrow the car in the mistaken belief that your neighbor would consent, you might not be guilty of a crime. However, you would surely be liable for any damage to the car. If you intended to use the car against the wishes of the owner and yet return it in a short time, you would have committed a minor crime. If you intended to take the car permanently, you would have committed a major crime. To choose among these various alternatives, a judge or jury would attempt to determine your state of mind.

The laws of man will sometimes inquire into a person’s state of mind in order to determine the consequences of particular actions, but the law will never punish those desires alone. It was so in Book of Mormon times. As we read in Alma, the people of Nephi could be punished for their criminal actions, but “there was no law against a man’s belief.” (Alma 30:11.) It is good that this is so because the law has no reliable way to look into a person’s heart.

In contrast, God’s law can assign consequences solely on the basis of our innermost thoughts and desires. As Ammon taught King Lamoni, God “looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning.” (Alma 18:32.)

Similarly, Paul warned the Hebrews that God “is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,” and “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him.” (Heb. 4:12–13.)

In other words, God judges us not only for our acts, but also for the desires of our hearts. This is not surprising, for agency and accountability are eternal principles. We exercise our free agency not only by what we do, but also by what we decide, or will, or desire. We are therefore accountable for the desires of our hearts.

This principle applies both in a negative way—making us guilty of sin for evil thoughts and desires—and in a positive way—promising us blessings for righteous desires.

Sins of Desire

The Lord defined one sin of desire when he declared:

“Behold, it is written by them of old time, that thou shalt not commit adultery;

“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart.”(3 Ne. 12:27–28; see also Matt. 5:27–28.)

The New Testament also condemns anger and unrighteous feelings—another example of sins committed solely on the basis of thoughts. (See Matt. 5:22.)

Even those who preach the gospel—an act we usually regard as righteous—are sinning if they preach to gain personal advantage rather than to further the work of the Lord: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.” (2 Ne. 26:29; see also Alma 1:16.)

And those who draw near to the Lord with their lips but have removed their hearts far from him are also guilty of a sin of desire. (See Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8; 2 Ne. 27:25; JS—H 1:19.) Likewise,the Psalmist condemned the people of ancient Israel because “their heart was not right with [God].” (Ps. 78:37.)

Mormon taught that if our heart is not right, even a good action is not counted for righteousness. “For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, … except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

“For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.(Moro. 7:6–8.)

Mormon even applied this principle to our prayers. “And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.”(Moro. 7:9.)

Educating Our Desires

When is our heart right with God? Our heart is right with God when we truly desire what is righteous. It is right with God when we desire what God desires.

Our divinely granted willpower gives us control over our desires, but it may take many years for usto educate them to the point that they are entirely righteous.

President Joseph F. Smith taught that the “education … of our desires is one of far-reaching importance to our happiness in life.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 297.)

How do we educate our desires? We begin with our feelings. My widowed mother understood that principle. “Pray about your feelings,” she used to say. She taught her three children that we should pray to have the right kind of feelings about our experiences—positive or negative—and about the people we knew. If our feelings were right, the desires of our heart would be right and we would be more likely to take right actions.

Two of my favorite verses of scripture are in the twenty-fourth Psalm:

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?

“He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart.” (Ps. 24:3–4; see also Alma 5:19.)

If we refrain from evil acts, we have clean hands. If we refrain from forbidden thoughts, we have pure hearts. Those who would ascend and stand in the ultimate holy place must have both.

What do these teachings about feelings and desires mean for each of us?

Are we sure to be guiltless under the law of God if we merely refrain from evil acts? What if we entertain evil thoughts and desires?

Will hateful feelings go unnoticed in the day of judgment? Will envy? Will covetousness?

Are we guiltless if we engage in business practices that are intended to deceive, even if they involve no act that is punishable by law?

Are we guiltless under the law of God just because the law of man provides no compensation for our victim?

Are we eligible for blessings if we seem to seek the things of God, such as by preaching or publishing the message of the gospel, but do so to obtain riches or honor rather than with an eye single to his glory?

Our answers to such questions illustrate what we might call the bad news, that we can sin without overt acts, merely by our feelings and the desires of our hearts.

There is also good news. Under the law of God, we can be rewarded for righteousness even where we are unable to perform the acts that are usually associated with such blessings.

Blessings for Righteous Desires

I am reminded of something my father-in-law used to say. When someone genuinely wanted to do something for him but was prevented by circumstances, he would say, “Thank you. I will take the good will for the deed.”

The law of God can reward a righteous desire because an omniscient God can discern it. As revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, God “is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (D&C 33:1.) If a person refrains from a particular act because he is genuinely unable to perform it, but truly would if he could, our Heavenly Father will know this and will reward that person accordingly.

Perhaps the best scriptural illustration of this is King Benjamin’s teaching about giving:

“And again, I say unto the poor, … all you who deny the beggar, because you have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.

“And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless.” (Mosiah 4:24–25.)

Alma taught that God “granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; … according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction. Yea, … he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires.” (Alma 29:4–5.)

This means that when we have done all that we can, our desires will carry us the rest of the way. It also means that if our desires are right, we can be forgiven for the mistakes we will inevitably make as we try to carry those desires into effect. What a comfort for our feelings of inadequacy!

I add two precautions: First, we must remember that desire is a substitute only when action is truly impossible. If we do not do all that we can to perform the acts that have been commanded, we may deceive ourselves, but we will not deceive the Righteous Judge. In order to serve as a substitute for action, desire cannot be superficial, impulsive, or temporary. It must be heartfelt, through and through.

Second, we should not assume that the desires of our hearts can serve as a substitute for an ordinance of the gospel. Consider the words of the Lord in commanding two gospel ordinances: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee,” Jesus said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) And in respect to the three degrees in the celestial glory, modern revelation states, “In order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage].” (D&C 131:2.) No exception is implied in these commands or authorized elsewhere in the scriptures.

However, the Lord has mercifully authorized us to perform those ordinances by proxy for those who did not have them performed in this life. Thus, a person in the spirit world who so desires is credited with participating in the ordinance just as if he or she had done so personally. In this manner, through the loving service of living proxies, departed spirits are also rewarded for the desires of their hearts.

In summary, under the law of God we are accountable for our feelings and desires as well as our acts. Evil thoughts and desires will be punished. Acts that seem to be good bring blessings only when they are done with real and righteous intent. On the positive side, we will be blessed for the righteous desires of our hearts even though some outside circumstance has made it impossible for us to carry those desires into action.

To paraphrase Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:29 [Rom. 2:29], he is a true Latter-day Saint who is one inwardly, whose conversion is that of the spirit, in the heart, whose praise is not of men for outward acts, but of God, for the inward desires of the heart.

[photos] Photography by Michael Schoenfeld