21986_000_006Perhaps the best evidence of true conversion is the disposition to do evil no more.
More than 2,000 years ago a large congregation of Saints gathered round the temple in the land of Zarahemla to hear one of the greatest sermons ever recorded in holy writ. King Benjamin reminded his listeners several times that he spoke the words given him by an angel of God (see Mosiah 3:2; Mosiah 4:1; Mosiah 4:11; Mosiah 5:5).
After listening to King Benjamin’s stirring sermon, the vast congregation cried in unison, “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins.” In response to their pleas, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy” (Mosiah 4:2–3). This feeling of joy is one of the hallmarks of being forgiven of our sins, for, as Alma declared, “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).
As they recognized the goodness of God, the people of Zarahemla also experienced a “peace of conscience” and were “filled with the love of God,” two further manifestations that they had been forgiven (see Mosiah 4:3, 12). They learned of other indicators of forgiveness: they would “not have a mind to injure one another” (Mosiah 4:13), nor would they permit their children to “transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another” (Mosiah 4:14). Another token of a remission of sins was their inclination to help those in need and a desire to “impart of [their] substance … one to another” (Mosiah 4:21).
At the conclusion of King Benjamin’s inspired address the people believed all of his words, and they experienced a mighty change of heart and had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Perhaps of all the evidence of true conversion and a remission of sins, this is the most significant: the disposition to do evil no more, but to do good continually.
The Law of Moses and the Higher Law
A focus on dispositions constitutes a significant distinction between the law of Moses and the higher law introduced by the Savior in the Sermon on the Mount. Whereas the Ten Commandments prohibit certain behaviors such as murder, adultery, and profanity, the higher law forbids even the dispositions leading to these evil behaviors—respectively, anger, lustful thoughts, and any swearing at all (see Matt. 5:21–37; 3 Ne. 12:21–37). The Beatitudes encourage the development of dispositions toward meekness, mercy, purity of heart, and many other godly attributes (see Matt. 5:3–12; 3 Ne. 12:3–12). When one has a disposition to do good continually, the natural consequence will be to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thes. 5:22) and not to “look upon sin save it were with abhorrence” (Alma 13:12).
King Benjamin cautioned his people: “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin. … But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish.” He then lovingly admonished the Saints to “remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:29–30; emphasis added; see Alma 12:14).
Many people’s dispositions mirror the cultural traditions they internalized while growing up. The widespread consumption of alcohol, immodesty of dress and behavior, and cohabitation without marriage are but a few examples of cultural traditions alien to the spirit of the gospel. So it is that the “wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:39).
These traditions seem natural because most people in a given society engage in such behaviors, but the commandments of God are based upon revealed truth, not popular preferences. Thus, King Benjamin warned his people that “the natural man is an enemy to God,” and he exhorted them to put off the natural man, or in other words to reject unholy traditions and to undergo a mighty change in their natural dispositions by yielding “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19).
Sometimes members become so fond of certain traditions within the Church that a change in a given policy or procedure becomes a test of their faith. They believe in continuous revelation as long as it does not involve change. Describing the Saints in his day, the Prophet Joseph Smith once exclaimed, “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them … will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith , 331).
Dispositions Grow from Desires
The seeds of our disposition toward good or evil are largely sown by our desires. In teaching the wayward Zoramites how they could gain a knowledge of the truth, Alma admonished them to “exercise a particle of faith,” and if they could “no more than desire to believe, [to] let this desire work in [them]” (Alma 32:27). What begins as a fleeting desire, when cultivated and pursued long enough, becomes a habitual form of thought or behavior. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972), then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, observed, “It is just as easy to form good habits as it is to form evil ones” (The Way to Perfection, 10th edition , 150). Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “A thoroughly truthful man cannot culpably lie; nevertheless his insurance against falsehood is not that of external compulsion, but of internal restraint due to his cultivated companionship of the spirit of truth” (Jesus the Christ, 3rd edition , 134).
The eternal consequences of our desires and dispositions were poignantly explained to Corianton by his father, Alma, who taught that “in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds. If he has desired to do evil, and has not repented in his days, behold, evil shall be done unto him, according to the restoration of God” (Alma 42:27–28).
The person who fails to pay an honest tithe may develop a disposition similar to the individual who robs a bank: the main differences are the victims and the methods. The Lord Himself asks: “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).
Individuals who act in unrighteous anger toward a neighbor may develop dispositions like those of a dictator who would run roughshod over others.
Internet and TV addicts who sample Satan’s smutty smorgasbord of pornography gain the same inclinations as the person who actually commits immoral acts; the dispositions differ only by degree.
James described this process in sequential detail: “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:14–15). Our dispositions are generally manifest in our behaviors, and thus James gives each of us the challenge: “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
Developing a Disposition Takes Time
Some potential missionaries or a few couples planning to be sealed in the temple are occasionally distraught to learn that recent transgressions will require them to wait a year or longer before claiming the blessings of a mission or a temple marriage. They wonder if their fasting, their tears, and their prayers are of no avail in demonstrating a broken heart and a contrite spirit as they ask, “Why must we now be required to wait so long?”
This seems to be a fair question, especially in light of the Lord’s assurance, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43). Confession is a crucial prerequisite to forgiveness, but confession must be followed by cultivating a disposition to do evil no more, evidenced by completely forsaking sin, and this requires the passage of time. Peter graphically likened those who briefly repent but do not overcome a disposition toward evil to “the dog [that] is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Pet. 2:22). In latter-day revelation the Lord underscored the importance of developing a disposition to do good continually when He declared, “I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God” (D&C 82:7).
After Saul of Tarsus beheld a blinding heavenly light and heard the voice of Jesus Christ, he dramatically transformed his life, and his name was changed to Paul. Following a period of temporary blindness, his sight was restored by a blessing at the hand of Ananias. The chronicler of Acts then recorded that “straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).
But Paul’s own account of his conversion is more detailed than the version in Acts. Paul wrote the Galatians that after his conversion he did not immediately join the other Apostles in Jerusalem; rather he “went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years,” said he, “I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:17–18). Even after preaching the gospel in Damascus, when he joined his brethren in Jerusalem “they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). Given Paul’s reputation of previously having sought to destroy the Church, it took time for others to acknowledge that he had now developed the disposition of a disciple of Christ.
Manifestations of Dispositions
There are many manifestations of our disposition toward either good or evil. For example, we may perceive ourselves to be kind and charitable, but we may have a penchant for telling ethnic jokes that belies our compassion. We may think we are patient and long-suffering, but then others may observe our mild symptoms of road rage when another driver suddenly cuts in front of us. We may view ourselves as being compassionate and tolerant among our work associates and neighbors, while our immediate family members may view us as intolerant and unkind.
Our use of time, especially leisure time, reveals our dispositions toward good or evil. The Lord declared, “For he who is faithful and wise in time is accounted worthy to inherit the mansions prepared for him of my Father” (D&C 72:4). Some individuals fill weekends and free evenings with television, whereas others visit the temple, study the scriptures and read other great books, teach young children how to read and write, visit patients in hospitals, share the gospel with neighbors, work on their family history, and become involved in community improvement projects and countless other worthy activities. Theirs is the disposition to do good continually.
Our attitudes also reflect our dispositions toward good or evil. Chronic criticism and persistent pessimism and their fellow travelers—sarcasm and cynicism—often reflect a lack of faith and trust in the Lord and a gnawing impatience in awaiting for His great plan of happiness to unfold in our lives. Nephi strenuously admonished that we “must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men” (2 Ne. 31:20). In the final chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni reaffirmed that “there must be faith; and if there must be faith there must also be hope; and if there must be hope there must also be charity” (Moro. 10:20). He further taught that charity, faith, and hope are essential for salvation in the kingdom of God (see Moro. 10:21).
Moroni then made a very important diagnostic declaration: “And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity” (Moro. 10:22). Moroni did not say despair occurs because of adversity. There are countless individuals whose pockmarked souls have been tested to the limit, but they remain faithful and steadfast. It is iniquity which begets despair, because iniquity alienates the Comforter, who is a great source of faith and hope. Despair is manifest by a lack of faith, an absence of hope, and a failure to practice charity toward those who may have offended us or who may have tried to destroy our dreams. Without the healing intervention of faith, hope, and charity, disappointment soon turns to grief and then to despair.
President Boyd K. Packer, now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reassures us, “It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal.” He then adds: “Teach our members that if they have a good, miserable day once in a while, or several in a row, to stand steady and face them. Things will straighten out. There is great purpose in our struggle in life” (“That All May Be Edified” , 94). As long as we live righteously and continue to nourish our testimony and our faith, increase our trust and hope in a loving Heavenly Father, and persist in dealing with others with charity—the pure love of Christ—our disappointments will ultimately not turn to anguish, hopelessness, and despair.
Human and Divine Dispositions
It is good to contrast our human dispositions with the divine disposition of Jesus Christ. During His earthly ministry the Savior humbly acknowledged, “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, … for I do always those things that please him” (John 8:28–29). In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the depths of agony, He compliantly prayed, “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42), thus reflecting “the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7).
After Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, he demonstrated to the Lord and to his posterity that he had a disposition to do good continually, as he “rose up early in the morning” (Gen. 22:3; emphasis added) to make necessary preparations for the sacrifice he anticipated would be required of him.
Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, provides another impressive example of an undeviating disposition to elude evil and to do good continually. When his master’s wife sought to seduce him, Joseph indignantly responded, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Then he fled from her presence. Joseph had decided long before meeting Potiphar’s wife that he would never offend God.
After Alma had been reviled and spat upon and cast out of the city of Ammonihah, an angel appeared to him and commanded him to return to the same hostile environment from which he had been rejected. His love of God in preference to any fear of men and his disposition to do good are reflected in the fact that “he returned speedily to the land of Ammonihah” (Alma 8:18; emphasis added).
When the Prophet Joseph Smith recounted the events surrounding the First Vision and the subsequent appearance of the angel Moroni, he confessed that, on occasion, he had “displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature,” but he hastened to add that “no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature” (JS—H 1:28).
The Prophet’s natural disposition to do good was demonstrated during Zion’s Camp. In May 1834, the Prophet and his brethren were in the process of pitching their tents on the Illinois prairie when some of the brethren suddenly discovered three rattlesnakes and were about to kill them. The Prophet immediately intervened, teaching: “Let them alone—don’t hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety” (History of the Church, 2:71). The Prophet Joseph lived as he preached.
Such is the disposition engendered by the Savior’s admonition to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. … For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 5:44; Matt. 6:14).
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s words apply to President Gordon B. Hinckley: “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race” (Teachings, 174). President Gordon B. Hinckley’s exhausting travel schedule, exhausting to those who accompany him, demonstrates his disposition to do good continually by forgoing the comforts of home in order to bless the Saints throughout the earth.
The “Disposition of Almost All Men”
In modern revelation the Lord has forewarned us “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). I can detect unrighteous dominion more easily in others than I can in myself. I may consider myself to be candid, resolute, and exacting, whereas others may consider me to be unkind, uncompromising, and unreasonable. One of the great safeguards against a disposition toward unrighteous dominion is the presidency principle and the council system in the Church. When leaders humbly seek and listen to the counsel of others and when family members counsel together, they can generally make decisions that will receive the ratifying approbation of the Lord (see D&C 107:26–31).
Our disposition to do good or evil is often reflected in our interpretations of the commandments and our reactions to the counsel of the Brethren. For example, some individuals seek to negotiate a very narrow definition of tithing but prefer a very broad interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. In the words of Elder Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “There are those among us who are trying to serve the Lord without offending the devil” (“The Price of Peace,” Speeches of the Year, 1 March 1955, 7). But there are many other faithful Latter-day Saints whose lives reflect the disposition of the Savior, who always sought to do those things which pleased His Father (see John 8:29).
We strengthen our disposition to do good each time we make and keep covenants. Each time we participate in priesthood ordinances, the powers from on high reach downward and draw us nearer to the heavens. Those who partake of the sacrament and temple ordinances with pure hearts and who faithfully keep their covenants require no lengthy instructions regarding modest dress, the payment of generous fast offerings and tithing, observance of the Word of Wisdom, or keeping the Sabbath day holy. They need no stern reminders to share the gospel with others, to attend the temple frequently, to conduct family history research, or to do their home teaching or visiting teaching. Nor do they need nudges to visit the sick and to serve those in need.
These are the faithful Saints of the Most High who keep the sacred covenants they have made in the house of the Lord, “having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins” (D&C 20:37). Covenant keepers “are willing to bear one another’s burdens” and “are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things” (Mosiah 18:8–9). They live the law of consecration. Their time, talents, and financial resources all belong to the Lord.
Keeping their covenants has caused them to develop a disposition to do good continually, and “they are willing to take upon them the name of [the] Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them” (D&C 20:77; emphasis added). Keeping covenants qualifies them to claim the promised blessing of the sacramental prayer that “they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77; emphasis added), and the continual companionship of the Spirit cultivates a disposition to do good.
I pray that we may “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men” (2 Ne. 31:20). As we do so, we may become like King Benjamin’s people, having “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2).