One of the first and most important steps toward any accomplishment is to find out what is holding us back. Some sins are more destructive to our best interests than others are.
Recently in a written article I made a reference to the sin of ignorance. In the leadership meeting of my next stake conference, somebody questioned the idea of ignorance being a sin.
I asked him to name what, in his opinion, were the two greatest possible sins, and he said number one was to become a son of perdition and number two was to be a murderer. I asked him how many people in his stake he thought would during their lifetime become sons of perdition. And he gave it as his opinion that there would probably not be even one. I then asked him how many he thought would become murderers, and he didn’t think a single one would ever commit that sin.
Then I said to him, “If your estimate is correct, then those two sins may not be very serious as far as your stake is concerned.” These are sins of great enormity, but their total destructiveness is decreased because each of them has a very low frequency. And yet, apparently there will be many people who will miss the celestial kingdom even though they don’t commit these two great sins.
I quoted to my friend the word of the Lord. He said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matt. 7:13–14.)
The Lord has said that those who fail to qualify for the celestial kingdom will be those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus (see D&C 76:79). If you do not know exactly what those words not valiant mean, it might be a pretty good idea to look this phrase up in the dictionary and see if it is a description of the way you do your Church work.
We might understand from the scripture that the total number of those who qualify for the celestial kingdom will be very small as compared with those who are assigned to the telestial and terrestrial kingdoms. The Lord describes those who qualify for these lower kingdoms as innumerable as the stars in the firmament of heaven or as the sands upon the seashore (see D&C 76:109).
I asked my friend to tell me which sins, in his opinion, would be the ones that would get most of these unfortunate people off the track. We had already eliminated the two most serious sins.
We refer to the three R’s as forming the foundation of our education, and we might think of the three I’s as being responsible for many people missing the celestial kingdom. And someone has said that the three most destructive sins come under this heading. They are ignorance, indecision, and indifference.
These three I’s are particularly dangerous because they are usually regarded as “the little sins.” Yet they undoubtedly cause more people to lose their exaltation in the celestial kingdom than all of the other sins combined. That is, it is not the giant redwoods that trip us up as we walk through the forest; it is the vines and the underbrush. I have heard of very few who stumble over giant redwoods.
The three I’s might appropriately qualify among sins as the big three so far as their total importance is concerned. They might also be fairly synonymous with the condition of not being valiant.
To become a son of perdition, one must sin against great knowledge. That is the sin of the greatest enormity. But the sin of the greatest frequency is ignorance. That is, not to know in the first place. The religion of Jesus has always suffered more from those who did not understand and those who did not care than from those who opposed. It is largely our ignorance that stands between us and our blessings.
Through the prophet Hosea the Lord said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children” (Hosea 4:6).
The Lord also talked to Isaiah about the sin of ignorance: “Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst” (Isa. 5:13).
Then upon the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). One of the sins of the Romans at the crucifixion of Jesus was the sin of ignorance. As Jesus himself said, they didn’t understand. Pilate didn’t know the real identity or importance of this young peasant carpenter who was standing before him.
But why didn’t he know? There is only one logical answer, and that is that he had not invested the time or the honest effort necessary to find the truth. It was Pilate who asked the great question, “What is truth?” And then, without waiting for the answer, he turned and left the scene. Pilate could have found out who Jesus was and what His doctrines were if he had made an earnest and adequate investigation. For “they never sought in vain who sought the Lord aright.” The Lord said, “seek and ye shall find,” and they only fail to find who fail to seek.
Many of the sins in the world seem to be, in one way or another, the sins of ignorance. This was true in the days of Noah; it was true in the days of Jesus; it is true in our own day. The young man who disobeys the Ten Commandments frequently doesn’t really understand the consequences that will follow. Some sins may be forgiven, but who can forgive us of our ignorance?
There is an old fable that tells of a horse that once ran away from its master. Then the horse repented and returned and said to its master, “I have come back.” The master said, “Yes, you have come back, but the field is unplowed.” It is very difficult after the day is over to repent of lessons not learned and self-improvement not made. To dispel ignorance is one of the great challenges to those who have Church leadership responsibilities.
The second I is indecision. Some sins are committed because we do wrong; other sins are committed because we do nothing. Some people just don’t make up their minds one way or the other. In consequence, they develop a kind of permanently “suspended judgment.” Ancient Israel had this problem. Elijah said to them, “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kgs. 18:21.) In other words, Elijah said, make up your minds. But the record says, “And the people answered him not a word.”
That is the pattern of most indecision. We just don’t move, one way or the other. Our minds are left dangling between choices. We are like the patient who was asked by the psychiatrist whether or not he ever had any trouble in making up his mind, and the patient said, “Well, yes and no.” There are far too many yes-and-no people, including Church members. We all have good intentions, but too many of us fail to put them in force.
Procrastination is an important part of indecision. When we don’t or won’t make up our minds, we just postpone action, sometimes permanently. Just think how many people lose their blessings because of procrastination. So far as frequency is concerned, procrastination is a far more prevalent sin than murder. No one would deliberately choose to miss the celestial kingdom, but exactly the same result can be achieved by just a series of postponements, until our will gets weak and our interest dies.
A Sunday School teacher once said to her class, “How many of you would like to go to the celestial kingdom?” And everyone held up their hands except one little boy. The teacher said to him, “Bill, wouldn’t you like to go to the celestial kingdom someday?” And he said, “Oh, sure, someday. But I thought you were getting up a group to go tonight.” Everyone wants to go to the celestial kingdom sometime; they just don’t want to get ready right now.
Recently a mission president talked with an 89-year-old investigator who kept putting off joining the Church. The mission president said, “Do you believe the gospel is true?” The investigator said, “I know it is true as well as you do.” The president said, “Do you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet?” The investigator said, “I also know that as well as you do.” The mission president said, “Then why don’t you get baptized?” The investigator said, “Don’t rush me. I’ll let you know when I am ready.” He is already 89. Think of the blessings he has already lost by procrastination.
After too much procrastination and vacillation, some actually lose the power to make a decision. I know of one man whose mind is so perfectly balanced between the positive and the negative that he has great difficulty forming an opinion either one way or the other. His mind resembles a teeter-totter in perfect balance. There is as much weight pressing down on the negative end as on the positive. He has difficulty getting enough of a majority on either side to get a conviction. Another man just about wears himself out every morning trying to make up his mind whether or not he is going to shave. He rubs his chin and makes up such a perfect mental balance sheet of pros and cons that his mind locks in neutral. It is the old story of the donkey starving to death midway between two piles of hay.
This same infirmity holds almost everybody back in his Church work. We have difficulties making firm decisions about things. There are some people who haven’t made up their minds as to whether or not they are going to church next Sunday. In fact, that question is not usually decided in their minds at all. They wait to see how much weight will be put on the teeter-totter on Sunday morning by the weather, how they feel, and what the other external conditions will be. There are some people who have not decided whether or not they are going to be honest, or whether or not they are going to be tithe payers, or do their home teaching. They wait to see what pressures will be applied by circumstances.
One of the functions of leadership is to help people make firm decisions about things, draw answers out of their minds so that important questions may be settled once and for all. For as no one can be saved in ignorance, just so, no one can be saved in indecision. The prophet Job gives us a lesson in making up our minds. He said of God, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). And out of a full heart he exclaimed: “While my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;
“My lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit.
“My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.” (Job 27:3–4, 6.) And we might all shout, “Hurrah for the prophet Job.”
The worst sin of many people is not that they disbelieve in God; their skepticism is more serious—they just haven’t thought about him one way or the other. It isn’t that they disbelieve the doctrines of the Church; they just don’t care one way or the other. It is one thing to lack faith, but it is still worse to lack interest and enthusiasm.
There are some people who call themselves by the rather fancy name of agnostic. They seem to take pride in saying, “I don’t believe, but I don’t disbelieve.” That is, they are neither one thing nor the other. Someone said there is one folly greater than that of the fool who says in his heart there is no God, and that is the folly of him who says that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or not. In some measure, agnosticism is a mere confession of ignorant indifference, indicating a lack of ambition or a lack of enough interest to try to find the truth.
When one is indifferent, the spirit remains apathetic and detached. There is then a natural lack of any involvement that would lead to faith. No one deliberately decides to be ignorant. Ignorance is indifference to learning. Sloth is indifference to industry. Weakness is indifference to strength. One man had an “indifferent” automobile horn. He said it just didn’t give a hoot. Certainly no man can be saved in indifference.
These three sins probably rob more people of their blessings than do all of the other sins combined.
Recently I talked with a man who told me that he had never read one single book in the last five years. Woodrow Wilson indicated this natural inclination toward ignorance when he said, “The greatest ability of the American people is their ability to resist instruction.” Unfortunately most of us have our share of this unprofitable talent.
Thomas A. Edison made our problem a little more impressive when he said, “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.” And yet the scripture reminds us that “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). Now if we are what we think, and then if we don’t think, the seriousness of our situation is evident.
Emerson was also conscious of the problem when he said, “On the brink of the ocean of life and truth we are miserably dying … Sometimes we are furtherest away when we are closest by … . We stand on the brink of an ocean of power, but each must take the steps that would bring him there.” So frequently “we are furtherest away when we are closest by.” Those who lived contemporaneously with Jesus were so near and yet they were so far away. They heard him speak; they knew of his miracles. And yet they said, “His blood be upon us and our children.” And so it has been and so it may be with us. We are so near and yet the three I’s can take us so far away. We must not be guilty of the sins of the three I’s.
We live in this great age of wonders and enlightenment. We have three great volumes of new scripture. But what good do they do us if we are not familiar with them so that we can make them a part of our lives? We are so near, and yet we may be so far away.
The Athenians put Socrates to death principally for his attempts to deliver them from the oppression of the three I’s. Jesus was crucified for the same reason. We seem to hang on to our ignorance, indecision, and indifference for dear life.
The three I’s have always been our biggest problem. We remain stricken with ignorance and poisoned by a continuous succession of small thoughts. We become centers of indifference. This prevents our progress. The three I’s develop a sort of “idleness and inactivity in perpetuity.”
Now what are we going to do about it? The logical solution is to learn how to develop antidotes for the three I’s. We need to learn how to study and think and ponder and pray and make decisions about important things and then carry the decisions through to their proper conclusion. When we break the oppression of the three I’s, our lives will take on new meaning.