Spirit of the law versus the letter of the law

Published: Sunday, Feb. 6 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

A friend and I used to banter back and forth as I would say, “Oh Ruth, there is nothing wrong with it,” at which time she would say, “But is it right?” I couldn’t say that whatever it was we were discussing was necessarily "‘right," but I would try to convince her that it was not wrong.

Little did she know that as much as I tried to convince her that it wasn’t "wrong," her words continued to haunt me whenever I found myself in a questionable situation or confronted with a not a 'letter of the law' sin.

We live in a time when lines are blurry. Black and white have faded to gray. People have learned to justify just about everything to convince themselves what they are doing is not wrong.

The youth have a standard of excellence book that teaches them what is right and what is wrong. Adults have temple recommend interviews that are very clear on what needs to be done to enter the temple. What about those things not spelled out so clearly or that seem to leave room for interpretation?

President Ezra Taft Benson liked to quote Susanna Wesley who said, “How would you judge the lawfulness or unlawfulness of 'pleasure’? Use this rule: Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is a sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.”

Each time I read this quote, I am reminded of my friend Ruth and what she said. These guidelines by Susan Wesley changed what I thought was not "wrong" and helped me to see that it was also not "right."

I realized going through life living by "there is nothing wrong with it" could deceive me in to believing it was "right."

I began to notice those things were "weakening my reason": a lack of sleep; political correctness; embracing the world’s definition of tolerance, morality and ethics; or going to places or being in a situation where the Spirit could not be.

I felt my conscience was "impaired" each time I engaged in justification or rationalization, and most certainly each time I sinned.

I noticed when I looked to the world for answers instead of the Lord, or when I have relied on the arm of flesh or took credit for gifts and blessings that undoubtedly came from Him, my sense of God was obscured.

It became easy to find things that took off my "relish for spiritual things" or took away my desire to read the scriptures, serve, pray, go to my meetings or magnify my callings. Usually when we take pleasure or work to an extreme, we lose the relish for spiritual things. I have watched several people over the years who have become so obsessed with exercise or competitions that their spiritual life has taken a back seat to these desires. Endless hours in front of the TV watching sports or playing games never instill a desire to get up and read our scriptures. Excessive sleeping or working doesn’t help either. Oh and the ‘easiness of the way’ rarely brings a man to his knees.

Of course addictive substances, pornography, alcohol and excessive eating always "increase the power of the body over the mind."

I have found this guide gets to those areas we often call gray, or "it’s not wrong." They keep our conscience and reasoning intact, and help us to avoid what Elder Robert D. Hales refers to as "spiritual vertigo."

To my dear friend Ruth, I appreciate the words, “But is it right?” As much as we bantered and played intellectual pingpong, I appreciate her promptings taking me from the letter of the law to enjoying the blessings of the spirit of the law.

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