Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments
This responsibility to speak to you never gets any easier for me. I think it gets more difficult as the years go by. I grow a little older, the world and its litany of problems get a little more complex, and your hopes and dreams become evermore important to me the longer I am at BYU. Indeed, your growth and happiness and development in the life you are now living and in the life you will be living in the days and decades ahead are the central and most compelling motivation in my daily professional life. I care very much about you now and forever. Everything I know to do at BYU is being done with an eye toward who and what you are, and who and what you can become. The future of this world's history will be quite fully in your hands very soon—at least your portion of it will be—and an education at an institution sponsored and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the greatest academic advantage I can imagine in preparation for such a serious and significant responsibility.
But that future, at least any qualitative aspect of it, must be vigorously fought for. It won't "just happen" to your advantage. Someone said once that the future is waiting to be seized, and if we do not grasp it firmly, then other hands, more determined and bloody than our own, will wrench it from us and follow a different course.
It is with an eye to that future—your future—and an awareness of this immense sense of responsibility I feel for you, that I approach this annual midyear devotional message. I always need the help and sustaining Spirit of the Lord to succeed at such times, but I especially feel the need for that spiritual help today.
My topic is that of human intimacy, a topic as sacred as any I know and more sacred than anything I have ever addressed from this podium. If I am not careful and you are not supportive, this subject can slide quickly from the sacred into the merely sensational, and I would be devastated if that happened. It would be better not to address the topic at all than to damage it with casualness or carelessness. Indeed, it is against such casualness and carelessness that I wish to speak. So I ask for your faith and your prayers and your respect.
You may feel this is a topic you hear addressed too frequently at this time in your life, but given the world in which we live, you may not be hearing it enough. All of the prophets, past and present, have spoken on it, and President Benson himself addressed this very subject in his annual message to this student body last fall.
I am thrilled that most of you are doing wonderfully well in the matter of personal purity. There isn't as worthy and faithful a group of university students anywhere else on the face of the earth. You are an inspiration to me. I acknowledge your devotion to the gospel and applaud it. Like Jacob of old, I would prefer for the sake of the innocent not to need to discuss such topics. But a few of you are not doing so well, and much of the world around us is not doing well at all.
The national press recently noted,
In America 3,000 adolescents become pregnant each day. A million a year. Four out of five are unmarried. More than half get abortions. "Babies having babies." [Babies] killing [babies]. ["What's Gone Wrong with Teen Sex," People, 13 April 1987, p. 111]
That same national poll indicated nearly 60 percent of high school students in "mainstream" America had lost their virginity, and 80 percent of college students had. The Wall Street Journal (hardly in a class with the National Enquirer) recently wrote,
AIDS [appears to be reaching] plague [like] proportions. Even now it is claiming innocent victims: newborn babies and recipients of blood transfusions. It is only a matter of time before it becomes widespread among heterosexuals.…
AIDS should remind us that ours is a hostile world.… The more we pass ourselves around, the larger the likelihood of our picking something up.…
Whether on clinical or moral grounds, it seems clear that promiscuity has its price. [Wall Street Journal, 21 May 1987, p. 28]
Of course, more widespread in our society than the indulgence of personal sexual activity are the printed and photographed descriptions of those who do. Of that lustful environment a contemporary observer says,
We live in an age in which voyeurism is no longer the side line of the solitary deviate, but rather a national pastime, fully institutionalized and [circularized] in the mass media. [William F. May, quoted by Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), p. 178]
In fact, the rise of civilization seems, ironically enough, to have made actual or fantasized promiscuity a greater, not a lesser, problem. Edward Gibbon, the distinguished British historian of the eighteenth century who wrote one of the most intimidating works of history in our language (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), said simply,
Although the progress of civilisation has undoubtedly contributed to assuage the fiercer passions of human nature, it seems to have been less favourable to the virtue of chastity.… The refinements of life [seem to] corrupt, [even as] they polish the [relationship] of the sexes. [Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 40 of Great Books of the Western World, 1952, p. 92]
I do not wish us to spend this hour documenting social problems nor wringing our hands over the dangers that such outside influences may hold for us. As serious as such contemporary realities are, I wish to discuss this topic in quite a different way, discuss it specifically for Latter-day Saints—primarily young, unmarried Latter-day Saints, even those attending Brigham Young University. So I conspicuously set aside the horrors of AIDS and national statistics on illegitimate pregnancies and speak rather to a gospel-based view of personal purity.
Indeed, I wish to do something even a bit more difficult than listing the do's and don'ts of personal purity. I wish to speak, to the best of my ability, on why we should be clean, on why moral discipline is such a significant matter in God's eyes. I know that may sound presumptuous, but a philosopher once said, tell me sufficiently why a thing should be done, and I will move heaven and earth to do it. Hoping you will feel the same way as he and fully recognizing my limitations, I wish to try to give at least a partial answer to "Why be morally clean?" I will need first to pose briefly what I see as the doctrinal seriousness of the matter before then offering just three reasons for such seriousness.
THE SIGNIFICANCE AND SANCTITY
May I begin with half of a nine-line poem by Robert Frost. (The other half is worth a sermon also, but it will have to wait for another day.) Here are the first four lines of Frost's "Fire and Ice."
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
A second, less poetic but more specific opinion is offered by the writer of Proverbs:
Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?… But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonour shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away. [Proverbs 6:27-33]
In getting at the doctrinal seriousness, why is this matter of sexual relationships so severe that fire is almost always the metaphor, with passion pictured vividly in flames? What is there in the potentially hurtful heat of this that leaves one's soul—or perhaps the whole world, according to Frost—destroyed, if that flame is left unchecked and those passions unrestrained? What is there in all of this that prompts Alma to warn his son Corianton that sexual transgression is "an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost" (Alma 39:5; emphasis added)?
Setting aside sins against the Holy Ghost for a moment as a special category unto themselves, it is LDS doctrine that sexual transgression is second only to murder in the Lord's list of life's most serious sins. By assigning such rank to a physical appetite so conspicuously evident in all of us, what is God trying to tell us about its place in his plan for all men and women in mortality? I submit to you he is doing precisely that—commenting about the very plan of life itself. Clearly God's greatest concerns regarding mortality are how one gets into this world and how one gets out of it. These two most important issues in our very personal and carefully supervised progress are the two issues that he as our Creator and Father and Guide wishes most to reserve to himself. These are the two matters that he has repeatedly told us he wants us never to take illegally, illicitly, unfaithfully, without sanction.
As for the taking of life, we are generally quite responsible. Most people, it seems to me, readily sense the sanctity of life and as a rule do not run up to friends, put a loaded revolver to their heads, and cavalierly pull the trigger. Furthermore, when there is a click of the hammer rather than an explosion of lead, and a possible tragedy seems to have been averted, no one in such a circumstance would be so stupid as to sigh, "Oh, good. I didn't go all the way."
No, "all the way" or not, the insanity of such action with fatal powder and steel is obvious on the face of it. Such a person running about this campus with an arsenal of loaded handguns or military weaponry aimed at fellow students would be apprehended, prosecuted, and institutionalized if in fact such a lunatic would not himself have been killed in all the pandemonium. After such a fictitious moment of horror on this campus (and you are too young to remember my college years when the sniper wasn't fictitious, killing twelve of his fellow students at the University of Texas), we would undoubtedly sit in our dorms or classrooms with terror on our minds for many months to come, wondering how such a thing could possibly happen—especially here at BYU.
No, fortunately, in the case of how life is taken, I think we seem to be quite responsible. The seriousness of that does not often have to be spelled out, and not many sermons need to be devoted to it.
But in the significance and sanctity of giving life, some of us are not so responsible, and in the larger world swirling around us we find near criminal irresponsibility. What would in the case of taking life bring absolute horror and demand grim justice, in the case of giving life brings dirty jokes and four-letter lyrics and crass carnality on the silver screen, home-owned or downtown.
Is such moral turpitude so wrong? That question has always been asked, usually by the guilty. "Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness" (Proverbs 30:20). No murder here. Well, maybe not. But sexual transgression? "He that doeth it destroyeth his own soul." Sounds near fatal to me.
So much for the doctrinal seriousness. Now, with a desire to prevent such painful moments, to avoid what Alma called the "inexpressible horror" of standing in the presence of God unworthily, and to permit the intimacy it is your right and privilege and delight to enjoy in marriage to be untainted by such crushing remorse and guilt—I wish to give those three reasons I mentioned earlier as to why I believe this is an issue of such magnitude and consequence.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE SOUL
First, we simply must understand the revealed, restored Latter-day Saint doctrine of the soul, and the high and inextricable part the body plays in that doctrine. One of the "plain and precious" truths restored to this dispensation is that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C88:15; emphasis added) and that when the spirit and body are separated, men and women "cannot receive a fulness of joy" (D&C93:34). Certainly that suggests something of the reason why obtaining a body is so fundamentally important to the plan of salvation in the first place, why sin of any kind is such a serious matter (namely because its automatic consequence is death, the separation of the spirit from the body and the separation of the spirit and the body from God), and why the resurrection of the body is so central to the great abiding and eternal triumph of Christ's atonement. We do not have to be a herd of demonically possessed swine charging down the Gadarene slopes toward the sea to understand that a body is the great prize of mortal life, and that even a pig's will do for those frenzied spirits that rebelled, and to this day remain dispossessed, in their first, unembodied estate.
May I quote a 1913 sermon by Elder James E. Talmage on this doctrinal point:
We have been taught… to look upon these bodies of ours as gifts from God. We Latter-day Saints do not regard the body as something to be condemned, something to be abhorred.… We regard [the body] as the sign of our royal birthright.… We recognize… that those who kept not their first estate… were denied that inestimable blessing.… We believe that these bodies… may be made, in very truth, the temple of the Holy Ghost.…
It is peculiar to the theology of the Latter-day Saints that we regard the body as an essential part of the soul. Read your dictionaries, the lexicons, and encyclopedias, and you will find that nowhere [in Christianity], outside of the Church of Jesus Christ, is the solemn and eternal truth taught that the soul of man is the body and the spirit combined. [CR, October 1913, p. 117]
So partly in answer to why such seriousness, we answer that one toying with the God-given—and satanically coveted—body of another, toys with the very soul of that individual, toys with the central purpose and product of life, "the very key" to life, as Elder Boyd K. Packer once called it. In trivializing the soul of another (please include the word body there), we trivialize the Atonement that saved that soul and guaranteed its continued existence. And when one toys with the Son of Righteousness, the Day Star himself, one toys with white heat and a flame hotter and holier than the noonday sun. You cannot do so and not be burned. You cannot with impunity "crucify Christ afresh" (see Hebrews 6:6). Exploitation of the body (please include the word soul there) is, in the last analysis, an exploitation of him who is the Light and the Life of the world. Perhaps here Paul's warning to the Corinthians takes on newer, higher meaning:
Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.… Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.… Flee fornication.… He that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.… Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's. [1 Corinthians 6:13-20; emphasis added]
Our soul is what's at stake here—our spirit and our body. Paul understood that doctrine of the soul every bit as well as James E. Talmage did, because it is gospel truth. The purchase price for our fullness of joy—body and spirit eternally united—is the pure and innocent blood of the Savior of this world. We cannot then say in ignorance or defiance, "Well, it's my life," or worse yet, "It's my body." It is not. "Ye are not your own," Paul said. "Ye are bought with a price." So in answer to the question, "Why does God care so much about sexual transgression?" it is partly because of the precious gift offered by and through his Only Begotten Son to redeem the souls—bodies and spirits—we too often share and abuse in cheap and tawdry ways. Christ restored the very seeds of eternal lives (see D&C132:19, 24), and we desecrate them at our peril. The first key reason for personal purity? Our very souls are involved and at stake.