Monday, December 18, 2017

D&C 137:9 - Purism vs. Pragmatism

“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” [D&C 137:9]

As I thought about this scripture I pondered about the apparent dichotomy between purism and pragmatism.  For reference, here are the definitions: 

     purist - a person who insists on absolute adherence to traditional rules or structures, especially in language or style.
      pragmatist - a person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals.

Some of the questions that came to mind are:
  • Is there room in the Church for a a bit of pragmatism?  
  • Are we more focused on the results, or the process?  
  • Do the ends sometimes justify the means?  
  • It it better to obey the spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law?
While I won’t answer all of these questions here, here are a few thoughts on the subject.  

The prophets and apostles have a responsibility to maintain the purity of the gospel.  Elder Packer said: 

      "The commandments found in the scriptures, both the positive counsel and the “shalt nots,” form the letter of the law. There is also the spirit of the law. We are responsible for both. Life is meant to be a test to see if we will keep the commandments of God. (See 2 Ne. 2:5.) We are free to obey or to ignore the spirit and the letter of the law. But the agency granted to man is a moral agency. (See D&C 101:78.) We are not free to break our covenants and escape the consequences."  (Boyd K. Packer, "Covenants", October 1990 LDS General Conference) 

An often cited example in the scriptures about the ends justifying the means is Nephi’s experience in killing Laban in order to get the plates of brass.  The family certainly needed them and without them they would have dwindled in unbelief and it is unlikely that we would have the Book of Mormon.  Elder F. Burton Howard commented on this experience: 

      "Some seek to justify their actions by quoting scripture. They often cite Nephi’s killing of Laban as an example of the need to violate a law to accomplish a greater good and to prevent a nation from dwindling in unbelief. But they forget that Nephi twice refused to follow the promptings of the Spirit. In the end, he agreed to break the commandment only when he was convinced that “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes” (1 Ne. 4:13) and also (I believe) when he knew that the penalty for shedding blood had been lifted, in that one exceptional case, by Him whose right it is to fix and waive penalties. (F. Burton Howard, "Repentance" April 1991 LDS General Conference) 

We have a significant amount of latitude when it comes to how we apply our talents to being profitable servants.  Consider D&C 58:26

The Lord said, “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.” (D&C 58:26.)

The truth is that we are judged by both the means we employ and  the ends obtain. It is both “according to our works”, and “according to the desires of our hearts” (D&C 137:9)  Our purpose on this earth is not simply to check off a list of requirements (without considering the cost), but our purpose is to become something better.  It will do us little good at the last day to respond to the Great Judge: 

     "... Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works?

The response to that line of reasoning is clear: 

     “And then will I profess unto them: I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (3 Ne. 14:22–23.)