There are many topics of great eternal importance that are being hotly debated these days. In my opinion all of these specific debates seem to be in essence the same debate in different forms – Do right and wrong exist? And if they do, who decides what is right and what is wrong?
Do right and wrong exist?
There seem to be a few basic principles that regardless of time, religion or culture seem to be universally accepted. If someone murders another in cold blood it is pretty universally condemned. If someone is a thief and steals from another the thief is also fairly universally condemned. So it seems that there are some things that we can still generally agree are right and wrong in their most black and white form.
Since these two things are right or wrong regardless of time, religion or culture we can see that there are in fact right choices and wrong choices, or that right and wrong do exist. Truth is universal, and if right and wrong exist in these two examples I can only assume that there are other things that are right and other things that are wrong. Since right and wrong exist and have as long as time has existed and are universally accepted at some point someone had to be the one that decided what was right and what was wrong.
So, that leads us to the next question:
Who decides what is right and what is wrong?
No one likes to be wrong. It is human nature to assume that all our choices are right (otherwise why would we make them?) and therefore it is easy to deem those who don’t agree as wrong. The natural man in us doesn’t like the discomfort that comes with being wrong and the repentance and correction that is necessary when a wrong choice is made. Since the natural man in us will always want to protect our own choices above all others there is not a person on this earth that I would want deciding that for me (and we are talking moral laws, not laws of the land), or anyone else, and I certainly wouldn’t want that heavy responsibility on my own shoulders. I want someone who can see the long term effects of the choice of right and wrong. I want someone who loves and cares about each person, on both sides of the debate, to make a choice that is best for all parties involved. It takes divine knowledge, power and vision beyond our mortal view to be able to see above the culture and natural man to have the ability to decide what is right and what is wrong. It takes God. God can see the end from the beginning, he can see far beyond this mortal life. He is all knowing, and all loving. He is the only person I would trust to make these decisions, and thankfully he takes that responsibility.
Since right and wrong exist, and God is the one deciding what is right and what is wrong there are going to be times in my life where I am right, but more importantly there are going to be times in my life that I am wrong. It seems that the path our eternal lives take is chosen in those moments when we realize we have made a wrong choice. What are we going to do? Are we going to point fingers at everyone else and say that they are the ones that are wrong, or are we going to admit that we are wrong and begin the uncomfortable in the short term but far more productive in the long term process of correcting it?
My kids have math homework every day after school. We sit at the table I supervise them working through the problems. Math, especially in the elementary level, certainly has distinct right and distinct wrong answers. There are times that my kids come to a wrong answer and they argue passionately that they are right. It doesn’t matter how much they believe it, if the answer is wrong, it is wrong. I, as their mother, don’t get to just back down and say “For you it’s okay that 2+2=3. You get to pick your own answer as long as you’re comfortable with it.” As someone who has a greater knowledge of math than my kids (although those days are dwindling) it is my responsibility to tell them their answer is wrong and they need to try again. I’m not mad they made a wrong answer, I’m not being mean when I tell them they have the wrong answer, I’m telling them so they can rethink the problem and try again. And eventually, after a few tries and at times a little guidance, they come up with the right answer. That’s why we practice math. To get better at it so we can more often come up with the right answer the first time.
2 Nephi 28:21-22 runs through my mind frequently as I think about the debate of if right and wrong exist:
And others he will pacify, and lull them away in to carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well – and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saieth unto them: I am no devil, for there is none – and thus he wispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains , from whence there is no deliverance.
(2 Nephi 28:21-22)
The Devil loves, absolutely loves, when we debate whether right and wrong exist. He will whisper in our ears that we get to choose what is best for ourselves, there is no wrong choice, and therefore we can avoid that discomfort that comes with being wrong. (I would recommend reading one of my related posts about how The Lord works in balance.) It is always easier to tell someone else they are wrong when the truth makes us uncomfortable. It is reminiscent of Helaman 16:20 where the wicked people tell the righteous that theirs are the wicked traditions. The devil has deceived the people to the point where in verse 22 Mormon describes them by saying:
And many more things did the people imagine up in their hearts which were foolish and vain; and they were much disturbed, for Satan did stir them up to do iniquity continually; yea, he did go about spreading rumors and contentions upon all the face of the land, that he might harden the hearts of the people against that which was good and against that which should come.
It would be so much easier to tell what was righteous and what was wicked if we were rewarded or punished immediately. But the Lord doesn’t work that way. We are not Pavlov’s dogs. We don’t hear the bell and get our reward. I have come to realize that if we were rewarded or punished immediately it would take away our right of agency to choose. There would be no choice if the results were always imitate because we would always know the right answer. It is in those moments of delay that faith comes in. It is in those moments of delay, both while the decision is being made and after it is made, where we reach for more knowledge and ask Him if our choice is right. We search, we ponder, we pray, because we are striving to do the right thing because the result isn’t always immediately presented. We would never need faith if we never needed to wait.
Thankfully, we are not flying blind when we are searching for God’s will in choosing right and wrong. Throughout the ages he has sent people to declare his word and remind us of what is right and what is wrong. Those spokesmen shouldered with the great responsibility to speak as he would on earth are called prophets. We not only have prophets in these latter days to give us council regarding God’s laws as they pertain to current situations, but we have the scriptures that have centuries of writings of prophets giving council on God’s laws of right and wrong. And of course, we have the Holy Ghost who can be our constant companion to guide us in our own individual situations in which we need help discerning right and wrong.
Best of all, when we make a wrong choice, we have the ability to correct it because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. He covers both sins, things we do wrong even when we know better, and mistakes, things we do wrong when we don’t have full knowledge. Because of the atonement, as long as we are sincerely and actively striving to do God’s will we will have his help, his grace, to perfect our best efforts.
To utilize the atonement we have to recognize that right and wrong exist, and be willing to admit that at times we are wrong. Although it is a blow to our pride to admit we are wrong, it is also what turns us from a prideful person into the humble person that is required to live with Heavenly Father forever.
Our eternity is decided in those moments where we realize we are wrong, what choice will you make?