In 2 Nephi 2, Lehi teaches about the basis of morality with a thought exercise:
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.
In this exercise, Lehi connects the existence of all things with the existence of law. Of course, not just any law; this isn’t about bans of clotheslines in Vermont or throwing rocks at trains in Wisconsin, this is the law by which all things are measured – the law of God.
The distinction is important because it goes to Lehi’s point about the source of moral authority. Right and wrong are not determined by people, by the relative culture. It could be that a society determines that murdering certain individuals is acceptable, but the laws of such a society do not and can not make it right. President Dallin H. Oaks taught, “but man’s laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral.”
The words of Lehi are increasingly applicable in a world that frequently declares “there is no sin” and “there is no righteousness.” Sometimes this is done in the form of blatant mocking of those who sustain The Family: A Proclamation to the World as doctrine. Other times, it is a subtle search for “nuances” in commandments that permit indulgences. In either case, the effort is to ignore or blur the lines between sin and righteousness.
Perhaps most significant is the next step in Lehi’s chain: if there is no righteousness, there is no happiness.
Enemies of the church, particularly those who were once members, frequently claim they are so much happier after leaving. Yet these former members spend larger amounts of time attacking the beliefs they once cherished, desperately searching for mistakes of leaders they once revered, and alienating those around them they once called brothers and sisters. For being “so much happier” they seem awfully bitter.
This is the ethical dilemma of godlessness. They have abandoned the confidence and hope that, in spite of difficulty and opposition (as Lehi taught), everything will work out in the end. In place of the promises of God, they have put nothing. In their newly created world, every injustice is permanent, every disability endures, every wound scars, and when death finally and inescapably comes, there is nothing.
In this “godless” world, only power matters. If there is no sin, an influential person who kills another to get gain and never gets caught has committed no sin. If there is no morality, a person who cheats on their spouse has done nothing wrong. If there is no ultimate justice, then even those who abuse children may not ever be punished for their horrific crimes.
Of course, even a person who has never read ethical books, examined social studies, or perused peer-reviewed journals knows these things are incorrect. We have an intuitive sense – that naturally comes to all human beings – to help us understand right and wrong.
The source of this sense is none other than our creator… the arbiter of the high law… God.
As Lehi taught, his influence is woven into the creation of all things. He is real. Just as we trust our noses to detect a nearby skunk or fresh-baked cookies, we can rely on our conscience to help us learn the law of God. The guilt of sin and the joy of righteousness are real. We are better people when we exercise humility and mercy. We can enjoy not an imaginary, but a literal relationship with our Heavenly Father, who seeks our welfare.
The realization of divine law is not only cause to be careful in our actions, to embrace good and deny ourselves evil, but also a cause for hope and happiness. In the end, Lehi was right. The high law is real. Justice will be done. Goodness will prevail. Life has a purpose and choosing the right matters.
- Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Book of Mormon 2020, February 3-9.
- “The Last Words of Moroni” -Elder Mark E. Petersen, October 1978
- “Journey to Higher Ground” -Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, October 2005
- “A Legacy of Testimony” -Elder Henry B. Eyring, April 1996