When I taught a lesson to the youth in our church last year about the Word of Wisdom, I asked them why we don’t drink or smoke. “Because it’s unhealthy,” they droned, parroting the expected answer by rote.
“Nope,” I said. “That has nothing to do with it. Let me ask you this: is drinking alcohol, for example, a terrible thing that immediately brings misery?” “Yes,” they replied, this time sounding pleased to be giving back the obviously righteous response.
“Not likely,” I answered. “I don’t know know for myself, but I imagine that getting drunk must be a lot of fun, since millions of people volunteer to do it in their spare time. So why don’t we drink alcohol, then?”
At this point, perceptive people will chime in with something like, “Because the Lord said not to.”
“Exactly,” I say. “That’s the difference between whether or not something is a sin.”
I approach subjects this way because I worry that when we demonize everything that we want people to avoid, we give those things a power that they don’t deserve; we glamorize them and set them up as the standard objects of indulgence when rebellion will rear its ugly head. A little more honesty strips them of that power.
I’m reminded of some people I’ve known who might fit this cautionary pattern: the high school-age boy who suddenly stopped being a role model of righteousness because he tried and suddenly realized the pleasure of popular sins (“Hey guys,” a typical discussion around that period might go, “our leaders were totally wrong about how awful sin is; it rocks!”), or the girl described as the “sweet spirit” of the singles ward who got tired of being passed over and changed her wardrobe and standards; as soon as she started sleeping with guys–surprise!–she had a serious boyfriend within a month.
The phrase “Mahan principle” was coined by Hugh Nibley to denote the discovery made by Cain in Moses 5:31 (“I may murder and get gain.”). Nibley wrote of that carnal law, “The ‘Mahan principle’ is a frank recognition that the world’s economy is based on the exchange of life for property.” (“The Law of Consecration,” CWHN 9:436). I think this concept bears expanding from mere economics into a more general law: I may sin and get whatever I want.
Do you want to have sex tonight? You can: besides a marriage, you can meet someone in a bar, pay a prostitute, even force someone…the options are endless.
Do you want to be rich? You can: besides hard work and smart financial skills, you can rob people, cheat people, exploit weaknesses…there are a million more ways to do it.
Do you want to feel good, right now? You can: besides being worthy of the Spirit, you can take drugs, be slothful, indulge in any number of antisocial vices…you get the idea.
My point is that these are all possibilities, all are avenues for attaining a certain end, which might as well be equal if not for one thing: some of them God has condoned, even commanded, and others are forbidden.
Certainly Cain had been taught by his parents what constituted good and evil (Moses 5:12), so Cain’s rebellion was done with eyes wide open (“and they loved Satan more than God,” Moses 5:13). But we can avoid the tragic waste of children turning into more future Cains by teaching clearly that sin may be available and enticing, but it simply isn’t worth it. Not because it won’t work or because it will bring dire consequences later on; it isn’t worth it because it isn’t right. Some things God has told us not to do, and when we do, that is sin, and sin is always bad.
Ultimately, using our agency to reject the law of God is the only sin.