Book of Moses Commentary Part III: The Mahan Principle Extended

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.

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5 comments on “Book of Moses Commentary Part III: The Mahan Principle Extended

  1. Good essay, although some of the logic I felt was a bit circular in regards to:

    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.

    True enough we should obey the higher command to avoid sin, however I believe there is a reason we are given this instruction which basically is; it wont work and may bring dire consequences – we just may not see them in our lifetime. I think it helps to understand that there is a reason, we just might not see it right now because we are all pretty much still children, so choose the right is still the best path.
    – Thanks

  2. K.D., thanks for the supportive comment, though I’m not sure exactly what your point is. If I’m following, I’m reminded of a story about a group of kids who are driving along a dark road at night, when the driver is prompted by the Spirit to turn around. He ignores it wtice, but turns around after the third warning. The next day he goes back to see what was in the road and he finds…now, depending on who’s telling the story, I’ve heard it end with “a huge fallen tree” or “a huge hole in the middle of the road,” and the lesson of the story is, “obey God and avoid instant suffering.” I prefer to end the story with, “he saw nothing in the road at all,” implying that the real lesson should be, “obey God because it’s the right thing to do–whether or not we’re rewarded or punished in the short term is irrelevant.”

  3. Nicely put, especially the “Ultimately, using our agency to reject the law of God is the only sin.” Although the definition of sin is disobedience, your wording makes one think.
    (Disobedience is the only sin … https://www.lds.org/topics/sin?lang=eng )

    One of my favorite commandments from the Savior is: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 and 3 Nephi 12:48

    We’re commanded to be like our Father in Heaven, so in essence, failing to live a christ-like life on the path to becoming like Him we are in fact committing sin.

    Thanks for your thought provoking post.

  4. first of all, the lord gave man freedom of choice. he didn;t make man to be a robot! when you make a decision, you take what goes with that decision. when he made man, he also in his wonderful way gave us a conscience and you have a choice, if you listen to it or turn it off! he made man in his image and it is good, very good!!

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