I’m perhaps dipping my toe into a pool of controversy, but I’m going to try to express some thoughts I’ve had amidst all the reaction to President Packer’s recent conference talk. First of all, many people have assumed that he was referring to a single issue (homosexuality), when a more careful study reveals that he was addressing many and any of the plagues that men and women struggle with. He acknowledges that they are tragically difficult and promises that the power of the priesthood can help God’s children find their way out of dark places.
I believe the underlying message (not only of his talk, but of Heavenly Father’s plan for us) is self-mastery . . . with God’s help.
Our eternal destiny as children of God is an immense and incomprehensible concept, but I think it can be simply wrapped up in 1.) our sanctification through the blood of Jesus Christ and 2.) our roles in eternal families. Jesus Christ and family (which by default, includes marriage) are key elements of our exaltation. God has given us both commandments and covenants as guideposts toward all the blessings that both can offer us.
Therefore, it seems obvious that some of the greatest challenges we face in our life are temptations designed to remove us from the Spirit of Christ and distance us from righteous family relationships. We are human– spirits in temporal bodies– and we “naturally” have desires, urges, impulses, laziness, etc. that make it easy for us to give into temptation and ignore commandments and covenants. Unfortunately, for this reason, “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)”
A basic restatement of “putteth off the natural man” is to resist the temptations and desires that take us away from God, and “becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ” is simply a reminder to repent, be forgiven and recommit.
The natural man is something we’re born with (it’s part of mortal experience), but so is the ability to overcome it. There is no inborn automatic, uncontrollable surrender to temptation. There is, however, an inborn spirit child of God with a remarkable power of agency.
The invitations of the natural man are many, and are often tailored to individuals:
obsession with distractions (pop culture, computers, gaming, motorcycles, other hobbies, etc.)
and the list goes on…
What makes me uncomfortable about all the lashing out regarding the homosexuality issue is that it completely diminishes the struggle that every single person is trying to make to overcome their temptations of the natural man. There are married men who look away when scantily-clad women walk past on the sidewalk. There are single men who turn off the computer when they feel tempted to look at pornography, and they exert themselves greatly to keep their thoughts clean. There are women who struggle to overcome alcoholism and dig deep to find the strength to do what’s right when they really, really want to take a drink. There are single adults, both male and female, who resist sexual advances because, even though they would love to feel loved, they believe in and live by the law of chastity. Others do not marry because they are not presented with an opportunity to do so in the way they feel is right. For many of them, this could mean years and years of celibacy and some significant loneliness. There are those who struggle with social anxiety, but try to overcome their fears and do their home teaching and reach out to others in service. Each of these carry a burden that is intensely personal. All of these people have “natural” desires to give in or give up, but they don’t. Many of them may have struggled with these issues since childhood and, yet, they strive to master themselves because of their love for Christ or family or even self. They have a testimony of commandments and covenants, they sacrifice for the things that matter most to them, and they obey.
It is “natural” that when we desire to do something, we want it to be our right to do it. I believe President Packer was saying, in part, that we should all spend more effort doing what’s right, and less effort trying to redefine what is right. When it comes to commandments, there is no double standard. Regardless of the audience, each commandment is affixed to blessings and consequences. The Lord asks obedience of all his children because he wants to bless all of his children; he does not target certain populations. Gay, straight, married, single, avoiding, recovering, poor, wealthy, all– He expects us to use our powerful gift of agency to choose obedience over temptation.
Self-mastery is hard. It is never the easy choice, but it is the easiest way to be blessed. Like President Packer said at the conclusion of his talk, the Lord will work with us as we try to master ourselves. He will even heal us where we are wounded, and He will do so with great kindness, tenderness, mercy and love. He is, after all, the greatest Master that ever lived.