One of the promises of being born of the spirit is that of a mighty change of heart (Mosiah 5:2). This mighty change is supposed to take away any disposition to do evil and replace it with a desire to do good continually. Of all the dialogs I have with addicts, this is the most difficult verse to confront. It is at the same time, the most hopeful and the most damning of scriptures.
I’d like to share a story of how I came to understand the power of this verse and how it changed my life forever. Some people teach that being born again is a one-time experience and I suppose for them it is. For me, it is a weekly experience. Perhaps that’s an incorrect explanation of this verse and doctrine but by the time I complete my story maybe my interpretation will make sense.
A Happy Returned Missionary
I returned from my mission in 1978 and immediately enrolled in college. The first year was a joy because I was pursuing my dream of becoming a computer technician. I immersed myself so much in school that I got a two year degree in a little over a year and was employed in not one but two computer jobs before the end of the decade. Microcomputers were the hot new thing.
Not only did I plunge myself into school after my mission, but I also did everything I could to be active in church. After all, I was a recently returned missionary. I had all the energy in the world because I had the Lord on my side, right? I taught the Elder’s quorum. I accepted leadership positions in the young single adults and in the LDS student association on campus. I kept busy.
Teaching Seminary in California
I wasn’t really surprised when they asked me to teach seminary but in hindsight, I should have said no. I have never turned down a calling, but this one was too much for me at that time in my life. Within six weeks I was overwhelmed. I was praying with all my might every night as I tried to find time and energy to prepare lessons that would keep thirty high school freshmen engaged.
Something in me snapped one Friday after the kids, full of energy that all high school kids enjoy, pushed back a little too hard and totally destroyed the spiritual experience I thought we were going to have that morning. For those of you who have taught seminary, I know you can relate. Well, I was only 22, just a few years older than these kids, and decided I had enough that day.
How Quickly Life Changes
I told the seminary principal he would need to find a substitute for the next week while I thought about all the things I had going on in my life. It didn’t take a week to decide. I told him that very Monday that teaching seminary was too much for me at that time in my life. They put my class in with another more experienced teacher while they found a replacement. I felt bad. I still do.
My life went on. I moved away from home. I continued to immerse myself in the exciting world of microcomputers and tried to forget about my failure at teaching seminary. I took yet another computer job that required me to work on the weekends. I don’t think I did it on purpose, but subconsciously I used that weekend job to drop out of church for a while. I just felt burned out.
An Inactive Church Member
Thus I found myself an inactive member of the church in less than a year and a half after a very successful mission to Central America. I was busy but I was miserable. I couldn’t make it to church because of my weekend job. I found myself drifting away from scripture reading, gospel study and even association with my friends from church. Gratefully, they didn’t forget about me.
One thing I’m glad I didn’t lose is my love of books and reading, especially church books. I know that sounds strange, but I loved my experiences in the church growing up, especially as a missionary and in the years surrounding my mission. I prepared well to serve and I loved the doctrine, something that still gets me excited. The social aspects of the church are hard for me.
I Still Loved the Gospel
I had attended Rick’s College before my mission and enjoyed a Book of Mormon class from Keith Sellers. He got me excited about the Book of Mormon. George Pace, my LTM branch president, influenced my love of the Savior. My Mission President was a former Institute Director who loved to teach. President Muren made teaching the gospel come alive for me.
I have always been impressed by books and classes from those employed by the church who teach full time in the CES program. I have heard some of them say that we shouldn’t be so impressed. After all, they get paid to study the gospel all day. Nevertheless, I continued to keep up with new publications from CES folks even when I was not active in church those few years.
The Power of True Doctrine
One Saturday afternoon, when I had a few moments between jobs, I went to the nearest LDS book store in California, which for me at that time was Deseret Book in Orange County. I saw a little book that caught my eye entitled, Born of the Spirit by E. Richard Packham. I’m convinced the Lord led me to it. It was just what I needed at that time in my life to get turned around again.
I marvel as I look back through my copy of the book and see the highlights and study notes in the margins. The excitement I felt as I read the book comes back to me each time I see those notes and re-read the high-lighted sections. I remember the feeling of becoming spiritually alive again. I found hope that I could overcome feelings of unworthiness from sin that had crept into my life.
I Sin Differently Than You
I’ve publically confessed that I have struggled with an addiction to pornography since I was eight years old. It was a habit in my youth that got out of control and became embedded in my personality. This habit caused me to return to the sin again and again anytime I was confronted with failure or when challenged in a way that I felt overwhelmed or not immediately successful.
I’ve also shared that the addiction is under control but only because I have learned to apply the principles I discovered in Richard Packham’s book. Well, technically, it is simply by fully living the gospel of Jesus Christ that the problem is under control. But what I learned in Born of the Spirit helped me understand the process and how it really can work, especially for an addict.
The Problem for Addicts
I know I’m not the first person in the world to discuss this difficulty. The problem is how can someone who is an addict lose all desire for that addiction? In other words, how can Mosiah 5:2 possibly apply to a person addicted to a behavior or substance? In fact, the church has a program dedicated specifically to addiction recovery that covers this concept of overcoming the flesh.
When addicts hear someone in church bear testimony that they know they can be forgiven, they readily shake their head and say to themselves, “Yes, I know that too. But what about the next time the temptation comes along? How many times will the Lord forgive someone who commits the same sin over and over again?” If you’re an addict I know you’ve thought about this before.
Addiction Recovery Program
Did you know that Mosiah 5:2 is not found within the church’s Addiction Recovery Program? That problem came about because the church took the existing AA 12-step program and adapted it instead of writing a program designed completely from the restored gospel. I know many people love the program but some have told me it doesn’t explain how to be born of the spirit.
It comes close. Trust me. I have read and studied this wonderful program over and over. I have helped people step through it online. But I remain convinced that it falls short in this one very important area. The closest it comes is a reference to Moroni 6:8 – “As oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.” Close, but not quite the same concept.
Lose the Desire to Sin
The bottom line for me is do we believe we can be born of the spirit and lose all desire for sin or don’t we? Is this a true doctrine of Christ or isn’t it? Can an addict truly be healed and have self-control in their lives again? Can they be baptized by fire and become pure in heart? Maybe this only applies to regular members of the church. What about someone who keeps repeating a sin?
We addicts understand and recognize we can be forgiven. We have experienced it over and over again. But it gets tiring after a while. It gets harder with each failure. The Lord taught that when the evil spirits who afflicted us the first time come back, they bring reinforcements. Any addict can testify to the truthfulness of this doctrine. It gets harder and harder to repent as time passes.
A Process or an Event
You can’t imagine how many times I have said to myself, “Can’t I be rid of this temptation once and for all? Can’t this evil desire be rooted out of my breast never to return again? How did King Lamoni do it? Why hasn’t it happened to me? I hear stories from other church members who say they repented and were forgiven as if it were a one-time event. Why isn’t it like that with me?”
I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, being born again is a process, not an event. But it is a process that works. It may be different for you, meaning you have only needed to repent once of a sin and it’s gone forever from your life. I am happy for you. I thank God there are people like you. Please continue to bear your testimony and tell us how blessed and forgiven you feel now.
Helping Others Repent
I have served in twelve different Bishoprics and Stake Leadership positions for over twenty-five years. I only share this because I want you to know I have sat on disciplinary councils dozens of times. I have watched the repentance process from the point of view of an advisor to a Bishop or Stake President. I have noticed something about those who successfully come back to activity.
They seem to understand that repentance is a process. They don’t talk about a one-time glorious event that changed their life forever. They humbly express gratitude for the tender mercies of the Lord in helping them get back up each time they fall. They tell us they have learned to rely on the Lord for inspiration in their daily walk in life in a way that they never before understood.
Returning to the Same Sin
For those who came to the end of the first half of a disciplinary council, we used to assign them to read The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball. It’s a hard book to read, not because it’s poorly written, because it’s not, but because of what it can do to your soul if you let it. It can make you feel less than the scum of the earth if you stop reading after the first half of the book.
I don’t know if the book is still regularly assigned for those who are working with bishops or stake presidents to regain their membership or full fellowship again. From the book I seem to recall some especially harsh words reserved for the repeat offender who sins again and again. In effect, President Kimball taught that forgiveness is cancelled when one returns to the same sin.
The Simplicity of the Gospel
It wasn’t until I read Brother Packham’s book that I began to understand the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ when correctly understood and applied. Remember, the gospel is simple. There are only a few parts – to believe in Christ as our Savior, to turn from our sins, to accept baptism by immersion and then the part most people forget – to receive the baptism of fire.
There’s a whole lot more we teach in our church but that’s the gospel in a nutshell. You can find it outlined clearly in 2 Nephi 31-32, the second half of 3 Nephi 11 and 3 Nephi 12:1-2. One of my favorite verses is 2 Nephi 32:6, which is a promise of a personal visit from the Savior to give us the rest of His doctrine, but that’s a subject for another post – the need for a personal visit.
Born of the Spirit is Not Optional
Joseph taught that being born of the Spirit is not an optional part of our commitment to the Lord when we accepted baptism. “You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half—that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost.”
“Though his sins may have been cleansed away, yet so great is the force of habit that he would, without being renewed by the Holy Ghost, be easily overcome and contaminated again by sin. Hence, it is infinitely important that the affections and desires should be, in a measure, changed and renewed, so as to cause him to hate that which he before loved, and to love that which he before hated.” – Orson Pratt
Requirement of Time and Sacrifice
It takes time to be born of the spirit. It simply takes time. For some it’s not as long as it is for others. I guess for me, I’m one of the slow learners. I’m still asking for the miracle of having the spirit purge the dross and wickedness out of my heart. I ask each night for the Lord to take away my desire for the things of the world, to cause me to sacrifice or give up Babylon and love Zion.
For me, I must constantly work on a replacement. Sacrifice means giving up something good for something better. The natural man likes pleasure. That’s good I suppose, for the natural man. But the spiritual man in me loves the Lord and wants to please Him. That’s why I work so hard every day to study the gospel, to learn the doctrine, to understand how to teach it better and to live it.
No Other Online Review
Brother Packham’s book is still available from Cedar Fort and from Amazon. He has published a more recent book, Enabled by the Power of Christ (2008) but I haven’t read it yet. I am amazed that there are no reviews of the book on Goodreads or on Amazon. That makes mine the first. How’s that possible for such a wonderful book published so long ago? I highly recommend it.
I have read that books on doctrine don’t sell any more. I wonder why that is. Brother Packham’s book makes what to me is one of the most important parts of the gospel come alive – being born of the spirit. If you have read the book or would like to discuss some of the wonderful quotes or comments found within its pages, leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you.