Self-justification is never mentioned as the reason for the fall of the Nephite nation in the Book of Mormon, yet I believe that is what killed them. We should use their demise as a cautionary tale for our own lives, for self-justification is no less a poison to us than it was for them.
In Mormon chapter 6, Mormon is recounting the final destruction of his people. In verse 17 he mourns their loss. It is reminiscent of Christ’s famous words about the children of Israel as he contemplates all that he had tried to do for them to protect and guide them over the centuries, yet they would not have him to be their God (Matthew 23:37).
17 O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you!
Source of sorrow
What was the source of his sorrow? Hadn’t the Nephites always had problems staying the course and being faithful? They were Israelites after all, and Israelites have always had problems with being disobedient. So why this special sorrow?
When Christ came and visited the Americas, it took a couple of years to convert everyone, but eventually, everyone living soul joined the church and became righteous. For at least two hundred years the people lived in peace. As promised, their righteousness became the source of their extreme prosperity, and the people were happier than any other people had ever been. In 4 Nephi 1:16 we read this description of the people:
16 And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
This begs the question: Why would people, who were happier than any people who had ever lived, turn and reject their God and seek their own destruction? Why would they choose misery and sorrow over the prosperity and joy they had when they were righteous? On the surface it makes no sense. It doesn’t seem rational, does it? Yet we are sometimes guilty of the same sin that caused their downfall. It all begins with self-justification.
Sin, in any variety, acts like a spiritual narcotic. The very nature of disobedient behavior is that it numbs us to spiritual things. We cannot feel the Spirit because we have offended Him and he has withdrawn from us. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and persistence in our behavior for this to happen.
Righteous behavior requires discipline and exactness. For example, to be righteous we have to be honest. If we begin to practice dishonesty in any form, our integrity begins to crumble, and we begin to be able to justify greater and greater acts of dishonesty. It all starts with a single act of self-justification.
Another word for self-justification is pride. Pride pits us against everyone else, especially God. Now it doesn’t appear to start this way, but this is what pride does. Let’s say I am a super righteous person. (I know, it’s a stretch, but bear with me on this.) I am happy, prosperous, and my life is good. One day I acquire some pearls. They are all beautiful, but I notice a couple of exquisite specimens in the batch that catch my eye. I am very fond of these particular pearls, so I choose to favor their treatment over the other pearls. I sell the others, but keep back these favored pearls.
Someone suggests my favored pearls could help a poor family down the street, and a conflict arises in my soul. I know this is true. If I were to use the sale of these pearls to help this struggling family, they would be blessed. I would be blessed. We would both be “happier.” But I have set my favor upon these particular pearls, and I am reluctant to let them go. I’ve never had this happen to me before. I’ve always been willing to help others. Perhaps I could help in another way. Perhaps that poor family down the street could be doing more to help themselves. Why should I have to bail them out by selling my special pearls?
The more I dwell on someone else’s need for my favorite pearls, the more precious they become to me. It is almost like the creature Gollum in the book The Hobbit. The more he dwelt on his love for his ring, the more influence it had over him. Eventually he just began to call the ring “my Precious.”
Do you see what has happened to me in this short narrative? I was tempted with a physical object to favor it over the love of my fellowmen. As I focused on my possession of my favorite pearls, I began to find reasons not to give them up, not to share them, and to resent anyone who may have a need for what the pearls could provide to relieve their physical wants.
Rationally speaking, they are just objects. All objects are to be used in this life to bless the lives of God’s children, not just my life. That is selfish behavior. But by justifying their special place in my affections, little by little I became numb to the whisperings of the Spirit to be generous and kind, giving and caring. All I could think about was my possession of my special pearls. Eventually, by focusing on myself, my wants, and my assumed needs, I became resentful of others who had done me no greater wrong than to have been alive and to have needs of their own. And their needs were of much greater importance than were my needs, but I could not see that because I was too focused on what I wanted.
I found it interesting that in the Book of Mormon, when the people began to reject Christ, the first thing mentioned specifically in the scriptures was their obsession with the wearing of their pearls. In 4 Nephi 1:24 it says:
24 And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world.
The next step
Once I begin to feel a need to possess something, I either have to repent and feel sorrow for my greed or I have to justify my behavior, which means I grow to resent any implication that I have done anything wrong. We all have an innate need to feel justified in the things we do. So when my Bishop tells me he would like me to sell my pearls and donate the money they produce to the Ward so he can help this needy family, I either have to repent of my greed or rebel against the Bishop and justify why I can’t (or won’t) sell my pearls.
At this point I have become blinded to my own behavior. I can’t see how destructive this simple issue has become in my life. I have started down a path of destruction that leads to all kinds of damaging self-justifications. And, as always, I either have to continue to justify my behavior or I need to repent. Part of my justification is that I don’t need to repent because they are my pearls, and I shouldn’t have to give them up for anybody. Let them go to work, or just work harder if they have more needs. After all, that is how I got my pearls. I worked hard for them.
Where I used to be generous with my goods, now self-justification (pride) has me defending my withholding my goods from those in need. Self-justification is a slow-acting poison that often goes undetected for a long time. By the time someone identifies it to us we are so entranced by its charms that we refuse to see it for what it is, and actually embrace the destructive path upon which it has placed us.
Self-justification is like opium, it deadens us from being able to realistically see what is going on around us. The only cure for self-justification is repentance and humility. It takes discipline to prevent self-justification. It takes constant vigilance and a willingness to admit our own weakness that we may like to get attached to things, or that we can sometimes be petty about things, etc. Satan will use any weakness he can exploit against us. We have to be ever watchful and humble in order to stay alert, happy, and still able to find joy in the blessings of the gospel we have been given.
Is this how the Nephites/Lamanites fell from grace in the Book of Mormon? I don’t know. Perhaps, perhaps it was something else. But I have a hard time thinking of anything else that could so easily lead them from such a state of happiness to a condition where they refused to share their goods with their neighbors anymore, and they separated themselves into classes again. I know that once started down the prideful road of self-justification, almost anything is possible to justify to oneself. Afterall, one lie is just as good as another.