Jeffrey R. Holland
President of Brigham Young University when this devotional address
was delivered on 12 January 1988 in the Marriott Center
On Earth as it is in Heaven, pp. 182-197
My topic is that of human intimacy, a topic as sacred as any I know and more sacred than anything I have ever addressed from this podium. If I am not careful and you are not supportive, this subject can slide quickly from the sacred into the merely sensational, and I would be devastated if that happened. It would be better not to address the topic at all than to damage it with casualness or carelessness. Indeed, it is against such casualness and carelessness that I wish to speak. So I ask for your faith and your prayers and your respect.
You may feel this is a topic you hear addressed too frequently at this time in your life, but given the world in which we live, you may not be hearing it enough. All of the prophets, past and present, have spoken on it, and President Benson himself addressed this very subject in his annual message to this student body last fall.
I am thrilled that most of you are doing wonderfully well in the matter of personal purity. There isn't as worthy and faithful a group of university students anywhere else on the face of the earth. You are an inspiration to me. I acknowledge your devotion to the gospel and applaud it. Like Jacob of old, I would prefer for the sake of the innocent not to need to discuss such topics. But a few of you are not doing so well, and much of the world around us is not doing well at all. . . .
Indeed, I wish to do something even a bit more difficult than listing
the do's and don'ts of personal purity. I wish to speak, to the best of
my ability, on why we should be clean, on why moral discipline is such
a significant matter in God's eyes. I know that may sound presumptuous,
but a philosopher once said, tell me sufficiently why a thing should be
done, and I will move heaven and earth to do it. Hoping you will feel the
same way as he and fully recognizing my limitations, I wish to try to give
at least a partial answer to "Why be morally clean?" I will need first
to pose briefly what I see as the doctrinal seriousness of the matter before
then offering just three reasons for such seriousness.
The Significance and Sanctity
May I begin with half of a nine-line poem by Robert Frost. (The other half is worth a sermon also, but it will have to wait for another day.) Here are the first four lines of Frost's "Fire and Ice."
Some say the world will end in fire,A second, less poetic but more specific opinion is offered by the writer of Proverbs: "Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? . . . But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
destroyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonour shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away." (Proverbs 6:27-33)
In getting at the doctrinal seriousness, why is this matter of sexual relationships so severe that fire is almost always the metaphor, with passion pictured vividly in flames? What is there in the potentially hurtful heat of this that leaves one's soul--or perhaps the whole world, according to Frost--destroyed, if that flame is left unchecked and those passions unrestrained? What is there in all of this that prompts Alma to warn his son Corianton that sexual transgression is "an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost"? (Alma 39:5; emphasis added)
Setting aside sins against the Holy Ghost for a moment as a special category unto themselves, it is LDS doctrine that sexual transgression is second only to murder in the Lord's list of life's most serious sins. By assigning such rank to a physical appetite so conspicuously evident in all of us, what is God trying to tell us about its place in his plan for all men and women in mortality? I submit to you he is doing precisely that--commenting about the very plan of life itself. Clearly God's greatest concerns regarding mortality are how one gets into this world and how one gets out of it. These two most important issues in our very personal and carefully supervised progress are the two issues that he as our Creator and Father and Guide wishes most to reserve to himself. These are the two matters that he has repeatedly told us he wants us never to take illegally, illicitly, unfaithfully, without sanction.
As for the taking of life, we are generally quite responsible. Most people, it seems to me, readily sense the sanctity of life and as a rule do not run up to friends, put a loaded revolver to their heads, and cavalierly pull the trigger. Furthermore, when there is a click of the hammer rather than an explosion of lead, and a possible tragedy seems to have been averted, no one in such a circumstance would be so stupid as to sigh, "Oh, good. I didn't go all the way."
No, "all the way" or not, the insanity of such action with fatal powder and steel is obvious on the face of it. Such a person running about this campus with an arsenal of loaded handguns or military weaponry aimed at fellow students would be apprehended, prosecuted, and institutionalized if in fact such a lunatic would not himself have been killed in all the pandemonium. After such a fictitious moment of horror on this campus (and you are too young to remember my college years when the sniper wasn't fictitious, killing twelve of his fellow students at the University of Texas), we would undoubtedly sit in our dorms or classrooms with terror on our minds for many months to come, wondering how such a thing could possibly happen--especially here at BYU.
No, fortunately, in the case of how life is taken, I think we seem to be quite responsible. The seriousness of that does not often have to be spelled out, and not many sermons need to be devoted to it. But in the significance and sanctity of giving life, some of us are not so responsible, and in the larger world swirling around us we find near criminal irresponsibility. What would in the case of taking life bring absolute horror and demand grim justice, in the case of giving life brings dirty jokes and four-letter lyrics and crass carnality on the silver screen, home-owned or downtown.
Is such moral turpitude so wrong? That question has always been asked, usually by the guilty. "Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness" (Proverbs 30:20). No murder here. Well, maybe not. But sexual transgression? "He that doeth it destroyeth his own soul." Sounds near fatal to me.
So much for the doctrinal seriousness. Now, with a desire to prevent
such painful moments, to avoid what Alma called the "inexpressible horror"
of standing in the presence of God unworthily, and to permit the intimacy
it is your right and privilege and delight to enjoy in marriage to be untainted
by such crushing remorse and guilt--I wish to give those three reasons
I mentioned earlier as to why I believe this is an issue of such magnitude
The Doctrine of the Soul
First, we simply must understand the revealed, restored Latter-day Saint doctrine of the soul, and the high and inextricable part the body plays in that doctrine. One of the "plain and precious" truths restored to this dispensation is that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C88:15; emphasis added) and that when the spirit and body are separated, men and women "cannot receive a fulness of joy" (D&C93:34). Certainly that suggests something of the reason why obtaining a body is so fundamentally important to the plan of salvation in the first place, why sin of any kind is such a serious matter (namely because its automatic consequence is death, the separation of the spirit from the body and the separation of the spirit and the body from God), and why the resurrection of the body is so central to the great abiding and eternal triumph of Christ's atonement. We do not have to be a herd of demonically possessed swine charging down the Gadarene slopes toward the sea to understand that a body is the great prize of mortal life, and that even a pig's will do for those frenzied spirits that rebelled, and to this day remain dispossessed, in their first, unembodied estate.
May I quote a 1913 sermon by Elder James E. Talmage on this doctrinal point:
"We have been taught . . . to look upon these bodies of ours as gifts from God. We Latter-day Saints do not regard the body as something to be condemned, something to be abhorred. . . . We regard [the body] as the sign of our royal birthright. . . . We recognize . . . that those who kept not their first estate . . . were denied that inestimable blessing. . . . We believe that these bodies . . . may be made, in very truth, the temple of the Holy Ghost. . . .
"It is peculiar to the theology of the Latter-day Saints that we regard the body as an essential part of the soul. Read your dictionaries, the lexicons, and encyclopedias, and you will find that nowhere [in Christianity], outside of the Church of Jesus Christ, is the solemn and eternal truth taught that the soul of man is the body and the spirit combined." (Conference Report, October 1913, p. 117)
So partly in answer to why such seriousness, we answer that one toying with the God-given--and satanically coveted--body of another, toys with the very soul of that individual, toys with the central purpose and product of life, "the very key" to life, as Elder Boyd K. Packer once called it. In trivializing the soul of another (please include the word body there), we trivialize the Atonement that saved that soul and guaranteed its continued existence. And when one toys with the Son of Righteousness, the Day Star himself, one toys with white heat and a flame hotter and holier than the noonday sun. You cannot do so and not be burned. You cannot with impunity "crucify Christ afresh" (see Hebrews 6:6). Exploitation of the body (please include the word soul there) is, in the last analysis, an exploitation of him who is the Light and the Life of the world. Perhaps here Paul's warning to the Corinthians takes on newer, higher meaning:
"Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. . . . Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. . . . Flee fornication. . . . He that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. . . . . . . Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's." (1 Corinthians 6:13-20; emphasis added)
Our soul is what's at stake here--our spirit and our body. Paul understood
that doctrine of the soul every bit as well as James E. Talmage did, because
it is gospel truth. The purchase price for our fullness of joy--body and
spirit eternally united--is the pure and innocent blood of the Savior of
this world. We cannot then say in ignorance or defiance, "Well, it's my
life," or worse yet, "It's my body." It is not. "Ye are not your own,"
Paul said. "Ye are bought with a price." So in answer to the question,
"Why does God care so much about sexual transgression?" it is partly because
of the precious gift offered by and through his Only Begotten Son to redeem
the souls--bodies and spirits--we too often share and abuse in cheap and
tawdry ways. Christ restored the very seeds of eternal lives (see D&C
132:19, 24), and we desecrate them at our peril. The first key reason for
personal purity? Our very souls are involved and at stake.
A Symbol of Total Union
Second, may I suggest that human intimacy, that sacred, physical union ordained of God for a married couple, deals with a symbol that demands special sanctity. Such an act of love between a man and a woman is--or certainly was ordained to be--a symbol of total union: union of their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their love, their family, their future, their everything. It is a symbol that we try to suggest in the temple with a word like seal. The Prophet Joseph Smith once said we perhaps ought to render such a sacred bond as "welding"--that those united in matrimony and eternal families are "welded" together, inseparable if you will, to withstand the temptations of the adversary and the afflictions of mortality. (See D&C 128:18.)
But such a total, virtually unbreakable union, such an unyielding commitment between a man and a woman, can only come with the proximity and permanence afforded in a marriage covenant, with the union of all that they possess--their very hearts and minds, all their days and all their dreams. They work together, they cry together, they enjoy Brahms and Beethoven and breakfast together, they sacrifice and save and live together for all the abundance that such a totally intimate life provides such a couple. And the external symbol of that union, the physical manifestation of what is a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding, is the physical blending that is part of--indeed, a most beautiful and gratifying expression of--that larger, more complete union of eternal purpose and promise.
As delicate as it is to mention in such a setting, I nevertheless trust your maturity to understand that physiologically we are created as men and women to fit together in such a union. In this ultimate physical expression of one man and one woman they are as nearly and as literally "one"as two separate physical bodies can ever be. It is in that act of ultimate physical intimacy we most nearly fulfill the commandment of the Lord given to Adam and Eve, living symbols for all married couples, when he invited them to cleave unto one another only, and thus become "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
Obviously, such a commandment to these two, the first husband and wife of the human family, has unlimited implications--social, cultural, and religious as well as physical--but that is exactly my point. As all couples come to that moment of bonding in mortality, it is to be just such a complete union. That commandment cannot be fulfilled, and that symbolism of "one flesh" cannot be preserved, if we hastily and guiltily and surreptitiously share intimacy in a darkened corner of a darkened hour, then just as hastily and guiltily and surreptitiously retreat to our separate worlds--not to eat or live or cry or laugh together, not to do the laundry and the dishes and the homework, not to manage a budget and pay the bills and tend the children and plan together for the future. No, we cannot do that until we are truly one--united, bound, linked, tied, welded, sealed, married.
Can you see then the moral schizophrenia that comes from pretending we are one, sharing the physical symbols and physical intimacy of our union, but then fleeing, retreating, severing all such other aspects--and symbols--of what was meant to be a total obligation, only to unite again furtively some other night or, worse yet, furtively unite (and you can tell how cynically I use that word) with some other partner who is no more bound to us, no more one with us than the last was or than the one that will come next week or next month or next year or anytime before the binding commitments of marriage?
You must wait--you must wait until you can give everything, and you cannot give everything until you are at least legally and, for Latter-day Saint purposes, eternally pronounced as one. To give illicitly that which is not yours to give (remember-- "you are not your own") and to give only part of that which cannot be followed with the gift of your whole heart and your whole life and your whole self is its own form of emotional Russian roulette. If you persist in sharing part without the whole, in pursuing satisfaction devoid of symbolism, in giving parts and pieces and inflamed fragments only, you run the terrible risk of such spiritual, psychic damage that you may undermine both your physical intimacy and your wholehearted devotion to a truer, later love. You may come to that moment of real love, of total union, only to discover to your horror that what you should have saved has been spent, and--mark my words--only God's grace can recover that piecemeal dissipation of your virtue.
A good Latter-day Saint friend, Dr. Victor L. Brown, Jr., has written of this issue:
"Fragmentation enables its users to counterfeit intimacy. . . . If we relate to each other in fragments, at best we miss full relationships. At worst, we manipulate and exploit others for our gratification. Sexual fragmentation can be particularly harmful because it gives powerful physiological rewards which, though illusory, can temporarily persuade us to overlook the serious deficits in the overall relationship. Two people may marry for physical gratification and then discover that the illusion of union collapses under the weight of intellectual, social, and spiritual incompatibilities. . .
"Sexual fragmentation is particularly harmful because it is particularly deceptive. The intense human intimacy that should be enjoyed in and symbolized by sexual union is counterfeited by sensual episodes which suggest--but cannot deliver--acceptance, understanding, and love. Such encounters mistake the end for the means as lonely, desperate people seek a common denominator which will permit the easiest, quickest gratification." (Victor L. Brown, Jr., Human Intimacy: Illusion and Reality [Salt Lake City, Utah: Parliament Publishers, 1981], pp.5-6)
Listen to a far more biting observation by a non-Latter-day Saint regarding such acts devoid of both the soul and symbolism we have been discussing. He writes: "Our sexuality has been animalized, stripped of the intricacy of feeling with which human beings have endowed it, leaving us to contemplate only the act, and to fear our impotence in it. It is this animalization from which the sexual manuals cannot escape, even when they try to do so, because they are reflections of it. They might [as well] be textbooks for veterinarians." (Fairlie, Seven Deadly Sins, p. 182)
In this matter of counterfeit intimacy and deceptive gratification, I express particular caution to the men who hear this message. I have heard all my life that it is the young woman who has to assume the responsibility for controlling the limits of intimacy in courtship because a young man cannot. What an unacceptable response to such a serious issue! What kind of man is he, what priesthood or power or strength or self-control does this man have that lets him develop in society, grow to the age of mature accountability, perhaps even pursue a university education and prepare to affect the future of colleagues and kingdoms and the course of the world, but yet does not have the mental capacity or the moral will to say, "I will not do that thing"? No, this sorry drugstore psychology would have us say, "He just can't help himself. His glands have complete control over his life--his mind, his will, his entire future."
To say that a young woman in such a relationship has to bear her responsibility and that of the young man's too is the least fair assertion I can imagine. In most instances if there is sexual transgression, I lay the burden squarely on the shoulders of the young man--for our purposes probably a priesthood bearer--and that's where I believe God intended responsibility to be. In saying that I do not excuse young women who exercise no restraint and have not the character or conviction to demand intimacy only in its rightful role. I have had enough experience in Church callings to know that women as well as men can be predatory. But I refuse to buy some young man's feigned innocence who wants to sin and call it psychology.
Indeed, most tragically, it is the young woman who is most often the victim, it is the young woman who most often suffers the greater pain, it is the young woman who most often feels used and abused and terribly unclean. And for that imposed uncleanliness a man will pay, as surely as the sun sets and rivers run to the sea.
Note the prophet Jacob's straightforward language on this account in the Book of Mormon. After a bold confrontation on the subject of sexual transgression among the Nephites, he quotes Jehovah: "For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land. . . . And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people . . . shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.
"For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction." (Jacob 2:31-33; emphasis added)
Don't be deceived and don't be destroyed. Unless such fire is controlled,
your clothes and your future will be burned. And your world, short of painful
and perfect repentance, will go up in flames. I give that to you on good
word--I give it to you on God's word.
A Holy Sacrament
That leads me to my last reason, a third effort to say why. After soul and symbol, the word is sacrament, a term closely related to the other two. Sexual intimacy is not only a symbolic union between a man and a woman--the uniting of their very souls--but it is also symbolic of a union between mortals and deity, between otherwise ordinary and fallible humans uniting for a rare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours.
In this latter sense, human intimacy is a sacrament, a very special kind of symbol. For our purpose here today, a sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. We are imperfect and mortal; he is perfect and immortal. But from time to time--indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate--we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him, and in so doing gain access to his power. Those special moments of union with God are sacramental moments--such as kneeling at a marriage altar, or blessing a newborn baby, or partaking of the emblems of the Lord's supper. This latter ordinance is the one we in the Church have come to associate most traditionally with the word sacrament, though it is technically only one of many such moments when we formally take the hand of God and feel his divine power.
These are moments when we quite literally unite our will with God's will, our spirit with his spirit, where communion through the veil becomes very real. At such moments we not only acknowledge his divinity, but we quite literally take something of that divinity to ourselves. Such are the holy sacraments.
Now, once again, I know of no one who would, for example, rush into the middle of a sacramental service, grab the linen from the tables, throw the bread the full length of the room, tip the water trays onto the floor, and laughingly retreat from the building to await an opportunity to do the same thing at another worship service the next Sunday. No one within the sound of my voice would do that during one of the truly sacred moments of our religious worship. Nor would anyone here violate any of the other sacramental moments in our lives, those times when we consciously claim God's power and by invitation stand with him in privilege and principality.
But I wish to stress with you this morning, as my third of three reasons to be clean, that sexual union is also, in its own profound way, a very real sacrament of the highest order, a union not only of a man and a woman but very much the union of that man and woman with God. Indeed, if our definition of sacrament is that act of claiming and sharing and exercising God's own inestimable power, then I know of virtually no other divine privilege so routinely given to us all--women or men, ordained or unordained, Latter-day Saint or non-Latter-day Saint--than the miraculous and majestic power of transmitting life, the unspeakable, unfathomable, unbroken power of procreation. There are those special moments in your lives when the other, more formal ordinances of the gospel--the sacraments, if you will--allow you to feel the grace and grandeur of God's power. Many are one-time experiences (such as our own confirmation or our own marriage), and some are repeatable (such as administering to the sick or doing ordinance work for others in the temple). But I know of nothing so earth-shatteringly powerful and yet so universally and unstintingly given to us as the God-given power available in every one of us from our early teen years on to create a human body, that wonder of all wonders, a genetically and spiritually unique being never seen before in the history of the world and never to be duplicated again in all the ages of eternity--a child, your child--with eyes and ears and fingers and toes and a future of unspeakable grandeur.
Imagine that, if you will. Veritable teenagers--and all of us for many decades thereafter--carrying daily, hourly, minute-to-minute, virtually every waking and sleeping moment of our lives, the power and the chemistry and the eternally transmitted seeds of life to grant someone else her second estate, someone else his next level of development in the divine plan of salvation. I submit to you that no power, priesthood or otherwise, is given by God so universally to so many with virtually no control over its use except self-control. And I submit to you that you will never be more like God at any other time in this life than when you are expressing that particular power. Of all the titles he has chosen for himself, Father is the one he declares, and Creation is his watchword--especially human creation, creation in his image. His glory isn't a mountain, as stunning as mountains are. It isn't in sea or sky or snow or sunrise, as beautiful as they all are. It isn't in art or technology, be that a concerto or computer. No, his glory--and his grief--is in his children. You and I, we are his prized possessions, and we are the earthly evidence, however inadequate, of what he truly is. Human life--that is the greatest of God's powers, the most mysterious and magnificent chemistry of it all--and you and I have been given it, but under the most serious and sacred of restrictions. You and I who can make neither mountain nor moonlight, not one raindrop nor a single rose--yet we have this greater gift in an absolutely unlimited way. And the only control placed on us is self-control--self-control born of respect for the divine sacramental power it is.
Surely God's trust in us to respect this future-forming gift is awesomely
staggering. We who may not be able to repair a bicycle nor assemble an
average jigsaw puzzle--yet with all our weaknesses and imperfections, we
carry this procreative power that makes us very much like God in at least
one grand and majestic way.
A Serious Matter
Souls. Symbols. Sacraments. Does any of this help you understand why human intimacy is such a serious matter? Why it is so right and rewarding and stunningly beautiful when it is within marriage and approved of God (not just "good" but "very good," he declared to Adam and Eve), and so blasphemously wrong--like unto murder--when it is outside such a covenant? It is my understanding that we park and pet and sleep over and sleep with at the peril of our very lives. Our penalty may not come on the precise day of our transgression, but it comes surely and certainly enough, and were it not for a merciful God and the treasured privilege of personal repentance, far too many would even now be feeling that hellish pain, which (like the passion we have been discussing) is also always described in the metaphor of fire. Someday, somewhere, sometime the morally unclean will, until they repent, pray like the rich man, wishing Lazarus to "dip . . . his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:24).
In closing, consider this from two students of civilization's long, instructive story:
"No one man [or woman], however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life [or hers] before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group. (Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968], pp. 35-36)
Or, in the more ecclesiastical words of James E. Talmage:
"It has been declared in the solemn word of revelation, that the spirit and the body constitute the soul of man; and, therefore, we should look upon this body as something that shall endure in the resurrected state, beyond the grave, something to be kept pure and holy. Be not afraid of soiling its hands; be not afraid of scars that may come to it if won in earnest effort, or [won] in honest fight, but beware of scars that disfigure, that have come to you in places where you ought not have gone, that have befallen you in unworthy undertakings [pursued where you ought not have been]; beware of the wounds of battles in which you have been fighting on the wrong side. (Talmage, CR, October 1913, p. 117)
I love you for wanting to be on the right side of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I express my pride in and appreciation for your faithfulness. As I said earlier, you are an absolute inspiration to me. I consider it the greatest of all professional privileges to be associated with you at this university at a time in your lives when you are finalizing what you believe and forging what your future will be.
If some few of you are feeling the "scars . . . that have come to you in places where you ought not have gone," I wish to extend to you the special peace and promise available through the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. I testify of his love and of the restored gospel principles and ordinances which make that love available to us with all their cleansing and healing power. I testify
of the power of these principles and ordinances, including complete and redeeming repentance, which are only fully realized in this the true and living church of the true and living God. That we may "come unto Christ" for the fullness of soul and symbol and sacrament he offers us, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.