“The Gospel and Romantic Love,” Ensign, Oct. 1982, 64
Today I feel an unusually keen need for inspiration, because I have on my mind a subject so important and yet so sensitive that it is almost in a class by itself. I will call it, “The Gospel and Romantic Love.”
Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve once said to a group of college students: “The powers awakened earlier in your life have been growing. You have been responding to them, probably very clumsily, but they now form themselves into a restlessness that cannot be ignored. You are old enough now to fall in love—not the puppy love of elementary years, not the confused love of the teens, but the full-blown love of eligible men and women, newly matured, ready for life. I mean romantic love, with all the full intense meaning of the word, with all of the power and turbulence and frustration, the yearning, the restraining, and all of the peace and beauty and sublimity of love. No experience can be more beautiful, no power more compelling, more exquisite. Or, if misused, no suffering is more excruciating than that connected with love.” (Eternal Love, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, p. 6.)
In approaching this topic, I feel I am walking on holy ground. This subject, delicate as it is, inspires my deepest reverence. The idea of romantic love, so commonplace that it is touched upon in virtually every popular book or movie or magazine, is also at the very center of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one of the greatest of God’s laws that “a man [shall] leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24.) And, “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:11.)
As Elder Packer put it, “Romantic love … is not only a part of life, but literally a dominating influence of it. It is deeply and significantly religious. There is no abundant life without it. Indeed, the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom is unobtainable in the absence of it.” (Eternal Love, p. 4.)
The other side of this coin, of course, is represented by what Alma told his wayward son Corianton, who had gone after the Lamanite harlot Isabel: “Know ye not, my son, that these things are 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.)
Sometimes we give as reasons for the law of chastity the risk of pregnancy or abortion, the possibility of an unwanted or embarrassing marriage, or the chance of a terrible venereal disease. With adultery, we talk about the damage of destroying an existing marriage or family. As serious as these things are, I’m not sure they are the fundamental reason for the Lord’s having placed this commandment ahead of armed robbery, fraud, and kidnapping in the seriousness of sins.
Think of it—unchastity is second only to murder. Perhaps there is a common element in those two things—chastity and murder. Both have to do with life, which touches upon the highest of divine powers. Murder involves the wrongful taking of life; sexual transgression may involve the wrongful giving of life, or the wrongful tampering with the sacred fountains of life-giving power.
Perhaps we should not expect the reasons for this commandment to be fully understandable to our finite minds. So often with our deepest feelings of joy, or testimony, or gratitude, we may attempt to describe their meaning with words, but our words fail us when we try to plumb the depths of those precious things that are too sacred, too significant, and even too mysterious to be susceptible of quickly understood explanations. Why is nature so exquisitely beautiful and full of harmony? Why do our hearts respond to the sight of little children laughing? Why, especially, do our hearts respond to unexplainable overflowing when those little children we see laughing before us are our very own children? All we know is that God himself has said, time after time, over all the generations of man, “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.” (D&C 42:22.) “Thou shalt not … commit adultery … nor do anything like unto it.” (D&C 59:6.)
I have been around enough to know this is not the first time you have heard this subject mentioned from the pulpit. But I have also been around enough to know that, no matter what you have heard and no matter how often, today we live in a world so completely soaked through with tragically wrong and evil ideas about sex that you must be warned in love and kindness, but warned unmistakably—lest the moral sleeping sickness that has overcome this world claim you in deadly slumber.
There have always been violators of the moral code, but the last few years have witnessed a staggering revolution in sexual attitudes. In the United States, social norms began to unravel during the student revolts of the 1960s, but in the period from 1970 to 1975 the number of college students who accept the practice of premarital sex grew from about 50 percent to nearly 90 percent. (Katz and Cronin, “Sexuality and College Life,” Change, Feb/Mar 1980, p. 44.)
It would be of no help to you to seek counsel about sexual norms from a typical professional therapist. The American Psychiatric Association recently voted to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders, even though one study showed that 50 percent of the male homosexuals surveyed in one American city had had at least 500 sexual partners and 28 percent had had 1,000 partners. (Allen Bergin, “Bringing the Restoration to the Academic World: Clinical Psychology as a Test Case,” BYU Studies, 19, 1979, p. 464.) If that is normal behavior, we’ve got problems. A representative of today’s mainstream attitude among psycho-therapists recently wrote in a professional journal that most people in his field believe “that human disturbance is largely associated with and springs from absolutistic thinking—from dogmatism, inflexibility, and that [being extremely religious] is essentially emotional disturbance.” (Ellis, “Psycho-Therapy and Religious Values,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 48:635,1980.) In other words, the way to relieve your guilt about an immoral life is to begin believing there is no such thing as an immoral life. Whatever you want to do is moral, if you want to do it. This same psychologist expressed his concern about the mental stability of people who commit themselves to “unequivocal loyalty to any interpersonal commitments, especially marriage.” (Ibid.) You can imagine what this man and his professional associates would think of a commitment as long-term as eternal marriage.
The same attitudes are springing up everywhere in other fields, including law and the entertainment world. It is apparent that many of those who produce today’s movies, TV programs, and popular music, as well as those who set the editorial policies of many national magazines, believe that sex outside of marriage is harmless, if not healthy. When the Mormon filmmaker Kieth Merrill visited Ricks College, he said that today’s movie producers have no more hesitation about showing sexual acts than they do about showing people eating dinner.
Something deep within our collective soul has gone wrong, and it cannot help but influence our attitudes and dull our normal senses in frightening ways. Twenty years ago, there was much public support for the principles you and I believe in, despite some occasional straying from those principles. All that is different now. We are almost suffocated by a dense fog of sensuality. Pornography and moral permissiveness are so widespread that there is nothing to compare with it in the last several centuries in any civilized society; not since Rome, not since Sodom and Gomorrah.
The enormous scope of the drift is what makes it so treacherous. Even as we are surrounded by abnormality, everything somehow seems so normal. As written by Pascal, “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point.” (Pensees, p. 247.) We—you and I—must be that fixed point.
It isn’t easy for me to paint such an extreme picture. I am generally a pretty calm and reasonable guy. But on this particular subject of sexual morality, I think our society is within the grip of the evil one, even in the very moment so many of us feel more “free” than ever before. There is a reason why the scriptures record the word “devilish” right after the words carnal and sensual. We read in the Pearl of Great Price that “Satan came among them … and they loved Satan more than God. And men began from that time forth to be carnal, sensual, and devilish.” (Moses 5:13.) And so it was, until in that moment of darkest tragedy, Cain slew his brother Abel.
He then showed how totally he had accepted Satan’s promise of temporary “gain” in return for Cain’s eternal soul. We read, “Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him. And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying, I am free.” (Moses 5:32–33.) In truth, Cain was never more in bondage than in the very moment when he said, “I am free.” In exactly the same way, the American people have never been in greater moral bondage than in this time when they glory in being “free” to pursue pleasure in any form they fancy, as if there will never be any tomorrow. Can you see why it’s good advice to stay away from X- and R-rated movies, or their equivalent on television? Can you see why they plead with us to avoid drugs, alcohol, vulgar music, and the other products of the carnal environment that now surround us almost as water surrounds the fish of the sea? These are not trivial things. This is not simply a modern version of a fussy Victorian concern about bobby sox, social dancing, and driving over twenty miles an hour. This is not just cigarettes and makeup and nylons for twelve-year-olds. If the H-bomb symbolizes our age, we are playing now not just with fire, but with nuclear power. The Prince of Darkness has dragged out the heavy artillery. He is no longer limited to arrows and swords and BB guns. Now he is Darth Vader, with laser guns, light speeds, and the death star. We are near the end of a fight to the finish, and no holds are barred.
Let me say a word about the more positive aspects of the law of chastity, because that part of the law is very important. Elder Packer said, “Oh, youth … the requirements of the Church are the highway to love, with guardrails securely in place … with help along the way. How foolish is the youth who feels that the Church is a fence around love to keep him out. … How fortunate is the young person who follows the standards of the Church, even if just from sheer obedience or habit, for he will find a rapture and a joy fulfilled.” (Eternal Love, pp. 5–6.)
Properly understood, the scriptures and the prophets counsel us to be virtuous not because romantic love is bad, but precisely because romantic love is so good. It is not only good, it is pure, precious, even sacred and holy. For that very reason, one of Satan’s cheapest and dirtiest tricks is to make profane that which is sacred. It is as though Satan holds up to the world a degraded image of sexual love suggested by imagining the drunken, boisterous laughter of filthy men in a brothel, located on some crowded, dusty highway of life, where the flower of fair womanhood is jeered at, brutalized, and ultimately crushed by unclean hands. Meanwhile, high up in the cool, protected valleys of tall mountains, the priceless flower of virtue grows untarnished and pure. It waits as a noble prize for those valiant few who are willing to climb to its heights by paying the price of patience, obedience, and a lifetime of devotion—an endless, unselfish loyalty to spouse and children, in whose service we are only in the service of our God.
May I suggest now eight brief, practical steps for those who would one day be true sweethearts, based on a foundation of righteous living.
First, have reverence for life, and the life-giving powers of the human body. Your body is a temple. It is a sacred and holy edifice. Have the same spiritual reverence for it that you have for any temple that seeks to be a dwelling place for the Spirit of God. It is also the dwelling place of the seeds of human life, the nurturing of which, with your chosen companion, within the bounds set by God himself, is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.
Second, during the time of courtship, always be emotionally honest in the expression of affection. Sometimes you are not as careful as you might be about when, how, and to whom you express your feelings of affection. You must realize that the desire to express affection can be motivated by things other than true love. As one writer said:
“Desire can be stimulated by the anxiety of aloneness, by the wish to conquer or be conquered, by vanity, by the wish to hurt or even to destroy, as much as it can be stimulated by love. It seems that sexual desire can easily blend with and be stimulated by any strong emotion, of which love is only one. Because sexual desire is in the minds of most people coupled with the idea of love, they are easily misled to conclude that they love each other when they want each other physically. But if this desire is not stimulated by real love, it leaves strangers as far apart as they were before—sometimes it makes them ashamed of each other, or even makes them hate each other, because when the illusion has gone, they feel their estrangement even more markedly than before.” (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, New York: Harper and Rowe, 1956, pp. 54–55.)
In short, one might simply say: save your kisses—you might need them some day. And when any of you—men or women—are given entrance to the heart of a trusting young friend, you stand on holy ground. In such a place you must be honest with yourself—and with your friend—about love and the expression of its symbols.
Third, be friends first and sweethearts second. Relationships between young men and young women should be built like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid is friendship. And the ascending layers are built of things like time, understanding, respect, and restraint. Right at the top of the pyramid is a glittering little mystery called romance. And when weary travelers in the desert see this pyramid far off in the distance, maybe the first thing they see is that glittering jewel on the top; but when they get closer, they see all that must underlie the jewel of romance to hold it up so high. Now you don’t have to be very smart to know that a pyramid won’t stand up very long if you stand it on its point and expect the point to hold up everything else. In other words, be friends first and sweethearts later, not the other way around. Otherwise, people who think they are sweethearts may discover they can’t be very good friends, and by then it may be too late.
Fourth, develop the power of self-discipline and self-restraint. Be like Joseph, not like David. When Potiphar’s wife tried with all her cunning to seduce young Joseph, who lived in her house as her husband’s servant, the record simply says that Joseph “fled, and got him out.” (Gen. 39:12.) Joseph knew that it is wiser to avoid temptation than to resist it.
King David, by contrast, despite his years of faithful devotion to God, somehow developed too much confidence in his own ability to handle temptation. He was tragically willing to flirt with evil, and it ultimately destroyed him. We read that as David walked upon the roof of his house, he saw not far off a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. But David did not flee and get himself out. Rather, he sent and enquired after her, and she came in unto him. For this greatest of the kings of Israel, it was the beginning of the end. (See 2 Sam. 11.)
In your courtships, even when you feel there is a growing foundation of true love, show your profound respect for that love and the possibilities of your life together by restraining your passions. Do not be deceived by the false notion that anything short of the sex act itself is acceptable conduct. That is a lie, not only because one step overpoweringly leads to another, but also because the handling of another’s body is in an important sense part of the sexual act that is kept holy by the sanctuary of chastity. If ever you are in doubt about where the line is between love and lust, draw the line toward the side of love. Nobody ever fell off a cliff who never went near one.
Fifth, in your searching for the fulfillment of your romantic longings, always live for the presence of the Holy Spirit, that you may have it as your constant guide. Don’t date someone you already know you would not ever want to marry. If you fall in love with someone you should not marry, you can’t expect the Lord to guide you away from that person after you are already emotionally committed. It is difficult enough to tune your spiritual receiver to the whisperings of heaven without jamming up the channel with the loud thunder of romantic emotion. In general, remember that you need—as much as you will ever need it for any purpose—the guidance of the Holy Ghost in seeking an eternal companion and in building relationships toward that end. The key to spiritual guidance is not how long you pray, or what steps of prayer you follow, or what words you say. The key to spiritual guidance is found in one word: worthiness.
Some time soon when you have a chance to do a little scripture study, I recommend that you compare section 63:16 [D&C 63:16] with section 121:45–46 in the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 121:45–46]. In the first of these two passages, you will find that “he that looketh on a woman to lust after her, or if any shall commit adultery in their hearts,” they will experience three very significant harmful consequences: One, they shall not have the Spirit; two, they shall deny the faith; and three, they shall fear.
On the other hand, in direct contrast to these three results of filling your minds with lust, note what three things happen as described in D&C 121:45–46 when you “let virtue garnish [your]thoughts unceasingly.” The Spirit will be your constant companion. As for keeping the faith, the doctrine of the priesthood will distil upon your soul as the dews from heaven. And in contrast to the fear felt by the lustful, those whose minds are filled with virtue will find that their confidence waxes strong in the presence of God.
For these and a multitude of other reasons, live for the presence in your life of the Holy Spirit.
Sixth, avoid the habit of feeling sorry for yourself, and don’t worry excessively about those times when you feel socially unsuccessful. Everybody in the world doesn’t have to fall in love with you and marry you—it only takes one. I remember the experience of a choice young woman who had been very popular and successful in many ways in her home town. She passed up two or three chances to get serious with young men because she planned to attend college at a Church school, where she fully expected to find more promising opportunities. After she had been at that school for six months without a date, however, she honestly began to wonder if she had some loathsome disease. Seeing that experience through her eyes was very sobering for me about the risks we take in any large population center, because sheer size and numbers can so easily cause people to make incredibly superficial judgments about others, in ways that emphasize appearance above far more important but less obvious factors.
The opportunities for developing friendships (as sometimes distinguished from having “dates”) with members of the opposite sex are nonetheless plentiful at a college. Often these relationships lead to more promising possibilities than does the big social whirl. In approaching these opportunities, remember: “Worry not that you are not well known. Seek to be worth knowing.” The college-age years are a wonderful time in which to experience a variety of human relationships, to go places and do things, to read widely, to find yourself, to develop the roots of spiritual and emotional maturity. To gain this kind of ripeness and growth simply takes time, experience, and effort.
The discouragement you may feel as another empty Friday night rolls by is often a form of the insecurity we all encounter as we seek to find ourselves. Without the apparent approval of your self-worth that comes through social success, you may begin to doubt whether your life is really worthwhile. That kind of self-doubt is only part of a larger problem that accompanies most of us, married or single all the days of our lives. At times, we wonder if the Lord loves us; we wonder if other people love us. And so we mistakenly seek the symbols of success—whether that is being popular or being rich or being famous within our own sphere.
Sometimes you may let someone take improper liberties with you, or you may indulge yourself in some practice that seems to bring temporary relief but only makes you feel worse in the long run. Some even make poor marriage choices, just to show the world that somebody will have them. Ultimately, however, only the Lord’s approval of your life really matters. If you seek to be worth knowing and seek to do his will, all the rest will take care of itself. Never forget that all things work together for good to them who love God. (See Rom. 8:28.)
Your time for marriage may not come until the autumn of your life and then “be twice more precious for the waiting.” (Eternal Love, p. 17.) Even if your time should not come in this life, the promises of eternal love are still yours in the Lord’s view of time, if only you are faithful.
Seventh, in addition to avoiding fornication and adultery, you must avoid homosexual acts and abortion at all costs. These are extremely serious transgressions. Even persons who only assist others, much less pressure them, to have an abortion are in jeopardy of being denied the privilege of missionary service. They may also be called upon to face a church court, at the peril of their membership in the Church.
Eighth, if through some unfortunate experience in your past you have committed a moral transgression of the kind we have been talking about today, there is a way by which you may receive full forgiveness. There is no more glorious promise in all scripture than the words of Isaiah, speaking as if it were by the voice of the Lord himself: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.” (Isa. 1:18–19.)
The steps for the process of repentance are outlined in President Spencer W. Kimball’s masterful book The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969). If your transgressions are of the serious kind, you will need to see your bishop and voluntarily offer a full and complete confession. As frightening as that experience may seem to you, please know that by this means you will find purpose and a peace of mind more hopeful and uplifting than you can now imagine.
And in wondering how you might stand in the eyes of the Lord after such an experience, I commend to you the counsel of Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who talked in the October 1980 general conference about the repentance process for serious transgressions. The most memorable part of that candid and loving sermon was Elder Featherstone’s expression of his attitude toward those who have had the courage and the faith to confess their sins and even face Church discipline, if necessary. Because I so much share Elder Featherstone’s feeling, I would like to quote a portion of his remarks:
“In Exodus 32 [Ex. 32], Moses had gone up to the mountain. The children of Israel had fashioned a golden calf with a graving tool. The people offered burnt offerings, and they sat down to eat, drink, and play; and there was great wickedness when Moses came down out of the mountain. He cast the tablets out of his hands, and they were broken; he burned the golden calf and caused the idolaters to be slain.
“Then, when the people had repented [and that is the key], Moses went back before the Lord and prayed, ‘Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.’
“I have listened to possibly a thousand major transgressions; and each time after a truly repentant transgressor has left my office, I have either knelt behind the desk or bowed my head in prayer and said, ‘Lord, forgive him or her, I pray thee. If not, blot my name also out of thy book.’
“Though their sins be as scarlet, they may become white as the driven snow (see Isa. 1:18), and the Lord has promised he would remember their sins no more (see D&C 58:42).” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, pp. 29–31.)
One reason I appreciate Elder Featherstone’s feelings so much is that those are also my feelings toward you. I love the students of Ricks College. I don’t want to be where you aren’t.
For all that I have said by way of warning about the social conditions of our day or the limits you must place on yourselves as you seek the right channels for your natural feelings, I also want you always to remember that the teachings of the gospel about romantic love are filled with hope and peace and joy of the most uplifting and everlasting kind. I testify to you with all my heart that the commandments of God are designed for our ultimate happiness, and that being sweethearts in the way the Lord intended is worth waiting for.
After reading “The Gospel and Romantic Love,” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period.
1. What is chastity? What is virtue? Why are they so strongly advocated in the Church?
2. Are those who forsake chastity “free”? In what ways are they compromised?
3. What influences in your life should you avoid or encourage if you would grow strong in virtue?
4. Summarize the eight guidelines or “guard lines” the author gives for finding true love.