“Cleansing the Inner Vessel: The Process of Repentance,” Ensign, Oct. 1992, 21
As I read the scriptures, I often reflect upon the chilling implications of what the Apostle Peter meant when he said, “Judgment must begin at the house of God.” (1 Pet. 4:17.) In our own day, the Lord has said, “Vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth. … And upon my house shall it begin.” (D&C 112:24–25; italics added.) What kind of judgments does the Lord have in mind? Why do the scriptures say that the cleansing will begin with the Church, rather than with the wicked?
The scriptures reveal that the Lord will save his greatest wrath and condemnation for those who outwardly appear religious but who are actually full of evil within. Speaking to Jewish religious leaders, the Savior said, “Cleanse first that which is within the cup. … Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Matt. 23:26–27.) Similarly, the great Book of Mormon leader, Moroni, wrote, “God has said that the inward vessel shall be cleansed first.” (Alma 60:23.)
President Ezra Taft Benson left little room for doubt that these warnings apply to us. He declared, “All is not well in Zion. … We must cleanse the inner vessel, beginning first with ourselves, then with our families, and finally with the Church.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 4.)
There are two methods of cleansing the inner vessel. The first is repentance. But if we do not repent, the Lord will invoke the second method of cleansing—from without. One way or another, the vessel will be cleansed.
President Benson has made it clear that cleansing the inner vessel requires repentance: “My beloved brothers and sisters, as we cleanse the inner vessel, there will have to be changes made in our own personal lives, in our families, and in the Church. The proud do not change to improve, but defend their position by rationalizing. Repentance means change, and it takes a humble person to change. But we can do it.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 7.)
He has also identified three specific areas that need cleansing:
Sexual impurity, which he calls “the plaguing sin of this generation.” The Prophet Joseph Smith called it “the source of more temptation, buffetings, and more difficulties … than any other.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 4; Journal of Discourses, 8:55.)
Neglect of the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. Such neglect has brought the Church “under condemnation” and has caused a “scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.” (See Ensign, May 1986, p. 5; D&C 84:57–58.)
Pride, or wanting to be successful at any price. President Benson characterizes it as “self-will as opposed to God’s will.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 7.)
Our first task in cleansing the inner vessel is to honestly evaluate ourselves. It is human nature to recognize the need for improvement in others and to overlook comparable or more serious weaknesses in ourselves. We often cannot see many of our own weaknesses, and we often refuse to admit our character flaws even when those who love us try to help us see them. Perhaps the Lord had this tendency in mind when he referred to those who have eyes but see not, and ears but hear not. (See Mark 8:18.)
But our weaknesses should not cause us to despair. President Heber J. Grant wrote, “I do not believe that any man lives up to his ideals, but if we are striving, if we are working, if we are trying, to the best of our ability, to improve day by day, then we are in the line of our duty. If we are seeking to remedy our own defects, if we are so living that we can ask God for light, for knowledge, for intelligence, and above all, for His Spirit, that we may overcome our weaknesses, then, I can tell you, we are in the straight and narrow path that leads to life eternal. Then we need have no fear.” (Gospel Standards, Salt Lake City: The Improvement Era, 1943, pp. 184–85.)
We can let our weaknesses overcome us, or we can overcome them and turn them into strengths. I remember hearing a story about two brothers convicted of stealing sheep. As a punishment, they were branded on the forehead with the letters “ST,” for “sheep thief.” One brother was so ashamed that he left the community. He constantly had to explain the letters, and he eventually died a bitter man and was buried in an unknown grave. His brother stayed in the community and tried to win back his neighbors’ trust. Over the years he established himself as a man of unquestioned integrity. One day a visitor to the community asked a local resident about the strange letters on the old man’s forehead. The resident replied that he had forgotten why the letters were there, but that he thought “ST” was an abbreviation for “saint.”
Most of our limitations are, like that of the first brother, self-imposed. We may not be aware of our potential for improvement, or we may be unwilling to put forth the effort to change. Many of us are like the elephant that, as a baby, was tied to a large tree. It tried many times to pull away from the tree. It eventually gave up. And when the chain was later taken off the tree and attached to a small stake, the fully grown elephant never even tried to get away. By then, it had given up all hope of freedom and had become imprisoned not by the chain, but by its own set of false beliefs.
How can we overcome such false beliefs and cleanse our own “inner vessels”? The Lord has given us a way. One day in an institute class I taught, we discussed how class members could enhance their self-esteem by identifying their strengths. A student suggested a unique way to improve ourselves and our self-esteem. He quoted Ether 12:27, where the Lord says, “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
As we evaluate ourselves to discover areas in which we might repent or improve, we can go to others we trust and ask them how we can progress. As my student pointed out, we can also go to the Lord in humble prayer and ask him to reveal our weaknesses and to help us turn those weaknesses into strengths.
When the sincere disciple of Christ becomes aware of his weaknesses, he will chart a course toward improvement, as President Spencer W. Kimball counseled. (See The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 233–36.) Such a course may be painful at times and may require the assistance of others. But the process of repentance is essential to salvation and eternal life—and it is infinitely easier than the involuntary cleansing that the Lord may invoke at some future time if we don’t repent.
As we repent and improve our lives, we can better consider how to improve as families and set goals that will purify our thoughts and our homes, lead us to greater understanding of the scriptures, and eliminate pride. We can then follow the same process in our Church quorums, organizations, and classes, in order to strengthen our wards, stakes, and communities.
One way of setting such goals might be listing areas in which we feel we need cleansing, and setting a goal in each area:
Purify my thoughts by not reading inappropriate novels.
Carefully screen TV programs and movies we view to avoid those that glorify immorality.
Strengthen the young men in my teachers quorum with some special lessons on modesty in behavior, language, and dress.
Read the scriptures ten to thirty minutes daily before bedtime or at lunchtime, and record impressions in my journal.
Read the Book of Mormon as a family for one hour on Sunday.
Set up a quorum reading chart to encourage study of the scriptures.
Be open to suggestions from my wife and children on how I can be a better father.
Discuss ways we can improve our fasting experience and contribute more to the needy.
Seek to befriend all new neighbors and help them feel part of the neighborhood and ward social activities.
Repentance is a major theme of the scriptures. It is essential if we hope to overcome the problems we face in these latter days. We need to be morally pure in order to receive needed inspiration from the Lord. We need to be serious students of the scriptures in order to combat the worldly philosophies of our time. And we need to develop humility in order to counteract selfishness.
It is comforting to know that we have a living prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, who can call our attention to areas of our lives that need improvement.
I have always sustained the living prophets, partly because I have received a personal witness that each is called of God. That personal witness regarding President Benson came Saturday morning, 5 April 1986, as I sat watching the first session of general conference on television with my family. As President Benson concluded that landmark address I thought, “Surely the Lord has spoken to the Latter-day Saints. Now the responsibility is on our shoulders to listen and obey—to cleanse the inner vessel!”