Question: How can we ensure that our hearts are “right in the sight of God”?
Answer: “When is our heart right with God? Our heart is right with God when we truly desire what is righteous—when we desire what God desires.” (Dallin H. Oaks)
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9 But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime (in the past) in the same city used sorcery (used Satan’s power along with superstition), and bewitched (deceived) the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one (building himself up in the eyes of the people):
10 To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. (The people thought his power came from God.)
11 And to him they had regard (fear and respect), because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.
12 But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
13 Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued (traveled) with Philip, and wondered (was amazed), beholding (seeing) the miracles and signs which were done.
14 Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria (many people in Samaria) had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John:
15 Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:
16 (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) (None of those baptized had yet been confirmed.)
17 Then laid they (Peter and John) their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money (offered to buy the Melchizedek Priesthood from them),
19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.
20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. (The priesthood is not for sale.)
21 Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. (You can’t participate in the priesthood because you have wrong motives for wanting it.)
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Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
Each of us desires the ultimate blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom. Even when we fall short, we desire what is right. That is my subject—“The Desires of Our Hearts.” I am interested in this subject because it highlights a critical contrast between the laws of God, as revealed in the scriptures, and what I will call the laws of man, as set out in the national and state laws with which I was concerned in my thirty years in the legal profession.
Laws—Man’s and God’s
The laws of man are never concerned about a person’s desires or thoughts in isolation. When the law inquires into a person’s state of mind or intent, it only seeks to determine what consequence should be assigned to particular actions that person has taken.
In contrast, the laws of God are concerned with spiritual things. Spiritual consequences are affected by actions, but they are also affected by desires or thoughts, independent of actions. Gospel consequences flow from the desires of our hearts...
It was so in Book of Mormon times. As we read in Alma, the people of Nephi could be punished for their criminal actions, but “there was no law against a man’s belief” (Alma 30:11). It is good that this is so. The law is an imperfect instrument. It has no reliable way to look into a person’s heart.
In contrast, God’s law can assign consequences solely on the basis of our innermost thoughts and desires. There is no uncertainty in the administration of this law. As Ammon taught King Lamoni, God “looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning” (Alma 18:32)...
In other words, God judges us not only for our acts, but also for the desires of our hearts. He has said so again and again. This is a challenging reality, but it is not surprising. Agency and accountability are eternal principles. We exercise our free agency not only by what we do, but also by what we decide, or will, or desire. Restrictions on freedom can deprive us of the power to do, but no one can deprive us of the power to will or desire. Accountability must therefore reach and attach consequences to the desires of our hearts.
This principle applies both in a negative way—making us guilty of sin for evil thoughts and desires—and in a positive way—promising us blessings for righteous desires.
Sins of Desire...
The New Testament also condemns anger and unrighteous feelings—another example of sins committed solely on the basis of thoughts (see Matthew 5:22).
The Book of Mormon illustrates this same principle in its definition of priestcraft, the sin committed by those who preach the gospel to gain personal advantage rather than to further the work of the Lord...
The same is true of those who draw near to the Lord with their lips but have removed their hearts far from him...Likewise, the Psalmist condemned the people of ancient Israel because “their heart was not right with [God]” (Psalms 78:37). When is our heart right with God? Our heart is right with God when we truly desire what is righteous—when we desire what God desires.
Educating Our Desires
Our divinely granted willpower gives us control over our desires, but it may take many years for us to be sure that we have willed and educated them to the point that all are entirely righteous...
How do we educate our desires? We begin, I suppose, with our feelings. The desires of our hearts are deep-seated and fundamental. But our feelings are closer to the surface and easier for us to identify and influence...
In order to have righteous desires, we have to control our thoughts and achieve appropriate feelings. My widowed mother understood that principle. “Pray about your feelings,” she used to say. She taught her three children that we should pray to have the right kind of feelings about our experiences—positive or negative—and about the people we knew. If our feelings were right, we would be more likely to take right actions and to act for the right reasons.
Mormon teaches that if our heart is not right, even a good action is not counted for righteousness. . . . In other words, we must not only act, we must act for the right reasons. There are no blessings for actions taken without real intent.
Mormon even applied this principle to our prayers. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth nonesuch...
Many scriptures reveal how the thoughts of our hearts will be relevant on the day of judgment. Alma taught that when we are brought before the bar of God to be judged, our works, our words, and our thoughts will all condemn us (see Alma 12:12, 14).
Two of my favorite verses of scripture are in the Twenty-fourth Psalm:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart. [Psalms 24:3–4; see also Alma 5:19]
If we refrain from evil acts, we have clean hands. If we refrain from forbidden thoughts, we have pure hearts. Those who would ascend and stand in the ultimate holy place must have both...
What do these teachings about feelings and desires mean for each of us? Are we sure to be guiltless under the law of God if we merely refrain from evil acts? What if we entertain evil thoughts and desires? Will hateful feelings go unnoticed in the day of judgment? Will envy? Will covetousness? Are we guiltless if we engage in business practices that are intended to deceive, even though they involve no act that is punishable by law? ...
Our answers to such questions illustrate what we might call the bad news, that we can sin without overt acts, merely by our feelings and the desires of our hearts. There is also good news. Under the law of God, we can be rewarded for righteousness even where we are unable to perform the acts that are usually associated with such blessings.
Blessings for Righteous Desires
When someone genuinely wanted to do something for my father-in-law but was prevented by circumstances, he would say: “Thank you. I will take the good will for the deed.” Similarly, I believe that our Father in Heaven will receive the true desires of our hearts as a substitute for actions that are genuinely impossible...
That is a sobering teaching, but it is also a gratifying one. It means that when we have done all that we can, our desires will carry us the rest of the way. It also means that if our desires are right, we can be forgiven for the mistakes we will inevitably make as we try to carry those desires into effect...
I caution against two possible misunderstandings: First, we must remember that desire is a substitute only when action is truly impossible. If we attempt to use impossibility of action as a cover for our lack of true desire and therefore do not do all that we can to perform the acts that have been commanded, we may deceive ourselves, but we will not deceive the Righteous Judge...
Second, we should not assume that the desires of our hearts can serve as a substitute for an ordinance of the gospel. Consider the words of the Lord in commanding two gospel ordinances: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)...
In summary, under the law of God we are accountable for our feelings and desires as well as our acts. Evil thoughts and desires will be punished. Acts that seem to be good bring blessings only when they are done with real and righteous intent. On the positive side, we will be blessed for the righteous desires of our hearts even though some outside circumstance has made it impossible for us to carry those desires into action...
God lives. Jesus Christ is his Son. He suffered and died for our sins, that through repentance, through good works, through the righteous desires of our hearts, and through compliance with all the laws and ordinances of the gospel, we may attain to the highest degree of glory in the celestial kingdom. That is the destiny of the children of God. Of that I bear testimony as I ask the blessings of our Heavenly Father upon each of us in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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Sources: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 107; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 2, Volume 3, by David J. Ridges, 22-23; Excerpts from “The Desires of Our Hearts,” by Dallin H. Oaks. Dallin H. Oaks was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this devotional address was given at Brigham Young University on 8 October 1985.