For the first several months of our son Andrew's mission in the Ohio Columbus Mission, he asked for copies of talks by General Authorities, and he was especially interested in getting to know his great-grandfather, President Harold B. Lee, a little better through his sermons and his written word.
Andrew liked this one a lot. Published in the July 1971 Ensign as a First Presidency message, its origin is much older -- it was a radio sermon he delivered to the youth of the Church soon after he was called as an Apostle. This sermon was one of many delivered in a series over radio station KSL in Salt Lake City from January 1 to June 24, 1945.
The radio series bore the title "Youth and the Church." At that time America was in the final stages of World War II, and the youth of the Church were faced with tremendous challenges in combatting the evils that surround war. The talks were ultimately compiled in a book under the title Youth and the Church, then reprinted in later years under the title Decisions for Successful Living.
His message is as timely and timeless today as the day he first delivered it.
First Presidency Message
By President Harold B. Lee
First Counselor in the First Presidency
"Successful" Sinners, Ensign, Jul 1971, 2
Are there actually any successful sinners? Well, perhaps what you are thinking about is the man of independence who, despite the fact that his money may not always have come to him from honest toil or from legitimate enterprise, lives a life of luxury and ease. He spends his Sundays playing golf, at a baseball game, or at the races instead of worrying about difficult Church problems as a responsible Church officer, or otherwise keeping the Sabbath day holy; he takes long excursions to interesting places by spending money, a part of which, at least, he could have paid in tithing contributions or in donations for the building up of the Church or for the care of the needy. He hasn’t time to fill a mission for the Church at his own expense. Because of the worldly company he keeps, he has no scruples about drinking or gambling. Even immorality is winked at by his crowd, who absent themselves from Church contacts where such conduct, measured by gospel standards, would be vigorously condemned.
At the same time, you may have observed that the woman who lives at his house, whom he calls his wife, has completely ignored the first commandment “to multiply and replenish the earth.” She can’t be bothered with children; they might interfere with her career or her social activities. She thinks herself beyond the pale of the Church and quiets her conscience with the constant expression that after all, religion and the Church are only for the poor and the unsophisticated. The expenditure of her husband’s wealth has freed her from home responsibilities so that her days must be kept from monotony by bridge parties, and other functions where smoking and drinking are indulged in with little or no regard for Church injunctions to the contrary. She is able to dress in the latest and most expensive fashions; she avoids the telltale marks of a mother’s home duties, including worries about children.
Perhaps as you look at such pictures of seeming success by sinners against the Lord’s commandments you may, from lack of perspective of the entire span of life and its purposes, conclude that such have chosen the better way. You may think that by comparison the life of one active in the Church is not easy, with its constant inhibitions and constraints, with the service and sacrifice entailed that require time, talent, and money, and the disquieting shocks that come to the conscience when one acts below the standards he professes. You may think that energies expended in other endeavors might pay greater dividends and that religion should be left to those who can’t afford anything better. But before you make your final decision as to the course you will take, let me help you lift your vision to a higher vantage point so you can see things as they really are.
Beautiful, luscious fruit does not grow unless the roots of the parent tree have been planted in rich, fertile soil and unless due care is given to proper pruning, cultivation, and irrigation. So likewise the luscious fruits of virtue and chastity, honesty, temperance, integrity, and fidelity are not to be found growing in that individual whose life is not founded on a firm testimony of the truths of the gospel and of the life and the mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. To be truly righteous there is required a daily pruning of the evil growth of our characters by daily repentance from sin.
Who is the author of the program that thus dresses up evil and the wrong to become so desirable to our appetites? When there was war in heaven, Lucifer, a son of God in the spirit world before the earth was formed, proposed a plan under which mortals would be saved without any effort or choice, and for this service he demanded glory and honor of God. The plan of our Savior, Jehovah, was to give to each the right to choose for himself the course he would travel in earth life, and all was to be done to the honor and glory of God our Heavenly Father. Jehovah’s plan was accepted; Satan’s plan was rejected. [Editor's note: I hasten to interject that Satan really didn't have "a plan," because there is only one plan -- "the plan of happiness" -- but I digress.]
But, you ask, why does God, if he truly loves his children, permit Satan to tempt us and thereby jeopardize our chances to gain the best experiences in mortality and return back to enjoy eternal life in his presence? The answer is given by a great prophet-teacher:
“Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one [which is evil] or the other [which is good].” (2 Ne. 2:16.)
Think about that for a moment. If there were no opposition to good, would there be any chance to exercise your agency or right to choose? To deny you that privilege would be to deny you the opportunity to grow in knowledge, experience, and power. God has given laws with penalties affixed so that man might be made afraid of sin and be guided into paths of truth and duty. (See Alma 42:20.)
And because there is this choice between good and evil, the Lord has provided a means for the return of those who go astray.
Before I attempt to explain this precious refining process of the human soul called repentance, may I state two simple but fundamental truths. First, Satan with all his cunning cannot overthrow you if you strive with all your might to keep the commandments of the Lord. And second, with the first breaking of one of these commandments you have taken your first step into Satan’s territory.
Now what are the steps to be taken for repentance — the steps we must take in order to be worthy of God’s forgiveness through the redemption of the Master’s atoning sacrifice and to eventually enjoy the privileges of eternal life in the world to come? An all-wise Father, foreseeing that some would fall in sin and all would have need to repent, has provided the plan of salvation, which defines the clear-cut way of repentance.
First, those in sin must confess. “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” (D&C 58:43.) That confession must be made first to the person who has been most wronged by your acts. A sincere confession is not merely admitting guilt after the proof is already in evidence. If you have offended many persons openly, your acknowledgment is to be made openly and before those whom you have offended that you might show your shame and humility and willingness to receive a merited rebuke. If your act is secret and has resulted in injury to no one but yourself, your confession should be in secret, that your Heavenly Father who hears in secret may reward you openly. Acts that may affect your standing in the Church, or your right to privileges or advancement in the Church, are to be promptly confessed to the bishop whom the Lord has appointed as a shepherd over every flock and whom the Lord has commissioned to be a common judge in Israel.
The unbaptized person who is in sin may, by following a similar course, receive at the hands of an authorized elder of the Church, if otherwise prepared by an understanding of the gospel, baptism for the remission of his sins. Following confession, one in sin must show forth the fruits of his repentance by good deeds, which are weighed against the bad. He must make proper restitution to the limit of his power to restore that which he has taken away, or he must repair the damage he has done. He who thus repents of his sins and altogether turns away therefrom, to return no more to a repetition thereof, is entitled to the promise of a forgiveness of his sins if he has not committed the unpardonable sin; as it was declared by the Prophet Isaiah, “… though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. 1:18.)
But please do not misunderstand the true meaning of the scriptures. One may not wallow in the mire of filth and sin and conduct his life in a manner unlawful in the sight of God and then suppose that repentance will wipe out the effects of his sin and place him on the level he would have been on had he always lived a righteous and virtuous life. The Lord extends loving mercy and kindness in forgiving you of the sins you commit against him or his work, but he can never remove the results of the sin you have committed against yourself in thus retarding your own advancement toward your eternal goal.
There are no successful sinners. All must one day stand before God and be judged, each according to the deeds done in the flesh. What do you think now? Is the burden of the sinner lighter than that of the saint?
May you be blessed and guided always in your search for the best in life, I pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.