The Spiritual Benefits of Sin

January 14, 2006 | 30 comments
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Over at LDSLF, Dave Landrith asks an interesting question: can sin ever profit the soul? This is a topic I’ve pondered at some length over the years. Contra Dave, I believe that sinful acts can have real eventual spiritual benefits.

How exactly is it possible for sin to result in an ultimate spiritual gain? Because God can take the contacts that we may make in times of sin, the experiences that we gain, the repercussions that result, and turn them to a greater good.

This principle is illustrated clearly in scripture itself. In Alma 24, we see the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. The people of God chose to suffer death, unresisting. Their sacrifice converted thousands of their enemies.

Could those enemies have been converted absent their sinful act? It is not at all clear. Their hearts were sufficiently hardened that the preaching of the word had not yet converted them. It was only the shocking act of killing the innocent that awoke them to their sinful state; they then repented and were converted.

And what if one could go back in time and undo that sinful act? What then? Well, it is impossible to say that those sinners would later have been converted. Perhaps some of them would indeed have heeded further preaching. It is probably best to assume, however, that at least some subset of that group would not have been converted in that counterfactual world; for the people within that subset, their only way to repentance and belief had to come via a detour through sin.

How unique is this story? Is it possible that this particular story is indeed an instance of drawing a spiritual benefit from sin, but that it is also a one-of-a-kind, special occurence? I think not. Ask yourself, how many of us know a couple whose story falls along these lines:

She is an inactive church member who begins dating a non-member. At some point, they begin living together; they eventually marry and start a family. Somewhere down the line, she starts going back to church. She takes the kids to church; her husband cautiously tags along. Baptism follows, and a few years later he’s in the EQ presidency and the family is being sealed in the temple. Sound familiar? I thought so.

The simple fact is that all of our actions result in contacts, skills, experiences — consequences. Those consequences are generally not evil themselves, and they can be turned by God to our net spiritual gain. In fact, He loves to do this. He loves to make lemonade out of the lemons that we create. He has done this for thousands of years. He turned a visit by Israelite spies to the local harlot — clearly a sinful act — into a saving tool for the spies themselves and a benefit to the Israelite army. He turned the massacre of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies into a scene of mass conversion and repentance. God’s power is sufficient to take the fallout from our sinful acts — particularly, I think, those acts that broaden our social circles, or that result in the development of friendships or shared experiences with others — and turn them into a spiritual benefit that can accrue to us or to others.

Of course, one potential response to this argument is that God could have found another way to accomplish the same good, without the accompanying bad. This argument cannot be refuted in most cases — after all, we’re playing deep within counterfactual worlds, depending on empirical points that can never actually be established. However, it is a response that I find often rings hollow, since in many cases, it is hard to envision a counterfactual world that allows for the same ultimately beneficial consequences that ultimately come out of certain sinful acts.

And even if such worlds can be imagined in most cases — if we can think of counterfactual worlds that allow for our John Doe to eventually be baptized, and for our Lamanites to eventually find the gospel — there is still one instance where a series of sinful acts was absolutely necessary to reach a spiritual gain. And what a gain it was. Recall that a series of flawed and sinful men once, acting together, commited the ultimate sinful act. For what could possibly be more sinful than killing the Son of God?

That act was, without a doubt, the darkest and most hideous sin that mankind has ever committed. And yet God, through His power and love, took that sin and and transformed it into the greatest gift ever given the world. And as a result, it is on that sin — and its ultimate Consequences — that all of our souls depend. Indeed, if that sin could somehow be erased, with it would be erased the sublime beauty and love and power of the Atonement.

So I suppose I’ll disagree with your conclusion, Dave. It is absolutely correct that we should avoid sin wherever possible, and that our personal detours through sin will be painful and wrenching and may harm us greatly. And yet, I think that there are some times when a loving and all-knowing God, in his wisdom, realizes that only through a detour or series of detours can some of us ultimately reach our final destination. Our hopefully-not-too-frequent detours through sin, like the rest of our experiences, combine to make us who we are. And as long as “who we are” is “someone moving towards God,” then those detours can in fact result in spiritual benefit in our lives.

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30 Responses to The Spiritual Benefits of Sin

  1. Jessica C. on January 14, 2006 at 2:22 am

    I got pregnant and placed my baby for adoption. Out of sin was borne, literally, a life for a wonderful LDS couple who could not have children of their own. I often wonder if I had the choice to do over again, would I still have sex and committ the sin. The answer is always yes, for the blessings wrought from that sin will manifest themselves forever.

  2. D on January 14, 2006 at 2:44 am

    Nice try, Kaimi! I’m almost tempted to take the scenic route to Heaven now. Almost. :-)

    Except in the case of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, I think I’d rather go into hiding like Moroni than commit suicide-by-Lamanite just to prove a point.

    I did find an answer to your question of what’s more sinful than killing the Son of God: denying the Holy Ghost (Alma 39:6).

  3. Sonielem on January 14, 2006 at 4:37 am

    Benefits come from sin all the time, as the Lord uses evil to bring about righteousness.

    But I think the question had a different focus.

    We need sins in order to overcome them, and in the overcoming there is benefit. Considering sin as a part of larger whole–call it experience–that includes repentance leads to one answer.

    But sin alone? Sin, I think, is not a failure to follow this or that rule, but a turning away from the Savior, and I think there is no benefit to that–only illusions.

  4. Kim on January 14, 2006 at 8:08 am

    This is the first time I’ve left a comment here. This is a very interesting post.

    In my mind, sin could be considered a version of roulette. It’s true–there are many cases where people have realized the error of their ways, made a huge turnaround, and uplifted everyone around them as a result. Some of the strongest, most effective missionaries I knew were those who had overcome a rocky past. And it makes sense–it takes great spiritual strength to overcome bad habits and sinful acts, maybe even more strength than it takes to just live righteously every day.

    But on the other hand, you can’t forget the heartwrenching, horrible pain that results from sin. Are there spiritual benefits from this pain? Certainly. But is it worth it? Maybe, and maybe not. Some people may view it as a useful reminder the rest of their life, but how many will view it as a stain on their life? I’m would guess that for every person who has reconciled their past and goes on productively with the rest of their spiritual life, there are several people who never feel entirely worthy of forgiveness, and who likely feel out of place every single time they go to church (if they indeed continue to do so.)

    Also, regarding your example of the inactive and the non-member, how many people do you know who became inactive, married a non-member, never returned to the church, and made absolutely sure that their children would never do so? It is just as likely that sinners will drag other with them as it is that they will uplift others after their repentance.

    Thank goodness we have the ability to turn things around and “make lemonade,” because we are all going to sin. And maybe that’s exactly why I don’t think it’s a good idea to view sin as a beneficial thing–it’s in our natures to do it even when we’re making every effort not to. But to view it as something beneficial that God intended us to do because of the net gain? It just seems a risky way of viewing it, in my opinion.

    My thoughts, inarticulately stated, as usual. Sorry for hijacking the comments.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on January 14, 2006 at 8:38 am

    I’ve thought about this a bit myself, Kaimi; it’s a good topic to revisit. My thoughts:

    1. Given that the Lord has commanded us to be “perfect,” clearly His wish for us is to be sinless. Sin on its own terms, as Sonielem notes, is a turning away from God, a closing of a heart that God wants opened. So there is, and can never be, in the eyes of God and in light of our own interest in being saved, anything good or positive about sinning.

    2. Given, at the same time, that we can’t not sin, obviously God has made this world such all that He gives us beauty for all our ashes. Does He turn our “lemons” (our sins, that is) into lemonade (into “not sins”)? I don’t think so; I don’t think a positive consequence actually changes the nature of the sinful act in some divine calculus (“It all worked out in the end!”). Ashes remain ashes–it’s just that God has made it possible for those ashes, those sins, to be made beautiful.

    “Simul justus et peccator,” as Martin Luther put it. That’s us. Our sins make us sinful, and that doesn’t change (meaning their nature doesn’t either), yet by turning to God’s grace all we are and all we have done is justified–made beautiful–just the same.

  6. enochville on January 14, 2006 at 10:01 am

    I think the benefits that come from sinning and then repenting can be obtained through a sinless route. The Savior never sinned and achieved more during his mortal life than we ever will. Sin is a retardant to our spiritual progression. All its “benefits” come from “hitting rock bottom” so to speak. The pain/discomfort gets so bad that we realize that we have strayed far from the path and need to focus on getting back in line. As such, sin would only help if you were already slightly off the path to begin with and just not realizing it. Perhaps it is just your thinking or perception that is off. After feeling the pains of sin, you see how far you were off before the sin and readjust your thinking and behavior. However, I believe the stray thinking could have been corrected without sinning.

  7. Beijing on January 14, 2006 at 10:02 am

    “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

    There’s “nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
    It’s easy.
    All you need is love.”

  8. RoastedTomatoes on January 14, 2006 at 10:28 am

    Kaimi, nice thoughts. As a person who believes that sin is inevitable for mortals (while mortal) it’s nice to be reminded that sin can lead to helpful experiences. Obviously, God is capable of giving us blessings in any way He sees fit. But we should perhaps remember that the way that He did see fit was by sending us to a mortal world, cutting us off for the most part from direct knowledge of Him, and surrounding us with a bunch of other sin-prone mortals. If God’s plan was for us never to sin, this seems like a rather indirect way of trying to achieve it! Hence we must conclude that God’s plan for us includes sin. That doesn’t mean we should try to sin, of course, if for no other reason than that, as per Lehi, wickedness never was happiness. But it does mean that, when we find we have sinned, we should remember that it will be okay.

    Or, we could become Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles and simply repeat, “what should be, is.”

  9. Costanza on January 14, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    I think Ether 12:27 sheds a little bit of light on the issue.

  10. Melissa on January 14, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Dave writes,

    “Mormon doctrine dictates that my move to atheism was a mistake. This doesn’t mean that everything I did when I was an atheist was a mistake. While an atheist, I started a family and a career, and I grew as an individual. But it does mean that I would have grown more if my life hadn’t taken that detour through atheism.”

    Like Kaimi, I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Unlike Kaimi, however, I would not necessarily describe atheism as sinful. An honest inability to believe in God doesn’t seem to belong in the same category as drunkenness, spitefulness, anger, envy, sloth, etc.

    If we define as sinful anything that separates us from God, atheism certainly qualifies. But, I think we need to develop a more nuanced conception of sin if we’re really going to discuss the implications of atheism.

  11. Matt Evans on January 14, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Melissa, what definition of sin could we use besides that which separates us from God or leads to spiritual death? Because we’re commanded even to believe (Mosiah 4:8-9), aside from atheists’ obvious violation of the greatest commandment, it seems there’s no option but to view atheism as a serious sin.

    Regarding the larger point, sin is that which damns us, and stops our progress. If it benefitted our eternal welfare it wouldn’t be sinful. (There’s every reason to believe that God’s deontology and long-term utilitarianism are the same thing.)

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 14, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Roasted Tomatoes,
    I don’t think it follows at all from our presence in a sin-prone wolrd that God wishes us to sin. God does not look on sin ‘with the least degree of allowance,’ and thats just one scripture among many. God wishes you not to sin. You are in a sin-prone world because God wants you to have the experience of being tested, tempted, and tried.

  13. JKS on January 14, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    It is not SIN that is good and brings blessings. It is REPENTENCE. There is a difference.

  14. Matt Evans on January 14, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    But repentence is only good because it restores that which was lost. We would be better had we no need for repentence, like Christ.

  15. EmilyS on January 14, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    One blessing that I’ve found tends to grow out of sin is compassion. It seems to me that there tends to be a certain lack of empathy in those that consider themselves never to have seriously sinned, perhaps because empathy requires us to image ourselves in some way fallible. I’ve found myself to be much more loving (much more Christlike, if I do say so myself) toward others who struggle since I began struggling myself. The struggles don’t even have to match up (that is, I don’t have to have struggled personally with homosexuality or pornography to have compassion for those who do), but I do think that, having messed up and repentented makes me much more able to empathize with people whose sins are more grave than, say, levity.

    While I don’t think its *impossible* for people to have compassion and love for sinners without ever having really strayed themselves, I do think that it’s much less prevalent.

  16. LisaB on January 14, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    I had this same argument with my dad when I was in college. I was arguing the benefits of sin in terms of appreciation of the atonement and love for the Savior based on Jesus’ unfavorable comparison of Simon Peter to the woman who annointed Jesus feet with ointment and bathed his then with her tears:

    “Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil though didsn’t not anoint: but this woman hath annointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (Luke 7:44-7)

    I think it was Pres Kimball who seemed to refute my understanding of this passage when he taught that the individual who resists sin longest gains greater appreciation for the strength of the adversary than the individual who is knocked out earlier on in the fight. I’m not sure how to resolve these two different ideas. But I do think that humility and recognition of our vast nothingness and universal beggar state can come in ways other than repentance. And God can turn to good even unrepented wicked deeds–though not for the unrepentant sinner herself.

  17. Will F on January 14, 2006 at 11:12 pm

    We just read Moses 5:11 and thought it added some insight into this question: “And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”

  18. S on January 14, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    I think it’s also interesting to think about the difference between “weakness” and “sin” (both in the scriptures and in church discourse). I tend to agree that sin is a conscious choice to turn away from God, and while good things can eventually come out of it (a greater appreciation for repentance, an increased sense of empathy), I agree with others who say that those things can be learned without sinning. It does seem, however, that there is a more favorable representation of “weakness” in the scriptures than “sin.” Ether 12 comes to mind here, and I think about Moses who did not have the ability to speak well, and all the Book of Mormon prophets who were always talking about not being mighty in writing. It definitely seems like the scriptures often present “weakness” in a favorable light (while sin almost always gets condemned).

    I think the scripture that Will F. points out is an interesting one. The choice that Adam and Eve made, while not condoned by God because it was a transgression, was necessary to His plan (and it fits more into the realm of “sin” than “weakness”). One question related to this scripture–isn’t there a church leader or two who has made a distinction between “sin” and “transgression”?

  19. Adam Greenwood on January 15, 2006 at 12:18 am

    Note that Christ was able to say, ‘no man is good but God,’ without having sinned himself. There’s lots of human error and weakness that doesn’t involve sin.

  20. Dsilversmith on January 15, 2006 at 1:06 am

    I work with silver and make things out of it. Offen there are problems and I end up with somthing that did not turn out the way I wanted it to. The twisted, black and bent peace of silver then gose into my scrap pile, Latter I will pull it out, cut, trim, heat and bent this scrap peace into a peace of Jewerly. Others offen tell me how good the peace is and what a great job I did on it, But I know that when I first took it to hand it failed they don’t see the beauty that I saw in it that failed to achieve. When we fail to live up to our potenel the Lord can still make something beautiful out of us. How much more we could have been is only Known to God.

  21. fMhLisa on January 15, 2006 at 1:12 am

    oh! Great post. My little brain is trying to get it all through. I think some of my best spritual moments are the direct result of sinful behavior, because those are some of my best learning moments. And I definitely think I’m a better person, more compassionate, more empathetic, more humble because of my sins.

  22. Weston C on January 15, 2006 at 5:20 am

    “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

  23. Weston C on January 15, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Something else regarding this: I’ve often wondered if the ability God has to “take the contacts that we may make in times of sin, the experiences that we gain, the repercussions that result, and turn them to a greater good” is not only something God *can* do, but if it isn’t in fact *the* quintessential Good power. It’s clear that if you remove it, the entire plan of salvation falls apart, both in terms of our inability to succeed without grace, and also in terms of everyone but a very few select spirits (Christ being the only notable example) to learn via encounter with evil without succumbing. We all know the grace of the atonement is essential, but I think we sometimes tend to look at it as a contingency, something God had to ad hoc into the perfect world as an imperfect accomodation. What’s nice about Kaimi’s post is that it makes the whole thing seem more integrated, and it’s easier to see how this ability to take imperfect pieces and use them towards a perfected good may in fact as much a Godlike attribute as personal Holiness or Charity.

    And it’s mirrored on the other side with a power of evil: the ability to twist something good into something that works to sorrow or destruction. Perhaps the essence of each side are the ends to which things are turned.

  24. Kaimi Wenger on January 16, 2006 at 3:23 am

    Thanks all, for your comments thus far. I hope to respond to them, since this is a topic that I find very interesting.

    Dad (#20), I’ll take your comment first, in part because you’re related to a bunch of great people, and in part because I really enjoyed your comment. I like the silver analogy a lot, even though it undercuts my own argument.

    I’ve watched you make jewelry over the years, even adding my own near-disastrous participation to the process from time to time. I’ve seen lots of your jewelry, and I regularly wear some of your rings; Mardell’s jewelry chest is full of rings and pendants, necklaces and earrings, that have come from your forge.*

    I must say that as the end viewer of your jewelry, I have a really hard time knowing if a piece of jewelry was your Plan B or Plan C or Plan Z, rather than Plan A. I see only the agate ring or the pair of malachite earrings. You’re exactly right that what I don’t see is that perfect piece of malachite for a pendant that you were envisioning — perfect right until it cracked down the middle as you were polishing it, and so you made it into a set of earrings.

    On the other hand, Plan B and Plan C may be beautiful in their own ways. They may be close to Plan A in overall beauty; in some ways, perhaps they exceed the beauty of Plan A. A piece of malachite that breaks in two can be used for two rings, and those rings can go to two different people rather than one. It’s hard to judge the differences, as they affect different users.

    Your comment made me realize something I missed the first time around, though — that there are more than just the end users to account for. There is also the Silversmith who must pay for the silver and the stones. And one thing that I overlooked in my analysis is the fact that our detours through sin will entail added pain for Christ, who must take upon himself on our sins when we repent.

    Thus, I think it may be correct that detours through sin create an _overall_ net loss. But because we are able to pass some of the cost on to Christ, our going with Plan B or Plan C may ultimately work just as well _for us_ as Plan A. In economics language, our detours through sin create a negative externality — like the factory owner who benefits from a polluting factory, while the pollution falls on other people’s property. They may profit _us_ — but their net effect is still an overall loss, because that cost must still be borne by someone. That someone is Jesus.

    Those are my thoughts at present, but I’m not at all sure that they’re settled, or that I’ve got it all worked out to my satisfaction. (I reserve the right to follow up with something that actually makes sense, and may even be coherent!)

    I’m going to turn in now, but I’ll try to respond to other comments tomorrow.

    *As I type this comment, I’m wearing the little tiger-eye ring you gave me. My absolute favorite is still the striking, large oblong maroon-black-gold-gray agate ring that I literally appropriated from off your finger a few years ago. I wear that one regularly, despite the fact that it’s a little too big for my finger. Everyone I know likes it. (A random attorney at Cravath once stopped me in the hallway and grabbed my hand, just to look at it.)

    Alas, I haven’t seen that one for a few weeks now — I suspect that it got knocked behind a dresser, or perhaps one of the kids hid it somewhere. Once I finish this comment, I’m going to go look behind the dresser. And then go to bed.

  25. Wanda on January 16, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    I used to have a single’s ward bishop who would encourage the older singles to “lighten up” even if that meant they “sinned” a little (sex thoughts, masturbation, necking, petting) because they were so uptight and would never get married otherwise. He said the ends justified the means.

  26. Nathan on January 16, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    I have gone through the repentance process, but as Kaimi states, the gain only comes because of the Savior. Sin does not help us one iota, but feeling the spirit, recognizing wrong, making ammends to the wrong, and changing ones life gets us back to where we should have been, and could have been in the first place. Hence, progression was halted for a time and we are further behind than where we could have been had we not sinned.

    I went home last night after doing some home teaching and a visit with an investigator who thinks he wants to get baptized. I started talking with my wife and stated how much I learn by teaching the gospel and how much I appreciate the feelings of doing good.

    When it comes down to it, the great and enriching changes in life come because the spirit intercedes and causes us to reflect about where we want to be, whether that comes because of sin or not. I wanted to do more missionary work and help others after a strong period of repentance. The same feelings came last night as I finished doing those things that I should have been doing in the first place. I am better off than had I used that time to sin.

  27. Bookslinger on January 16, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    If committing sin puts us in places or situations from which good eventually comes, that speaks to a loving, merciful and omniscient God (with exhaustive foreknowledge :-), not to the so-called benefits of sin.

  28. DavidH on January 17, 2006 at 11:47 am

    I wonder if the sons of Mosiah would have felt the same urge to preach to their supposed enemies had they not experienced the pains of Hell on earth, so that “they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” Mosiah 28:3.

    This same type of compassion motivates recovering alcoholics and addicts to reach out to other alcoholics and addicts who still suffer. My father, who worked a number of years as a director of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic, told me in his experience that the most effective counselors were those who had been through it themselves. My current assignment is in the Church’s addiction recovery program, and the same is true in my experience. It is one thing for a bishop or stake president, who has never personally suffered the throes of addiction, to assure an addict that recovery is possible (to which the addict may ask, “How would you know?”) There is a certain additional credibility when another addict, who has recovered, extends the same hope to one who still suffers.

    I do not think this means it is better to have been through addiction and recovered, than to have avoided falling into the addiction at all. Most addicts I know wish they had never started. But all recovering addicts I know are grateful for the compassion, love and understanding that comes from having been extended the love and grace of God and, like the sons of Mosiah, cannot bear that others still suffer (or begin suffering) those pains.

  29. Nathan on January 17, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    True compassion comes through the the pure love of Christ, via the spirit. Or is this a fallacy of gospel doctrine? In answer, I have felt the compassion for my sisters who have had eating disorders, for parents who have fallen away from the church, for friends who do not observe the word of wisdom, for acquaintances who have been imprisoned for embezzlement. My heart goes out to them yet I of myself have not partaken of these sins or transgressions.

    One could argue that becuase we all sin, we understand each other, but I disagree again. The question we ought to pose is, “does repentance create compassion or does having a healthy dose of the spirit create it?” The only perfect example is Christ. No other person has gone through life without sin and therefore cannot be used as a test to know if sin is necessary for compassion or not. Christ proved to us that true compassion does not come about because of sin.

    I see sin as a stop in our progression and repentance gets us back on the path to perfection. If we are truly on this so called path to perfection, then we will recieve the benefits that come through the spirit. It is a silly philosophy to believe that sin creates spiritual benefits not able to be had by those who don’t sin.

  30. gs on January 27, 2006 at 2:26 am

    sin introduced freedom of choice

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