We know we shouldn’t think about sin because “as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). So on what should we be focusing? Avoiding sin? Not really.
Paul wrote, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). Note that Paul does not suggest we spend time thinking about avoiding temptation.
Driver’s education classes teach students to focus on their own lane and the road ahead. In contrast, drivers who keep watching obstacles they want to avoid—like oncoming traffic in the other lane or trees off the side of the road—are inclined to run straight into them. Driving through life, we should not dwell on what we are trying to avoid; instead, we need to focus on where we want to go.
Christ demonstrated this principle when He taught a law higher than the Ten Commandments. Rather than a list of “thou shalt nots,” He gave us the Beatitudes. Instead of focusing on a list of ten things not to do, He explained that all commandments fit under two positive directions: love God and love your neighbor. Loving God and loving your neighbor are pure, honest, just, lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy things. In fact, the very definition of sin focuses on the positive: “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
A positive focus is also more effective from a neurological perspective. It’s difficult for our minds to negate images and thoughts. Try this: don’t think of a rhinoceros. Did you think of a rhinoceros? I bet you did. Before we can avoid a specific thought, our brains first have to conjure up the unwanted thing. So, despite our best intentions, not every part of our mind or nervous system cooperates. Certain brain mechanisms, when activated, respond to unwanted thoughts or images as just another goal, and biological autopilot programs are aroused immediately, regardless of our intentions. Thus, even a temporary negative focus on temptation can prolong our inclination toward it.
Bruce Fordham of LDS Family Services gave similar counsel in the Ensign: “Think about how you respond to a negative or inappropriate thought that comes into your mind, either as a result of unhealthy thought patterns or simply because you are a natural man or woman (see Mosiah 3:19; D&C 67:12). Perhaps you reprimand yourself. Or maybe you repeatedly tell yourself to stop thinking about that subject. In the case of the first response, you unwittingly weaken your resistance to such thoughts and lower your sense of self-worth and confidence. With the second response, you unknowingly give energy and strength to the undesirable thought by repeating its image. This occurs because our brains are unable to replace something with nothing. When there is not another thought or activity to replace a negative one, the thought to open the cupboard or miss the field goal or eat the cake takes root because of the image’s repetition in the vulnerable mind.”
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Moreover, given our innate drive to maintain and exercise our God-given (and fought-for) agency, the more frequently we tell ourselves “you can’t do X” or “you shouldn’t do Y,” the more subconsciously inclined we may be to rebel. After all, this entire earth life is about exercising our agency. In the words of President David O. McKay, “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.” We need to know we are making positive choices to direct our life, not just rebelling or fighting against negative ones. This is essential in order for us to clarify our true desires.
These principles also help maintain a more effective focus on the commandments. You can’t fully obey the Word of Wisdom, for example, if you are only thinking about it as a Pharisaical list of prohibitions. Let’s be honest: do you seriously think it’s wise to chug a whole liter of full-sugar Pepsi or to drink two energy drinks every morning when you shouldn’t have one glass of green tea? Does that seem right to you? Are you honestly obeying the spirit of the Word of Wisdom if you overeat fast food every day? This isn’t to say that anyone can “perfectly obey” the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Still, instead of thinking only “I can’t drink, smoke, or do drugs,” we are less “slothful” and far more “wise” when we focus on strengthening our desire to keep our body in top condition (D&C 58:26).
Similarly, instead of seeing the law of chastity as a rule to not do anything sexual with people you aren’t married to, we could focus on the positive: “love thy [husband or] wife with all thy heart, and cleave unto [him or] her and none else” (D&C 42:22).
There are infinite ways every one of us could better demonstrate our love and become a better spouse.
When my daughter Ella was five, she overheard me grumbling about not finding our bottle of wrinkle releaser. I was late for an event and had a shirt with wrinkles in it. Eager to help, Ella got excited.
“Dad, I know where the wrinkle releaser is!” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, come on. I’ll show you.”
I was thrilled. The day was saved. Ella took my hand and led me into the laundry room. “Here it is, Dad,” she said, pointing to the iron and ironing board. “Do you want me to show you how to use it?”
If I had been helping out more around the house, perhaps my five-year-old wouldn’t think she needed to show me how an iron works. Admittedly, although I did know how it worked, I never used it. Helping out around the house without being asked is one of the countless ways we can demonstrate love. And focusing on love as opposed to avoiding temptation is far more effective in keeping us on the Lord’s perfect path. Focusing on Christ is the best way to overcome temptation.