Not too long ago I came across an interesting passage in the New Testament that caught my attention and gave me pause. It is found in the obscure book of Titus, chaper 1 verse 15, which reads: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.”
I read it over a few times, trying to make sense of it…trying to see if it was saying what I thought it was saying.
Growing up in the Church, attending Sunday School and Seminary, and being in the LDS community in general, I had noticed that there seemed to be an implication that one’s religious piety and righteousness was directly related to one’s lack of tolerance for inappropriate things.
If you don’t watch R-rated movies, you’re righteous; if you don’t even watch PG-13 movies, you even more righteous; if you don’t own a TV at all because “all there is is trash on these days,” then you’re one step away from ascension into heaven.
I would also hear things like “how easily the spirit is offended,” and how any exposure to any semblance of indecency would put me on the fast track to sheol.
So imagine my surprise when I unfold the word of God and learn that “Unto the pure, all things are pure.” Was I reading this right? I did a little poking around, and it turns out that the Jews of the time of Jesus had a number of dietary and other elements that were classified as “unclean” and/or “defiled.” This reminded me of an oft overlooked vignette found in the Gospel of Mark, chaper 7:14-23:
And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?
And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
As I searched for increased meaning on the concepts, I found some commentary from Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, who said this about the Titus passage:
“All things-external, “are pure” in themselves; the distinction of pure and impure is not in the things, but in the disposition of him who uses them; in opposition to “the commandments of men” (Tit 1:14), which forbade certain things as if impure intrinsically. “To the pure” inwardly, that is, those purified in heart by faith (Ac 15:9; Ro 14:20; 1Ti 4:3), all outward things are pure; all are open to, their use. Sin alone touches and defiles the soul (Mt 23:26; Lu 11:41).”
So what was I to think about these passages in terms of the LDS prudishness that I observed often came to define righteousness? While I knew I was to “avoid the appearance of all evil,” I was also aware of a God given capacity to know good from evil, to encounter something, be able analyze it, determine its value or detriment, and then accept or reject it.
I once overheard a dispute between two friends about whether or not a certain movie was appropriate to watch. After some sparring, one of the friends used his trump card with a “would the prophet watch it?”
Listening to this, I chuckled to myself and wondered whether the prophet would really lack the spiritual maturity to recognize, reject and dismiss any unworthy or destructive elements and absorb the good and uplifting elements as they came.
I recognize that there certainly is such a thing as being desensitized, and that certainly is not praiseworthy. But from this scripture I learn that my purity and virtue is reflected in the things I seek after—the things to which I am drawn. If I should encounter something of questionable moral value, I need not feel that the mere exposure thereto is staining me with the blood of Babylon as I dismiss it in search for something more uplifting.
On another occasion, I was in my apartment browsing an old conference Ensign while listening to one roommate talk to another about the some people they had just been around. The roommate who was speaking talked about how offended he was as the immodest attire and the coarse language of those he had been in the company of. As he ranted, I flipped the page of ensign over to Elder David Bednar’s October 2006 talk and read the title: “And Nothing Shall Offend Them.” I smiled, knowing the context of the talk; it was given as a lambasting of less-active members who had their feelings hurt by other members; but since it was so fitting in the moment, I couldn’t help but think that there was a broader lesson to be learned.
With all this in mind, I still believe that for the sake of virtue, there are plenty of activities that should never be engaged in, plenty of movies and videos that are better off unseen, plenty of places that should not be frequented, and plenty of people who’s association with will be detrimental. But if I look around me, and I am unable to see or focus on any of the goodness that is out there, and instead use my energy to count the vices and evils of all I encounter, perhaps I should ask if its not my “mind and conscience [that] is defiled”.