5 And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
During the time that Joseph Smith served as mayor of Nauvoo, a member of the state legislature visited the city and asked Joseph how he was able to preserve order among such a large group of people. As John Taylor later recalled, Joseph replied, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 24: “Leading in the Lord’s Way“)
Boyd K. Packer, on a number of occasions, taught essentially the same principle: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior” (“Little Children,” General Conference, October 1986).
In the passage above, we read about why Alma decided to organize a group of missionaries to preach to the Zoramites, an apostate group of people who had declared their independence from the Nephite nation. There were many ways of motivating the Zoramites to stay, but Alma thought that preaching the word of God would have the most powerful effect upon their minds, certainly more than any attempt to compel them to behave more appropriately.
When we attempt to compel good behavior, either by force or through the use of incentives, we create an unsustainable condition. The good behavior may appear, but as soon as the force or the incentives go away, it will vanish. At that point, it becomes clear that it was our agency which produced the good behavior, not the agency of the person whom we were acting upon. It is only when they internalize the true principle and recognize its value that they can begin to apply it for themselves.
Today, I will “try the virtue of the word of God.” I will teach my children correct principles. When I observe behavior I would like them to change, I will ask myself, “Which doctrines or principles of the gospel do they not understand which could help them make wiser decisions in this circumstance?” I will focus more on teaching those principles and less on correcting the specific behaviors.