What Is Priestcraft?

Is it okay to do the right things for the wrong reasons?

Near the end of his writings, Nephi issues a serious warning: We must not participate in priestcraft. Here is his description of what that means:

Behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion…
But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish. (2 Nephi 26:29, 31).

When we’re doing the Lord’s work, our motives matter. We should participate in religious activities with a goal to help God accomplish His work, not with a goal to win the admiration of others. Why does this matter? Here are a few ideas:

  1. A person who is trying to win the admiration of others may perform their religious duties superficially. They may go through the motions of religious observance, but since their heart isn’t in it, they will likely not get much out of the experience.
  2. If our goal is to win the praise of other people, we will likely perform only our public religious duties. Private activities like personal prayer, quiet pondering, and secret acts of service may fall by the wayside.
  3. A person who is motivated only by praise may stop performing their duties when praise is received or when praise seems not to be forthcoming. They may therefore be inconsistent in the performance of their religious duties.

When the Savior visited the American continent, He twice warned the people against priestcraft, both times in the middle of a list of sins (3 Nephi 16:10, 3 Nephi 21:19). Mormon ended the book of 3 Nephi with a similar list, urging us to turn from our “priestcrafts,” so that we can come to the Savior, receive the Holy Ghost, and be numbered among His people (3 Nephi 30:2).

President Dallin H. Oaks once talked about six possible motivations for serving in the Church. These motivations, from the lowest to the highest are:

  1. For an earthly reward
  2. For good companionship
  3. Out of fear of punishment
  4. Out of a sense of duty
  5. For an eternal reward
  6. Because we love God

Elder Oaks explained that the first of these motivations is what the scriptures call “priestcraft.” He said:

Service that is ostensibly unselfish but is really for the sake of riches or honor surely comes within the Savior’s condemnation of those who “outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within … are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt. 23:28.) Such service earns no gospel reward (“Why Do We Serve?” General Conference, October 1984).

Today, I will consider my motives for my religious activities. Am I doing the right things for the right reasons, or am I motivated by less noble motives? I will remember that poor motives can result in poor performance. My “why” affects my “what” and my “how.”

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