What Are the Roles of Persuasion and Punishment in Motivating Good Behavior?

This is the third of three posts in response to a question I received last week.

The first post discussed God’s love for us.

The second discussed why God would “inflict” things on us.

Today’s post discusses the roles of persuasion and of punishment from God’s perspective. The questioner wants to understand why a loving God would ever punish His children. Isn’t persuasion enough?

First, God and His representatives do try to persuade us to accept and to live by true principles.

  • The Title Page of the Book of Mormon states that one of its purposes is to convince us that Jesus is the Christ.
  • Nephi labored diligently to persuade his children and his siblings “to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God” (2 Nephi 25:23).
  • The angel who appeared to Alma the Younger said that he was sent “to convince [him] of the power and authority of God” (Mosiah 27:14).
  • Zeezrom was convinced by the testimony of Alma and Amulek (Alma 12:7).
  • Alma wished he could speak with the voice of an angel, “with the voice of thunder” (Alma 29:1-2).
  • After pleading with his people to repent, to no avail, Mormon wrote, “I would that I could persuade all ye ends of the earth to repent and prepare to stand before the judgment-seat of Christ” (Mormon 3:22).

However, we aren’t always so easily persuaded.

  • Nephi couldn’t understand why his brothers, who had seen an angel, continually slipped back into unrighteous patterns of behavior (1 Nephi 7:10, 1 Nephi 17:45). At one point, Nephi stretched out his hand toward his brothers, and the Lord “did shake them” by His power (1 Nephi 17:54). But this didn’t produce lasting change either.
  • When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies allowed their enemies to kill them, many of the enemy were moved with compassion and became converts to the gospel as well. However, two groups of former believers, the Amalekites and the Amulonites, were so hardened that not a single one of them joined the people of God (Alma 24:28-30).
  • After the destruction which coincided with His death, the Savior lamented the unwillingness of those who had fallen to accept the invitations which they had received many times: “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,… and ye would not” (3 Nephi 10:5). (See also Matthew 23:37.)

We’d like to think that a perfectly persuasive Being would be able to convince us to change our behavior and follow Him. We’d like to think that, if the evidence that we are wrong became convincing enough, we would of course change our minds. But these stories suggest otherwise.

A major theme in the Book of Mormon is our natural stubbornness and resistance to change:

At the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.
And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him (Helaman 12:2-3).

Mormon paints a picture of a God who will do almost anything to persuade us, including sending rewards and punishments, but who will not override our agency. We must choose whether to believe and whether to obey, and we are ultimately accountable for those choices.

In this telling, punishments are not the opposite of persuasion. They are a form of persuasion. Their purpose is not to exact vengeance for our sins but to wake us up and convince us to abandon our sins. The Lord uses a variety of teaching methods, including words, rewards, and punishments.

For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes…. And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests (Doctrine and Covenants 88:89-90).

Today, I will be grateful for a God who teaches and motivates me in many different ways, according to my needs. I will be grateful for His enduring interest in my progress and for His patience with me as I struggle to learn basic principles. I will also remember that I am ultimately accountable for my own decisions. He will invite and persuade, but ultimately I must choose whether to believe and whether to obey.

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