What Does It Mean to Cleanse the Inward Vessel?

At a critical moment in the largest war recorded in the Book of Mormon, Moroni, the commander of the Nephite army, became aware that something was wrong.

  • One of his subordinates, Helaman, had questioned in a letter why the government had not sent more troops to bolster the strength of his armies. He had even speculated that there might be “some faction in the government” preventing the appropriate execution of their war strategy (Alma 58:34-37).
  • Shortly after, Moroni received news that the city Nephihah had been conquered by their enemies. More soldiers were supposed to have been sent to that city to help defend it, but that clearly had not happened (Alma 59:5-9).

These two events caused Moroni to shift his focus away from the battlefront and toward the government leaders on whom he relied for support (Alma 59:11-13).

Moroni wrote a sharply worded letter to the chief judge, Pahoran, and to other government leaders. He explained the situation on the front line and requested an explanation for the lack of support they had received. He explained the precariousness of their situation and expressed his concern that government leaders were either dangerously complacent or potentially hostile to the freedom of the country. Finally, he explained what he would do in the absence of an acceptable response:

Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things? Behold I say unto you, Nay. Now I would that ye should remember that God has said that the inward vessel shall be cleansed first, and then shall the outer vessel be cleansed also.
And now, except ye do repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing, and send forth food and men unto us, and also unto Helaman, that he may support those parts of our country which he has regained, and that we may also recover the remainder of our possessions in these parts, behold it will be expedient that we contend no more with the Lamanites until we have first cleansed our inward vessel, yea, even the great head of our government (Alma 60:23-24).

I’ve been thinking today about this concept of cleansing the “inward vessel.” I don’t know what passage of scripture Moroni quoting, but he may have been referring to provisions in the law of Moses regarding cleanliness of dishes and cups.

After listing a number of unclean creeping animals (the weasel, the mouse, the tortoise, the ferret, the chameleon, the lizard, the snail, and the mole), the Lord said to the ancient Israelites:

Upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; so it shall be cleansed.
And every earthen vessel, whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean; and ye shall break it.
Of all meat which may be eaten, that on which such water cometh shall be unclean: and all drink that may be drunk in every such vessel shall be unclean (Leviticus 11:32-34).

The Savior also referred to the cleanliness of dishes and cups when denouncing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matthew 23:25-28). (See also Luke 11:39-40.)

I see two related principles in these passages:

  1. Our highest priorities are not always the most visible ones. We should pay attention to problems when they come to our attention, not wait for someone else to notice them.
  2. The root cause of a problem is often buried deep beneath the surface. If we only deal with the symptoms (the visible part), the problem will likely persist until we address the root cause.

Here are a few real-life examples:

  1. When we notice signs of a potential health issue, we may need to postpone or cancel other activities in order to get the treatment we need in a timely manner.
  2. The same applies to our spiritual health: When we identify something we need to repent of, we need to work on it promptly, before it gets worse.
  3. When we have a rift in a relationship, particularly with a close family member, we should address it, not let it fester.
  4. When we are working on a project and a member of the team expresses concerns, it is important to take those concerns seriously and find out if there is a less-visible issue under the surface.

Today, I will recommit to cleanse the inward vessel, to recognize and address issues early, to take them seriously even when they are not noticeable to others, and to deal with the root causes of problems, not just the symptoms.

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