Through the prophet Isaiah, God explained the problem which would be solved by the publication of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ:
Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—2 Nephi 27:25, Isaiah 29:13
The fundamental problem is hypocrisy, which is a form of dishonesty: pretending to believe in God, saying the right things and appearing to be religious when in fact, your heart isn’t in it. The irony is that we all know we can’t lie to God. “Wo unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord!” Isaiah said. “And their works are in the dark; and they say: Who seeth us, and who knoweth us?” (2 Nephi 27:27, Isaiah 29:15). What a contrast from the prophet Joseph Smith, who would not deny the reality of the First Vision because he knew that God knew what he had seen (Joseph Smith—History 1:25).
What does that last phrase in the problem statement mean: “their fear toward me is taught by the precepts of men?” The fear of God is not the same as the fear we associate with danger. Instead it refers to our reverence for Him and our willingness to submit to His guidance. (See Guide to the Scriptures, “Fear.”) Jesus clarified Isaiah’s meaning when He quoted this passage during His mortal ministry:
This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.Matthew 15:8-9
So Isaiah meant that these people would replace God’s commandments with human alternatives. Instead of being willing to accept God’s guidance and submit their will to His, they would follow the rules of the popular culture around them.
As a fourteen-year-old boy, Joseph Smith was bothered by the hypocrisy he saw among believers in his community. They claimed to love one another; they claimed to have positive feelings toward members of other churches, “yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real” (Joseph Smith—History 1:6). This disconnect between words and actions bothered him so much that he decided to take his questions directly to God in prayer. He had lost confidence in religious leaders who talked a good game but then acted very differently.
So it’s not surprising that when Jesus Christ spoke to Joseph Smith, He confirmed that the hypocrisy Joseph had detected was real. Applying Isaiah’s words to the behaviors Joseph had observed, the Savior said:
They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.Joseph Smith—History 1:19 (See also 2 Timothy 3:1-5.)
What’s wrong with hypocrisy? It stunts growth. How can you progress and improve if you are unwilling to be honest about where you are? How can you overcome your sins if you try to hide them? How can you submit your will to God’s if you think you know what you should do better than He does?
Today, I will strive to draw near to God with my lips and with my heart. I will strive to submit my will fully to His by keeping His commandments, instead of following “the precepts of men.”