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The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
As we investigate deeper for an increased understanding of repentance and sin, we should also clarify righteousness and wickedness. They may not mean what we think they mean. Our cultural heritage and the limitations of language may skew our perceptions and some- times lead us away from truth and reality, thus affecting the way we approach life and repentance.
We have a tendency to equate the word righteous with perfect and the word wicked with the worst of humanity. Therefore, if we label someone as righteous, we may think them to be pure, virtuous, innocent, and sinless. Conversely, if we label someone as wicked, we may think them to be evil, heartless, guilty, and sinful. These words denote a binary judgment of quality, with a righteous person on one end of the spectrum and a wicked person on the other end. Along with that binary judgment, we may also conclude something righteous will always be righteous and something wicked will always be wicked.
Another perspective is that a righteous person is one who is already resurrected and sanctified, while a wicked person is everyone in their mortal condition. From this perspective, all mortals will be considered wicked because we are currently in our mortal condition and until we are resurrected, we cannot be considered righteous.
Furthermore, an additional misunderstanding of righteousness and wickedness is to think that God provides special consideration, protection, and blessings on someone or a group of people because of mortal family or societal group connections. Laman and Lemuel had that view, and Nephi attempted to correct their understanding when he said, “The Lord esteemeth all flesh in one” (1 Nephi 17:35).
As Nephi explains, being a choice or chosen people is not based on their lineage or adopted associations. Nephi’s premise is that the way God interacts with a person or a group of people is based on their righteousness or wickedness. Being within the house of Israel or being a member of Christ’s authorized church does not automatically afford us His blessings or make us righteous.
Therefore, what is the criteria used in the scriptures to call a person or group of people righteous or wicked? What are the righteous doing that the wicked are not doing and vice versa?
Nephi had previously explained to his brothers that the righteous “are willing to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it” (1 Nephi 16:3). Hearken means “to listen to.” Heed means “to give careful attention to.” Thus, according to Hugh Nibley,
The test of righteousness or wickedness is not of location, a matter of being in one camp or the other, but of direction, as Ezekiel tells us (Ezekiel 18:26); one who has a low score in doing good, if he repents and does an about face, is counted as righteous, while one who has a long record of good deeds, if he turns around, has joined the wicked (Ezekiel 18:27).
Who is righteous? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting, he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he had been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing.
Elder Quentin L. Cook also helps us understand what “righteous” means:
Righteousness is a broad, comprehensive term. . . . It qualifies us for the sacred ordinances that constitute the covenant path and blesses us to have the Spirit give direction to our lives.
Being righteous is not dependent on each of us having every blessing in our lives at this time. We may not be married or blessed with children or have other desired blessings now. But the Lord has promised that the righteous who are faithful “may dwell with God in a state of neverending happiness.”
From these explanations of Professor Nibley and Elder Cook, we learn that a righteous person is moving in a direction that gets them closer to godliness. A righteous person is considered qualified to participate in sacred ordinances prescribed by God that can enhance our spiritual progress. A righteous person will be more tender and attuned to spiritual promptings. A righteous person is not a complete person but one who is striving to become complete.
There is, however, an important distinction in Elder Cook’s words. Many times, the words righteous and faithful are used interchangeably, which can dilute their directiveness. Elder Cook indicates that a righteous person is not automatically faithful. A righteous person must maintain their righteousness by staying faithful in the things that build a righteous person.
One who is faithful is a righteous person steady and unwavering in their commitment to the work required to maintain their righteous direction.
The following was taken from the book Repentance : Refinement Through the Mortal Journey by Alan Ruppe, currently available at cedarfort.com.