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Mosiah 4:30: if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts

There is a scripture that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learned as youth growing up; it may have been emphasized in seminary classes:

30 But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not.

Mosiah 4:30

The psychological effects of trying to control our thoughts:

The concept of trying to control our thoughts can be a complex issue from a psychological standpoint. It is essential to distinguish between healthy self-regulation and unhealthy attempts at thought control.

Healthy self-regulation: It is natural and even necessary for individuals to have some level of control over their thoughts. Healthy self-regulation involves being able to direct our attention, focus on specific tasks, and manage intrusive or negative thoughts. It also includes strategies like mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral techniques, which can help individuals develop healthier thought patterns and cope with stress and anxiety.

Unhealthy thought control: The problem arises when individuals become fixated on trying to exert excessive and rigid control over their thoughts. This can lead to a few potential issues:

a. Thought suppression: Trying to suppress or push away certain thoughts can often backfire, making those thoughts even more persistent and harder to manage. This phenomenon is known as the “rebound effect,” where suppressed thoughts resurface with greater intensity.

b. Cognitive inflexibility: Attempting to rigidly control one’s thoughts can lead to cognitive inflexibility, making it challenging to adapt to new situations or consider alternative perspectives.

c. Increased anxiety: Constantly trying to control or eliminate certain thoughts can create anxiety and distress, as the individual becomes hyper-aware of their mental processes and becomes afraid of their thoughts.

d. Loss of spontaneity and creativity: Over-controlling thoughts can stifle creativity and the natural flow of thoughts, hindering problem-solving and imaginative thinking.

e. Perfectionism: The desire for complete control over thoughts can be related to perfectionism, leading to unrealistic expectations and harsh self-judgment.

f. Thought-related disorders: In extreme cases, the obsessive need for thought control may be linked to conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Influence from 19th Century

Many scholars and historians have noted that the Book of Mormon shows influences from the cultural, theological, and literary milieu of the 18th and 19th century America in which it was produced. In a book titled “Seven Sermons” written in 1808, the author states:

“As you go to prayer, take heed of vain and sinful thoughts, that they do not come in and spoil the duty. To this end, watch your hearts, your thoughts, and your affections very carefully, that your hearts not be ensnared with the love of money, pleasures, or any lustful desires; the thoughts will easily follow the affections.”Russel, Robert. Seven Sermons … Thirteenth edition. United Kingdom: J. Davies, 1808.

Attempting to control thoughts completely is not always a psychologically healthy approach

While the intention of the scripture and theology may be positive, it’s essential to recognize that attempting to control thoughts completely is not always a psychologically healthy approach. Human minds naturally produce a range of thoughts, and it is normal to experience both positive and negative ones.

Some of the negative psychological effects that may result from trying to control our thoughts (so we don’t perish) are:

  1. Excessive guilt and anxiety: Strictly monitoring one’s thoughts during prayer can lead to feelings of guilt and anxiety if “unwanted” or “sinful” thoughts arise. This can create a negative cycle where the individual becomes preoccupied with trying to control their thoughts, leading to increased distress. Wiring the brain to believe that sexual thoughts are sinful, is problematic.
  2. Intrusive thoughts and mental distress: For some individuals, the more they try to suppress certain thoughts during prayer or meditation, the more these thoughts may persist or intensify. This can be especially challenging for people with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety disorders.
  3. Psychological rigidity: Constantly policing one’s thoughts may lead to psychological rigidity and cognitive inflexibility. This rigidity can extend beyond prayer and affect how the individual approaches various aspects of life.
  4. Strained spiritual connection: The preoccupation with controlling thoughts during prayer may hinder the individual’s ability to engage fully in a meaningful spiritual connection. It can shift the focus from devotion and connection to a continuous struggle with intrusive thoughts.

Mindfulness Approach to Interpreting this theology

From a psychological perspective, this scripture can be interpreted as promoting mindfulness and self-regulation, which aligns with some healthy aspects of controlling our thoughts. Being watchful of our thoughts can help us identify negative or harmful thought patterns and work towards replacing them with more constructive and positive ones. It encourages individuals to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions, fostering self-awareness and personal growth.

Maybe Mosiah 4:30 could be re-interpreted to mean: “Verily, I say unto you, cultivate the practice of watching over yourselves, your thoughts, and your words, and let your deeds be guided by love and compassion. Observe the commandments of God with a heart full of understanding and grace.”

Cartoon Network Video: Here comes a Thought

A more balanced approach to prayer and meditation involves acknowledging the thoughts that arise without judgment, allowing them to pass without fixation, and gently redirecting the focus to the intended purpose of the spiritual practice. Mindfulness practices that promote acceptance and non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and emotions can be beneficial in this context.

There was a video from the cartoon network that was released a few years ago that garnered a lot of attention. It now has over 31 million views on youtube. It is probably a healthier expression of processing thoughts:

Additional Sources used:

“The law of God reaches to the thoughts as well as the actions.”

On Chastity. United Kingdom: Religious Tract Society; and sold at the Depository, 1830.