Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Just Who Exactly Is The “Natural Man”?

Posted by Shawn L on January 20, 2008

Walk into any seminary classroom on any given morning and speak the phrase, “the natural man.”  In response, you’ll hear a rush of pages as students race towards King Benjamin’s admonition in Mosiah 3:19 that “the natural man is an enemy to God.”  Over the course of many, many lessons in varied fora, I have heard this scripture used to support the proposition that all men and women – that means us – are inherently evil and, by our very natures, stand in opposition to God.  The corrollary to this teaching is that unless we are ever vigilant, we inevitably will devolve into our “natural” sinful behaviors.

With all apologies to the CES instructors out there, I respectfully say . . . . Phooey!

This has always struck me as an especially pernicious little piece of false doctrine.  I simply cannot bring myself to believe that we are all necessarily and naturally inclined to do evil.  Think about it — the logical ramifications of this “naughty by nature” teaching on our theology are far-reaching.  For example, if we are naturally evil, isn’t free agency really cosmic snake-oil, filled with promises of redemption but ultimately impotent and powerless to change us? Even worse, however, this over-familiar interpretation fundamentally alters, for the worse, our view of ourselves and God.

One of the Church’s most basic (and unique) teachings is that we are literal sons and daughters of God, created in our Father’s image, sent here as the first step on an eternal journey towards perfection.  Do we really believe that in this race to exaltation, we are handicapped by a disposition to do evil?  If so, what does that say about our view of God?  Put another way, must I believe that my young daughters came to this world pre-disposed to rebel against God?  If we take the traditional approach to King Benjamin’s words, the answer is “yes.” 

This rings false to me.  The scriptures are clear that we are born into this world as innocents.  To this end, one of the most revolutionary (and in some eyes, heretical) innovations of the Restoration is our abandonment of the doctrine of original sin.  As stated in Section 29 of the Doctrine and Covenants, “[l]ittle children are redeemed from the foundation of the world through mine Only Begotten; Wherefore, they cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children until they become accountable before me.”  In penning the Second Article of Faith, Joseph Smith made clear that we are free from “Adam’s transgression,” and will be held to answer only for our own sins. 

So, if we are not “naturally” evil, what does it mean to be a “natural man?”  I think Brigham Young had it right when he taught, “The natural man is of God. We are the natural sons and daughters of our natural parents, and spiritually we are the natural children of the Father of light and natural heirs to his kingdom; and when we do an evil, we do it in opposition to the promptings of the Spirit of Truth that is within us. It was never designed that man should naturally do and love evil.”  In other words, what makes us “natural” is the fact that are subject to temptation, not that sinfulness is our default state.  Paul put it this way:  “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolish unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  (1 Corinthians 2:14).  As “natural” men, it is our lot in life to overcome (or, as King Benjamin called it, “put off”) these temptations.  As we do so, we will “become a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord, and become[] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”

Why is this an important distinction?  If we believe that we are sinful beings, it can’t help but color our actions, as well as our attitudes towards ourselves and others.   For example, how can we ever hope to better ourselves (for example, to overcome a particularly tempting vice) if we believe that we are wired for misbehavior? But, if we recognize that we are naturally inclined towards good — that righteous is our natural state — then life seems like a fair (and winnable) fight).  So, I say, it’s time to reconsider King Benjamin’s words.  Let’s embrace the “natural man” — he’s all of us, after all. 

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11 Responses to “Just Who Exactly Is The “Natural Man”?”

  1. Jonathan said

    What an incredibly insightful thought. I must say, having been in these CES classes (not seminary, but at BYU and Institute), I never thought to question what exactly King Benjamin meant when he said we must “put off the natural man.” The interpretation given by the teachers/professors just seemed to make sense since I had felt like that natural man at different times in my life. However, when you put it in the context of us being created in the image and likeness of God, it doesn’t make sense that King Benjamin, or anyone could infer that we are meant to do evil… unless we resist. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense that it is more natural for us to choose good, based on our understanding of the “Fall” and Adam and Eve. After all, that is a huge point of doctrine that distinguishes us from other faiths. Thanks for the post Shawn (or should I call you Professor L?). Very insightful!

  2. Doc said

    This makes a lot of sense, like bridling our passions. I saw a very thought provoking post at Two Sticks Where a Jewish Rabbi describes much the same premise. I think this idea is a powerful rebuke against the railings of today’s radical atheism.

  3. peetie said

    Hmm. I agree with the point you make, but I also agree with the more traditional view that you are arguing against . . . sort of. Let me explain. As Romans 7 (and King Benjamin) suggest, I think there is a dichotomy within us all. A sinful/carnal self that Paul dubs “sin” and King Benjamin calls the “natural” man. I do not think that Ben was suggesting that we are by nature, or by design, prone to follow Satan. Rather, I read it to mean that as part of our fallen state, as our attempts at righteousness always get cut short. We were designed to be Gods, were we not? Yet we sin.

    (In trying to write out my thoughts, I find myself almost splitting hairs with you over this; I hope you’ll bear with me. I’m not trying to be difficult). I suppose I identify a little bit more with Paul’s suggestion that (Rom 7:17) it isn’t me doing the stupid stuff I tell myself I’m not going to do, “but [the] sin that dwelleth in me.” There are two people in me – both referred to as natural. One “natural man” as you and BY aptly dub it, striving to follow the Savior, and one “natural” and sinful man, as King Benjamin and Paul dub it, slowing me down (and reminding me to rely on the arm of the Lord).

    I like your definition of “natural man” more; but I find a lot of solace in the idea of Rom 7.

  4. peetie said

    Sorry about the html screw up. I tried to clean it up.

    Hmm. I agree with the point you make, but I also agree with the more traditional view that you are arguing against . . . sort of. Let me explain. As Romans 7 (and King Benjamin) suggest, I think there is a dichotomy within us all. A sinful/carnal self that Paul dubs “sin” and King Benjamin calls the “natural” man. I do not think that Ben was suggesting that we are by nature, or by design, prone to follow Satan. Rather, I read it to mean that as part of our fallen state, as our attempts at righteousness always get cut short. We were designed to be Gods, were we not? Yet we sin.

    (In trying to write out my thoughts, I find myself almost splitting hairs with you over this; I hope you’ll bear with me. I’m not trying to be difficult). I suppose I identify a little bit more with Paul’s suggestion that (Rom 7:17) it isn’t me doing the stupid stuff I tell myself I’m not going to do, “but [the] sin that dwelleth in me.” There are two people in me – both referred to as natural. One “natural man” as you and BY aptly dub it, striving to follow the Savior, and one “natural” and sinful man, as King Benjamin and Paul dub it, slowing me down (and reminding me to rely on the arm of the Lord).

    I like your definition of “natural man” more; but I find a lot of solace in the idea of Rom 7.

  5. McDevin said

    I find no problems with the “traditional” Natural Man doctrine–in fact, I find it to be one of the more motivating and personally provable doctrines of the faith. The phrase, “the natural man is an enemy to God and has been from the beginning” should give no cause for concern when you put it in the context of the complete soul. Remember, we are dualistic beings comprised of both physical and spiritual components. When we sin, we are suppressing the spiritual and allowing the physical form to take control. As the physical becomes the master and the spiritual the slave, the “natural man” materializes–one becomes more apt to sin and less likely to receive and submit to that which is spiritual. It is in this state that we are an “enemy to God.” One thing you leave out from the analysis Shawn, is that the natural man doctrine comes with a promise of personal redemption, that is the “putting off” of the natural man. When we submit to the spirit by avoiding sin and embracing righteousness, the roles reverse: our spirit becomes the master, and the flesh becomes the slave. This is something that I personally experience (more often than I should). There have been and continue to be times in my life that I willfully disregard things spiritual, i.e I’ll stop reading my scriptures, I’ll pray less frequently, or I’ll skip church. I find that when I do this, I am more apt to sin and indulge in things that I shouldn’t. In those moments, the “natural man” is very real and tangible. But then, I’ll come to a point where the utter lack of the Spirit hits me and I feel alone and afraid. When that hits, I begin again to do the things that I’m told will invite the Spirit back into my life–and when I do those things, my inclinations to sin diminish and I feel my spirit increase and become the dominant force in my soul. Don’t lose sight that the thrust of the doctrine lies not with the identification of the weakness, but the promise of the strength.

    So far as your point about children being “innocent” and “redeemed from the foundation of the world,” this isn’t inconsistent with the natural man doctrine when you factor in another doctrine–the age of accountability. Prior to reaching this age, the eternal law of justice doesn’t apply. That is, prior to this time in our lives, we cannot sin because sin doesn’t yet exist for us. When our ability to sin finally manifests, it is in that moment that the flesh becomes viable in suppressing our spirit. Perhaps it would be best to think of the natural man as more a state of being and not a “thing.”

    I’d appreciate any feedback as this is one of my favorite topics.

    • Sunny said

      I know you posted this years ago, but I wanted to comment. I do like your view, but we aren’t quite complete yet! To me, the world natural just doesn’t seem to fit. But, as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve been thinking of it more as ‘the state without God.’ Who knows what life would be without all the help that we get.

      We are subject to the laws of mortality–disease, pain, and suffering. It’s like me and my OCD. My chemicals are all mixed up. Sometimes, when I’m anxious, I loose perspective. Yet, Father has placed a lot of great things on this planet for our use. Because I have the opportunity to get help, to an extent, I am obligated to be helped because Father has given me a way to be closer to him. Father could have just left us blowing in the wind. Rather, he’s given us the opportunity to move beyond the basic functions of our bodies and do something better.

  6. Shawn L said

    Peetie: I don’t we’re very far apart on this at all. I agree that we are all “natural” in that we are tempted by sin — it is “in” us, as Paul says. I don’t that scripture as throwing a monkey wrench into my analysis. Indeed, that is the point of this mortal state, to be tested by and, hopefully, conquer sin. But I don’t think that necessarily equates to our being naturally sinful. Indeed, I think the only way we can overcome sin is to recognize who we we “naturally” are (sons & daughters of God) and act to realize our full, “natural” potential as such. If we were sinful by nature, how can we ever hope to overcome sin? It seems to be a nearly impossible struggle.

  7. Shawn L said

    McDevin — I agree with your thoughts regarding the ebbs and flows in our personal spirituality, and how those effect the distance between us and God. Yes, our purpose on this Earth is to overcome sin or, as King Benjamin put it, to “put off the natural man.” And as we do so, we feel an increase in the Spirit and a reawakening of our relationship with the Alimghty. We are on all fours on these points. But, as I said to peetie above, I don’t see how this translates into our being sinful by nature from birth. The idea that we are naturally righteous does not negate the possibility of our being tempted, or even succumbing to sin. The scriptures and our everyday lives are full of examples of good folks making dumb decisions (Alam’s son, Corianton, for example). Indeed, I think the only reason we can ever hope to return to God is because, to do so, is our “natural” course. Indeed, didn’t we earn the right to come to this Earth because our righteousness, while those were “enemies” to God didn’t get the privilege?
    are sinful

  8. McDevin said

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my first post. For that I apologize. What I’m saying is that I don’t believe the “natural man” doctrine is attempting to comment on our natural state per se. In fact, I would argue that we don’t have a natural state (but that’s for another discussion). What I’m saying is that an individual who succumbs to those appetites and passions typically associated with the flesh puts off the spirit portion of the soul thereby falling into a state of disharmony and becoming the “natural man” from the doctrine. Again, I believe the doctrine is commenting more on a state of being or becoming rather than a per se state of nature.

    King Benjamin isn’t accusing humanity of being the natural enemies to God, but warning us about the effects of sin on the soul and how when we give into it , then we are essentially waging war on the divine–not just God, but the very divine essence in all of us. The Natural Man doctrine sets up the problem and presents the solution. Masterfully, the discourse then moves to the means by which we obtain that solution by discussing Christ and his teachings as the road-map by which to “put off the natural man.”

  9. Danny R said

    Does anyone remember Coco the gorilla who knew sign language? There was a transcript I read several years ago of a live on-line Q&A chat with Coco the gorilla and all that ape wanted to talk about was food. She talked a little bit about her cat (mostly because that’s what most people wanted to know about) but mainly the topic of choice was food.

    That’s what this scripture reminds me of when we talk about the “natural” man. Unlike Coco, not only are we slightly more intelligent but we also have a duty to serve God before our stomachs and reproductive needs. There is nothing evil at all about Coco the gorilla. She’s pure innocence (if she’s still alive) but she hasn’t been charged with serving God. That’s why, in my humble opinion, the natural man (as opposed to natural dog, cat or even little child) is the enemy to God.

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