When it comes to the value of our human existence, there is a doctrinal contradiction which deserves some dialog. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the doctrine is commonly taught that all of Heavenly Father’s children are literally the sons and daughters of God with the same divine potential as their spiritual parents. Man is that he may be as God. 1 Scriptures which confirm this principle teach that “we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17). As his children, the Lord has reminded us that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).
On the other hand, King Benjamin informs us that we are nothing. “If the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state…” (Mosiah 4:5) Benjamin goes on to compare the nothingness of man to the greatness of Jesus: “if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God, and his matchless power, and his wisdom, and his patience, and his long-suffering towards the children of men; and also, the atonement which has been prepared from the foundation of the world, that thereby salvation might come to him that should put his trust in the Lord…” (Mosiah 4:6) It is reasonable to conclude that King Benjamin is not saying that we are worthless, but that in comparison to the Lord, we are nothing. We have divine potential, but without the Lord, his atonement and grace, we are nothing!
The prophet Mormon reminds us about the great nothingness of man, that we are even “less than the dust of the earth”(Helaman 12:7). Moses concluded that “man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). King Benjamin asked, ”Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 2:25).
Students often ask, “Well, which is it? Are we worth less than the dust of the earth, or do we have great inherent worth as children and heirs of God?” Can both of these statements be true simultaneously? The prophet Mormon helps us to understand this doctrine. He explains that the dust moves according to the commands of God, but that man, by virtue of his agency, is the only being in the universe which disobeys the commandments of God. Therefore, as fallen, carnal, and “natural men”, we are less than the dust of the earth.
Our potential is divine. An analogy may be useful at this point. I grew up in northern California, near hundreds of Redwood trees. Some of these trees are very old, perhaps over several hundreds of years! These trees are the tallest trees I have ever seen in the world! Even though these trees are enormous and awesome to behold, they all have humble beginnings. The seeds for these trees are very small (see the picture next to the dime- these are actual seeds of the Redwood). We, like the seeds, are nothing in comparison to the mighty Redwood trees in California. Like the seed, we have incredible potential!
Joseph Fielding Smith said, “Now [Mormon] did not mean to say that the Lord has greater concern for and loves the dust of the earth more than he does his children. He did not mean to say that we, the children of the Lord, in his sight are considered less than the dust of the earth. The point he is making is that the dust of the earth is obedient. It moveth hither and thither at the command of the Lord. All things are in, harmony with his laws. Everything in the universe obeys the law given unto it, so far as I know, except man. Everywhere you look you find law and order, the elements obeying the law given to them, true to, their calling. But man rebels, and in this thing man is less than the dust of the earth because he rejects the counsels of the Lord, and the greater the blessings he receives, (this because of his agency), the more willingly does he turn from the source of those blessings, feeling self-sufficient, and puts his faith and his trust in the arm of flesh rather than in God.” 2
Brigham Young said, “The animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms abide the law of their Creator; the whole earth and all things pertaining to it, except man, abide the law of their creation….We tame the animals and make them do our drudgery and administer to our wants in many ways, yet man alone is not tamed-he is not subject to his Great Creator. Our ignorant animals are faithful to us, and will do our bidding as long as they have any strength; yet man who is the offspring of the Gods, will not become subject to the most reasonable and self-exalting principles. How often have we witnessed a faithful animal conveying his master home so drunk that he could not see his way or sit up; yet his faithful animal will plod through mud, shun stumps, trees, and bad places, and land him safely at home.” 3
The following poem illustrates the value of nothingness:
Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
yet it is its center that makes it useful.
You can fashion clay into a vessel;
yet, it is where there is nothing that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
but the ultimate use of the house
will depend on that part where nothing exists.
Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from there is nothing. 4
- The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, ed. Clyde J. Williams , 1. See also: Spencer W. Kimball, Our Great Potential, Ensign, May 1977.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, April 1929, p. 55
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses volume 9, page 246-7.
- Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 11