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In Matthew 5, Christ teaches some doctrine that was unfamiliar to the Jews. Whereas they were used to a lower law, Christ was teaching them to stretch to a higher ideal. Some of His guidance stuck out to me this week.
29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
When we read the Joseph Smith translation, the Lord explains that He is using a parable to teach them that they should throw their sins far from themselves. I feel like there is a lot of different symbolism we can pull from these verses, and I personally derive a lot of these meanings from the fact that Christ used parts of our own bodies to teach this principle. Rather than Christ saying something like, “If someone gives you spoiled fruit, throw it far away,” He chose to tell us that we should cut off pieces of ourselves. This is obviously not literal, but it is significant that He chose these particular symbols. Let’s talk about three different ways we can learn from Christ’s specific use of our eye and hand.
Family members and friends
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained one potential meeting. He preached that the “right eye” or “right hand” can mean “close friends or relatives who [endeavor] to lead us from the path of rectitude and humble obedience to the divine commandments we receive from the Lord. If any friend or relative endeavors to lead a person away from the commandments, it is better to dispense with his friendship and association than to follow him in evil practices to destruction.”
I think this is a great example of why Christ chose to use our own bodies. Our relationships often become part of us. They are more painful to lose than some spoiled fruit. It’s a painful process to step away from a relationship, and it can be painful for a long time afterwards.
I feel like this particular principle requires a lot of wisdom. Cutting off relationships (just like plucking out an eye) shouldn’t be done without some forethought. At what point does a hand offend us so much that we should be willing to cut it off? Unfortunately we don’t always have the clearest perspectives or all of the information, but we do have access to someone who does.
When my husband was growing up, he had a couple of friends who started getting into drugs. Family members tried really hard to convince his mother that she needed to cut him off from these friends and push him towards church friends. She thought about it, prayed about it, and felt strongly that she shouldn’t pull him away despite the outside pressure. I feel like for a lot of us, there would be a lot of fear associated with letting our kids hang around that kind of influence. Luckily, she followed the Spirit.
As time went on, these same friends who were bad influences stood up for Conner. When he would find himself in situations where there were bad things happening, those same friends would be like, “Hey! Don’t you know he’s a Mormon? (please excuse the old term) Leave him alone!” Meanwhile, it also came out that some of the church kids got excited that Conner had moved into the ward because they thought he had enough money to buy them drugs.
Please don’t take that story out of context or twist it. Sometimes it’s definitely appropriate to take our kids out of more traditionally-perceived dangerous circumstances. My point was this specifically: we desperately need the Spirit in this life. Since we don’t know the hearts of people, we need the Lord to help us see people as they truly are. Only He really knows what boundaries to set, whether to hold onto someone, or whether we need some distance. Only He really knows where we need to be.
Sin can be disguised as something useful
I believe another reason the Lord chose to use our “hand” and “eye” as symbols is because sin is oftentimes disguised as useful and inseparably connected to us. We use our hands and eyes for a lot of useful things. In so many ways, we need them.
But we don’t need them enough to let them infect the rest of our bodies. When we think of modern examples of amputation, it usually happens because of an infection. For example, a diabetic ulcer on a foot can lead to amputation. A diabetic ulcer is when a wound becomes infected. The person cannot often feel the infection because it affects their nerves, and because their circulation is also compromised, the infection is very difficult to stop. The limb has to be amputated to save the life.
Funny how sin and negative influences can be like that. Eventually you don’t even know they are there, and that’s when they spread.
For example, Satan likes to make us think that anger is justified or protecting us. He likes us to think that someone else deserves our anger or that our anger will somehow change them. This is also the case in something like holding a grudge.
The world would have us believe that our anger is a motivator. It helps us act and fight back against what we perceive is wrong. Our anger protects us, validates us, and tells us that we’re right. Holding a grudge helps us make sure that we never make the same mistake in the same relationship again.
There may be some truth to that. Perhaps you won’t allow yourself to get hurt again if you never forgive another person. Unfortunately, regardless of whether you allow them physically in your life, they’re still affecting and poisoning you. They bring in negative emotions that spoil your day whenever you think about it. That grudge or anger slowly affects the rest of our body because we couldn’t cut it off before it became a problem that influenced other parts of our lives.
Bad coping mechanisms
The last one may seem strange, but I share it regardless. In order to understand what I’m trying to say, you have to understand how I look at sin and repentance. In my mind, sin is anything that we choose to do that brings misery. Repentance is any step we take to let go of that misery.
The last symbolism I found from Christ’s use of “hand” and “eye” is that of bad coping mechanisms.
Let’s look at an extreme example so we can easily see the principle.
When a soldier comes home from war, they may hear a motorcycle fire up and find themselves jumping under the nearest shelter. This is called PTSD. It is an automatic reaction; they don’t even think about it. Essentially, their brain has come to associate these noises with bombs and gunfire. The brain is smart enough to take out the decision-making process in order to keep the soldier alive on the battlefield. Unfortunately, that biological process of turning off completely skipping the decision-making portion of your brain means that sometimes you duck and cover for harmless noises.
Obviously this soldier doesn’t need to “repent” (in the traditional sense) for having PTSD. However, they would be a lot happier if they can get the help they need to work through those automatic reactions that use to keep them alive. In my mind, that’s repentance. It’s forming a fresh view of oneself and the world. It is choosing to heal. It’s repentance.
As I said, that’s a very extreme example, but the principle remains.
Sometimes we develop habits in order to protect ourselves. This is a beautiful thing that the brain is capable of because it keeps us safe. Unfortunately, circumstances change and sometimes those habits become the very things that hurt us rather than help us.
For example, chaos tends to be rampant in my home.
For the last while, I found that my brain seemed to “droop.” I don’t know how else to describe that. Conner would try and ask me a question, and there would be a dramatic lag before I processed that he was even talking to me. It was driving him nuts because he thought I was ignoring him. I also noticed that other people would sometimes hear my kids crying before I did.
It took me a while to realize that I had started to turn off my own auditory processing. Believe it or not, I’m a bit of an introvert. I like people and socializing, but I need alone time to recover after all that socializing. As a mom of three little in a house that is often defined by chaos, I don’t get a lot of that quiet time. Without me consciously choosing to do so, my brain had started to tune out the noises around me so that I could try to get quiet time even in the midst of chaos.
When I realized this, I was able to realize that I needed to change. I needed to re-engage with my family. I needed to look at my children and hear them, and I also needed to find a way to carve out that time I needed (no reason to sacrifice myself so that I develop more bad habits).
These bad habits can manifest in a million different ways. Maybe the ordained priesthood holder in our home was cruel and we tend to mistrust any ordained priesthood holder. Maybe we were in a ward where we felt rejected and so we automatically (and unknowingly) shut off any relationships in a new ward. Perhaps we felt rejected by a parent and so we hurt people until they reject us too (which only furthers the belief that we aren’t lovable). I could go on and on, but I’ll never cover all of them.
Sometimes we develop habits unknowingly in an attempt to survive the circumstances we’re in. When we find ourselves in new circumstances, we keep those habits and those habits can sometimes sabotage our new situation. It’s time to recognize those bad habits, big and small, and cut them off when they no longer serve us.
I know we have a Savior who can help us recognize what’s hurting us. I know He loves us enough and knows us well enough that He can help us recognize what is no longer serving uss. He is invested in us. He has invested more in us than anyone else one the earth, and He will continue to invest that same energy in us.