Knowing without Doing

In a previous article (The Benefits of Sin?), I explained that people sometimes suggest they are better off for having sinned because they learned and grew so much in the repentance process, in ways they could not have otherwise. In the following article (“I Am the Way … Unless You Find a Better One”), I explained how that cannot be true, one reason being that it would mean we are better off than Jesus Christ, because he is the only person who has never sinned. A good question arises, however: how can God be all-knowing if he has never experienced sin? How can we learn all things if we only do some things?

Does Opposition Require that We Sin?

Lehi taught that having joy and doing good does not require that we partake of the misery of sin, only that we “know” it.

The beginning of an answer is hinted at in a statement by Lehi in his parting words to his son Jacob. Lehi explains how opposites are necessary in order to have meaningful existence. He says that if Adam and Eve had not eaten the fruit, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). When first reading this, I expected him to contrast the paired opposites with the same verb, like this:

Having no joy, for they
Had no misery;
Doing no good, for they
Did no sin.

Instead, Father Lehi throws in a subtle, unexpected twist:

Having no joy, for they
Knew no misery;
Doing no good, for they
Knew no sin.

Lehi may have intended to communicate a number of different things by his phrasing of this couplet. I wonder if one message is that, while people must leave that state of Edenic innocence in order to experience meaningful good, we do not have to sin in order to experience good. We must know sin, but not necessarily do it. Does that mean we can know sin, its full effects, without actually experiencing it?

The Virtue of Vicarious Experience

C. S. Lewis compares resisting temptation to walking against a strong wind.

C. S. Lewis seemed to think that not only could we understand sin without sinning, but that it was the only way to understand sin.

You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness.((C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper Lewis).))

A fascinating quote from the Ensign elaborates on this same question:

If we are selective in the things we choose to do in life, we only have time for high-priority experiences. For example, an enlightened mother chooses parenthood over her career. A youth overcomes any desires to follow the seamy side of life in favor of building on positive, uplifting experiences.

Many people feel that vicarious experiences never lead to meaningful understanding. Only the poor can, they say, really understand poverty. Only the sinner can know the nature or the consequences of sin. They claim there is no substitute for direct experience.

Such an argument has at least two inherent weaknesses. First, it’s risky to live in the atmosphere of sin in order to understand it or to help others who are sinning, since individuals may become trapped in the very things they want others to avoid. Taking drugs to know what it’s like, for example, may lead to personal slavery rather than the redemption of others. Second, the argument overlooks the fact that the Holy Ghost can provide such understanding and that man can, by empathy, come to understand, as Jesus did, what sin means to others.

Jesus understood sin better than the sinner, without ever having sinned. Prophets have been and are acute “vicarious” observers of the consequences of sin and thus can provide adequate leadership in helping others overcome sin.

Spiritually guided empathy leads to a greater understanding of the nature of sin than partaking of sin, because the empathizer seeks only to understand and is not subject to the perceptual distortions present in trying to justify behavior.((Phillip C. Smith, “The Virtue of Vicarious Experience,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, p. 20.))

We have all had experiences that later faded in memory, or which we sometimes wonder if we truly understood or interpreted correctly. In contrast, many prophets have emphasized the power of a spiritual witness from the Holy Ghost. “When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.”((Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151.)) Of course, this doesn’t mean that spiritual experiences are impossible to doubt after the fact, but President Smith certainly teaches that it is much harder to undo their effects.


It appears that the Holy Spirit’s ability to convey knowledge may be more powerful than we sometimes suspect, even to the degree that it conveys reality and knowledge more purely than direct experience. I can’t help but wonder if that is part of what happened to the Savior in Gethsemane, coming to know the effects of sinful actions he had never performed. And knowing how intense such pure knowledge can be, unmediated by the mind and unfiltered by the flesh, it’s understandable if the rest of us mortals don’t receive it to such a degree on a regular basis.



  1. Hi Nathan! I remembered you had this website when I was looking for good LDS sites. I like this post a lot.

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with a guy I was dating a few years ago. He was a Star Wars nut and he said the only way to really become all powerful in the force was to fully understand both the light side and the dark side, and that if you could control the dark side and not become evil and just learn about how it worked, then you would know more than someone who had only studied the dark side.

    And I said, well it’s the nature of the dark side that you are not in control of it. There’s no way to experience it without it taking over. And in reality the light side encompases the dark side because the light side is the power of the universe while the dark side happens to just be one part of the universe. Like God is the creator and ruler of the universe, and although he doesn’t indulge in sin he knows the whole power of the universe which includes sin. Anyway I just thought it was a cool comparison.

  2. Heya Mee-chelle! Star Wars is a great comparison! I actually remember this friend of yours (I borrowed the Clone Wars cartoon from him). That was a good way of describing it to him: “It’s the nature of the dark side that you are not in control of it.”

    I think one cool thing about the Star Wars movies is that they show different characters believing two different views of the nature of good and evil. The clearest description I’ve heard of the two views is from C. S. Lewis (in the essay “Evil and God” and in the book Mere Christianity). He says in the dualism view, good and evil are equally opposing forces that both make claims on the purpose of the universe. In the second view, good is the only substantial force, and evil is just a bending, twisting, or perverting of good. It’s interesting to see how the Star Wars stories play out the actions of people who hold one view or the other.

    It sounds like your friend was leaning toward dualism, but the gospel makes it pretty clear that the second view is the case. That’s cool how you used an everyday thing to explain a gospel principle.

    I’m so glad you found the site! I hope you stick around and leave more comments in the future!

  3. Here’s a million dollar question – If you were to die right now, would you qualify for the celestial kingdom? If you’re like most Mormons, you’re not sure. You try hard to be as good as possible, but you still don’t know if you’ve done enough. If the Book of Mormon is really scripture, this hope will always elude you. Alma 11:37 says God cannot save you in your sins. Are all of your sins forgiven? Moroni 10:32 says you must be perfected in Christ, which can only be done by denying yourself of “all ungodliness”. Have you done that? Do you repent on a regular basis? Is so, then it is clear that you sin on a regular basis, since only those who break the commandments need to repent. 1 Nephi 3:7 states that you are able to keep His commandments. In fact according to D&C 25:15, you are required to keep them continually! Since you haven’t done this so far, why assume you will in the future? Of course, we should all try to be holy; but if you think that sinning less will qualify you to live in God’s presence, you are mistaken (Gal 3:1-11). The assumption that good works are required for forgiveness only cheapens Christ’s atonement, making it nothing more than a partial payment. God chooses to justify us by faith. Jesus alone does the “perfecting” (Heb 10:14). God gives peace to those who trust in Him alone. If you don’t have this peace, it’s probably because at least a part of you trusts in yourself. Questions? Visit us at

  4. Ty brings up a great point. King Benjamin put it this way:

    I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, … if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. (Mosiah 2:20–21)

    Since no one keeps all the commandments, Heavenly Father asks that we repent, which is something everyone can do. I think one reason the Lord asks us to try to keep the commandments is that it makes us aware of how desperately we need Him. For me, working at keeping the commandments increases my appreciation for Christ’s atonement, because I am constantly reminded of how weak I am. Thanks for your comment, Ty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *