I know a family who seemed to have the perfect life. They seemed to be doing everything right. The parents served in demanding callings at church, acting as examples to everyone else. They not only seemed to have everything together spiritually but temporally. So it was a huge shock when things started to fall apart. Some of their kids became involved with drugs and alcohol. They dropped out of school. There were babies born out of wedlock. The parents divorced due to infidelity. Nearly the entire family stopped attending church or even accepting contact from other members. In a matter of only a few years this pillar of the community was nothing but rubble.
Someone commented to me that "They did everything right and it didn't make a bit of difference. What's the point of trying if it doesn't help?" As soon as she said this I knew it was wrong. I knew down to my bones that the family we were talking about had not been "doing everything right", probably not for a long time. It wasn't because I was deeply involved in their personal lives. It is becasue I know how easy it is to say one thing and do something else.
I know that I should pray often yet I find myself neglecting this important part of my spiritual life. I go through times when I can not read the scriptures enough and times when I am just not interested. I could go on and on. I am not trying to confess or say it is okay to neglect the "simple things". I am pointing out how easy it is to know what to do and still not do it.
There are many examples in the scriptures of this. The story of David is one that I find deeply tragic. He went from slaying Goliath, a task only possible because of his great faith to God, to having a man killed because of his adulterous lust. Shouldn't the king and hero of his people have known better? I am sure he did.
Jonah was given a specific commandment from God to call the people of Nineveh to repentance and yet he ran. Even after his time in the whale, he did not take pleasure in his mission, nor was he pleased with his success.
In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel witness the power of God many times and even see angels, yet they continually chose to ignore the commandments of God.
I used to wonder how it was possible for these people to behave so badly after all they had witnessed and experienced. As I have gotten older I have a better understanding of how this happens.
Probably the first step towards this personal apostasy is neglecting the little things. So many times a Sunday school lesson will go like this:
TEACHER: What do we need to do to _______________.( This blank could be filled with "have more faith", "have a stronger testimony", "keep ourselves morally clean", etc.)
"Read the scriptures"
"Go to church"
"Keep the commandments"
TEACHER: What have we forgotten?
TEACHER: What about fasting? Temple attendance? Repentance? Serving others?
CLASS: Oh yeah, that stuff too.
I have heard many people, both young and old, complain about the redundancy of church lessons. "Can't we learn about something new? We already know this stuff." Really? In regular school you have to prove you know a subject through homework and testing. While you might be able to skate by from time to time, eventually you must master the material or be lost.
Our spiritual education is the same. we might know the answer to the question but that doesn't mean we know how to apply it. Just as my first grader might tell me a story in great detail without being able to actually read, so we can easily recite the steps necessary to our salvation without doing any of them.
We can also forget the things we have learned if we don't use that knowledge and keep it fresh in our minds. I no longer remember math formulas or history dates that I studied in high school and college. I have forgotten which authors wrote what books and my German vocabulary is still shrinking. Does any of that make the things I learned untrue? Does that mean they are not important or valuable? All it means is that I have not made the effort to use them in my life. Maybe I don't need to remember the Pythagorean Theorem. Maybe I do.
When I am feeling overwhelmed or frustrated with the way things are going in my life, I might think "What is going on? I'm doing everything I should." That sweet, soft voice of the Spirit whispers "Are you? Have you been praying? When was the last time you went to the temple? Why don't you think about someone besides yourself for a change?" Sometimes I have a bad attitude about it. "I have things to do." "I have kids who interrupt." "I don't have a babysitter." "I don't feel like it." I have plenty of excuses!
The thing that sobers me is the image of that family, and the many like them, who stray so far so quickly. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that one small change in the wrong direction can lead to a huge difference done the road. He made the comparison to a train that gets switched to the wrong track by the change in one small piece of metal. At first the mistake may go unnoticed. Soon a train headed for New Jersey ends up in Louisiana.
Another image that comes to mind is the iron rod. In Lehi's dream, there are some who cling to the iron rod in order to reach the tree of life. I imagine that those who fall away have let their pride convince them that they can follow the path without holding on. Maybe they step just off the path to get around a slow "rod-holder". Then they think "I can get there faster if I just stay on the edge and avoid everyone in my way." Maybe they even see what they believe is a shortcut and soon are so far from the path of righteousness that they can not find the way back.
My kids insist on hold on to hand rails when ever they see one. When they make room for me I say "It's okay, I don't need it". Do I do that in my spiritual life? Sometimes I do. Do I stumble and fall because of that arrogance? Sometimes I do.
As I said before, I don't know what lead to the "down fall" of that family or any like them. But I know without a doubt that if they had been consistently, sincerely doing all those simple things that they knew they should, their lives would have turned out differently.