The Lord has revealed, "And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself" (D&C 105:5). Throughout the scriptures we read about principles - principles of the law, principles of the celestial kingdom, principles of the gospel, principles of righteousness, etc. - but what exactly is a principle?
There are several definitions of this word and one is: "a fundamental, primary, or general law from which others are derived; a fundamental doctrine or tenet." Under this definition the principles of the gospel can be defined as those fundamental or general laws on which all the other laws of the gospel are based. For example, Jesus taught that the greatest law is to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as our self. He then added, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the [teachings of] the prophets" (Matthew 22:40). Thus, the principle of the gospel, which forms the basis on which all the commandments of God are built, is to love God and our neighbor. Any other commandment we want to talk about is merely a specific application to these two great commandments.
But there is another definition of the word principle which is: "a personal or specific basis of conduct; a guiding sense of what is require for right conduct." Under this definition, a principle is something that guides and directs our conduct or the way we behave and the decisions we make. For example, we all believe in the principle of breathing, and because we believe so strongly in this principle, it highly influences how we will behave in certain situations. If our air supply is cut off so that we cannot breathe, at that point all of our actions, thoughts, and decisions will be focused on doing what we can to get air into our lungs.
There are those who believe in the principle of honesty to the point where they will not take anything that is not theirs. For example, a person who strongly believes in this principle will not take home even a paperclip or a pencil belonging to their employer unless they first get permission or pay for it. On the other hand, many people who believe in not stealing do not consider taking a paperclip or a pencil from their employer as stealing, therefore, the principle that governs their actions and decision is based on a different standard. What this illustrates is that not everyone is guided by the same set of principles.
Associated with this concept of principle is the impulse of perception. The dictionary defines the word perception as: "the way we think about, perceive, or understand someone or something." For example, when meeting someone for the first time, all of us instinctively make assumptions about that person based on how they're dressed, how they carry themselves, how they behave, and how they talk. In fact, this kind of behavior is so common that we even have a phrase for it. We call it "first impressions."
However, in many cases our first impressions are often not correct. For example, when we see someone dressed shabbily we automatically assume that they are of low character, but when we get to know them better we might discover that just the opposite is true. Salesmen are very much aware of the power of first impressions so they deliberately cultivate the kind of behavior that is designed to instill trust and confidence in those whom they want to sell something. The reason why con men are so effective is because they create the impression to those they are talking to that they are honest.
And this same situation exists with principles. For example, most people believe in the principle of honesty to the point where they would not think of going into a store and taking something they want without paying for it. Yet, many of these same people have no hesitation to take home for their own use supplies from their employer, such as paperclips, pencils, copying paper, etc., and the reason they do is because of their perceptions.
Most people are under the impression that taking something out of a store without paying for it is stealing, but taking something small and relatively inconsequential from their employer is not stealing. In their mind they reason that a paperclip, pencil, or some copying paper costs so little that it does no harm to the company. In their mind the perception they have is that the company loses such items due to waste anyhow that it doesn't make any difference to the company's overall operating costs if they take a few office supplies.
Yet this is the same line of reasoning that people use when stealing from a store. If they take a piece of clothing, or a few items of food, or a small product, it is their perception that the store is making so much money that it won't hurt their profit if they lose one item. There are others whose perception is that they don't have the money to afford something they want so they reason that it's okay to steal because they have no other way to get what they want.
What we see is that perceptions are assumptions that people make to justify their behavior, decisions, and actions. Furthermore, people who are guided by their perceptions are not interested in knowing if those perceptions are true or not. Instead, they tell themselves that their perceptions are correct, but what they are really doing is using their false perceptions as an excuse to do something that they know is wrong.
When someone engages in this kind of thinking then it can be said that they do not have any principles because the very definition of a principle is a belief in something that dictates our behavior, decisions, and actions in every situation. If the decisions we make can be different from situation to situation then, by definition, we have no principles.
Principles are constant. They are like an anchor that keeps us firmly grounded to one course of action no matter how fiercely the winds blow or how strong the current pulls. But perceptions can and often do change, therefore, when people are guided by their perceptions of what is right and wrong, they can easily be swayed to engage in any kind of behavior. They are like a boat without an anchor that drifts wherever the winds blows and wherever the currents pull.
As quoted at the beginning, unless we follow the principles that govern the celestial kingdom, God cannot receive us unto Himself, meaning that we cannot inherit eternal life. Therefore it is not only important that we know what those principles are but that we make them constant in the way we live our life.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are continually being taught the principles of the gospel, but the difficulty isn't in knowing them but in making them an integral part of our everyday behavior, where they form the basis and become the guiding force in all of our decisions and actions.
For example, new converts know about the principle of tithing and may even observe this law when they have the extra funds to do so, but when things become financially tight they let their perceptions govern their decisions. That perception may be that they can't afford to pay their tithing, or that the Lord doesn't need their money, or that the Lord will understand if they don't pay it this month. In this particular situation, paying tithing is not a principle for them because if it was they would pay their tithing regardless of anything else going on in their life.
Most people understand this concept in theory but putting it into practice is not always easy, and it becomes even harder when life itself become more difficult.
In the earliest days of the New Testament church, the apostles had great success converting Jews to a belief in Jesus as their long waited messiah, and they even had success among the Greeks and Romans who believed in a variety of gods. But when Christians began to be persecuted for their beliefs, many of them began to deny their faith in order to save themselves and their families from harm. They argued that it was all right for them to lie to the authorities about their religious affiliation as long as they still believed in Christ in their heart and secretly attended their meetings.
To overcome this deceit, the Roman government ordered that all citizens make sacrifices to their pagan gods or to the statue of the emperor. For doing this, each worshipper was given a libelli, or a written statement that they had made the required pagan sacrifice, or they had to sign a document which declared their allegiance to the Roman gods. To protect themselves from persecution there were Christians who made the proscribed sacrifices to the pagan gods but who justified their actions by saying it had no meaning to them. They contended that they were merely obeying the law which demanded that they perform such acts, but claimed they still professed a belief in Christ. However, they didn't say that in public because of what would happen to them.
When the persecutions died down, there was a great debate in the church over this issue because there were many Christians who were willing to take the punishment rather than deny their allegiance to Christ. It was felt that those who publically denied their faith shouldn't have the same standing in the church as those who willingly suffered persecution rather than deny their faith. It was felt that only those who were willing to suffer for Christ's sake were the true believes, while those who publically denied Christ in order to save their own lives were not really Christians.
The scriptures teach "But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 10:33), and "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29). This is the principle that the gospel teaches, yet there were those who were not willing to follow this principle in their personal life. Instead, their decisions and actions were governed by their perception that it was okay to deny Christ in order to avoid having to suffer because of their belief in Christ.
By way of contrast, in the earliest days of the Latter-day Saints, they too were faced with violent persecution, yet the vast majority of them remained publicly faithful to their beliefs. Most of these saints lost all of their possessions, suffered physical harm, and a number of them died because they were unwilling to renounce their allegiance to Joseph Smith and his teachings. After Joseph was martyred and Brigham Young called for the saints to pack up what little belongings they could carry and move thirteen hundred miles to the Rocky mountains, those who followed him did so because of the principles taught by their faith, and it was these principles that guided their decisions and actions.
During World War II, Adolf Hitler was determined to round up all the Jews and eradicate them from out of German society. Most Germans didn't agree with this practice but they remained silent out of fear of what the Nazis would do to them if they spoke out. Yet there was one Christian family in Denmark whose last name was Ten-Boom, whose decisions were guided by their religious beliefs. At the risk to their own life, they helped hide Jews in their own home and helped them escape to safety. Eventually they were caught and the entire family was separated and sent to different concentration camps where all but one of them, a girl name Claire, died. But, to the end, they never regretted their actions. When they could have saved themselves, they chose to remain faithful to their Christian principles.
During this time many Christian ministers were cowed into silence by Hitler's brutal tactics, but a Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood by his principles and boldly spoke out against the Nazi's repressive and evil practices and conducted secret seminaries all over Germany where he continued his ministry despite such activities being declared illegal. In addition to this he helped the German underground resistance.
He was eventually caught, arrested by the Gestapo, and put into prison where he was held for a year and a half without a trial, yet he never stopped his resistance. With the help of sympathetic guards, he was able to smuggle out letters that were distributed outside of Germany and helped inspire others to resist Nazi intimidation. He was eventually executed by hanging yet, even at the end, he remained true to his principles. It is reported by witnesses that just before he climbed the steps to the gallows he briefly stopped, said a silent prayer, and then walked calmly and nobly to his death.
Martin Luther King, Jr., a Negro minister, strongly believed in the statement that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that all men should be treated equally. But unlike other Negros ministers of his time he not only lived by his Christian principles of love to all men but he spoke out about the injustices and unequal treatment of blacks. He was mocked, ridiculed, threatened, beaten with batons, had police dogs unleashed on him, and put in prison, yet he remained true to the Christian principle of not giving an eye for an eye as he continued to preach of love and the equal treatment of all people.
However, one of his supporters, a man by the name of Malcom X, who himself was a Christian minister, was guided by a difference principle. He believed in meeting violence with even more violence. He eventually left the Christian faith and became a Sunni Muslim where he went about preaching hatred for white people and advocated black supremacy.
Hitler also lived by his principles, which was his belief in the superiority of the German race and the inferiority and deceitfulness of the Jewish people. Vladimir Lenin believed in the principle of socialism as taught by Karl Marx and brutally imposed it on the Russian people, calling his new system of government, communism.
In our day there are still those who champion a cause they strongly believe in. It may be gay rights, abortion on demand, freedom from religion, life without restraints, or the destruction of our capitalistic way of life through violent revolution. But in every age believers in Christ are likewise required to live by their principles, regardless of the opposition against them. Those who follow the principles of evil will receive evil for their reward, while those who remain faithful to the principles of Christ will receive God's blessings.
Just before He ascended into heaven Jesus told His followers, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations… teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20). Jesus taught His followers, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).
As Christians we are required to let the principles we believe in be evident in what we say, in what we do, and in the decisions we make. As someone once said, "If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"
Jesus taught, "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mathew 16:26). Therefore, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal" (Matthew 6:20).
This is the principle that guides the decisions and actions of many Christians, however, unfortunately, it is not the guiding principle of all Christians. For some, they allow their perceptions of the world around them to cloud their vision of eternal understanding, which causes them to abandon their Christian principles when times become difficult.
Jesus commanded the apostle John to write unto the church at Smyrna, "be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). We can only receive eternal life when we have demonstrated that we are willing and able to always live by His principles.