The Vain Things of the World

In a 1976 message that Hugh Nibley said was “given the instant deep freeze” by the Latter-day Saints, President Spencer W. Kimball shared a sobering story to demonstrate the dangers of setting our hearts on the things of the world.

I am reminded of an article I read some years ago about a group of men who had gone to the jungles to capture monkeys. They tried a number of different things to catch the monkeys, including nets. But finding that the nets could injure such small creatures, they finally came upon an ingenious solution. They built a large number of small boxes, and in the top of each they bored a hole just large enough for a monkey to get his hand into. They then set these boxes out under the trees and in each one they put a nut that the monkeys were particularly fond of.

When the men left, the monkeys began to come down from the trees and examine the boxes. Finding that there were nuts to be had, they reached into the boxes to get them. But when a monkey would try to withdraw his hand with the nut, he could not get his hand out of the box because his little fist, with the nut inside, was now too large.

At about this time, the men would come out of the underbrush and converge on the monkeys. And here is the curious thing: When the monkeys saw the men coming, they would shriek and scramble about with the thought of escaping; but as easy as it would have been, they would not let go of the nut so that they could withdraw their hands from the boxes and thus escape. The men captured them easily.

And so it often seems to be with people, having such a firm grasp on things of the world—that which is telestial—that no amount of urging and no degree of emergency can persuade them to let go in favor of that which is celestial. Satan gets them in his grip easily. If we insist on spending all our time and resources building up for ourselves a worldly kingdom, that is exactly what we will inherit.

The nut may represent something different for each of us, and the angle Satan takes to capture us may vary, but the monkey typifies us all at some point. Regardless of the level of urging or persuasion we refuse to let go of the things of the world, and are converged upon. To make matters worse, we are not the only losers here. While we are preoccupied with grasping the nut in the box, there are plenty of friends and family who could use a helping hand. An understanding of what the nut truly represents, and what is wrong with holding onto it, reaching for it, and even making sacrifices for it, might motivate us to let go.

“But exactly what are the things of this world? An easy and infallible test has been given us in the well-known maxim: “You can have anything in this world for money.” If a thing is of this world you can have it for money. If you can’t have it for money, it does not belong to this world.” (Hugh Nibley, Leaders and Managers)  Why are we all so focused on money all the time? Because it can get you anything here! The key word though, is here, in this world. Money, and anything you can get for it, does you no good in the other world. In fact, few of the things we value here are of any merit there. “Look around you here, do you see anything that cannot be had for money? Is there anything here you couldn’t have if you were rich enough? Well, for one thing you think of intelligence, integrity, sobriety, zeal, character, and other such noble qualities. But hold on, I have always been taught that those very things the managers are looking for bring top price in the market place… Does their value in this world mean then that they have no value in the other world? It means exactly that. Such things have no price and command no salary in Zion. You cannot bargain with them because they are as common as the once pure air around us. They’re not negotiable in the Kingdom because there everybody possesses all of them in full measure. And it would make as much sense to command pay for having bones or skin as it would to collect a bonus for honesty or sobriety. It’s only in our world that they are valued for their scarcity.” (Hugh Nibley, Leaders and Managers) 

This world has it backwards. “To seek ye first financial independence and all other things shall be added, is recognized as a rank perversion of the scriptures and an immoral inversion of value.” (Nibley) God says, “Before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the Kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good – to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” (Jacob 2:18) The telestial world says, “Before ye seek for the Kingdom of God, seek ye for riches.  And after ye have obtained a hope in your wealth and substance, ye shall obtain the Kingdom of God if ye desire it. Then ye will seek the Kingdom of God with the ability to do good. But for now, focus on the fortune.” It is one thing to support yourself and your family’s needs. It is another thing entirely to forego opportunities to serve or bless the lives of others in order to reach like a monkey for things in a box. Not to mention, money and luxuries only bring fulfillment to a certain level which lies just above the meeting of our needs.

This concept is taught in Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin’s book titled “Your Money or Your Life.” It is called the fulfillment curve.


They noted that as they climbed up the levels on the graph toward luxuries, they began to believe that money = fulfillment. Then, eventually they report: “We hit a fulfillment ceiling and never recognized that the formula of money = fulfillment not only had stopped working but had started to work against us. No matter how much we bought, the Fulfillment Curve kept heading down. But there is a very interesting place on this graph –it’s the peak… At the peak of the Fulfillment Curve we have enough. Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even a little ‘luxuries’.” What I find even more interesting, is their description of passing by the ‘Enough’ climax. They state that at length “we slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries–and hardly noticed the change… While each one was a still a thrill, it cost more per thrill and the ‘high’ wore off more quickly.” It seems that Satan starts with a small nut in the box that we can grab, and still remove our hand easily. Slowly the nut gets larger until we can hardly manage to squeeze our hand out through the whole with the nut, until not at all. Sometimes it takes being converged upon to get us to stop reaching.

Whether we are willing to learn from the scriptures and the mistakes of others, or have to learn from our own sad experience, eventually we will all come to understand as Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught, “There is no lasting happiness in what we possess. Happiness and joy come from what a person is, not from what he or she possesses or appears to be.” This can be a difficult principle to grasp in our society with the cultural conditioning that goes on in the media. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has observed, “Some days it is as if we have been locked in a cubicle of a great and spacious building where the only thing on the TV is a never ending soap opera entitled Vain Imaginations.” There is no season or series finale to that TV series. It doesn’t end.

Keeping up with this attainment of the latest and greatest thing you can have for money is like trying to go up on an escalator that is quickly coming down. You never get anywhere. There is a never ending set of next steps required to get to the top floor where at last you can allegedly purchase the esteemed product of euphoria. In reality, such a trek is not only misplaced zeal, but a downright waste of energy. At some point one comes to the realization that the trudge up the telestial trail is not worth it. “All the quick fixes do not really cure the emptiness and boredom of secularism. Further, some who laboriously scale the secular heights find, after all, that they are only squatting atop a small mound of sand! They have worked so hard to get there!” (Neal A. Maxwell) Furthermore, the things we store in our conquered sand hill will be corrupted anyway. The Lord has said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Setting our hearts on the things of the world will always lead to pride or coveting. Pride when we obtain the vain things we desire, and coveting when we don’t. Both these, in turn, can cause us to forget God. “O, how could you have forgotten your God in the very day that he has delivered you? But behold, it is to get gain, to be praised of men, yea, and that ye might get gold and silver. And ye have set your hearts upon the riches and the vain things of this world.” (Helaman 7:20-21)

“The traits and the behavior Isaiah denounces as the worst of vices are without exception those of successful people. The wickedness and folly of Israel do not consist of indolence, sloppy dressing, long hair, nonconformity, (even the reading of books), radical and liberal unrealistic ideas and programs, irreverence toward custom and property, contempt for established idols and so on. The wickedest people in the Book of Mormon are the Zoramites, a proud, independent, courageous, industrious, enterprising, patriotic, prosperous people who attend strictly to their weekly religious duties with the proper observance of dress standards. Thanking God for all he had given them, they bore testimony of his goodness. They were sustained in all their doings by a perfectly beautiful self-image. Well, what is wrong with any of that? There is just one thing that spoils it all, and that is the very thing that puts Israel in bad with the Lord according to Isaiah. The Jews observed with strictest regularity all the rules that Moses gave them – “and yet… they cry unto thee… and yet” they are really thinking of something else. “Behold, O my God, their costly apparel… all their precious things… ; their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say – We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.” (Hugh Nibley, Great Are the Words of Isaiah)

The world may not notice that we are walking around with our hand stuck in a box resolutely clinching a nut we are particularly fond of, but God does. He knows what we are really thinking about. He also knows what firmly holding onto these vain things leads to. Ultimately we will begin to make sacrifices for them.

In chapter 1 of The Book of Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price we read an account of false priests trying to sacrifice Abraham to pagan idols.

My fathers, having turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given unto them, unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen, utterly refused to hearken to my voice;

He tried to get them to stop, but they wouldn’t listen.

For their hearts were set to do evil, and were wholly turned to the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt;

 Therefore they turned their hearts to the sacrifice of the heathen in offering up their children unto these dumb idols, and hearkened not unto my voice, but endeavored to take away my life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah. The priest of Elkenah was also the priest of Pharaoh.

Why dumb idols? “The daring illusion of the schoolmen is that as modern, enlightened, rational thinkers they have made a wonderful discovery: that wood or metal dolls or images cannot really see or hear, and so on. They labor the point to death. But the ancients knew that as well as we do. That is exactly why they patronized the idols. There is the famous story of the Eloquent Peasant from the Middle Kingdom in Egypt that tells how the rascally manager of an estate, when he saw a peasant passing by on his way to the market with a load of goods, cried out, “Would that I had some idol that would permit me to rob this man’s goods.” A dumb image would offer no opposition to any course he chose to take. That was the beauty of idols: They are as impersonal and unmoral as money in the bank – the present-day as well as the ancient equivalent of a useful idol.” (Hugh Nibley, Great Are the Words of Isaiah) There are a plethora of useful idols today. The benefit of worshiping such things is they don’t get involved in our life. They don’t require us to become any better than we are, or to make any changes within our self.

 Now, at this time it was the custom of the priest of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to offer up upon the altar which was built in the land of Chaldea, for the offering unto these strange gods, men, women, and children.

Has it become a ‘custom’ in our day to sacrifice men, women, and even children to strange gods? We are doing exactly that. Satan does not change. “The adversary steadily promotes all the ancient sins, not because he is uninventive but because his harvest is so great.” (Neal A. Maxwell) We may not be sacrificing someone’s life to the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, or Mahmackrah. But what about sacrificing their time to the god of entertainment; their feelings to the god of popularity; their attention to the god of celebrities or sports teams; their confidence to the god of self-image; their feelings to the god of “i’m always right”; their needs to the god of video games; their friendship to the god of our career; their spiritual welfare to the god of wealth? We constantly sacrifice that which is of worth for that which is of no worth. “Seduced by our culture, we often hardly recognize our idolatry, as our strings are pulled by that which is popular in the Babylonian world.” (David R. Stone) We could apply verse 6 to our day and read it like this: “For their hearts were set to do evil, and were wholly turned to the god of personal fulfillment, and the god of political correctness, and the god of money, and the god of public figures, and the god of social media.” In that same deep frozen address cited earlier, President Kimball also taught, “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god, and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.” What are our hearts really set on? Who do we really put our trust in?

The sooner we give these things up the better. “Hearts set so much upon the things of the world may have to be broken. Preoccupied minds far from Him may be jolted by a “heads up”. Many individuals preoccupied by the cares of the world are not necessarily in transgression. But they certainly are in diversion and thus waste “the days of [their] probation”.” (Maxwell) Let’s not waste the days of our probation making sacrifices to reach for Satan’s strategically placed nuts. We have too much to do, the Lord has tasks for us to perform and lives to bless.

The sole aim of this article can be summed up in the principle taught by George Albert Smith in this statement, ““We may have given to us, in this life, a few things that will give us satisfaction, temporally; but the things that are ‘worthwhile,’ are those eternal things that we reach out for, and prepare ourselves to receive, and lay hold of by the effort that we individually make.” After all, “what does the world really have to offer us? One round of applause, one fleeting moment of adulation, or an approving glance from a phantom Caesar?” (Maxwell) The vain things of the world are not worth the price required to pay for them. Let go of the nut!

5 thoughts on “The Vain Things of the World”

  1. HOW AWESOME THIS IS!! I have been studying for the Sunday School lesson tomorrow and been praying to be guided as to what to share and the “vain things of the world” stood out in my mind and so I searched out of interest what these things are to see if I have missed anything. I found your article and it just felt so right w lots more in it than I could get on my own. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking moving article. You should submit it to the Ensign for real. Ensign calls for articles all the time.

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