Elder Packer is famous for teaching that we change behavior more by teaching doctrine than by teaching behavior (see here, here, and here).
For instance, he said,
The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel (from the second link above).
This thinking is closely aligned with what President Benson taught:
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature (“Born of God,” Ensign, November 1985).
I’ve often puzzled over that idea, but I had some thoughts on it this past weekend that allowed it to make sense. Here’s the way I worked my way through it:
1. Bad behavior begins with a lie, or (more charitably), a misunderstanding.
2. The misunderstanding leads to a distorted view – or a hidden truth -- of God
3. The hidden truth results in unnecessary fear and negative thoughts
4. That fear leads to improper behavior and stress resulting from the cognitive dissonance between doing what is wrong and knowing (through the light of Christ) what is right
5. That dissonance is covered by addictive behaviors or other self-destructive behavior
Two examples, the first of which is scriptural and the second of which is personal.
First, consider the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. At many times in their history they engaged in bad behavior. While it would be logical to focus on the behavior and try to change it, that is not the root of the problem. The root is the basic lie that underlies the behavior. The tradition of their fathers was that Lehi led them away from their inheritance and Nephi subjected Laman & Lemuel to Nephi’s rule, effectively stealing the birthright.
That basic lie (taught in the tradition of their fathers) led to a fundamental misunderstanding of God: he was harsh and punishing rather than loving and supportive. Eventually a false god replaced the true God in their lives.
The fundamental lack of understanding of God led them away from covenants and into behavior contrary to the gospel, robbing them of blessings they might otherwise enjoy. The lack of joy enhanced the need in the Lamanites to control the Nephites and their lands, to right the wrongs supposedly done to them, and perpetuated a spiral of sin and moving away from the true God.
In those cases where Lamanites rose above their nature and above the traditions of their fathers it is when the fundamental lie was overcome and the truth about God was taught to them (think Ammon and King Lamoni).
Now, a personal example: The lie that I struggle with often is that I know better than God what is good for me. Sometimes I do not trust the power of the atonement in my own life, and I feel like efforts to improve (even though I may see the need to improve) will not bear fruit.
This lie that I tell myself and believe diminishes my faith because it obscures the true power of the atonement in my life; it effectively limits (in my mind) the power of God to help me and His love for me.
As a result, when I'm trusting this lie, obedience is more difficult for me. On the one hand, I fear the punishment that will come with lack of obedience, or I fear that others in my circle won’t care about me because I’m not as good as I should be. On the other hand, because I know what is best for me, I can pick and choose how to obey.
Unfortunately, disobedience to what the spirit has taught me (and what I recognize as true when not under the cloud of this lie) leads to the dissonance in me that comes when I know right and do wrong. And my means of coping with that dissonance is more wrong: it leads in me to bursts of anger, efforts to control others’ outcomes, and disappointments at false expectations that I have built in myself.
While it’s easy enough for me to spot my own bad behavior and to tell myself to stop it, stopping the behavior is not the issue. The issue is getting to the lie and rooting it out. And the way to do that is by learning pure truth: doctrine.