If you have been paying close attention to my posts here thusfar, you may have noted a theme. I’ll be a bit more explicit about it here. We, Mormons, don’t know how to righteously dissent with our leaders (or our Leader). In fact, generally speaking, we frown on dissent, no matter how well intentioned or politely put. We certainly have assurances that God is at the helm of the church, both public and private. But I wonder if we sometimes read too much into that, arguing that anything the Brethren say is the Word of God and not to be questioned. On the other hand, there are those for whom the advice of the Brethren and other Priesthood leaders is considered to have no greater weight than anybody else’s. That also seems to be an extremity. Of course, most Mormons live between the extremes of these two poles. However, should we?
The scriptures have something to say about this problem. In fact, they have several things to say about it, sometimes revolving around the same scriptural figure.
Abraham is probably best known in LDS circles for his near-sacrifice of Isaac. It made him an exemplar of faith, provides us with a clear OT foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and allows us to tell horrifying stories about train switches. More than once, LDS commentators have discussed the parallels of the events surrounding the Aqedah (Isaac’s near sacrifice) and Abraham’s own time on the altar back at Ur. Both feature a son placed on the altar by a father; both feature a miraculous intervention. Some have argued that the trial may have been lessened, because God’s miraculous intervention earlier may have given Abraham sufficient faith that a miracle would take place on Mr. Moriah. It is possible, but I think that it likely underestimates the very real pain and sorrow that Abraham must have gone through while bringing his son to the altar.
In any case, I want to contrast the Aquedah with another event in Abraham’s history: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that case, Abraham argued with God, bargained really, for the lives of the Sodomites. He had to coax God into saving the city if there were even only a few righteous citizens. Perhaps this episode is inserted to emphasize the wanton wickedness of the whole town or perhaps it is an attempt to show the whole-hearted compassion of Abraham, but it raises a question? If Abraham bargained for the lives of the wicked Sodomites, whom we can all agree had it coming, why didn’t he question God’s instructions regarding the sacrifice of his son?
The truth is that we are faced with two Abrahams. One who engages God in debate, seeking a resolution that avoids unnecessary pain and one who humbly and mutely acknowledges the Lord’s will at its most painful and does it. How are supposed to reconcile these two images? Should we? Which is the more righteous act? Why? What does it tell us about how we ought to react to hard council from the Lord or the Brethren, whom we believe speak for him?
For that matter, this isn’t just a matter of the Old Testament, which is notoriously ambiguous on most matters relating to religion and ethics. The Book of Mormon provides a similarly ambiguous note where, in Zenos’s allegory of the vineyard, the servant (presumably the prophet) has to convince the Lord of the vineyard to not destroy it in his disappointment. However, in introducing the allegory, Jacob has just told the reader to not counsel the Lord. What are we to do?
I suppose that for me the lesson is that sometimes it is okay to be suspicious of commands received. I don’t believe that the Lord gets upset with our sincere attempts to verify his will. Nor do I believe that it is a bad thing to try and help the Lord find a better way; that may even be a commandment. However, it does seem that at some point, the righteous need to get off their knees, grab a donkey, son, and knife, and start trudging toward the mountain, too.