The Why

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 4.43.08 PMIn a previous post, I wrote in praise of what I call the discipline of Mormonism. I love that we have high expectations to live up to. It’s salutary, affirming, and ennobling to believe and finally to know that every soul has the stuff of greatness and even of divinity within. Part of the discipline of Mormonism is the recognition of commandments—divine prescriptions and proscriptions for our conduct—and of the blessings that flow from obedience to them.

From the beginning, obedience has been a high-value principle for us. As Richard Bushman interprets him, Joseph Smith’s revelations

bound the free intelligence [of the person] to God rather than setting it free to reason for itself. For God was the source of light and truth, and His light and truth were to be gained only by obedience. The idea of free intelligence [see D&C 93:27–31] combined the moral being of the Bible with the reasoning individual of the Enlightenment. In Joseph’s revelations, truth could not be discovered in rebellion and wickedness…. The test of one’s humanity was not whether one would abide by the independent dictates of one’s own reason, in accord with the Enlightenment ideal, but whether one would accept the light coming from God” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 209–210).

But even as Joseph’s revelations circumscribed human freedom within certain divine limits, they also taught that there was a point to God’s commands, and that people were empowered and expected to come to understand the why as well as the what of those divine parameters

In his inspired expansion on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, Joseph revealed that, after they were driven from the Garden of Eden, they were commanded by God to offer animal sacrifice, “and Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord. And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying, why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:5–6). We are fond, in the Church, of pointing to this episode as an example of the merits of faithful obedience and unquestioning trust in God. I do not want to suggest that there is not a place for this kind of trusting obedience; I believe that my own life has been blessed by exercising this kind of faith on some crucial occasions. But I do want to assert emphatically that this is not the point of discipleship, nor even its ultimate proof. The proof of discipleship is in our becoming, and we cannot become, fully, without understanding.

After the angel learned that Adam didn’t know why he was offering sacrifice, he explained the rich symbolism and the principles of it to him (Moses 5:7–8), and Adam and Eve began to learn by exponential leaps the things of God as taught by the Holy Ghost (Moses 5:9 ff.).

This lesson was not lost on Adam. The sequel to his unquestioning obedience—a sequel that for some reason we never tell—is that the next time he is given a commandment, Adam responds very differently. It is related in Moses 6, in the voice of Enoch. God commands Adam “by his own voice” to turn to him, believe, repent, and be baptized “even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth.” God even offers what I might have considered a perfectly adequate explanation for the commandment. He promises Adam that his obedience will bring the gift of the Holy Ghost by which “whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you.” And yet Adam still asks why: “Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water?” And the Lord responds with a blessing (“Behold, I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden”) and the most symbolically and lyrically rich explanation of the power and promise of the ordinance of baptism anywhere in the canon (Moses 6:55 ff.).

We can and should seek to know the why of what we obediently perform within the Gospel of Christ. Seeking the why is a protection against being led astray by any who might seek to exert compulsion or coercion in the name of the Priesthood or any other form of authority; but more than that, it is the path of growth, understanding, becoming, and joy. The youth curriculum for this month contains this perfect summary of the matter by President Uchtdorf:

While understanding the “what” and the “how” of the gospel is necessary, the eternal fire and majesty of the gospel springs from the “why.” When we understand why our Heavenly Father has given us this pattern for living, when we remember why we committed to making it a foundational part of our lives, the gospel ceases to become a burden and, instead, becomes a joy and a delight. It becomes precious and sweet.

Let us not walk the path of discipleship with our eyes on the ground, thinking only of the tasks and obligations before us. Let us not walk unaware of the beauty of the glorious earthly and spiritual landscapes that surround us.

My dear sisters, seek out the majesty, the beauty, and the exhilarating joy of the “why” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The “what” and “how” of obedience mark the way and keep us on the right path. The “why” of obedience sanctifies our actions, transforming the mundane into the majestic. It magnifies our small acts of obedience into holy acts of consecration.

NOTE: This post is another in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJuly and August.


  1. Wonderful summary, Morgan.

    I have taught my children for many years, for example, that the “why” of living the Law of Chastity is just as important as the “how” and the “why not” when it comes to the potential consequences of not living it. In our modern age of relatively cheap and easily accessible birth control (and clinical sex education in school), the “how” and the “why not” aren’t enough to be proper safeguards – and fear mongering alone is not an option for me. Only educated understanding of the “why” can do that now, imo.

    It also is the only way to teach the “becoming” aspect that is so critical to our theology – the only thing that embeds the telestial or terrestrial practice into a celestial framework that is more empowering than restrictive.

  2. I have always felt that Moses 5 has been misconstrued and misapplied with great frequency in the Church. We too often read the descriptive as prescriptive, i.e., we tend to blithely assume that just because the scriptures say that Adam always did what he was told without stopping to think, we should follow his example. Indeed, it’s not difficult to read some subdued frustration in the angel’s question: “Have you ever stopped to think about why you’re killing all these animals?” And it’s worth remembering that it was Eve, not Adam, who put two and two together in the Garden of Eden, and she did that by asking and reflecting upon some tough questions.

    During the Revolutionary War, George Washington enlisted the services of a Prussian general, Wilhelm von Steuben, to train his troops. After he had commenced this task, General Von Steuben was asked how colonial soldiers differed from their European counterparts. He said that n European armies when an order was given it was obeyed without question; Americans, by contrast, had to be told why an order or maneuver was necessary and once they understood, they responded cheerfully. With all due respect to my European brothers and sisters, I am quite proud of my innate Yankee skepticism.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I hadn’t thought about the sequel that you present in context of sacrifice narrative before. Really excellent stuff.

  4. Ditto. I love the idea of Adam’s “why” as a sequel to the earlier, oft-cited obedience lesson. Thanks, Morgan.

  5. This is lovely. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for the great comments, everyone. A very perceptive reader—my mother, in fact—pointed out that there seemed to be something missing after I mention Richard Bushman. Indeed, a quote from his “Rough Stone Rolling” somehow got omitted from the post. I’ve fixed it now; it’s such a great, provocative quote. Thanks, Mom.

  7. Carey Foushee says:

    I bet Nephi’s account of the tree of life could be fleshed out to support this view as well. When asked what he desired it was to know the interpretation – in other words to understand why.

  8. The other thing that occurred to me as a read chapter 5 and the 6 was in between those 2 accounts he actually had kids, he must have finally learned that simply telling them to do something wasn’t going to cut it.

  9. Embracing Light says:

    This is really beautiful. I recently read D&C 6 after a loved one shared their concern that I was rejecting prophets, because I was asking why I should believe and obey certain things I felt uncomfortable with. The Lord tells Oliver Cowdery that he was blessed for inquiring. I don’t know the history to know exactly what Oliver was inquiring about, but it struck me that we, like Adam, are supposed to ask questions. How are we ever going to learn if we don’t?

    Thanks for the post.

  10. It seems strange to teach blind obedience from this story. Considering that since an angel appears to explain the reason for the commandment, I always thought the moral must be “God gives commandments for reasons, and he wants us to know the reasons.”

  11. Wonderful. I love the follow-up, and this will go into my repertoire for future reference.

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