Lectures on Obedience

David Aubril is a French teacher, fond of didactics, literature, UNIX systems and free diving (with no order of preference). He follows with great interest the contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters, but from afar, from “the other side of the water”, as Pascal says.

When I was in high school, my reading of Pascal’s Thoughts and my friendship with a Latter-day Saint classmate made me wonder about the existence of God. The answers I found in the Bible and the Book of Mormon gave me a deep desire to obey His commandments.

Despite the incomprehension of many relatives, I was baptized and went on a mission. When I got home, I went back to the studies I had left for a while and got married.

My wife and I firmly believed in the promises repeated in the Book of Mormon: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 4:4). We were confident that our obedience would enable us to obtain the blessing of an eternal family.

It is difficult to express how affected we were when a series of trials shook our home. Not only was our dream collapsing, but our certainties were shattered.

Of course, I knew obedience didn’t protect us from trials. But, somehow, I thought, in a very superstitious way, that I would be preserved. I say ‘superstitious’, because I think that’s what brings, for many of us, the emphasis on obedience. We think that we have acquired some kind of magical protection. We reverse things: instead of doing God’s will, we obey so that God will do our will. By our obedience, we hope we can bind God, justifying and cheating ourselves with the promises laid in the Scriptures. “Why is this happening to me, when I follow the commandments?” actually means “I do what God asks me, He can’t do that to me, He is bound.”

We often hear leaders say that “obedience is the first law of heaven.”  But obedience is, in fact, neither the first principle of the Gospel, nor the first commandment. Yet, probably because of our frequent use of the concept of covenant, obedience seems to have become for many Church members a basic principle of the gospel. You only have to see the number of speeches and lessons on this subject.

We talk a lot about it, but we don’t question it, and we probably don’t understand it. What does it really mean to obey?

The account of the Fall teaches a great lesson about that. After she partook of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Eve came to Adam, and tried to have him partake of it. In their dialogue, we see two very different understandings of obedience. Adam says that he firmly intends to follow all of our father’s commandments. Eve explains that he can’t. He has to choose. Either he stays in the Garden of Eden, or he goes with her to replenish the earth. But he can’t do both.

In a complex world, obeying is not following a directive, it is prioritizing and choosing which directives we will follow, and which directives we will leave aside. Obeying has always been choosing between several commandments. When Christ rebukes the Pharisees it is because they are poorly prioritizing the commandments: giving priority to donations to the Temple rather than helping one’s parents, exercising the law while forgetting mercy.

Obedience explains why it was necessary to eat of that fruit.  After all, Adam seemed to clearly know it was wrong to partake of it: God had forbidden it.  But the “knowledge of good and evil” is not just knowing something is forbidden: it is about making the best choice at a time, in given circumstances, and taking responsibility for it. It is experiencing the dilemmas of life. In other words, it is about developing a moral sense, a consciousness.

So, Eve is not only a great example of faith, but also of obedience, because she understood what obedience really was, even through that may sound very contrary to the Christian tradition.

In obeying, one does not give up his free will, but exercises it. I think this is where lies one major misunderstanding between church leaders and many of our young people and less active members. Most of the time, they do not stop following gospel standards. But they prioritize them differently. And many times with a relevance that we could actually learn from. It strikes me to see that, while Church Authorities lament in their speeches about the decline of moral values ​​in society, huge crowds are rising up to denounce injustice as never before.

Without a better understanding of the concept of obedience, and better teachings about it, we will certainly miss many of the dilemmas of our younger generations.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughts. The idea of obedience has been on my mind for some time. I have never thought it was the first law of heaven- I appreciate your clarification on that and also on the idea of the Lord being bound.

  2. Excellent post.

    It seems that whenever Jesus had to choose between two different commandments, he always chose the one that helped someone. He healed someone instead of strict obedience to the Sabbath, for example. Other people always came first.

  3. LaJean Carruth says:

    Since 1999 I have studied the use of passive voice in the Book of Mormon and how it conveys meaning. In passive voice, the person receiving the action is the subject of the verb: “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents”. (Nephi is the subject of all verbs in 1 Nephi 1, though he both acts and received the action from others.) Actions that we mortals cannot do for ourselves are often – usually – given in passive voice: be born, be born again, be baptized, be forgiven, be blessed, be resurrected, be saved – these are all actions that no mortal can do alone, that require the action of Divinity, or of another mortal, or both.
    The Lord repeatedly promised that if you keep my commandments, you will prosper in the land – “prosper” active voice, implying that this is something we can do largely with our own actions. Of course we need others, the earth, the rain, a lot of things, but the use of active voice implies that it is largely something based on our actions. The opposite – if you keep not my commandments, ye shall be cut off – is passive voice, a divine action. There are instances of “be prospered” in passive, various tenses, in the Book of Mormon, but they are rare – yet I think too often we interpret it that way, that if we keep the commandments, we will “be prospered.” And feel betrayed when we are not prospered according to our interpretation and definition of “prosper.” But that is not what is promised – it is an active voice promise. We need to rethink that.
    I am a very imperfect mortal, yet I strive to keep the commandments. I have prospered – and been prospered – in many ways, but life has been very, very difficult. Blessings come in different ways, but I know of no scripture that promises ease or even safety, except spiritual safety in keeping the commandments.
    In 1983 I spent the summer in Berlin doing research for my PhD dissertation, comparing East and West German children’s books. The wall was very much there, and Berlin was really the only place to gain ready access to what I needed. I lived with an LDS couple, friends of a friend. The husband told me that he had been responsible for an accident while driving home from the Swiss temple – an accident, but due to his actions. A person in another car was killed and his wife was severely injured. It was rough. Yet, he said, some good understanding came from it: church members had been telling each other that if they wore their garments faithfully, they didn’t need to wear seat belts. No – no, no, no, no – but that was their misinterpretation of the promises of wearing garments, keeping their covenants. We need to be extremely careful how we interpret divine promises, and not to assume promises that God never made. Thank you for posting this –

  4. Really appreciate this post, thank you.

    When our leaders focus so much on obedience, the message I hear is that we are being asked to cede our personal authority and agency to others, namely our leaders. I believe that is, in fact, what some church leaders want us to do. While following our own conscience may produce a slightly more chaotic organization, I’ve concluded that the world would be a better place if individuals made integrity, internally guided decisions rather than simply following leaders who may or may not know better than us. There are probably a few situations in which blind obedience is a virtue, but those are exceptions rather than the rule.

  5. When I was younger, I hated the dichotomies so often found in scriptures and in the real life practice of living the gospel or in the real life practice of navigating church participation. “Just tell me exactly what to do and I’ll do it,” I would pray. When I was older, I recognized the need for us to make choices and to learn from them but still wished things were more black and white. This post’s definition of obedience as “not following a directive, [but rather] prioritizing and choosing which directives we will follow, and which directives we will leave aside…choosing between several commandments” clears up so many things for me and helps me view my own, and other’s, choices with greater understanding. Thank you for succinctly put, spiritually helpful insights tonight.

  6. True North says:

    The policy of excluding black people from temple ordinances shows the peril of following church leaders instead of your own conscience.

  7. What a beautiful conclusion. I love asking people in a wide range of generations which church lessons they remember being emphasized when they were in their youth or in their 20s. It is fascinating. Priorities ebb and flow. And I love how you took it one step further to remind us not to dismiss people and cultures over it.

  8. Grateful Reader says:

    True North gave a good ex. People call some things “obedience” that I would call cowardice.

    Some members would be shocked at my “disobedience.” I don’t ___, ___, or ___. Ironically, since deciding not to do those things, I’ve become happier with myself; I feel that God loves and supports me; i feel self-reliant; and I feel genuine interest in helping others. That’s because my energy is no longer used up by me feeling resentful or uncomfortable about ___, ___, and ___.

    So if doing ___, ___, and ___ makes u feel better about yourself and God…great. But we aren’t all the same.

    If your response is “But if I don’t do ___, i won’t be allowed to ___,” my comment is not for you. You don’t get that for some of us, thinking that you “have to do x to be allowed to do y ” is ridiculous and makes y not worth doing. We feel God inside of us and that’s why we can go to Church and not go nuts. By not buying into all of it, we can enjoy the good parts that actually feed the soul.

  9. Geoff - Aus says:

    In the 1969 general conference the were talks on obedience, talks on the evils of birth control, and a talk telling missionaries that their next responsibility was to get married as soon as possible, don’t worry about education, don’t worry about employment, just get married and the Lord would provide. I was obedient. I was on a mission, I phoned up my girl friend, proposed, and we were married 6 weeks after I got home. We had our first child that same year.
    Because of obeying our leaders we lived in poverty for 10 years.

    15 years ago I was refused a TR because I would not agree that obedience was the first law of heaven. Christ said love of God, and neighbour were first and second laws.

    Church leaders lost the right to expect my obedience. They no longer say birth control is of the devil, or to get married no matter your educational or employment situation. They lied.

  10. “When I was in high school, my reading of Pascal’s Thoughts and my friendship with a Latter-day Saint classmate made me wonder about the existence of God. The answers I found in the Bible and the Book of Mormon gave me a deep desire to obey His commandments.”

    Non Sequitur

  11. “It strikes me to see that, while Church Authorities lament in their speeches about the decline of moral values ​​in society, huge crowds are rising up to denounce injustice as never before.”

    This is how I feel. I’m not a younger person per se. I believe this is a “best of times, worst of times moment”. I appreciate you stating it so succinctly.

    I’m at a decision point in my life that I believe I’ve been led to by God and by my own priorities and goals and it has left me stuck in a precarious and stressful moment. On one hand, God had blessed me tremendously and given me all I could ever ask for, except the thing I’ve been working towards literally for decades and that without it has compromised my personal peace and happiness severely. So on one hand I’m truly grateful, and on the other I don’t know what to think. I vacillate between frustration, depression, faith, and hope. It’s a bewildering situation, so I know, I think of this idea both getting blessings, not getting blessings, and not being sure about what to do. A trial, as the they say. I hope I’m able to prove faithful in the ways that will matter and perhaps I may be able to claim the intervention I’ve sought, but it’s difficult to say.

  12. i enjoyed theses thoughts. I very much agree that the idea of obedience is too easily and too frequently invoked by church leaders. I was struck by your comparison of obedience to superstition. I agree that it is too simple to obey in hopes of reward. But that is what the scriptures teach (See D&C 130:20-21, Mosiah 2:41). So what do we do? Obedience may not be the first law of heaven, but it is the first covenant of the endowment. From an organizational behavior perspective, emphasizing obedience is the easiest and most beneficial lesson to teach. You want a compliant and loyal congregation? Teach obedience to.

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