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RS/MP Lesson 35: “Obedience” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on June 4, 2011

I will make some comments on select sections from the manual, but not all sections.

We Should Obey God Willingly

The first question in the manual is, I think, a very good one: “What difference does it make to obey willingly rather than unwillingly?” I would add a further question to this: What are the dangers of obeying reluctantly rather than willingly?

The manual goes on to cite a few scriptures, but the scriptures don’t have much direct bearing on this question. However, here’s a partial answer that is provided by the manual a few paragraphs later:

It is better to obey the commandments because we fear punishment than not to obey them at all. But we will be much happier if we obey God because we love Him and want to obey Him. When we obey Him freely, He can bless us freely.

The manual then cites D&C 58:26-29. Verse 26 says,

he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

What does this mean?

It seems to me the logic of this claim in this verse is as follows: if we are merely obedient to what we have been commanded we will not be blessed(/rewarded). I think this idea goes against notions of obedience that are commonly believed. For example, D&C 130:20-21 (which is quoted in the last section of the lesson) is often quoted to mean that if we are obedient to a commandment then we will be blessed merely because of the fact that we act in obedience with that commandment. Thus, even if we obey reluctantly we will be blessed. I think, however, that a close inspection of D&C 130:20-21 will not sustain this interpretation (though I will not consider the passage in depth here), and I think D&C 58:26 is suggesting a very different view of the relationship between obedience and blessings.

The commonly expressed idea that “well, it’s better to obey reluctantly than to not obey at all” (an idea which is supported in the quote from the manual above) is, I think, an idea that is easily abused. Too often we obey reluctantly and then excuse ourselves for feeling reluctant by telling ourselves that this is better than not obeying at all. But then we go on obeying reluctantly, without ever breaking out of this rather miserable mode of living. After all, always doing what we don’t want to do doesn’t sound like a very happy way to live—and yet, how often does it describe what we in the Church do?

Consider the standard list of Sunday school answers. How willing or reluctant are we when we study the scriptures? pray? do our home- or visiting-teaching? serve others? If we do these things reluctantly rather than willingly, I would suggest that we are setting a horrible example to our children, potential investigators, and others. Further, if we obey reluctantly we are very susceptible to other dangers: we develop a sense of entitlement; we start to count our blessings and compare them to others and ask silly questions like “are others being more blessed than we are?”; we remain unhappy but think we will eventually be blessed and happy for our great sacrifice (a very “economic” way to approach the gospel that denies the core grace-based essence of the gospel); etc.

The final question in the manual for this section is another very good one: “How can we increase our desire to obey?”

I like this question because I think it’s a very hard one. I’m not sure I have a very good answer to this question. Scripturally, the best passage I can think of in response to this question is Moroni 7:48 where Mormon admonishes us to

pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love [i.e., the pure love of Christ, mentioned in v. 47].

Mormon gives a very interesting answer to the manual’s question since it is so different than what I think is a very common response to the question—namely, that if we serve more than we will love more (which leads to a kind of circular logic which I think often results in us resenting more and more the service that is required because we never come to the hoped-for-desire of actually developing a sincere desire to serve). The answer that Mormon gives suggests that desire is something not rooted in ourselves but in our relation to God, and our openness to God. Oftentimes we think that problems are simply rooted in our desires and that if we simply “dig deep” and change our desires, things will be fixed (this attitude is esp. common when parents or leaders see problems in others that they want to fix, in my experience).

I will stop here ruminating about this now, but I think the question of how to cultivate desire is an endlessly fascinating and very important question.

We Can Obey Without Understanding Why

Again, the lesson gives a fantastic discussion question: “Why do we not always need to understand the Lord’s purposes in order to be obedient?”

My own answer to this question is that we live in a culture that overvalues knowledge and undervalues faith. Scripturally, I think Alma 32 gives us a fantastic account of the dangers of the kind of sign-seeking attitudes which are very common today and which lead to a desire to understand things before obeying.

I think it is very common, esp. among intellectuals, to only value actions that can be rooted in sound reasons, where “sound reasons” is taken to mean something like that which has good empirically-based justification. But this, it seems, is the very antithesis of faith. Faith is acting in accordance with something that we hope is true or that we feel is true even though we can’t give good evidence to others that it is true (i.e., we act by way of conviction).

To act in faith is to act very differently than the mode of action that is advocated by the world. If we don’t recognize this and take great care to live contra the world, we will likely be ensared by the wordly mode of living and never enjoy the fruits of being truly obedient.

I think the scriptures given in this section, and the next section’s focus on 1 Ne 3:6-7 are great passages to study for thinking about this question of what it means to act in a way that is rooted in faith rather than knowledge (and I’m using the term “knowledge” here because I think this can all be related to the question facing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as other tree imagery used frequently in scripture to describe different ways of giving priority to faith and life over knowledge).

No Commandment is Too Small or Too Great to Obey

This section includes Genesis 22:1-13 where Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac. I think this is a very interesting scriptural episode to think about because it forces us reckon with the very nature of obedience in such a stark way. Abraham is acting so clearly out of a desire to be obedient to God. This is exemplary, and humbling.

Too often, I think, we worry about keeping all of the little commandments, without ever really getting to the real heart of the matter. What is the heart of the matter? Our hearts, of course….

My own recent struggle with this has been during bed time with my 3 young kids (ages 5.5, 4, and 1.5). I am usually quite tired at night, and putting the kids to bed is something that I often struggle having the right attitude about. Although perhaps not an obvious question of obedience, I do think we have been asked to be valiant and loving parents, and putting the kids to bed in a loving (and patient!) manner is, to my mind, included in the commandment to be good parents.

Rather than patting myself on the back for being such a good husband for helping my wife as I reluctantly put the kids to bed, I should recognize my bad attitude itself as a symptom of my unwillingness to fully obey. This is not a matter of sacrificing my child or not, like Abraham and Isaac, but like the title of this section suggests, our attitude to the small commandments is often significantly indicative of our larger disposition.

Results of Obedience and Disobedience

I really like the D&C 58:31-33 passage quoted here (notice, these verses are subsequent to the D&C 58 passage I discussed above):

I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing. Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled.

The reason I like this is because it illustrates a common mode of self-deception that many of us are quite prone to. It’s related, I think, to the problem of seeing the mote in others’ eyes without noticing the beam in our own. It’s a mode of scapegoating, to find problems afar off so that we don’t have to swallow our pride and recognize the problems closer to home that are more within our own sphere of influence.

The quotation of Mosiah 2:24 in the manual is also interesting to me:

He doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you.

This seems like a fairly general statement, perhaps applicable to all commandments. But is it really the case with all commandments that we are immediately blessed? Or are there some commandments that entail (only) deferred gratification so that we obey and then receive blessings only after some period of delay or testing?

This is a genuine question, as I don’t have a good answer to it, though it’s a provocative question that my reading of the passage suggests. I would love to hear others’ responses to this question it the comments below.

14 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 35: “Obedience” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. Molly Bennion said

    It is a blessing that our obedient deed is immediately noted by God and remembered for judgment, but it does not seem we receive an immediate earthly blessing very often. In fact, looking for that blessing can get us in a whole lot of trouble.

  2. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Molly. I think you’re right that looking for earthly blessings can be quite dangerous. I think the scriptural claim suggests we may be looking for blessings in the wrong way. We may well to look for more subtle forms of blessings (though I don’t think that makes them trivial…), like the fact that our action is recognized by God as being obedient (and the ways in which this recognition blesses us), as you suggest.

  3. Rand said

    Can a person really be obeidient if they keep a commandment out of fear of punishment? If we do our obedience to that particular commandment is at the same time combined with disobedience in that we are commanded in the scriptures to “fear not” so often in the scriptures?

    My observation is that full knowledge and understanding comes after faith and obedience, not before. Obedience through fear is a faith killer and hence understanding can never come. Yet obedience through love is a faith promoter. We all know what we could accomoplish if our faith was even as much as a “mustard seed.”

    In the end, obedience due to fear is better than disobedience due to any reason, but at the same time we are it represents spiritual stagnation.

  4. JJ said

    Perfect love casteth out all fear… Moroni 8:16. Obedience –> Love –> Obedience.

  5. Gary said

    If Moroni 7:6-9 applies to obedience to commandments, then it might support the idea that unwilling obedience is not rewarded.

    v8: For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

  6. Robert C. said

    Thanks for additional thoughts, everyone.

    Two additional thoughts after our lesson, building on other thoughts here:

    1. In discussing the story of Namaan and Elisha, we had a good conversation about the ways in which it is often easier to do big and grandiose kinds of things, but harder to do the little things. This is not only true of commandments given by God, but requests made by our wives. One Webelos leader suggested this may be a particularly male problem, as his scouts all want to be superheros and save the world….

    2. The word “damned” in D&C 58:29 is striking:

    But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

    Although obedience may be first law of the Gospel (is it Joseph Smith who claimed that?), it is clearly not all there is. The claim here seems to be that being merely obedient leads to damnation—that is, a lack of progression, as we never learn to “fish for ourselves” when it comes to being righteous….

    • Carol B. said

      Great comments.

      Here’s a memory of my sister’s technique in putting her children to bed, Robert. For each of her four children she composed a brief personalized song that she would sing to them every night, along with a few moments of one-on-one attention. They seemed to submit to the inevitable without much of a struggle.

      When she was not available, my brother-in-law would do the honors, and he too would lovingly sing a song of his own composition. Each kid heard the same short verse, sung to the tune of Brahms’ Lullaby. It went like this:

      “Lullaby, and good night,
      If you get up, I’ll spank you.”

      This too seemed to work. I don’t remember much resistance, and they seemed to sleep through the night.

      Obedience through love, or obedience through fear? Both techniques seemed to work in this case. Maybe sometimes it just doesn’t matter! ;)

      (OK, in the case of obedience to the Lord I have to admit I think obedience through love is always going to yield better results.)

  7. kirkcaudle said

    Nice notes as always Robert.

    I would like to make some comments regarding the first section.

    “How can we increase our desire to obey?” I once heard it said (by someone that I cannot remember), that we live in a Viagra society, we desire to desire. In other words, we are constantly searching to get back a feeling that we once had. We work and work to find a solution to get back something that is gone. This seems to me to be related to the idea that if we serve more than we will love more. That is a very works centered theology. It gives the impression that one can work his or way into desiring something that he or she no longer desires.

    I prefer the answer set out by Mormon (via Moroni), “pray . . . that ye may be filled with [the love of Christ] (7:48). The key in that phrase it “maybe be filled.” God is doing the filling, not us. God is what gives us the desire to serve. We do not give ourselves the desire to serve simply by going through the motions serving. Serving for the express purpose of feeling better about yourself and to simply increase your own desire is the wrong way to go about things. Only by grace do we gain the desire to serve, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10).

    • Robert C. said

      Kirk, I like your reading of Moroni 7:48, and how you emphasize this point. On a more naturalistic level, I think that there is a psychological frustration at work in the serving-to-desire model that is rooted in a kind of pride that is difficult to put one’s finger on. If we pray for desire, instead of trying to act in a certain way to gain(/seize) the desire, then we become receptive agents rather than . . . well, egoistically acting agents. Or something.

  8. kirkcaudle said

    “The quotation of Mosiah 2:24 in the manual is also interesting to me: ‘He doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you.’ This seems like a fairly general statement, perhaps applicable to all commandments. But is it really the case with all commandments that we are immediately blessed? Or are there some commandments that entail (only) deferred gratification so that we obey and then receive blessings only after some period of delay or testing?”

    I have often pondered these same questions within the verse. It is important to remember that this verse comes right in the middle of the “unprofitable servant” speech. After reading this lesson (and the subsequent conversation) I have a few ideas. However, none of these ideas are fully developed as of yet.

    When King Benjamin says that the people should “do as he hath commanded you” I am unsure whether this is referring to individual actions, or if it is referring to an overall state of being. What I mean by that is, does King Benjamin mean that we are commanded to honor our parents or does he mean we should follow the law as a whole. I think the answer to this is important because if he is talking about individual actions then we must “immediately” be blessed for each righteous action. This would add up to quite a few blessing each day. After all, think about how many things you do right (even if you do more wrong). This is the option that I must often hear at church. It is the ideas that the Bishop called me to be EQ teacher and if I fulfill that calling I will be blessed even if I don’t really want to do it. Or we might say, “what goes around comes around.” If I do something good for others, God will do something good for me (aka bless me).

    On the other hand, if we look at following the commandments as a state of being, rather than a set of rules, then we will immediately be blessed because of who we “are,” rather then what we “do.” However, if there are not a set of rules, then there cannot be a set of blessings and I cannot expect “pay back” from God for each righteous deed. If that is true then there must only be one real blessing. So what then is the one immediate blessing? I think it is the spirit. To go back to the Book of Moroni, and to quote the blessings of the sacrament prayer, “that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy son, and witness unto thee . . . and keep his commandments which he hath given them, that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (v3). The gift of the Spirit is an immediate blessing, it is not something that those who are worthy are forced to wait for until later.

    Therefore, I do not think Mosiah 2:24 is talking about specific actions and commands. Rather, it is talking about your heart being changed. After all, that is really the only way we can truly follow the commandments and serve anyway. Also, the gift of the spirit does not come to everyone. Only those that are sanctified receive this blessing. In the sacrament prayer (as I read it) “blesses” the emblems while “sanctifying” the people.

    So, sanctified people are given the ability to be transformed by God in order to follow the commandment, which in turn allows them to be able to “immediately” be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is point of this lesson, to receive the Spirit in order to gain the desire to serve. With all of this in mind, I would like to rewrite the verse as follows:

    “He doth require that ye should do [be Christ like] as he hath commanded [covenanted with] you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you [by giving you the Holy Spirit].”

    Or something like that???

    • Robert C. said

      Kirk, I like your suggestion here. I keep going back and forth whether I think it’s really the best reading. So, if nothing else, you’ve given me something to keep thinking about—which is perhaps better than simply giving me an idea I embrace whole heartedly!

  9. kirkcaudle said

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t know if it is the best reading either. However, it was the best I could come up with at the moment! Of course, I am more than open to other suggestions.

  10. This lesson has proven to be of great value. I continue to read and study and ponder it.

  11. Jaynan said

    i think that you are always blessed immediately when you obey, at least spiritually (and that’s what matters, right?). Every time you obey, especially when you obey based solely on your faith, your faith/testimony is strengthened, and the spirit is with you. is that not a treasured blessing? I think the blessing of obedience is happiness, and I don’t think it needs to take any longer than “immediately” for us to have that happiness. That, again, comes down to our own attitudes and desires to BE happy, since we are the ones who decide. I know that when I obey, I feel happy that I did what God wanted of me.

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