On Obedience

“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessing are predicated – And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”  Doctrine & Covenants 130:20-21.

If ever a person mistook God for a vending machine, I think she could be found looking through a lens made of this scripture.

It troubles me.

It makes our relationship to God sound like a transaction, like we can cash in our obedience for blessings.  And where is grace?  When we obtain any blessing from God it is because we were obedient???  I have too many blessings I don’t deserve for that to be true.

For example, I recently took a trip to visit family, alone.  As I was leaving our hotel I dropped my wallet, but didn’t notice until we got to my Grandma’s house, two hours away.  Amazingly, someone had taken my wallet to the lost and found, nothing missing.  He also thoughtfully called my office and left a message telling me it was safe.  Without my wallet I don’t know how I would have flown home the next day, and my family really needed me home because without me there the day would have been a scheduling disaster (Uh, hello dear daycare provider, can you keep my kids till 10:30 pm?  Yeah, I know the 2 year old has been there since 8:30 this morning…)

Getting my wallet back safe was a blessing, but I did nothing to deserve it.  I didn’t pray it safe (by the time I noticed it was missing it was already locked up in the hotel safe), and I felt the light touch of the spirit telling me this wasn’t a reward for any past honesty.  It was pure grace.  Undeserved and freely given, as so many blessings are.

I think other scripture, particularly King Benjamin’s address (Mosiah 2:18-24),  establishes that blessings are not necessarily the result of obedience.  So why is this scripture saying they’re connected?

I can accept that good things come from obedience.  I think the critical issue is causality.  If blessings as a result of obedience require divine thought and action, for example God choosing and bestowing particular blessings in response to particular acts of obedience by us, then that feels transactional, and potentially capricious.  But what if there is a law (existing from before the foundations of this world) which dictates that natural consequences will flow from obedience (or disobedience) to moral principles?

For example living honestly brings the reward of having people trust you and not needing to live with anxieties created by lying.  Being faithful to a spouse means getting to enjoy intimacy and trust.  Not coveting leaves mental space that can be filled by better thoughts.  Or for a Mormon-specific kind of obedience, keeping the Word of Wisdom might mean you don’t tempt fate with your predisposition to addiction.  All of these blessings are inherent to the behavior, not an external reward layered onto it.

This to me is consistent with the logic of natural laws.  When you multiply mass and acceleration you inherently get force.  The universe doesn’t wait for God to make the force when a mass is accelerated, it simply exists.  Maybe this odd scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants is explaining a natural law.  Maybe God’s goodness and wisdom is in giving us commandments or principles that when lived lead naturally to happiness.

I’ve never liked the word obedience.  To me it connotes manipulation and control — a person more powerful than me offering a carrot if I’ll comply with his wishes and a sick if I don’t.  I can be motivated by carrots and sticks, but I’d like to think I’m more motivated by love.  I’d rather use the word allegiance.  I’d like to give my allegiance to principles (or commandments, if we must) that are part of equations that naturally yield good things.

Allegiance also leaves room for agency.  To be sure some level of agency is exercised when we comply with commandments received from authority.  This may be what God has in mind for us, at least initially, as a way of getting us started on right paths.  But surely this kind of because-I-said-so obedience is not where we are meant to stay.  We are meant to have changed hearts (Alma 5:14), loving good for goodness’ sake.  Choosing good because we love God and our neighbors.  I think allegiance is obedience with agency fully engaged.

What’s your comfort level with the word obedience?  Are you bugged by it, or of all the things to be bugged by, maybe this really doesn’t rise above the noise?

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9 Responses

  1. April says:

    I taught a lesson on tithing to primary kids just yesterday and was thinking along the same lines (with the help of the great guidance in Libby’s grown-up tithing lesson: http://www.the-exponent.com/relief-society-lesson-12-tithing-a-law-for-our-protection-and-advancement/). I have heard a lot of stories about people paying tithing and then miraculously getting rich, but I don’t believe that is usually how things work, so instead, I tried to focus on “natural” blessings for paying tithing: I feel good for contributing to the church and being unselfish, and because lots of us are faithful about tithing, the church can afford a building for us to meet in with furnishings and lesson materials.

  2. Em says:

    Personally I feel that it is rare for a particular blessing to be tied to a particular obedience. I think that because there is simply no way to know exactly why you were blessed, since God does not give you a receipt. Also, many people who obey the same law with the same level of enthusiasm do not receive the same blessings (e.g. the tithing = rich idea). I do still think they are linked however, just not in a transactional way. To me your general efforts toward obeying commandments culminate in blessings that may or may not be related to the commandment you obeyed. While you weren’t praying for your wallet or really working on past honesty, you are actively striving to have a relationship with God through a variety of actions and thoughts and so were blessed before you even knew you needed it.

    It is possible that there is a divine roster that gives a particular blessing for a particular commandment, though is seems a little unlikely. The mistake I think is assuming that we know which commandment gives which blessing. We assume that obeying something brings related blessings but that obviously isn’t true. Many chaste people later struggle with infertility, but you’d think sex obedience would bring reproductive blessings. But maybe that chastity was actually tied to financial blessings, or other health blessings, or blessings of spiritual strength. That ambiguity removes the transactional quality, because you can’t guarantee yourself a particular blessing by only obeying one thing.

  3. Catherine Worthington says:

    “I can accept that good things come from obedience. I think the critical issue is causality. If blessings as a result of obedience require divine thought and action, for example God choosing and bestowing particular blessings in response to particular acts of obedience by us, then that feels transactional, and potentially capricious. But what if there is a law (existing from before the foundations of this world) which dictates that natural consequences will flow from obedience (or disobedience) to moral principles?”

    This is what makes sense to me too, Emily U. I was relieved and grateful to see that this was the approach taken in the Primary Sharing Time on tithing that I observed yesterday.

  4. Ziff says:

    Great post, Emily U. I really like your substitution of allegiance for obedience. Like you said about agency, it certainly calls on us to do more than to be mindless automatons who know how to do nothing but obey what leaders say.

    I also think you make a great point about grace. If obedience is the cause of all blessings, where does it fit in? Perhaps this makes sense, though, given how works-focused we Mormons so often are.

    Regarding your actual question, I’ve never liked the word obedience, but mostly just because I’m stubborn and don’t like to be told what to do. 🙂 But I think you also make a good case for it being something we should be able to move beyond. You would think that a God who says his power can only be exercised by persuasion and long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned would do the same for us, and hope we could moving beyond obeying just because.

    • Rachel says:

      I would just like to add my, “Amen” to Ziff’s comment, as I also loved the substitution (and introduction) of “allegiance,” and your attention to grace.

  5. Melody says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thought-provoking, as always. I’m okay with the word obedience. It’s quick and easy and to-the-point. I think its definition changed for me as I aged/matured. Everything about the gospel has softened for me over time.

    I love all the thoughtful, wise comments here. Every one. In this section of the D&C Joseph seems to have been given instruction in the natural spiritual progression that may happen to us in our earth life. I’m not sure the scripture is as concrete as we usually make it. It seems to be more about gaining greater and greater light and knowledge by living certain principles (obeying certain commandments) in order to be transformed throughout our mortal journey.

    On the concrete side, however, may I offer this: A few years ago I made a decision to remain celibate in a relationship where I could have easily chosen otherwise. And, frankly, as a single/celibate/divorced woman of more than a decade, I think I could have had a great deal of pleasure in chosing sex over “chastity.” (let’s talk about THAT word.) Anyway, I later discovered that the man I loved and for whom I might have losened my religious devotion (or obedience) to that certain commandment- in order to share that particular pleasure – had HPV. He was a good man. I loved him and considered marrying him. He was loving and honest enough to disclose this information to me because he knew it mattered. This is when I had a glaring “ah-ha” moment.

    I had never, in all my life and in the few other romances I’d had, considered the ramifications of my lover having an STD. It changed my view about “obedience” entirely. I am not a letter of the law type woman. I am all about the spirit of the law. But I realized through this experience that obedience to a loving heavenly father’s commandments was about much more than my own understanding of potential blessings or consequences. My obedience protects and blesses me in ways I haven’t considered and may never even discover in this lifetime. I’m okay with that.

    Thanks again for this post.

  6. jks says:

    I have always liked the word obedience. I was raised in a way where manipulation and control wasn’t a part of obedience. Instead, raising obedient children is about providing love and safety, trust and stability.
    I don’t really understand the blessings come from obedience direct connection, but I know that what people consider blessings vs. what God might consider blessings are often different. So, that particular scripture doesn’t cause me any problems.

  7. Suzette Smith says:

    A great post. This is a scripture that I’ve thought a lot about during my life.

    As a youth, I loved it because it made me feel safe. I believe that if I committed strict obedience then I would be blessed and happy – and protected from pain and harm.

    This, obviously, is not how life works, so as I moved into my college years, I spent a fair amount of time being frustrated, sad, and confused. I wondered about God and felt betrayed at times.

    But it was through a very traumatic and painful dating break up that I believe I finally started to figure it out and get it right. I learned that my relationship with God was the most important things in life. I learned that relationship could bring me both comfort and guidance – and that (this) life was not made for understanding.

    I agree with the sentiments in this post and think that “allegiance” is important for many reasons. But, ultimately, our relationship with God is the only constant I have found.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    “All of these blessings are inherent to the behavior, not an external reward layered onto it.”

    Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

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