Gospel Principles #35: Obedience

Chapter 35: Obedience (please note: This lesson plan was a joint effort and could not have been completed without EmilyCC.)

Spirituality is philosophical; it demands thought. But it is patient and allows us to develop, grow and increase in knowledge at a personal pace. Because of this eternal state of development, it can feel contradictory to teach obedience, because obedience invokes a sense of being very finite. That is to say, we are tempted to discuss obedience in black and white terms wherein we think that an action is either obedient or not obedient. And if the action is disobedient, then it is always wrong. But can this be right? Is disobedience always wrong?

Well, I have a dog. He is a great dog. I swear. He is a big, beautiful, cuddly, blonde Labrador who has joined me in teaching special needs children, visiting a nursing home and I am even cheeky enough to sometimes bring him to Relief Society classes with me. The kids in the neighbourhood all know his name, but would not be able to tell you mine. We were diligent in training him with firm kindness when he was a puppy and that has been rewarded.

I work from home and was nearly finished with work when he started excitedly pestering me to go out. He usually gets an afternoon walk when I have finished work. I was stressed about a deadline and an unreliable internet connection, so I kept focused on work. I kept telling him to be quiet, and he would be for a moment, but then he would start pestering me again. He knows this is inappropriate; it is disobedient behaviour and he normally only acts this way when the “Mr. Whippy” (ice cream) truck is near (after all, he is a Labrador). After the second admonition to be quiet, he usually is. But he wasn’t. He continued to be disobedient and noisy. I finally finished my work, grabbed his lead and opened the door. He ran away from me—something he rarely does because it is very disobedient. He knows the “going for a walk routine”.  He ran across the yard and … it became to clear to me what he had been disobediently pestering me about: He needed to relieve himself of an upset stomach. His pestering was disobedient. His running away was disobedient. But he knew that is also disobedient to “have an accident” in the house.  

Why was he disobedient?  Because he was trying to maintain a higher law of the house, unbeknownst to me. His disobedient pestering suddenly went from black and white disobedience to my recognition of him obeying a higher law of not making a mess inside. So I would like everyone to keep this in mind; obedience is not always black and white. Christ set the example for us to obey the higher law, and only we can be directed and inspired by the Spirit to know what the higher law of obedience is for us.      

Eve is a perfect example of this. We know that she and Adam were forbidden from eating from the tree, yet Eve saw that the higher law was to make it possible for Heavenly Father’s plan to come to fruition:

“Knowing what the consequences would be, Eve dared do what was needed that her children might be born. The purpose of creation was to provide physical bodies for God’s spirit children and give them experiences that would allow them to distinguish good from evil. Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit furthered that purpose. As such, it was a necessary and brave act.” – Jerrie Hurd, Leaven, 1995, p. 3.

When Jesus was on the earth, a lawyer asked Him a question:

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36–40).

From these scriptures we learn how important it is for us to love the Lord and our neighbors. But how do we show our love for the Lord?

Jesus answered this question when He said, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father” (John 14:21).


I think it is interesting that one of the synonyms for the term “obedient” is submission. This means that in order for us to submit to the Lord, we are to be obedient to His laws. I would open this up the following questions for general discussion:

-How is being obedient like submission?

-Do we always need to understand the Lord’s purposes in order to be obedient?

Jesus Christ was the sublime example of obedience to our Heavenly Father. He said, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). His whole life was devoted to obeying His Father; yet it was not always easy for him. He was tempted in all ways as other mortals (see Hebrews 4:15). In the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed, saying, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).

Because Jesus obeyed the Father’s will in all things, He made salvation possible for all of us.

 This is a beautiful example of submitting to the will of God. I think it is also important because it showed that even Christ asked to be relieved, yet He still submitted to the will of the Father, and with that, the miracle of the atonement was accomplished. As well as His example of complete submission, He also taught us to follow a law that is higher than the law of the land:

“In a society where women were not allowed to study the scriptures [Jesus] taught the Samaritan women at the well and he excused Mary from serving with Martha in order to study things of more value. Women were not permitted to function as legal witnesses, yet he allowed women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection.”  -Katherine Shirts, Women Steadfast in Christ, 1992, p. 96-97.

We all have situations where we have to choose to live a higher law of obedience, such as putting the needs of our family in priority over doing a calling to absolute perfection. The problem that some women face is that we feel guilty for not being able to do everything to perfection, therefore, we become frustrated, depressed and exhausted.

-Invite the class to share stories where they have lived the higher law of obedience.

– Is it the Lord’s will for us to submit to so many things that we become spiritually desolate? How can we avoid this and still recognise we are being obedient to the best of our ability?

There are times when we have challenges laid before us that make us question how obedience is possible in some cases.

God Will Prepare a Way

The Book of Mormon tells us that Nephi and his older brothers received a very difficult assignment from the Lord (see 1 Nephi 3:1–6). Nephi’s brothers complained, saying that the Lord required a hard thing of them. But Nephi said, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).


In addition to this scripture, I would read the following story by President Eyring from the October 2010 General Conference:

Such trust in God can bless communities as well as families. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. Our branch of the Church had fewer than 20 members who regularly attended.

Among them was a woman—an older, very humble convert to the Church. She was an immigrant who spoke with a heavy Norwegian accent. She was the only member of the Church in her family and the only member of the Church in the city in which she lived.

Through my father, who was the branch president, the Lord called her as the president of the branch Relief Society. She had no handbook to tell her what to do. No other member of the Church lived near her. She only knew that the Lord cared for those in need and the few words in the motto of the Relief Society: “Charity never faileth.”

It was in the depths of what we now call the Great Depression. Thousands were out of work and homeless. So, feeling she had her errand from the Lord, she asked her neighbors for old clothes. She washed the clothes, pressed them, and put them in cardboard boxes on her back porch. When men without money needed clothes and asked her neighbors for help, they would say, “Go to the house down the street. There is a Mormon lady living there who will give you what you need.”

The Lord did not run the city, but He changed a part of it for the better. He called one tiny woman—alone—who trusted Him enough to find out what He wanted her to do and then did it. Because of her trust in the Lord, she was able to help in that city hundreds of Heavenly Father’s children in need.

This is one of my favourite stories from conference because it involves many of the things I like: an independent woman, service, work, community. For the purpose of this lesson, it also sets a great example. This woman appeared to have nearly every barrier that would prevent her from comfortably and effectively serving others. So, instead of seeking miracles to change herself, she did what she could within her scope. I think this is of great importance: whilst we are instructed to “go the extra mile”, the Lord would not ask us to do things that hurt us, hurt our families or require us to give up time or money that we cannot afford. He makes it possible for us to serve Him within our means, just like the sister in President Eyring’s talk.   

The next section is subtitled: No Commandment Is Too Small or Too Great to Obey, and tells the story of Naaman:

Sometimes we may think a commandment is not very important. The scriptures tell of a man named Naaman who thought that way. Naaman had a dreadful disease and traveled from Syria to Israel to ask the prophet Elisha to heal him. Naaman was an important man in his own country, so he was offended when Elisha did not greet him in person but sent his servant instead. Naaman was even more offended when he received Elisha’s message: wash seven times in the river Jordan. “Are not [the] rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean?” he demanded. He went away in a rage. But his servants asked him: “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” Naaman was wise enough to understand that it was important to obey the prophet of God, even if it seemed a small matter. So he washed in the Jordan and was healed. (See 2 Kings 5:1–14.)

I can’t help but read this and think of human nature. In 1970, a study was completed at Sandford University in determining obedience in four-year-old children to adult females. The study involved the women asking children to do things; sometimes it was a mother asking her own child to do a task, sometimes not. In this study, 44 of 52 children were LESS obedient to their own mothers. (I think some women might have a knowing laugh at this).  It is clear that children try to assert a degree of independence from their mothers, so may be temporarily disobedient. I think this is what Naaman’s issue was; he wanted special treatment. When he did not get special treatment, he had a bit of a tantrum, but when he was obedient, he was healed. This is something I like to keep in mind when I am doing obedient things that sometimes seem trivial. It reminds me that in many cases, obedience takes spiritual maturity.  [The study can be found here: T. K. Landauer, J. Merrill Carlsmith and Mark Lepper, “Experimental Analysis of the Factors Determining Obedience of Four-Year-Old Children to Adult Females”, Child Development, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 1970), pp. 601-611]

The next section of the lesson is focused on the result of obedience and disobedience. It offers the standard quote that we always hear, i.e. when you are obedient, you are blessed, versus the when you are disobedient, you miss out on blessings. I am uncomfortable with discussing this because it does not address the atonement, and in truth, even when are perfectly obedient, bad things still happen. I think this is where being submissive comes in.

As Mormon taught:

Moroni 9:6: And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.

So why be obedient if we are still going to have struggles? I like this quote from Terrance D. Olson in Go Ye Into All the World, p. 294:

“Perhaps the reason obedience is the first law of heaven is that without obedience, we do not see clearly the possibility or reality of heaven. We do not see that the Saviour is the light of the world. We are in darkness, we stumble, we “forget” what manner of person we are. But we cannot attribute these problems to sources outside ourselves. We are blind because of our own refusal to see. As Jacob, the son of Lehi noted, Wo unto the blind that will not see; for they shall perish. It is likely that the first casualty of refusing to see is a loss of an understanding of the truth because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.

“It is evident then, that it is in our response to the gospel – how we act upon it, and not how it acts upon us that reveals who and what we see; who and what we are, in any given moment. Our disobedience changes our world- what we see and what we understand, and how we relate to others.”

How does the ways in which we relate to others change when we are in tune to the spirit as a result of obedience?

The Obedient Gain Eternal Life

The Lord counsels us, “If you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7).

The Lord has described other blessings that will come to those who obey Him in righteousness and truth until the end:

“Thus saith the Lord—I, the Lord, am merciful and gracious unto those who fear me, and delight to honor those who serve me in righteousness and in truth unto the end.

“Great shall be their reward and eternal shall be their glory.

“And to them will I reveal all mysteries, yea, all the hidden mysteries of my kingdom from days of old, and for ages to come, will I make known unto them the good pleasure of my will concerning all things pertaining to my kingdom.

“Yea, even the wonders of eternity shall they know, and things to come will I show them, even the things of many generations.

“And their wisdom shall be great, and their understanding reach to heaven. …

“For by my Spirit will I enlighten them, and by my power will I make known unto them the secrets of my will—yea, even those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man” (D&C 76:5–10).

 -What does the phrase “endure to the end” mean to you?

-What can we do to stay true to gospel principles even when it is unpopular to do so? When have you done this? 

I would end this lesson with this intriguing idea from *Lynette at Zelophehad’s Daughters:

As I read the Plan of Salvation, a primary reason for our coming here has to do with experience–in particular, the experiences of ambiguity and embodiment, two things which cause a lot of hard, hard challenges, but also provide real potential for moral and spiritual development…[In] this context I see obedience in terms of trust, as a response to a love that is terrifying in its radicalness–and in a situation where there are so many uncertainties. Are we willing to take the risk of really responding to God’s call, to make commitments, to choose to love, all without knowing the outcome?

I would leave the class with that question…are we willing to follow the higher law of obedience in our love for God?  And, what will that look like?

Some Other Suggestions:

Opening or Closing Hymn: Do What is Right
*Lynette’s blog post, “Are We Here on Earth to Play Simon Says?” 
April’s recent guest post, “May I Disagree?”

Note: This lesson was originally written for the Relief Society audience in 2010-2011, when the Gospel Principles manual was temporarily used as curriculum for Relief Society, Elders Quorum and High Priest classes. The lesson may require adaptation for Gospel Principles classes, which are mixed gender and primarily serve new members and investigators of the church.


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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16 Responses

  1. kelly ann says:

    Thank you spunky and emilycc for such a well thought out lesson, particularly knowing you two volunteered to cover it at the last minute.

  2. Spunky,

    If you wrote the lesson manual, I’d consider attending Relief Society.

  3. Rachel says:

    As I was reading this I was thinking about morality, ethics, values, and obedience possibly all as somewhat synonymous.
    Just like your sweet dog chose the higher law (anthropomorphism…love it!), sometimes we choose a higher law. Do I be obedient to getting out of debt or having a year supply of food? If I work outside the home to ensure my children will be better able to pursue a higher education is that being disobedient?
    Perhaps we as sisters are too judgmental of each other because we don’t understand the others’ hierarchy of what is most obedient.
    Thanks for this post–I’ll be teaching this lesson one, and these always help me getting thinking/pondering 🙂

  4. Rachel says:

    *this lesson*

  5. Corktree says:

    I love the example with your dog Spunky. And this lesson was a delightful read – it’s so great to have this resource for some spiritual nourishment, especially as I’ve struggled with much of what I’ve heard in my own ward lately. Thank you for this.

  6. Lynnette says:

    Thanks for the ideas (and the shout-out to my post); I like the way you’ve framed it. I’m doing this lesson on Sunday, and I’m finding the topic rather challenging. It’s perhaps karmic retribution for some of the lessons I’ve done in the past. 😉

  7. Melissa Mc says:

    I enter tomorrow as part of a new RS presidency and wanted to be prepared for the lesson — THANK YOU for such a wonderful post, I really appreciate it.

    • spunky says:

      I am so glad it helped you. Good luck in your new calling! I hope that the Exponent can be a source of support for you and the women you are serving.

  8. Rachel says:

    Just trying to find this book by Dr Olson you quoted above. Is it from the Sperry Symposium?
    And, yes…it is Saturday evening and I’m working like a fiend on my lesson. 🙂
    Just read and enjoyed the Simon Says link. The idea of obedience as trust was wonderful. Yesterday when I was working on the lesson, here are some of the thoughts I had. Obedience and faith are synonymous, too?
    I was thinking about long vs short term obedience, or time limited obedience. There are things which require obedience forever, such as prayer, scripture study, etc. that we constantly work on that bring us closer to the Spirit which is was brings us into relationship with God, and there are things which require us to do a specific thing such as if your Stake President asked everyone to pay quadruple fast offering for 4 months. In both, we make a choice to act or not, but sometimes it’s nice to have things checked off the list.
    I was thinking also about moral development; kids start being obedient to get praise/rewards, and to avoid punishment. The next level, we obey because society says so, we want to fit in and be good members of society. The highest level, we are able to see that some rules can be bent, but others we absolutely hold as sacred. Is this somewhat how we develop spiritually?

    • spunky says:

      Great thoughts, Rachel! I agree… obedience is synonymous with faith, spiritual maturity and spiritual development, as you pointed out. I think it kind of goes a little along the lines of what I learned from one of many Sheri Dew talks- that we need to be tutored in the way in which we relieved inspiration, and in so doing, we better serve Him. As in, we are commanded to go visiting teaching each month, and doing so is obedient. But in taking the next step- praying for specific inspiration for these sisters, and listening to the spirit when randomly prompted to contact/serve them is more obedient- and following a higher law that doing the basic visit and message. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and developing the concept even further.

      P.S. I don’t know where I got the Olson book- when I go to the US, I raid many LDS bookstores (Deseret, Seagull, Mt. West Books, even the BYU bookstore), and bring the spoils back to share… I have no idea which of these venues might have been selling it at the time, but it is an excellent book.

  9. Jeanette says:

    Not sure I agree that Obedience is NOT black and white. It is very clear, and without a clear understanding Satan wants you to believe that you have excuses, and less remorse for doing wrong. I find this sad and not in anyway a good reference for the lesson in the GP book.

    • spunky says:

      I am sorry that you feel that way, Jeanette. My life is quite complicated, and it seems like I am always being faced with many obedient choices, so I feel like I have to be in tune with the “bigger picture” all the time. I like to think of Christ- who healed on the Sabbath, something that was disobedient and which was forbidden (Matthew 12). But, He obeyed a higher law in healing another. I am okay with following His example like that because I have a complicated life with many rightous choices.

      This is another take on the idea of “good and better”: http://lds.org/ensign/1991/02/leaving-eden-a-lesson-for-parents?lang=eng&query=adam+eve

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