Updated: Jun 1
And now it came to pass that [Alma the Elder] died... having lived to fulfil the commandments of God. (Mosiah 29:45)
For most of my life, the words "obedience" and "commandment" have felt friendly. Because I was naturally compliant and was raised in a loving, observant home, it was easy to obey those commandments that would qualify me for a temple recommend. I knew these were important; that they would protect me from a great deal of heartache. And they have. I've had to wade through deeper waters than I used to think I could even survive, but I am grateful every day for the safety that commandment-keeping has provided to my life. Why then has my relationship with the concepts of obedience and commandments become uneasy over the past few years?
It's about the dissonance between my understanding of commandments as mandatory and my developing perspective on the kind of relationship my Heavenly Father wants to have with me. As I have come to believe that God's lives by His own leadership counsel, I have begun to acquire an increasing distaste for the idea that He uses "compulsory means" (D&C 121:46). I don't believe that He has any interest in obligating us to do as He says. Not when His leadership counsel to us is that "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned, by kindness and pure knowledge" (D&C 121:41-42). So if that is how God leads, then why does He issue commandments instead of invitations?
Perhaps part of the answer is that our gospel language grew out of the Law of Moses and the obligatory culture it created. After four centuries of bondage in Egypt, the Children of Israel were thoroughly conditioned to slavery. They were so accustomed to being controlled that they weren't ready for self-management within the higher law the Lord wanted to give them. So the Lord gave a rigid law with a multitude of commandments as a "schoolmaster to bring [them] unto Christ" (Gal. 3:24). Later, religious leaders came to regard righteousness as being rigid compliance with mandatory directives. The more you obeyed, the more righteous you were. So they made more laws to be obeyed until everything was regulated, down to the number of steps you could walk on the Sabbath day.
It was in that context that a lawyer asked Jesus Christ, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" (Matthew 22:36). It was supposed to be a trick question. Whatever He answered, the Pharisees stood ready to correct him. I believe they intended to argue that the whole point of the law was obedience to God, rather than performing or avoiding any particular behaviours. None of God's commandments were more important than any others -- they were all equally mandatory.
Jesus's response seems designed to break their paradigm and remove the sense of obligation from the word commandment. The two greatest commandments, He said, were to love God with all our beings, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. But loving isn't actually possible to do against our will, so it can't be mandated. I believe that Jesus was telling the Pharisees that the point of the law was never about creating compliance, but rather about cultivating loving motives. God's goal has never been to obligate us into good behaviour; that was Satan's plan.
There are, however, still times when God commands with an imperative voice. D&C 121:43 describes it as "reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost." I believe this is because these are moments when the stakes are high enough that failing to use an imperative voice would actually be negligence. For example, if somebody told me that they planned to kill another person and I said, "I'd like to invite you to reconsider," my disproportionately mild response might be construed as permission to go ahead. There are times when it's necessary to say, "No," "Stop this now," or "You must not do that." I believe that when God commands "thou shalt not", He is doing that for our benefit, clearly delineating lines that we are not to cross.
Most of the time, though, I believe God's purpose in giving commandments to His willing servants is not to constrain us but to empower us. There is more power in a command, which makes the will of God clear to us, than in a mere invitation. Nephi explained to his brothers, "If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done" (1 Nephi 17:50, emphasis added). Furthermore, when the Lord commands, He fully commits. This gives us strength to fully commit as well, whatever setbacks and obstacles we need to overcome. Nephi understood this well when he said, "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 the strength of that assurance, he refused to give up on getting the Brass Plates in spite of repeated failures, Laban's attempts on his life and the beating he took at the hands of his brothers.
These are all thoughts that have allowed me to mostly reconcile with the law of obedience and the concept of being commanded. But the real reason I'm writing this post is to celebrate an epiphany -- that, far from being a power play, the law of obedience is the first mechanism by which God initiates horizontal relationships with His children.
I want to clarify what I mean by a horizontal relationship with Deity. I've written at greater length about that here, and I would suggest reading that blogpost before this one. Briefly, though, when I say horizontal I am not suggesting pretending I can interact with God at His level. While I believe that He would have me grow through the eons to become as He is, I don't believe a fallen mortal being is even capable of comprehending His goodness, kindness, wisdom or power, much less trying to match any of it. But I do believe that God figuratively gets on His knees in order to look me in the eyes. That He meets me, all of us, where we are, and that He leads from beside instead of from above us. That means that He honours our agency and invites us to collaborate with Him, rather than dominating us and trying to keep us in our place.
So how is the covenant to obey God's commandments actually an invitation into horizontal relationship? It's because covenants go two ways and are equally binding on both sides, and so the law of obedience has two parts to it: obedience on our side and blessings on God's side. The Lord specifically spells this out when He says, "I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise." (D&C 82:10).
God's commands are not like an authoritarian's, who demands that you say, "how high" when he says "jump." Instead, He is an incomprehensibly mighty and glorious deity who comes into the constricted world of His infant children and invites them to put constraints upon Him. How ironic that the tyrant who places himself above his subjects is, in actuality, their equal while the God, who invites us into a reciprocal bond, is so far above us that we don't even have language to communicate His mysteries. But He wants to bring us into His fullness and that begins by inviting us into a mutual relationship, a covenant relationship, that binds us to each other.
We don't actually need to obey in order to be blessed. The Lord blesses us all the time with the very air we breathe and a multitude of unearned, personalized gifts in each of our lives. Jesus pointed to the Father's example of universal beneficence when he said:
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:44-45).
It follows that the Lord is not showing us a carrot and a stick when He says He is bound when we do what He says, but when we don't we have no promise. He will bless us in every way we let Him. That's what He does all day. So He's always trying to give us the carrot. And when we refuse His gifts and choose the path of destruction, He blesses us with "judgments". Those mostly looks like letting us bang up against the natural consequences of our choices, so we can learn wisdom. Thus, there really isn't a stick.
What there would be, without the covenant of obedience, is a disempowering divide where God dispensed blessings from high, high above us, while we abjectly begged and pleaded for His favor. We would assume that His decisions whether or not to grant our petitions were arbitrary. Maybe, if we were really desperate we'd go to great, self-destructive lengths to get His attention, like the priests of Baal did in their contest with Elijah (1 Kings 18:28). We would race around, trying to appease Him and please Him, with an attitude that was closer to terror than to love.
That is not the dynamic God wants for our relationship. His goal is to draw us close and exalt us. So, rather than lord it over us, He empowers us, adding our hand to His on the levers to the windows of heaven. He does that by eagerly inviting us into the covenant that can bind Him to bless us.
It seems to me that, until now, I have known that covenant by only half of its name. I have called it the covenant of obedience. From this time forward, I will understand it as the covenant of obedience and blessings.