And also that they might give thanks to the Lord their God, who ... had appointed just men to be their teachers, ... who had taught them to keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men. (Mosiah 2:4)
As I prepare for General Conference this weekend, I want to make friends again with the concept of commandments. I have become disenamoured with the word "commandments" in recent years while I've been working on divesting my parenting of unrighteous dominion. I've been learning to use the language of inviting and enticing (Mosiah 3:19; Moroni 7:13) rather than the language of demanding and enforcing. I've come to believe that demanding and enforcing generally belongs to the lesser law; that that the Children of Israel weren't ready for the higher law in Sinai because hundreds of years of abject slavery left them unprepared for self-government. So God gave them an authoritarian "schoolmaster" law full of requirements, prohibitions and severe penalties.
I believe that the higher law of Jesus Christ is a law that becomes a part of our nature (written on our hearts) as we willingly respond to the enticings of the Holy Spirit rather than complying out of fear of punishment. To me, the framing of the Five Precepts* of Buddhism as "trainings" to be willingly "undertaken" is consistent with the nature of the higher law. The law of Jesus Christ is focussed on growth and becoming through trusting in Him and receiving His grace, rather than on achieving eternal rewards and avoiding punishments through obedience to divine decrees. But I feel like our language and our mental constructs grew out of Law of Moses authoritarianism, which tends to get in the way of our understanding of God.
For these reasons, I tend to feel some internal dissonance when I read the word "commandment"; it conjures up authoritarian constructs. Because of that negative baggage, I prefer words like "precept" and "principle". I suspect, though, that what I really need to do is disassociate the word from its baggage and think deeply enough about its true meaning that it no longer bothers me.
Webster's 1828 defines "commandment" similarly to my understanding. It offers three definitions. The first refers to "an order, or injunction given by authority." The second is "one of the ten commandments." And the third is "authority; coercive power." But the etymology of the word is interesting. Since the 14th Century, the word "command" has meant to "order or direct with authority." But it comes from an Old French word comander with a broader meaning -- "to order, enjoin, entrust" -- which derives from the Latin word commendare ("to recommend, entrust to). I love that root meaning! It's both inviting and grounded in relationship.
Applying that meaning to the verse above, I get "...taught them to keep the recommendations entrusted to them by God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men." That's a very different understanding of commandments, where they are given without compulsion and also in a context of God's trusting us to "keep" them, which includes guarding and honouring them as a sacred charge.
This relationship aspect of commandments reminds me of Alma 5:62, where Alma concludes a lengthy discourse on the need to repent, saying:
I speak by way of command unto you that belong to the church; and unto those who do not belong to the church I speak by way of invitation, saying: Come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life.
In this passage, it seems like commandments are a hallmark of a covenant relationship with God. Once we have taken Him as our shepherd and been admitted to His fold, He can speak with a voice that claims our obedience. This is because we've committed to a relationship of such loving devotion that it's characterized on His side by the verse "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13), and on our side by the phrase "Your wish is my command." It's the kind of relationship President Ezra Taft Benson described with, "When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power."
In that sense, keeping the commandments is not about compulsion, but instead about tending and enriching our most precious relationship. But what about the times when compulsion comes into the equation, times when God commands with such power that disobedience is out of the question.
For a challenging example, various accounts relate that, after a disastrous first attempt at plural marriage, Joseph Smith delayed introducing the principle to the Saints until an angel came with a drawn or flaming sword and threatened his life and salvation. In this case, it seems that Joseph understood and had a testimony of the principle. But Emma didn't. Neither did many of the early Saints, including even Hyrum. William Law, then a member of the First Presidency, said that he would try to kill any angel that tried to teach him that doctrine.
It's not hard for me to understand Joseph's shrinking from instituting plural marriage in such conditions. He could anticipate the devastating effect on many, and on Emma in particular. What is hard is trying to imagine why the Lord required him to go forward with it anyway. I don't think we're given those reasons. What I know is that God is neither arbitrary nor capricious. I know that He cares infinitely for each of His children and that Emma's pain mattered more to Him than it did even to Joseph. So I am led to conclude that there were vital, salvation-based reasons. Supporting this interpretation is the fact that Eliza R. Snow and Orson F. Whitney both described the being that commanded Joseph to proceed with plural marriage as an angel with a flaming sword.
Angels (cherubim) and a flaming sword are what stand between man and the tree of life. Moses 4:28-31 declares that this is to prevent humankind from partaking of the fruit that would confer immortality, avoiding the physical death God decreed would result from partaking of the forbidden fruit. But Alma explains that this was not an arbitrary consequence. It was essential for their eternal happiness:
"And now, behold, if it were possible that our first parents could have gone forth and partaken of the tree of life they would have been forever miserable, having no preparatory state; and thus the plan of redemption would have been frustrated, and the word of God would have been void, taking none effect" (Alma 12:26).
What I learn from angels with a flaming sword is that God guards the way back. He allows us to choose and to make mistakes, within certain bounds. But He does not allow us to undermine His plan, to wreak havoc on the salvation of subsequent generations. The accounts that Joseph was ordered forward by an angel with a flaming sword suggest to me that, for all its messiness, instituting plural marriage at that time was somehow essential to the salvation of the Church.
I don't have a problem with God using compelling means to keep open the gates to salvation. I believe that is the only time He uses compulsion. For the most part, His commandments are divine recommendations entrusted to us in a saving relationship, that we "might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men" (Mosiah 2:4). And thus we become able to partake of the tree of life (Alma 5:62).
That is how I want to receive the commandments I hear today and tomorrow in General Conference.
* The 5 Precepts of Buddhism are to avoid "taking the life of beings"; "taking things not given"; "sensual misconduct"; "false speech"; and "substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness."