As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a prominent teaching broadly spread and often repeated in our conversations and meetings. It was first spoken in 1896 and was apparently of such significance that it has been passed on through the generations. We find it in speeches throughout the last century, church manuals, and recent conference addresses. It’s really a shame then that I – and the part of the heavens that dwells in me – finds it so utterly false and its latter-day effects to be so very heartbreaking. Do you believe that “obedience is the first law of heaven?”
There is at least one way in which it rings beautifully true to me. However, that wasn’t how it was used. In 1896, Joseph F. Smith, then the second counselor in the First Presidency said:
It is frequently said that order is the first law of heaven. I wish to put this in a different light. Order in the Church is the result of obedience to the laws of God and to the discipline which He has established among men. My opinion is that obedience, which one of the ancient prophets said was ‘better than sacrifice,’ is the first law of heaven–if there can be any law called the first or above all others. Without obedience there can be no order, no discipline, no government. The will of God cannot be done, either in the heavens or on the earth, except men will obey the will of the Father. And when men obey the will of the Father, order is the result. Confusion ceases, and peace is made to prevail, when men yield obedience to the requirements of the Father, or to the laws of God. Discipline is that practice which is necessary to bring men and women into an understanding of the laws and requirements of God; or, it is that condition which will exist when men understand the laws of God and yield obedience to them. (Joseph F. Smith, Utah Stake Conference, Sunday, April 19, 1896)
And while I am grateful that the phrase isn’t part of our canon, that opinion, once spoken in a stake conference by an influential leader and qualified by an ‘if’ statement, has become unqualified and elevated by our culture, by so many of us, as gospel truth – as doctrine, eternal fact. I’m not sure what the process was, but I am completely aware of the teaching and those who have repeated it. Its influence is substantial enough to say that it seems to have bigger sway in some people’s hearts than a considerable amount of scripture.
My desire is to help heal some of the people among us and given my lack of position, I am left in a position to respect the sovereignty of God and the autonomy and agency of the church and its leadership. I support the leaders of the church and I have confidence that those individuals, with their experience that is vast and admirable even by the standards of the world, are indeed the best equipped by God to manage the business of an impressive worldwide church. Those men in the highest offices of the church are indeed, prophets, seers, and revelators; their duty is to administer the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days.
Nonetheless, God is my god and I know Him. There is nothing and no one before Him. As such, when God speaks to me I make it my goal to follow that voice. It feels in my heart that Christ has made his home with me.(John 14:23) If this is the case, is there anything more that I would seek? Would there be anybody’s words that should have my respect above His? The Church then, seems to become less about guidance and more about an immense opportunity to love and lift, to give and receive strength, and to experience God and grow in Him through the light that is in those around you – His other children.
The challenge that I have, is that based on what I have seen in church, heard attested to, and experienced throughout most of my adult life is that what I feel now isn’t the slightest bit normal. It seems to me more of an exception than the rule; a lot of us appear more riddled with self-doubt and longing than confidence, knowledge, and fulfillment. If this is the case, I see nothing but opportunity for everyone. I hope everyone who reads this is able to recognize our own weakness and repent. We can shed a veil of unbelief and become more keenly aware of how very near, accessible, and great God – our father – really is.
Obedience, the First Law of Heaven
Let me repeat that same quote that I shared previously without so many words, Joseph F. Smith said: “My opinion is that obedience, which one of the ancient prophets said was ‘better than sacrifice,’ is the first law of heaven–if there can be any law called the first or above all others.” How does that compare with the tagline version? For me, it leaves my heart heavy; how did that even happen? Assuming the simplest explanation to be the correct one, my heart aches for God. Yeah, insomuch that, in me, it offends the Spirit of God. Having no other gods before Him, it becomes time to speak plainly. If someone spoke with you – say they were even a prophet of God – and shared their opinion, concluding it by questioning whether or not it was even a valid statement, what would possess you to remove all doubt and all questioning from their words, treat it as eternal truth, and teach others to handle it eternal truth? Assuming it wasn’t a mass foolishness and devolution of thought, what was it? Is it defensible?
I’m not proud that this happened and to think that God saw it happen – doesn’t it feel like blasphemy? Here our people took the simple, suppositional praise of a single virtue and somehow elevated it to His word. We aren’t the first people to have done such a thing. The Jews were willing to crucify their God, to maintain their false teachings and the power they had laid hold of. God told Joseph Smith that the “professors” of his day “were all corrupt” and those people weren’t any happier with Joseph. God called out both of those groups of people for “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:7-9, JSH 1:18-19) If what I am sharing is true, we’re not in good company.
Still, having pointed this out, some will just blow it off; being possessed with the need to believe in our infallibility, our inability to deviate, they might just shrug their shoulders and ascribe its evolution to be according to God’s will. What I am hoping that we can see is that maybe, despite years of working that statement into our tradition, God had nothing to do with it. Maybe we can do better than to settle with the path of least resistance, the path more traveled, and maybe we can work it out of our tradition.
Judgment: The Damage
It is our job to make our words echo His, but the act of making His words echo ours, is clearly condemned. Believing in the importance of obedience, I believe there are consequences for acting outside of God’s laws – I believe we are under judgement. We have been suffering, I have suffered, and our people still do suffer from a spirit of judgment that has, in some regard, permeated what it means to be a ‘Mormon.’ That spirit is on the decline. Our leaders recognize and speak about it. Faithful members of the church talk about a ‘culture problem’ in the Church. Our aberrant emphasis on obedience leaves many of us feeling drained, inadequate, incapable, and unworthy. Some fear opening their mouths among our own for fear of ‘saying something wrong.’ Others don’t fit the mold – they don’t resemble the false god that an unanchored focus on obedience has created – so they hide. Certainly, we don’t speak about our problems. If they’re actually deep and substantial others might not view us as righteous or good enough to be friends with. So, every time my Elder’s Quorum President has asked if there are any needs that we could pray for, it has been almost completely silent. Oh, no, we have prayed for people in the hospital – that’s a pretty safe, semi-distant, judgement-free thing to pray for. It isn’t what God intended for us, and if it is, I’ve got some eternal goals to reconsider because if that is the ‘sociality’ of heaven, I know that I’ve got better places to be; it isn’t remotely like the relationship I have with Him.
The real problem is that “we” believe that obedience is the first law of heaven. Our faith as it now is and as many now believe it currently does govern our culture – our culture flows directly from what we believe. The disconnect between our belief and our culture isn’t as wide as we would like to believe it to be. Still, sometimes I believe that some people say “obedience is the first law of heaven” as a culturally appropriate way to say that obedience is important. But what I see is a group of people who have taken this just as Joseph F. Smith presented it: as first in importance. In other words, the most important single thing to be is obedient. (The “Embarrassing” Section 134) Various people from all levels of experience with our church can attest to how tangible this belief has become.
One person once described our emphasis on obedience as “one of the beautiful tragedies of the Church” because it is ultimately “a mixed bag.” They pointed out that our people’s emphasis on obedience not only built the Kirtland temple, but also massacred an undeserving group of people.* It seems very real to me that – on a smaller scale – we choose to reenact some of our own modern-day corollaries.
In varying degrees our emphasis on obedience has led us to become like the Pharisees. Others have pointed out and discussed our similarities with the Pharisees and there is much to repent of and for Christ to heal. I don’t believe there was ever any one of us who intended for us to fall in the ways that we have, but surely the devil enjoys it. As I look around at the damage that has been done, the grace of God leaves me hurting for everybody who has stumbled as I have. I know the suffering. My heart goes out to the spiritually hardened, the rigid and brittle. They keep our Latter-day law with all of their hearts and follow every whim of tradition because they love the Lord. Yet faith in obedience alone only yields the breadcrumbs of the kingdom. They’re left with spiritual stomachs that rumble and tongues that feel dry. Not really knowing the love of God, those people only redouble their spiritual exertion to ‘be more.’ In their humble, hurting efforts, some may find the praise of those around them satisfies their some of their yearning. They may begin to seek for flashes of approval from others, kindling their own light. (Isaiah 50:11, 2 Nephi 26:29) So if man’s fallen obedience can leave a person spiritually parched, is it really the single most important virtue? I ask this from experience.
My Confession and Testimony.
I served a passionate mission feeling like there was always more that God expected of me and always praying that somehow I wouldn’t be a disappointment to Him. I would drink in my study time while equally dreading the time that I would walk out that door and not be good enough. There was always some better way to present a gospel principle or make an invitation. We were always being reminded and pressured to be obedient while every meeting only added new rules that we were required to follow in order to be blessed by God. I felt the spirit of God regularly as I studied and as I taught and I worked hard all of the time, but by the measures and focus of my instruction I was a failure. Weekly I could come up with a long list of ways that I hadn’t been able to enact some kind of instruction, left the flat a couple of minutes late, didn’t speak with someone on the bus, spent too long on a discussion, came home at 8:30pm, didn’t meet some goal. I was really surprised when I went to my final interview with my Mission President and He asked me “You’ve had a pretty successful mission, wouldn’t you say Elder Joos?” I had never had that thought throughout the entire two years. I had to confess with some amount of shock that maybe on my mission I hadn’t just “worked really hard” or “grown a lot.” Maybe my mission had not only ended up “okay” or “decent” but that maybe it had actually been “successful.” It was only after that point that I could honestly admit that by any standard it really was successful; up until that point it hadn’t felt that way at all. By the measure taught to me in our regular meetings, I was and always had been, a failure.
Though we were never taught so plainly, obedience was how we “earned” the favor of God. There is a scripture that reads “And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated,” but let me bear testimony that the greatest and most abundant blessings of God come from obedience to God in the matters of our hearts. (DC 130:21, Helaman 3:35) Truly, had I understood the loving grace of God in my life half as well as I understood obedience, my ability to teach with the power of God would have increased a hundred fold. Pounding on the doctrine of obedience when someone already has obedient hearts, only breaks those hearts. After our hearts have been broken by the weight law, we need the doctrine of Christ to heal our hearts; we need solace, we need the balm of Gilead, we need grace.
That being the case, years after ‘raising the bar’ for those preparing to serve missions, I wonder who on earth my leaders thought I was. It appears from the teaching we received that we were all lazy, undedicated individuals whose priorities were to idle away our time. Those who were genuinely so inclined still managed to idle away their time despite all of that teaching, but because that wasn’t me, I suffered for it and so did the work I endeavored to accomplish.
So what does our culture of numerous expansive rules and laws speak of us as his people? According to the Book of Mormon, the “strict” Law of Moses was given to the Israelites, not because of their virtue but because of their failures as a people. (Mosiah 3:14, Mosiah 13:28-29) I find it interesting – and very sharp – that the Lord made the entire body of Israelites wait, wandering in the wilderness, until those who “obeyed not the voice of the Lord” died in the wilderness before guiding all the rest to the promised land. I see that there are some blessings that can only bestowed collectively. Regardless, it seems in several instances we are some far distance from being taught correct principles and governing ourselves. To some extent or another, are we not commanded in all things? (D&C 58:26)
Christ clearly taught the value of obedience, he exemplified that virtue in addition to many others. He taught: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) In the garden of Gethsemane, of His mortal ministry He clearly cried to the Father making his own will separate and distinct pleading “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.” But Christ relinquished His will to the will of the Father as he continued “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) The value of obedience cannot be understated; clearly, God’s plan relies upon it. However, as surely as Christ taught “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,” He continued in His very next words to give us a warning “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:21-23) While those Christ speaks of in that scenario boast of some impressive accomplishments that they, the apparent “doers of the word” (James 1:22) had done, He still acknowledged them as “workers of iniquity.” While serving the master does help us know Him (Mosiah 5:13), the service alone doesn’t appear to impress Him or save us. His complaint was that He never knew those people. In this defining instance He didn’t tell them to depart from Him due to lack of good deeds, formal prayer, scripture study, or ceremony. What they lacked was that despite all that they had done, the omniscient God of heaven still somehow didn’t ‘know’ them. Despite all of that ‘activity’ and despite the power and gift of Christ that enabled them to come boldly to the throne of God to know Him and be known of Him, they were still esteemed as strangers to God. (Hebrews 4:16, Ephesians 2:12, 19) As such, they weren’t partakers of eternal life. While other scriptures emphasize the importance of knowing God, one comes out and defines eternal life by this very one thing, saying: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)
I propose that precious fruit He desires only grows from our knowledge of Him and His unwavering devotion to us. (John 15:4-10, 1 John 4:19) When we know that love and love Him in return, our relationship with God becomes something that enables God’s love to not only fill us and satisfy us, but to overflow from within us and into the world. (Jeremiah 2:13, John 7:38, 1 Nephi 1:25) Such a love provides all of the ability to edify, all of the ability to correct, and all of the ability to stand against any power or lies the devil might conjure. But this type of love, this type of obedience is a gift to be received as a result of personal and likely invisible devotion; it’s really a consequence of knowing Him. It is a gift of God, charity, the pure love of Christ. Could charity be first? Under whose authority would such a thing taught?
A Pharisee once as asked Christ the very question: “which is the great commandment in the law?” In response: “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.” (Emphasis added, Matthew 22:36-39)
But that isn’t the end of it:
If ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all. (Moroni 7:46)
And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8, see Luke 7:47)
And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work. (D&C 4:5)
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. (Corinthians 13: 1-2)
And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. (Colossians 3:14)
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ (Moroni 10:32)
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35)
It seems to me we might have rediscovered the “first law.” Yup, in the scriptures.
Do you trust in your ability to obey more than you trust in God’s ability to love you and make you clean? I’m pretty sure some – or many – of us trust neither; when Jesus Christ heals us and pronounces us clean, it wouldn’t be normal for us to stay frantically engaged in applying bandages or scrubbing their bodies. I hope to turn each of us away from the things made with our own hands, of our own limited strength, because “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men.” (2 Nephi 28:31) Or in the words of Jeremiah:
Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. (Jeremiah:17 5-8)
Because surely that desert is where I have been, and that place by the waters is where I really feel I am. Yet every six months I hear teachings focused on healing those in parched places, and in those same conferences I still hear teachings that present in a conflicting way: “Come, rely on your own strength and capacities and Stephen Covey yourself into righteousness, ‘as you do’ ‘you will’ see the power of God and feel His love in your life.” Christ never prioritized the tasks and minutia of the law as more important than Himself, as it was Him who gave the law. His invitations follow a very different format:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
“Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live.” (3 Nephi 15:9)
If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-38)
Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (D&C 88:63)
Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. (John 16:23)
I am so grateful for a Savior and a God whose love is limitless. I am broken in so many ways, ways that some are privy to more than others, ways that anybody who knows me may notice, but Christ is privy to them all and yet, in all of his purity He is the one who loves me the most. He has no reservations and He doesn’t hold back. He has given me abundance when all that I can give Him is tears. Because of what He has done for me, He knows of my love for Him. (Luke 7:36-43) So what can I say? I am on that side of so many parables – the prodigal son, the widow’s mite, the good Samaritan, the lost sheep. It is a beautiful thing, because in everything that I am not and everything that I shouldn’t be, I know from experience that Christ loves me. He has slaughtered the fatted calf to celebrate me; He loves my offering; He has carried me to safety, healed my wounds, and paid for all of my needs to be met; I know His love for me.
Were He ministering on earth, He would seek me out. And that knowledge is more important to me than the applause or admiration of the ‘righteous’ who don’t know Him. “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
But, if “ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works.” (Alma 7:24)
God is simply that amazing. (3 Nephi 15:9)
- The “Embarrassing” Section 134. Frederick Mark Gedicks, BYU Law Professor.
“As Latter-day Saints know, contemporary general authority sermons emphasize obedience to ecclesiastical authority and loyalty to the institutional church above virtually every other value.”
“…the contemporary church’s insistence that individual religious conscience be subordinated to the church’s institutional interests.”
“And part of being a Latter-day Saint is accepting that we have a hierarchical governing structure that requires obedience to the President of the church, the First Presidency, and the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators of the divine will.”
- Mormon Matters. See Comments.
“It is the Mormon obedience instinct which built the Kirkland Temple and massacred the Fancher party at Mountain Meadows.”
- The Music of the Gospel. Elder Wilford W. Andersen, April 2015 General Conference. “Sometimes in our homes, we successfully teach the dance steps but are not as successful in helping our family members to hear the music.”
- The Voice of Warning. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, April 2017 General Conference. “One writer referred to this as the ‘shame culture’: ‘In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. … [In the shame culture,] moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion… Everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion. There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd. It is a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics, during which everybody feels compelled to go along.…'”
- It Works Wonderfully! President Dieter F. Uchtdorf. “But sometimes we take the beautiful lily of God’s truth and gild it with layer upon layer of man-made good ideas, programs, and expectations. Each one, by itself, might be helpful and appropriate for a certain time and circumstance, but when they are laid on top of each other, they can create a mountain of sediment that becomes so thick and heavy that we risk losing sight of that precious flower we once loved so dearly.”