Exact Obedience in an Imprecise World

[ 11 ] Comments

by Angie

Talence1One Sunday evening in November, I found myself in a little chapel in Talence, France, waiting for Elders Andersen of the Twelve and Kearon of the Seventy to speak to a group of missionaries. I am not currently a missionary but was in attendance with my husband to celebrate twenty years of the first stake in Bordeaux, organized on the last day of his mission there. My husband introduced me to one of the “goldens” — the large group of young adults who had been baptized while he was there in the Bordeaux mission. One of my husband’s missionary friends mused that he didn’t know why there were so many, these “goldens,” and why they found them, but the lovely woman knew. She said, “You were obedient. Obedience brings power. It brought you to us.”

Later in the meeting, Elder Andersen told a story of a former elder, not in attendance, who wanted to be perfectly obedient. One evening, even though they had no more appointments for the night and even though it was pouring rain so meeting street contacts was unlikely, it wasn’t yet 9:30, so he wouldn’t go inside the apartment. His companion stood inside the doorway, begging him to come inside, but he stood out in the rain and (not so) miraculously, a man walked up to him. The elder asked what he knew about Jesus Christ, and the man’s heart was pricked: he knew this elder knew something he needed to know. He was taught and accepted the path of gospel discipleship, because an elder wouldn’t go in out of the rain until it was time.

My mission president (in Brazil) often spoke of obedience. He counseled us to seek out the predicate laws for the blessings we needed. He implored us to be exactly obedient, to seek that power. Even though we served in Brazil, where the church is being accepted readily and seemingly easily, we served in the heart of historical Brazil, where the Catholic church is strongest (at one point I served in a small town with two different convents and a monastery), where people seemed most inclined to cling to tradition, even if it brought them no peace, no light. President Smith taught us that we would find power in obedience, the power to teach, the power to find those who were ready for change, for light.

Exact obedience is a funny thing. The world would have us believe that obedience is mindless, is a sign of cult worship, is something no thinking person would engage in without firm rewards in view. But we know different. We know that “when we obtain any blessing from God it is by obedience to that law upon which it was predicated.”

Frequently, we are reminded of obedience.  Bruce R. McConkie said:

bruce mcconkieObedience is the first law of heaven. All progression, all perfection, all salvation, all godliness, all that is right and just and true, all good things come to those who live the laws of Him who is Eternal. There is nothing in all eternity more important than to keep the commandments of God (The Promised Messiah, 126).

But world wars, nameless conflicts, and unfathomable atrocities have scarred the world’s history with nightmares of fascism and terrorism brought to power in part by mindless obedience. Exact obedience is not the same thing as blind obedience. Missionary obedience is a different and far less nuanced thing than obedience as a regular workday citizen and member in God’s kingdom.

We are charged to be thinking and educated participants in the Lord’s work, but still to support our leaders. We are to counsel together in the councils of the church and in our families, but to obey the counsel of bishops and stake presidents and leaders. How do we learn and practice intelligent obedience, perhaps even dissenting obedience? How do we express frustrations to the bishop, but still be willing to serve and do what he asks? How do we teach our children to be obedient, to sustain and support and to think for themselves?

To a certain extent, I think the distinction is one of vocabulary: We obey the Lord; we follow the counsel of the bishop. Some leaders don’t appreciate the distinction. Some even have a very my way or the highway approach. Often we won’t agree with the leadership style of a leader. How do we sustain him/her nonetheless?

In the law there is a concept called black letter law: the express written terms of a statute.  Everything else is how law enforcement and the courts interpret the law. In the Church, I see the scriptures and the General Handbook of Instructions to be black letter. The words of all our leaders fall somewhere closer or farther away from that black letter.

I once had delusions of becoming a professional seminary teacher, so I took the teacher prep classes offered to that end. Our instructor offered the notion that words from our leaders may be placed on a continuum of weight, giving the most weight to what the prophet says (obviously with highest weight to the current prophet among the words of all the prophets) and the least doctrinal weight to statements by local leaders, seminary and institute teachers, EFY speakers, or charismatic and inspirational writers. There is worth in much of it, but not necessarily weight.

In my mind, I wonder if there isn’t some way to combine the two concepts of black letter law and authoritative weight based on ecclesiastical position (an apostle trumps a seventy; any General Authority trumps John Bytheway). We offer our souls on the altar of complete and exact obedience to God as fulfillment of our covenants, seeking understanding for those concepts and commandments that chafe or that defy our understanding. We follow all the black letter commandments first, seeking to understand even as we obey. We counsel with our local leaders, seeking both to understand and inform in those matters that we disagree or fail to understand all while sustaining and supporting even in our disagreement. And counsel from other leaders falls somewhere in the middle.

I seek the power that exact obedience brings. I have felt it. Just recounting experiences where obedience has brought blessings brings the Spirit to a discussion. But non-missionary life is not replete with black letter law in the way that missionary life is. Exact obedience is harder when it is less clear what is expected. Sustaining leaders often means counseling together with them and there isn’t the same feeling of rectitude and power in submission, in dissenting obedience as in the clear black letter lines of missionary obedience. But obedience is still the first law of heaven.

  • How do you cultivate obedience even while disagreeing with your leaders?
  • How do you work toward exact obedience in real life?
  • What blessings have you seen in seeking submission even in your dissension?

Image credit: invisible bordeaux

About Angie

I am a recovering attorney, mother of five children who are smarter than I am. I love to learn. I love to think. I love to read and I love to write.

11 Responses to Exact Obedience in an Imprecise World

  1. Bonnie says:

    One of my favorite stories is about obedience when it doesn’t make sense to obey. A friend was driving late at night and came to a four-way blinking red light out in the middle of nowhere. He passed by that light daily and knew there was no traffic and it wasn’t even a cop trap. There was no reason to stop and nothing to fear if he didn’t. However, he chose to stop because the light was blinking red and that is what the law states one does in those circumstances. He shook his head at his own naivete and went on. About a mile down the road he rounded a turn to almost run over a jack-knifed trailer rig coming to rest. The accident was much less serious than it would have been had he also been there when it occurred moments before. He was the first to state that he didn’t think that doom and destruction await us if we disobey meaningless codes, but that he pondered how the Lord had used his obedience to protect him. Sounds something like the story told at the reunion you recounted.

    On the other side, I believe there must be a forum or means of discussing things with which we don’t agree and still do so in a “faithful, covenant-keeping spirit” as someone recently noted in a private conversation on this subject. Apostasy is a real thing, and it’s a real spirit, but problem solving is also a real part of our life. It’s an important tension for us to be able to negotiate, and somewhere in there, it feels to me that pride enters in to invite apostasy.

    I offended a bishop who is probably the most humble, spiritually-focused bishop I’ve ever had a few years back. I did so by checking off all the things that were wrong about how a situation had been handled. He was doing his best, and I was prideful. Since then I’ve thought about how a situation involves many people and wondered each time what needed to happen for the benefit of the people involved, with what limited perspective I have. I don’t know that I always know when to speak up or what to say, but it does inform my thinking about it beforehand to consider all the different ways God is working with all the people involved. I suppose, like most things, we’ll practice it all our lives and still wonder if we’re doing it right.

  2. Paul says:

    Great questions, Angie. But before I answer them, some thoughts about your careful and thoughtful post:

    1. You write, “The world would have us believe that obedience is mindless, is a sign of cult worship, is something no thinking person would engage in without firm rewards in view. But we know different.” The thing that trouble me here is the phrase, “without firm rewards in view.” We HAVE firm rewards in view when we obey, and they are articulated in the verse you quote. Further, many a terrorist has a reward in view. That others do not recognize the reward (I would not expect an atheist to value the eternal rewards I do; I do not value the after-life rewards of some terrorists) does not mean we do not have the reward in view.

    2. Your questions, “How do we learn and practice intelligent obedience, perhaps even dissenting obedience? How do we express frustrations to the bishop, but still be willing to serve and do what he asks? How do we teach our children to be obedient, to sustain and support and to think for themselves?” are not completely complementary. I do not know what dissenting obedience means, and I would welcome your insight. (Some of our more conservative general authorities in days past have clearly said there is no “loyal opposition” in the church, but they may also be the ones who have said when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.)

    The way we express frustrations to the bishop and still be willing to serve is to do so humbly and meekly, without the assumption that we are right and he is wrong and we are noble and good for submitting even if we don’t want to. It is instead recognizing that he is an imperfect servant doing the best he can, and because we love the Lord we love His servant, and because we love His servant, we are willing to listen to the Lord through his words. We can still share our feelings with our bishops, but we can also willingly submit to his counsel after we have counseled together.

    I was personally grateful for that approach when I served as an Elders Quorum president years ago. In our ward, we had far too many families compared to the number of active home teachers, so each home teacher got ten or more families to home teach. As I met with one brother who was physically very strong and somewhat intimidating to me, I extended the assignment to visit ten families, most of whom lived in particularly bad areas of our ward. He expressed reservations about going into those areas because they were dangerous. I prayed silently as I spoke with him, seeking guidance to know what to say. I felt prompted not to withdraw the assignment, so I said, “Would you do me a favor? Would you please try this month and see how it goes? Please try to do you best to see these families. I really feel this is the assignment the Lord would like you to have.” He agreed.

    The next month he came back and reported he had seen all ten families with no issue. Further, he said he had intended to see them as soon as I assigned them, but he wanted to be sure that I had the conviction that the assignment was from the Lord and not from me. I had satisfied him in our first interview.

    I was grateful for his willingness to accept a challenging assignment, and to the inspiration that came to press on when it was hard for me to do so.

    I can only wish that I was as good as submitting as this good brother was. There was more than one time during my tenure as EQP that I did not see eye-to-eye with our good (but strong-willed) bishop, and I was, I’m afraid, not as charitable as this other brother was with me. Looking back later, I realized I was a little like that servant who was forgiven his debt but would not forgive the debt of another. A painful realization to be sure.

  3. Angie says:

    Bonnie, that tension between covenant keeping discussion and apostasy is what makes obedience in “the real world” both so important and so difficult, more difficult when leaders are of the highway variety–permitting no counsel in their councils. Sometimes I find myself erring too far on the side of submission–where I fail to counsel with my leaders–and sometimes I let my prideful criticism unfurl in thoroughly unproductive ways. I loved your insight to think about all the ways in which God is working in our lives before opening our mouths!

    Paul, by dissenting obedience, I refer to what you aptly described as willing submission after counseling together. You’re right, it is essential to remember all our imperfections and flaws as we counsel together. There is very real tension in learning to do so, while still engaging in the counseling process. I have found it can be tempting to give up on the process entirely, especially if it feels like our counsel is never heard. It is heartening to submit when a leader responds to counsel as you responded to the Elder in your stewardship, not nearly so when the response calls faith into question for expressing a concern.

    I have had several separate conversations of late about counseling with leaders, about when it is appropriate to do so, about how to resign our spirits to humble submission when concerns are dismissed or attempts at prayerful counsel interpreted as apostasy (and before hearts have stopped hurting). I want my children to have a clear understanding of their stewardships so that they know when it is appropriate to speak up and to have the faith to do so and the humility to accept whichever way the counsel goes.

  4. Michelle says:

    “I want my children to have a clear understanding of their stewardships ”

    This is a significant topic of conversation at our house right now. I’m realizing how often I’ve wasted a lot of energy worrying about things that really aren’t in my control or stewardship. Of course, there is always a nuance to this, because in reality we could each make something our stewardship in our minds if we are passionate enough about it, but I think often in a world of ‘activism’ and opinionizing, it’s awfully easy to take on more than we really can control, and to spend energy in places that can distract from our clear-cut stewardships.

    It’s something about which I’m talking to myself a LOT in my life right now.

  5. Michelle says:

    And Ang, I just have to say that I love your pic! 😉

  6. Becca says:

    There is much to chew on and think about in this post.

    I have been talking to my husband lately about how stubborn I am, and how I am somewhat of a skeptic. When I heard someone speak (even the apostles and prophets in General Conference) if what they are saying doesn’t sit well, or is unfamiliar, I usually have this attitude of “prove it!” wanting to know where they got their information, what their background is on the subject. Kind of a “What makes you an authority on this subject?” thing. Extremely prideful, on the one hand, but on the other hand, when I can make it less about proving it, and more about faithful study, I find that I am able to gain a stronger personal testimony about the principle.

    I have always wanted to know “Why” I have to do something. Why something is a commandment. Why, why, why. Occasionally I feel like a small child, asking “Why”.

    I, too, struggle to know when to “counsel” and when to just back off and submit.

    Perhaps the key is in following the spirit? As Paul pointed out in his discussion with the home teacher in his ward, and Bonnie mentioned in her comment about thinking about what we say, perhaps being led by the spirit in these situations of obedience is the most important consideration. I appreciate the apostles and prophets who, at General Conference, say “Don’t take my word for it.” and encourage us to pray and receive the same revelation they have received directly from the source. I like your “continuum”, but I think I would also say that along that continuum we should put the most weight on the words that we feel the greatest confirmation of by the Spirit.

    Elder Christofferson said something in General Conference a while ago that I absolutely love, and quote often: “…it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”

    This would mean that while the words of the apostles probably trump the words of a member of the seventy, the words of several prophets/apostles trumps the words of a single prophet/apostle. Similarly, the words of a few stake presidents and high councilors probably trumps the words of one high councilman.

    And, of course, always search for the confirmation by the spirit – your own revelation of their revelation.

    • Paul says:

      Becca, your thought about multiple witnesses makes sense to me and ties to something that I’ve mentioned before about what Elder Burton of the 70 taught me on my mission years ago…the lessons to look for in the scriptures are the ones the Lord repeats, not the ones that are mentioned once in half a verse in Habbakuk.

      I think this principle ought to guide us. When I listen to conference and hear four or five or six messages about my behavior as a father, I ought to sit up and take notice of it. If I read of one obscure teaching of a former (that is, now dead) prophet that is probably less important. It may reflect a level of truth, or simply a level of relative importance or emphasis. We’ve heard enough messages recently (including in our own discussion section) about how we can’t do everything at once, and so some teachings may be more important at one time or another.

    • Bonnie says:

      I agree with all you’ve said, both you and Paul (that’s another witness too!) I would also add that sometimes the things that continue to work at us do so for a reason. When we take them to God in prayer, we will eventually find great peace and further light and knowledge. I don’t know why they work so hard on us – is it because we lack an element of faith that someone else has, or we see something others don’t see, or is it that the principle is simply so important that the spirit nags at us, sometimes for decades, until we find an answer? I don’t know.

      This I know: the principles or doctrines that have troubled me most and longest and found resolution are the ones that are now core to my soul. I struggled for 30 years with the revelation to give the priesthood to all worthy males, a mighty struggle that sent me to my knees more times than I could count, that undermined everything I felt about God and his church for all that time, even as I built faith on other principles. At any point it was a doctrine that felt like it could take the whole structure of my discipleship down. That resolution only came about a year ago. Now my understanding of who God is, what the priesthood is, and how God works with his covenant people, is unified. I am whole in a way that I would never have been had I not waited on the Lord for three decades.

      Our questions most assuredly refine us. They are useful, helpful, and will allow us to mount up with wings as eagles, to run and not be weary and to walk and not faint. Those who question with railing accusation don’t have that experience, if we’re to understand D&C 98 correctly, I think. Nurture your questions along. There’s a reason that they won’t leave you be. Moses asked “why” all the time too. God liked him pretty well.

  7. Carin says:

    I really appreciated this post, Angie. My husband, currently serving as the Bishop for the second time, and I have this conversation all the time, about supporting your leaders when you disagree with something, anything. One thing he reminds me is that we are not tested on whether we will support our leaders when we agree with them. We are tested on whether or not we will support our leaders when we disagree with them. Another thing he reminds me is that as the leader, he is often privy to information that others are not and that he is under obligation not to share with anyone. Also, that things that happen in the Bishop’s office, may be reported inaccurately, or have information left out when those conversations are repeated by individuals not necessarily bound by confidentiality, and as such, those who are bound have no ability to correct the misinformation floating around.

    As for the idea about supporting our leaders when we disagree with them, we recently had an incident where I was personally struggling with my feelings toward the Bishop ( not my husband), and felt that he had significantly mistreated members of my family. I did not trust him with my children because of these issues. My husband reminded me that I was under covenant to support him, the meaning of which we discussed in detail. It did mean that I would not discuss my disgruntled feelings with others. It did mean that I would fulfill my assignments and my church callings and would not bad mouth the Bishop or his leadership abilities or his decisions. It did mean that I would be kind to him and his family. It did not mean that as a parent I needed to send my children on a week-long outing with him, (but I did not need to discuss my reasons for this with others). And if I go into much more detail it will be too personal to stick out on a public blog. But the point is that my stewardship of watching over and teaching my children, as their mother, was significant and I was able to receive revelation on when and what the children were to participate in and what was OK for them not to participate in. Also, in light of my heartfelt prayers to come to terms with my covenant to support and sustain and my immediate distrust of my leader, the Lord helped me work through it. I had times where He chastised me and called me to repentance in my behavior, and other times where He validated my behavior even when other ward members were giving me and my family grief because they didn’t understand our decisions (and because I was trying to be supportive of my Bishop, I did not give them more information so they could understand).

    Fascinatingly, the Spirit also prompted me to go in and discuss my feelings and frustrations with the very Bishop I was irritated at, reminding me, (Mathew 18:15) “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” It took me six months, but I finally felt like I could go in and discuss my feelings without flying off the handle and actually behave like I believed the Savior and was trying to emulate Him. The Spirit continued to prompt me and I continued to pray to be able to be kind (because my natural woman is not when I fell I have been backed into a corner and I was feeling like I was there). When I finally felt that I could discuss without anger, I made the appointment, and kept it. I left agreeing to disagree, but he knew where my heart was and why. The anger was finally gone. The trust has not returned. I think there is a difference and the Lord is OK with that. I still do not discuss the details and our (the Bishop’s and mine) relationship is better but not fixed.

    Also, it is important to take into account that the Lord knew what decisions that leader would make, right or wrong, and He was OK with that because otherwise He would not have called that leader to serve in that position. In my personal experience with my leader, I had to learn to communicate my negative and tender feelings to the person who I felt harmed me. I had to bite my tongue and not share my frustrations with friends and family. I had to learn to be kind when I am hurt. (I am sure there are things my Bishop learned, though I do not know what they are, but I know the interaction changed him. I am not a complainer and I work hard. I am sure my visit and our conversation caught him off guard.) The Lord felt I was ready for those lessons and so was my Bishop, so the two of us, as Elder Maxwell would say, (paraphrasing) were sharing each other’s mortality to learn and grow in ways neither of us probably appreciated. (Sorry I can’t find the quote…my son has the book at college!)

    So I think Becca’s thought is key….if we are truly trying to be disciples of the Lord we claim to worship, the Spirit will direct us in proper behavior and treatment of those in our sphere, even when, or especially when, we are hurt and struggling to understand, believe, serve, and learn what we came here to learn.

  8. Jendoop says:

    Carin, It really is complicated isn’t it? Day by day seeking direction and doing your best to live up to the gospel as a whole- not throwing your obedience out the window because a leader did something you felt was an error (and may have been, I don’t know enough to say).

    I have a friend who felt she needed to be released, and asked to be. Her resulting new calling felt so right, and immediately after private things happened in her family that made it obvious why her calling needed to change then. I’m sure to anyone else, maybe even the bishop (and me, her friend, if she hadn’t told me otherwise), this woman’s actions seemed less than faithful, but God was at work. Her humility in not caring what others thought, only caring what the Lord thought of her acceptance or rejection of the revelation she was given, was important. The only one who can truly judge our obedience is God. At times it may mean that we have to suffer scorn when others don’t understand, but the Savior is our example and guide even in this.

    • Carin says:

      So very, very true. I am so grateful that the Lord looks on the heart and knows what information we have been given, what we understand and what we interpret from the information we have. I try so very hard to remember those things, especially in instances like the one I shared. I do not know why he behaved the way he did or the intent of his heart in his actions, which is what I had to keep telling myself. (I didn’t have all of the information! Surprise!…..which is why I had to turn to the Lord. I just wish I would do it sooner!

      It is so nice that the Lord is willing to speak to each of us!

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