On Obedience

[This is a slightly abridged version of a talk that I gave in sacrament meeting a few years ago. Now that I think about it, I haven’t been asked to speak since . . .]

Introduction

My topic is 1 Nephi 3:7.

The scripture reads: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: 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.”

I was interested in the ways in which this scripture has been mobilized in Mormon discourse. BYU recently unveiled a wonderful tool that allows anyone with internet access to search the entire corpus of General Conference addresses from the 1850s to the current day. I was a little surprised at the results of my search.

As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1893 that the scripture was first quoted in General Conference. It was quoted again in 1899. From 1900 through the 1950s it was quoted only an average of once every five years. Beginning in the 1960s, however, it sees a great deal more use. By my count, it has been quoted over the general conference pulpit nearly 60 times in the last 60 years.

The account of Nephi returning to Jerusalem to recover the brass plates is (or at least has become) a very familiar one in the Church. Perhaps because of its location near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (and, critically, before the Isaiah Chapters), most of us have probably read it on many occasions. I’ve been in the primary for the last few months, and the children have a favorite song inspired by this story. At the chorus, they sing a paraphrase of Nephi’s words: “I will go, I will do, the things the Lord commands, I know the Lord provides a way, he wants me to obey.” As they sing it, they pump their fists in the air. It is quite a thing to see.

Complicating matters . . . 

This story is actually problematic for me.

I think too often we take scriptures out of context. Nephi’s pronouncement that he will go and do is made so much more poignant by the knowledge of what he actually went and did. There is a beautiful and innocent optimism in Nephi’s reply to his father, but reading those words after we know where his obedience will ultimately take him should cause us to pause.

One of my favorite musicals is Camelot, and a number from one of the opening scenes captures well the mixture of emotions this familiar “Go and Do” line creates for me. After Lancelot gets news of the establishment of the knights of the round table, he launches into a lighthearted and quite funny song:

“The soul of a knight (he sings) should be a thing remarkable

His heart and his mind as pure and morning dew

With a will and a self-restraint

That’s the envy of evr’y saint

He could easily work a miracle or two  . . .

But where in the world

Is there in the world

A man so untouched and pure?”

Answering his own question, he goes on,

“C’est Moi! I blush to disclose

I’m far too noble to lie.

That man in whom

These qualities loom

C’est moi, c’est moi, ‘tis I.”

And he goes on singing his own praises.

This song illustrates well the character of Lancelot, but I wasn’t really able to see that until the second viewing. When I first heard the song, I wrote it off as a clever and comical way to introduce the self-righteous French knight. But after you know the story, you realize that these were not just empty boasts. Lancelot really was that good. In fact before the first act is over he does seem to perform a miracle, but by the end of the show, things have gotten much more complicated in Camelot, and the song takes on new meaning.

I can’t recall the first time I heard the story of Nephi’s fateful encounter with Laban, but as I’ve revisited it in recent years, I can’t help but be saddened at knowing where this journey takes him. In a similar fashion to Lancelot, Nephi charges forward with faith but without a full understanding of what he will be called to do.

Upon finding Laban, we are told Nephi first resisted the command to kill. It is plain that he never believed that “going and doing” would put him into such a position. In the end, he acquiesces. As the story reads, Nephi “took Laban by the hair of the head, and . . . smote of his head with his own sword” (4:18). The fact of the killing is made so much worse by the mode of execution. I’m sure that the word “smote” doesn’t do justice to what would have actually been required to perform the deed. Nephi must have left that place much more world-weary than he came to it.

Obedience to what?

For me, putting Nephi’s original pronouncement in context makes the way in which we use the scripture problematic.

It seems like 1 Nephi 3:7 is most often cited as a way to help steel us against the ever present temptation to shirk our duties. I think we are all well-acquainted with this internal struggle. Paul, in Romans 7 (and in a way that only he through his King James translators could put it), says: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. . . . For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do (7: 16, 19). I know that I am not alone in recognizing that no matter how willing our spirit, in the moment when we are called to act, we often discover just how weak the flesh is.

Many times in my Church experience, Nephi’s example has been presented as a solution to this trouble. We can just remember Nephi’s words: “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.” This gives us strength to persevere through the daily grind of Latter-day Sainthood.

And this is great. Anything that can help us to overcome our naturally selfish desires and be a better friend to one another—to more carefully meet the needs of our fellows in and out of the Church—is welcome.

But to my mind, the “Put your shoulder to the wheel” kind of faith we need in these moments when we are just too tired or lazy or busy does not find a very good analogue in the story of Nephi. Especially when we take the scripture in its context.

Most of us do not have any kind of deep-seated aversion to the performance of our normal church duties. As much as we groan about meetings, or find it difficult to do our home and visiting teaching, or would rather be taking a nap than serving the needy, or would rather be seated in the congregation than delivering a talk, we all pretty much acknowledge that these are good and worthwhile things to do (at least in theory).

Unfortunately, there are very rare but weighty moments in our lives when we are confronted with a real and substantial conflict between what we feel is right and what we believe (or are told) it is our duty to do.

Looking back to the verses immediate preceding the killing of Laban, we read a very interesting exchange between Nephi and the Spirit. The scripture tells us that Nephi first “shrunk” from the commandment. In his words, “I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man” (4:10). This was not Nephi rationalizing his way out of doing something inconvenient. After all, it was Nephi’s idea to try bargaining with Laban after they were initially rejected. It was Nephi who refused to return to his father empty-handed even after Laban had chased them off a second time and stolen their valuables. We read that the Spirit commands him twice more to act before he can actually bring himself to do it.

This is the stuff of real spiritual drama. To borrow Thomas Paine’s memorable phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

In moments like these, men and women have been moved to do great things: Abraham faithfully follows the will of God, Christ drinks the bitter cup. As the Gospel Principles manual says, “Sometimes we do not know the reason for a particular commandment. However, we show our faith and trust in God when we obey Him without knowing why” (“Obedience”). The examples of obedience in these cases lead to amazing things: Isaac becomes the father of Israel, Nephi’s obedience ensures that an entire people will not “dwindle and perish in unbelief,” and Jesus becomes Christ.

The Dark Side of Obedience

But this drama does not always play out so nicely. In stark contrast to the tremendous good that can be accomplished through obedience, history is scarred with atrocities carried out or by the obedient: nearly 1,000 died in the Jonestown mass suicide on November 18, 1978, 76 were killed at Waco on February 28th 1993, and more than 2,700 people were killed on September 11th 2001.

I have to believe that there were at least some among the perpetrators of these terrible things that shrank at the thought of what they were about to do.

We have a few examples in our own Church history of this principle of obedience being twisted to dreadful effect, perhaps most dramatically on another September 11th more than 150 years ago. On that day, acting under the leadership of their Stake President, and surely with the belief that their actions were in accordance with divine will, members of a Southern Utah militia killed every man, woman and child over the age of 6 of an entire company of emigrants passing through the Utah territory. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a horrible stain on the history of the Church. Speaking at the 150th anniversary commemoration, then Apostle Henry Eyring noted: “The truth, as we have come to know it, saddens us deeply. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.”

It is a sobering exercise to try to place yourself in the position of any of those who participated in that horrific act. Would you have had the courage to say no?

What distinguishes the noble obedience of Nephi and Abraham from the awful obedience of those Southern Utah militiamen? Obviously the stories end very differently, but that kind of retrospective criteria isn’t very helpful for us if we are faced with the same kind of conflict.

We might want to believe that these kinds of dilemmas that pit individual conscience against divine (or purportedly divine) will are the relic of an earlier time, but I think that many of us have (or will at some point) be put into a position where we have to decide whether to follow our own moral compass or submit to some higher authority. One recent example that comes to my mind is the Church’s role in the Proposition 8 campaign. I am among the minority of members of the Church that found (and, honestly, continues to find) it difficult to reconcile personal feelings with what my leaders were telling me. From what I understand, there are wards in California that are still feeling the effects of that campaign.

An unsatisfying conclusion . . . 

So now we reach the point in the talk where I should be offering solutions: The three criteria for knowing whether a commandment is from God or not; a clever mnemonic that will clear up the whole problem.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have anything nearly so helpful to offer, but I think there are important lessons for us in the Nephi’s story.

We are told that one of the great purposes of mortal life is to learn to submit our own will to God’s. Speaking on a happier occasion, President Eyring taught: “The great test of life is to see whether we will hearken to and obey God’s commands in the midst of the storms of life.” Elder Maxwell often spoke on this theme, “We tend to think of consecration only as yielding up, when divinely directed, our material possessions. But ultimate consecration is the yielding up of oneself to God. Heart, soul, and mind were the encompassing words of Christ . . .” Nephi’s story demonstrates how complicated and uncomfortable this can sometimes be. It is my prayer that we might all grant one another charity and understanding as we collectively stumble through this process.

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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