—Alma 3:6 NC
In this series, we’ve been examining the desire for “things to happen” soon, which is a shorthand way of expressing the fervent desire of all covenant holders to witness, and participate in, the fulfillment of all that is prophesied—up to, and including, the coming of the Lord and the establishment of Zion.
In today’s installment, I’d like to examine the idea of commandments and the role they play for all of us in our hoped-for prophetic scenarios.
What Shall I do?
Let’s start with a vignette that appears in three of the New Testament gospels. (Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:23, Luke 10:9 NC) A rich young man came to the Savior—Mark says he ran to the Savior and knelt before him—and asked, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” The Lord replied, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one—that is, God. But if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.”
This comes as no surprise to any of us. Keeping the commandments is foundational; it’s part of the basic basic proposition of religion from the beginning—that God expects people to behave in certain, specific ways.
Having been advised by the Lord to keep the commandments, the young man then asked for a specific list of commandments to be kept, and upon hearing the Savior’s list, affirmed that he obeyed them all. Good deal, right? This guy is therefore, definitely, destined for eternal life!
Nope, not quite. He still lacked something, and the Savior immediately understood the young man’s missing virtue. Though the young man had obeyed a list of rules, he had never learned the lessons the rules were designed to teach. His heart had not changed. In this case, the young man lacked the attributes of compassion and mercy. The Savior therefore wrote a prescription designed to supply what was missing. It involved sacrifice, as is always required when one seeks to gain faith.
“Jesus said unto him, If you will be perfect, go sell that you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in Heaven; and come and follow me.”
Seeing that the young man’s heart was set on his treasure, and that keeping the commandments was merely an exercise in checklisting for this young man, the Lord invited him to make the sacrifice that would change his heart. Unfortunately, the young man found the sacrifice too great, and went away sorrowful. Though this young man began by “running to” the Savior, in the end he “went away.” The commandment keeping, which he thought defined his righteousness, turned out to be an empty preoccupation that had accomplished little. It had not brought about the required changes in his heart.
This brings us to an important distinction we need to understand about commandments and reasoning. What follows is a simplified lesson on principles of logic; but I promise it will be painless.
It comes down to deductive and inductive reasoning.
Deductive reasoning starts out with a general principle, and then deduces from that principle, specific applications.
Here’s an example:
General principle: It is raining outside.
Specific application deduced: Therefore, I should take an umbrella when I leave the house.
Notice that nobody needed to command me to take an umbrella. I deduced, from the general principle (it’s raining), the specific application (I need an umbrella). Implicit in that reasoning is a chain of deductions something like this: It’s raining, therefore everything outside is getting wet; I intend to be outside, therefore I will get wet; I do not want to be wet, so I need to take an umbrella. The ability to make such deductions demonstrates that I have understood and internalized the general principle of rain, and all it implies. (Yay, me.)
Now let’s look at the opposite: Inductive reasoning. This starts with specific applications which, taken as a body, should induce understanding of the general principle. Using the same example from before, if I’m about to leave, and my mom tells me to take an umbrella, I could appropriately assume it must be raining (or at least likely to rain). The specific application induces understanding of the general principle.
Of course, I could also reach other conclusions from my mother’s commandment, though they would be inappropriate. For example, I could conclude she wants me to worship the umbrella, or perhaps she fears I’ll be attacked by wombats and I’ll need the umbrella to fight them off…or maybe the sun is so bright, I’ll need the umbrella as a parasol. I could endlessly multiply false conclusions if I’m not familiar with the general principle.
We can represent the two processes like so:
OK, got it so far?
Now, let’s use inductive and deductive reasoning with commandments and gospel principles. We’ll start with a simple example of deductive reasoning:
God is merciful. I should be godly. Therefore, I should be merciful.
Easy enough, right? From the general principle “God is merciful” I can deduce my appropriate behavior. I could even take it further in specific applications, choosing to extend mercy whenever possible, for example, when I encounter a beggar. My obligation to extend mercy stems from my understanding of God. By understanding Him, I deduce correct behavior.
Now, let’s try it the other way. If I start with a commandment to give to beggars, I may never work my way up the chain to understand God’s mercy. I might give to beggars because I fear punishment. Or I might give because I believe it will invoke a mysterious magic that will help my crops grow. I might even give merely because I am commanded, and never question the reasons behind the commandment. In the end, I could keep the commandment faithfully, but never become merciful or understand God’s mercy.
Simple examples, I know, but hopefully instructive.
Ideally, therefore, we seek and learn truth, and from that truth—that light we gather by study, prayer, labor and sacrifice—we deduce proper behavior. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were all it took?
Back to Reality
Joseph Smith, ever optimistic, reportedly expressed this desire when asked how he governed a city as large as Nauvoo in frontier America. Joseph reportedly said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” If only it were that easy. Though Joseph indeed taught correct principles, residents of the city, and holders of high positions in church leadership, conspired to commit adultery, destroy Joseph’s reputation, and end his life.
Unfortunately, it turns out we aren’t so good at deductive reasoning. Varying degrees of hard heartedness, stiffneckedness, pride and rebelliousness prevent this ideal scenario. The classic example is, of course, the children of Israel, who rejected the invitation to come into the Lord’s presence, and therefore received instead a plethora of rules and commandments. Though these commandments instructed them, the recipients failed to grasp the truths behind the commandments, and instead multiplied the commandments themselves to control and regulate nearly every aspect of life.
How much are we like them? Do we, who count ourselves among the House of Israel today, display the same preference for commandments and the same failure to grasp the truths the commandments intend to teach? Are we capable of deductive reasoning, wherein the Lord simply teaches truth and we deduce correct behavior all by ourselves? Or must we be commanded?
Let’s consider some things the Lord has invited us to do right now. I use the word “invited” because the Lord avoids issuing commands when He can.
For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things, for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant, wherefore, he receives no reward. Verily I say, Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness, for the power is in them wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good, they shall in no way lose their reward, but he that does not anything until he is commanded, and receives a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keeps it with slothfulness, the same is damned. (T&C 45:6)Think about the Lord’s language in light of what we’ve just discussed regarding deductive and inductive reasoning. If the Lord simply orders us about, and we obey because He’s God, we have given up much of our free will and power. We become mere robots, obeying commands, but never gaining the understanding and virtues we lack. This is outside the behavior the Lord defines as “do[ing] good.” It’s clearly better to do the right thing because we are agents unto ourselves and make correct choices without being commanded, based on sound understanding.
If we do that, all the Lord needs to do is teach and invite, and we will use our agency—the power within us—to deduce the correct applications and behaviors. By doing so, we gain what we lack and become more Godly. This is the ideal.
But we’re not there yet, and the Lord (who is merciful) has offered a middle ground in the form of gentle invitations. He offers these in hopes we will take them up, grasp the principles they teach, and thereby gain the benefits they include. This approach is merciful because it preserves much of our opportunity to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”
The Word of Wisdom is a classic example of such an approach, given “not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of Wisdom…given for a principle with promise…” (T&C 89:1)
When, as so often happens, men fail to accept the Lord’s invitations, the Lord may resort to issuing commands, with attached condemnation of all who fail to obey, whether or not they learn and gain what they lack. But invitations are the merciful way, and we ought to receive the mercy He extends, rather than seeking the justice of commandments.
So, what merciful invitations have we received for our time and circumstances?
As groups of common believers, pay tithing into a common fund. Then by the voice of your own group, dispose of it by common consent so that everyone in your group knows everything that comes in and everything that goes out. Then you begin to have no poor among your group. You provide for those who need housing, food, clothing, healthcare, education, and transportation. Do it without a leader. Do it by the voice of your own common consent, by your own unanimous approval. Do it by united agreement.Intended Effect:
Now, if some of you who hear this decide to begin to do this, you will learn firsthand in a pragmatic lab experiment just how very difficult it is to become “one.” You will learn how greatly this world opposes the idea of Zion. You will learn from the criticism of others how to suffer for your Lord’s sake. You may even be deprived of fellowship with others who do not agree it is your obligation to care for the poor…
You will also learn how weak we all are. You will learn exactly what the Lord said was the problem with the first effort to establish Zion in Joseph’s day. In D&C 101:6 we see their problems in scripture: “there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them.” If you want to know why the early Saints failed, make this attempt to organize yourselves. Even in a small group you will find challenges. You want to know how far away you are at this moment from Zion; this will tell you. If you want an accurate barometer of “what lack you yet?” then organize yourselves and you, unitedly in small groups, gather your tithing into the storehouse you maintain, and by your common consent take care of those who are poor among you. You will receive an education like none other in the reasons why men fail to have Zion.
The fact that men fail doesn't excuse you from your own failure. Rise up (and this is a very modest thing to begin with), you will learn so much so quickly. You will be astonished. (Forty Years in Mormonism, Talk 6, Zion, pp.13-14)Easy, enough, right?
There’s no commandment here; rather, there’s an invitation coupled with an education. It requires sacrifice, so it can produce faith. The sacrifice is not merely money; it’s also the sacrifice inherent in learning to work harmoniously within a group. It requires time, patience, and effort. It is difficult, to be sure, but it builds the godly attributes that are mandatory for any future gathering.
Of course, it’s easy enough to avoid all the group dynamics, and simply give money to a church organization, trusting that organization to do what is best with the funds. Tithing box checked, nothing learned.
Or, you can give to the needy on your own, independent of a group. Doing so certainly helps the poor, and also checks the tithing box, but still eliminates the learning and growth this invitation intends.
But with careful thought and good reasoning, we come to realize this invitation is not about checking a box, or even primarily about blessing the poor. The invitation is about changing our hearts towards one another so we can live together in harmony. Anything less is, on some level, a failure.
Let’s look at another:
Therefore, part of the preparation by God’s house for coming social chaos is likely to include some preliminary preparations by families and friends to fellowship with one another in local gatherings…Only by independently functioning can they hope to prepare for social chaos prophesied to accompany Zion and precede the Lord’s return…
That having been said, true religion, when it is present on earth, always exists as a community of believers. Community is required. If we don't have a community then we cannot be willing to mourn with those that mourn. We cannot comfort those that stand in need of comfort. We cannot stand as a witness to one another of God at all times and of all places. We cannot bear one another's burdens that they may be light, (Mosiah 9:7 NC) as is required by the Gospel and by the covenant of baptism. None of this can be done without fellowship between believers. (Forty Years in Mormonism, Talk 10, Preserving the Restoration, pp. 6,12)Again, we have no commandment, but rather a gentle invitation, coupled with promised growth. Those who heed the invitation to gather in fellowships, to practice community together, will learn valuable lessons and gain important experience that cannot be gained in any other way. This is, in the end, preparation for Zion (as is noted in the footnote to this text in the original talk.)
Likewise, this was one of the features in the Nephite Zion:
And the church did meet together oft to fast, and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls. And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine in remembrance of the Lord Jesus. (Moroni 6:2 NC)Is it possible to worship the Lord without a group? In many ways, it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to prepare for a future gathering—one that we all claim we desire—by frequently gathering now and learning to function as a group. Those who choose not to do so will necessarily be unprepared for, and therefore excluded from, the future gathering into a city of righteousness. But naturally, nobody is compelled to make any such preparations. Those who find truth in the principle will apply it.
Now that we’ve considered a couple of invitations designed to help us gain what we lack, in my next installment, we’ll turn from invitations to commandments.
Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.
—Words of Joseph Smith, pp. 169-170; 172-173