When a Sacrament meeting speaker announces his talk will be on obedience, if you listen very carefully you might hear a whispered groan from the congregation. Obedience is a topic we all know is important. The scriptures are replete with commandments to be obedient (see D&C 105:6). Then why does a talk on obedience result in this kind of reaction? Most of us associate obedience with unwelcome limits to our behavior and constraints to our choices. Some may think obedience is another word for subservience. It restricts what we can do. This is especially galling in our American culture which regards rugged individualism, independence, and freedom as prized and defining founding qualities. Some might feel obedience is un-American and certainly no fun! No wonder we don’t want to hear talks about it. But are these beliefs about obedience really true?
Imagine you are beginning a much anticipated family vacation to Disneyland. You input the address into the GPS navigation system of the family car or your phone and pull out of the driveway. As you get to the first intersection of your trip the GPS computer voice says to turn left. Do you feel any resentment that you are being told what to do? No. In fact the opposite is true. You would feel bad if you were compelled to turn right and would do all in your power to be obedient to the direction to turn left. Why in this case are we so happy to be obedient? Because we want to reach Disneyland we gleefully follow the directions that will get us there. Precise and unfailing obedience is the only way we will arrive at our objective. We are happily obedient.
If our goal is to make grandma’s fabulous chocolate chip cookies we follow her recipe as closely as possible. We may even purchase a kitchen scale to ensure the accuracy of our measurement of the ingredients. Do we feel the recipe is restricting us or limiting our agency? No. In fact, the recipe is the formula to ensure we get the desired result of those mouth watering cookies. We are happy to follow the recipe (be obedient to it) with determined intensity.
What then is the difference between being happily obedient (Disneyland and cookies) and dreading the subject in church? Let me suggest that the difference is the level of commitment to the goal. Simply stated: when we struggle to obey, we don’t love the goal. We do what we really love. What we do in fact, reveals what we love.
Examples: We may say we want to go to college but spend our study time playing video games. This reveals that we love entertainment over our education. We say we want to financially prepare for retirement but we make unnecessary purchases that reduce our ability to save. This shows we really love satisfying our immediate wants over more important long term goals.
The problem is not obedience as we willingly do the things we love. If we struggle with obeying gospel principles like tithing, ministering, fasting, regular temple attendance (and the list goes on), this reveals that we do not love the objective these actions point us to. If we’re “gutting it out” we don’t love our goal. The Savior teaches, “if ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we chafe at obedience to some of the commandments then we know we need to learn to love God more. If we truly loved him, keeping the commandment would not be a trial. In fact, this is a good measure of how much we love God.
“When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.” (Ezra Taft Benson, quoted in Donald L. Staheli, “Obedience — Life’s Great Challenge,” Ensign, May l998, 82). This power takes many forms including power to exercise faith, to overcome challenges and to be more consistently obedient. Obedience becomes our quest only when we are truly in love with the goal-when we are willing to commit our total might, mind and strength (see Moroni 7:48). Love is a mighty power for enduring motivation.
Why does this matter? No skill at climbing a ladder is sufficient if the ladder is leaning up against the wrong house. Rather than endlessly struggling (and too many times failing) to be obedient we can change our focus to learning to love God more. We do this the same way we get better at loving anyone—we need to get to know Him. Some of the ways we learn to know and eventually love God are by immersing ourselves in His sacred word (both ancient and modern), frequent heartfelt prayer, learning to hear Him through personal revelation, regular temple attendance and weekly partaking of the sacrament to list a few. This process of getting to know and eventually love God naturally leads us to being obedient to his wishes for us. And remember, we are the ones who benefit. True happiness and peace only come through developing a divine character through obedience.
And it just gets better. Something wonderful happens along this path that makes it easier to be obedient—easier to love God. We experience the process of being “born again” where the things of this world don’t seem so important anymore and it fills us with joy to do things that please God. For most of us this process of being born again is gradual, growing over a lifetime. God’s grace grows in us and gradually replaces our stony hearts (Ezekiel 36:26-27) and makes us into His people.
Contrary to our belief, obedience is not a limiting principle. In fact, the opposite is true. Obedience is literally liberating. When we obey the law we are free to move around and live our lives as we please. If we disobey society’s rules our freedom is taken away. When we get an education we are more free to chose employment options and more doors of opportunity are opened to us.
We avoid many of mortality’s imprisoning challenges, pain and entanglements as we make the Godlike principles of charity, selflessness, chastity, humility and self discipline integral aspects of our character. If we obey the commandment to repent we can be liberated from sin’s crippling burden and experience peace. As we strive to show our love for God by obeying his commandments we can draw on His power, grace and blessings which yields ultimate freedom.
Obedience is our friend. As our love for God grows, obedience becomes the welcome path to becoming more like Him. We can’t wait to take the next steps. It works the same for cookies, trips to Disneyland or retuning to our Father in Heaven. We happily obey what we love. May we all grow in our love for God and receive joy from being obedient. Next time we learn we are about to hear a talk on obedience, we can quietly cheer.