On Strict Obedience and Dumbo’s Feather

June 7, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 11:54 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,Theology

As usual, there have been several posts recently related to the topic of obedience. A favored branch of this topic is the term strict obedience. Dave put up a post on Elder Bednar’s recent address at BYU where he brought up the two sets of earrings standard in a story. Monday’s post at The Iron Rod was on obedience. Jeffrey Gilliam has a whole series on the topic. This is obviously something that is on our collective minds. It happens to be on my mind tonight too, so here are some thoughts.

There are arguments that can be made for and against this concept of strict obedience – especially to the little things. The commenters at Dave’s blog brought up a lot of them. Among these are that it is hypocritical — even pharisaic — to focus on silly little rules like having one set of earrings instead of two while paying little or no attention to the weightier matters of the law. This is true. Others question how the number of earrings a woman is wearing has any affect on her relationship with God. That is also a good question.

Nowhere in this church are there more strict outward rules to follow than on missions. Missionaries have rules and regulations galore. I served in the Tennessee Nashville Mission from ’89-91 and we had rules comin’ out our ears there. One nitpicky rule I remember was the rule that we were to wear our jackets when the temperature was below 70 degrees F. Being the strictly obedient missionary I was, on days that started in the sixties and rose well into the seventies I would start the day with my jacket on and at mid-day when things warmed up I would ditch the jacket. Of course this seems like a silly thing to do and in most cases it really would be. The jacket was not magic. But somehow it seemed rather important to follow even the smallest and silliest rule at the time. I followed this practice throughout my mission.

At some point I figured out why it mattered. The rules were simply a means for me, not an end. The rules were a crutch for me. The end goal was faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I needed to work mighty miracles and had not the faith in Jesus Christ to do it on my own. I needed a method to focus my mind and energies on the single goal of piercing the veil and receiving the Gifts of the Spirit I was entitled to. I couldn’t do it without crutches so the Lord and the Mission provided those crutches for me in strict rules. When I fervently prayed for hearts to be changed, or for guidance on where to go or what to say, I would inevitably evaluate myself there at the throne of God. “Have I done my part? Am I working hard enough at this? Do I love these strangers enough to do everything in my power to help them? If so, am I fasting and praying enough? Am I listening enough? Am I obeying all of the mission rules?” If I could answer yes to all of those questions then I found my confidence waxing strong in the presence of God. I found myself demanding mighty and even shocking miracles and I witnessed God grant them over and over.

So what caused these miracles? It was my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. What allowed me to generate miracle-working faith? It was largely my strict obedience to mission rules. What motivated the whole thing? I truly loved these strangers with a kind of love I knew Christ had for them.

Do you remember the movie Dumbo? It’s worth seeing again. After Dumbo got really drunk by accident (and after that really long psychedelic delirium segment) he awoke in the high branches of a tree. He didn’t know he flew up there so the crows got together and plucked a feather and gave it to him telling him it was magic and that by holding it he could fly. That feather gave Dumbo the confidence and faith he needed to pull off the flying. I am saying that strict obedience often works as our “magic” feather. God probably doesn’t really care about many of the small issues but he deeply cares whether we are generating enough faith to attain the Gifts of the Spirit that are ours to have; enough faith to work mighty miracles for ourselves and others; enough faith to become prophets, seers and revelators in our own spheres of responsibility.

Of course life and the rules are not so black and white in post-mission life. It is a little harder to really know which small rules are actually rules from God and not just traditions of men. That process requires some pondering and inspiration of its own. But after we have inquired of the Lord about what little things He actually wants us to do (and get some answers) we can look at those little rules not as the Man keepin’ us down, but rather as potential boosters to our faith given to us under the watchful eye of The Man.

18 Comments »

  1. Nicely said.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — June 8, 2005 @ 2:00 am

  2. On my mission in addition to the “white bible” we had a 100 page binder full of more rules which we were to read everyday and follow to the T. It is no exaggeration to say that such an emphasis on obedience really did breed Pharisaism in some missionaries, myself included. The measure of a good missionary was how fast we walked in the street because it showed how urgent the message was to us. The best missionaries, or the ones who wanted to be thought of as the best anyways, actually ran in the streets. I never saw another person run in that country other than us crazy gringos.

    My trainer was the one who instilled all these ideas in my head. He would constantly say that as long as we were obeying every single rule, we would be protected. But one step outside of our area could spell disaster. This was the magic feather and not a very pleasant one at that. So focused were we on obeying each an every rule (rules are not commandments last time I checked) that we thoroughly offended and inconvenienced those around on more than one occasion. We really were Pharisees.

    It was in this context that Elder Robbins came to visit us and said some things that really stuck with me. First he said “Partial obedience is disobedience. Those who choose which commandments they will and will not obey make themselves out to be their own false prophets.” (I’m sure all the Iron-rodders out there will love that one.)

    He also counciled us not to give too many rules to our children, using the “PG-13 rated movie” rule as an example. He said “Those people who give too many rules to their children raise them to become Pharisees.” I recognized that in myself instantly, having been raised with excessive rules (my brother stopped counting them at 250). I had grown up to be a pharisee of sorts and continued the trend well after the mission.

    Robbins continued, “We have rules in the church which are based on principles. These principles are based on doctrine. If we teach our children correct doctrine and from that correct principles, they will establish their own rules in life, rules which we call standards.” This is an escape from Pharisaism, not only for our children in our houses, but for ourselves in the church. Don’t focus on the many rules that people keep trying to give you. Instead, understand the doctrine and develop good principles from which we can establish righteous standards for ourselves.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — June 8, 2005 @ 9:09 am

  3. Good story and example, Jeffrey. It is very easy for rules to become ends in themselves. That is when we become pharisaic. But when we utilize commandments and rules as means to an end — in this case the end is miracle-generating faith in Jesus Christ — they can be very useful tools to us. And of course the motivation for such obedience makes all the difference in the world. I believe that the saying “charity never faileth” is largely telling us that charity never fails us as a motivation. So if we love others, we want miracles for them (and us), and we obey strictly in order to get the faith to get those miracles we are doing very well. If we obey strictly for appearances or other more selfish reasons we are in trouble.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 8, 2005 @ 11:03 am

  4. There are arguments that can be made for and against this concept of strict obedience – especially to the little things. The commenters at Dave’s blog brought up a lot of them. Among these are that it is hypocritical-even pharisaic-to focus on silly little rules like having one set of earrings instead of two while paying little or no attention to the weightier matters of the law.
    While I think it would certainly be misguided to decide based on any particular rule that someone is not a good person, or to try to judge the whole of their character based on that rule, I don’t think it can ever be hypocritical to obey a rule, even a small one. That is, the possibility of neglecting weightier matters is not an argument against the little things we have been asked to do per se.
    If could answer yes to all of those questions then I found my confidence waxing strong in the presence of God.
    I agree, though I would also point out that without that obedience, our confidence cannot wax strong in the presence of God. It’s not as if we could have faith in God without the will to be obedient. You call rules a crutch, but if they have been given, we need to follow them. I think of Nephi’s declaration that the law of Moses had become dead for his people. They looked forward to Christ and realized that the law would not save them. and yet, they still obeyed the performances of the law of Moses until it was fulfilled. I would contend that whether we see the purpose of a commandment or not, even if we feel that we realize why the commandment was given and realize that the reasons for it might not apply if we were all more savvy (perhpas the word of wisdom, given in consequence of the evil designs in the hearts of men in the last days) in at least the interests of unity (be thou one) we should still obey the rule as it is given until it is repealed. Otherwise, at what point to we feel ourselves authorized to disobey? When do we say, hey, I have enough sense to know that this rule isn’t necessary because I’ve learned it’s lesson? I think this is what Elder Robbins (I don;t know; I don’t have the text of his talk) may have been referring to whne he says we can become our own false prophets, deciding that we have personal revelation to break the rules.
    That said, I do believe that there are times when the spirit might reveal to us times when we should go against rules. That’s the difficult part. We have to be in tune enough to know when the spirit might be prompting us to do something that doesn’t seem to fit in a particular situation when there isn’t the possiblity of the revelation coming through other channels. I still believe that Abraham was correct to offer his son, though it was not in keeping with the law, and Nephi was right to kill Laban. That said, I can’t imagine a reason why the spirit would inspire us to wear several earrings, drink an occasional beer, etc, and I don’t think that is the reason most people that reject a particular rule are rejecting it.

    Comment by Steve H — June 8, 2005 @ 5:55 pm

  5. Jeffery,

    How did you manage to stay faithful after a Nazi mission like that?

    Comment by Steve (FSF) — June 8, 2005 @ 7:48 pm

  6. Steve H: I don’t think it can ever be hypocritical to obey a rule, even a small one.

    But isn’t this exactly what the Pharisees were doing Steve? Obeying and obsessing over little rules and neglecting and omitting the weightier matters? The hypocrisy was in their self-righteousness when they were actually just whited sepulchres.

    Steve H: You call rules a crutch, but if they have been given, we need to follow them. … in at least the interests of unity (be thou one) we should still obey the rule as it is given until it is repealed.

    Which rules? The scriptural eternal commandments are easy enough, but how do you know which of the “rules” are actually rules that God pays attention to and not just the traditions of men? And how much of that is universal in application? (Think proper Sabbath activities, proper fasting duration, proper family size, etc.)

    Comment by Geoff J — June 8, 2005 @ 10:38 pm

  7. I’d have to say that all of the rules that I had on my mission in addition to the white book, did more to turn me off to mormonism than anything. It made me feel as though they didn’t trust us at all in anything, and that a lot of the rules were unneccessary. The fanatic devotion that some of the missionaries paid to these rules did more to scare me about what mormonism may be like in Utah than anything. I still get the impression that mormonism in Utah is a very different creature than mormonism in the eastern US, like North Carolina. I’m not sure I could remain active in Utah if that’s where I had to live and if the stories are true.

    Comment by Speaking Up — June 9, 2005 @ 9:32 am

  8. I had a mission president who taught us, basically, to always follow the rules unless the Spirit says otherwise. I like that idea in theory, but I am far too selfish to apply it in practice.

    I think the problem with the pharisees was not that they were rule-abiding, but rather that they allowed adherence (sp?) to some outward rules to trump adherence to other more important inward rules. Giving gifts to the temple instead of taking care of their parents, for instance. Sometimes we will allow obedience to a lesser law prevent us from obeying a higher law that we find hard/inconvenient/distasteful. That fundamentally was the pharisees problem.

    Comment by John C. — June 9, 2005 @ 9:53 am

  9. Steve,
    Many people would not consider me very faithful as I’m sure you might have noticed around the bloggernacle. In order to maintain my believe I really had to cultivate a strong sense of fallibility in my leaders. This, in turn, has led to my strong skepticism of many traditionally held beliefs. My Shepherds vs. Hirelings is basically a tribute to what I got out of my mission.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — June 9, 2005 @ 10:50 am

  10. Jeffery,
    Well, I get the same crap, but for different reasons. You certainly seem true to the faith to me. I know I am. And even though I reject almost all LDS orthodoxy, I know this is where I belong. Who cares what the judgmental Joe Mormon types think anyway?

    Sorry about my comment on that other au naturel t├ęton blog where I thought you did your mission in France. I served in the South of France, which has a very latin culture, and had similar experiences, hence my confusion. However, your not referring the gal to the sister missionaries was about as bad as my visiting the beach when I needed a fix. Shame on both of us.

    Comment by Steve (FSF) — June 9, 2005 @ 7:39 pm

  11. But isn’t this exactly what the Pharisees were doing Steve?

    I don’t think so. Certainly it is a bad thing to be self reighteous. Paul says that if we think there is no sin in us, the truth is not in us. WE are all sinners. WE don’t say that as much in our church as the evangelicals, but it’s true–at least I don’t know anyone, personally, that is without sin, and if I did, they wouldn’t be making a big deal about it.

    If we decied that following any commmandment makes up for not following other commandments, that’s also wrong thinking. We can’t say, hey, I don’t try to have charity, but I don’t wear two earrings, so step off, OK. Wrong.

    But if we’re trying to obey the commandments, and god asks us, through his servants, to do something, we should listen and do it. Why would God look down on us for doing what he asks? It’s a non-sequitur. I think it would be easier not to ask. This is, of course, assuming that whether he asks us by the voice of his servants or his own voice, it is the same. If you don’t believe we should do what the prophet says to do, then things sort of break down. That’s the point at which a conversation becomes difficult for me because I really still believe in the “follow the prophet” thing. He says for me not to wear earrings, I don’t. Someone else wears an earring, they can deal with that. I don’t know why they’re wearing it. Maybe they’re more charitable than I am. Maybe they have other things they’re working on, or maybe they haven’t thought about it. Whatever. If I think they aren’t a good person for it, that’s my problem. In the end, though, I can’t think that God says, look at Steve, he doesn’t wear earrings. Doesn’t he understand he should silently protest what the prophet says? Doesn’t he understand that doing what the prophet says is senseless and pharasaical? Anyway, as I said on Splendid Sun, forgive me if I’m cantankerous today. Food poisoning is murder. The thoughts are mine, but I probably have more of a tendency right now to be snide.

    Comment by Steve H — June 9, 2005 @ 11:17 pm

  12. Steve H,

    I suspect you might be surprised to learn that I agree with you. The prophet gave us counsel about earrings and we are now bound to sustain him and follow that counsel here and now. I firmly believe that we as Latter Day Saints living today will have to account for this thing at the day of judgment too. It was direct counsel that came to the church from our leader — it is forever written in the records of the church and we will be judged by the things that are written.

    That doesn’t change the fact that this earring thing is a “Dumbo feather”, though. This is clearly not an eternal principle. This is a temporal instruction that our current leader gave us. The problem for those that want to ignore it is that God seals in heaven the things the prophet seals on earth. Or at least God backs his leaders up (unless they specifically rebel against him I guess). So just like Dumbo, we can’t spiritually fly without compliance with this rule right now.

    It’s an odd and new concept to me, but we see it throughout scripture and throughout church history. There are temporary practices that God honors as required for that period when in other periods the same actions are ignored.

    This says something about the nature of God and about the nature of faith and I am still trying to sort it all out…

    One of the interesting question in this ebb and flow of rules is trying to determine when a rule runs out of gas. Sort of like the prophetic instructions about anointing with oil that Stapley illustrated where they were told to lay the consecrated oil on thick and even on each ailing body part. I believe that is a rule that those people were judged by and we are not. I suspect some of these things just lose their binding nature gradually.

    I think the counsel to have tons of children is one of the rules that is not binding on me but may have been on saints just before me for instance. I feel very confident that God is not displeased that I don’t have 6-8 children and never plan to… If I was born in the 1950 instead on 1970 I wonder if I would be bound to have those 6-8 children based on strong counsel from Pres Kimball at the time… I know most faithful saints felt that was the case at the time and I am unwilling to say they were wrong.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 10, 2005 @ 12:38 am

  13. Geoff – This is an interesting concept from the perspective you just outlined. You are almost making the case that we are bound to our culture, even if our culture is a function of other things….interesting…

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 10, 2005 @ 9:35 am

  14. I’m with you J. This is a completely new idea (at least to me) that I’ve stumbled across here. I’ll have to flesh this out a bit more in a follow up post or two…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 10, 2005 @ 10:17 am

  15. Paul says that if we think there is no sin in us, the truth is not in us. – Steve H #11

    Anybody: Please define sin as Paul is using it.

    Comment by Speaking Up — June 10, 2005 @ 10:43 am

  16. Steve,
    There were no sister missionaries within a 4 hour drive.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — June 10, 2005 @ 11:09 am

  17. Geoff said:

    “I firmly believe that we as Latter Day Saints living today will have to account for this thing at the day of judgment too…” –

    Are you saying that women with two pairs of earrings should line up behind the women with no earrings or one pair on Judgement Day?

    How about women who wear slacks in the chapel? Telestial Kingdom only? How about blue-shirted priesthood members? Terrestial Kindom or bust?

    I hope Pres. Hinckley wasn’t directing his counsel to the new Ghana mission….

    Comment by Randy — June 10, 2005 @ 6:52 pm

  18. Are you saying that women with two pairs of earrings should line up behind the women with no earrings or one pair on Judgement Day?
    I think anyone who hasn’t become entirely submissive to God’s will will have to line up in a different line. In the mean time, we’re all struggling to do all we can to put ourselves in harmony with the will of the Lord. Thank heavens we all have time in this life to try and get ourselves to that point.
    As far as the matter of culture is concerned, I think it’s absolutely something we are bound to. The counsel for mothers to stay in the home makes no sense in a pre-industrial society in which a family leads an integrated lifestyle and all production takes place in and around the home, or where children take place in production from a young age.

    Comment by Steve H — June 10, 2005 @ 11:33 pm

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