A disciple is a person who learns a discipline from someone who has already mastered it. You can’t do that by simply memorizing facts or understanding concepts. A discipline is a set of habits and skills, and it requires practice.
Self-directed learning is popular, and exploration has its place. But when you’re trying to develop a new set of habits and skills, you would be foolish to try to dictate the terms of your development. You follow the instructions of the person who has already mastered the discipline because you recognize that you cannot teach yourself these skills. You need to pay attention to the one who already has them.
Isaiah laments the sorry state of the world when people refuse to submit to instruction from God: “The earth…is defiled under the inhabitants thereof,” he said, “because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5). The Hebrew word translated “ordinance” in this passage—choq (חֹק)—refers to something prescribed or dictated, something which sets boundaries or provides instructions.
An ordinance is “a sacred, formal act or ceremony performed by the authority of the priesthood…. With each of these ordinances, we enter into solemn covenants with the Lord.” We not only follow strict instructions to participate in these ordinances, but the associated covenants constrain our subsequent behavior so that we can become more like Jesus Christ.
Alma taught that God gave us ordinances “thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord” (Alma 13:16). How foolish it would be to modify either the instructions for performing an ordinance (the symbol or type of His order) or to adapt the terms of the associated covenant (His order) in order to meet our individual preferences. The purpose of a discipline is not to have things our way but to adapt and progress.
In 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation intended as a preface to a book of collected revelations. God explained that difficult days were ahead because the people “have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant.” Then, He identified the individualism which resulted in this departure from discipleship: “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:15-16).
About a year ago, Elder David A. Bednar explained to full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the difference between self-directed spirituality and following the Savior:
Sometimes you’ll hear a person say, “Well, I was very sick and I made a covenant with God that if God would heal me then I’d do these things.” I’m sure that was a sincere pledge, I’m sure it was a valid commitment, but it’s not a covenant. We don’t set the conditions of a covenant, God does.Missionary Devotionals 2021: Elder David A. Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar, 26 August 2021
Today, I will remember that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 5:13), not a self-directed learner. I will strive to conform my behavior to instructions God has given me through prophets. I will be grateful for ordinances and covenants which organize my worship and behavior according to patterns set by the Savior.