Does Obedience Diminish Freedom?

Korihor had a message for the Nephite people: You have been brainwashed. Your religious beliefs are the effect of a frenzied and a deranged mind (Alma 30:16). Your church leaders have taught you to follow foolish and silly traditions in order to “usurp power and authority over [you], to keep [you] in ignorance, that [you] may not lift up [your] heads…and that [you] durst not enjoy [your] rights and privileges” (Alma 30:23, 27). Korihor saw the obedience of church members as a form of captivity: “Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage” (Alma 30:24).

But Alma, the high priest over the church, had a different explanation for the obedience of church members. He and the other church leaders weren’t getting paid for their efforts: “I have never received so much as one senine for my labor,” he told Korihor (Alma 30:33). So if they weren’t benefitting materially from their service, why did they do it? One reason: “To declare the truth, that we may have rejoicings in the joy of our brethren” (Alma 30:34).

The members of the church weren’t obedient because they were ignorant; they were obedient because of their knowledge. They had learned that joy comes from living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their leaders weren’t teaching them the commandments to bring them into submission; they were teaching them so that the members could experience for themselves the joy and freedom that comes from living the gospel. What looks like captivity to an outsider is actually informed and conscious decision-making on the part of a person of faith.

Today, I will be grateful for the freedom God has granted me, including the ability to obey His commandments and receive the promised blessings. I will remember that obedience does not diminish my freedom. Choosing to obey is a manifestation of my freedom and is a reasonable response to my knowledge that the principles of the gospel are true.

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What Is the Relationship Between Obedience and Agency?

Agency – the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power (Merriam-Webster, 2nd definition).

Obedience – Compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority (Oxford English Dictionary)

The terms “agency” and “agent” do not appear in the Book of Mormon, but the principle is pervasive: We are agents. God has endowed us with the freedom to make our own choices:

  • “Because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given” (2 Nephi 2:26).
  • “Cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Nephi 10:23).
  • “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free” (Helaman 14:30).

Another principle that is pervasive is that happiness comes by choosing to obey the commandments of God:

  • “If there be no righteousness there be no happiness” (2 Nephi 2:13).
  • “I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God” (Mosiah 2:41).
  • “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).

God wants us to be happy, and so He gives us instructions for finding and sustaining happiness. But He does not compel us to follow those instructions. The word “commandment” might suggest compulsion, but in the case of God’s commandments, obedience is entirely voluntary:

Whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come, but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds (Alma 42:27).

Why is God’s plan set up that way? Because God wants us to help us become good people who choose wisely, not robots who mindlessly comply with orders. In the words of Spencer W. Kimball:

The very first thing before beginning our world here, the Lord said, “I’m going to give you your free agency. I want men and women that are strong because it is right to be strong. I don’t want weaklings who are righteous only because they have to be righteous” (Brisbane Area Conference 1976, 19, quoted by Elder Dale G. Renlund in “Choose You This Day,” General Conference, October 2018, footnote 3).

Today, I will be grateful that God has given me agency: the freedom to choose for myself. I will also be grateful that He has given me commandments: instructions on how to find happiness. I will remember that God’s goal is my happiness, but that I must choose it for myself; it can’t be forced upon me. He will encourage me, instruct me, and try to persuade me. His Son willingly suffered and died so that I can overcome the effects of my wrong choices. But ultimately, the choice of whether or not to follow His commandments, and therefore my fate, is entirely in my hands.

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What Does It Mean to “Keep” God’s Commandments?

The Hebrew verb shamar (שָׁמַר) means to keep, to guard, or to preserve. Here are the first few appearances of that word in the Bible:

  • God commanded Adam and Eve to cultivate the Garden of Eden and to “keep” it (Genesis 2:15).
  • When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, God placed cherubim and a flaming sword “which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24).
  • After Cain killed Abel, he asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
  • When God invited Abraham to make a covenant with Him, He admonished Abraham and his descendants to keep that covenant (Genesis 17:9-10).

The context clarifies the meaning. When you “keep” something, you look after it, you maintain it, you take care of it. You are in a position of trust, and you are accountable to preserve and protect the thing you have been charged to keep.

Soon after leaving Jerusalem, Lehi and his family set up camp in a valley. He named the valley after his son Lemuel, with a plea that he might be “like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” (1 Nephi 2:10).

Shortly after, another of Lehi’s sons, Nephi, received a promise from God on behalf of the entire family: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise” (1 Nephi 2:20).

When the wicked priests of King Noah affirmed to Abinadi that they taught the law of Moses, he replied, “If ye teach the law of Moses why do ye not keep it?” (Mosiah 12:29).

Some form of the phrase “keep the commandments” appears 103 times in the Book of Mormon (search run on the University of Michigan Digital Collections Library). To me, the term conveys something stronger than mere obedience, something more mature. Just as keeping the Sabbath Day holy is more than completing a checklist of acceptable activities, keeping the commandments suggests to me a sense of ownership, a genuine desire to fulfill God’s purposes when He gave those commandments, and a determination to sustain our efforts in fulfilling those purposes over time. I think a person who really keeps God’s commandments will defend them as well, communicating to other people the seriousness he or she places on them. A commandment keeper is a commandment guardian and a commandment preserver.

Today, I will remember the trust God has placed in me by giving me commandments which I can choose to keep. I will strive to better understand the commandments He has given, to observe them, to defend them, and to fulfill their intended purposes consistently over time.

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What Does the Book of Mormon Teach About Obedience?

Some form of the word “obey” appears 31 times in the Book of Mormon:

Book # Occurences
1 Nephi 4
2 Nephi 6
Jacob 5
Mosiah 7
Alma 9

“I must obey.”

Obedience is a very important topic for Nephi, and he frames most of his story in terms of the response of different individuals to commandments from the Lord:

  • When the Lord commanded his father to leave Jerusalem, “he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him” (1 Nephi 2:3).
  • When he was asked to return to the city of Jerusalem in search of the brass plates: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7).
  • When he was commanded to make a written record of his family’s experiences, “I, Nephi, to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord, went and made these plates upon which I have engraven these things” (2 Nephi 5:31).

He concludes both of his books with a reference to the importance of obedience:

  • “Wherefore, my brethren, I would that ye should consider that the things which have been written upon the plates of brass are true; and they testify that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God…. Wherefore, if ye shall be obedient to the commandments, and endure to the end, ye shall be saved at the last day. And thus it is. Amen” (1 Nephi 22:30-31).
  • “For thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen” (2 Nephi 33:15).

And he explains the importance of baptism in terms of the Savior’s obedience to the will of the Father:

  • “Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:7).

Nephi’s brother Jacob followed his lead, referencing Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, and quoting Zenos’s allegory of the vineyard, in which the servants “did obey the commandments the Lord of the vineyard in all things” (Jacob 4:5-6, Jacob 5:72).

The last verse of Jacob’s writings also references the importance of obedience (Jacob 7:27).

“According to the spirit which they listed to obey.”

Nephi and Jacob described obedience as a binary choice: God commands, and we choose whether or not to fulfill those commandments.

More than 450 years later, King Benjamin added an additional variable to this equation: we receive commandments from multiple sources, and we decide which of those sources we will choose to obey. Reminding his people of a doctrine taught by his father, Mosiah, he warned:

“Beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit, which was spoken of by my father Mosiah. For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul” (Mosiah 2:32-33).

Later in the book, after a horrific battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites, Mormon tells us that tens of thousands of people were “sent to the eternal world…”

…to reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one. For every man receiveth wages of him whom he listeth to obey (Alma 3:26-27).

“All the remainder of our days”

King Benjamin reminded his people of the happiness that comes from obeying the commandments of God (Mosiah 2:41). As a result of his teaching, they promised to obey God’s commandments for the remainder of their lives, regardless of what He might command them to do in the future (Mosiah 5:2, 5).

“Whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed.”

The first high priest of the church, Alma, was cautious about authority. Having seen firsthand the damage caused by King Noah, he warned his people to be careful whom they chose to follow: “Trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister,” he said, “except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:13-14).

Alma’s apprehensiveness must have influenced his friend King Mosiah, the son of King Benjamin. Near the end of his life, Mosiah chose not to name a successor but instead to establish a representative system of government. Mosiah explained his decision in terms of the unreasonable power of a king:

He enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness (Mosiah 29:23).

The principle taught by Alma and Mosiah is clear: be careful whom you trust to be your leader, and don’t place so much power in the hands of a single person that they can compel obedience.

“They would not…obey the commandments of the king.”

The Book of Mormon provides a few examples of civil disobedience, in which people refused to obey a command of a leader even at great personal peril:

  • When King Noah commanded the men to leave their wives and their children, many of them refused to comply. Those who did obey later regretted the decision. They rebelled against the king, took his life, and returned to their families (Mosiah 19:11-12, 18-21).
  • Some years later, at the urging of a Nephite dissenter named Amalackiah, the king of the Lamanites commanded his people to “gather themselves together…to go to battle against the Nephites.” The Lamanites “were exceedingly afraid…to displease the king,” but they were more afraid of a war which they did not believe they could win. “And it came to pass that they would not, or the more part of them would not, obey the commandments of the king” (Alma 47:1-2).

“They did obey…with exactness.”

Helaman led a group of 2,060 young men whose parents had made an oath never to use a weapon again. He was amazed by their courage and their faith, which he attributed to the teaching of their mothers. He was also impressed with their precise obedience to every command, even in the heat of battle. When the rest of the army was about to give up…

…those two thousand and sixty were firm and undaunted.
Yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them (Alma 57:20-21).

Today, I will remember these lessons from the Book of Mormon about obedience. Like Nephi and Jacob, I will recommit to always obey the commandments of God. Following the counsel of King Benjamin, I will be careful which influences I am choosing to obey. As Alma and Mosiah cautioned, I will be careful that my allegiance to human leaders does not place me at odds with doing what is right. And, like the armies of Helaman, I will remember the power of a group of people who are united and determined to obey with exactness.

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What Are “Vain Repetitions,” and Why Should We Avoid Them?

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior gave the following counsel about prayer:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him (Matthew 6:7-8, 3 Nephi 13:7-8).

The word that is translated “vain repetitions” in the Greek New Testament is battalogēsēte (βατταλογήσητε), which means to utter empty words or to be long-winded. The term has been translated into English in a number of different ways:

  • “Don’t babble on and on” – New Living Translation
  • “Do not heap up empty phrases” – English Standard Version
  • “Do not use meaningless repetition” – New American Standard Bible
  • “Don’t ramble” – God’s Word Translation

My favorite rendering is the Contemporary English Version, which reads: “When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people do who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers.”
(See, Matthew 6:7.)

In support of this guidance, the Savior reminds us that our Heavenly Father knows everything. When we pray, we aren’t revealing anything to Him. There’s no need to explain our requests in detail. We need not fear that He will misunderstand our requests. Why then do we pray? As an act of faith.

The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them (“Prayer,” Bible Dictionary).

Immediately after telling us to avoid vain repetitions, Jesus gave us an example of an effective prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is concise and to the point. Nothing is repeated. Every request is made, and then the prayer is over.

If my experiences talking with other people are any indication, my prayers will be more effective if I take a moment to think about what I’m going to say before I begin. I suppose that my personal prayers sometimes “ramble,” not because I’m trying to impress God with my “much speaking” but simply because I haven’t made the effort to organize my thoughts. I appreciate President Eyring’s reminder that we shouldn’t take lightly the privilege of approaching “the throne of God:”

God is close, and He loves you, and He’d love to have a conversation, but remember: He is God….
I always worry when someone’s speaking to Him in too familiar a way….
God is real,… and when I approach Him in prayer, I’m approaching a throne. And the way you do that is different than if you just say, “I’d like a chat; I want a conversation.” It’s approaching a throne, for me at least, when I’m doing it right (“Face to Face with President Eyring and Elder Holland,” March 4, 2017, 38:07-38:25, 46:18-46:44).

Today, I will avoid “vain repetitions” by preparing before I pray. As I approach the throne of God in my personal prayers and in my family prayers, I will take a moment to organize my thoughts, to plan what I will say, so that my requests are clear, precise, and wise.

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What Does It Mean to “Watch and Pray?”

Just after participating in the Last Supper, the Savior walked with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Telling His disciples, “Pray that ye enter not into temptation,” He walked a little further, and knelt to pray (Luke 22:40-41, Mark 14:32-36Matthew 26:36-39).

Returning a little later, He found the disciples sleeping. Speaking to Peter, He said, “What could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). Then, he added the following counsel:

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38).

A little more than 100 years earlier, on the American continent, the prophet Alma gave similar counsel to a group of people in the city of Ammonihah. After telling them to humble themselves and repent, he said, “Watch and pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear” (Alma 13:28).

Shortly after, he was pleased to see that the people in the nearby town of Sidom were humbling themselves, “watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction” (Alma 15:17).

During the Savior’s visit to the American continent, He twice admonished the people to “watch and pray always,” to avoid falling into temptation and becoming captive to the devil (3 Nephi 18:15, 18).

Today, I’ve thought about this pairing. Why did the Savior warn us to both “watch” and “pray”?

  • Watch – Stay awake, be vigilant, pay attention. Just like a night watchman, whose job is to identify and warn of danger, each of us must be mindful of the degrading influences which surround us and of the adverse thoughts and feelings which we experience. If we are careful, we can defend ourselves against those influences while they are small and weak, before they become entrenched and difficult to extract.
  • Pray – Recognize that we cannot overcome temptation alone. Only by humbly submitting our will to God can we access his power, which can help us to become pure and spotless. (See Moroni 10:32-33.)

Elder Lynn G. Robbins explained that both watching and praying are acts of faith:

This entreaty of the Savior to avoid temptation consists of two acts of faith: to watch and to pray. The Guide to the Scriptures teaches us that to watch means “to be vigilant, to [be on] guard,” which is wise advice in defending ourselves against a very real and ever-lurking enemy. And the corollary to the Savior’s wise advice to pray to avoid temptation is that without prayer, we will not have the spiritual strength or stamina to win this battle on our own (“‘Avoid It,'” BYU Speeches, 17 Sept 2013).

Today, I will “watch and pray.” I will strive to be aware of the dangers in my life, and I will ask God to help me overcome those influences.

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What Does the Book of Mormon Teach About Family Prayer?

During the Savior’s visit to the American continent, after healing the sick, He invited the people to bring their children forward. The children sat around the Savior, and the adults knelt behind the children. Jesus also knelt and prayed. After the prayer, He said, “My joy is full,” and He wept. Then, “he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again” (3 Nephi 17:11-22).

Shortly after this extraordinary experience, Jesus gave the following counsel:

Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed (3 Nephi 18:21).

The importance of family prayer must have been absolutely clear to this group of people after seeing the way the Savior had prayed with and for their children.

Elder John H. Groberg gave the following words of encouragement:

I promise you that as you consistently and fervently pray as a family, and as each member takes his or her turn and sincerely prays for others, impressions will come as to what you individually should do to help others. Thus, you can, in family prayer, receive personal and family revelation as to how to love and serve one another (“The Power of Family Prayer,” General Conference, April 1982).

President Henry B. Eyring recently described how consistent family prayer can build unity:

Praying as a family can play a crucial part in making home a sacred place. One person is usually chosen as voice to pray for the family. When the prayer is clearly to God in behalf of the people kneeling and listening, faith grows in all of them. They can feel expressions of love for Heavenly Father and for the Savior. And when the person who prays mentions those who are kneeling in that circle who are in need, all can feel love for them and for each member of the family (“A Home Where the Spirit of the Lord Dwells,” General Conference, April 2019).

Today, I will recommit to consistent family prayer. I will remember the importance of praying together and the blessings that can come from praying for one another. I will strive not merely to hold family prayer but to make it a unifying and spiritually uplifting experience.

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