“Making obedience your quest” can sometimes be a faulty objective function

I served an LDS mission in Hamburg, and later Frankfurt, Germany. A mission is an absolute transformative experience. For many, it is the first “away of from” experience, and requires a bit of growing up. It is also for some the first time that faith gets real, and not just something you do because you grew up with it.
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One quote that got me through my mission was a well-known one from President Ezra Taft Benson: “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.” It captured what I considered retrospectively the hypocrisy of my youth– every time I said “do I have to?” to a youth activity, service project, or temple trip; every “this is boring” in Sunday School or sacrament meeting. Serving as a missionary made me appreciate my faith and the spiritual experiences I did have, but I was still ashamed that obedience was yet an irritant. I sought to make it a quest.

But a mission is hard. I was dead-set on being obedient, and I invented many ways of battling through the rejection on streets and at doors. I tried making my American accent super-obvious as a back-up conversation filler if talking about the gospel didn’t get a positive reaction. I tried making games, like getting off at random bus stops when inspired to do so and talk to everyone in sight. At one point, I even tried pretending failed conversations were orcs slain in an epic battle in Middle Earth. In short, in my quest to make obedience my quest, I sometimes lost sight of the true goal of representing Christ as a missionary: it wasn’t how many people I talked to, but whether I came to love the people I talked to and served.

In any case, I am getting better at doing so now. In that sense, my mission was perhaps similar to the way Paul described the law: “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” It helped me get out of my shell– something I struggle with personally– and to wear the trappings of service, even if I was still training my heart to be in it. Fake it till you make it, right?

I’m going to be sharing some thoughts from the Russian Christian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev in an upcoming book review soon on this very topic, but here’s a sneak peek that inspired this post:

A false interpretation of “good works” leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. “Good works” are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. “Good works” done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. “Good works” as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

And for a beautiful, funny, and honest reflection on serving an LDS mission, I highly recommend Craig Harline’s memoir Way Below the Angels.

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