I teach the 16-18 year-old Sunday School class in my ward/congregation, and September begins a discussion on the commandments. I gave a lot of thought on what to share this week, and I decided to do a compare/contrast setup with common secular views of commandments with the religious rationale for commandments. Perhaps I was waning a bit too philosophical here, but I thought that these youth are old enough to ask difficult questions, and they are going to need to be prepared.
So, why commandments?
The opium of the masses: A Marxist approach
Coming in first with a truly cynical approach to religion, I chose to use the heading attributed to Karl Marx. In this view, religion is purely a means of control of the strong imposed on the weak. It restricts freedom to maintain the hierarchy of the status quo. All relationships are a struggle for power, and you are either a member of the group that has power and property, or you are ne of those trying to seize it. Religious restrictions are a long-standing and effective approach in keeping the masses yoked.
The Book of Mormon has its own advocate of this view in the form of Korihor. In Alma 30, he states:
And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God– a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.
The gospel of self-esteem: Commandments make me feel bad
The next explanation of the commandments is not as dismissive as Korihor, but is equally damaging. Commandments make me feel bad, therefore they must be bad. In this approach, the only things that are worthwhile and meaningful are those that make you feel good and confident. It often invokes the worth “health,” and may even try to cite scientific studies in its defense. Religiosity isn’t healthy, because it invokes feelings of guilt. The scriptural precedent that came to my mind was Alma’s son Corianton, who was perhaps feeling guilty for himself after being caught slipping away from the ministry to chase after a harlot:
And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand– which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.
The perhaps scary thing about commandments, is the connection to punishment. Alma goes on to explain the connection between the two, as well as justice and mercy:
And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.
Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.
Now how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
Eat, drink, and be merry: A hedonist approach
The next philosophical approach to the commandments take the feel-good rationale another step forward. In this view, commandments were made by a bunch of fuddy-duddies or party pooper who just don’t want to have fun. Why be a masochist? They have a hard time seeing any justification for a rule or law against something that seems like harmless fun. Nephi foresaw a day when this would be the prevalent opinion:
Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drunk, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.
And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God– he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, like a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.
Pharisaism: Commandments and status
The religious have their misunderstandings surrounding commandments as well, the most obvious being embodied in the form of Christ’s contemporaries, the Pharisees. From this perspective, keeping the commandments imbues one with “righteousness”, giving one a certain privileged status. The purpose of the commandments is to separate the righteous from the wicked. Christ repeatedly condemned this, but it still raises its ugly head today. One of the many passages in the New Testament explain this view:
The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
And love the uppermost room at feasts, and the chief seats in their synagogues,
And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbit, Rabbi,
But be ye not called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
Perhaps Marx’s only experience of religion was with Pharisees, because in this respect, it sounds like Marx and Christ agree. The commandments are not to be used as a yardstick by which we can measure others.
The commandments as a pattern for life
So how should we view the commandments? Sometimes they seem like there are so many. Other times there is a particular commandment we struggle with that causes us to despair. Yet other times we find a commandment just doesn’t make sense, or even infringes on our sensibilities.
I can’t answer all these things right away, but I think part of faith is being willing to wrestle with these questions. It doesn’t mean we need to resolve them all right away. While not speaking to a specific commandment, I do think that the gospel in general gives us a pattern of living that has both precedent and divine sanction towards living a happy life. But how can you know? Christ taught that if any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine. As we live the commandments, we can see the joy they bring.
I want to share some insight towards the commandments that then-President Uchtdorf shared in a general Relief Society meeting:
Sometimes, in the routine of our lives, we unintentionally overlook a vital aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ, much as one might overlook a beautiful, delicate forget-me-not. In our diligent efforts to fulfill all of the duties and obligations we take on as members of the Church, we sometimes see the gospel as a long list of tasks that we must add to our already impossibly long to-do list, as a block of time that we must somehow fit into our busy schedules. We focus on what the Lord wants us to do and how we might do it, but we sometimes forget why.
My dear sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not an obligation; it is a pathway, marked by our loving Father in Heaven, leading to happiness and peace in this life and glory and inexpressible fulfillment in the life to come. The gospel is a light that penetrates mortality and illuminates the way before us. While understanding the “what” and the “how” of the gospel is necessary, the eternal fire and majesty of the gospel springs from the “why.” When we understand why our Heavenly Father has given us this pattern for living, when we remember why we committed to making it a foundational part of our lives, the gospel ceases to become a burden and, instead, becomes a joy and a delight. It becomes precious and sweet.
Let us not walk the path of discipleship with our eyes on the ground, thinking only of the tasks and obligations before us. Let us not walk unaware of the beauty of the glorious earthly and spiritual landscapes that surround us. My dear sisters, seek out the majesty, the beauty, and the exhilarating joy of the “why” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The “what” and “how” of obedience mark the way and keep us on the right path. The “why” of obedience sanctifies our actions, transforming the mundane into the majestic. It magnifies our small acts of obedience into holy acts of consecration.