Recently I watched British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey on TV, barking orders in a stainless-steel kitchen to a group of home cooks (contestants). Drama ensued as to whether he could whip the sorry rabble into culinary shape.
If you don't know who Gordon Ramsey is, just know he is a lovable, colorful character. He samples the contestants dishes and spits them out, saying things like, "That tastes like Goat vomit!" He demands excellence from his cooks (who are amateurs, mind you) yelling at them, red-in-the-face, to "get it right!"
His objective seems reasonable enough: to make sure the food they serve is delicious and plated while it's hot for the waiting guests ― all in spite of the ineptitude of his cooks ("That cod is cold; start over!").
I found it sadly funny, thinking of the similarities between the Church and commercial kitchens (the former comes with more guilt but less profanity).
I am sharing this to make the point that we sometimes approach the commandments in a decidedly anti-Pauline fashion.
When we elevate "keeping the commandments" above people themselves, we behave a little bit like chef Gordon Ramsey does in the kitchen.
We've all seen leaders in Church frustrated with their line cooks; they preside like Executive Chefs thinking it's their job to keep us from botching things (I mean, it might embarrass their reputation if the kitchen sent out a piece of overcooked salmon).
Who can blame them? Someone has to be in charge of quality control. Imagine a ward where you didn't have someone giving orders, making assignments, pointing out laziness, collecting reports, distributing the tithing, etc.
Isn't the leaders' role to tell us our julienning is uneven; assigning us to peel more potatoes; and to point out the fact our hollandaise sauce has broken?
We are trained to respond to it all obediently: "Yes, Chef!"
"If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen"
No one can argue with Ramsey's results. His leadership style is effective: the cooks scurry around the kitchen hoping to please him, having the fear-of-beef-wellington seared into them as if their pants were on fire.
The problems surface, of course, when we begin to value the dishes we're serving over those who prepare them.
Here's my point: Was man created to serve the commandments, or were the commandments created to serve man?
(We could keep going all day: Were members made for the Church, or the Church made for members?)
In my analogy, the food we're cooking = the commandments, with the leaders telling us how to get it right ("That's too many earrings"; "This is how to bear a testimony properly"; "It's not appropriate to wear hats in the Church hallways").
As I sit in leadership meetings, I often sense the leaders wringing their hands that they ordered their steaks medium-rare, but the members are cooking them medium-well.
And so they scold the kitchen staff, critiquing their production, performance and rigueur.
My friend told me recently that in ward council the bishop lamented we were short staffed; that there were only, like, three brethren in the whole ward who could possibly fill the vacant leadership positions, wishing he had more qualified candidates.
Which was utter nonsense, of course; knowing the brothers in my quorum, I would be happy to have any of them serve as President. Take your pick! So why was the bishop's opinion of our prospects so poor, thinking there was slim pickings?
I presume he was not actually criticizing persons per se, but their levels of production and performance and rigueur.
I can hear Gordon Ramsey's voice, "The dream ends for one of you tonight. I'm sorry Bobby, it is time for you to turn in your apron."
We are cut because our risotto fell short; and thus, we are found wanting.
"I Fought the Law and the Law Won" As a former prosecutor for 13 years, I've spent a great deal of time around criminals. You know the types ― people who imbibe too much wine while deglazing their beef bourguignon; who add too much horseradish to their remoulade sauce; who are clumsy with the kitchen knives and who steal from the back pantry.
What do we do with cooks who burn our food and who leave band-aids in our cobb salad?
Do we take them out of the kitchen and have them scrub the toilets instead, where they can't cause trouble? Fire them? (And what will become of them if they are unemployed?)
How should society handle people who break the law? And how should the Lord deal with sinners?
Does God care more about getting His pasta al dente or the person sweating over a hot stove to make a meal for their Master?
So what is God to do with all of us terrible cooks? Become a vegetarian? Take up fasting? Send us all to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for cooking classes?
We are eternal beings; so the problem extends beyond this life. There are eternal beings who act like immortal criminals; they break God's laws and want to make others miserable. ("Please Lord, solitary confinement would be preferable to being assigned as his cell mate for eternity!" ― says every wife at some point.)
If, let's say, there are evil spirits roaming the cosmos, do we shun them? Or engage with them in some sort of limited fellowship, hoping they are reclaimable? And if not, is there a form of capital punishment for uncreated intelligence? Or can intelligences be annihilated and returned to the primordial soup to be recycled? Is our eternal organization insoluble?
And if God issues a prison sentence to someone (say, for example, the one-third part of the hosts of heaven who followed Lucifer) and sends them to hell, is God their Warden?
Or does Christ's condescension and death between two thieves demonstrate that He dons the orange jumpsuit of a common criminal and circulates among the general prison population, as if one of them, in hopes of turning some few from the error of their ways?
Retribution vs. Rehabilitation
God "hath given a law unto all things" (D&C 88:42). It has been my life's quest to understand those laws. Let's begin with telestial law.
1. A Law Cannot Enforce Itself.
Laws, by themselves, are utterly powerless. Why? Because laws cannot enforce themselves. They're just ink on paper; a construct (here we're not talking about physical or natural laws, like gravity, but legal laws that govern societies and communities).
It's like what President Andrew Jackson said after the US Supreme Court ruled against his administration: "John Marshall has made his decision, no let him enforce it." And so the President simply ignored the Court.
In order for mortal laws to have teeth, you'll need:
a) a police officer b) a prosecutor c) a judge, and d) a jailor.
So we see, the law itself is uncompulsory; it does not force anyone to obey it; it just "is" (existing independently) ― whether we take notice of it or not.
2. We Each Know the Law.
"But Tim," someone says in Civil Procedure 101, "That's not fair! If we don't know the law, how can we be expected to obey it? Doesn't God have to tell us what the laws actually are, rather than expecting us to figure them out ourselves?"
Good point; where are these "laws" we're going to be judged by? The scriptures might be a good place to look, but even they are a bit confusing and contradictory, subject to interpretation. Where's our unfailing legal standard?
Ah, there it is: it is Jesus Christ, whose Light is given to each person. In other words, the Laws of Hammurabi are fully published in our spirits, allowing us to tell good from evil as clearly as we can tell day from night:
And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully . . .
I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ [sure, search the scriptures too; but salvation is found only in Christ; if you really want to be safe, trust in His light] that ye may know good from evil.
So none of us can plead ignorance at the last day! The prices were clearly listed on the menu.
3. Laws prescribe penalties for breaking them.
What laws do is pretty straight-forward: they prescribe a punishment for breaking them. That's it. According to Lehi, "the ends of the law" (its purpose) is to "inflict the punishment which is affixed" (2 Nephi 2:10).
If we break the law and are caught, it will not be the law that punishes us, but its enforcers. (And is there any way NOT to get caught when God is our judge?)
Take, for example, the law requiring drivers to wear a seatbelt. If a person chooses not to buckle-up, they can be given a ticket and ordered to pay a fine.
And if they snub their noses at the fine and don't pay, they can be thrown in jail. But the statute does not throw us in jail: the sheriff does (pursuant to the judge's orders).
Who is the sheriff?
4. Without Law There Could Be No Sin.
Now the important part: there's a relationship between law and sin. This relationship is pretty well fleshed-out in the scriptures, particularly the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.
If . . . there is no law . . . there is no sin.
(2 Nephi 2:13)
Let that sink in. We can't have one without the other.
This explains, I think, one of the reasons Paul was so giddy that Christ fulfilled (ended) the law of Moses, because by freeing us from the law, Christ removed our ability to sin thereunder.
Therein lies a mystery.
Interlude: My Time in Prison
For a time, after I left my day job, I would go to the Utah State Prison (when it was still in Draper) and talk with the inmates.
(My favorite missionary joke: "Do you know the difference between prison and the MTC? In prison they let you watch TV and have conjugal visits.")
Well, guess what surprised me the most about the men I met in prison? How incredibly active and animated the Holy Ghost was among them!
As I sat with these men ― we're talking about former members of the Church who had been excommunicated for murder, grand theft auto, sex crimes, and so forth ― I marveled that the Lord had not forgotten or abandoned them.
Now I realize there are no boundaries to the atonement; the Savior's arms of mercy are infinitely long (Alma 34:10). To paraphrase W.W. Phelps, there are no outside curtains with which we can enclose God's redeeming work, saying, "Here, but no further." His love extends unendingly and cannot be shut.
One time I shared some of the special experiences I had at the Prison with members of the Church and afterwards I received an angry visit from a woman and her husband. She berated me for speaking about these inmates.
Why was she mad, I asked. She answered she had been a victim of abuse and saying the things I did was insensitive to the pain those men had perpetrated on their victims.
I often ponder on that conversation.
5. Laws Are Unnecessary (for those who govern themselves).
It may surprise you that I believe laws are unnecessary (considering my career), but it comes with a caveat.
If we go back to our example of wearing a seatbelt, and before the Utah Legislature passed the law in 2015 mandating drivers buckle-up, many of us already chose to wear our seatbelts. We didn't need the law to tell us what to do, and were able to govern ourselves.
Which raises the question: When we do something not required of us by the law, is that being "lawless"?
Or would a better word be "extralegal?" We're beginning to see why Paul and Nephi characterized the law as something "dead."
If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law [the point Paul is making is that the law does not produce life, for life is found only in faith in Christ].
[But] Christ hath redeemed us [from what? Sin? Umm, not exactly:] from the curse of the law.
(Galatians 3:19, 13)
So those who govern themselves through faith in Christ don't need an extrinsic standard to tell them right from wrong; they are guided by their internal light given us by God.
This is why we don't need to be "commanded in all things."
For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things. . .
But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded . . . the same is damned.
(D&C 58:26, 29)
Okay, it's all-good-and-fine for those of you who follow Christ's word and are not under the bondage of the law. But what happens when some of us refuse to be self-governing? For example, if my neighbor blasts down the street recklessly at 100 mph and won't stop driving like a madman?
Well, one option is to go to down to City Hall and petition the Council to pass a law against reckless driving.
Will that stop your neighbor from driving like a maniac? No. But now when he does, they can send him to jail!
(But what happens when he gets out of jail and is placed on parole?)
6. Increasing the severity of punishment does not effectively deter criminal behavior.
What do we do with Bobby who keeps shoplifting televisions from Walmart, who is clearly not capable of governing his own behavior (that klepto)?
Well, let's say Congress passes a law to make shoplifting a felony offense; instead of a jail sentence of 3 months, now Bobby can be sentenced to 3 years. Okay, would that deter Bobby from stealing?
Maybe, if he were rational. But how often are we in our right minds? Criminal justice studies show that increasing the potential punishment does NOT effectively deter crime.
Why? Because when Bobby breaks into Walmart to snab a Slim Jim and steal a TV, he isn't thinking to himself, "Oh, dear me, I am facing a 3 year prison term if I’m caught and convicted."
The studies show that what Bobby is thinking is actually, "Where is the Loss Prevention Officer? How many cameras are there? Can I get away with this?"
The best way to deter crime, they've found, is to increase the criminal’s belief they're going to be caught (which is why cameras and increased police patrols do more to prevent crime than the legislature passing stiffer penalties). It comes down to the immediacy of consequences.
Whoops. Guess what? This life is terrible at dishing out immediate consequences. Which, when we think about it, explains a lot.