You might be shouting, "But Tim! Obedience is the First Law of Heaven."
Okay. But I am more interested in The Last Law of Heaven.
One Potato, Two Potatoes
Church lessons on obedience remind me of the game Hot Potato, as we toss around our favorite commandments, trying to get others to catch them (obey them in the way we do).
This is the way to keep the Sabbath. This is what it means to pay a full tithe. This is how to live the Word of Wisdom.
At the end of the game we're not even hungry for the potato anymore, having gratified our appetite, and pride, on the salt and pepper of obedience: shame and guilt.
"Come on, it's not hard. I can do it; why can't you? You must be a dullard. Just do it!"
But . . . do what? Obey which laws? Whose laws?
Law is not Linear
Maybe progression is like climbing a ladder, going from a lesser to a greater degree, but law is more complicated than that.
Most laws are defined by distinct jurisdictional boundaries: we are subject only to the laws that apply to our physical location.
For example, in California people have to drive 65 mph on the I-5 Interstate, but for someone cruising along the German Autobahn there is no limit to how fast they can drive. Zoom Zoom.
(How often do we judge each other based on the laws we are accustomed to, as if that is the standard that should apply universally: like a Californian criticizing someone on the Autobahn for going too fast.)
Likewise, things can be "illegal" in one place, but "legal" in another -- like prostitution, which is legal in the Netherlands and Nevada, but is against the law elsewhere.
(Pretend a person grew up in a home that had a "rule" against watching TV on Sunday; and then they go to college and their roommate watches football on the Sabbath: for shame! What sort of heathen would do that?)
To make things even more confusing, we are not subject to just a single set of laws. Where I live, I've got to follow the the local laws of my city, and also the county's laws, and on top of that I have to obey the statutes of the State of Utah . . . and let's not forget the laws of the United States of America . . .
("What, you drink Coke? My Stake President said that anyone who drinks Coke is unworthy of a temple recommend, because President Joseph Fielding Smith taught . . . ")
With so many laws, there are bound to be differences and conflicts.
Whose law is right; whose is wrong?
Law is an Artifact of Time
Not only are laws geographical (as described above), they are also temporal.
Let's say I live in 1830 before the Civil War. The laws then were very different from now. Women could not vote; slavery was legal in the South; homosexuality was a crime; and so on.
(1958: "Those who practice birth control . . . are in rebellion against God and are guilty of gross wickedness." Mormon Doctrine, 1st ed., p. 81, quoting Joseph Fielding Smith.)
(2020: "Birth Control. The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private. It should be left between the couple and the Lord." Handbook of Instruction, Sec. 38.6.4.)
The point is, laws change. Laws change all the time: think of Prohibition, where alcohol was illegal between 1920 and 1933. One day you're a criminal, bootlegging moonshine, and then the next day you're an honest businessman!
(Or, instead of Prohibition, consider polygamy, once deemed necessary for exaltation, but now punishable by excommunication. Odd how the same practice results in different consequences depending on what century we're in.)
Now, here's the funny thing. The characteristics I have described above are the opposite of what we find in God's law.
1. Spiritual Laws Do Not Change
God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he vary from that which he hath said, therefore his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round.
Someone might think that different laws exist in different dispensations, as if God used a different playbook for different ages; but remember the celestial law has always been the same.
2. Lesser Laws can Coexist with a Higher Law
We keep the law of Moses and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.
(2 Nephi 25:24-25)
Think of a "lesser" law as something that, when contrasted with Christ's bright light, appears as "darkness." A lesser law, next to the living, breathing Christ, is "dead."
Like us, in fact, who were spiritually "dead" before we chose to obey the law of Christ:
And you hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins.
Someone once said to me (and they did not mean this in a flattering way), "Tim, you would not have done very well living under law of Moses."
But I took it as a compliment! Why would I want to be good at living a lesser law? Let's aim higher.
Isn't it shocking, though, how often we advocate for the lesser law? For the letter? Trying to justify that which is dead? Defending darkness? Upholding a telestial standard? Thinking obedience to a lesser law is sufficient to exalt us?
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
(2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
I have found many more "ministers" of the letter than of the spirit. Why is that?
But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
3. Spiritual Laws Are Not Temporal
God is the same yesterday, today, and forever,
and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing.
How could God judge his children equally if he moved the mark or changed the rules? That would be unfair! If God was unjust, then
the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
4. Spiritual Laws Are Not Geographical
Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
(2 Nephi 29:7)
The laws that God ordained are infinite and eternal, as he is. But are they the same for everyone?
It behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject to him.
The best evidence for the universality of God's law is Christ -- who showed us (living two thousand years in the future, across the world) the right way, as the Standard of Salvation.
Scribes, Pharisees and Hypocrites
Most everything we need to know about obedience can be learned from the example of the Pharisees. So they were spiritual snobs? At least they knew how to obey the law with exactness.
I mean, sure, the Pharisees were willing to look down their noses at the Lord, telling Him how to keep the Sabbath, telling Him when he could heal, telling Him what being a child of Abraham meant -- but they deserve credit for paying a full tithe!
This is a big deal.
Are we trying to restore Phariseeism? (Seriously asking.)
Are we trying to condition people to view themselves as being "worthy" because of their "obedience", rather than because of Christ's righteousness?
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.
I think a "worthiness" interview would ideally take about 30 seconds, and go something like this:
Bishop: Are you worthy?
Me: No. I am unworthy. But I am "relying alone upon the merits of Christ" (Moroni 6:4) who is mighty to save -- even a wretched man like me.
Do not say: O God, I thank thee that that we are better than our brethren; But rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy --
Yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.
While the Pharisees tithed mint and cummin, they neglected "the weightier matters of the law" (Matt. 23:23).
What is it about obedience that distracts from the "weightier matters of judgment, mercy and faith" (Matt. 23:23)?
In the past I've been guilty of wielding obedience like a hypocrite, as a one-edged dagger, cutting others with the sharp edge of the blade while not turning it on myself.
A one-edged sword is a double-standard.
God's law cuts both ways:
Give heed to my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow.
The End of Obedience
Most people seem to believe that we "start" with obedience, but I want to suggest that we "end" with obedience.
For a Pharisee, obedience is the way we earn our golden ticket.
For a christian, obedience is the way we show our love for Christ, and is an expression of our gratitude for all he did for us.
The Law of Love
Usually we view obedience as a cause ("if I obey this commandment, I will receive this blessing").
I want to suggest that we think of obedience as an effect ("if I love Christ, then I will keep his commandments").
We will not obey the commandments until we love the law, and more especially the Lawgiver, with all of our heart.
Wasn't this the great secret to Christ's obedience?
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.