One of our three-year-old grandsons was playing with his Book of Mormon action figures when his mother asked him to put away his toys. When he partially complied by putting away all but one, his mother demanded, “Clayton, why is that soldier facing the wall and not in his box?” Clayton’s eyes narrowed with satisfaction as he answered, “That’s Laban. He’s naughty. I put him in time out!” The laughter which ensued broke the tension and gave our grandson a reprieve from his own time out. But it made me wonder...
Obedience Is More Than Compliance
What is the relationship between obedience and the letter of the law? If obedience were defined as mere compliance with rules or commands, then Laman and Lemuel were perfectly obedient during their murmur-filled trek to retrieve the plates from Laban. By that same logic my grandson was perfectly disobedient when he failed to put away all his action figures. Many justify their behavior in the name of compliance. Yet, true obedience stems not from following rules, but from a desire to please God. Said Jesus: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Godly obedience requires both the letter and spirit of the law; it requires “the heart and a willing mind” (D&C 64:34).
To illustrate why obedience is so much more than mere compliance with the letter of the law, consider the speed limit: If the speed limit is 65 mph, can I drive sixty-five in a dense fog? Suppose I do? Technically, I have “complied” with the speed limit. However, traffic laws were enacted for public safety. No one would seriously argue that sixty-five is “reasonable and prudent” during a dense fog. Such behavior puts everyone at risk–including the one “complying” with the rule without the counterbalance of respect for its purpose!
The Rules Runaround
Every day parents face what I call the Rules Runaround from their children. Because they sometimes confuse compliance with obedience, our children can become masters of manipulation. The runaround goes something like this: Suzy wants to go to the movies with her friends. The “way cool film” is rated R. Suzy tells you it’s only rated R because of some strong language–nothing she hasn’t heard at school five days a week. Now Suzy pulls out the “trust” card as part of the runaround. “You need to trust me to filter out the bad stuff,” she pleads. “I have my agency. Now prove it by trusting me.” Despite knowing the family rules and what the prophets have warned about R-rated movies, Suzy begs for an exception. After all, she is asking permission, and once you give your permission she hasn’t violated the house rules.
What Suzy fails to realize is that the battle for agency is over. It was won in the pre-mortal realm. Paraphrasing Elder Oaks: Imposing rules on our children–parameters for their physical and spiritual safety–no more violates their agency than when Moses carried the Ten Commandments down from the mount. “The test in this postwar mortal estate is not to secure choice but to use it...choice is a method, not a goal” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Liahona, March, 2000).
Some would argue that by letting Suzy attend the R-rated film she will learn a valuable lesson. Perhaps the film is rougher than she expects. By letting her experience an exception to the rule she will better appreciate the consequences of her choice. The problem is: the closer to the edge, the more slippery the slope. This is especially true with children who may not yet be as mature as they think. Depending on Suzy’s age and maturity, relaxing the rules now will most certainly test the limits of those rules in an ever-widening future perimeter. By contrast, Suzy’s parents can help her develop a deep love for the principle of purity which flows from the doctrine of chastity. She will then know the spiritual safety inherent in following parents and prophets. She will choose obedience out of love, not compliance. Moreover, her obedience will be self-directed, not outwardly imposed.
Three Key Indicators
In missionary work we track the “key indicators” in order to measure progress. Key indicators include such benchmarks as investigators attending sacrament meeting or members present during lessons with investigators. In like manner there are key indicators of Godly obedience. These indicators are barometers of discipleship as well as its polar opposite, rebellion, or worse–spiritual malaise:
1. Gratitude. To the extent we develop gratitude for the Savior, our love for Him causes behavioral shifts away from the ungodly.