By Dana Haight Cattani
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
1 Samuel 15:22
I CANNOT COUNT the number of needle pricks I have had in the past two years. Since my cancer diagnosis, I have had fluids drawn out of my body—blood, mostly—and fluids dripped in—saline, contrast dye, steroids, toxic drugs—through countless IVs in my arms and a port in my chest. After months of a particularly emetic chemo cocktail, I found that simply driving into the parking lot at the infusion center triggered violent waves of retching. My face seemed permanently red and puffy with broken blood vessels. I had been shivery, light-headed, and achy for months. I was sick of being tired and tired of being sick.
Mercifully, the chemo ended. No more needles for a while, or so I imagined. Chemotherapy and radiation, not to mention surgical menopause, had left my lower spine and hips alarmingly fragile, so I was packed off to a smart young endocrinologist to talk about bone density. He smiled reassuringly, glanced at my chart, and recommended an annual infusion of a drug that would help prevent osteoporosis and cause only minimal side effects: nausea, fatigue, fever, chills, joint pain, dizziness.
I stared at him evenly. “No.”
Clearly startled, he said, “I prescribe this drug to all the little old ladies.”
“I’m 48,” I said.
“I know,” he said indulgently, “but you don’t want a broken hip.”
“No, I don’t, but I don’t want more infusions and side effects right now, either. Could I try diet, calcium supplements, and weight-bearing exercise, and then revisit this issue in six months?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said, standing up, suddenly testy. “It’s up to you.”
I knew I had been dismissed. In violation of standard doctor-patient protocol, I had challenged his recommendation and failed to heed his counsel. Through almost a year of treatment, I had been a good patient, shocked and frightened into mute compliance. I had believed that the doctors and I had a pact. I would submit meekly to whatever treatments they prescribed, and they would cure me. Then, in the middle of chemotherapy, a routine scan had shown a recurrent tumor, and I had to have a repeat surgery and start over with a different drug regimen. At that point, I had an epiphany: there was no pact, and I was not bound.
Obedience, I decided—and not for the first time in my life—is not the goal here.
I WAS PRIMED for this moment. A lifelong Mormon, I was accustomed to receiving instructions from authority figures. Independent (or just contrary) by nature, I was also accustomed to sifting through them, separating the wheat from the chaff. Consistently, I found some of each.
A year earlier, a zealous returned missionary had given a presentation to the youth of my stake in which he held up a mouse trap and tripped it several times. Then he asked a young man to put his finger in the trap. The young man declined, and the missionary said, “Would you do it if the Lord asked you?”
“The Lord didn’t ask me,” the young man said.
“The point is to obey,” the missionary said.
A young woman piped up. “Yes, but God doesn’t ask us to do dumb things.”
I love stories where straw is spun into gold, and I feel hopeful every time I recall this exchange where thoughtful young people transformed mindless compliance into discernment and sound judgment. Nevertheless, the missionary’s object lesson nags at me. Is the point to obey? (The point of what? one might reasonably ask: this missionary’s presentation, church, life?) Is that what we believe?
It is what we teach, at least some of the time. According to the official Church website, “one reason we are here on the earth is to show our willingness to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments.”1 We teach that “God gives commandments for our benefit” and that they are “loving instructions for our happiness.”2 A lesson on obedience in the Gospel Principles manual includes the following subtopics: “We Can Obey without Understanding Why” and “No Commandment Is Too Small or Too Great to Obey.”3 Christ’s two great commandments of love notwithstanding, we even teach that obedience is the first law of heaven.4
At the same time, we teach that agency is the “ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves” and is “essential in the plan of salvation.”5 Eternal progression, an idea “fundamental to the LDS worldview,” is predicated on “everything that people learn and experience by their choices.”6 We view the right to make those choices as sacred and inviolable. We celebrate Eve for her wise disobedience and acknowledge that “great blessings resulted from the transgression.”7 We claim that “without agency, we would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior.”8 It is agency that “permits us to make faithful, obedient choices that strengthen us.”9
True enough. Agency does permit faithful, obedient choices. However, agency also permits faithful disobedient choices, unfaithful obedient choices, and a cost-benefit analysis of the likely consequences. To limit ourselves to faithful, obedient choices is to use only a fraction of the range of motion our agency offers, like never raising an arm more than a few inches and ignoring the 360 degrees of glory our shoulders present. Of course, some of those choices, like some of the ways we could move our arms, may be ill-advised and painful. We have the freedom even to hurt ourselves—and others.
The tension between this substantive, risky agency and strict obedience is poorly articulated in our official teachings, which imply that for the faithful, agency is suspended and encompassed in a context of obedience, like a few drops of oil in a pot of water. We could, hypothetically, choose the wrong—or even a peculiar right—but ideally we would never even consider such an option because we would be so deeply immersed in obedience and its proxy, conformity. In this model, failing to consider the options is a virtue, and the fact that we see all around us the carnage of careless choices, of greed and lust and callous disregard for humanity, seems only to justify this view.
Even so, it is a cramped vision of agency.
What if instead of a little agency in a vast context of obedience, we could imagine a little obedience in a vast context of agency, as if agency were the pot of water, and obedience the drops of oil? Is ours a trusting god, one willing to gamble on our best impulses and ultimate ability to choose wisely? Trust is surely a godlike quality, given a plan of salvation that relies so exquisitely on choice. Yet trust is hard for us to embrace because while we celebrate agency as a great gift, we also fear that, like cayenne pepper, it is easy to overdo.
I believe it is also possible to overdo obedience, to view it as the point rather than a means toward a desirable end. Some commandments clearly are designed as broad guides toward happier lives. If we keep the Sabbath as a day of rest, we build in a respite from workaday cares. If we learn to not covet, we are more likely to feel gratitude and contentment. If we honor parents and are faithful spouses, we have a foundation for a more satisfying family life than if we are cavalier with our most intimate personal relationships.
However, other directives, which are commandment-like in their presentation through general conference and Church media, seem designed primarily to fulfill numerous and shifting institutional priorities. We teach that “the inspired words of our living prophets become scripture to us.”10 With twenty hours of general conference alone every year, we generate a prodigious amount of this living scripture which soon becomes ubiquitous in Sunday lessons, home and visiting teaching messages, and sacrament meetings, at least until the next go-around. The scope of guidance is vast: the vital importance of seminary, Family Home Evening, gardens, indexing, missionary work, Eagle scout rank, temple attendance, journals, and food storage; the evils of debt, short skirts, R-rated movies, energy drinks, pornography, face cards, consumerism, tattoos, and facial hair. This uneven jumble of crucial, ordinary, and trivial issues is never untangled, rendering everything equally important—or unimportant. Then there are the contradictions. For instance, young people are instructed to marry and have children as soon as possible, get all the education they can, and avoid debt.11 The most disciplined and faithful among us might be able to manage any two of these directives at a time, but absent a trust fund, simultaneously accomplishing all three is virtually impossible. Eve, it turns out, had it easy.
If our leaders today had to pick the ten most salient commandments for our time, what would they choose? The 613 commandments of the Old Testament seem excessive only until they are set beside our open and ever-expanding canon of living scripture instructions, few of which are ever rescinded. The inevitable result is commandment creep, the encroachment of religious counsel like kudzu, claiming more and more of secular and personal life as its rightful habitat.
In a recent interview, Mary Barra, the first woman CEO of General Motors, explained that when she was the head of human resources at GM, she changed the dress code from a ten-page document to a two-word phrase: dress appropriately. In reflecting on this change, Barra noted, “I said, ‘I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ It was kind of a step in empowering. Because we found that sometimes people hid behind the rules and didn’t like them, but didn’t necessarily step up. So this really encouraged people to step up.”12
Barra’s approach could be described as a New Testament-style revision. Simplify. Delegate. Trust. As in the New Testament, there were probably a few GM employees who mourned change and the loss of the 10-page document with its clear demarcation. Now they would have to decide for themselves and be accountable for their actions. They could no longer abdicate personal responsibility by invoking the higher law of company policy.
Hiding behind rules we may not like, we too could judge our own or others’ obedience along many measurable dimensions and even feel righteous in the process. With so many commandments and quasi-commandments, it would be easy for us to become a church of Pharisees, nitpickers fixated on parsing the law rather than alleviating human suffering or becoming better people. Like Samuel’s Israelites, we could call for a king, even in the face of countless unhappy examples, because we feel more secure if someone else is in charge. Alternatively, we could step up and acknowledge that rigid obedience to external rules is a sanctuary from the messiness and discomfort of growth while agency is an incubator for it.
As a parent and a teacher, I know that obedience can be convenient, practical, and sometimes absolutely necessary. Responsible parents protect their children by instituting age-appropriate rules regarding access to swimming pools, computers, and cars. Good teachers foster a positive learning environment by enforcing clear rules about allowable resources and due dates. For children and students—and everyone else—obedience can be a thoughtful and mature choice that promotes desirable outcomes like safety and fairness. However, I also know that young people—and even older ones—who never learn to evaluate options and accept consequences do not make very wise or resilient adults. They are vulnerable to the schemes of inept or unscrupulous figures of authority. Worse, these fragile adults can be prone to a sense of helplessness or victimization rather than of power and of love and of a sound mind. We teach that obedience is a virtue, and it can be, but it can also be an excuse for shirking our own agency and the charge to progress.
A Jewish story tells of Rabbi Zusya, a modest and benevolent man, who said before his death, “When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.”13 If we believe that we are unique children of God, we might also trust that it is better to be first-rate versions of ourselves than second-rate versions of anyone else. With Simon-Says obedience, we own nothing: the decision, the result, the satisfaction or regret. In this sense, obedience hardly seems a godlike quality, certainly not the defining characteristic of an abundant life.
IN MY CANCER world of clinic waiting rooms, rehab classes, and support groups, I am part of a community of patients living constrained lives, some more abundant, some less so. The difference may be less about prognosis than about peace, the acceptance of life on its sometimes stark terms. The path toward peace is less tortuous, I believe, for those patients who participate in their treatment decisions rather than merely submitting to them. These patients may determine that there is a time to obey and a time to refrain from obeying—or at least to get a second opinion. Even, or perhaps especially, their own.
1. “Obedience,” https://www.lds.org/topics/obedience?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
3. “Chapter 35: Obedience,” Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011) 200–206, https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-35-obedience?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
4. Matthew 22:35–40 and “Lesson 23: Obedience: The First Law of Heaven,” Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher’s Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1998), 128–35, https://www.lds.org/manual/preparing-for-exaltation-teachers-manual/lesson-23-obedience-the-first-law-of-heaven?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
5. “Agency,” https://www.lds.org/topics/agency?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
6. “Eternal Progression,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 465, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Eternal_Progression (accessed 29 September 2014).
7. “Chapter 6: The Fall of Adam and Eve,” Gospel Principles, https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-6-the-fall-of-adam-and-eve?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
10. “Chapter 10: Scriptures,” Gospel Principles, https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-10-scriptures?lang=eng (accessed 29 September 2014).
11. Alissa Strong, “The Right Time to Marry,” Ensign, March 2013, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/03/the-right-time-to-marry?lang=eng; “Family Finances,” https://www.lds.org/topics/finances; Neil L. Andersen, “Children,” 2011 October General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/children?lang=eng; “Education,” For the Strength of Youth (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), https://www.lds.org/manual/for-the-strength-of-youth/education?lang=eng (all accessed 29 September 2014).
12. “The Quotable Mary Barra” edited by Loren Mooney, Stanford Business, Spring 2014, p. 47. http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/stanford-business-magazine-2014-spring.pdf (accessed 29 September 2014).
13. Wendy Mogel, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (New York: Penguin Compass, 2001), 50.