When I was 14, my seminary teacher was a wonderful woman who had converted to our faith from another. Because of this, she was well acquainted with common criticisms of the Church and taught us some of the answers she’d received to these questions. One time she told us that some say we believe in a changeable God when the scriptures clearly state that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. To explain this apparent contradiction she wrote three words on the board:
Doctrines Principles Commandments
Doctrines are defined as Eternal Truths—a statement of fact, a fact that is universally and always true. A principle is a guiding star—a general goal you set because you believe in a particular doctrine. A commandment is a specific instruction from God—something that He wants you to do to enact that principle and live that doctrine in a particular circumstance.
She then added three words:
Doctrine Principles Commandments
Eternal Eternal Temporary
God changes commandments depending on our circumstances, she taught. We still believe the Law of Sacrifice, but it no longer involves animals. God said do not kill, and yet the Israelites were sent to war and killed to claim their promised land. Commandments may change, but God does not, doctrines do not. A change in commandments is not evidence of a changing God. It is we that change or our circumstances. Thus, the things God needs us to do change, but not God Himself.
When God speaks of doctrines, principles, and commandments the words are sometimes interchangeable and it is hard to distinguish one from another. I think this is because, to Him, they are connected. Unfortunately, they are not so easily aligned for us. By separating their definitions and characteristics I do not mean to diminish any of them. Describing commandments as temporary is not a way to excuse myself when I fail to keep them. Rather, because we live in a world where many teach false doctrines, call traditions commandments, and use commandments to shame others when God would lift them, I can test my view and use of true doctrines, principles, and commandments by making sure they align correctly.
There were times I struggled with commandments due to health reasons, or others that seemed too hard. When I started to think of myself as too weak to be saved, not obedient enough to qualify for help, I would turn to doctrines. The beauty of God’s plan, the strength of His love, the evidence of His mercy, have given me the power to try again. They provide the strength to keep the commandments.
Commandments have incredible importance because when attached to eternal doctrines they bring immeasurable power. When properly aligned, commandments bring doctrines into our lives. The invisible becomes more real and knowable. No longer theoretical, we understand nuances and complexities that would have escaped us otherwise.
However, when they become detached from doctrines, commandments are too easily twisted and serve more as traps. We lose the true purpose of commandments—the why and how. Then we assign our own reasons, false doctrines, for these commandments. While the particular false doctrines vary according to the commandment, one commonality is that we judge ourselves and each other far more harshly than God Himself would do. We forget His mercy, we forget His purpose and ours.
I believe it is imperative that when we teach or follow commandments, we never isolate them from doctrines and principles. They must always stay connected and aligned as God sees them. This also means we have to test these connections to be sure they are the ones that God has built and not man made.
Why do you follow commandments? What’s the difference between a commandment you keep and one you let go?
When I was 13, my mother married my stepfather. In my stepfather’s house there was a cross-stitch hanging in the hallway that read, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it,” next to a picture of Christ. I stood there in the hallway pondering that and really feeling that message. I was thinking, it’s so true. The gospel can be so hard, but it’ll be worth it. I just need to keep going. My mother then came down the hallway and saw what I was reading and said, “I’ve always hated that saying. You know Christ never said that. What Christ said was, ‘take my yoke upon you, for behold, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”
I still feel those two quotes battling it out in my mind from time to time. Something in the gospel will get really hard and I’ll keep pushing and trying, knowing a blessing will come and then I stop and think, wait a minute, this is supposed to be easy. How do I make this easy? I’ve discovered that Christ’s yoke is not built for one—you are yoked with Him, working together. If it gets hard, it’s because I’m going in a different direction, pulling against the yoke. Making sure that Christ and I are looking and moving in the same direction is when the yoke becomes easy. Double checking your goal, your purpose, will keep you aligned with true doctrines, true principles, and true commandments. Christ will carry the burdens and you’ll know you’ve found the right alignment, when it becomes easy.