Know the Doctrine, Purpose of Commandments: Part 4

Christ said that if any one “will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). This is my favorite reason, my purpose, for keeping commandments, because there is a connection between learning and doing. Somethings you can learn theoretically or intellectually through study, but to know the nuances, details, and further implications, you have to do it. See it in action. Black and white becomes blazing technicolor when you live it.

The health code that I’ve mentioned before in parts 2 and 3 of this series is about how to take care of your physical body. While the Lord does promise physical health, He did not title it a health code. He called it a “word of wisdom” and among His promises of health are also promises of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” (D&C 89:19).

In Doctrine and Covenants section 130, verses 20-21 read: 

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessings from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.  

But the verses 18-19, immediately preceding those oft quoted verses about obedience, say: 

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.   

This has made me wonder, what if the blessing is the knowledge? What if each commandment is linked to a doctrine and by living that commandment you are gaining knowledge of that doctrine? 

 I do not think the Lord is merely testing our ability to form habits. Commandments are not arbitrary; they have a purpose. They are expressions of love for each other, for God, and they prepare us to live with Him again. We are ready for the kingdom of God when we can love as He loves, do as he does, and know what He knows.

Commandments are how we bring doctrines to life. We see them in full-scale technicolor reality and thereby learn things we could have never realized without living them.

I have done this, so far, in two ways. First, by learning a doctrine in the scriptures that I wanted to use in my life and then purposefully living the commandment that could best bring it into my life. Second, by living the commandment and openly asking God to teach me how to do it better and why I’m doing it. 

For the first example, when I prayed about my mother’s breast cancer, I wanted to know the will of God, if she would be healed or not. The full story is here and here, but essentially I learned in an Institute lesson that the Father-child relationship we share with God means that when we pray we can be united with Him and our wills aligned as one. My Institute teacher used Enos as an example and I went home and followed that example as best I could. I prayed with greater consistency than ever before and with more purpose and sensitivity. In the end, I learned the doctrine about my connection to God, His love for me, His awareness of me, and His willingness to teach and show me His will such that I would love it and accept it as my own. This doctrine is no longer a story in the scriptures for me—it is my own story and it is a part of my foundation.

Many years after this, my step-father was undergoing a surgery that had him feeling very scared. I was living too far away to go home to help him, but I wanted to help, and I wanted to be there for him however I could. I thought of fasting and the promises of fasting in the scriptures, but, to be honest, I hated fasting. I would often have blood sugar problems that left me feeling faint, and it felt like torture. I simply never understood how torturing myself would please God and earn me blessings. I wanted to fast for my step-father, and I asked Heavenly Father to teach me how to do it correctly and to help me understand why the heck I’m even doing it and how it works. 

As I went through that day, focused on my fast, on my step-father, and the Spirit helping me understand it, I learned about the connection between the physical and the spiritual. The weaknesses that they each have at times but how they can work together to strengthen the other. I learned to love fasting because I loved my spirit and my body in a new way because they were connected in a new way. The doctrine of our temple bodies is not an abstract idea any longer. For me, it is reality and it is another stone in my foundation. 

Commandments as a list of “to-do’s” leaves me overwhelmed. Commandments as a list of “should’s” and “should not’s” leads to a binding perfectionism in which I will inevitably fall short and then berate myself. Commandments as learning tools helps me stay in a growth mindset. I see myself as a growing thing—not a broken one, not a weak one, not a stupid one. If something is too hard, I’m not there yet, but given time and a little more experience, I will be. I can keep learning “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12) and trust God when He says I do not have to run faster than I am able (D&C 10:4). 

We are all learning something. We learn at different rates, we learn things in a different order. We have various experiences and our lessons will be tailored to us personally. There are somethings that I will never know as well as someone else who has lived another life than me. Learning from one another is yet one more way to keep us united. Sharing with each other the hard things to help them become easy.

The full scripture my mother quoted to me in that hallway when I was 13 reads like this:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30, emphasis added

Life is hard. Learning is hard. But with the right teacher and a good study group, the possibilities are endless.

Blessed with His Presence, Purpose of Commandments: Part 3

Perhaps the most popular scripture on obedience in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes from the Doctrine and Covenants. In section 130, Joseph Smith wrote down some instructions and revelations he had received, including this description of the relationship between laws and blessings: there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. 

I believe this is true. Our world runs with cause and effect, consequences are linked to actions. And yet, there are often causes we do not recognize as such, consequences we did not predict. As with all scriptures, we must use this one in its proper context and not get too wrapped up in assumptions and traditions. I fear that this scripture has caused a mindset that we can get the blessing we’re looking for by living the right commandment. I have a major problem with this. First, I find that it tends to generate an idea of God that is more akin to a vending machine than a Father and obedience as a way to earn tokens to said machine. Also, it seems to me that you are then only motivated to keep the commandments that have the right pay out. It’s like saying, “If you want to get more money, then pay tithing. If you’re rich and you don’t need financial blessings, don’t bother. That’s not the blessing you’re looking for so you don’t need to keep that one.”

The major fault with this logic is that it doesn’t correspond with the way God promises blessings. In D&C section 59 verse 16, the Lord promises that if you keep the Sabbath Day holy “the fulness of the earth is yours.” That is seriously broad. And for tithing, the Lord promises in Malachi chapter 3 that he “will open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” Just because testimony meetings tend to emphasize financial blessings from tithing doesn’t mean the Lord limits himself that way. You could get anything from heaven—those windows are pretty big. 

Even when it’s spelled out and the commandment and blessing seem to coincide rather well, it’s no guarantee. The Word of Wisdom (a health code I spoke about in my previous post) promises that the keeper of this code “will receive health…shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.” It looks pretty obvious that the Lord is telling you how to take care of your body and if you do it, you will have a strong and healthy body. My mother kept this code and died of breast cancer. I have always kept this code, and I hate running. I get very weary. 

What exactly are we getting here? If I can’t count on getting the blessings I want, why do the commandments matter?

The Lord promises multiple times that if you keep his commandments you will “prosper.” The trick is, that the Lord sometimes has different definitions for words than we do because He sees things from a different perspective. To us, a prosperous individual has a nice house, new cars, maybe a boat, definitely lots of money. But if you think that rich people are more blessed than poor people, you have some reading to do in the New Testament. 

My favorite definition from the Lord for the word “prosper” is in 2nd Nephi chapter 1 verse 20: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence. This sentence creates parallel opposites. You can see the definition of the first through the definition of its opposite. Being cut off from the presence of the Lord is the opposite of prospering, thus to prosper is to have his presence. 

Prospering ultimately means to be successful. The Lord doesn’t measure success through riches because those have no value in the eternities. His goal is to have us with Him, thus we are successful when He is here with us. With His presence, we know how to use our resources to maximum benefit, we grow and develop our talents, we love and receive love.

What do we get when we keep the commandments? The presence of God.

Christ told his disciples, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you.” Now, there have been times when I have read this and thought, wow, that’s a bit manipulative; he’ll only be my friend if I  do whatever he says? But as I reflected on the times when I felt the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness—I know that these are the qualities of a true friend. 

Think of your closest friends. Why are you friends? Do you have a lot in common? Do you enjoy doing the same things and have fun together? I think friendship with Christ works in a very similar way. He has his hobbies and interests—they include learning from his Father, serving others, and spreading joy. The commandments are in many ways descriptions of how he lives his life. Keeping them is how you spend time with your friend. 

He wants to share our interests too—he’s interested in our work, our family, how we’re feeling, if we’re hurt or scared. There are those things that he is not interested in—hurting other people, gossiping, backbiting—and if we’re doing those he just won’t stick around for them. Anytime we want to be with him and do his things, we can. Anytime we want to invite him to an activity we think he might like, we can. 

This is seeking the Spirit. Paying attention to determine whether or not something is bringing you peace and joy. It could be walking in nature, praying, meditating, volunteering in the soup kitchen, connecting with family and friends. When you find those things, you’ve found your commandments. The presence of God will bring innumerable blessings personalized for you because you are His friend. 

Purpose of Commandments, part 2: Protection

In just about every lesson and sermon I’ve heard about the purpose of commandments, there is always the mention of protection. We are protected by the commandments. If we live them our lives are easier, we are blessed with peace and kept from pain and heartache that comes from unrighteous living.

There is much about that statement that is true. And yet, life is still hard. There will always be heartache and difficulty. Even when you are obedient, you are affected by the choices of others and the simple chaos and struggle of life. So, what exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Yeah, I’m not dumb enough to go looking for trouble, but am I really meant to live my life in fear? If the fruits of the Spirit are peace and comfort, and fear is the antithesis of faith, would the Spirit teach me righteousness with fear?

When I think of the commandments that have protected me, the first to come to mind is the Word of Wisdom. The Word of Wisdom is a health code that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and non-medicinal drugs. Living this way my entire life means I have never had a drink of alcohol, never smoked a cigarette or anything stronger, never even had a drink of coffee. There are those that think I’m missing out on something in life, but when I weigh what they are promising with the very real threat of alcoholism, I think I’ve come out on top. I know from several family members the hardships that come with addiction, and I have been affected by alcoholism from a very young age. Because of this, I have always had a fear of alcohol—a fear of becoming an alcoholic and of those who drink. This commandment eased a fear that was already there, and I have lived my life with incredible peace.

Near the beginning of the revelation that outlines the Word of Wisdom, the Lord says it is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints who are or can be called saints.” I see in this a sort of group protection for those of us that are weak in our tendencies to become addicted. I don’t actually know if I would become an alcoholic, but I’m afraid of it. My church community gives me safety so I don’t have to know the answer to that question; I can live a life completely free of addiction. There are those in my faith that can drink alcohol without becoming addicted. We don’t necessarily know who they are, because we haven’t tested it. As a weaker saint, I thank the stronger ones for giving up alcohol so that I do not need to feel pressured or weak. I can simply put it away and think on other things.

Surprisingly, my friends in college were able to do a similar thing. My friends would drink from time to time, perhaps having beer or wine at dinners or parties. Always considerate of me and wanting me to be comfortable, they made sure there were other options available. Sometimes this was including a non-alcoholic beverage, other times it was a way for me to leave should I become uncomfortable. If I went to a party being held by a friend, I always went early before people were particularly drunk and left early. I rarely left alone. They would drink less or not at all if it was a smaller party and they wanted me to be there and fully comfortable. They were always considerate of my choice in whether or not I would attend a party and made sure that I did so safely. In a very different type of community, I still felt protected.

Ultimately, I think the commandments help us protect each other. When we love one another, we care for one another’s fears and we seek to alleviate them. That is the work and fruit of the Spirit. 

Sometimes, when we teach a commandment from a protection perspective, we use fear instead of a voice of warning. Those we are attempting to teach feel threatened or belittled. The difference between fearmongering and warning is love. I could have preached the Word of Wisdom to my friends and refused to be with them unless they lived as I did, but that is manipulative rather than friendly. If they had not cared for my feelings, then I would have known they were not my friends, and I would not have trusted them and would instead have looked elsewhere. But they were always considerate of me. I like to think that they knew I would always help them too. I didn’t need to use fear, I just loved them. They came up with their own “commandments” to keep me safe and I kept mine. Protect the relationship first and it will endure even when commandments are broken, warnings not heeded, fears realized. When there is love and a desire to build trust, the commandments you must follow will become very clear. 

The doctrine behind all commandments is that God loves his children and is prepared to help and heal at all times. The price is paid. He’s not going to get mad at you for cashing in and using the help He’s ready to bestow. Please, don’t think of God as mean and manipulative. The more you know Him, the more you will hear the voice of warning instead of the threatening thunder.

In the meantime, think about how your actions are affecting those around you. Is there someone you’re hurting that you can protect by keeping a commandment? That person could be yourself. We all want to protect those we love, and God is no different. 

Godly Sorrow

Not many people would understand why I felt guilty about failing to finish graduate school when I had spent the time with my sick mother, but to me, this was a spiritual failure. I knew what the Lord had asked me to do—He made it clear as day. I knew that He would’ve helped me because He had done it before. Yet, I failed to remember, and I didn’t trust Him.

About eleven years before Michigan, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer during my sophomore year of college. By my senior year, she had outlived her original prognosis and prayed to see me graduate.

I needed to decide between going to graduate school and going on a mission. I prepared both papers at the same time, unsure of which path to take, and watched my mother’s health. When I prayed, graduate school never felt “wrong” per se, but a mission felt lighter. Once, an impression that my ancestors in the spirit world wanted me to go on a mission came to me. It felt like we were a team. No clear or powerful words, just a feeling, but enough to get me excited and I chose a mission.

My mother didn’t discourage me from a mission, but she did tell me her concerns. Her chemotherapy treatments were not working at the time of my college graduation and she felt she was running out of time. When my missionary assignment came, I wondered if this was really what the Lord wanted me to do or if I had gotten it all wrong. Meanwhile, my mother said a silent prayer asking Heavenly Father if He really needed me right then or if she could keep me for just a little longer. I looked up and saw her jumping for joy. This woman with cancer in her bones and treatments that liquified the marrow vibrated with excitement. The answer to her prayer was immediate and she knew that it was my mission and the Lord needed me.

My Stake President set me apart as a missionary and blessed me that as I served, my mother would be protected. I felt an assurance that she would not die while I was gone. 

In the Missionary Training Center, I received a letter telling me her chemotherapy treatments were working and her cancer was receding. Three weeks later, the first letter I got in Tennessee said that her cancer counts were low enough she could take a break from chemotherapy. 

The Lord keeps His promises. He honors our sacrifices until they’re not even sacrifices anymore. I know it.

Where was that faith when the Lord called me to go to graduate school?

I doubted the Lord’s call to go to graduate school, but the spiritual experience telling me to get a Ph.D. was far more powerful than any I received calling me on a mission. As I described in the post “Problem 1: I am Mad at Myself,” I quit my graduate program because my fear of losing my mother and not having her with me when I had my own children was too great. I gave in to fear.

In Michigan, remembering my mission felt great, relearning how to stand strong in the face of fear was empowering, but I still beat myself up over the fact that I had forgotten those lessons at a crucial time. What was the difference between the first call and the second?

I still don’t understand why I forgot to rely more on the Lord, but I can say that I became so narrow-mindedly focused on what I wanted I didn’t listen to anyone else and did not acknowledge any other options. I started to cut myself off and the cost came years later when I was torn apart by grief and anger.

I used to think I finally went back to God and asked for help because I simply hit the bottom, but now I think that He reached out first, bringing me memories that strengthened me to the point that I could reach out.

 Recognizing my depression and working to remove my avoidance tactics, carve out erroneous assumptions of my value, and chip away at my fear, prepared me to build unity. Unity with God and with others is essential to complete unity within ourselves. They are intertwined in that the Spirit testifies of our incredible value, gives us perspective, and courage. The people around us can help us find this too. When we share, ask, and listen, we see things afresh. A new angle will reveal truth we didn’t see before. One doesn’t replace the other, rather they are additive. At the same time, unity within ourselves is needed before we are open to seeking unity with others. We need confidence to reach out, assurance that we are valuable enough for someone to reach back, knowledge that we do have the strength to keep going.

There is sorrow that is destructive because we try to hide it, and thereby, we cut ourselves off. Then, there is sorrow that brings us together. When you’ve accepted the sorrow yourself, instead of avoiding it, recognized your value is intact, completely independent from your mistakes, you have the courage to ask for help. This is Godly Sorrow, this is Humility.

Sorrow that cuts us off is prideful independence ruled by fear. Godly sorrow is one that is shared, and it is powerful humility lead by courage.

Act with Purpose

As an overwhelmed working mother, I thought only of my to-do list, and how I fulfilled my duties determined my self worth. If I didn’t do the laundry, I was a bad mother. If I didn’t get results from the experiment, I was a useless scientist. If I gained weight, I was a horrible woman.

We live in a world that assigns value to things on a constant basis. We even assign values to people. And for some reason, we often accept another’s evaluation over our own.

Perhaps someone has hurt us and we start to think that we deserved that ill-treatment. Or another has something we want but can’t have and we think that is a reflection of our own worth as well. We become so entrenched in our societies’ economical systems that it can be difficult to step aside and learn a new way to see value. 

In Michigan, I taught a youth Sunday school class for 12 to 13 year olds. We read the first verse in 1 Nephi that reads:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parent, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

I can’t remember my original purpose in reading that scripture, I only remember that as we read it, the Spirit told me I was highly favored. And I didn’t fully believe it. I honestly asked those young teenagers, “How do you know if you’re highly favored of the Lord?”

They started complimenting each other’s hair. Then mentioned their families. Then said they were grateful for the gospel. 

I’m sure that beautiful 13 year old girl with long blonde hair did feel blessed because of it. She complimented everybody’s hair regardless of color or style. But what about bald people? Or people that hate their hair? Are they still loved?

Nephi also felt blessed because of his parents, but Laman and Lemuel had the same parents and did not feel favored of the Lord because of it. Too many of us have bad parents that make critical mistakes, aren’t we loved? 

The gospel is important. However, we must be careful not to think we are better for being in one religion over another.

There is nothing wrong in being grateful for what you have, but when we think of these as measures of love, we might run into some trouble. Nephi says that he had afflictions but “knowledge of the goodness…of God” is what he focused on. This is available to everyone. I realized I was loved—I was just looking at the wrong measure of it.

Once, when I was a teenager, I felt miserable but also thought that the Lord wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t going to church. I was desperate to feel the Spirit and my sorrowful mind believed that I was too bad to talk to God. He wouldn’t listen to someone like me. 

I figured that if I could start doing better and show Him that I could be better, then maybe He would hear my prayer. My depression logic came up with one week of nightly scripture study for one heard prayer. As I read, the number of nights I needed to earn a heard prayer started to come down. Surely, five nights will be enough, a few verses later, maybe after three nights. By the end of my reading, I realized I was allowed to pray and the Lord would hear it. I felt the Spirit and I felt loved.

Commandments are not chores we do to earn nickels and dimes we can spend at God’s General Store of Blessings. Because society can only see the outside, it is society’s value system that determines love by what we do, how others treat us, and what we have.

The Lord sees our hearts. Commandments are God’s invitations to come and be with Him. Our obedience is our way of inviting Him to come be with us. We are loved regardless of what we do. The invitation stands even if we don’t accept it. If we do invite God to be with us, we will know how much we are loved.

What we do is important. We are always making choices even when we are passively trying to avoid making choices. The purpose behind those choices matter. We don’t need to earn love as much as we need to act to show love and accept it. When the purpose is true, our actions have power, even if they’re not perfect.

Problem 1: I am mad at myself

This post is a part of “my story” which begins with the post “Finding Purpose” 

Division can take on many forms when we feel stressed and under pressure. When things start to get hard, we all point a finger of blame and many times we point that finger at ourselves. Blaming yourself for your problems is natural, but it only makes things worse. 

At first, Michigan was exciting, full of potential and possibilities. My husband was to attend law school, a career change with great promise, and I was starting a new job as a research assistant. This was a return to my college dream, and what I thought the Lord wanted me to do.

I wanted a Ph.D. when I was an undergraduate but I put off graduate programs three times before my mother’s death. Once to serve a mission and again to get married. By the time my husband and I began a Ph.D. program together, my mother was becoming increasingly ill from cancer. I was so torn about what to do. Should I put off graduate school to have children, or put off children for graduate school? If I waited too long to have children, would my mother see them? Would I have to enter motherhood without my own mom?

While in the temple praying for guidance, I desperately wanted the answer to be my family. However, during the ceremony I felt an undeniable impression with the words, if you want to fully consecrate your time and talents to the Lord, you need to get a Ph.D. It felt amazing. I was honored, I was special, I was the best.

After I left the temple, as soon as I entered the parking lot, I thought of the children I couldn’t have. The astounding mission the Lord had given me now seemed to have come with too high a price. 

I started my Ph.D. program and most of the people were smarter than me. My contributions were not special. I am nowhere near the best. I fought with the Lord and became pregnant. I still felt the Spirit prompting me to continue my program, but I quit and stayed home with my baby and spent time with my mom.

When we arrived in Michigan, I did not regret the two years I had with my mom and my daughter, or the next two years I stayed at home with my daughter and had my son. I thought I could get back on track with a slight and understandable detour. However, nothing was like I expected.

I think I was good at my job. I liked my co-workers and my boss was brilliant though difficult. I know she liked the progress I made on my projects and the amount of data I  produced. But she hated the number of sick days I took and wanted me to hire someone else to stay home with my baby boy when he was ill, which I was not comfortable doing.

I missed the time I used to spend with my kids. My son was still learning to walk and talk and I was always worried that I wasn’t doing enough for him. We would find through the course of time his allergies and asthma which led to many doctors visits and sometimes to the ER. My daughter was doing well at pre-school but in my exhaustion, I would lose patience with her and I felt the loss of quality time. The mommy guilt was intense.

Now I know that I wasn’t different from any other working mom, but I complicated things by berating myself. I compounded this guilt with a bunch of “what ifs.” If I had stayed in my Ph.D. program, could I have a better job with more flexible hours? My daughter was always more independent and outgoing than her brother. What if she had been the one to be in daycare while I did my Ph.D., then could I be better at giving my son more of the time and help that he needs now? If I had obeyed the Lord, what blessings would he have given me that could have averted this situation? 

Ultimately, every problem I had felt like my fault because I had lost faith. In the temple, when I had the Spirit, confidence was mine. When doubt assailed me, I crumbled. I was not strong enough.

There were no promptings from the Spirit or answers to any prayers. I thought this too was my fault. The Lord had called and I had answered, “not right now, this is more important.” 

I was frustrated and angry at a lot of things and a lot of people in Michigan. None more so than myself. 

You might think that unity with your own self would be easy, after all, you’re only one person. But, we beat ourselves up all the time. Loving yourself, your whole self is easier said than done. It doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t matter to you. It doesn’t mean that you ignore your faults. It doesn’t mean arrogance and a refusal to grow. It means you’re in love with the process of growing. You give yourself the space you need to grow completely.