I can see why the commandments of God are often seen by the world as a burden. They do, many times, put restrictions on the things that we would otherwise do. I think it is fair to say that were it not for our conscience, we would all live a far more hedonistic and sensual life, catering to the carnal tastes that are in us all. Thankfully we do have our conscience, though, and as a result, overcome many passions for our own greater good.
But even with the help of our conscience, we inevitably come to another sticking point. Sooner or later we will encounter a commandment which we do not necessarily feel the importance of. Perhaps we totally get why it is wrong to steal and kill, and will gladly restrict ourselves from such behavior, but keeping the sabbath day holy? Living a chaste life? Paying our tithes? If we list out enough commandments, sooner or later each of us will likely find one that just doesn’t resonate in us as much as the others.
What is one to do in such a circumstance? Do we ignore the laws that we don’t understand? Is it possible to gain full benefit for following them in a state of “just going through motions,” where our hearts are not in it? I would like to consider these questions, as well as contemplate why we even come to this conundrum in the first place.
2 Nephi 28:30, Luke 2:52
For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
I will give line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man
When it comes to commandments that we do not understand the reasons for, it is important to know that there is nothing wrong in our ignorance. There is no shame in saying “I do not understand why this matters.” As we see in these verses, it is the natural and expected course for us to learn one step at a time, which implies that we have not attained all knowledge yet. Even Jesus followed this pattern. Though he showed great wisdom in his youth, that does not mean he came to earth knowing absolutely everything. In fact the record showed that he learned and grew, just like the rest of us.
Consider, also, the example of a small child that has yet to learn addition. Yes, they need to learn that skill, it is important, but there is no shame that they have not attained it yet. For now, mastering counting is sufficient for them.
For unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have
What would be concerning, though, is the child that refuses to learn to count, and by extension refuses to learn every higher form of mathematics. It is okay to not know all things, but it is not okay to stop learning.
It can be tempting to take what commandments we do understand and say “I’ll just keep these ones and not worry about the rest,” but that would be limiting ourselves. Neither should we look at the commandments that we do not understand and say “I feel deeply ashamed for my ignorance,” that would be abusive. As with so many things, the middle path is the right way forward. We can accept that we are ignorant, without shame, and also strive to grow past it.
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ
Before we can have the correct attitude towards the commandments, we have to be able to acknowledge that we have flaws and that our behavior needs to change. It is all-too-easy to fall into justifying ourselves, stating that our strengths are sufficient and that our failings are only minor. So long as this is our position, then the commandments will feel like a personal attack, asking for changes that we insist we have no need of. We will become defensive, or even hostile.
Good cannot teach us anything if we “already know everything.”
But if we can be humble and admit that there are changes that need to happen in our lives, then we are open to being taught by a schoolmaster. Now we are teachable.
1 Timothy 1:9-10, 12-13
Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry;
Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief
We have just discussed that the proper attitude towards the commandments requires one to sincerely want to change who they are. Until then, our pride will prevent us from taking the gospel’s advice at face value.
When I came to admit my own failing, when I felt the guilt of my wrongs, when I genuinely wanted to change…I found that I didn’t know, by myself, what the right way forward was. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have opinions for how to “fix” myself, but I just didn’t trust my perspectives anymore. I didn’t want to follow the advice of an addict like myself, I wanted to be guided by someone who had a clear mind and a pure heart.
And so I started giving the gospel and the lifestyle it teaches the benefit of the doubt. Some things I still didn’t understand the immediate importance of, but it was coming from a source that I trusted, so I would try it. Like Paul, I felt that Jesus was enabling me, that following his principles were changing me from what I was before.
I never had trouble understanding why I needed to say prayers. Talking with my Father was clearly going to be the best way to receive guidance, and to draw my mind into spiritual reflection. And studying scriptures made perfect sense as well. How could I live his word unless I knew it? When I was young I struggled with boredom attending church services, but later in life came to understand the more you put into community, the more you get out of it. Tithing has never bothered me either. Sacrifice feels cleansing, and it feels good to give something away for the things I truly value, just like giving gifts to my loved ones.
There was one practice of discipleship that I never really felt the purpose for, though. Fasting. I heard other people say how it helped them to master their appetites, how it helped their spirit have the upper hand over the flesh, and I didn’t doubt that that was their genuine experience…it just wasn’t how it felt for me.
I became very hit-or-miss about the practice, and would go months without remembering to do it. I frankly didn’t feel very guilty about it, either, because it didn’t feel like I was gaining anything meaningful when I did try to do it.
And then, just recently, that changed. I really cannot say why, either. I’d like to be able to point to some key piece of understanding, or meaningful life experience, which made the practice fall into place for me, but I can’t.
Just one time I started feeling it, and I have been feeling it ever since. Maybe this was always here and I just wasn’t picking up on it? Maybe I just had to mature a bit more? I don’t know.
Interestingly, though, it isn’t quite the same experience for me that I have heard others share about. In my experience, it’s about going through the crucible. Because lately, without fail, every time I fast everything falls apart. Relationships become strained, everyone gets on their worst behavior, stress mounts up, and powerful waves of depression wash over me. It frankly feels like being cursed, where everything I touch just turns out wrong. And then, without fail, everything turns right at the very end of the fast. In those last hours pride dissipates, problems work out, stings are soothed, and I feel at peace. During the crucible I start to lose faith that things will work out…but then they always do before the end.
And I guess…I still don’t really understand fasting. Why is this experience happening this way? What is going hungry essential for God to show me this? I don’t know. But at least I can attest that it’s doing good things in me.
Alma 5:12-13, Jeremiah 31:33
And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.
And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
According to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart
After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts
I do believe that most of us try to follow our conscience and live as best we know how. We may all be at different stages of how well we adhere to that pricking of our heart, but we are at least trying to follow it to some degree. And I believe most of us would like to take that guide in our hearts, and ever strive to improve on that, and that alone.
Yet the scriptures speak of a different experience. They speak of “mighty changes of heart.” They speak of people who thought they knew what they were supposed to do, and then discovered that they ought do something else instead. Saul’s problem was not that he needed to follow his convictions more firmly, it was that he needed to throw them out and replace them with entirely new ones!
Our hearts are good and our consciences are wonderful. We will do very well just by adhering to them alone. But we are also somewhat flawed and misaligned, and if we are ever to find our true potential we have to accept that there are convictions of ours that have to be released, and convictions that aren’t ours which have to be adopted. A mighty change of heart is necessary for us all.
Exodus 3:16-17, 4:10
Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt:
And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.
And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The Lord God will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanite
And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue
We have spoken of how each of us requires a “mighty change of heart” in our lives. I believe that many would say they agree with that statement, but then specify that for them it is a cosmetic change only, not a structural one. Meaning we most often feel that the underlying desires of our heart are already perfect, and we just need to follow them better. We see our actions as flawed, but our paradigms as perfect,
However, as we see in this scripture, that wasn’t the case with Moses. He was already a good and honest man whom the Lord was willing to reveal Himself to, yet Moses still needed to change his image of what was right in order to keep the commandment that God was giving to him.
Similarly, Sariah was a good and faithful woman whose heart wasn’t ready to receive a child, and Abraham’s heart wasn’t ready to receive the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Peter needed an intervention to consider the Gentiles as worthy of receiving the gospel. Jonah wanted the city of Nineveh to be burned, contrary to the Lord’s will. These were all good people, yet people who still needed to change.
God does not only intend to change the hearts of the wicked and sinful, but even of the righteous. His intention is not to make us into the best people that we can imagine, but even into people that we have never before considered.
1 Corinthians 12:8-12
For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge; To another faith; to another the gifts of healing; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues.
We have thus far considered how we all have certain areas of weakness in the gospel. But let us consider the more positive side of that coin, which is that we all have certain areas of strength within the gospel as well. And even more encouragingly, those strengths tend to be designed to bolster and inspire our brothers’ and sisters’ weaknesses.
If we are going to fret about “why am I not strong in this aspect of the gospel,” we might as well also encourage ourselves with the question “why am I so capable in this other?”
But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
And I believe those two questions find their answer in each other. I am weak in this commandment, so that my sister may embolden me with her strength. And I am strong in this other, so that I may be a support to my brother that is weak.
Just a couple days ago, entirely outside the context of this study, I was thinking to myself how my wife and I are so much more capable as a couple than as separate individuals. I believe we are able to accomplish far more by not being equally capable in every sector. By both of us being fragmented, but then fitted together, we become something better than either of us.
Mark 9:23-24, Ether 12:27
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
The father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
We have considered how each of us is weak in our understanding of some commandments, but strong in our understanding of others. One commandment is that we should have faith, which apparently was an area where the father in this passage was weak. His reaction to this failing, however, is a wonderful example for how each of us can face our own realizations of weakness. He acknowledges what strength he does have, what strength he does not have, and then ask for help between the two.
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble, and if they humble themselves, and have faith, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
In a non-shaming way, we need to acknowledge that our inability to see the meaning in certain commandments is a weakness. But having these weaknesses is no mistake, in fact our weaknesses are given to us intentionally. Strange as it may sound, we are designed to be somewhat broken.
As we learn from this verse, though, the reason for this design is because when we heal from our brokenness we heal back stronger than if we had always been whole. If all of us had a perfect understanding and commitment to the commandments right from the get-go, we probably would live more obedient lives, but we would not develop our reliance on God and His grace, which is of even greater value.
Ruth 1:16; John 13:15, 14:15
And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And Ruth said, whither thou goest, I will go; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God
Ruth was not a Jew by birth, but she so loved her mother-in-law that she wished to remain with her always, and to even transform herself to be like her. Though the law of Moses had not applied to her previously in life, now she was electing to live under it.
And this is natural. Whenever we find a mentor or model that we want to be like, it is an obvious step to start mirroring their behaviors. If they became the way that they are by following certain practices, then it stands to reason that adopting those practices might cultivate some of their personality traits in us as well.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you
If ye love me, keep my commandments
Jesus, in fact, encouraged this sort of emulation, indeed his whole gospel is hinged around it. When he set his example, he did it deliberately. He behaved the way that he did for the express purpose that others could learn from it and follow suit. This is an incredible thing. Most of us set our example thoughtlessly, and may or may not actually advocate for each practice that we demonstrate. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
For that reason, we should take great caution in whose light we choose to follow. But when we do find a worthy source, when we do have a clear outline of what practices have made them what they are, when we are certain that these principles will also make us into the sort of person we want to be…then we have truly found a pearl of great price, and it is worth giving up all our old practices to receive it.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure in a field
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant seeking goodly pearls
I concluded my last section with a casual reference to the parable of the pearl of great price. The more I think about it, the more that parable is really quite fitting for this topic of dealing with commandments that we don’t understand.
The merchant finding the pearl of great price is us discovering the true value of the gospel. It is the moment where it really clicks in us, where ideas like grace and healing go from just being words to being very real hopes and needs.
Which when a man hath found, he selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it
And when that message does click in our hearts, then suddenly we will surrender every other ideology or philosophy we held previous to that moment, if it means that we can obtain the promises of the gospel.
Perhaps we had certain ideas of the way the world worked, ideas that were not compatible with the principles of the gospel. We let them go, it just doesn’t matter. Perhaps we scoffed at certain commandments, perhaps we still don’t understand them in their entirety. We adopt them anyway, it just doesn’t matter.
Because like the man buying the field and the merchant purchasing the pearl, once we feel that need for God in our lives, we’ll do whatever it takes to be near Him.
There is a natural aversion to rules that we don’t understand. In our fallen world there are countless examples of laws and rules given to suppress and oppress, to maintain power for tyrants, to be followed without question, no matter how they destroyed the very people that obeyed them. Even if a rule doesn’t seem intended to harm, we still want to know the reasons why we should exert effort to follow it.
And I would say that our need to understand the rules that we follow is actually a good thing, even God-given. Yes, there is a need for following by faith alone, but also God intends for us to dig into the gospel and find answers. He gave us a hunger so that we would work to satiate it with understanding.
But even as we seek understanding, there will necessarily be a period of time before we have received it. From my study I believe there are a few principles which can help us through that intermediary time.
A Healthy View For Ignorance
One of the hardest things can be to admit that we don’t know something. Each of us has been through that unpleasant experience of being spoken to us as if we already understood, when really we did not. It might be in an education or training setting, or someone disclosing their personal feelings, or during a philosophical discussion. It isn’t that we don’t wish to understand, but that we simply don’t. In fact, many times, we don’t even know what it is that we don’t know, or how to put together the question whose answer would unlock our ability to comprehend.
And while the gospel can speak directly to our soul in such a way that no words are necessary, there are still elements of it that are difficult to fully grasp. We are divided beings, after all, one part spiritual and the other part carnal. And that carnal part just “doesn’t get” certain commandments and principles.
Instead of feeling shame for our lack of knowledge, and instead of pretending to understand more than we do, we need to be able to accept that we are ignorant, that all are ignorant in some way or another, and that this is a perfectly acceptable platform to begin our spiritual journey from. But we also need to know and accept that we can learn. Our lack of understanding is not proof that we cannot understand. Perhaps the words don’t click with us now, but one day the feelings will.
2 Nephi 28:30- For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
1 Corinthians 2:14- But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
An Environment for Learning
As mentioned above, we have both a spiritual and a carnal part to us, and the carnal (or natural, as Paul called it) cannot understand that which is spiritual. As a result, the capacity for one to understand the principles of the gospel will be directly tied to how far one dips into a spiritual lifestyle or a carnal one.
The more we surround ourselves with worldly messages, the more we indulge in carnal pleasures, the more we identify ourselves by the flesh, the harder time we are going to have perceiving and comprehending the spiritual. Our understanding will be more and more limited only to carnal understanding. On the other hand, the more we seek messages of spiritual enlightenment, the more we do the things that satiate our conscience, the more we identify ourselves by the entire soul, the more we will accumulate spiritual understanding instead.
Much of being educated is in just putting oneself in an environment of learning. If you wish to develop your sense of music, you should surround yourself with music and those that live in it. If you wish to grow more analytical, you should surround yourself with algorithms and those that solve problems by them. You find a place where you can breathe in its atmosphere, you find mentors, you look for sources that can answer your questions, and you learn by pure osmosis. It is no different with developing a fluency with the soul.
Galatians 3:24-Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
Ruth 1:16- And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
The Blessing of Learning
Finally, let us make clear that this natural ignorance and this difficulty of acquiring knowledge is not a mistake. The fact that we have to work for this understanding is by design. For while it is important for us to learn things, it is even more important for us to simply learn how to learn.
God did not send us here to know everything right from the start. He did not send us here to be perfect from the outset. Rather He sent us broken, flawed, and confused. The reason being that if we already possessed all, we would never develop the wisdom and quality of character that can only come by walking the journey. We would be stagnant, and would not develop ourselves as individuals.
God gave us the blank slate that we start off with, but also the desire to change that state. We feel in our hearts that it is better to know than to not know, and so we chase and pursue, we study and we discover, we invent and we explore. The greatest things we make and do, we make and do because God made us both flawed and self-aware of that flaw. These two qualities are both the fuel and the spark, the power and the catalyst of our great journey. They drive us into defining and becoming who we are and will be. Where they will take us we get to choose, but it will be far.
Ether 12:27-And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.