Editor’s note: This post is part of a collaborative effort of Mormon bloggers who are reading and writing about General Conference talks. We call it the General Conference Odyssey. This article at Meridian Magazine explains more about the Odyssey, and includes some thoughts from those of us participating in this project.
One of the things I appreciate about being a part of this effort is to read the words of my fellow brothers and sisters. Their perspectives and experience enrich my experience engaging the words of the prophets. Of course, we don’t want our posts to replace the words of the prophets, but we hope perhaps this project will inspire you in some way, as it has us.
The other posts from this week’s reading, which focused on the Sunday Afternoon Session of the October 1971 General Conference, are at the bottom of the post.
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Then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, shared this in the Sunday Afternoon October 1971 General Conference:
I recall sitting in this Tabernacle when I was fourteen or fifteen—up in the balcony right behind the clock—and hearing President Heber J. Grant tell of his experience in reading the Book of Mormon when he was a boy. He spoke of Nephi and of the great influence he had upon his life. And then, with a voice ringing with a conviction that I shall never forget, he quoted those great words of Nephi: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)
There came into my young heart on that occasion a resolution to try to do what the Lord has commanded. I would that I might have the power, through the Spirit of the Lord, similarly to touch someone in this congregation today.
What marvelous things happen when men walk with faith in obedience to that which is required of them!
The principle of obedience is one that I have pondered for quite some time. When we talk of obedience to commandments, we typically are referring to obedience to God’s commandments given through prophets. The more of life I see, the more grateful I am for the clarity about God’s commandments that we have in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So many problems can just be avoided by obeying God’s commandments — both those revealed anciently in the Old and New Testament (the Ten Commandments, the Two Great Commandments, etc.) and also those revealed in this dispensation, such as the Word of Wisdom.
As the granddaughter of an alcoholic (who, for the record, found recovery in her life), I have wondered more than once if I could be one of the “weakest of all saints” that the Word of Wisdom was given for. God wants to protect us from things we may not even know about ourselves, such as being prone to substance addiction because of genetics.
Another commandment I have been feeling grateful for as a parent is the law of chastity. I see so many good parents who, through no fault of their own, had no experience with living the law of chastity in their youth and young adult years. With no experience, and no religious reason to teach sexual purity to their children, patterns of promiscuity of varying degrees are passed along to the next generation (and likely multiplied and intensified in a digital world). Healthy living includes boundaries, and it is simply a reality that individuals with few sexual boundaries in an ever-increasingly-boundary-less society are at risk for emotional, physical, mental, and social harm.
I will never forget the story of a teen who was stunned to learn, from her Mormon friend, that she could say no to sexual advances/demands from boys. She’d never even been taught the option. I love seeing the confidence, courage, and clarity my children have because they know that being chaste is not only a spiritually sound choice, but is also just smart for good emotional, physical, mental, and social health. (If you wonder what I mean by social health, consider this story about how rampant sexting can be. Imagine the social harms that can come when youth share this kind of private information with others, either in “fun” or for more manipulative purposes. This kind of online history could even affect a youth’s educational or future professional goals.)
Anyway, suffice it to say I am a champion of the commandments that God has given to us, to all of His children through prophets. Obviously, it’s a topic that matters mightily to God: the word “commandments” appears over 1500 times in scripture.
There’s an and in there for me, too — a layer to obedience and commandments that is the focus of my post today.
It’s probably been two years or so since I did an earnest study about Nephi and his obedience. I was noticing (just as has been the case with the 1971 General Conference addresses) that commandments were mentioned a lot in his writings. Just doing a simple search today on the word, I see some form of it appearing in
1 Nephi 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22
2 Nephi 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 15, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 33
(Incidentally, as I scroll further through the search results, the word appears in the overwhelming majority of chapters of the Book of Mormon (an interesting study for another day). For my purposes today, I’ll be focusing primarily on the patterns in 1 and 2 Nephi.
It is clear from Nephi’s writing that he and his father were obedient to the commandments given through prophets. For example, we know that they lived the law of Moses — not only because Nephi says as much in 2 Nephi 5:10 and 2 Nephi 25:24-28, but also because we have accounts of Lehi and Sariah offering sacrifices on an “altar of stones” (see 1 Nephi 2:7, cf. Deut. 27:4-5). We also know that Nephi was obedient to the commandment of “thou shalt not kill”…
…Until he actually received a commandment to take the life of Laban. Being the obedient person he was, Nephi resisted. The Spirit told him again that this was what he was supposed to do. And then teachings from the Lord were brought to Nephi’s remembrance (see John 14:26).
14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.
15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.
16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass. 17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.
Interestingly, it was the need for his people to keep the commandments that required Nephi to get the brass plates from Laban. Without the commandments as recorded in the scriptures, his people would not be able to fill the measure of their creation in the promised land. In fact, it was the lack of obedience and faith in God’s guidance that finally left Nephi’s brothers fighting against their family and God, with disastrous ramifications that lasted for generations. Again, commandments matter!
The intent of this post is not to focus on the tensions between commandments in this story, as real as they are, except to say that Nephi’s experience could wrongly be wrested to justify disobedience to God’s commandments given through prophets. Nephi wrestled with God mightily about this. He did not want to be the exception. It took a lot of pondering and trust to move forward with this seemingly impossible deed, and it truly was the exception guided by God to fulfill His purposes. Disobedience to fulfill selfish purposes is not of God, plain and simple.
What I do want to focus on is that this kind of trusting obedience defines Nephi and his “go and do” approach to his relationship with God. He obeyed the laws of God given through prophets, and he and his father obediently and faithfully followed the personalized commandments given specifically to them.
In fact, I would submit that much of the time Nephi refers to commandments he and his father followed, he is talking about those personalized commandments. For me, this reality deepens my perspective about what it means to be “willing and obedient,” what it means to “go and do.” It’s a powerful thing to trust in and follow the words of prophets. It’s also extremely powerful to be in tune enough with the Lord to be able to receive personalized commandments and then to have the courage to “go and do.” In fact, I believe that when we are obedient to the words of prophets, we prepare ourselves to also receive personal commandments and guidance that can help us “go and do” what the Lord desires for our lives.
And both kinds of obedience allow us to be instruments in God’s hands to move His work forward and to serve others according to God’s eternal view of what is needed for His children.
I want to reflect on some of the lessons I think we can learn from the examples of “go[ing] and do[ing]” — of being obedient to both general and personal commandments. This list or the reflections I share are anything but exclusive and focus primarily on chapters where the actual word commandments appears. I would love to hear others’ thoughts.
1 Nephi 2:1 — The Lord blesses Lehi for following His commandments to preach to the people of Jerusalem. [God knows our hearts and sees our efforts to obey, and blesses us for that obedience.]
1 Nephi 2:2-3 — the Lord commands Lehi to take his family into the wilderness because the people of Jerusalem want to kill him for giving them the message he was commanded to give. Lehi obeys. [Obedience can sometimes bring trials and difficulty to our lives — even a wilderness experience! — but God will deliver and guide us through those difficulties.]
1 Nephi 3:2-5 — Lehi is commanded to send his sons back to get the plates. [Sometimes God’s commandments won’t seem to send us in the most efficient direction. It would have been more efficient, at least to a mortal brain, to get the plates while they were in Jerusalem. God’s ways are not our ways, and obedience is about us building our relationship with Him and learning about ourselves, not about achieving visible outcomes in the least amount of time.]
1 Nephi 3:7 — Lehi could tell that Nephi had been blessed to be obedient to these personalized commandments without murmuring. [How was he so blessed? The end of 1 Nephi 2 gives us the answer — he sought to know God and to understand Him through prayer, and God softened his heart so he could submit and not rebel. Nephi was who he was because God changed his heart, in response to Nephi’s earnest and humble seeking. Nephi obeyed commandments to seek God, and he gained strength to obey the personal commandments given his family.]
1 Nephi 3-4 — After some trial and error, Nephi is guided as to how to obtain the plates. [Interesting, again, how the how of fulfilling the commandment was both veiled from Nephi until the very moment God revealed it to him, and interesting how much faith it took to be obedient in that seeming impossible situation. He had to have the Spirit with him to discern the voice of God, both in the moment and also in being able to remember all that God had taught him to that point to help him discern.]
1 Nephi 5 — It takes Sariah a little longer to gain her testimony that God had really commanded Lehi as he had and that He truly did and would provide the way. Lehi and Sariah offer sacrifices. [I appreciate that Sariah is honest with her husband and in response he is compassionate and yet boldly unapologetic about the commandments he has received and followed. Even family members of prophets may struggle sometimes to have faith in their teachings. They (Lehi and Sariah) offer sacrifices. (That to me is a striking verse. Again, a topic for another day.)]
1 Nephi 5 — Nephi declares that he and his father had obeyed all the commandments they had been given, including obtaining the records that would “preserve the commandments of the Lord unto [their] children.”
1 Nephi 6, 9, 19 (see also 2 Nephi 5:31-33)– Nephi commands his seed to honor the spiritual purpose of the plates that he had made in obedience to the specific commandment he had received to make them. [These chapters are some of my favorites because they talk about the “wise purpose” that Nephi does not understand, but trusts. He had already made plates, according to the commandment he was given (1 Nephi 19:1) but then he was commanded to make another smaller set of plates, and was given commandments about what should be on the small plates. This “wise purpose” commandment ended up being a blessing for all of the world, and was also a stunningly personal tender mercy for Joseph Smith and Martin Harris, who in their disobedience lost 116 pages of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. There is so much to be pondered here about the nature of God and how obedience can have consequences for centuries and millennia and beyond. We aren’t just obedient for ourselves, even when commandments are given to us personally. I also love how in 1 Nephi 19:4, Nephi gives the commandments about what to do with the plates after his death, and he leaves room for the reality that God may give additional commandments along the way — he encourages obedience to commandments before they even are given. Obedience was his watchword!]
1 Nephi 7 — Lehi receives the commandment for his sons to return, again, to Jerusalem, to bring Ishmael and his family with them in the wilderness so they could marry and have children. [They received the personalized commandment to go back to Jerusalem so that they could keep the general commandments to marry and to have children. God can open up ways for us to fulfill these eternally-important commandments of marriage and child-bearing and -rearing according to His will and plan for our individual lives.]
1 Nephi 8 — Lehi’s dream drives him to urge his children to keep the commandments. The dream represents the blessings of obedience and faith and the consequences of not holding fast to the word of God (commandments, doctrines, gospel, Atonement).
1 Nephi 10 — Even though the word commandments does not appear in this chapter, Nephi is “given authority” (commanded?) to speak and testify of the Savior and of the scattering and gathering of Israel, doctrines also taught by His father. [Once again in this chapter, we also see Nephi heeding the invitation to seek, and preparing to receive revelation about the vision of the tree of life.]
1 Nephi 11-14 — Again, the specific word commandments is not used, but the concepts of covenants, repentance, captivity vs. “peace and life eternal,” coming to Christ, and eschewing the world are woven throughout Nephi’s glorious vision of the tree of life. The fruits of Nephi’s obedience are here in this vision, in the very fact that he was able to receive it.
1 Nephi 15 — Nephi’s brothers are frustrated because they don’t understand what Nephi has seen and taught. Nephi reiterates the words of the Lord that were fulfilled for him in receiving this vision: “If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.” [The promise is true for us as well. We can receive knowledge, inspiration, and understanding if we will ask in faith and be obedient to God’s commandments.]
1 Nephi 15:24-25 — Nephi teaches his brothers about hearkening and holding fast to the word of God and how protection from destruction comes from faith, diligence, and obedience to commandments.
1 Nephi 16:8 — Once again, Nephi declares that he and his father had fulfilled all of the commandments that they had received. Nephi declares that he “had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.”
1 Nephi 16:9 — Lehi is commanded to embark on the journey into the wilderness. [I love how in the next verse, a way is provided to guide them through that journey: the Liahona. As they followed the directions — as they were obedient to the guidance given — they were “led…in the more fertile parts of the wilderness (v. 16). Verse 28 also teaches that the directions came via the Liahona “according to the faith and diligence and heed [obedience!] which [they] did give unto” the directions given.]
1 Nephi 16:23 — I see this verse as potential evidence of Nephi’s obedience to the commandment to honor his father and honor priesthood authority. [Even though his father had murmured in his hunger, Nephi did not violate those commandments in order to get direction about where to go to get food.] The Liahona guided Nephi to the top of the mountain [not insignificant] to find food for their families.
1 Nephi 16:39 (cf 1 Nephi 18:15, 20): Even though Laman and Lemuel murmured and were rebellious a good majority of the time in this whole process, we do see times when after much chastening they did change their ways, albeit temporarily. It is not insignificant to me that even their temporary obedience, even though it came only as a response to much chastening, brought blessings to the family. In chapter 16, it allowed the families to keep finding food. In chapter 18, it calmed the storm that was threatening their lives and enabled the Liahona to work again.
1 Nephi 17 — Nephi is commanded to build a ship. His “go and do” character is so evident in this chapter. (The word commandment shows up in some form or another 15 times in this chapter!)
1 Nephi 20 — Nephi quotes Isaiah who testifies of Christ and of the blessings of peace and righteousness that flow from obedience to God’s commandments.
1 Nephi 22 — Nephi teaches his brothers that the scriptures testify “that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God” (v. 30) and that such obedience, plus endurance to the end, brings salvation. As is the case with many other chapters, Nephi also testifies of Christ and of the need for repentance (a commandment!)
2 Nephi 1, 2, 3 — Lehi’s teaching about God’s mercies, deliverance, and the promised land are beautiful and urgent. He is reaching the end of his life. There is little else he wants his children to understand: The promises of freedom and blessings in the land of promise according to obedience to commandments — promises repeated throughout the Book of Mormon — are real, and extend to families and generations, even nations. Likewise, the dangers and natural consequences (both temporal and spiritual) of not being obedient to God’s commandments are also real. Lehi also poignantly expresses his gratitude for Nephi’s obedience (v. 24), which enabled their family to be led and saved in the wilderness. Lehi also validates that Nephi has the authority to command them to obey (vs. 27).
2 Nephi 2 is one of the most powerful sermons on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Lehi teaches how the law and commandments are inextricably tied to the doctrine of the Atonement. Indeed, the entire plan of salvation — even the reality of God, the existence of agency, and the essential role of the Savior — all hinge on the reality of laws and commandments. (See also 2 Nephi 9)
2 Nephi 3 — Besides the personal counsel Lehi gives to Joseph, his son, he also prophecies about Joseph Smith and the commandments that Lehi saw he would be given relative to bringing forth the plain and precious knowledge of the covenants of God, truths that can deliver and gather Israel. [We are so blessed to have the Book of Mormon and to know of the Restoration of these truths!]
2 Nephi 4 — I find it interesting that Lehi blesses the children of Laman and Lemuel in spite of the lack of faith and teaching that they were receiving. [Even as the Book of Mormon clearly teaches about the generational effects of disobedience, I think this chapter also reveals that God’s mercy is always available, and that accountability for disobedience rests with those who are disobedient. The ripple effects of such disobedience are part of accountability for such disobedience. It’s both sobering and freeing to consider this teaching and blessing that Lehi offers. His words echo Doctrine and Covenants 68:24.)
2 Nephi 5 is a sobering chapter, and is the chapter I will end on. Like his father before him, Nephi’s life is in danger and he is commanded to lead his people into the wilderness. Those who went with him were those who “believed in the warnings and the revelations of God” and who did “hearken unto [Nephi the prophet’s] words.” These were people who “did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses.” As a result, they “lived after the manner of happiness.” [I think it’s interesting to note that even though the commandment was personal, specific to his situation, there are also patterns in what he was commanded to do. Perhaps we will all have opportunities to follow God’s guidance into a wilderness, a way He will deliver us from dangers and help us find happiness.]
From his writings in 2 Nephi 25, we know that all of the obedience that his people practiced was not just about doing things, like a checklist. The heart of their obedience was about worshiping the Savior and teaching their children about Him. This reflects what Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s entire talk from this session of the 1971 General Conference was about.
[T]he Lord said: “I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.
“For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.” (D&C 93:7–20.)
In other words, true and perfect worship consists in following in the steps of the Son of God; it consists in keeping the commandments and obeying the will of the Father to that degree that we advance from grace to grace until we are glorified in Christ as he is in his Father. It is far more than prayer and sermon and song. It is living and doing and obeying. It is emulating the life of the great Exemplar.
Elder McConkie then lists numerous ways we worship the Lord through obedience, then summarizing his point by this simple statement:
“[Worship of the Lord] is ten thousand times ten thousand things. It is keeping the commandments of God. It is living the whole law of the whole gospel.
“To worship the Lord is to be like Christ until we receive from him the blessed assurance: “Ye shall be even as I am.””
In my life through the years, it has been all too easy to think about obedience more as going through the motions of doing — saying prayers and reading scriptures and attending church and fulfilling callings, because that is what Mormons do. Those things alone don’t bring happiness or conversion, however. It’s the worship of and reliance on and trust in the Lord that does! When we bring a spirit of true worship, as Nephi did, to our “go and do” obedience, then our natures, even our very existence, can be changed. We can, as Nephi said, be “alive in Christ.”
This is the purpose of obedience. It is to become, not just to do.
I close with one more quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks, this one from October 2000:
“[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
I am grateful for Nephi’s example of doing to become more like and to to worship the Savior.
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Other posts from this session of the General Conference Odyssey:
* On the Inevitability of Worship by Nathaniel Givens
* LDS Conference October 1971- Elder Hinckley and Persistence in Faith by Jonathan Max Wilson
* Worshiping the True and Living God by Daniel Ortner
* Grand Slam by John Hancock
* On Worship, Practical, Contemplative, and Aesthetic-Humanitarian byRalph C. Hancock
* Emulating the Great Exemplar by Walker Wright
* Living by Power–A Woman of God by SilverRain
* If Ye Be Willing And Obedient by Chastity Marie Wilson
* “The World Needs a Bath in Christ’s Pure Religion” by Jan Tolman