President Joseph F. Smith observed that “obedience is one of the first principles or laws of heaven” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 65) It is no wonder that Satan wants to pervert the principle of obedience so that we do not claim the blessings and power associated with it.
The first time I was called to serve as a bishop I worked with youthful zeal. I spent many evenings in meetings, interviews, and in visits to the homes of the members. Years later I was called to serve as a branch president in Alabama. I spent fewer evenings on my calling than I had as a bishop. I felt that I needed to spend time with our teenage children. And my job demanded many evenings. But I felt guilty that I was not doing as much in my calling as I had in the earlier one. When I was released I had a nagging feeling that I had not done enough.
More than a year after my release I was talking about my feelings with an LDS friend. The months had not removed my self-reproach. Almost as a speculation I suggested that maybe Heavenly Father knew my circumstances had a different work for me to do in that branch in Alabama than that ward in Utah. A sudden and unexpected surge of the Spirit suggested that I was making an important discovery.
Maybe my offering was acceptable. Maybe God judged the later service by the specific instructions He had given for that calling rather than by the instruction He had given in the earlier calling. Maybe God wanted to me to spend more time with my family. I knew my service was imperfect, but maybe I had done the essential things as I was directed by Him. Suddenly a familiar scripture took on new meaning:
Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Maybe God was not evaluating my service as a branch president based on the total mass of my suffering. He wanted me to do as He directed. If I imposed my own expectations and standards on the calling, then I was no longer serving Him. He had specific imperatives for that specific calling at that specific time. Perhaps it was true in that calling as in the building of the Nauvoo House—
For that which is more or less than this cometh of evil, and shall be attended with cursings and not blessings, saith the Lord your God. Even so. Amen (D&C 124:120).
Each of us has been taught many rules. Don’t shop on the Sabbath. Don’t wear plaids with stripes. Be nice to your brother. Floss between meals. Never hit. Look both ways before crossing the street. Read the scriptures daily.
Rules are not all created equal. The mature saint seeks to do the will of God in all things. That often requires more judgment and inspiration than merely following rules. It requires us to seek the mind of God.
Filled with righteous zeal we may desire to do a great work. “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (Alma 29:1). Certainly it is good to declare the gospel to the world. But we judge by the dim light of our own understanding. Rightness is defined only by God. “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me” (Alma 29:3). Am I wiser than He that I know what is most important? No. He knows best. “Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6).
His customized commandments provide high leverage opportunities. While we imagine ourselves making big differences, He points us to inconspicuous but vital service. We may want to write a bestseller or support a hundred missionaries. He points us to one of his children who needs to be warmed by love and testimony. For Him each child is an eternity and each act of loving service fills the immensity of space.
When the Lord directs me to read a storybook to our preschooler, nothing in the universe is more important. When the Spirit beckons me to listen to my wife, it is the most important work I can do. Often those impressions and invitations are subtle. But we know the voice.
I know a man who likes to say that “it is our duty to suffer and die for the amusement of our creator—and I am doing my part.” Of course that is just backwards. God does not measure our devotion by our suffering but by our obedience to His counsel. Frenzied and fretful service is probably inspired by our own agendas rather than by God’s.
Further, the rewards of obedience always exceed the gratifications of following our own wills.
For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Psalms 84:10).
There is interesting fallout when we try to guide our lives by His specific counsel. We find it more difficult to sit in judgment of others’ service. While the scribes and Pharisees may have considered Jesus a Sabbath breaker because He healed on that hallowed day, we know that, from the heavenly perspective, He kept the Sabbath perfectly. We should be cautious about judging the inspirations God grants to others.
God’s specific directives will almost always be in line with his general commandments. The commonest surprise is that he directs us to specific and inconspicuous service.
Our son, Andy, served a mission in Paris, France. One day he and his companion were walking through a park on their way to tract. They passed an old man sitting on a bench looking desolate. They wondered how two American boys could help him. They hesitated. Then they joined him on the bench and asked about his troubles. He told them about losing his wife of many years and his profound loneliness. Those two servants of God wept with him. They did not leave a tract or give a discussion. The name of the Church did not come up. But I have no doubt that Heavenly Father often reaches across eternity to bless His children, young and old, in unexpected ways. Two missionaries grew in compassion and a widower felt peace. God knows how to do His work (see 2 Nephi 27:20–21.).
Our actions should not be directed merely by the accumulation of rules that fill our lives. We should guide our lives by His general principles and seek specific direction in our daily journey.
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
To obey God is better than sacrifice.