I think that if I were to pick one verse of scripture which irks me the most, which caused the most struggling on my mission, I would choose this segment of the following scripture:
D&C 130:21 …when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
Okay, did you catch that? When presented in this form, (as it frequently was on my mission) this verse seems to be telling us that every blessing has a law associated with it to which we must be obedient. Conversely, if we’re not getting a blessing, it seems to suggest we haven’t been obedient to the correct law.
And thus the madness begins.
I had a mission companion who beat himself up daily for failing to convert entire cities. In his mind, he could convert and baptize any number of people if only he could find out what law he needed to be obedient to. Coming home each day he would mutter things like “I’m so disobedient.” Why? He figured that the fact that he didn’t find any more people to baptize meant that he was not being obedient in some way.
Are you following this logic? Missionary is disobedient and wicked because other people chose to reject his message.
His obsession with obedience took on a manic pitch. If we even got close to our half-hour time limit for dinner he would start twitching. If we were so much as a second late into our door, we were wicked. (Yes, that was the word he would use.) If we failed to use every single moment of our time in proselyting, we would doubtless be condemned.
Yes, we were clearly the most wicked of souls, we disobedient missionaries. How dare we work 15.98 hours instead of 16 hours every day!
This verse, and this attitude led to much stress and anxiety for too many missionaries. And this madness is contagious. Most missionaries catch it when they first become “senior” companions – the missionary in charge of their duo. I caught it too. As for me, it trained me to worship the robot god. The computer programed Christ.
I started believing that there was some sort of code, like a computer program for which I didn’t have the manual. I started questioning everything. Not in a “is it really true?” way, but in a “did I pray for exactly the right thing?” way.
For example, I would pray for a certain blessing. Who knows what. Maybe “please bless me that I won’t be so tired.” Then I would jump aboard the doubt train on my way to computer logic land. If I was still tired, I would start to doubt. Did I ask the right way? Maybe I need to use “The Prayer of Faith” method Elder so-and-so told me about. Do I really believe that God can do it? Well, yes. Logically, if God can resurrect us, he can certainly make me not tired. I guess that means I’m being disobedient. I wonder if it’s because we didn’t set high enough goals in our planning session. Maybe it’s because I didn’t pay attention in gospel doctrine class. Maybe I didn’t turn down the right street at the exact right moment to run into a new contact who would have joined the church because I was in a hurry to get to the mission home on Preparation Day. Maybe I should do some extra contacting on my day off…. and so on.
I was looking for the code which would unlock the robot god, force him to unfurl his metal fist, and allow me to pluck the blessings I wanted from his steely grip.
So I would pray about getting the code! Maybe that was the problem, right? So my prayers would also start including phrases like “Help me to know if we should tract Elm Street or Washington Boulevard at 3:00, or if we need to change the time to 2:00 and move our appointment with the Jacksons to 3 and what to pray for when we do.” Sometimes I would try to make deals in exchange for my obedience. “I ask that thou wilt give us a 30 year old investigator who will get baptized in 3 weeks who we will meet during contacting on the corner of Chewt and Wagner.” These kinds of prayers were usually followed by a very paranoid planning session, where no decisions were made because no strong ‘impressions’ were had.
Some missionaries started creating impressive or impossible task lists, believing that if they could only be obedient enough, they would have success.
Some would have prayers as complex as legal documents, laying out evidence, reasoning, logic, feeling, and request as if presenting the most important issue to the Supreme Court.
Some would work till they dropped, believing that only through their effort could they initiate the holy programming and bring down the predetermined powers of heaven.
The most depressing, though, were those who thought if only they could squeeze another iota of obedience out of themselves, they could be healed of an injury, or an illness, or doubt. And that maybe the reason they were struggling with these afflictions, was because they were not obedient enough.
Now hang on. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with hard work, or detailed prayer, or goals, or task lists, or faithful stretching in the work. Not at all. I think all of those things are essential.
The problem is this: We missionaries who caught the madness of D&C 130:21 made one huge, huge mistake. We made it about us.
We. made. it. about. us.
And that is why the prayers failed. That is why the hard work was fruitless. That is why tasks went undone and goals unmet. We essentially said to God “Okay, Lord, here are all the things that I will do, and what I want you to do. I know I need to be obedient, and I’m clearly not obedient enough, or else I’d be in the font right now. So I’ll do more of it myself. I’ll take on extra burdens. I’ll endure more hardships. I’ll be the one to find the lost sheep. I’ll do the work. And surely I will do it.”
We pushed the Lord’s hands away from the work – His work! – and insisted that there must be some sort of secret to it which only we could unlock.
I think that eventually the Lord straightens us out. I know for me I learned to fight my impulse and start asking for God to take over His work, and to help me be available wherever he wanted me. I followed the rules and prayed for blessings, but it wasn’t all about the rules, or all about the blessings. I’d make my plans for the day as best I could, and then ask for the blessings of heaven to be on them, and upon me.
And that was much better. Miracles flowed. Lives changed. Families came together in the waters of baptism. Frustrations lessened. Life was good.
I think the real culprit was the immense stress we put ourselves under as missionaries. The scripture just provided direction for that stress. A hint of concrete logic in a world of faith.
So let’s take a look at the scripture. But this time, let’s look at 2 verses instead of most of one.
20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
First, these verses make mention of a law. One law. Not laws. Not a series of commandments. Not a rule book. Just one Law. And this singular law somehow predicates every blessing. All of them. Any thoughts on what it could be?
Second, these verses mention that the law is in heaven, before the foundations of this world. It’s not a law like the Law of Moses, or like our modern commandments tailored to our needs and our world. If the law was before the foundation of the world it must be a Celestial law. The law is not a specific command to Telestial beings with a specific result. No, it’s something else.
I don’t know what this verse is referring to.
If I were to guess, I might say we’re talking about a foundational rule of reality, along the lines of justice, mercy, right, and wrong. Something which determines under what conditions God can intervene in the lives of his children. Maybe it’s “be perfect.” Maybe it’s “keep the commandments.” Maybe the law has little to do with us and everything to do with the savior. Maybe the law is that a savior will be needed or no blessings can be had at all. It actually doesn’t matter what the law is.
It doesn’t matter because the principle behind the verse is pretty clear: Be obedient so that God can bless you.
It doesn’t say “God can only bless you with converts if you are back in your apartment before 9:30.” It doesn’t say “Failing to study the scriptures for an exact 30 minutes will result in a loss of a golden investigator.” It doesn’t say “God can only bless you with a good job if you pay your tithing.”
No. Faith like that puts shackles on God.
We worship a savior who came to earth and suffered and died for us – a savior who, by overcoming all that is bad, can give us anything which is good. And what does he require from us in return for his divine aid?
Self improvement. That’s the obedience he wants.
And then, he doesn’t even require us to do it on our own. He asks us to let him help us improve. And he gives full marks for partial success. Heck, he gives full marks for failed efforts, too.
Can you see how there is no room for a robot god in a world ruled by a merciful and loving savior?
You don’t have to know the secret code to call down the blessings of heaven. You aren’t wicked if you’re going through a trial. You don’t have to tell Christ how to bless you. He knows the best way to bless you, and as you make the effort to be obedient he will bless you in exactly the way you need.
Certainly there are commandments we must do our best to keep. But his mercy is not restricted by our failures. His kindness is not shortened by our ignorance. No, the only way to prevent his blessings is by willfully disregarding him altogether. Perhaps by making him a robot and refusing to accept what he offers. Accept his help. Recognize the source of all that is good in this world, and invite him to be an active participant in your life through following his gospel. That is the only law which matters to us, and is the only thing which will carry us home.