Sunday, June 15th, 2014
Good afternoon Brothers and Sisters,
The late Apostle, Hugh B. Brown, who served on the First Presidency throughout the 1960s addressed the Brigham Young University student body in May of 1969 during which he said:
“Every youth is forced to answer the question in dialogue with himself: ‘What are the things that I ultimately value?’ The answer must come with this thought in mind: ‘I will have to live with myself all my life, and what I decide now will influence my happiness.” 1
I was given the option to speak on the topic of obedience today. While I value obedience and am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this topic, I must confess that the word “obedience” causes me a certain amount of discomfort. When I hear the word “obedience,” the phrase “blind obedience” comes to mind. When I think of blind obedience, I imagine the sorrow that people face when their God given agency is impeded upon by the experience of fear and manipulation under facist regimes, tyrannical dictators, or autocratic leaders.
Yet, obedience is a crucial precept of the Gospel. How then do we rescue this important principal from the negative connotation with which it is sometimes associated? Perhaps it would be wise to frame obedience in a more positive light, and to differentiate between blind, compulsive obedience and willing, righteous obedience. President Boyd K. Packer stated, “Those who talk of blind obedience may appear to know many things, but they do not understand the doctrines of the Gospel. There is an obedience that comes from a knowledge of the truth that transcends any external form of control. We are not obedient because we are blind. We are obedient because we can see.” 2
Brothers and sisters, my thoughts over this past week on this topic have challenged me to consider whether I am seeing clearly. My invitation for you is to carefully examine your own vision in the light of the Restored Gospel. My prayer is that all of us would experience improved vision through these remarks.
The Prophet Joseph Smith, of whom I have a testimony was divinely called to usher in the beginning of this great dispensation of Restoration, through inspiration of the Spirit and while a prisoner in the jail at Liberty, Missouri wrote on the concept of unrighteous dominion as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants.
He said, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” 3
The late Elder H. Burke Peterson of the First Quroum of the Seventy made this wise observation: “unrighteous dominion is not a challenge just for men. Anyone – man or woman – who in anyway guides or directs others may be guilty of unrighteous dominion.” 4
Peterson also outlines the positive characteristics of people who avoid unrighteous dominion in their relationships. They do so by interacting with others, with persuasion, not with manipulation; with long-suffering, not with intolerance; with gentleness, not with anger; with meekness, not with pride; with unfeigned love, not with flattery; with integrity, not with hypocrisy.
I would add that those who exercise righteous dominion avoid attempting to control others with threatening or fear-provoking words. 5
It is with this admonition to be cautious of unrighteous dominion that I return to the Gospel precept of obedience. As Latter-day Saints, we are not among those who are blindly and compulsively obedient, but we do strive for obedience. True and eternal obedience is a choice that springs from the heart and is joyfully energized by the Spirit, not by the unrighteous domination of man.
Friends, we are called to honor and respect the office, the wisdom, and the counsel of those who preside over us in this Church. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate to consider the wisdom of one of our prophets, Brigham Young, who said, “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security… Let all persons be fervent in prayer, until they know the things of God for themselves and become certain that they are walking in the path that leads to everlasting life.”6
My brothers and sisters, I hesitate to be autobiographical, but I believe that sharing a small and intimate portion of my personal journey of faith will help to illustrate how unrighteous dominion has affected my life in my pursuit of obedience.
Today is Father’s Day, and I love and respect my father; yet, we have had to confront and find conciliation on a few significant matters in our relationship. Before I share this rather personal story with you, I should mention that I have sent these remarks to my father, and so there is nothing that I am sharing with you of which he is unaware or that is a betrayal of his trust. Dad and I have worked through many of our challenges, and we have experienced reconciliation with one another over the years.
I will be discussing my affiliation with a different religious group and its intersection with our church in this story, but I will not identify the name of this group. It is very important that you understand that I have no desire to degrade any other religion. Yet, I feel impressed to share a few general details about my experience.
I became acquainted with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a young age. My father was a fervent member of another faith. When I began to associate with the Mormons at age fourteen, dad expressed anger at my decision. I recall distinctly the day that he pulled me aside, threatening that if I continued in my affiliation with the Latter-day Saints, I would unequivocally spend eternity in agonizing separation from God.
As a sensitive, impressionable, and malleable young man, I took to heart his severe threat. Eventually, toward the end of high school I removed myself from association with the Church, and through dad’s influence, gave up a full ride scholarship that I had received to attend the state university. Instead, I enrolled in a religious program with the intent of becoming a minister in my father’s church. This was an incredibly difficult period of my life, and it would not be appropriate to go into the details of the intense trials that I experienced during this time. But, I feel it is appropriate to disclose that I witnessed firsthand the damaging influence of coercive, unrighteous dominion during these years.
I became incredibly disturbed by what I experienced during this time, finally reached my wits end, and eventually reconnected with friends and missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were kind and sympathetic, and they did all they could to help me. Yet, my father and the leaders of the program I was involved with discovered my renewed interest in the Restored Gospel, and did everything in their power to halt my re-investigation. Members of the staff would occasionally drop by student housing at unannounced times and conduct “house checks,” and during one of these house checks, my Book of Mormon and other Mormon literature was discovered and promptly discarded. I was strictly reprimanded. I complied with the rebuke and reverted to my previous state of fearfully motivated and compulsive obedience. That period of my life eventually lead to a season of skepticism and disaffiliation from any religious community; yet, over the course of ten years, and through very rocky terrain, I crossed the plains of existential discord and found my way back to Zion. I am tremendously grateful for the renewed, gentle companionship of the Spirit. (Pause)
There are a few lessons we can glean from this story.
First, blind or compulsive obedience that is motivated by fear, is not true or righteous obedience. This form of obedience is, in essence, abandoning the personal responsibility we have to exercise our agency in worshiping God “according to the dictates of our own conscience.” 7 In so doing, we make it difficult, if not impossible, to hear and follow the gentle promptings of the Spirit. We must choose this day whom we will serve. 8
Second, it is important for me to share that my father, who willingly admits that he exercised a form of unrighteous dominion during this period of my life, has apologized, and is now supportive of my membership in this church. This is an important Father’s Day lesson. While there are many good fathers in this world, my dad included, there are no perfect earthly fathers. Yet, my dad has exemplified humility in apologizing for the role he played in some of the pain and fear I experienced during this difficult period of my late adolescence and early young adult years.
Fathers, when is the last time you examined your relationship with your children, and if necessary, apologized for any hurt that you might have brought them through the exercise of unrighteous dominion? We often think of repentance as being solely between ourselves and God, but there is a sense in which we, as disciples of Christ, are called to repent, or to be reconciled one to another. In his epistle in the New Testament, James said “confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed.” 9
Children and youth, it is easy to see the imperfections of our well-intentioned fathers, but when is the last time you forgave your father for his imperfections? When is the last time you expressed your love for him? Today might be a good day to do just that.
Brothers and sisters, it is important for us to remember that we are not alone in this process of being perfected, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. There was a man who walked this earth and exercised his agency in perfect obedience out of love for his Heavenly Father and for his fellow man. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, the Savior “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” 10
It is through this glorious work of Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection that we are able to achieve any measure of willing, righteous obedience and divine progress. In this life, obedience will never equal absolute perfection. Often, our obedience is most effectively manifest through the virtue of humility in recognizing our own weaknesses and imperfections, and by our willingness to repent to God when necessary, and to be reconciled in our relationships with our fellow man. In so doing, we can partake in the liberating and joyful experience of moving forward in true obedience with resoluteness of faith.
The late Richard D. Poll, a Latter-day Saint historian, academic, and author who taught at BYU and subsequently was the Vice President at Western Illinois University many years ago said:
“The restored Gospel teaches that the essential stuff of man is eternal, that man is a child of God, and that it is man’s destiny to become like his Father. But this destiny can only be achieved as man voluntarily gains the knowledge, the experience, and the discipline which godhood requires and represents. This was the crucial question resolved in the council in heaven – whether man should come into an environment of genuine risk, where he would walk by faith.” 10
Brothers and sisters, in this environment of genuine risk as we walk by faith, we will inevitably make mistakes, but when we miss the mark, we will have the opportunity to learn. As we learn, we will grow, and we will experience greater freedom, increasing obedience, and more contentedness, even and especially amidst the raging storms that sometimes form in our lives.
While I don’t think it is healthy to live life with agonizing and paralyzing regrets, as a late adolescent and young adult, I do think that I could have benefited from a more thoughtful consideration of the wisdom contained in the Restored Gospel. It is true that all of us will have to live with ourselves all our lives, and the decisions we make today will influence our happiness tomorrow. Let us, then, ask ourselves the question that will assist us as we make these difficult decisions in our quest for obedience:
“What are the things that I ultimately value?” 11
My hope is that our values would ultimately accord with “all things virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.” 12My prayer is that our values would be formed by the Spirit and after the manner of Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of “all things virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy” – and that our dominion of obedience would be everlasting, and “without compulsory means.” 13
I testify that as we seek after these things, as we seek to follow the Savior, the one who perfectly obeyed our Heavenly Father, we will be strengthened in our pursuit of living in the spirit of joyful obedience through the exercise of our agency, and we will humbly and gratefully inherit all that our Father in Heaven has promised.
Brothers and sisters, I pray these words have improved your vision of true obedience, of righteous dominion, and of the forgiveness we have received and can receive through the merits of the Holy One of Israel. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
- See Hugh B. Brown, An Eternal Quest – Freedom of the Mind (1969), 4.
- See Boyd K. Packer, Agency and Control (1983).
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:39.
- See H. Burke Peterson, Unrighteous Dominion (1989).
- Same as above.
- See Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol 9, p. 150 (1862).
- Articles of Faith 1:11.
- Joshua 24:15.
- James 5:16.
- See Richard D. Poll, What the Church Means to People Like Me (1967).
- See Hugh B. Brown, An Eternal Quest – Freedom of the Mind (1969), 4.
- Articles of Faith 1:13
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:46