What Does it Mean that Obedience is the First Law of Heaven

For one thing, the phrase “obedience is the first law of heaven“, is non-sensical as it is circular. You first have to have a law to obey – whether that law exists implicitly in nature or whether it’s imposed by another human being. How then can obedience even be a law let alone the first law of Heaven.

But obedience for obedience sake is tough for another reason. This has been a tough spot for me in my faith journey within Mormonism. Obedience to God’s laws is a central theme to the lived Mormon experience. I get it, I really do. As a kid, I obsessed about obedience, not just to church rules, but to all rules. And it was stressful, especially as I fell short, I had a terrible time cutting myself some slack.

And now as a parent, I also get it.  I don’t want my kids to go around disobeying. I can see the practical utility in compliance. Life is so much easier if those around me have some sense of doing what we ask them to do.

But I think obeying for obedience sake is an early developmental stage, at its best it’s a crutch to be used when we’re still learning to walk on our own. But as we mature, it can act as an impediment to further development. At its worse, it can lead those to obey the wrong person, follow the wrong command, and possibly can cause real harm.

And I think obeying for an implicit desire to be compliant is not the reason most people live good, faithful lives. Most mature adults strive to be good for the reason eBay got off the ground, people are basically good, inherently. I think even when people are driven to make poor choices, they do so despite the deepest strivings we all have within us toward goodness.

Another problem here is that obedience within Mormonism tends to make righteousness transactional. Consider this in D&C 130:20, 21:

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.

And again, I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I just think if we don’t dig into this principle far enough, it may lead us down the wrong path. Simple compliance for superficial reasons  or worse – misunderstandings of God’s laws can keep us from enjoying the rich blessings that come from a close association to both God and others.

To dig deeper, I think this talk about President Uchtdorf on the laws of the harvest is instructive even though he doesn’t quite get to the point I’m trying to make here. In it he describes a woman working for a seed company dealing with customer complaints who don’t seem to understand how seeds work. Rather, they strictly obey the instructions on the seed package and misunderstandings lead to disappointing results. In each example, the customer failed to plant, nourish, water the seed in good soil, provide plenty of sunshine with enough patience to allow the plant to grow according to the laws of biology. The law of the harvest dictates that we “reap what we sow”. I agree. In this example, there was some effort to reap, but not in the way to produce the desired result.

I think I see the same with music. For each of our four children, we’ve enrolled them in music lessons, dragged them each week for instruction, and try to pull consistent practice hours out of them in between lessons. To the degree they’ve complied, they’ve improved, when they haven’t they’ve stagnated.

But there’s something more to this than simple obedience. To really be successful as a gardner requires more effort than simple obedience. It requires a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the result – to learn everything that’s required to know and then to follow all of steps – it requires desire and sufficient knowledge and even still, even the most expert farmers fail to harvest.

To learn to play music well, requires years of patient, consistent practice. But to really do anything well, goes far beyond obedience, it requires love – dedicated, focused love. Musicians who produce beautiful music go beyond a child’s obedience. At some point, they have to learn to love their instrument and the music they are producing. To become good at gardening, one has to love to learn about soil and plants and biology. And in either case, if you don’t have it within you, if you’re not called and gifted with musician’s gift, you still may not achieve all that you may hope to achieve.

And this love, this connectedness to the world we live in, this basic understanding of our role within it, this awareness that is living deep inside each of us. If obedience is the first law of heaven, I don’t think it means it’s the best. It just means it’s the first. It points us in the right direction, it puts us in the room, it puts us near enough to have transcendent experiences. It gives us a glimmer of light in a room of darkness. It shows us the way.

Obedience may be the first law of heaven, but love is the last.