Dr. Gary G. Taylor
Exact Obedience—A Good or Bad Thing?
Obedience is a very good thing and essential to a successful mission. In general, no one can be a disciple of Christ without being obedient: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And it’s important that we not be sloppy in our obedience. At some point on the continuum between obedience and disobedience, sloppy obedience becomes just plain disobedience. Furthermore, we know that desired outcomes require us to do certain things upon which those outcomes are predicated (D & C 130:20). Thus, especially in LDS missionary circles, the term “Exact Obedience” has come into vogue. This term is often repeated in Missionary Training Centers, Zone Conferences and in other missionary settings. Among many others, President Nelson used the term when talking with missionaries at the Provo MTC December 4, 2013. Said President Nelson, “Obedience brings success and exact obedience brings miracles.”
All good; but here’s a problem. Some missionaries try very hard to be exactly obedient and then crucify themselves when they fall short; as all of them inevitably will. Interestingly, in addition to the above quote on obedience, President Nelson has also pointed out that perfection is pending (“Perfection Pending”, October General Conference, 1995). None of us will be perfect (exactly obedient) in this life. The realization of that goal depends on time, effort; and after all we can do, the grace of our Savior (2 Nephi 25:23). Combining these comments from President Nelson, which on the surface may seem contradictory; it appears that we should strive diligently to be exactly obedient, but not get too concerned when our best efforts fall short.
Here’s another problem, some missionaries, even though they are trying very hard to be obedient, assume that they must not have been sufficiently obedient because they are not having the success promised. In many cases they are not teaching and baptizing in significant numbers; and/or they are not realizing some other miracle they seek. At best, those thinking this way find their situation to be confusing and frustrating. At worst, it can lead to extreme behavior. There are reports of missionaries jeopardizing their health in unreasonable ways in order to follow a rule that should not apply in their situation. There are other cases where a missionary is determined to be exactly obedient and in frustration mistreats his or her companion who is making obedience to a rule impossible. Missionaries who do this are of course being disobedient to a higher law: “Ye are my disciples if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
Still other missionaries become bitter toward mission leaders who push the “exact obedience” concept to extremes and blame the Church, lose their testimony, and largely give up on efforts to be obedient; which they do at the risk of their eternal goals. The fact is that obedience may not guarantee certain outcomes, and blind obedience is not healthy. At the same time, righteous obedience is a requirement of receiving all that the Father has intended for us. We cannot “sin a little” and expect that in the end “if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:8). It does make sense that if we are ever to receive all that the Father has (D & C 84:38-39), we must become the kind of person He is—meaning someone who can be completely trusted to use that kind of power only in righteousness. It further helps to remember that rules are typically there for our protection. Applying a simple rule such as staying within sight and sound of a missionary companion will help prevent temptation to commit a serious sin. Rules governing acceptable activities will physically protect missionaries and lend focus to a missionary’s purpose.
Any way you look at it, it appears that obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel, and one that’s especially important for serving missionaries who represent the gospel; but it’s a principle that must be put in context. So how do we do that? How can we know when we are doing our best to be obedient? Here are some ways of thinking about it that might be helpful:
1. You are trying too hard to be obedient when you become judgmental of and/or mistreat those who are less obedient. This is most likely to happen when someone else’s behavior gets in the way of you completing a personal obedience goal.
2. You are trying too hard when you feel like a failure even though you are prayerful and sincere in your effort; and are trying hard to do the right thing. This is particularly true when, after careful and prayerful consideration, you can’t think of anything practical to do that you aren’t already doing to solve a problem. In those cases, just keep doing what you are doing until you are inspired to do something different. In the meantime, don’t worry about the results of your effort. Leave that to the Lord (Matthew 29:30).
3. You are trying too hard when you are feeling guilty about bending a rule that you were inspired to bend (e.g. staying out a little late to finish a lesson that is going well); or when you bend a rule because of a circumstance that is beyond your control (e.g., the bus is late, you or your companion are ill, your companion won’t cooperate, etc.). Of course, many of us are very good at rationalizing and we can easily go too far in rule bending/breaking. As stated above, a “sin a little” philosophy, or being sloppy in our obedience, is not a good thing. When in doubt as a serving missionary, it makes good sense to discuss the issue with your Mission President.
4. You are trying too hard to be obedient when you feel guilty about bending a minor rule in order to be obedient to a higher one.
So what else might you do when you are doing your best but are still frequently hearing how you need to be more “exactly obedient”? (In some missions it has even gone so far that missionaries have been called each night and asked to quantify how obedient they have been that day.) In these cases, try starting by giving your leaders a break. They are almost always trying their best to serve the Lord; even when their approach might not be ideal. You might also think of the instruction you are getting like the common instruction we hear so often to eat right and exercise frequently. This is good advice for sure; but advice that we must tailor to our individual situation. If we could do a better job taking care of ourselves, it makes sense to make a plan and do it. If we are already doing fine, we only need to keep doing what we are doing. If we have a special circumstance that doesn’t allow us to do everything recommended, at least we can do what’s possible; and let that be enough.
As a further suggestion, it helps when we think of being obedient as something we want to do; not something we have to do. A true disciple will be obedient because of a love for the Lord, because of a desire to do the right thing; and because of a commitment to be a disciple of Christ. In those cases, obedience is comfortable and can be maintained. Obedience just for the sake of obedience, or in order to gain some personal advantage, is not fulfilling and is very difficult to maintain over time. Following this logic, if there is a rule to obey, be sure to describe it to yourself as something you “want to do”; not something you “have to do”. “I want to get up at 6:30”, not “I have to get up”. “I want to talk with five new people today, not I have to”. It’s sometimes surprising how much difference such a simple thing can make.
In summary, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be obedient to the One who set this all up and who certainly knows what is best for us. And in full-time missionary service that includes obedience to rules that involve a conformity not required in our general lives. In our attempt to be obedient; however, even while serving as full-time missionaries, it also makes sense to be reasonable, measured and inspired.