Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The "What" and "Why" of Commandments; or, Often, We Emphasize the Wrong Thing

Last Sunday was the first lesson about commandments, the topic for this month.  To lay the groundwork for the rest of the month, we focused on two important questions:

What are commandments?

Why do we keep the commandments?  

I told the students that these questions sound like simple, Primary questions but that we were going to go a lot deeper and try to see them in their broadest, most powerful terms.  I then asked everyone to tell me what the word "command" means.  The responses included the following:

direction; order; advice; counsel; guideline; requirement 

I divided the list into two groups and asked them to tell me the difference between the groups:

order; requirement 

direction; advice; counsel; guideline 

They saw immediately that the first group described things that must be done (things that were harsher or might even include an element of force or strong expectation), while the second group described things that were more like suggestions (things that were softer and carried no hint of absolute necessity - things that were much more up to personal choice to accept or ignore).  Given that fundamental difference, the first group ("order; requirement") is the only group that fits "command". 

To emphasize the difference, I explained how "Let there be light" is translated in English and in Japanese (which is translated from German).  In English, as worded above, there is a feeling of almost benevolence and gentleness (of direction; advice; counsel; guideline) - as if God had said, "I will allow there to be light."  In Japanese, the wording is, "Hikare ga are" - which translates as an unyielding command that light exist, as if God had said, "There is going to be light, because I am God and command it to exist."  The follow-up statement that God "saw the light, that it was good" also carries an element of supervision - that God oversaw the process to ensure that the result was what he had commanded. 

I then asked the students who they should follow completely - in whom should they invest the ability to command them and their actions.  They immediately focused on God and understood when asked that obeying anyone else completely as a "commander" is "relying on the arm of flesh" and giving up individual agency.  We talked again, as we have in the past, about Lucifer's plan - about how the ONLY difference in the plan's was the focus on forced obedience vs. individual agency free of coercion (and the consequences of that difference).  That difference is encapsulated in our 11th Article of Faith, which says:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.  

I simply pointed out that "all men" means "all people" - and that includes members of the LDS Church, as well.  Yes, we sustain and support our leaders and give deference to them and what they ask of us - but we do NOT obey any mortal leader as if s/he was God.  We always have to rely on our own consciences and ask ourselves, whenever any mortal asks or tells us to do something, whether or not what is being asked of us is in line with or opposed to our own conscience and what we believe God would command.  What mortals ask of us is "direction; advice; counsel; guideline", not "order; requirement; command".  Without that distinction, we risk putting mortals in the place of Lucifer and obeying for no other reason than we are told to obey.  That makes us no different than animals - or, in Mormon-speak, confined to our "natural (wo)man". 

We then focused on the "why" of keeping commandments.   The students gave the following answers to that question:

to be protected; to gain help and strength; to be happy 

I asked the students to name some commandments that protect us, and they mentioned the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity.  Given the complexity of the discussion I wanted to have about why we keep the commandments, I stopped them there, and we focused on those two commandments.  

I took them through a discussion of how those two commandments could be taught: either through a focus on being protected or through a focus on gaining help and strength - and how each approach influences how we talk about being happy. 

With the Word of Wisdom, focusing on protection emphasizes the "don't" statements (strong drinks, tobacco, hot drinks, meat, etc.), while focusing on gaining help and strength emphasizes the "do" statements (wholesome herbs, grains, fruits, meat, etc.).  The "consequences" of obedience are "receiv(ing) health in their navel and marrow to their bones," "find(ing) wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures," "run(ning) and not be(ing) weary," "walk(ing) and not faint(ing)" and, ultimately, being passed over by the destroying angel.  I simply pointed out that there is NO distinction in the revelation between the "don't" and the "do" statements (nothing to indicate one is more important than the other) - and that when we focus solely on what we should not do and skip what we should do we are not keeping this commandment fully.  We focus on the "don't" verses primarily in an attempt to gain protection, but ignoring the "do" verses robs us of an important element of gaining help and strength and being happy. 

With the Law of Chastity, this difference is even more stark.  

We talked about the ways obeying the Law of Chastity protects us (avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, emotional harm, betrayal, etc.), and then I asked them why that just isn't enough in our modern world.  They didn't get it at first, so I asked them how our world now is different than it was in the past relative to the consequences of sex.  One of them said, simply, "protection" - so we talked about how birth control, contraception, abortion, etc. are so readily available now that many people might blow off the idea of keeping the Law of Chastity as a means of protection.  To avoid the obvious, natural consequences, they can say they are being protected even if they have sex.  (Obviously, that isn't 100% accurate, but people can and do make that claim - especially teenagers and young adults.)  Given that reality, I asked them how keeping the Law of Chastity provides help, strength and happiness.  

We were almost out of time, so we focused the discussion on self-control, trust, emotional stability and, ultimately, how all of those benefits and more help us become like God and become less animalistic or "natural".  We talked about how the Law of Chastity is "unnatural" and, therefore, must include blessings and benefits beyond just physical protection.  

To end the discussion, I pointed out how both the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity can be taught positively (focused on benefits, now and in the future) or negatively (focused on fear and/or punishment, now and in the future).  I told them that people respond to different motivations, so I understand why both a negative and positive approach are used - but, personally, I am motivated much more by the idea of actively gaining strength and help to protect myself than I am by being protected by inaction while living in a cocoon of fear.  I don't like to obey commandments passively (meaning simply not doing things because I'm told not to do things); I prefer to obey commandments actively (meaning doing things for reasons that are important to me).

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