Monday, April 15, 2013

Agency and Obedience: internal and external control

"Obedience is the first law of Heaven." I heard this so often growing up that I was sure it was scripture until about fifteen minutes ago when I actually looked it up. It seems that a couple of well-know church leaders said it, and at least one non-LDS philosopher said it before either of them.
I was an extremely compliant young person. The notion of obedience as the most important thing in the universe did not phase me...until I considered it in light of some other oft-repeated tenants of the faith:
For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness. [Doc & Cov 58: 26-27]

Wait, did I read that right? Someone who obeys "in all things" is still "slothful and not wise" and "receiveth no reward" because he did not "do many things of his own free will"? Because that is what it looks like to me. If we are simply compliant in all things, without learning to be independent and proactive, then we are not where God wants us to be.

And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon... Wherefore, men are free to choose liberty and eternal life, [or] to choose captivity and death [2 Nephi 2:26-27]
In the great council in Heaven there were two plans, one which would force compliance so that every person would definitely return to God, and one which promised freedom of choice for every individual. Which one did God choose? Choice. Free will. Self control.

It is important to note that "self control" means actively controlling oneself. It doesn't always mean that you're making the choices that someone else thinks you should. But it does mean that you are making your own choices.


Swedenborg (he was that other philosopher I mentioned earlier) suggested that obedience is the "first" law in that it is the most basic (as opposed to the most important). It is a building block. Without argument, obedience is a useful way to build healthy and righteous habits. But there comes a point where each individual needs to be able to evaluate a new situation and know how to make a choice about it, without the support of pre-designated rules.

Some people, when they reach adulthood, are still looking for someone to control them. They feel safer with a high fence of rules all around them. They look for rules in philosophies or advice books. Religious leaders and scripture give delightfully long lists of rules to follow. But is this really self-control? Or is it still deferring to someone else to control you? I would argue that it is the latter.

But, but, but, WAIT! I hear you saying, When there are rules, you choose whether or not to obey them. So even with rules you still have agency. You still can choose whether to obey or not!

Yes and no.

Studies consistently show that children who are heavily controlled by their parents grow up without much self-control.  In fact, these overly-controlled children can be just as out-of-control as the kids who are neglected. (When they grow up, some of them continue seeking outside sources to control them, and others cut loose all over the place. I argue that neither is very healthy.) What children--and the rest of us--need is to have some guidance in how to make decisions ourselves. We need to develop our own ethical guidelines and moral values; we cannot just have someone else's thrust upon us. We can use those other rules and values as guide to forming our own, but ultimately we do need to form our own.

"he that is compelled in all things is a slothful and not a wise servant"

So it is not just a matter of choosing to obey or not. It is a matter of forming our own internal source of guidance, rather than relying on an external one.


Some people have a remarkable sense of direction. Blindfold them, put them anywhere, spin them around, and then let them go...and they can point north or find their way home without any assistance from anyone. Other people can only do that if there are familiar landmarks or geographic features to rely on. Some people will point every which way unless the have a GPS in their hand to show them which way is actually north. Some people can have a GPS in their hand, be looking at it, and still end up pointing somewhere vaguely southwest...

Life is a little like that.The GPS is a useful tool (if you know how to use it!), and it can help you get oriented in unfamiliar territory. If it is just a GPS, then all it can do is tell you where you are, but offers no help in where to go next. Many newer GPS systems have directional programs in them that may be able to give you the directions to get home. On the other hand, if you rely wholly on that GPS, it may send you on an indirect or inconvenient route--in other words, a route that is not good for you. Is it a functional route? Sure, probably. But it's someone else's idea of the best route, and it may or may not be appropriate for you.

Ultimately, we need to learn to read the map ourselves, to read the street signs ourselves, to trust our guts, and figure things out ourselves. It is not wrong to have maps, guides, or rules to help you find your way. But it is very problematic to rely on them so totally that you are unable to function independently.

And it is very problematic to raise our children with so many rules that their only options are compliance or defiance, and not true agency. Of course we are bound to give them some rules (I vote for as few as possible) in order to help them develop some good habits. But I think that guidelines (such as "respect yourself and others") are more useful than strings of specific rules ("don't hit your brother, don't sass your mother, do your homework on time, don't put the cat in the dishwasher, turn the lights off when you leave a room, clean up your own messes and don't leave them for someone else," etc etc etc...) More general guidelines leave room for personal interpretation and understanding, and demand individual thought and commitment to the behavior choice. Of course these things adjust with age, but even a three year old can understand the idea of  "respect" a lot better than most parents would probably give him credit for.

you may choose one


Katrina said...

I understand what you're saying here and I agree that we shouldn't be commanded in all things. But when I hear the phrase, "Obedience is the first law of heaven," it resonates within me. Not because I want to be told everything to do, but because I know from experience that when we obey the commandments--the 10 basic rules for living a peaceful life--we are blessed. That, I believe, is what that phrase is saying. And though this phrase is not found in the scriptures, the inspired words of our leaders are scripture, and if tried, will prove their truth.

Jenni said...

You did catch that it wasn't words from our leaders though, right? It was words our leaders quoted from someone else... Which doesn't make them bad... Swedenborg is probably a lovely fellow (admittedly I have not studied him at any length), so I'm not saying the words are not inspired, but I AM saying they're not scripture.

I also thought it was very enlightening though to look at it through the interpretation that the originator of the quote used--which was obedience as a building block. That seems to me to jive better with the scripture verses. Obedience isn't bad, but ultimately you DO have to be independent, able to do things without direction/rules. If you always merely follow rules, you're not living up to your potential.

I wasn't trying to say obedience is bad. I was trying to say that having too many rules is inferior (for our development) when compared to learning to choose for ourselves. and I think the scriptures support that.

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