“This is only a test. . .

June 29, 2004 | 33 comments
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. . . if it were an actual commandment, this message would be followed by a theologically sound explanation . . .”

No, seriously. In one of the many beard discussions, I suggested that perhaps this little bit of Mormondom is simply a test of obedience. Ralph replied:

Julie,

In all honesty, I guess to get to the heart of the matter, I see people who are ready to jump on the “test of obedience” bandwagon as a bit lazy.

That is NOT intended to be an insult like it sounds.

I just do not believe God or his true chosen leaders need to create anything trivial (or substantive for that matter) as a pure test of obedience without there being more depth or reason.

It seems to be a favorite Sunday School answer in modern times to excuse irrational behavior on the part of our leaders. God doesn’t sit back thinking of ways to test our obedience. His commandments and counsel come from greater depths to benefit US.

Even Christ said the Sabbath was for us, not us for the Sabbath. We don’t exist to be obedient to random rules. Our leaders don’t have callings to create stumbling blocks to see if we’ll stop thinking.

The “test of obedience” thing reminds me eerily of my former brother in law who would randomly create rules to test his kids and when they saw through his ineptitude and disobeyed he’d punish them. Is that the type of God we worship?

I’ll take a different Father in Heaven, thank you.

Very eloquent, Ralph, but I am going to disagree.

Perhaps our best example is the Akedah, or Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Could there have been any other purpose to this event than a test of Abraham’s obedience? While many commandments might have purposes other than ‘just testing,’ I am not sure that we can limit God by saying ‘every command will have a reason.’ What would be the justification for this?

I’d also like to note that one of the factors making the Akedah a particularly good test of obedience is Abraham’s background of, and presumed hatred for, the human sacrifices practiced by his own people. So, there is a level of irony here–a crown to the challenge. (We also see this in the parallel story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, where Hagar being kicked out has an ironic and painful echo of her own decision to leave the camp years previous.) I’d suggest that something like The Beard Rule is a good candidate for being a test of obedience, because it does seem ironic that the Church and/or God would care about appearances. I think the SSM debate (which you are welcome to discuss on another thread, not here) may also serve this purpose (i.e., a test of obedience, with the ironic level given the Church’s history with polygamy) for some of the Saints.

However, I do agree with Ralph that it would not be a good idea to knee-jerk with every commandment we don’t understand and claim that it is just there to test our obedience. I am not sure what we might do to stop that from happening, however. Can we articulate a standard?

P.S.–If there are any teenagers reading this, my brother got a lot of mileage out of the following for several years:

Child: “Mom?”
Mother: “What?”
Child: “Just testing.”
Mother: “Argghh.”

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33 Responses to “This is only a test. . .

  1. Greg on June 29, 2004 at 9:55 pm

    fix

  2. Kaimi on June 29, 2004 at 10:01 pm

    How about Naaman?

  3. john fowles on June 29, 2004 at 10:04 pm

    How about Jesus and his time in the Wilderness.

  4. diogenes on June 29, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    “Could there have been any other purpose to this event than a test of Abraham’s obedience?”

    Well, yes, actually — we always assume it was a test of Abraham’s obedience. What if Abraham knew exactly what was going on, and it was intended to test Isaac? I seem to recall some rabbinical support for that proposition.

  5. john fowles on June 29, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    Even if it was to test Isaac, Julie’s point is still the same.

  6. Greg on June 29, 2004 at 10:22 pm

    I don’t deny that God could test our obedience. Maybe that has something to do with the story of Abraham and Isaac — I am not sure. But I do share Ralph’s concern that we often retreat to calling things a “test of obedience” when in reality, we simply disagree with the real reasons behind the rule but want to express our assent to the rule. Some of you will recall that we did a round of this in our prior discussion of multiple ear-piercings.

    There is certainly a reason behind the putative beard rule (which, I should note, has not existed in any ward I’ve been in in the last 10 years). It is probably something like “Mormon men should look clean and conservative as that is understood in contemporary American culture.” The fact that it is easy to pick apart the reasoning does not mean that there is no reason. I think, and I would hope, that the set of commandments without any reasons at all is a very, very small set.

  7. Ben S. on June 29, 2004 at 10:47 pm

    While I’m inclined towards Julie’s suggestion, it seems to me that most “testing” situations that we have in the scriptures or church history are events, not general standards or rules. Examples in Church history that come to mind are JS asking Heber Kimball for his wife, or riding through town with a cigar after preaching on the word of wisdom. I think we can look to Abraham as an example. While I don’t think beards “matter” (I had a goatee for a year or so), if an authority asked me to do something equally irrelevant, and I felt a spiritual witness to do so, I would comply. Carlfred Broderick relates an occasion on which he made “the Abrahamic sacrifice” to submit to spiritual authority because he felt like it was what he should do.
    (Broderick, “The Core of my Belief” in both A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars and My Parents Married on a Dare and Other Favorite Essays on Life0

    It’s hard for me to see earrings, or beards as a “test.” Is it the FSOTY pamphlet that says to “avoid extremes in appearance”?
    I think I lean towards the suggestion that ithese standards reflect a particular view of “how respectable people appear” and “avoiding extremes in appearance.”

  8. Julie in Austin on June 29, 2004 at 10:50 pm

    Greg–

    Very interesting point, since I was the one claiming a test of obedience on the multiple earring thing.

    I’m wondering if a commandment might work differently for different people. For example, some think opposition to SSM is as natural and logical as possible. For others (this would be me), the reasons seems weak, but there is a desire to err on the side of the Church, and so we call it a test of obedience.

  9. Julie in Austin on June 29, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    Ben–

    Most are events, but I think the daughters of Zelophehad incident could be considered a policy test, for the women and/or Moses.

  10. Nathan Tolman on June 29, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac was not a test at all because God knew he would do it, after all He “knows the end from the beginning,” right? No, Abraham needed to know something about Abraham, or perhaps something about God and the atonement or both. God does everything to teach us something.

    In my stake we are under no beard injunction, but we have been told that if we are to pass the sacrament we should wear white shirts, and when I pass (for those who did not catch it before, my married ward has no Young Men for a variety of reasons) I do. I do not rebel, but I wonder. I ask this following question, not rhetorically, but in all seriousness: Is wondering a sin?

  11. Greg on June 29, 2004 at 11:21 pm

    Julie,

    I am sure you are right in some sense. With two kids under 3, I find the reasons behind the three-hour-block to be woefully inadequate, but I consider it a test of obedience, and show up every week anyway.

  12. Gary Lee on June 30, 2004 at 2:02 am

    Maybe God does test us by asking us to do things which don’t make sense, just for the purpose of testing us. I really don’t know. However, that should not be our default position. If something does not appear to make any sense, well, maybe it just doesn’t. Maybe he is testing our ability to use our God given abilities to make sensible judgments on our own and to act upon them. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we are here in the first place? Maybe he is testing our integrity–to see whether we will do what we believe to be the right thing, no matter the consequences. Why assume that an apparently irrational request is anything other than what it appears to be?

    It is also worth noting that God himself commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. That commandment did not come via a fallible intermediary.

  13. Ben S. on June 30, 2004 at 3:32 am

    “Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac was not a test at all because God knew he would do it, after all He “knows the end from the beginning,” right? No, Abraham needed to know something about Abraham”

    I’ve heard that from several Mormons, and I disagree. Though I haven’t immersed myself in it, I find openness theology to be quite interesting, and this is one of the prime texts. According to the text, after Abraham willingly submits, God says “now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from Me.” (Gen. 22:12)

  14. Mike on June 30, 2004 at 7:05 am

    Ben (and others who have made comments like Ben’s)- if an authority asked you to do something as irellevant as shave why would it require for them to ask AND for you to receive a spiritual witness?

    If you have already received a witness of that authority or of the church structure in general AND what they ask is purely irrelevant and does not go against what you believe are church standards or rules or what you inherently feel is right why in the world would it require a witness?

    Nathan, I don’t think wondering is a sin at all. What I think is a problem is when we come up with what we think is the explanation and then try to force others to believe that is the explanation. Even if we have received revelation as to the reason behind something- if the reason was given with the commandment to the church as a whole it isn’t the job of individual members to receive revelation for the whole church. It is fine to wonder, or even speculate and discuss – but when we claim our interpretations are doctrine that can be a problem.

  15. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2004 at 10:18 am

    As far as beards go, I think people would be much happier accepting it if they felt God were really involved. He isn’t, so we resent the smattering of leaders who make a deal out of it. We have to realize that our obedience can still be a test without these responsible people being any less blameworthy for making so much hay out of an apparently trivial matter.

  16. Frank McIntyre on June 30, 2004 at 11:04 am

    Adam,

    Are you sure you want to claim so authoritatively that God is not involved in any and all beard counsel? This seems like something you simply don’t know, since you (and me!) are not authorized to make revelatory statements for those outside our jurisdiction.

    If Adam is actually a lurking online persona for GBH, I happily rescind my comment.

  17. Nathan Tolman on June 30, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Frank – When authorities phrase things like they did in the last beard post, (all members are missionaries, Missionaries don’t have beards, therefore we should not have beards), it leaves one to wonder about the source of this imperative. I guess many LDS are expect a certain verbal form when commandments are given from the pulpit. Although the Lord says “come now and let us reason together,” I doubt he would use such shoddy reasoning! Nevertheless, not having a beard will hurt very few, and following leaders is a virtue in and of itself, even if some are sent to try us.

    Ben – I understand your point, but I find it hard to reconcile with the many scriptures, like Abr 2:8, W of M 1:7, 1 Nephi 9:7 that talk about the foreknowledge of God. Plus, saying he knew then does not preclude him knowing before.

    If this is the case with the beard thing, then the question is what does the Lord want us to learn?

  18. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Frank,
    You’re right that I’m not willing to rule out inspiration entirely. But some people are, and I’m arguing to their perspective.

    As for my secret identity, one fact should be enough to dispel the rumors: I loathe the Hinkley Genitive (much of goodness, much of faith, etc.).

  19. Frank McIntyre on June 30, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Nathan,

    I have to agree that some member/leader relations are meant to try us (and them!). Suppose one receives inspiration to say A, it is the case that many people will try to find reasons for A. In this case, the AA found some that are not very convincing (as they’ve been presented here, which is Dan’s version of his brother-in-law’s version of the remarks). But those bad reasons do not actually tell us much about whether A is inspired or not. Authorities are more likely to get called because they can receive valid inspiration than because they are good at constructing valid syllogisms.

    Speaking of being tried, I always took instances of God testing us to be instances of him trying us. The goal is not for Him to figure out what we will do, but for us to do it. The act of doing changes us and teaches us about ourselves. The act of obedience opens us up to further blessings, which is the “law…upon which all blessings are predicated“. I reject with you and the scriptures you cited the notion that God doesn’t know the outcome of these tests.

  20. Michelle on June 30, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    I’ve always thought that the command to sacrifice Isaac was not just an arbitrary obedience test for Abraham, but to teach him something about what it meant for God to let his son die for us.

  21. Gordon Smith on June 30, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    Nathan: “Although the Lord says ‘come now and let us reason together,’ I doubt he would use such shoddy reasoning!”

    I think everyone can see that the member missionary analogy is flawed, but I wonder (no, not a sin) how we would react if the visiting authority said simply, “I feel inspired to instruct all of the men in this Stake to rid themselves of facial hair.” No explanation, that’s it. There would be grumbling, to be sure, but I suspect that many of us would be more comfortable with that alone than with that + badly reasoned explanation.

    If I am right, then I wonder (again) why that is? My guess is that when we hear instruction + badly reasoned explanation, we assume that the badly reasoned explanation — not revelation — motivated the instruction. But perhaps we ought not assume that. Perhaps we should assume that the badly reasoned explanation was merely a failed post hoc attempt to rationalize the revelation. In short, the leader may be intellectually deficient, not spiritually impaired. Or the leader may be applying reason to an issue that is merely a question of faith. (Well, none of that last bit is very flattering, is it? But I hope you get my meaning.)

    The bottom line is a question: why should we care so much about making sense of ecclesiastical instruction?

  22. greenfrog on June 30, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    Gordon Smith wrote: “I think everyone can see that the member missionary analogy is flawed, but I wonder (no, not a sin) how we would react if the visiting authority said simply, “I feel inspired to instruct all of the men in this Stake to rid themselves of facial hair.””

    Well, I suppose the first response would be to ask whether “facial hair” includes eyebrows. ;-)

    “No explanation, that’s it. There would be grumbling, to be sure, but I suspect that many of us would be more comfortable with that alone than with that + badly reasoned explanation.”

    Are you asking whether I prefer the unexplained to the inexplicable? At least with the unexplained, I have the opportunity to fabricate my own rationale for following the directive. With the inexplicable, I’m forced to reject all things that I believe and understand and prefer the action solely because another has directed it. Neither alternative, however, seems particularly consistent with teaching correct principles and encouraging self-governance.

    “If I am right, then I wonder (again) why that is? My guess is that when we hear instruction + badly reasoned explanation, we assume that the badly reasoned explanation — not revelation — motivated the instruction.”

    I agree that this is the conclusion I typically draw.

    “But perhaps we ought not assume that. Perhaps we should assume that the badly reasoned explanation was merely a failed post hoc attempt to rationalize the revelation. In short, the leader may be intellectually deficient, not spiritually impaired. Or the leader may be applying reason to an issue that is merely a question of faith. (Well, none of that last bit is very flattering, is it? But I hope you get my meaning.)”

    Isn’t there is (yet again) a parallel practice in the law? If I recall correctly, in most jurisdictions, when a non-specific objection is raised and sustained in a trial, a court of appeals is entitled to uphold the ruling based on any acceptable grounds for excluding the evidence. However, when an objection is raised and sustained based on a particular (and improper) ground, the court of appeals cannot select the “right” basis for the objection.

    “The bottom line is a question: why should we care so much about making sense of ecclesiastical instruction?”

    IMO, we care for the same reasons that we inquire, periodically, into legislative (or Constitutional) history: while it is seldom a perfect source for information, intention is a useful kind of information. I do not believe that a speaker’s intention/purpose/meaning suddenly loses its informational content when the statement is issued as ecclesia (if there is such a word).

    Gordon has proposed disregarding that additional information because it may be unreliable. But I’m not so sure that that is the most sustaining or supporting approach to take. I think that, in essence, Gordon’s proposed approach is to lessen the informational content of a statement, since doing so may facilitate compliance. However, it doesn’t seem to me that the potential loss of informational content would always result only in facilitating compliance — information costs cut both ways.

  23. Gordon Smith on June 30, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    greenfrog: “Are you asking whether I prefer the unexplained to the inexplicable?”

    Gordon: I can’t stop laughing at that. Very nice.

    greenfrog: “Gordon has proposed disregarding that additional information because it may be unreliable.”

    Gordon: More “thinking out loud” than proposing. I certainly pay attention to the stated justifications for new edicts. Partly because that helps me to understand the meaning and scope of the edicts, and partly because I am just the sort of person who is likely to say, “that doesn’t make sense to me.” I like it when things make sense, though I freely admit that this may limit my capacity for faith. And that is the root motivation for my comments, wondering whether the search for rationality is really inhibiting us from attaining our faith potential.

  24. Frank McIntyre on June 30, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    greenfrog,

    I agree with Gordon, but I’ll just refer you to comments above instead of repeating them.

  25. greenfrog on June 30, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    I realize that my last response might have been more complete with a couple of examples.

    The first one I’d offer is the questionable syllogism proposed regarding white shirts. Using Gordon’s answer would yield a reading of that that would disregard the faulty logic and would require white shirts of all. Adopting this position, as has already been noted by others, includes a certain cost, not only of discomfort of the disgruntled, but also the potential exclusion of those who hear the message but lack the means to comply. If we adopt Gordon’s proposal, we conclude that God intends those costs to be borne, presumably for the greater good. If we do not adopt Gordon’s proposal, however, and instead conclude that the rationale is part of the information content of the directive, then the directive becomes nearly valueless. We are much more likely to decline to advance such a requirement. So we’re back to trying to figure out which outcome God would prefer — one that utilizes all of the information available to me, or one that intentionally disregards some of that information. While we can speculate that God doesn’t intend us to take into account the information content associated with stated rationales, I’m not sure of the basis on which we’d decide to reject that.

    One can imagine more severely problematic hypothetical situations in which the information content of the rationale would (and should) cause one to question the nature of the directive.

    The issue here seems to be that communications from God may be sufficiently ambiguous that while the conclusion may be clear, the rationale may not be. But if the communications means includes such a degree of ‘noise,’ why should we assume that it affects rationales more than conclusions? Perhaps, one might suppose that from God’s perspective, clarity regarding conclusions is more important than clarity regarding rationales (this position would be supported by the Abraham/Issac, etc. stories). Trials of faith aside, however, this position seems to disregard (as Gordon has proposed) the greater information content of the directive when we take into account the associated rationale, purpose, meaning, etc.

  26. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Greenfrog,
    It isn’t a question of rejecting the information content. It’s a question of deciding what the information content is. Gordon’s whole dilemma is deciding whether the rationale is part of the message or if its something the speaker has inexpertly tacked on to the divine message.

  27. greenfrog on June 30, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    On what basis (presumably other than the speaker’s own words) would we decide whether to treat the statement of rationale as divine information or human tacking-on?

  28. Adam Greenwood on June 30, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    You got me.

  29. Nathan Tolman on June 30, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Green Frog: Exactly the right question, and in the face of this ambiguity most people would at least go along with the information because one would not be in rebellion, even if the council is faulty. Those that have questions on it would hope that it would fade away with time, or be excused with reason under certain cases (such as that Brother who had skin problems and was dismissed from the High Council in the latest Beard thread).

  30. Frank McIntyre on June 30, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    greenfrog,

    If the rationale doesn’t make any sense to you, then that, in and of itself, makes it a trial of faith, right? So we shouldn’t put “trials of faith aside”.

    You ask how to differentiate divine rationales from tacked-on ones. Does it matter? If it matters to you, pray about it. It seems to me like a matter for personal pondering, not something where a policy rule could be adopted.

    In the end, most of our rationales are going to have to be seriously revised when we understand all things in the next life.

  31. greenfrog on June 30, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    Frank wrote: “If the rationale doesn’t make any sense to you, then that, in and of itself, makes it a trial of faith, right? So we shouldn’t put “trials of faith aside”.”

    I don’t agree with your first sentence. If a rationale doesn’t make any sense to me, it is only a trial of faith if God intends it to be. Otherwise, it is a trial of my moral agency. In most circumstances of my life, there are real consequences that flow from my actions — and those consequences are almost always include ill, as well as good. Whether the good is greater than the ill is sometimes difficult to determine. I rely on God to guide me through those decisions. It would be great if I could rely on others to make those determinations for me. Of course, there are many people on earth who are willing to make key decisions for me. My own experience and D&C 121, however, counsel that not all of those people will guide me aright. In thinking about this, I believe that at the end of the day, I am responsible for my own actions, based on my own understanding. I don’t believe that there is an escape clause to divine law, any more than there is one to human law, that would excuse me for wrongdoing that I did because another told me to. If it is wrong for me to do on my own, I do not think the answer is different if I say, “…but X *told* me to.” That belief (which I acknowledge may not be a belief of others here), leads me to want as much information as I can get regarding a course of conduct I am asked to adopt.

    “You ask how to differentiate divine rationales from tacked-on ones. Does it matter? If it matters to you, pray about it.”

    Ok.

    “It seems to me like a matter for personal pondering, not something where a policy rule could be adopted.”

    Can you provide more details? I’m not sure I understand your point here. What is it that you believe cannot be addressed by a policy rule?

  32. Frank McIntyre on June 30, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    How to differentiate. Unless “pray about it” is a policy rule.

    But don’t get hung up on all this stuff. The most important part of the post is the one you don’t quote :)

    “In the end, most of our rationales are going to have to be seriously revised when we understand all things in the next life.”

  33. greenfrog on June 30, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    Perhaps I’m inappropriately hard-headed, but I’m not terribly comforted by your final statement. Knowing that I’m working in the dark would be comforting if I weren’t going to be held accountable for the rightness and wrongness of my actions once I die and someone turns on the light. As I understand the arrangement, however, I will be held accountable, so I’m inclined to keep looking for truth and ways to distinguish it from error.

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