Summary: Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are familiar with the scripture that says that men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will. And the way this scripture is often interpreted is that God expects us to use our own free will in deciding for ourselves what good causes we want to become engaged in, rather than doing nothing until God commands us to do something. But is this what God is really telling us? This article examines the context of this scripture to help us understand the true meaning of what the Lord has said.
Most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are familiar with the scripture that says, “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; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned” (D&C 58:27-29).
The way this scripture is often interpreted is that God expects us to use our own free will in deciding for ourselves what good causes we want to become engaged in, but if God has to tell us what causes to get involved in, then we’re being slothful, in which case, God will damn us. People have also used this verse to justify doing what they think is right without seeking God’s confirmation, but is this what God is really telling us?
We have to keep in mind that whenever God tells us something, there’s a reason why he feels impressed to give us that information, and this is especially true in the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants. Each one was given for a specific purpose and often to address a specific situation. When we quote a verse of scripture by itself, we can lose its intended meaning, and when that happens, it’s easy for people to believe something different than what God meant.
Although it’s true that there are times when the principles contained in a particular verse of scripture that was meant for one situation can appropriately be applied to a different situation, yet before we can accurately do that, it’s important to first understand the message the scripture being quoted was intended to convey. To do otherwise can easily lead us to believe in something that isn’t true. Therefore, the question we need to always ask ourselves when reading any verse of scripture is: What is the message the Lord is trying to give us? This is especially true of D&C 58:27-29.
In the previous sections, the Lord had commanded a number of elders to journey to Independence, Missouri, and he sent them two by two by different routes with instructions to preach the gospel as they traveled to their final destination (D&C 52). He also directed that the saints who had moved from Colesville, NY to Kirtland, OH were to eventually relocate themselves to Jackson County, Missouri (D&C 54).
Jackson county is the farthest western county of that state, and in 1831 when the saints arrived there, the United States did not own any land west of Missouri. As such, Missouri was as far west as someone could go and still be inside the borders of the United States. Once someone left that state going west, they had left the country.
This area was undeveloped frontier land, and as such, only the most hardy, independent people moved there. Many of the people who lived in this county were squatters, meaning that they didn’t own the land they lived on. Instead, they moved into the area and just claimed whatever land they wanted as their own. At that time, the town of Independence was a small community consisting of less than a dozen buildings, two of which were saloons. Most of those who lived there were not farmers who came to settle the land but were frontier traders who sold goods to people traveling west into the wilderness, and many of them were hard-bitten, weather-worn, tough-as-nails men.
When the Lord told the saints to move to Jackson country, he told them that this was going to be the land of Zion, and that God was going to give them the land for their inheritance. For this reason, the saints were eager to go there, with a glorious vision in their mind that this was going to be a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey, where they would live in peace, happiness, and prosperity.
However, when the elders arrived at the town of Independence, they were shocked to find a small town inhabited by people whose lives were governed by very little or no religious morals, and who were suspicious of, and were even a little hostile towards outsiders. As a result, many of the elders of the church who came with Joseph to this town questioned whether he had picked the right location for the city of Zion, and many of them seriously doubted that this was where the Lord wanted them to establish themselves. In fact, Edward Partridge, the bishop of the church, who was responsible for buying land and helping the saints get settled there, strongly argued with Joseph about this location, saying there were much better lands to be found elsewhere.
When the elders looked at the town of Independence, they couldn’t believe that such a place as this was to be the center of Zion, as Joseph had prophesied. However, what they couldn’t see with their natural eye was what God was going to do with this land and how glorious it would one day become. This is why the Lord told the elders, “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation” (verse 3).
The Lord would soon command selected members of the church to move to Jackson country and build up Zion, but now that the elders had seen what this place looked like, some of them doubted this revelation. It was in response to this situation that the Lord told them, “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; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good, they shall in nowise lose their reward.”
This wasn’t some friendly wise counsel God was imparting to his elders, it was a rebuke. God had given them a command to build up Zion, and instead of doing as he had asked, they wanted God to tell them every detail of how to do that. And the reason why wasn’t because they wanted further clarification, but because they were hesitant to do as God had instructed them.
The elders had received the commandment from the Lord to establish Zion in Independence, and Edward Partridge in particular was given explicit instructions of what God expected him to do in that regard, but he doubted the commandment and was slow to follow God’s instructions. This is why God said to them, “But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.”
In effect, God was telling Edward to use his own innate intelligence to decide how to accomplish the mission God had given him. This wasn’t the first time Edward had performed such a task, because he had done the same thing in Kirtland. Therefore, God knew Edward was very capable of fulfilling such an assignment. His request for more details wasn’t because he didn’t know what to do but because he doubted the revelation.
For this reason, the Lord said. “Yea, for this cause I have sent you hither, and have selected my servant Edward Partridge, and have appointed unto him his mission in this land. But if he repent not of his sins, which are unbelief and blindness of heart, let him take heed lest he fall. Behold his mission is given unto him, and it shall not be given again” (verse 14-16).
The Lord told Edward he needed to repent of his sins and what were his sins? It wasn’t that he asked for more clarification about how to fulfill his mission, but rather because of his “unbelief and blindness of heart” toward the commandment he had received. The Lord also told Edward that he had been given a mission and if he didn’t fulfill it, he would fall, spiritually speaking. More than this, if he failed to do as he was told, his mission of being a bishop would be taken from him and given to someone else, and he would never be given that calling again. That’s a stinging rebuke!
But Edward wasn’t the only one who the Lord called to repentance. He also chastised Martin Harris, William W. Phelps and Ziba Peterson as well (verse 39,40,60). However, after rebuking the elders, the Lord then said, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (verses 42-43). Edward Partridge did repent of his sin, and faithfully fulfilled his mission. However, Ezra Booth and a few other elders continued to doubt and complain about the revelation, and within a short time some of them left the church.
But does this revelation still mean that God expects us to decide for ourselves what we think we should do without seeking direction from God? This is how some people interpret verses 27-29, however, a fuller examination of D&C 58 can help provide the answer to that question.
In this section we read where the Lord said, “blessed is he that keepeth my commandments” (verse 2). “Behold, verily I say unto you, for this cause I have sent you—that you might be obedient” (verse 6). “Behold, the laws which ye have received from my hand are the laws of the church” (verse 23). “For verily I say unto you, my law shall be kept on this land” (verse 19). “Who am I that made man, saith the Lord, that will hold him guiltless that obeys not my commandments?” (verse 30). “I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing” (verse32). “And now I give unto you further directions concerning this land” (verse 34). “there should be lands purchased in Independence, for the place of the storehouse, and also for the house of the printing. And other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit” (verse 37,38). “And let there be an agent appointed by the voice of the church, unto the church in Ohio, to receive moneys to purchase lands in Zion” (verse 49).
And the Lord gave many other commandments in this revelation besides these, so what we see, over and over again in this and other revelations, is the Lord giving commandments, laws, directions, and instructions of what he wants his people to do, and he explicitly states that he expects his words to be obeyed. When taken in context, the theme of section 58 seems to be more like the Lord is chastising his elders and calling them to repentance for not doing what he has commanded them, rather than encouraging them to use their own initiative in deciding to do what they think is best without God telling them what to do.
Then, what did he mean when he said that “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness”?
When Joseph Smith was once asked how he was able to govern so many people, he replied, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Some of the commandments God gives us must be carried out with exactness, meaning they can only be done one specific way, but most commandments can be properly carried out in many different, yet appropriate ways.
For example, when administering the sacrament, the prayer must be said exactly word for word with no deviation or exceptions, but the only dress requirement for those passing the sacrament is to “be well groomed and clean [and] they should not wear clothing or jewelry that might detract from the worship and covenant making that are the purpose of the sacrament” (Handbook of Instructions, 18.9.3).
As long as someone meets those few dress requirements, a person passing the sacrament can decide for themselves what they want to wear without the Lord telling them what color their tie should be, how short their hair should be, or whether they should be clean shaven or can wear a beard.
The Lord has decreed that the sacramental emblems are to be offered to each worthy member of the church each Sunday, but he didn’t specify how it was to be done. Therefore, it doesn’t matter to him whether we put the blessed water in one container for everyone to drink out of, or in small individual cups, whether we use our right hand, left hand, or both hands to pass the sacrament, or how the priesthood holder is to stand while passing the sacrament. In all of these details, we are allowed to decide for ourselves. The only thing the Lord is concerned about is that the sacrament is properly blessed, and then passed and partaken of in a way that maintains the sacred nature of this ordinance.
The Lord had instructed Edward Partridge to purchase lands in preparation for the saints who were coming to Missouri. That was the commandment, but exactly how Edward was to go about doing that the Lord left up to him to decide, with the only stipulation being that he not “break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign” (verse 21-22). Therefore, Edward did not need to be commanded in every detail of how to go about purchasing land but was free to act for himself in this regard in order to bring about much righteousness.
However, this wasn’t all that Edward was called to do. As bishop of the church, the Lord revealed that “whoso standeth in this mission (i.e, the calling of a bishop) is appointed to be a judge in Israel, like as it was in ancient days, to divide the lands of heritage of God unto his children, and to judge his people by the testimony of the just” (verses 17-18). But then the Lord explained that in being a judge in Israel, “Let no man (meaning no man who is a bishop) think he is a ruler; but let God rule him that judgeth, according to the counsel of his own will, or in other words, him that counseleth or sitteth upon the judgment seat” (verse 20).
The calling of a bishop was not only to divide the land among the saints as the Lord commanded under the law of consecration or the United Order, but to be a judge over his people. However, he is not to exercise that duty as if he were a ruler or a dictator, making decisions according to his own wisdom. Rather, he is to judge according to the counsel and will of him “that sitteth upon the judgement seat,” meaning the supreme judge who we will all someday stand before.
Notice this scripture doesn’t say that God will tell the bishop what decision he must make, but rather the bishop will make his decision after he has counseled with “him that sitteth upon the judgment seat.” In this way, the decision that the bishop ultimately makes will be his own, but he will make it according to the wisdom and counsel of the Lord.
Just a few days after this revelation was given, the Lord instructed the elders to “journey [back] unto the land from whence you came,” meaning they were to return to Kirtland, Ohio, by traveling eastward on the Missouri river. For this reason, the Lord told them, “Let there be a craft made, or bought, as seemeth you good, it mattereth not unto me” (D&C 60:5). In a follow up revelation four days later, the Lord told the returning elders, “And it mattereth not unto me, after a little while, if it so be that they fill their mission, whether they go by water or by land; let this be as it is made known unto them according to their judgments hereafter” (D&C 61:22).
The Lord commanded the elders to return to Kirtland and to begin their journey by traveling along the Missouri river, however, he left it up to them to decide whether they wanted to make their own boat or to buy one. Because the river was sometimes treacherous, he later told them that if they wanted to travel the rest of the way by water or go by land, they could decide that for themselves “according to their [own] judgments.” Twice the Lord reiterated that it didn’t matter to him how they choose to obey the commandment to return to Kirtland. The only thing that mattered to him was if they fulfilled the mission he had given them.
In the same way, as members of the Christ’s restored church, we’ve been commanded to minister to the needs of others, but it doesn’t matter to the Lord who we minister to, how we minister, where we minister, and when we minister. The Lord allows us the freedom to make those kinds of decisions for ourselves as long as it is done in the manner the Lord has prescribed in his law. But, if we don’t do any ministering to anyone until we receive specific instructions from the Lord, then we’re receiving the commandment with a doubtful heart by being slothful and negligent in keeping the commandment to minister to those in need.
What we see then is that D&C 58:27-29 is not an open invitation for us to decide for ourselves what good cause we want to become engaged in, but rather, when understood in the context in which it was given, it means that there is no greater cause we can become anxiously engaged in than helping God in his efforts to save the children of men. But in doing that there are many things we can do of our own free will to help bring about the righteousness of God, as long as what we do is done within the approved bounds the Lord has established according to his laws.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Covenants and Understanding the scriptures