Summary: When we are baptized, we make a covenant with the Lord, and we renew that covenant each time we take the sacrament, which is that we promise to keep the commandments Jesus gives us. However, Jesus also said, “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.” So, which is it? Do we only do what God tells us or do we use our own free will to do what we feel is right and good rather than waiting to be told what to do? This article examines this seeming contradiction.
When Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he chose twelve men to be his special disciples, and then he said to them, “Ye are my disciples; and ye are a light unto this people, who are a remnant of the house of Joseph. And behold, this is the land of your inheritance; and the Father hath given it unto you.
And not at any time hath the Father given me [a] commandment that I should tell it unto your brethren at Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 15:12-14).
When Jesus had preached his message in Jerusalem, he already knew about the existence of the Nephites and that they were part of the house of Israel who had been given their own promised land, however, he didn’t share that knowledge with those he associated with in Jerusalem. But why?
The answer Jesus gave to this question is very instructive. He said it was because “not at any time hath the Father given me [a] commandment that I should tell it unto your brethren at Jerusalem.” The reason why Jesus didn’t tell the people in Jerusalem about the Nephites was because the Father hadn’t told him to do so.
In other words, Jesus knew of the existence of the Nephites and could have told his apostles in Jerusalem about them, but he didn’t because he hadn’t received permission from his Father. What this shows is that Jesus did nothing except what his Father told him, and if his father didn’t tell him to do something, then Jesus didn’t do it.
However, Jesus also said, “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; 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 doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned” (D&C 58:26-29).
That seems to contradict how Jesus didn’t do anything unless he was first commanded to do so by his Father, and if Jesus is our example, then shouldn’t we do the same? But, according to what Jesus told Joseph Smith, we’re supposed to do many things of our own free will to bring about much righteousness without being directed to do so, and that if we do nothing until we’re commanded, then we’re damned.
So which is it? Do we only do what God tells us or are we supposed to use our own free will to become anxiously engaged in bringing about righteousness rather than waiting to be told what to do?
The reason why these two scriptures seem to contradict each other is because we’re misinterpreting the meaning of one or possibly both of them. It’s not unusual for people to read a scripture and place their own interpretation upon it that may not be correct, so it’s important that we understand the true meaning of what the scriptures are telling us.
To do that, we need to correctly understand gospel principles.
When we are baptized, we make a covenant with the Lord, and we renew that covenant each time we take the sacrament, which is that we promise to keep the commandments Jesus gives us. But how are we supposed to keep them? Although there are quite a number of commandments yet all we have to do is look at one or two of them to understand the principle of how we do that.
In the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord gives a word of wisdom on how to stay healthy. In this revelation, he gives us some general guidelines, such as “hot drinks are not for the body or belly” (verse 9), but what is a “hot drink?” During the time when this revelation was given, this term was commonly used when referring to coffee or tea, but what is it about these hot drinks that makes them not good for the body? And does this counsel apply to all hot drinks or just coffee and tea?
Since coffee and tea have caffeine in them, is that the reason why we’re not supposed to drink them? If so, then is it alright to drink coffee and tea that doesn’t have caffeine in it? And what about other foods that contain caffeine, such as chocolate? Does that mean we shouldn’t drink hot chocolate? But is it alright to eat chocolate if it isn’t in a hot drink? And if we’re not supposed to drink “hot” drinks, then is it alright to drink ice tea?
What we see in this revelation is that the Lord has given us a general guideline on how to stay healthy but hasn’t given us very much in the way of specific details, and we see this same principle in many of the commandments he gives us.
Another example is the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. The Lord has said that “six days thou shalt labor and do all thy work but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it ye shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8). That’s the principle, but what does it mean to “not do any work?” Is taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed considered “work?” What about making something to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Is attending to church callings on Sunday considered as working? What about visiting the sick, taking food to a shut-in, or driving to another city to visit a relative?
We’re told to rest from our labors on the Sabbath. Going to a movie isn’t work because we just sit in a comfortable chair, relaxing while we watch a movie. But if that’s wrong to do, then what if we’re watching a movie at home on a TV channel that we pay a monthly subscription for? Isn’t that spending money to buy something on the Sabbath day?
Or how about going to a school sporting event where we don’t spend any money to attend? If it’s permissible to drive to church on Sunday, then why can’t we drive to the beach or a lake where we can rest from our labors?
And what about a seminary teacher who spends every day during the week preparing for their early morning seminary class? Shouldn’t they rest from that labor and not do any work on their seminary lessons on Sunday?
What we see again is that God gives us the general principle but doesn’t provide much in the way of specific details. Instead, he leaves it up to us to figure out how we’re to keep a particular commandment.
Of course, this isn’t true for every commandment. For example, before we can be permitted to become a member of Christ’s church, we’re commanded to be baptized, but God has also given very specific details of how that ordinance is to be performed and even the exact words that need to be said. Yet, at the same time, when it comes to giving a priesthood blessing, even though there is a very specific way it’s to be performed, and certain precise words that need to be said, there are no instructions on what to say when giving the actual blessing.
However, with most commandments that God gives, he only provides a general guideline and then gives us the freedom to decide how we want to apply those principles in our life. Even so, the decisions we make have to be done within the boundaries the Lord has set. For example, although he leaves it up to us how we define the word “work” in keeping the Sabbath day holy, there are certain things that we should not do. When it comes to keeping the word of wisdom, although the choice of what to eat and what not to eat or drink is left up to us to decide, yet our decision must be done within the restrictions God has allowed.
We see this same principle in the church’s Handbook of Instructions. For example, it clearly sets out the duties of a bishop, yet it allows each bishop considerable latitude to make decisions according to what they think is best. The same is true of an Elder’s Quorum president, a Reliefs Society president, or a Stake president. However, every decision they make has to be within the bounds the Handbook of Instruction allows.
But what about the scripture that says “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” and that anyone who must be “compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant?” Doesn’t that mean we should be deciding for ourselves what good we should do without God giving us a specific commandment? The answer is, it depends on if what we do is within the bounds the Lord has set.
For example, we’re commanded to preach the gospel, but God hasn’t given us specific details on how, when, and where we’re to do that. Therefore, if someone were to come up with an idea to have a missionary fireside, and it’s approved by the bishop, that’s an example of being anxiously engaged in the good cause of doing missionary work.
But suppose someone feels it would be a good idea to have a carwash in the ward’s parking lot as a way to raise money for a youth canoeing trip, and they held this activity without the bishop’s approval? After all, if they’re engaged in doing something for a good cause, why do they need the bishop’s permission? Doesn’t that violate their freewill? Isn’t doing only what the bishop allows the same as being commanded to do something? The answer is that the bishop is responsible for approving all activities in his ward and doing something without his approval goes outside the bounds the Lord has set.
This same principle should apply to everything we do. Therefore, whenever we chose to do something we feel is good, we should first ask ourselves if it’s in keeping with the commandments God has given? If it is, then the next question we need to ask ourselves is if it’s within the bounds the Lord approves of?
In this way, we’re doing no other thing than that which the Lord has commanded while also using our agency to do things without having to be instructed in how to perform every detail. This was the context for what God said in D&C 58:26-29.
But there is a third question we should ask ourselves, which may be the most important one of all, and that is, does the Lord approve of what we want to do? To illustrate this, let’s apply the principles we’ve talks about to a familiar story in the Book of Mormon.
Shortly after Lehi had fled the city of Jerusalem with his family because of threats to his life, the Lord came to him in a dream and told him to have his sons go back to the city and obtain a specific set of brass plates that were in the possession of a man named Laban. At this time, Lehi had four sons.
The Lord didn’t tell Lehi how many of his sons should back to Jerusalem, nor did he give him any instructions of how they were to get the plates from Laban. More than this, when God gave him this commandment, Lehi didn’t know why God wanted him to get these particular plates. All God gave Lehi was a general plan of what he wanted him to do.
Lehi could have just sent his two oldest sons, Laman and Lemual, or he could have just sent Nephi alone, or he could have sent all four. It didn’t matter to the Lord which one of those decisions Lehi made. But what if Lehi decided to go by the adage that “If you want something done right, do it yourself” and he went to see Laban himself? That would have been against what the Lord commanded, which was for Lehi to send his sons.
When Lehi’s sons got to Jerusalem, their assignment from God was to get the brass plates from Laban, but they hadn’t been given any instructions on how to do that, so it was left up to them to use their own wisdom on how to fulfill that commandment. They first tried simply asking for them, and when that didn’t work, they tried buying them with their father’s wealth. Both of those options were well within the bounds the Lord would have approved of, and so it didn’t matter to him which one they choose.
But what if they had decided to bribe one of Laban’s servants to steal them? Would God have approved of that action? Or what if they decided that it wasn’t possible to get the plates and instead gathered all their family’s wealth and took it back to their father in the wilderness, thinking that would be better than having a bunch of brass plates?
What we see is that although God leaves it up to us to decide how we want to carry out his commandments, 1) he leaves it up to us to figure out the details, and 2), our decisions have to be made within the bounds the Lord finds acceptable.
But what about Nephi killing Laban? Wasn’t that an unrighteous act? This takes us to the third point, which is to ask if what we want to do is what God wants us to do. Just because we have an idea we think is good and righteous doesn’t mean God approves of it.
For example, when Alma and Amulek were forced to watch the people of Ammoniah burn those who had accepted Christ, Amulek said, “How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames. But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand”( Alma 14:10,11) What Amulek wanted to do was certainly a righteous desire, but that’s not what the Spirit wanted to happen.
When Nephi came upon Laban lying drunk on the ground and the Spirit told him to slay Laban. Nephi said in his heart, “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man,” and he shrunk from doing with the Spirit commanded him (1 Nephi 4:10). However, what Nephi wanted to do was not what the Lord wanted him to do, which was to slay Laban. The principle here is that, before we act on what we think is best, we should always get confirmation from the Spirit that our course of action is in accordance with the will of God.
To illustrate this, suppose Lehi had come up with the idea on his own to send his sons to get the brass plates without first asking God. Would God have approved of that action? Without that approval, Nephi wouldn’t have had the confidence to say, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7), and it’s doubtful he would have been successful in getting the plates from Laban.
If Lehi had come up this idea on his own, how would he know if the Lord would bless the efforts of his sons? The only way is if he received a confirmation from the Spirit that what he wanted to do was acceptable to God. This was how king Mosiah knew it was safe for his four sons to act on their righteous desire to preach the gospel to the Lamanites. And this was the same way that Jesus decided what he should and shouldn’t do or say. This is why he said he came not to do his own will but the will of his father (John 5:30).
We are expected to be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of our own free will in an effort to bring to pass much righteousness, but at the same time, whatever it is we want to do needs to be done in harmony with the commandments of God and in a way he approves of. It’s then that we can say like Jesus that we’re doing God’s will.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of God