Why is Obedience Greater than Sacrifice?
Meditations on Hosea 6:6
by Benjamin Pacini
My children know that the rule on Sunday is that they can only watch “church videos.” They’ve gotten to know them so well that when I began playing one of my favorites, it was two seconds in before my son shouted from the other room “that’s ‘Music of the Gospel’–I love that one!”
He’s right to love it. We watched together while writing this. If you get nothing else from this piece, I hope you’ll do something similar. It’s based on a recent favorite general conference talk. In short, it is not enough to know the steps, one must actually hear the music.
I do not believe that this applies only to Latter-day Saints.
Emily Esfahani Smith holds that there are four pillars to the life of meaning: story telling, belonging, purpose, and transcendence. Happiness researcher Arthur Brooks finds likewise: morality, philosophy, religion–taken together, these are one of the four fundamentals on which a life of deep happiness is based. This repeated theme of transcendence is universally needed: I believe that every human being is born wired to hear this music.
We are not truly thriving unless this part of our lives is flourishing.
I would shout this from the rooftops if I could–for the whole world to hear; finding transcendence is not a religious person’s imperative, it is a human imperative. My message today is somewhat more pointed, however. I am writing to church members, and particularly to those who go to church weekly and to the temple often, but without finding communion with the divine.
There is no judgment in this, for I have certainly been among these (especially while trying to keep little children reverent). I write to myself, in part–and most of all, to my children. I wonder what it will take to foster in them a testimony strong enough to survive the challenges of life. I don’t know the full answer, but I do know this: I must at least teach my children the steps to the music; and I also know that teaching them the steps will not be nearly enough.
Is it enough to simply drill the steps over and over again? I don’t think so.
A recent academic research article in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion finds that motivation matters: adolescents who are primarily religiously motivated by internal factors have very different outcomes from those who are primarily externally motivated. My read is that going to church to show off, to please parents, or to keep up with the Joneses does not produce the same kind of outcomes as going to church for private, personal devotion. From the abstract: “In general, identified religious motivation positively predicted adaptive outcomes (e.g., prosocial behaviors, psychological well-being, and positive traits) and negatively predicted maladaptive outcomes (e.g., antisocial and health-risk behaviors, mental illness, and negative traits), whereas the inverse was largely true for external religious motivation.”
I think God knows this. The ritual is important, but the purpose of the ritual is to seep into our hearts. To change us.
In Hosea 6:6, God reproves ancient Israel:
6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
God does not want us to merely perform the right sacrifices, he wants us to become merciful; he wants us to prize knowledge of God above burnt offerings. Not just the outer performances, but the inner experiences.
In Joel 2:12-13, we read:
12 Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:
13 And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness…”
Fasting, weeping, mourning. Rend your heart, not your garments. (Rending one’s garments was a way to demonstrate anger or grief–a performative expression of deep emotion.) God does not want us to merely perform rites and rituals–He wants those rituals to change our souls.
This reminds me of 1 Sam. 15:22.
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
How do I do it? How do I raise good children who want to do more than check religious boxes?
I don’t fully know. But pondering and praying on it, I’ve come up with a list of things I hope to try.
Adventures in Toddler Psychopathy
I was once asked to give a professional presentation on the topic of developing character in youth. I titled it “Adventures in Toddler Psychopathy!” It was light-hearted, but I made a point that I think is worth considering again. What are the key ingredients for a plant to grow? You likely said to yourself “sunlight” and “water,” but you’re missing a key ingredient. The smarty pants among you might be thinking of C02, and yes, we’re all very proud of you, but there’s something even more critical. Stop here to see if you can figure it out for a moment.
I once did a study on final talks. It’s a spiritual experience if you’re looking for one. Among my favorites is Elder Maxwell’s “Remember How Merciful The Lord Hath Been.” There is a line that didn’t speak much to me at the time, but has become more and more meaningful as I have watched my children grow:
“Back then, in family, neighborhood, ward, and school life, we were all poor together, but we didn’t know it. We made room for each other to grow, to make dumb mistakes, to repent, and to begin to develop at least some spiritual reflexes. Today, some anxious parents seem to insist on constantly pulling up the daisies to see how the roots are doing.” (emphasis added.)
What is the key ingredient in a plant’s growth? Sunlight, water, C02, and perhaps most important of all, time. When I taught my presentation, I emphasized Piaget and Kohlberg–the importance of remembering that your child is likely a psychopath at age three who lies and cheats and demands because that is what a good, normal, three-year-old psychopath should be doing! (I joked that you only need to worry if your children are the unusual kind of psychopath!)
Another segment from Elder Maxwell’s talk:
Behind the jokes is an important principle: it is ok for children to be children. If you are wanting your four-year-old to be ready to discourse on the nature of apotheosis, you might cut them some slack–and yourself too. Let kids be kids. Let them ask, grapple, tussle, and taste the sweet for themselves.
“Having virtually no quantitative skills, I was seldom if ever able to help our children with math and scientific subjects. One day our high school daughter Nancy asked me for “a little help” regarding a Supreme Court case, Fletcher v. Peck. I was so eager to help after so many times of not being able to help. At last a chance to unload! Out came what I knew about Fletcher v. Peck. Finally my frustrated daughter said, “Dad, I need only a little help!” I was meeting my own needs rather than giving her “a little help.”
We worship a Lord who teaches us precept by precept, brethren, so even when we are teaching our children the gospel, let’s not dump the whole load of hay.”
Clean Rooms, Behaviorism, and Becoming
Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify: that does not mean that kids get to decide what to do. As a wise woman in my ward put it “you have two choices: you can go to church, or you can go to church happy.”
I teach future teachers, and my observation is that my many students are quite turned off to behaviorism. This is BF Skinner’s philosophy of carrots and sticks: if you punish kids right and reward them appropriately, you can mold them into model people. From this flow token economies (stickers and tickets) and clear consequences (detentions and suspensions). I have to push my students very hard on this: behaviorism works.
If you want to get rid of it, you’ll have to start by eliminating smiling at babies, or making eye contact with young children: our first rewards come very early. You’ll have to grapple with the fact that every one of us is taught by the world around us what is right and wrong via “natural consequences.” You’ll also have to wrestle with the fact that behavior management gurus keep trying to find new and fun ways to get away from charts and stickers and stamps, and every teacher goes back to them because they work.
They can be executed poorly, it is true–and one of the key ways I see this done is when teachers use incentive charts to control behavior rather than to teach behavior. Sticker charts and dollarbucks work, but they won’t work for long if they become a transaction. Punishments either: who hasn’t had a child ask how much trouble they’ll get in for doing thing X, only to see them weigh the pros and cons and elect to do thing X? (My response: thing X will get you consequence Y, but doing something that you know to be wrong with such deliberation will surely merit a heavier, more mysterious consequence.)
Behaviorism is a set of training wheels. The whole point is to eventually take them off.
Consider the new For the Strength of Youth standards. I’ve noticed some assuming that the announced changes constitute a reduction in standards. I disagree. In my mind, they aren’t any such thing, but rather a refocusing on principles. In a world-wide church, the shift is away from universally-required behaviors and toward transcendent gospel truths. It is not a lower standard, but a higher one.
Which requires more: tithing, or consecration?
God doesn’t want us to rend our garments, but our hearts. And heart-work is always hard work. The principles aren’t just about what we do, they are about what we become. And the challenge to become is much harder than the challenge to check-the-boxes.
I’m pleased that so many–rightly–correct our common misunderstanding of “be ye therefore perfect” in the New Testament. But it seems to me, too often, that they exchange a linguistic mistake for a doctrinal one: heaven be thanked that “perfect” does not mean merely “sinless” but rather “whole” or “complete.”
But if we understand who we are meant to be, isn’t “complete” a far more rigorous task?
When Peter preached his last-known epistle, how did he begin? With a proclamation of Jesus’ divinity, and an invitation to become like him one attribute at a time: faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, godliness, and so on.
We are to do more than dance the steps–we must listen for the music.
My father taught it to me this way: we can obey God for three reasons. One is out of fear of punishment. Another is out of desire for blessings. Finally, we can obey because we simply love God, and it has become a part of our character. He prefers the third to the second, and the second to the first, but He’ll take any of the three He can.
My children are required to go to church. They are expected to do chores and help around the house. Piano practice is not optional. But I try, whenever I can, to preach to them that I do not want church-going children, I want children who have felt what it means to worship; I do not want proficient piano players, I want children who can find joy in melody and harmony.
I’ve been pushing my children to clean their rooms in the last few weeks. They are 3, 5, 7, and 10. I have been trying to stress to them that I don’t actually care much about clean rooms, but I care deeply that they are clean people: people with the habits, mindsets, and emotional durability necessary to keep things clean and orderly. I prefer clean rooms–but not nearly as much as I care about building children who are clean people in their habits.
Tell your children that there is something deeper than checking-boxes. Tell them that you want them to become something more. Whenever you give them a box to check, make sure that they also know that it’s about something more grand, more supernal. We must teach the steps to the dance–but always with the purpose of pointing them toward passion, joy, and the richness of the full experience.
Lessons from Adam
Should we be perfectly obedient? Or should we courageously question?
When Adam was in the garden, he did precisely as commanded. He would have stayed there, obedient and sinless and damned, forever, if someone wiser had not elected to take a risk. Later, Adam is commanded to sacrifice lambs. He does so. The angel asks Adam, why do you do this? Adam answers forthrightly: because I was told to.
When my son asks why he must clean his room, what is he really communicating? That he doesn’t want to. That he wishes he didn’t have to. And so I respond to the question he doesn’t ask: “I’m grateful you are cleaning your room, because it will make you into a better man someday.”
What I say next is no critique of The Ancient of Days. I suspect he was the first of men in part because he could be trusted to be absolutely obedient in all things. I teach my children obedience–to God, and to a lesser extent, to me. As my music theory teacher taught me, “you can break the rules once you know them well enough to respect them, and not a minute sooner!” My children will “obey with exactness” because there is divinity there.
But that will not be enough. It was precisely Adam’s obedience that became his developmental test. As Elder Renlund has taught, “God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient “pets” who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business.” Adam couldn’t just keep-the-commandments-his-way-through trials this time. Something more was required.
Marriage, it seems to me, is a long process of being polished by your spouse until you become something better. It’s not always comfortable, but the covenant and the shared purpose make it all worth it. It certainly worked that way for Adam. The archetypes are hard to miss: order, justice, obedience, and safety, are married to chaos, mercy, risk, and creation. Together, they are the prototype of exaltation.
The end of the story isn’t in the garden, nor at the altar of sacrifice. Adam is commanded to be baptized. Adam responds: why? Notice how the Lord responds in Moses 6:53.
And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden.”
I imagine that angels rejoiced in that moment. What follows are some of the most transcendent verses in all scripture on the nature of God, the plan of happiness, and the path to exaltation.
Why? Because Adam had finally learned to ask why.
He did not ask out of rebellion, or because he didn’t want to comply. He asked because he knew His Father would not command him to do anything unless there was a reason–and it was his right to know what that reason is, and be exalted with that knowledge.
I have always believed in (and practiced) the Word of Wisdom. Then I heard Kate Holbrook explain that it was a community commandment–that it was built for those who needed an additional layer of protection, the weakest in our community. It totally changed how I feel about it. The same happened on fasting: I’d thought that it was about self-denial and asceticism; in fact, it’s about joyful anticipation for the great wedding feast.
We have agency: we can seek the deeper meaning of commandments. We can listen for the music.
There will be times when obedience is required without a full understanding–and Adam’s example is worthy for us. You can scarcely open the scriptures without seeing a story that teaches us to obey the Lord even when we don’t see the full picture–Nephi with Laban, Abraham and Isaac, and I’m sure Enoch learned line-upon-line too. And yet, there are also times when God hopes that we will have the faith to understand that his “commandments not a few” are gifts to us, and for our benefit–if we will but have the courage to ask what it is that we are to learn from them.
Just the Right Amount of Shame
In our social media age, I worry that we are preoccupied with how we are perceived. The best way to ruin someone’s ability to hear the music is to mock them for dancing.
The answer isn’t to deaden our sense of social approval. Shame is a useful feeling as I define it: the emotion that comes when the community expresses disapproval. I want my children to feel embarrassed if they do bad things, and I hope my community will tenderly nurture a desire to do what is right inside of them.
But I hope to teach them from a young age that pleasing the crowds is impossible–and the wrong target anyway. If the community helps you see that you are doing something wrong, then show gratitude. But if the community is wrong, then you need to stand on your own two feet and accept the fury with clear eyes.
I recently said something on Twitter that didn’t seem controversial. I was wrong. I experienced being “ratioed” in some small way–when replies to my tweet outnumber the amount of likes and retweets. A friend reached out to make sure I was ok. I was fine. It didn’t bother me that much. I was surprised, actually, how liberating it felt–like a cold shower.
“Let the ratio come. I’ve said something that I still feel is true.”
Some, feeling the online onslaught become so deadened to the feelings of others that they seem to crave a fight–rather than virtue-signalers, they are vice-signalers; actively looking to say anything that will shock or horrify, happy to embody the very darkest side of “any publicity is good publicity.”
How to maintain a sense of social propriety without losing your soul in either direction?
I got advice once that has stayed with me. It was in reference to being a successful young professional: build a 4-to-1 ratio of substance to style. Too many great resumes have punchy catch-phrases that mask shallow experience. I say the same, here, of religious devotion. Pray to God in your secret places. Your devotions should be private and personal, not public and performative. Find the ways to commune with God that are most sacred, most private, and most earnest. Do not neglect these.
The Pharisees were condemned for focusing on the outward, and neglecting the inward: whitewashed tombs that were pristine on the outside, but rotting and unclean on the inside. If you seek to prance and preen for social media, I suspect the Lord would say that you have no spiritual benefit: “verily, you have your reward.”
What a pitiful mess of pottage.
How to keep your soul? Practice small acts of courage. Stand for what is right in little things.
I was recently pondering how to gain a firmer testimony when I felt this bit of inspiration come: “one way to gain more truth is to stand for the truth you have already received.” The Lord has said that if we do not, we will lose what light we have. Perhaps some of the benefit of standing for what we believe is that it shows the Lord that we will treasure what else He intends to send us.
Bryan Caplan has noted that if you want to look good, tell the other side they’re wrong. You won’t change behavior, but your side will love you for it. If you want to make a difference, tell your own side they are wrong. They’ll despise you for it, but you’re far more likely to make a difference.
Similarly, I try in my online activities to make it clear that I am no one’s friend. If I’ve posted too many non-controversial takes for a while, I try to dig something up to make clear that I am not there for likes or retweets, that we almost certainly disagree on important matters, and that I am quite comfortable if I am not your cup of tea. As one of my favorite characters put it, I am always trying to subtly say “You must not trust yourself with me.”
A friend recently told me that “you can be a missionary, or you can not offend people.” It left me thinking. Missionary work is about others–but it seems to me that the blessings include a hardening bulwark against what other people think of you. We should follow Jesus because we want to follow Him (not because we want to be seen to follow Him) but one of the blessings of discipleship is the slow fraying of the flaxen cords of Babylon.
By the way, I found some research once (which I cannot find to cite) that found that quantity matters more than quality in happiness matters: small, regular experiences are more important in the long-run than profound-but-rare experiences. I suspect the same is true in spiritual matters, and in matters of courage too. Profound experiences have a short shelf-life, to be refreshed with regular interactions with the divine through service and devotion, or courage and truth-telling.
I hope I teach my children to listen when the community says they are off-base. I hope I teach them to show courage in small, regular ways–so that when the time comes that they need to stand for what they believe, they are not afraid of the costs.
Conclusion: The Joy of Story and Myth
I have, at times, found myself unable to hear the music. I am grateful I can hear it now.
I am a rationalist and an empiricist. I cite studies and I respect research. I am ‘that guy’ when a movie gets the physics wrong or the joke is factually incorrect. None of us gets this right all the time. It’s a little like those who complain that they don’t like Star Wars because it isn’t realistic, but are happy to read romance novels–or those who don’t much care for sappy romance novels, but swoon when Aragorn weds Arwen.
And for all my rationality, I think it’s time to come back to the things of stroy and myth. Stories do more than push behavior, they communicate values and truth, too. President Packer has said, a study of the gospel will change behavior faster than a study of behavior. I suspect this is because it is easier to teach some things by LARPing, cosplay, and “think system” than by explicit instructions.
Especially when it comes to something like dancing.
The stories and the myths and the legends constitute the music in which we perform–and when I struggle to hear the music, sometimes it’s ok to turn up the volume. To be clear, I believe in the literal historicity of The Book of Mormon, and the actual reality of Jesus. My fear is that I turn down the music in order to make sure I haven’t gotten even one step out of rhythm–and losing the joy of the experience in the process.
I think Jesus would correct me for such, much as he corrected Martha. It is not wrong to turn up the volume from time to time–to surround yourself in the music, and worry a little less about the right steps.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Benjamin Pacini is faculty at BYU-Idaho in Elementary, Early, and Special Education. He’s a husband, father of four, general conference aficionado, and occasional writer. Tends toward the “obnoxiously happy” extreme of humanity. Really kind of insufferable about it. Talks too much about economics at dinner parties. Has aspirations to be a muppet.