The First Law of Heaven
© 11 Aug 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Trying to unravel Bruce R. McConkie’s statement, “‍obedience is the first law of heaven.‍”


In his book “‍Mormon Doctrine,‍” At once an audacious and silly title. Audacious because it has no right to define the doctrine of the Mormons and silly because a doctrinaire wouldn’t call them “‍Mormons‍”. Bruce R. McConkie wrote (on page 539)

Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest. It consists in compliance with divine law, in conformity to the mind and will of Deity, in complete subjection to God and his commands.

He wrote it, and for some reason people started quoting it, or at least the first clause. The statement still recurs today.

I have a multiple problems with this statement, not the least of which is the un-cited assertion of prime position. But today I want to post on my problem with the way it is often cited, sans context.

Two Common Interpretations

In the most common reading I hear in conversations, “‍law‍” is taken to mean “‍rule‍” or “‍regulation‍”. Hence, “‍obedience if the fist law of heaven,‍” might more succinctly be rendered “‍Law 1: obey law.‍” This is a pretty silly law; it doesn’t even say anything at all. If I initially planned to obey, the law does nothing. If I initially planned to disobey, likewise it does nothing. It is a great way to make disobedience to any law seem more harsh: break absolutely any law and you also break the first law as well. “‍You had an unkind thought toward an enemy? You just broke the First Law of Heaven!‍”

When someone in a conversation of this sort rocks the boat it is typically by taking “‍law‍” to mean “‍descriptive characterization of reality.‍” Hence the “‍the fist law of heaven‍” parallels “‍Newton’s first law‍”: A tighter parallel:
  Newton: “‍Every action of mater is caused by outside force.‍”
  McConkie: “‍Every action of heaven is aligned with God’s commands.‍”
“‍all heavenly things are obedient (to God)‍”. This, too, becomes something of a vacuous truth: since God has commanded everything from be perfect and be wise to do good things without being told to, any and every good action is in direct line with some divine law.

While I do not consider myself one of McConkie’s leading fans, I have more respect for him as an intellectual than to think he intended either of these void statements as his point.

With Context

McConkie describes what he means by obedience: compliance with, conformity to, and subjection under God’s will. These ideas seem to me to be more often encapsulated under the word “‍humility.‍” Of course, just as we are tempted to incorrectly think of obedience as some sort of robotic predictability, so we often wrest humility into some sort of lack of self-worth and confidence. McConkie’s effort to sidestep that morass is admirable, even if it appears to have failed.

Of all of the myriad titles for deity, the one Christ taught us to use daily in our prayers is “‍Father.‍” I find it instrumental to consider what kind of obedience a father desires in his children. A parent may be happy the children are well behaved out of obedience, but we all hope children will eventually become well behaved because they understand and respect the social norms that make such behavior appropriate. A child that never progresses past subjection to rules would cause considerable disappointment. Less, perhaps, than one who never obeyed any rules at all, but surely not the pinnacle of achievement. Indeed, God made a set of laws that cannot be followed in an entirely rote fashion, commanding us not to limit ourself to commanded activities.

However, God does expect us to obey him not just because we “‍get‍” each commandment, but out of humility and love for Him. He wants us to have those moments of “‍I’d rather not‍” and “‍I don’t get it,‍” and to react to those moments with “‍but I love and trust you, so here I go anyway.‍” He wants us, in short, to be humble or obedient. And until we develop that level of obedience/humility we will never be able to get past the incorrect notions we each carry that separate us from Heaven.

Hence, obedience is indeed a law of HeavenBut first? I still don’t get that bit…; or perhaps I should say willingness to obey, or trust, or humility: this principal, whatever its name, is a prerequisite for the kind of changes we each must undergo to become heavenly beings.

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