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Finding Gold, and Other Thoughts on Following Leaders

October 18, 2007

Uh, all I want to say is ditto to what John said. But I suppose that isn’t sufficient to be called a post.

Anyone who knows me in this realm we call the bloggernacle knows that I’m a pretty passionate prophet follower. As such, I think there are some who may think that I’m into blind obedience, and that I somehow perfectionize our leaders.

Neither assumption is true.

And John’s post explains why. Why do I feel so strongly about following them? It’s not because I think they are perfect, or that they are somehow not prone to human weakness. I have faith that following them is what I’m supposed to do, and that they are called of God to guide us. I have found that when I follow them, I find peace, perspective and power in my life.

I have long believed that if we could truly figure everything out on our own, we wouldn’t need prophets. Perhaps there are those in the Church who have so much of the gift of prophecy and revelation that they are already in line with the Lord’s teachings that they need no extra guidance, but I think that isn’t where most of us are. No, actually, I think we all need their guidance, and, come to think of it, Elder Holland said as much in April’s Conference this year.

Anyway, it stands to reason in my mind that some of the things they say will simply need to be taken on faith, at least at first. Some things may not even “make sense” to us on the outset. There may be scientific or other opinions of the day that seem to counter the counsel. But as we have recently discussed, would following require faith if we had a perfect knowledge and understanding of what prophets teach and ask us to do? Would it really be faith if it all ‘made sense’ and what they taught was always something we could just reason through on our own?

I try to imagine what it must have been like to watch Noah spend day after day building an ark, prophesying that some disastrous flood was coming. Or to hear Moses say that healing could come by simply looking at a serpent on a pole. Or to stand with him as he parted the Red Sea (try getting a scientist to explain that one!). Or to really accept what Paul taught about taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Or to trust Brother Joseph even when being driven from place to place? Or to follow Brigham Young into the desert valley that he had declared the right place. Imagine how easy it could have been to rationalize away any of these situations (and countless others from scripture and Church history). How easy to think, “Well, they are only people. They could be wrong. This sounds too far-fetched, or seems to out of touch. Wouldn’t it have been easy to even think that some of these things were bordering on ridiculous?

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to have this man named Jesus come and declare Himself the Son of God. Jesus? The carpenter’s son? This man with no political position or power? This man who says that HE is the one fulfilling sacred prophecies of our beloved Isaiah? Can this man really be the Chosen One, when He’s not doing what we expected the Deliverer to do. When He is trying to teach a whole new law? To change the law!

Again, I come back to John’s post, because he hits home a point that is so profound. Following the prophets is primarily an issue of faith. But then again, so is following Christ. It’s all tied together in my mind.

With John’s post as a backdrop to my thoughts, I hope I won’t get fired if I share some quotes that have become guideposts in my life with this issue of following leaders. These quotes to me give much insight into what it means to follow, why it is important, and even how we can approach and test their words.

One of the sneaky ploys of the adversary is to have us believe that unquestioning obedience to the principles and commandments of God is blind obedience…. [He persuades us] that “blindly” following the prophets and obeying the commandments is not thinking for ourselves. He teaches that it is not intelligent to do something just because we are told to do so by a living prophet or by prophets who speak to us from the scriptures.

Our unquestioning obedience to the Lord’s commandments is not blind obedience. President Boyd K. Packer in the April conference of 1983 taught us about this: “Latter-day Saints are not obedient because they are compelled to be obedient. They are obedient because they know certain spiritual truths and have decided, as an expression of their own individual agency, to obey the commandments of God. … We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see” (“Agency and Control,” Ensign, May 1983, 66).

We might call this “faith obedience.” With faith, Abraham was obedient in preparing Isaac for sacrifice; with faith, Nephi was obedient in obtaining the brass plates; with faith, a little child obediently jumps from a height into the strong arms of his father. “Faith obedience” is a matter of trust. The question is simple: Do we trust our Heavenly Father? Do we trust our prophets? (R. Conrad Schultz, “Faith Obedience,” Ensign, May 2002, 29)

When I talk of following the prophets, I’m not talking about something done blindly. I’ve made a deliberate choice to follow I should add that my unquestioning following should not be misunderstood as following without thought. I ponder and consider their words carefully. In all of my study, in all of my experience, I have simply found that the fruits of following are sweet.

I made the choice to follow when I was a teenager, after receiving my patriarchal blessing. I can honestly say that whenever I have followed the prophets, I have felt blessed. I have felt perspective and understanding increase. I have felt faith increase. All of this intensifies my desire to follow them, even if things don’t make sense to me at first. Following, for me, is good, and I know that with a perfect knowledge. 🙂

This is reminiscent of a favorite talk of mine, from our beloved now-President Eyring. I have a quote from this talk hanging on my kitchen wall.

It’s one of those talks that I wish I could just reprint here in its entirety. Here, I’ll share a few highlights.

Every time in my life when I have chosen to delay following inspired counsel or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harm’s way. Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety. Along the path, I have found that the way had been prepared for me and the rough places made smooth. God led me to safety along a path which was prepared with loving care, sometimes prepared long before.

This has been my experience as well. And it’s experience that builds on itself. I like to think that there is some element of practice that can come into play. It’s something we can try, test; it can be approached as an “experiment.” I think this kind of “practice” is a way to exercise faith.

Sobering to note is that, according Elder Eyring (and I think scripture and history reinforce this principle time and time again), following is essential to our spiritual safety.

There seems to be no end to the Savior’s desire to lead us to safety. And there is constancy in the way He shows us the path. He calls by more than one means so that it will reach those willing to accept it. And those means always include sending the message by the mouths of His prophets whenever people have qualified to have the prophets of God among them. Those authorized servants are always charged with warning the people, telling them the way to safety.

I have found that the more I follow, the easier it is to follow. Elder Eyring explains that this practice is essential to being able to follow prophetic counsel in the future. He says:

Another fallacy is to believe that the choice to accept or not accept the counsel of prophets is no more than deciding whether to accept good advice and gain its benefits or to stay where we are. But the choice not to take prophetic counsel changes the very ground upon which we stand. It becomes more dangerous. The failure to take prophetic counsel lessens our power to take inspired counsel in the future. The best time to have decided to help Noah build the ark was the first time he asked. Each time he asked after that, each failure to respond would have lessened sensitivity to the Spirit. And so each time his request would have seemed more foolish, until the rain came. And then it was too late.

In a different talk, Elder Eyring said that “it will become harder, not easier, to keep [our] covenants.” I can’t help but think that also means that it will become harder, not easier, to follow the prophets.

But how do we know if they really are speaking for the Lord? This is a common question I hear, at least in the bloggernacle. Elder Eyring gave a clear, easily-applied test to help us discern when counsel is really coming from the Lord. He says:

One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.

Whenever I hear something that might cause me pause, I consider it against other counsel we have received. I watch for patterns; they show up ALL of the time! We can never take a talk in isolation; each must be considered in context with other counsel we have heard. This includes present counsel and past counsel. If we are familiar with the counsel, it can become clear when the law of witnesses has been invoked. We can then know on what to “rivet our attention.” This helps cut through the clutter and confusion of conflicting voices so common in our culture today.

Another thought is something I will only touch on here. (I wrote about this on my blog earlier this year.) I believe that we can analyze and ponder (and even discuss) what leaders say without being critical of them. Critical thinking is not the same as being critical, but then again, sorting through what our leaders’ say requires more than just critical thinking. It requires faith and the Spirit. I believe a critical spirit hinders the Spirit and also can undermine the divine callings imperfect individuals fill (see Elder Oaks’ talk linked in my blog post) .

Forgive me for one more quote from Elder Eyring’s talk. I love this because he recognizes that sometimes counsel we hear just may not sit well for one reason or another. I think he gives good, concrete guidance for such a situation. He says:

Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel, but hold it close. If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear and I have been grateful.

I know that compiling a bunch of quotes is not always preferred posting protocol. But sharing these quotes is the clearest way I could communicate my thoughts about this important topic.

If I were to sum up my thoughts, I would just say that I have found gold by following the prophets and my life is rich as a result. I am profoundly grateful to live in a day when there are prophets and other inspired leaders to guide us.

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10 comments

  1. A quick hypothetical:

    Let’s say that a Church leader asks you to do something that is immoral (such as lying). Would it be more moral to obey the leader and perform the act, or to disobey the leader and not perform the act?


  2. I’d say do what the Spirit directs. Hypotheticals like this are always problematic for that reason…because there is no pat answer on what to do since the Spirit is such a factor in the whole process.

    I also think it’s a bit far-fetched, at least when considering general leaders (even more specifically the prophets, seers and revelators), and my post was mainly directed at what it means to follow them.

    What would be your answer to your question, Steve? 🙂


  3. I also would add that this example would be another benefit of the law of witnesses. If one leader says something, I am more apt to really study and ponder and seek the Spirit’s guidance. When I hear repetition, the Spirit reaffirms to me that this is a divine pattern of teaching and that I can trust what is being said.


  4. In my hypothetical, I was pretty much presupposing that the Spirit would confirm that the action requested of you was indeed immoral.

    I also think it’s a bit far-fetched

    Here we fall into the trap described in Ann’s post (and in mine, briefly). Saying that a leader wouldn’t ask you to do something wrong in the first place is a non-answer. And I’m sure the Mountain Meadows participants would probably beg to differ.

    How would I answer the question? I would say, if you’re confident that it’s immoral, then don’t do it. An immoral act doesn’t become moral if it’s done in obedience to a leader. In other words, obedience doesn’t have any moral value independent of the action performed.


  5. If I knew it was immoral, and the Spirit confirmed as much, and as such told me not to follow, I wouldn’t.

    I still hold to my two points, though. My post was mainly concerned with following prophets; I do think there is a smaller margin for error at their level of leadership PARTICULARLY when the law of witnesses has been invoked.

    But I do think that MMM is a pretty overused example of the supposed trouble that could come from following leaders. The exception doesn’t change the rule, it just means that sometimes there is an exception.

    To be honest, though, one of the reasons I didn’t give a concrete answer is because one of the things that came to mind was the theory that the Savior commanded Peter to deny knowing Christ to protect himself and the Church. Suppose for a moment that theory was true, that presents a bit of a conundrum with your last paragraph, isn’t it?

    Is it ever right to do something held to be wrong if done in obedience to the Lord? The opposite to MMM would be Nephi being commanded to kill. Pretty heavy stuff, these exceptions. In my mind, we ought not toss around hypotheticals so lightly because the exceptions are usually pretty extreme. We deal with the rule unless the Spirit really confirms an exception. It’s really that simple to me.


  6. didn’t give a concrete answer is because one of the things that came to mind was the theory that the Savior commanded Peter to deny knowing Christ to protect himself and the Church. Suppose for a moment that theory was true, that presents a bit of a conundrum with your last paragraph, isn’t it?

    No, it really wouldn’t present much of a problem. If Peter’s denial of Christ really was necessary to protect himself and to preserve the Church, then it was a morally justifiable action. Under this hypothetical, the element of obedience isn’t what makes Peter’s action moral. Rather, it’s the purpose, effect, etc., of the action itself.

    Is it ever right to do something held to be wrong if done in obedience to the Lord? The opposite to MMM would be Nephi being commanded to kill.

    The Nephi/Laban example is just like the Peter theory you suggested. In each scenario, the actor is required to do something that would normally be immoral in order to serve some higher or more important purpose. According to the BoM, killing Laban was necessary to preserve the scriptures for Nephi’s posterity. Thus, it is not the element of obedience that justifies the action, but the higher purpose which it serves. And this actually goes to serve the point I raised–that obedience, in and of itself, does not change the moral value of an action. The morality of the action depends upon its intent, nature, effects, and so on

    To hold otherwise is to make morality arbitrary. For instance, let’s say that my bishop asks me to lie (and not for some higher purpose, as in the Peter/Nephi examples above). Were I to lie of my own volition, it would be immoral. But if I lie in obedience to my bishop, does that make it moral? I don’t think so. Obedience to my leader doesn’t magically turn the lie into a moral action. That’s why I say that obedience doesn’t have any inherent moral value.

    But if your answer to the question is yes–that the fact that I lied in obedience to my bishop’s counsel is enough to morally justify the lie–then that makes morality dependent upon authority. In other words, an authority figure prescribes morality by virtue of his authority. Under this view, chastity isn’t moral because it preserves the sanctity of sex, prevents unwanted pregnancy, or any other such reason; it’s moral simply because someone in authority defines it as such. I don’t think this view sits well with Mormon theology. As Mormons believe that even God Himself is bound by certain laws, I don’t think we can simultaneously believe in arbitrary morality.


  7. By the way, m&m, I’m sorry if I’m coming off as contentious. I’m really not trying to be. As always, I appreciate your well-thought-out and well-articulated posts. This seems to be an issue over which we usually don’t see eye to eye.


  8. “If Peter’s denial of Christ really was necessary to protect himself and to preserve the Church, then it was a morally justifiable action. Under this hypothetical, the element of obedience isn’t what makes Peter’s action moral. Rather, it’s the purpose, effect, etc., of the action itself.”

    That’s great and all but suppose Christ was the one who knew this and not Peter. Left to his own reasoning he makes the wrong choice by not trusting the Savior. As fond as people are of hypotheticals where obedience is a problem, they never seem to want to consider that at times the reverse may be true as well. Isn’t life complicated?


  9. Steve, no worries as long as you know I’m feeling the same way.

    Doc, you have voiced one of my thoughts. I wonder how much we would stand behind the prophet were he another Nephi, for example, saying that the Lord actually commanded him to take someone’s life in order to do something for what he said was ‘the greater good.’ I imagine Nephi’s action didn’t look all that reasonable at the time.

    I think, also, of those who argue that polygamy was not moral, or that working to protect traditional marriage by taking a stand is somehow wrong, or…. I have heard people complain that both of these prophetically-guided teachings/practices were somehow wrong and therefore should not be supported (either retroactively or in the now).

    I don’t disagree that most leaders don’t really have the authority to define morality in the capital-M sense. But I do believe prophets can and do do this at times, sometimes to the dismay of some. Morality is ultimately within the realm of God’s Truth, and so in the end, His mouthpieces are best suited to define this where there is a question.

    This is different from a crazy local leader asking someone to do something that is truly wrong. But the Spirit could help one know if that were truly the case, if one was truly open to the Spirit.

    I think relative morality in a culture (and that mortals are subject to) makes agreeing on one definition of morality difficult, which makes any absolute assertion about what arbitrary morality really looks like. IMO. 🙂


  10. That’s great and all but suppose Christ was the one who knew this and not Peter. Left to his own reasoning he makes the wrong choice by not trusting the Savior. As fond as people are of hypotheticals where obedience is a problem, they never seem to want to consider that at times the reverse may be true as well. Isn’t life complicated?

    We’ve already referred to the roles of personal deliberation, the Spirit, etc., in determining whether an action that a leader requests of us is morally justified. If Peter paid attention to not only his own reasoning but also spiritual promptings (a la Nephi in the Laban-killing incident), then he wouldn’t have to blindly obey Christ’s command. He could deny Christ with the assurance that, in that instance, it was morally justified.

    And let’s say that Peter purely acted on blind faith. While I wouldn’t advise doing so, it still would not contradict my earlier point–that obedience would not be the agent that turns denying Christ from an immoral to a moral action. Whether Peter was aware of it or not, the moral justification for denying Christ would not be the mere element of obedience, but rather, that denying Christ was necessary for the both Peter’s and the Church’s survival. My point holds true–that obedience, in and of itself, is insufficient to turn an otherwise immoral action into a moral one.

    I don’t disagree that most leaders don’t really have the authority to define morality in the capital-M sense. But I do believe prophets can and do do this at times, sometimes to the dismay of some. Morality is ultimately within the realm of God’s Truth, and so in the end, His mouthpieces are best suited to define this where there is a question.

    But assuming that morality is “ultimately within the realm of God’s Truth,” then His mouthpieces, in “defining” morality, are really just describing a standard of morality that is higher than themselves and exists independent of their authority. In LDS theology, prophets don’t make morality; they reveal it. It’s an important distinction.

    But the Spirit could help one know if that were truly the case, if one was truly open to the Spirit.

    I think that’s something we are agreeing upon. That, ultimately, the individual has the responsibility to figure out (through study, prayer, the Spirit, and so on) whether or not a questionable teaching is moral. Which, of course, implies that indiscriminately performing the requested action in obedience to the leader’s command does not guarantee its morality.



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