I have had this post in my mind and heart for months now, and I feel that it’s time to finally write it.

Here is the short version: God knows all the stories, and He makes laws anyway. When I stand as a witness of God, I witness of His love. And also, yes, of His laws.

And here is the long version. I am sorry but it does read a little like a Sacrament Meeting talk. Pretend it’s not, though; pretend we’re having lunch together and you’re my good friend who listens to me rant and philosophize about what I’ve been thinking of the challenging issues I’ve read about lately, putting my ideas into a framework that works for me. This is me explaining how I make sense of difficult questions.

I. God of Stories
I believe in a God of stories. By this I mean not story as lie, as fairy tale, as amusement, but rather a deep and perfect understanding of the loves, hates, joys, weaknesses, and power of all His billions of children. It is this perfect knowledge of my story that I feel when I experience a powerful sense of God’s love and mercy.

When I channel that love, I assume that everyone has a story, that the person who gets upset over seemingly irrational things must also have a reason for this. If I knew all the stories, all the layers of reasons and whys behind every choice, I would look with compassion and mercy on those around me.

I have always loved stories, and it is a great source of comfort to me to realize that God does, too.

He loves His children and he loves our stories. We are commanded to write our stories, to discover our ancestors’ stories, that we may “learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning [our] parents.” (Jacob 4:3)

The Savior knows our stories; his earthly experience gave him perfect, eternal empathy. (See Alma 7:11-12)

II. God of Laws
I also believe that God is a God of laws. When we “stand as witnesses of God” (Mosiah 18:9-10) we witness of His love and also, when needed, of His laws.

He has given us a lot of laws. We are commanded to become good, not just do good things: to allow performance of the laws to change our hearts. The same Savior who carried our burdens and has infinite compassion has also taught us to keep His commandments. From Elder Holland:

At the zenith of His mortal ministry, Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” To make certain they understood exactly what kind of love that was, He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” and “whosoever … shall break one of [the] least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be … the least in the kingdom of heaven.” Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it.

I believe we are asked to keep the commandments, not in spite of our stories, but because of them. That our infinitely compassionate God has given us laws and rules and commandments, even knowing the stories that will complicate our obedience to His word. The Savior’s perfect empathy does not change or lessen the law; rather, a complete understanding of our stories gives Him the right to require our obedience.

III. Paradox:
What’s hardest for me is those many times when story and law conflict. Sometimes it seems like people are saying, in essence, “This is my story (or her story, his story, their story. We can be most passionate in defense of others’ heartaches.). Keeping the law is really hard because of my story. The law should not apply to me.” I think of a piece in the New York Times a while ago about a Mormon who decided to stop keeping the law of chastity. Because of her story, of loneliness and frustration, she no longer felt able to stay faithful to that law.

Part of me wanted to say, honey, you were right. Go get yourself some loving.

But, no matter what the story or the reason, changing God’s laws is not my call. I don’t get to change them. I don’t get to change the law of chastity, and neither does anyone else. It is still a law.

I get to love everyone, to know and try to understand their stories, but I don’t get to change the rules. Or apologize for them.

God knows their stories and He made the rules anyway. I am a witness of God’s love; I am also a witness of His laws. I believe that in the end, they are two faces of the same thing.

Emily M.

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

24 Comments

  1. Michelle

    July 1, 2014

    Emily, thank you. This tension — THIS — this is what we need more writing and talking about. Because both love and law matter, and both make up who God is. Makes me think of Elder Oaks’ talk, Love and Law.

    God is found in the tension. I believe that to the core of my soul. Thank you, thank you.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Michelle, I thought about Elder Oaks when writing this post. I feel the tension as well. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Amira

    July 1, 2014

    Thank you. This tension is hard to deal with. I love the stories too, but they don’t change the laws. I am grateful that God knows everyone’s stories and I have faith that those laws will be applied justly and mercifully. I’m really, really glad that I don’t have to be the one to figure out how to do that, because it seems like some people are dealt a much harder hand than others.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Amira, yes–“I have faith that those laws will be applied justly and mercifully.” For me, that’s a really important part of faith–thanks for articulating it so well.

  3. Cheri

    July 1, 2014

    Emily, this lovely essay will stay with me a long time. It’s such a helpful way to think about the paradox, and it applies to so many challenging, complicated issues and situations. The title also makes the concept really sticky (easy to remember). Thank you for taking time to write it and for being will to share. I’ve already passed it along to several people. Love you.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Thanks, Cheri.

  4. Jes

    July 1, 2014

    Love it. I agree with Michelle that we need more discussion of the interplay of love and law. I think it’s related to something my roommie and I discuss often: what do you do when there’s a disparity between the apparent law and the individual need? She tends towards “If there’s something wrong, I need to evaluate myself and figure out how to realign to the law in a way that resolves the wrong-feeling.” I tend toward “If there’s something wrong, I need to evaluate my situation and figure out how to fix it so that I feel well again.” In simpler terms, which is your primary instrument: the Law, or Yourself?

    For me, I think a big reason I tend towards Self (even though teenage-Jes would have been way more inclined to Law than Self) is because I’ve had to learn how to trust my body for my physical needs. I have chronic digestive problems, and often times the best way to stay well is to “listen” to my stomach–my literal gut feeling–about what to eat, even if what I eat goes against conventional wisdom and health practices. For my health, I’ve learned that The Law does not regard me, and My Self is what keeps me healthiest. This has carried over to the way I deal with spiritual things, too. It’s no coincidence that my faith crisis and my digestive crises map back to the same time (May 2012).

    However, I am now beginning to examine the potential benefits of following the Law more strongly with the hope that I can align My Self to it. Yes, my gut feeling may be right when it says that goldfish crackers are a-okay and broccoli is death, but that’s just in the short term. If I want to improve my health, a painful realignment process may be necessary. Physically and spiritually, I need a holistic repentance.

    But whence shall I find my courage to take the plunge and the strength to endure it?

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Jes, how interesting, the way you and your roommate approach things differently: self-evaluation versus situational evaluation. I think that applies very well to this. I also like the body/spirit comparison; I think it’s very apt, especially the “painful realignment process” idea. Thank you!

  5. Shelah

    July 1, 2014

    This is great, Emily. I tend to be so swayed by stories that I sometimes prioritize them over the laws. This helps me reframe their relationship.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      I tend to be swayed by stories too. For me this year, this reframing has been an important bolster to my faith.

  6. Kerri

    July 1, 2014

    I really appreciate this perspective. I especially loved this sentence:

    “The Savior’s perfect empathy does not change or lessen the law; rather, a complete understanding of our stories gives Him the right to require our obedience.”

    And what Shelah said…exactly.

    I am very grateful for you taking the time to think this through and share it with us.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Thanks, Kerri.

  7. Teresa Bruce

    July 1, 2014

    Emily, thank you for beautifully presenting these thoughts.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Thanks for reading, Teresa.

  8. Juliana

    July 1, 2014

    Ah (in the sense of a grateful sigh)…Thank you for this.

    And, while it was a parenthetical point in your piece, it is interesting that it is easier to be philosophical about our own stories while we get passionate about the stories of other people.

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Juliana, I find myself getting really emotional over stories that are not my own. I’m not sure why, but I do it all the time. It feels less risky, maybe, to defend someone else’s cause than to put myself out there for things I personally care about.

  9. Jennifer B.

    July 1, 2014

    Thank you Emily. What a thoughtful piece–I love it!

    • Emily M.

      July 2, 2014

      Thanks, Jennifer!

  10. Kristine

    July 2, 2014

    It seems to me that Jesus erred on the side of stories almost every time there was a conflict with the law. And he explicitly and deliberately broke the law of Moses to make the point. Most of his parables involve trespassing law and convention.

    Peter and Paul tussle over the importance of law, but even they eventually decide that stories are more important:

    “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”

    ” I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”

    I think human beings need working laws for making functional communities, but I don’t think we can invoke Jesus as a justification when we crush people by applying the law imprecisely (as we will necessarily do every time, since there is only One capable of judging righteous judgment.) Even though Jesus says “keep my commandments,” he is on the record saying that the only two commandments (on which hang all the law and the prophets) are loving God and loving your neighbor.

    The real tension, maybe is between Jehovah of the Old Testament and Jesus, but it seems to me that working out that tension is a largely theoretical (theological and exegetical) exercise, and the only tension we have to work out in real life is between the commandment to love and our own inability to love as Jesus did.

  11. Emily M.

    July 2, 2014

    Kristine, I suspect we see this issue so differently that we will not come to an agreement about it. Here’s a few thoughts I’ve had on reading your comment, though.
    1-My understanding of Peter and Paul’s discussion of law was that they differed not so much over Law in the larger, cosmic sense, as I have used it, but in the very law-of-Moses specific sense. Should new Christians be obligated to keep the Law of Moses or not? And the answer, in the specific case of unclean meat you cite, as well as others, was not. This seems quite different, though, than disregarding Law.
    2- I’m wondering, also, how you would interpret Alma’s teachings to Corianton in Alma 42:13-25. I like the way Alma developed his ideas, and I kind of lifted the heart of my post from that section.

    Mercy cannot rob justice, or God would cease to be God. Story and law, balanced, with the Atonement making it possible for the repentant to fulfill the law, and access mercy.
    Would you say that we shouldn’t teach story and law, or mercy and justice, that they are things that we should worry about only as applies to ourselves but never with regards to others’ behavior?
    I don’t get that from Alma here. He takes great pains to explain justice to Corianton—Corianton has a story—he was led astray by Isabel—but Alma rejects that story, saying that the laws that come into play, specifically the law of chastity, weigh more than Corianton’s story.
    3-On judging righteously—it’s true that there is only One capable of judging righteous judgement, and yet we’re counseled to try anyway. In Moroni 7 we are supposed to try, and we are counseled to practice charity, that we may see eye to eye, as the Savior sees. I would not want to “invoke Jesus as a justification when we crush people by applying the law imprecisely,” and yet, if the alternative is failure to apply and teach the law, I think that is also in error. We will inevitably stumble, and yet we need to teach both mercy and justice, because without both of them God would cease to be God.
    4-That tension between the commandment to love and our own inability to do so is real, and ever present. For me, though, the mercy/justice tension is not at all theoretical, but very real as well.

  12. Kristine

    July 3, 2014

    We don’t actually disagree all that much, Michelle. I’m just less confident of our ability to have any idea which laws are applicable in someone else’s circumstances, and to understand and articulate those laws in a helpful way. Human beings seem to mostly use laws as blunt instruments to inflict order on the chaos of mortal life–a fine pastime when applied to one’s own life; a bit dangerous when trying to make sense of experiences that are not one’s own.

  13. Catherine A.

    July 7, 2014

    Oh Emily! How did I miss this? Out of town. That’s how. You are brilliant. And I love your paradox made compatible. Of stories and laws. It is beautiful, and I believe, true.

  14. Kristine

    July 8, 2014

    Why did I call you MIchelle???! Sorry, Emily!

  15. Sage

    July 22, 2014

    Thanks. Love this. Love the teaching from Alma. Love being a Mormon as it guides my story with the all-knowing Being’s laws given of love to me so there is some small chance I can develop into the child he wants me to be.

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