The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an interesting mixture of choices and obligations. Most Christian denominations are almost 100% about choice. You can come to church if you want or stay home if you want. What happens to you during the week, as far as your choices of behavior goes, is pretty much up to you. Where are the obligations that go along with the choices we make? Do we really have obligations of obedience to worry about?
The place of the Sabbath
I was marveling the other day at how quickly our Sabbath meetings were over each week. There seems to be this big build up for Sunday, but then the meetings are quickly over and we have another six-day stretch in front of us before we have any other meetings. It was then I caught a glimpse of what a small part of my week the Sunday meetings really are. Rounding up, our Sabbath meetings are only 0.018 of our week. That isn’t even 2% of our entire week! That is hardly anything at all.
This means that the time we spend in Church fellowshipping and associating with other Saints is very minimal. Yet for many, this three hour block comprises the lion’s share of our religious experience for the week. Of the 1.8% of our time each week spent in religious services, only 20 minutes of that time is spent renewing the covenants we made at baptism. That is just a blink of an eye. What are we doing with all that time outside of church each Sunday?
As you have no doubt discovered for yourself, six days of labor can seem like an eternity when it has been a rough week. This makes the diversion from the rest of the week all the more healing and refreshing. We get to go and spend some time with those who believe as we believe, (roughly) think the way we think, and (again, roughly) behave the way we behave. We are in like company with those who are supposed to share our standards and commitments. This is supposed to be a time of spiritual and emotional renewal from the distractions of the week.
For many of us, Sunday is about the only serious exposure to religion we have all week. There are many who treat our Church like other denominations where the time spent in church once a week on Sunday is all that is asked of their members. If their ministers push too hard to have people actually make commitments to do religious things every day of the week, their paycheck soon withers up and blows away, along with the vacating members who are looking for a preacher who won’t require so much of their time and commitments. That may sound harsh, but it is the truth, and a reality all ministers, preachers, pastors, etc. have to deal with. Without a satisfied congregation their job is in peril.
Is what happens on the Sabbath really what our religion is all about? Are we supposed to be able to go to Church and sit there as passive recipients, with no obligations? Are we supposed to be able to attend and just be entertained by the talks and special musical numbers then go home and forget about what the church experience is trying to convey to us for the rest of the week? Where does our church experience fit in with what is supposed to be happening for the rest of the week? Is there supposed to be something happening during the rest of the week? Isn’t religion just about what happens in that little 1.8% of our time on Sunday?
Covenants – a defining difference
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only Christian denomination who has their members make sacred covenants with God. Even baptism in other denominations have no covenants associated with the ordinance. Baptism is just the gateway to membership in other churches. It carries no obligations for which the member being baptized is held accountable. Covenants is what makes the defining difference between the Lord’s way of doing things and man’s way of doing things. The Lord has expectations.
The following is the list of definitions for the word “obligation” from dictionary.com. I have added emphasis to the definitions that I think fit best to our use of the word.
- something by which a person is bound or obliged to do certain things, and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc.
- something that is done or is to be done for such reasons:to fulfill one’s obligations.
- a binding promise, contract, sense of duty, etc.
- the act of binding or obliging oneself by a promise, contract, etc.
- an agreement enforceable by law, originally applied to promises under seal.
- a document containing such an agreement.
- a bond containing a penalty, with a condition annexed for payment of money, performance of covenants, etc.
- any bond, note, bill, certificate, or the like, as of a government or a corporation, serving as evidence of indebtedness.
- an indebtedness or amount of indebtedness.
- a favor, service, or benefit for which gratitude is due.
- a debt of gratitude:He felt an obligation to his teacher.
- the state of being under a debt, as of gratitude, for a favor, service, or benefit.
What is the source of our obligation?
More than any religion in the world, the Latter-day Saints are taught to have a sense of obligation that grows out of a sense of indebtedness from the sacrifice made in our behalf by our Savior. And it isn’t an obligation just from a sense of gratitude. Once we make a covenant with God, it becomes a law unto us. That means there are both rewards and punishments of an eternal nature attached to the covenant. The covenants we make in mortality become part of our judgment in the last day when we are brought to stand before the Savior and answer for the use of our time and agency in mortality. The covenants we make determine which punishments are available to us, as well as which blessings in the eternities are possible for us to obtain.
We are the only church who preaches that the making of covenants and the keeping of those covenants is the difference between those who obtain exaltation and everyone else. If our whole religious life consists of what happens on Sunday, we are in a world of hurt. We cannot keep our covenants only one day a week during a three hour block and expect to go to the Celestial kingdom. Can’t happen.
The truth about the Sabbath
It is true that the Sabbath is a day of rest from our worldly cares. It is supposed to be a day we devote to purely godly pursuits, such as ministering and loving, study and prayer, etc. The meetings we attend are meant to refresh us and strengthen us because we are in the presence and associating with those who believe as we do and have the same goals. We go to Church to strengthen each other for the long six days that are coming up. So the Sabbath day is not meant to be the sum total of our religious experience for the week. It is only supposed to be a day in which we can go and offer (and gain) strength in our associations one with another. We renew our covenants with God, and get a little bit of instruction as a group of covenant-making Saints.
Sunday is also the day Church leaders conduct the majority of the business needed to keep the organization of the kingdom afloat. Temple recommends are given, interviews for callings are extended, new people welcomed into the ward or branch, etc. Too many of us mistakenly believe that this day of Church business is what the Church is all about. Nothing could be further from the truth. What happens on the Sabbath is only a small sliver of what is supposed to be happening in the lives of all Saints each week. Church meetings are only meant to be a blip on the radar compared with what is happening in our religious life the rest of the week.
What about moral agency – choice?
But wait! What about our right to make choices to do or not to do? Isn’t it up to us to choose whether we hold Family Home Evening, attend the temple, study scriptures daily, pray multiple times a day, both in private and with others, or minister to the needs of others around us? Isn’t that the whole point of our moral agency, that we get to choose? The obvious answer is yes, we do get to choose. But what we need to remember is that all choices made with that agency have eternal consequences attached to them. We would be wise to never forget that every moral choice, which means every choice between good and evil, has an eternal consequence that comes with that choice. We cannot say that I will not pray today because it is inconvenient, and not have a spiritual consequence affect us as a result.
When we choose to use our agency to make a covenant, we have legally bound ourselves to a course of action that has eternal consequences, both blessings and punishments. Remember that covenants are only for those who want to become like our Father in Heaven and live with God and Christ, and our spouse for all eternity. No one else needs covenants. Covenants are only for those with a Celestial goal. Therefore, those who declare, through the covenants they make, their candidacy for godhood, their religious practices had better be of a higher caliber than the average Christian where church on Sunday is sufficient for the week.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a church which is filled with those who have expressed a desire, and were willing to covenant with God, that they want to be like him, and are willing to keep all the commandments, following the prophets and obeying their counsel and instruction. We are supposed to be a people who are all striving for exaltation. If this is not something you want then this is not the Church for you, for this Church is all about covenants and obligations.
So what about our right to choose? It doesn’t go away. The important point here is that we use our right to choose to commit ourselves to a particular course of action. Once used to covenant with God to do certain things, to choose to act against what we covenanted to do, brings the punishments of God upon us. Moral agency is not a condition of being in a moral free-for-all. Agency once exercised brings with that choice consequences. We must always remember that every choice brings with it consequences. Before we do something we have already covenanted not to do, it would be well if we considered that we are freely accepting the consequences of our new choice. For we have already promised to act otherwise.
For example, when we covenanted to keep the commandments that includes keeping the Sabbath day holy. Can we really think that violating that day by shopping, going to sporting events, concerts, or camping, etc. will leave us untouched by the consequences of breaking the law by which we are now held accountable? Every covenant includes a new set of celestial-based laws for us to live. Once we commit to living those laws, violating them will bring the punishments associated with those laws upon us.
But again, I have focused on something that just affects the Sabbath. Old habits die hard. Every choice I make between good and evil, and even between evil and evil or good verses good, brings with it consequences because of the covenants I have made. Choosing between something good and something much better is not so much of an issue because that is a matter of maturing in spiritual things. But when I choose to participate in things damaging to my soul during the week, whether by the places I choose to go or the things I choose to do, my covenants determine my punishment or my blessings. Note that it isn’t all just about the punishments. Covenants also bring blessings. This is why we made the covenants in the first place, we wanted the blessings that came with them.
The rest of the week
This is my point. Sunday worship is only a tiny sliver of our lives each week. The bulk of our worship and practice of godly virtues make up the other six days of the week. Are we even aware of what we are doing to honor our covenants during those other six days? Are we taking our worship and our attitudes of worship as seriously Monday through Saturday as we take it on Sunday? If we only take it seriously one day a week then we really are a Sunday Christian.
Covenants make living our religion a seven days a week choice. We need to be just as serious about the choices we make on Tuesday afternoon or Thursday morning as we are about the choices we make on Sunday when it is time to go to our meetings. Our evenings need to be just as full of religious devotion (internally, if not externally) as they are during Sacrament meeting. We need to be constant in our attitudes and our commitments to live according to the covenants we have made. Then when we attend Church on Sunday we will be able to offer spiritual and emotional support to our fellow Saints as we come together to worship as a body of Christians.
Other denominations may be all about choice, but we use our choice to commit ourselves through covenant to a particular path of discipleship. Once chosen we are judged by the covenants we have made. Yes, we can always choose to something different, but we need to remember that once chosen, covenants change the way in which we are judged. They elevate us to a higher standard of expectation by the Lord. He expects better of us than of those who have not yet made those commitments. We keep our covenants, hopefully, not out of a sense of reward and punishment, but out of a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to learn of godly ways and to receive the blessings of the righteous.