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How My Mission Taught Me It’s Possible to Be too Obedient

by | May 16, 2017

Makes You Think

I grew up the son of a professional football player father and a mother who was a model. And while I, unfortunately, inherited my dad’s looks and mother’s athletic ability—I did learn that I can accomplish a lot by working hard and doing the right thing.

Because of this, when I went on my mission, it was going to be easy.

All I needed to do was be obedient. There was the white handbook, the mission president’s guidelines, and everything I needed to do to be perfect 100 percent of the time. Easy.

Plus, “obedience is the first law of heaven” (Preach My Gospel p.122). It was all about obedience first, before anything else. But for some reason, once I actually got out into the mission field, my plan of obedience didn’t seem to be working and I wasn’t getting along with my companions.

I didn’t understand why they got frustrated when I was kneeling at the door one minute before we were supposed to leave as they were still rushing around getting ready. After all, we were supposed to be obedient and leave on time.

I didn’t understand why they got frustrated when I would cut a lesson short because we had been there for an hour exactly. After all, we were supposed to be obedient and leave on time.

I didn’t understand why they got frustrated when I wouldn’t respond to them in English when they asked about my life and family while we were walking on the streets. After all, we were supposed to be obedient and only speak Russian on the street.

My discouragement and confusion climaxed when I was sent a young companion who was stressed, unsure in his testimony, and missed home. He ended up hating his time with me so much that, after an emergency transfer, he went home.

Despite my efforts for perfect obedience and my expectation of seeing blessings come from it, I felt like a total failure. My entire foundation of how I went about life started to crumble.

I began searching—begging, really—for answers from God. He turned me to Matthew 22:36, where Christ was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”

Christ’s response was a spiritual rebuke for my feigned self-righteous quest for obedience: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Although I was familiar with the scripture, a question came to my mind, "Wait…shouldn’t that say obedience?" But “obedience” wasn’t His answer.

Christ’s response was love.

My entire life was changed in that moment. Yes, obedience is the first law, but love is the greatest. I realized that if I had to choose between 100 percent by-the-book obedience and love, at the judgment bar it would be a lot easier to justify love.

I decided that instead of being at the door a minute early, I would shine my companion’s shoes.

Instead of leaving members’ houses at the hour mark, I would stay for as long as was needed for the Spirit to speak.

Instead of focusing on speaking Russian, I would focus on getting to know my companions.

With these decisions, I wasn’t as focused on checking a thousand boxes a day but focused on the moment and on the heart. My companions went from being difficult to get along with to my best friends. Members went from being a frustration to being an inspiration. Obedience stopped being a source of stress and started being a way to show that love.

Now, if I ever had to choose between obedience and love—I would always choose love. Because at the judgment bar, I think God is going to be a lot more understanding of being a little late if it was because I stopped to show love. After all, didn’t Christ do that same thing in 3 Nephi 17?

My whole heart was lifted and the work became a joy—not a checklist. The second half of my mission definitely began to look brighter.

Now I strive to evaluate my actions—and my heart especially. I work to keep my perspective and not get so caught up in my quest for perfect obedience that I forget my motives for that obedience. Thomas S. Monson summed my realization up when he said, “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved” (“Finding Joy in the Journey,” Ensign, Oct. 2008).

While the first year was probably the worst year of my life, the second was one of the best; all because I learned this one simple principle.

So let us evaluate our actions, yes—but our heart, especially. Let us keep perspective and not be so caught up in our quest to do everything right, that we don’t question our motives.

Lead photo from Getty Images
Zack oates

Zack Oates

Zack Oates is an entrepreneur, newly minted husband, hot tubber, and blogger (but not in that order, necessarily). He lived in Ukraine for two years serving an LDS mission and started a nonprofit in 2008 called Courage to Hope, which works with victims of domestic violence. After working at an ad agency in NYC, he founded his first company. Four years later, he sold that startup and returned to BYU for his MBA. He has been a founder of seven other startups, rung the NASDAQ bell, has been to 36 countries across 6 continents and currently lives in Salt Lake City with his wife working as a consultant for the LDS church and on his own business.

Check out his new book, Dating Never Works. . .Until It Does, or his blog, bowlofoates.com.

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