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Elder Dallin H. Oaks on Love and Law

October 11, 2009
Elder Oaks

Elder Oaks

Oaks’s Saturday Afternoon talk on Love and Law was originally difficult for me to get through, so I wondered if I would even cover it. However, I realized that precisely because it was difficult on a first read, I had to go back through it. And so, this is the next in my General Conference for Nonbelievers series…

As always, many bloggers have addressed this talk (some indirectly — read this last link if not any others).

Oaks begins with pointed examples of times when people confuse love and law:

  • A young adult in a cohabitation relationship tells grieving parents, “If you really loved me, you would accept me and my partner just like you accept your married children.”
  • A youth reacts to parental commands or pressure by declaring, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t force me.”

Let’s look at the second bullet point first. Is this really a confusion of love and law at all?

According to the LDS framework, God actually doesn’t force us, because he loves us! Since he really loves us, he doesn’t force us. He gives us agency, and we are free to choose our actions (but not free to choose the consequences), and we know that the person who would’ve forced us is the adversary, not our greatest ally. So, I don’t know why Oaks calls this youth’s reaction a confusion…it is actually totally consistent with the gospel.

But going to the first point, we don’t choose our consequences. So if a person acts a certain way, then he might face adverse reactions (like, being shut out of his parents’ presence). The question is: what does true love truly consist of in this case?

Elder Oaks explains his position:

These persons disbelieve eternal laws which they consider contrary to their concept of the effect of God’s love. Persons who take this position do not understand the nature of God’s love or the purpose of His laws and commandments. The love of God does not supersede His laws and His commandments, and the effect of God’s laws and commandments does not diminish the purpose and effect of His love. The same should be true of parental love and rules.

OK, fair enough (although then we get into a hairy situation: what does omnibenevolent mean? What is all loving if we can clearly point out limitations?). The main issue is what are the eternal laws? Elder Oaks speaks from the vantage point that the laws that he and the church espouses are the eternal laws, but nonbelievers need not be constrained by this specific message. In fact, even believing members can recognize that church leaders may see through a glass, darkly, and with limited understanding. With continuing revelation, this shouldn’t be a shocker but an expectation.

Mercy cannot rob justice, Oaks points out, so love should not be expected to absolve one’s responsibility from the law. As Oaks says:

God’s love is so perfect that He lovingly requires us to obey His commandments because He knows that only through obedience to His laws can we become perfect, as He is. For this reason, God’s anger and His wrath are not a contradiction of His love but an evidence of His love. Every parent knows that you can love a child totally and completely while still being creatively angry and disappointed at that child’s self-defeating behavior.

So…God gets angry because he cares? Is this even defensible? Well, from reading or listening to President Monson’s talk counseling us to avoid anger, I wouldn’t have guessed so. What did Monson have to say about anger?

To be angry is to yield to the influence of Satan. No one can make us angry. It is our choice. If we desire to have a proper spirit with us at all times, we must choose to refrain from becoming angry. I testify that such is possible.

Anger, Satan’s tool, is destructive in so many ways.

Oh. Well, I’m sure God isn’t the subject of that talk. But at the very least, though, human parents should not justify their anger in such a way.

But back to Oaks…let’s look at that last line from what I quoted…

Every parent knows that you can love a child totally and completely while still being creatively angry and disappointed at that child’s self-defeating behavior.

(Emphasis added.)

This line is where I was able to tease out and separate Oaks’s general message from his specific conclusion. His specific conclusion implies that the church and gospel have the monopoly on what self-defeating behavior is.

But we need not buy that. Individuals and parents can discern for themselves what is or is not self-defeating, and in many cases, what people will find is that the church’s definitions do not match reality. We can see the fruits of actions and we can ascertain (though not perfectly) the hearts and intentions of others…so we can tell when others are progressing or regressing. And so we can come to very clear conclusions.

Loving, committed relationships are not self-defeating.

When the church speaks out against it, they have to again rely on faith. Faith that in the afterlife, God will say, “Whoops, you did it wrong. You get an F.” Because on this earth, you won’t see it. The church must establish, “Even though you think you are happy now, you will not receive eternal joy for these choices.” So, if wickedness never was happiness, we just have to define what “happiness” is.

(We can compare this to later analogies used. Does a loving, committed relationship produce the same fruits as drug use and addiction? If not, why do we regard them similarly?)

When I was able to decouple Oaks’s specific conclusion (the church’s specific platter of morality) from his general message, I could agree with his general message. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional acceptance, because someone who truly loves will want what is best for an individual.

However, someone who truly loves another will want to understand that other..and tailor what they feel is best to them to that individual’s needs, goals, and aspirations. It is the difference between the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), which is really quite ego-centric, and the less popular, but tougher standard (do unto others as they would have you do unto them), which requires empathy. When people truly begin to destroy themselves, as seen by the fruits of their actions, we truly do lament because of our love.


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  1. I find this article over-analytical to the point of looking beyond the mark.

  2. If the mark is “demonizing love,” then I guess it’s best to look beyond it.

    As I said in the article, I think the general message is fine.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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