Why Mormons Can’t

By Jen P.


  • Can’t drink alcohol.
  • Can’t have sex before marriage.
  • Can’t lie, cheat, or steal.
  • Can’t drink coffee.
  • Can’t wear revealing clothes.
  • Can’t consume sexual or violent media.

If your experience is anything like mine, the list above sums up the population’s view of Mormons. Friends of Mormons define Mormons as people–albeit happy people–who can’t do lots of things.

And they are right.

Take a list of the commandments in our scriptures and you will find that most of them are “can’t”s. Of the Ten Commandments, eight are “shalt nots” (Exodus 20:1-17). Even in the Word of Wisdom (the Mormon health code, see D&C 89), more than half of the guidance consists of warnings or constraints. Ask a Mormon Sunday School class of any age to list all of the commandments they can think of, and you will find the “don’t column” of a far longer length than the “do” (believe me, I’ve tried it). (Note: Mormons hold high the principle of agency–any person is free to choose, so “don’t” is generally more accurate than “can’t.”) Whichever angle you take, the list of commandments the LDS church doctrine teaches is heavily weighted towards the “no’s.”

But why?

Our church holds high a point of doctrinal differentiation that God is not the rigid dictator, the “loathsome insects over a fire” entity of John Edwards’ hell-fire sermons. We espouse God to be a divine, loving, paternal figure, whose mission is to help all of his “have joy,” and to receive “immortality and eternal life” (2 Nephi 2:21, Moses 1:39). Does God’s lengthy list of constraining commandments contradict our view of God as a loving, empowering Father?

The Power of Negative Thinking

Imagine yourself given an assignment at work to paint a mural on the side of a building. You are then charged with the following instructions:

  • Paint the horizon line ⅓ of the way up the wall
  • Create an outdoors backdrop, including three trees, one pond, and four small animals
  • Paint sun rays coming in from the upper right-hand side of the wall
  • Use blue for the sky, green for the grass, and red for park benches
  • Include three people—two women, one man—conversing in the lower-left hand side of the painting
  • The assignment is clear, the directions are exact, and you set off on your assignment.

Imagine, however, that for the same assignment, you are given the following instructions instead:

  • Don’t extend your painting beyond the wall
  • Don’t use more than eight cans of paint
  • Don’t use creatures, plants, or other items not native to our area

With which set of rules could you be more creative? Which set of rules is easier to follow?

The mural anecdote illustrates the management principle of “The Power of Negative Thinking,” explained by Robert Simons:

“Ask yourself the question, If I want my employees to be creative and entrepreneurial, am I better off telling them what to do or telling them what not to do? The answer is the latter. Telling people what to do by establishing standard operating procedures and rule books discourages the initiative and creativity unleashed by empowered, entrepreneurial employees. Telling them what not to do allows innovation, but within clearly defined limits.” (Simons, R. 1995. Control in an age of empowerment. Harvard Business Review (March-April): 80-88.)

In other words, a person can express more creativity— can push their own limits further—when given stark boundaries and complete freedom within those boundaries. Perhaps, then, God is following the principle of negative thinking: by giving us clear boundaries and then freedom within those boundaries, he is actually allowing us to express more creativity, and more individualism than he would by giving us exact instructions.

The Instructions

This pattern is evident throughout the scriptures. God gives us broad instructions (e.g. paint a mural) coupled with specific commandments to not do bad things (do not paint outside the lines). We are then set free to create, do, and live however we choose within those boundaries.

Our broad instructions are found in the other two of the Ten Commandments, the other half of the Word of Wisdom and the other column in our Sunday School class. God provides a host of positive, directional commandments:

  • Honor your father and mother
  • Keep the Sabbath day holy
  • Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart
  • Love thy neighbor as thyself
  • Have faith, hope, and charity
  • Grain is good for the food of man

Contrast, however, the nature of these commandments with the list at the beginning of this piece. “Do not drink alcohol” is undeniably specific, while “keep the sabbath day holy” has room for personal interpretation, for experimentation, and—I would submit—a chance for individual creativity.

Take a doctrinal example: Charity. God has two options. He could give us the command to “have charity” and then provide a descriptive list:

  • Take cookies to your neighbors twice monthly
  • Visit the widows in your town once monthly, listen to their stories and record them
  • Say two prayers for anyone that insults you
  • Do a chore for a family member (without asking for one in return) once weekly
  • Give a hug to your mother every day

God, however, does not choose to give us such a list (as much as we might want one). Instead, he gives us the following direction regarding charity (1 Corinthians 3:4-6, Moroni 7:45):

  • Charity suffereth long, and is kind, envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
  • Charity doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, isn’t easily provoked, thinketh no evil
  • Charity rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
  • Charity beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

To learn to feel and demonstrate charity requires more than following a checklist. For the person who wants to have charity, he or she must pray to God to feel charity, must seek opportunities to demonstrate charity, must seek to draw closer to God to have his or her heart purified.

The pattern of specific no’s and broad directions is common throughout God’s doctrine: keeping the Sabbath day holy (see Isaiah 58), having faith (see Alma 32), and others.

Becoming like Our Creative God

While clear that the “power of negative thinking”—that is, setting clear boundaries and allowing freedom within those boundaries–will encourage more creativity, is that applicable in a divine sense? In other words, does God want us to be creative? Or, does he just want us to be obedient—to follow his “don’ts” without question? Consider this scriptural thought:

“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:26-28, emphasis added).

All of God’s commandments are constructed to allow us to become more like Him. Because we are “children of God” (Romans 8:16), we were created in his image, and we achieve our greatest potential by living up to that ideal. Taking the charity example cited earlier, which effort will help a person draw closer to God: following a predefined checklist, or spending time in prayer and experimentation trying to feel and demonstrate to others the great power of God’s love? As Jesus Christ said:

“For behold, manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27)

Mormons believe that by following God’s commandments—by doing and by NOT doing—we are empowered by God to learn for ourselves to become like Him.

In other words, paint your mural. Use your creativity. And stay inside the lines.

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6 thoughts on “Why Mormons Can’t

  1. Brint says:

    What a great, thought provoking article. I had never considered this angle when trying to understand the blessings of obedience. Thank you for sharing!

    Being a father of five with four very active boys, I have found a sports metaphor to be helpful to explain how rules and commandments help us find joy vs. restrict us from having fun. The metaphor is quite simple. Think of any field sport such as soccer or maybe football or tennis. On the field of play there are lines drawn or boundaries that are set within which the game is played. Along with the boundaries, each game has a specific set of rules which bring order while enabling maximum participation and enjoyment. When players adhere to the rules of the game, the game is infinitely more enjoyable to both play and to watch. Players who not only understand and obey the rules but go the extra mile to develop their skills and natural abilities will often excel in the sport while also learning to love and respect ‘the game.’ The same is true with commandments that are given by a loving God who wants us to be successful and happy in this life. The more we learn and understand the commandments of God, the easier it is to find peace and joy in our journey through life.

  2. Bryan Monson says:

    I found this very compelling. I’ve thought of this concept several times since reading this a few months ago. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Risa says:

    Thanks for writing this. I was raised in an unfortunate circumstance where the LDS religion was taught to me incorrectly and used as a demoralizing agent. Since being released from that situation it’s been hard to relearn everything from square one without hearing the old angry voices from before. Reading this was like a sunny day after several rainy days. It made so much more sense and was friendly to read.
    If you have plans to continue writing little jems like this, then know you have another reader eagerly waiting to read them! =)

  4. Jody Phillips says:

    Man, you hit the nail on the head. Bless your heart. Keep writing, we’ll keep reading.

  5. Great Job, I really like the approach to the don’t from the business/mural paradigm of empowering, and facilitating creativity and freedom. Awesome. I’ll share this for sure.

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