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