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February 5, 2014
Light for My Path
"Keep My Commandments": New Insights from Old Roots
by Kathryn Grant

The other day, I was thinking about how the word "command" has gotten a negative connotation in our culture. It's usually associated with force and control, particularly to make people do things they don't want to do.

There's also a threat of unpleasant consequences for non-compliance. "Do what I say, or else!"

If we have that meaning in mind, Alma's admonition to the Church in Alma 5 might sound harsh, especially compared to his words to unbelievers. After a powerful call to introspection and repentance, Alma says to the covenant followers of Christ, "And now I, Alma, do command you in the language of him who hath commanded me, that ye observe to do the words which I have spoken unto you." (Alma 5:61)

But to the unbelievers he says, "I speak by way of invitation, saying: Come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life." (Alma 5:62).

Why were believers given a command instead of an invitation? Why did Alma not invite both? In our day, that would be the politically correct thing to do.

That got me curious about the dictionary definition of "command." Often our working definitions are not in line with dictionary definitions. But when I looked up "command" in Merriam-Webster online, the definitions did reflect the common connotation of force and control.

Then I noticed something fascinating and completely unexpected in the origin section of the entry: "command" ultimately comes from the Latin commendare, which means "to commit to one's charge." So if we return to the roots of the word "command," a commandment can be considered a stewardship! The Lord is giving us a sacred trust.

And of course there are consequences, both for honoring that trust and rejecting it. But commandments are not His attempt to force or control us; rather, they provide opportunities for us to learn and progress.

As I discovered these things, I was reminded of a long-standing question to which I'd never found a satisfactory answer. Why do the scriptures tell us to keep the commandments? We usually assume, with good reason, that "keep the commandments" is just another way to say "obey the commandments."

Still, what does the word keep really mean in this phrase? The usual definition of "preserve" or "maintain" doesn't exactly make sense. I keep books on my shelves; I keep food in my refrigerator. How do I "keep" commandments?

I went back to the dictionary where I discovered, to my surprise, that the first item in the full definition of "keep" is "to take notice of by appropriate conduct: fulfill." Additional senses include "to be faithful to," and "to act fittingly in relation to."

So if we think of commandments as a stewardship, and keeping as fulfilling or being faithful to that stewardship, suddenly the phrase "keep His commandments" makes a lot more sense. (In fact, this sense of keep may provide more evidence that our "control" interpretation of command is a corruption of the original meaning.)

Okay, I admit it: as a writer, I love words and find them fascinating. But beyond that, why care about the subtle meanings and origins of words in the scriptures? Why do these things matter? I think of Joseph Smith's assertion that we are "saved no faster than [we get] knowledge." If we have a better understanding of words in scripture, we'll have a better understanding of the intended message. Better understanding in turn leads to increased joy and more progress on our journey back to our eternal home.

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