Keep the Commandments: It's Not as Hard as You Might Think

When I was a little girl, we sang a song at church called Keep the Commandments.  

Keep the commandments; keep the commandments!
In this there is safety; in this there is peace.
He will send blessings;
He will send blessings.
Words of a prophet:
Keep the commandments.
In this there is safety and peace.
~LDS Children’s Songbook

Except this is what I heard in my mind as I sang those words:

Always be perfect; always be perfect!
If you don't you'll be in danger; if you don't bad things will happen.
Perfection brings blessings;
Mistakes brings punishment.
Listen to the prophet:
Always be perfect.
In this there is safety and peace.

I guess it comes as no surprise I didn't like that song very much.  And by "didn't like" I mean I hated it.  So much so that I usually wouldn’t sing it but just mouthed the words. 

Fortunately, as I got older I came to realize that God didn’t expect me to be perfect while here on earth.  This is our time to learn and grow. To do that, we need to make mistakes.  Failure is a part of our mortality. 

But despite all my years of scripture study, I have never been able to fully grasp what keeping the commandments really means.  For the past year I have had one question on my mind that has consumed my thoughts as I study the word of God. 

What is the difference between obeying and keeping the commandments? 

In the New Testament we read the phrase “keep the commandments” three times like in Matthew.

“And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” ~ Matthew 19:17 KJV

And also in Revelations.

“Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and faith of Jesus.”  ~Revelations 14:12 KJV

When you look for the phrase in the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ, you’ll think you hit the lottery.  By my count the phrase shows up more than 60 times. 

Before Abinadi was burned at the stake he taught the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai and said,

“I know if ye keep the commandments of God ye shall be saved; yea, if ye keep the commandments which the Lord delivered unto Moses in the mount of Sinai…” ~Mosiah 12:33

Note: The phrase “obey the commandments” only shows up twice in the Book of Mormon and you won’t find it in the New Testament at all. 

So the question I’ve been mulling around in my brain space for over a year is why.  Why are we told way more often to keep the commandments instead of obey the commandments?  Is there any difference between the two? 

I have observed that in my church, many of the members use the words “obey” and “keep” interchangeably when talking about the commandments.  But the more I study, the more I think those two words don’t mean the same thing.  I’ll save my thoughts on what it means to obey for another time, but for now I’d like to focus on what it means to KEEP the commandments. 

Whenever I want to learn more about a word found in the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, I turn to the 1828 Webster Dictionary.  The reason is because that tells us what words meant when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon from reformed Egyptian into English.  The English words he choose back then might have a different meaning than our dictionaries today.  When we apply modern-day meanings to these words it can alter the meaning of the verse.  So let’s just say the 1828 Dictionary and I have become great friends. 

When I look up the word “keep” in the 1828 Webster Dictionary, I get 21 different definitions. Whew!  That’s a lot of definitions.  But there are two definitions I’d like to focus on. 

The first is definition #12-
To practice; to do or perform; to obey; to observe in practice; not to neglect or violate; as, to keep the laws, statutes or commandments of God.

The second is definition #16-
To observe or solemnize.

There is a lot of information in those definitions, so let me try to break it down. 

The word practice in 1828 meant to perform something frequently or habitually.  When I think of the word practice, I think of the years I spent learning to play the piano or the flute.  I rarely had a perfect practice or rehearsal, but over time I got better and better at it and made fewer mistakes. 


If we will just try to do what it is God has asked us to do, eventually we will get better at it. 

One way we keep the commandments is by making them a frequent habit in our lives.

After years of practicing the piano and the flute, I stopped once I got to high school.  I had other demands on my time.  After neglecting to practice, I eventually forgot how to play.  

I realize this represents neglecting to eat not practice, but it makes me laugh.

We need to practice so we don’t forget how.  When we neglect something long enough, we are telling our brains that information isn’t important anymore and it gets dumped from our long-term memory.  My brain dumped my flute fingering long ago. 

One way we keep the commandments is by not neglecting them or else we might forget them altogether. 

Right now I live really close to the One World Trade Center also known as the Freedom Tower.  It has an observation deck.  When you are up high, you notice things that you otherwise might not see from the ground level.  Observation decks give you a new perspective.


Observing the commandments can also give you a different perspective.  It’s really easy to get caught up in the “rules” of the commandments and forget why we are asked to keep them in the first place. 

For instance, consider Keep the Sabbath Day Holy, one of the 10 commandments.  We are asked to observe the seventh day of the week and dedicate it to the Lord.  But how are we to do that?  What does that look like? 

The children of Israel during the time of Moses had some pretty strict rules about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath.  When Christ apparently “broke” one of those rules, the Pharisees were not happy.  Christ taught a higher law where individuals must choose for themselves how they will keep the commandments.

One way to keep the commandments is by observing them or noticing why it is we are asked to obey them.

To solemnize something means to perform it with respect or with reverence.  Our religion has an open communion every Sunday that we call the Sacrament.  This is why we call our Sunday service where we worship, listen to sermons, sing, and participate in the open communion, Sacrament Meeting.   

During the Sacrament portion of our Sacrament Meeting, we are given an opportunity to recommit ourselves to keeping the commandments and the covenants we made at baptism.  As members of the congregation we participate in this silently.  There is no talking and no music played during this time.  Each member can choose how they want to observe the Sacrament.  We can do it in silent prayer, reading the scriptures, or playing Candy Crush on our smart phone. 


Even if we don’t perfectly obey the commandments that God has given us, we can still keep them with solemnity.  We can show respect and reverence for the commandments by how we talk about them to others.  We can say, “My Church won’t let me drink.”  Or we can say, “In our religion we have been asked to refrain from alcohol, and I have chosen to obey.”  (Or something less weird and pious than that.) My point is, our attitude can make all the difference in whether we are keeping the commandments or just grudgingly obeying them. 

One way we can keep the commandments is by treating them with respect and reverence.

As I think about all the ways that we can keep the commandments, and there are many more, I find that I am filled with hope and optimism.  We aren’t being asked to be perfect in order to gain the Lord’s blessings or favors.  We are simply just asked to try.  I can be mindful of what I have been asked to do, and then do my best.

Now when I hear the words to the song, this is what I think:

Practice the commandments; don’t neglect the commandments!
They keep you from danger; they keep you from turmoil.
Observing them brings blessings;
Respecting them brings blessings.
Words of a prophet:
Keep the commandments.
In this there is safety and peace.

If you would like to watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing this children’s song, watch this video. 

If you liked this article you might also like:

The opinions shared in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  


Diana Lacey said…
I love this article. It makes so much sense! We need to teach this concept more clearly and with more of "what does this look like" explanations like you have in this article.