God on a Leash

“If you do what God wants, you will receive a reward. In fact, God wants to give you stuff.” This is known as prosperity gospel or prosperity theology and there is a uniquely Mormon flavor of it.

From the audience: “But, don’t the scriptures tell us to ask and we will receive and that God will bless the righteous?”

Yes, but we have to be careful that we don’t substitute the blessings that we want for the blessings that God wants for us.

Poisonous Blessings

A formulaic or instrumented approach to blessings can lead to two conditions.

Misplaced Desires

We dream up a desire we want and apply ourselves to earning it through our righteous (often unrelated) actions, expecting God to grant our wish. This perspective often emphasizes doing better rather than becoming better.

From the audience: “But, can’t our doing good works lead us to becoming better when we see the benefits?”

A child that is compelled to go to school, may soon find that he is better for the knowledge gained. But, if his sole focus for school is the cute girl in 2nd hour class, he may not learn a thing.

In Jana Riess’s book, Flunking Sainthood, she quotes from Lynne Baab:

Fasting is not the means by which we are somehow turned into Aladdin and God is turned into our compliant genie, sent to grant every wish. We must not think that by not eating we can have God eating out of our hand.

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It is an immature perspective that sees righteous activities, such as fasting, service, membership, humility, and obedience as the bow by which we can make God play our tune. Our doing good should not become the payment for getting the goods.

False State of Righteousness

Someone who is prosperous may conclude that their state is due to her or his righteousness: “God blesses the righteous with prosperity. Since I am wealthy, I must be blessed. If I am blessed, I must be righteous.” This argument can be extended to: “Others are not prosperous, therefore, they are not as righteous as I.”

Similar to the first condition, if you already consider yourself righteous, why would you work to become better?

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton states:

When a proud man thinks he is humble his case is hopeless.

Here is a man who has done many things that were hard for his flesh to accept. He has come through difficult trials and done a lot of work, and by God’s grace he has come to possess a habit of fortitude and self-sacrifice in which, at last, labor and suffering become easy. It is reasonable that his conscience should be at peace. But before he realizes it, the clean peace of a will united to God becomes the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.

The pleasure that is in his heart when he does difficult things and succeeds in doing them well, tells him secretly: “I am a saint.” (pg 49)

An irony of this false state is that we may feel justified in retaining the blessings “earned” through righteousness, giving only a minimal amount to charity. It is the dilemma of the rich young man; to live wealthy and be whole may not be possible while others suffer or lack opportunity for self actualization. Self-imposed austerity for the benefit of others has got to be challenging. (May we all be afflicted with the same burden.)

Again, from Merton’s book:

It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God’s will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you–try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God’s will yourself! (pg 179)

From the audience: “Hey. I know some wealthy people. They are the nicest people that I know and they do good with their wealth.”

That’s great. I can only speak of the Christian ideal and not individual circumstances. In the end, it is an individual choice.

Binding Ourselves

Are good things exclusively the result of specific obedience to God’s laws?

I don’t think this is the case. We can acquire goods (blessings), through our industry, wisdom, cunning, chance, and as gifts. So, prosperity is not necessarily tied to our righteousness. If it were, we would be slaves to God rather than free agents.

Restricting life’s rewards to only the righteous, the definition and declaration of which falls to the church, could lead to oppression by the church.

Binding the Lord

In the scriptural context “blessings” may be more specific than we want, or the term may be used rhetorically, more general than we want. (See note 1.) Caution must be exercised to retain the scope and intent of scripture and avoid misapplying the instruction.

If we grab a verse from scripture and apply it like a magic formula, we may be disappointed in the results. (Or, maybe worse, we may get what we want and then draw an erroneous conclusion.)

The following verse is very commonly cited in LDS discourse:

“I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”

D&C 82:10

But, what is the context? What promise is the Lord bound to keep?

This section was given as instruction regarding the United Order. The whole system was a struggle to hold together; it is not a natural state for people to adopt. But, many saw that their salvation was at stake. Like ancient Israel, they tied the Land of Zion and their communal order to their spiritual state; material success of their society had eternal implications. Consequently, strong language was used to emphasize the message.

The context of D&C 82:10 suggests that the message is about care of the poor through the United Order. It is through this means that the saints at the time were promised (bound to) salvation. Not, some personal need.

Irrevocable Blessings

There is another much-abused and misapplied scripture.

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

D&C 130:20-21

Again, removing the verse from context creates the impression of a formulaic God (A+B=C); if one does A and B then God gives one what one wants. If this were the case, then our relationship to God would be like grocery shopping. Of course, this may work if A and B are related to C, such as going to school + getting good grades = useful skills. But, often we expect God to do things we can’t, things that are not connected to our efforts.

What seems inappropriate from these scriptures is the bargaining with God that can come from a shallow reading; we try to bind God to a contract of our own invention: “God, I want to be [rich/straight/healthy/married/safe]. In order to compel you to give it to me, I will fast two days a week, read my scriptures for four hours each day, pray five times a day, show love to others, and not do anything bad. In the end, I expect you to grant me this desired blessing because I have proven myself worthy.”

When it doesn’t work, we try again, even harder, and again, and again. In the end, if the blessing isn’t granted, we may feel that we are unworthy, unloved, not favored of God, or are being punished for past transgressions. Maybe we didn’t do it right, we try harder. Maybe there is something else in our life that is nullifying the obvious good we are doing, we try harder. This process can make us feel as if we’ve been lied to or betrayed. If God hasn’t granted this blessing, it must be because he isn’t there, the scriptures are wrong, or the church or leader is lying.

From the audience: “I once promised the Lord that I would _____ if He would provide ______ for me. I can testify that God granted the desire of my heart. So, I know that God does hear and answer our prayers.”

There are many stories of personal covenants made with God that were fulfilled or prayers that were answered. These stories can build faith. But, on what foundation? God gives us stuff if we pray right?

When hearing these stories, we must also recognize that many cry out to God in righteous desperation, but are not rewarded with their desires. Truth must encompass their experience as well.

Returning to D&C 130:20-21: “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to the law on which it is predicated.”

But, what is the nature of the blessing being spoke of in the context of these specific verses?

This is a bit rough to answer. The section is a smattering of teachings from Joseph Smith during a tumultuous period of his life. But, within the context of this section, the blessings seem to be “in the world to come.” It is NOT a generic call to invent our own cause and effect.

Limitations on Blessings

Christian, especially Mormon, theology recognizes a limitation on God’s intervention. This is due to our inherent nature and agency.

  • Our weaknesses become strengths because the weakness remains, not because it is removed.
  • God will not make us into what we are not. What makes us unique will not change. I will never be a an easy-going socialite.
  • He will not make others become what we want them to be.

So, to what “blessings” or gifts from God does this apply?

Certainly, salvation in the kingdom of God would be a blessing. The receipt of saving ordinances would be a blessing. Peace and love from the Comforter would be a blessing. A confirmation of the truthfulness of the Gospel would be a blessing from God. Strength to overcome our weaknesses and change our behavior would be a blessing. Knowledge, understanding, wisdom, love, faith and other spiritual gifts are among the promised blessings that are irrevocable.

Conclusion

In the end, if we see God simply as a blessing maker, we may miss the point of the real message and miss the real blessings.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

John 14:27

Peace, with whatever life brings. That is the blessing that I hope for (and, maybe, a little prosperity, too).

Eugene

Footnotes

  1. In a recent sermon by Elder Dale Renlund, the following scriptures were referenced in order to show that “our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ desire to bless each of us.” Renlund leaves the question open as to what those blessings may be.
    D&C 41:1 — “O ye my people, . . . ye whom I delight to bless with the greatest of all blessings.” The blessings alluded to pertain to the receipt of “my law, that ye may know how to govern my church.” (D&C 41:3)
    D&C 78:17 — “How great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you.” This whole section deals with the establishment of the united order. Blessings promised are “riches of eternity.”
    D&C 104:33 — “And, inasmuch as they are faithful, I will multiply blessings upon them.” This section expands on the united order/firm. Blessings of stewardship, children, and generic blessings are described.

One thought on “God on a Leash”

  1. Excelent post. I am reminded of one verse from the Book of Mormon in the narrative of King Noah.

    “And behold, we are strong, we shall not come into bondage, or be taken captive by our enemies; yea, and thou hast prospered in the land, and thou shalt also prosper.” (Mosiah 12:15)

    This verse is advice given by wicked, deceived priests to a vain and insecure king. These priests are like many others condemned in scripture: they are religious and believe themselves to be teaching correct principles, but they are profoundly wrong. It is interesting that these counselor-priests are confident in the advice they give because of the apparent success of King Noah’s reign. They confuse outward signs of success with God’s approval of the King.

    Do we confuse outward signs of success with God’s approval in our day? Where the scriptures emphasize that obedience is what brings prosperity, do we tend to switch it and use prosperity as the gauge (for example, our prosperity as a church is evidence of God’s favor on us as his chosen people)? (Deut 29:9 “Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all that ye do.” [see also 2 Chron 24:20] Job 36:11-12 “If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures. But if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword, and they shall die without knowledge.”) Nowhere does the Lord commend we measure our standing before Him by the prosperous circumstances of our lives.

    An example of this is in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man “fared sumptuously” (Luke 16:19) in his lifetime. Yet he merited no name in the parable. As to the beggar Lazarus, he was not only named, but he was given the same name as one of Christ’s beloved friends. In the parable, the character called “Lazarus” never does “prosper” in life. He begged from hunger and was “full of sores,… moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” This is not a picture of prosperity. But it is the picture of someone whom the Lord loved, despite his terrible circumstances in life. Upon his death, Lazarus “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” Here at last, and only after death, does Lazarus finally “prosper.”

    Ps 73:12, Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.
    Ps 37:16, A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked.
    Ps 73:3, For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

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