Wednesday, November 2, 2011
"If you're so righteous why aren't you rich?" and other dumb ideas about how God chooses to bless His children.
1) I can earn blessings through my own obedience.
This one is tricky because it arises out of a true statement made in D&C 130:20-21 which says:
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.
This scripture is a fairly straightforward statement that says that if you want to experience the blessings that come from living the law of tithing, or the Word of Wisdom, or Temple worship or any other law of God then you have to be willing to obey that particular principle before you can enjoy said blessing. What this statement DOES NOT say is that God owes us blessings for obedience, whether that be obedience in general or obedience to a particular principle.
What this scripture is referring to is the fact that there are PROMISED blessings attached to every decree that God makes, and that the only way to avail yourself of those promises is by fulfilling the conditions attached to them. This is stated more directly in D&C 132:5:
For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.
Where the difficulty arises here is when we mistakenly apply a causal sequence to the relationship between obedience and blessings. A world in which obedience is always and immediately rewarded and any disobedience is always and immediately penalized is not an environment that fosters free will. Such methods are sufficient to train dogs, but may not be adequate to exalt men. We are better than dogs-whether you believe that or not, God certainly does, and accordingly He expects more than trained loyalty and fearful obedience. There is certainly no glory in suffering for our own wrongdoing, and why should we expect to be rewarded for rendering that fealty and obedience to God when it was our duty which we owed to God in the first place?
But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:9-10, see also Ecclesiastes 12:13; Romans 12:1).
Peter taught that (as in all things) the Savior’s life is an example of the fact that sometimes we suffer for doing good, and that it is not realistic to expect a reward every time we comply with God’s laws. 1 Peter 2:19-23
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Paul takes this idea a step further when he teaches in Hebrews 5:8-9 that Christ was perfected through the obedience that he learned “by the things which he suffered.”
Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;
My point here is that obedience does not always guarantee immediate temporal well being, just as wickedness does not always guarantee immediate reprisal from God.
"If we choose the right, we will find happiness—in time. If we choose evil, there comes sorrow and regret—in time. Those effects are sure. Yet they are often delayed for a purpose. If the blessings were immediate, choosing the right would not build faith. And since sorrow is also sometimes greatly delayed, it takes faith to feel the need to seek forgiveness for sin early rather than after we feel its sorrowful and painful effects" (Henry B. Eyring, "A Priceless Heritage of Hope," Ensign, May 2014, 25).
We owe God everything, including our obedience and faithfulness, and to give him what belongs to Him already is hardly a gift worthy of reward.
That is why I can say that God does not owe us anything, no matter how much we obey him. Now hang on a minute, you say, what about D&C 82:10 in which the Lord clearly states:
I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.
Let me ask you this in response: Who binds God? By what means is he bound? God is bound by his own promises. As the most honorable being in the universe, HE chooses to be bound by the strength of his own word (see 2 Peter 3:9). God is therefore not bound by any obligation or debt to US in any way.
So if our obedience does not earn us blessings, then why is it necessary? First, true obedience isn’t about EARNING anything. If your kids only obey you if and when you pay them every time, I doubt that you would consider them to be very obedient children. True obedience comes when we do things simply because 1) We love God; and 2) We naturally want to do as He asks. This is what Paul calls “the righteousness of faith” as in Romans 10:6 where he says:
But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)
The truly faithful servant of God is less concerned about getting into heaven than they are with pleasing God. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 10, if you are possessed of the righteousness of faith then it won’t matter to you who is going to heaven or who is going to hell because you have “the word…in thy heart”. What does it mean to have the word in your heart? It is what my mission president used to call having “the atonement printed on your heart”. Or, as Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 3:3,6, it is about obeying the spirit of the law and not just the letter.
Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
The Lord taught Ezekiel that having “the word…in thy heart”, as Paul puts it, is a function of the conversion (and sanctification) process, or in other words, when you have been spiritually reborn, you will naturally obey from the heart:
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
Basically, if you live the spirit of the law, you do what God says because you want to, and not just because he told you to do it. You want to obey him because you have come to love Him, and you want to be like Him. After all, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” (De beatitudinibus, 1: PG 44, 1200D).
"People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 92)
If you truly live according to this higher standard then you will not need to “be commanded in all things” (See D&C 58:26-28), which would make you a wicked and slothful servant, but instead you will be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many good things of your own free will.”
So what does being born again spiritually have to do with obedience and obtaining blessings? Because the whole process is designed to move us beyond a relationship in which we must be compensated for all obedience before or as we obey any of God’s commandments. In the beginning we are no better than slaves (or, as I mentioned above, dogs) who only obey under compulsion. A person who has to be compelled in all things is in all reality a slave to sin, and not to God, because such a person is in fact “a slothful and not a wise servant” who will receive no reward. Fortunately the Gospel frees us to be better creatures than that, as Christ explained in John 8:34-36:
Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
This is part of what Lehi was talking about when he taught his son Joseph from his deathbed in 2 Nephi 2:26:
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
If we will choose to act for ourselves according to the higher law of the gospel, in such a way as will lead us to become more like Christ, then we can progress to become something much greater than a slave. Unfortunately there are those who are familiar with the Gospel who somehow still seem to think that they must be rewarded for any and all obedience which they choose to render to the Lord. Such a relationship is nothing more than that of a mercenary (us) with his customer (God). There is no loyalty, no fidelity, and certainly no faithfulness, beyond what can be bought. As we begin to obey simply because we are told then we progress to the status of a servant, but that isn’t good enough. While a good servant is more loyal than a mercenary, a servant must still be paid for any service they give, a servant isn’t part of the family, and furthermore a servant doesn’t stand to inherit anything from his master. As we choose to live the gospel and begin the process of being spiritually born again we can be adopted as sons and daughters in the household of God. As sons and daughters and heirs in the family of God we gain access to the promises (the inheritance) of God, through covenant.
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
Ephesians 1:5-7, 11-14
Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.
“The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the Children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him “who first loved us.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, part three, article seven, section three, page 502, segment 1828)
One thing that I would like to clarify however is that we don’t obey God in order that we can become His sons (and daughters), but instead we obey Him BECAUSE we are His sons (and daughters). Stephen E. Robinson, in his book “Following Christ,” used an example from his own family in order to illustrate this principle:
“My own son Michael, doesn’t obey me at home and do his chores in order to become my son. I don’t say “Gee, Mike, if you do your chores really well you just might be my boy someday.” He is already my son, and he knows it; that happened years ago…Michael obeys me because he’s my son, for the sake of a relationship that already exists, and which he values. He obeys to affirm that he willingly accepts the terms of sonship and his rightful place in our family. Michael cannot with any amount of work, service, or obedience become my son because he already is my son (though he could by calculated disobedience reject the relationship and damage it to the point that it was a mere biological fact and nothing more). Because both of us treasure the relationship and because we love each other, I try to be an understanding parent and he tries to be an obedient son. In the same spirit and for the same reasons, we sons and daughters of the kingdom do the works our heavenly father has given us to do.” (Stephen E. Robinson, Following Christ, 75-76)
As faithful sons, and if we are truly possessed of “the righteousness of faith”, then we should be more concerned with loving and serving God than we are with inheriting all that he has. As an example, ask yourself this: Imagine that you are an elderly millionaire. Now imagine that you have two grown sons. The first one loves you and cares about you; he calls and writes to you. He and his family regularly visit you, and they always treat you with dignity. He certainly never talks about the giant inheritance that is coming his way when you die. The second son however, also visits you often, and perhaps he calls and writes, and maybe his family visits you, but his eyes are full of his true desire, which is keeping you happy enough that he stays in the will when you die. Now ask yourself this: Which one is the better son? Both do and perhaps even say the same things, but their hearts are in a different place. The first son loves you with no thought of reward. He would love you and visit you and so on, even if you were penniless. Not so with the other son. All he cares about is what you can give him, and all of his “good deeds” are nothing but hypocrisy because his only thought is obtaining “his” reward.
However, I digress. The reason why God is not obligated to bless us nor is in any way indebted to us (no matter how many commandments we keep) is explained eloquently by two sources. The first is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, part three, article two, section three, page 541, segments 2006-2007 where it states:
“The term “merit” refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of it’s members…With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man, between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from Him, our Creator.”
King Benjamin taught this principle beautifully in his great sermon in Mosiah 2:21-24
I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you. And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?
"...all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments" God does not lay his commandments upon us in order to shackle us to a byzantine network of rules that we must navigate or else risk punishment. The laws that the Lord gives us are not part of some inscrutable system in which we must obey or face swift punishment by a harsh and angry God. The whole reason that God gives us commandments in the first place is because he loves us and seeks to help us to learn and grow.
“Part of our challenge is, I think, that we imagine that God has all of His blessings locked in a huge cloud up in heaven, refusing to give them to us unless we comply with some strict, paternalistic requirements He has set up. But the commandments aren’t like that at all. In reality, Heavenly Father is constantly raining blessings upon us. It is our fear, doubt, and sin that, like an umbrella, block these blessings from reaching us. His commandments are the loving instructions and the divine help for us to close the umbrella so we can receive the shower of heavenly blessings” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Living the Gospel Joyful,” General Women’s Meeting Address, Sept. 27, 2014).
"As a child I presume I may have felt that the Lord had so arranged affairs and so ordained matters in this life that I must obey certain laws or swift retribution would follow. But as I grew older I have learned the lesson from another viewpoint, and now to me the laws of the Lord, so-called, the counsels contained in the Holy Scriptures, the revelations of the Lord to us in this day and age of the world, are but the sweet music of the voice of our Father in heaven in His mercy to us. They are but the advice and counsel of a loving parent, who is more concerned in our welfare than earthly parents can be, and consequently that which at one time seemed to bear the harsh name of law to me is now the loving and tender advice of an all-wise Heavenly Father. And so I say it is not hard for me to believe that it is best for me to keep the commandments of God" (George Albert Smith, In Conference Report, Oct. 1911, 43–44. Quoted in: Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 2010).
“Once you understand the true nature of God and His commandments, you will also better understand yourselves and the divine purpose of your existence. With this, your motivation for following the commandments changes, and it becomes your heart’s desire to live the gospel joyfully” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Living the Gospel Joyful,” General Women’s Meeting Address, Sept. 27, 2014).
When we begin to apprehend our true relationship with God we can truly say, along with the apostle John (1 John 5:3), that the Lord's commandments are not grievous because we understand that God loves us, and accordingly we love Him:
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.
The overall point that I am trying to make is that God has promised to bless us, and he has attached that promise to the condition that we keep his commandments. God does not bless us because we have some how earned a credit with him in heaven by keeping a particular commandment. God has promised to bless us because he loves us, and he chooses to bless those who keep his commandments.
As John said in 1 John 3:24: And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.
I admit that this distinction is largely one of semantics, but what I want you to learn is this: We do not have the right, let alone the power, to call down God’s blessings based on our own merits, or even our own righteousness. God blesses us when we keep his commandments, but any obedience or commandment keeping on our part can in no way force him to grant blessings that He has not already chosen to grant through His grace. Thomas a Kempis said it best in his book The Imitation of Christ:
"When therefore spiritual comfort is given thee from God, receive it with thanksgiving; but understand that it is the gift of God, not thy deserving."
2) If I am righteous God will make me rich because he said, “if ye do keep His commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.” So my huge house, my boat, and my four cars are all signs of my blessed status with God (even if I can't afford them). If I don't have these things then there must be something wrong with me, so I had better fix it fast so I can acquire these things (even if I can't afford them).
This may sound like a ridiculous statement at first, but not only do thousands (or even millions) of people fall for this kind of thinking, but this has become such a widespread belief and problem that some major news outlets have asserted that the so-called “prosperity religion” may share some of the blame for the recent nation wide economic collapse (click on this link for a detailed article on the prosperity gospel and the damage that it may have done to the U.S. economy: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”).
You may think that this is a heresy that afflicts only those who belong to other churches, but I daresay that even Mormons fall victim to this kind of thinking from time to time. Dallin H. Oaks explained that Latter-day Saints may even be particularly vulnerable to this kind of erroneous thinking, and he also tells us why in an address given at Brigham Young University:
"We are told to be self-reliant, to provide for ourselves and those dependent upon us. But success at that effort can easily escalate into materialism. This happens through carrying the virtue of "providing for our own" to the point of excess concern with accumulating the treasures of the earth. I believe this relationship identifies materialism as a peculiar Mormon weakness, a classic example of how Satan can persuade some to drive a legitimate strength to such excess that it becomes a disabling weakness." (Dallin H. Oaks, "Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall," BYU fireside address, 7 June 1992)
Brigham Young was characteristically more blunt:
“The worst fear that I have about [members of this Church] is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches” (quoted in Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work , 128).
I am not saying that God can’t or won’t bless you to be prosperous and wealthy, but I am saying that there are more ways to prosper than solely by acquiring the trappings of wealth and status. In fact, it is my assertion that God cares more about (and is more likely to bless us with) certain less tangible things.
Elder Carl B. Pratt, when teaching about the principle of tithing in his address “The Lord’s Richest Blessings” in the April 2011 General Conference, gave us this wise counsel contrasting the benefits of wealth with the deepest and most significant blessings that we can obtain from the Lord (tithing is a great principle to use to illustrate this concept, because it is the most purely financial in nature out of all of the principles that we are asked to live):
“We might conclude that since we pay tithing with money, the Lord will always bless us with money. I tended to think that way as a child. I have since learned it doesn’t necessarily work that way. The Lord promises blessings to those who pay their tithing. He promises to “open … the windows of heaven, and pour … out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10). I testify that He fulfills His promises, and if we faithfully pay our tithing, we will not lack for the necessities of life, but He does not promise wealth. Money and bank accounts are not His richest blessings...I have come to understand that the Lord’s richest blessings are spiritual, and they often have to do with family, friends, and the gospel. He often seems to give the blessing of a special sensitivity to the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, especially in marriage and family matters like raising children. Such spiritual sensitivity can help us enjoy the blessings of harmony and peace in the home…The payment of tithing [or, I would argue, humble obedience to any commandment of the Lord] helps us develop a submissive and humble heart and a grateful heart that tends to “confess…his hand in all things”. Tithe paying fosters in us a generous and forgiving heart and a charitable heart full of the pure love of Christ. We become eager to serve and bless others with an obedient heart, submissive to the Lord’s will. Regular tithe payers find their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ strengthened, and they develop a firm, abiding testimony of His gospel and of His Church. None of these blessings are monetary or material in any way, but surely they are the Lord’s richest blessings.”
The Lord also made this promise to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in D&C 6:7:
Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.
It is my opinion that as we come to learn this truth, and begin to adjust our desires accordingly, then and only then we can begin to grow closer to what God has in mind for us in His heart. I believe that only as we learn to shed the trappings of materialism (and our carnal nature altogether) can we begin to glimpse the mind and heart of God. As Socrates once said, "Those who want the fewest things are nearest to the gods" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers).
When we seek after wealth, power, and prosperity before all else, we are in actual fact violating (at least) two of the ten commandments (that's right, the BIG ten): first, we have placed the worship of money and objects before God (and said broken commandment happens to be numero uno on the list by the way) and second, when all our heart and mind is bent on acquiring what is more than, and what is better than, it becomes very easy to make the "than" part about our neighbors. It is not long after that that we begin to covet that which our neighbor has because there will always be someone who has "more than", or "better than", us. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught that when we find ourselves in this situation that we need to readjust our desires "to give highest priority to the things of eternity":
"Those whose highest desire is to acquire possessions fall into the trap of materialism. They fail to heed the warning “Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world” (Alma 39:14; see also Jacob 2:18)...Readjusting our desires to give highest priority to the things of eternity is not easy. We are all tempted to desire that worldly quartet of property, prominence, pride, and power. We might desire these, but we should not fix them as our highest priorities" (Dallin H. Oaks, "Desire," Ensign, May 2011).
To place too much importance (be that spiritual or otherwise) upon the acquisition of wealth is wrong, not just because it misses the point (namely God's richest blessings, as detailed above) but moreover when carried to its fullest extreme, the notion that righteousness = wealth (or worse, that wealth = righteousness) can lead to the most offensive and egregious abuses of our relationship with God and our fellow man. The most fundamental of these is pride (see Alma 4:6-8). It only takes a few short conceptual steps to go from “I am blessed because I am wealthy” to “I am MORE blessed than you because I am wealthy” to “I am BETTER THAN YOU because I am wealthy.”
This was a problem that plagued the New Testament saints in their time just as surely as it plagues us in ours. Paul warned Timothy of the dangers of this kind of thinking in 1 Timothy 6:5, 9-11 when he deplored those who had mistaken gain for godliness.
Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself....But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.
I am sure that it was some version of this “prosperity gospel," and the pride that goes with such thinking, that led the apostate Zoramites to cast the poor among them from out of their synagogues.
Now when Alma saw this his heart was grieved; for he saw that they were a wicked and a perverse people; yea, he saw that their hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods. Yea, and he also saw that their hearts were lifted up unto great boasting, in their pride. And he lifted up his voice to heaven, and cried, saying: O, how long, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that thy servants shall dwell here below in the flesh, to behold such gross wickedness among the children of men? Behold, O God, they cry unto thee, and yet their hearts are swallowed up in their pride. Behold, O God, they cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world. Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, and their ringlets, and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things which they are ornamented with; and behold, their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.
If the examples in the scriptures can be used as a precedent, then such thinking among the “chosen people” will inevitably lead them to oppress and afflict the poor, the widows, and the fatherless. Such behavior is a sure way to offend and anger God (as opposed to maintaining oneself in some kind of blessed state as such people must suppose) as evidenced by the following scriptures:
The LORD will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord GOD of hosts.
Moreover the LORD saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts.
And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts.
Beyond this, the prosperity gospel places its own adherents in a position which makes them vulnerable to victimization at the hands of con men and swindlers both from within as well as outside of their own congregations. These people, who have been taught that money is to be sought after as sign of God’s blessings, have instead had their lives ruined and their families devastated as a result of misguided greed.
It is for these reasons that I feel that Paul was fully justified when he declared to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:10):
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves with many sorrows.
“From the emphasis given to this subject in the scriptures, it appears that materialism has been one of the greatest challenges to the children of God in all ages of time. Greed, the ugly face of materialism in action, has been one of Satan’s most effective weapons in corrupting men and turning their hearts from God." (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Pure in Heart , 73–74, 78)
It is my opinion that this so-called “prosperity gospel” is not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all and is in fact an altogether false gospel, one that if followed will lead a man into open rebellion against God and His precepts, and at the end leave him with only emptiness and corruption because riches cannot last beyond this life, and all men rich and poor must face death and eternity.
Psalms 49:6, 11-12, 10 They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish. For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others.
James 5:1-3 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
The Apostle James taught us (in James 1:27):
Pure religion, and undefiled before God and the Father is this to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
If “prosperity religion” leads us to oppress the widows and the fatherless (see Malachi 3:5), and more to the point, if it leads us to “set [our] hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world” instead of the things of God, as I assert that it does, then that would make it the complete opposite of the pure religion. If the “pure religion” is God’s religion then logically that would lead us to conclude that “prosperity religion” must be of the devil. I do not say this just to be dramatic, rather I wish to emphasize the specious and wicked nature of this pernicious doctrine.
However, with that in mind, I want to emphasize the being wealthy is not a sin. The apostle Paul and the prophet Jacob both gave wonderful counsel concerning the correct use of wealth in God's kingdom. Being wealthy is not in itself a sin, and we can avoid the pitfalls of pride and materialism that tend to accompany it by gaining an understanding of the principle that wealth can be obtained, if it is something that we seek, as we live the gospel. However, rather than representing the end of the gospel, riches are in fact intended as a means to aid us in our pursuit of the "pure religion".
1 Timothy 6:17-18 Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.
Jacob 2:18-19 But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.
If you are not rich, do not despair, and do not envy those who have more worldly riches and goods than you do. Learn to be satisfied with those things which God has seen fit to grant you, and continue to seek always the good and enrichment of His kingdom, and he will bless you with joy and contentment and godliness and those other sublime intangibles that can never be bought or obtained with money.
Psalms 49:16-17 Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased; For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him.
1 Timothy 6:6-8 But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.
James Allen summed it up beautifully in his book "As a Man Thinketh" when he said:
"A man may be cursed and rich; he may be blessed and poor. Blessedness and riches are only joined together when the riches are rightly and wisely used; and the poor man only descends into wretchedness when he regards his lot as unjustly imposed."
3) God is like a wishing well, Santa Claus, or the Blue Fairy (from Pinocchio). So if I want something badly enough, and if I pray hard enough (or when I wish upon a star), He will grant my wishes and make all my dreams come true.
Many people seem to think that God is supposed to give them whatever they want, whenever they want it, and he is apparently supposed to work according to their timetable. They are under the false impression that all that is required is that they ask. These people often become bitter and turn away from God when they he doesn’t bless them with something that they felt was very important.
I must have heard some variation of this a hundred times on my mission:
a) “I don’t believe in God because I prayed for God to cure my cancer, and He didn’t-I had to get over it on my own!” (Seriously! I didn’t make that one up!)
b) Investigator: “I haven’t felt anything from God telling me that (the Book of Mormon, etc.) is true.”
Missionaries: “Well, have you read it and prayed to know if it is true?”
Missionaries: “Well, there you are then.”
(I admit that I am paraphrasing somewhat on that one, for brevity’s sake.)
c) I have never had an answer to any of my prayers. God has never talked to me, so I think that religion is all made up.”
d) Dear God, I want a Ferrari so I can impress the girl that lives up the street. Do you think you can handle that?
e) Father, I wish that you would strike my boss down (preferably with lightning) because he is a jerk.
And so on and so forth.
It is my belief that this particular mistake results from a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature, use, and function of prayer. It must also result from the arrogant presumption that we are entitled to dictate the quantity, the content, the quality, and the schedule of the blessings that we proudly demand at God’s hand. Such people fail to understand the following simple principles:
“When we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, part four, section one, page 673, segment 2559)
King Benjamin taught what it means to be a beggar before God when he said in Mosiah 4:19, 21:
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
When we approach God it should be with the understanding that we are each beggars who come before him asking for a gift notwithstanding the fact that not only does He bear no obligation to us whatsoever (and we can lay no requirement or necessity upon Him), but in fact we are already eternally in His debt (not least because of the sins that we have committed). Anything that we obtain at God’s hand is a gift, freely given, that comes because of God’s grace and for no other reason.
God bestows gifts on His children because we are His children, and He loves us. It is for this reason that Christ exhorts us to:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
He goes on to remind us:
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
So why is it that we DO NOT actually receive everything that we ask for? There can be several reasons. First, and this is most common among otherwise righteous people, we have a tendency to be too casual in our prayers, as President Gordon B. Hinckley explained:
“The trouble with most of our prayers is that we give them as if we were picking up the telephone and ordering groceries—we place our order and hang up. We need to meditate, contemplate, think of what we are praying about and for and then speak to the Lord as one man speaketh to another” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 469).
The Lord taught Oliver Cowdery that more is required to obtain an answer to one's prayers than a casual request (in D&C 9:6-8):
Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner. Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
There is a second, and related, reason why we may not receive an answer (or our desired answer) to our prayers. Namely that many times we only seem to think of the Lord, let alone speak to Him, when we need something.
“If prayer is only a spasmodic cry at the time of crisis, then it is utterly selfish, and we come to think of God as a repairman or a service agency to help us only in our emergencies. We should remember the Most High day and night—always—not only at times when all other assistance has failed and we desperately need help” (Howard W. Hunter, The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, ed. Clyde J. Williams , 39).
If your friend only chooses to talk to you when he or she wants something, then once you figure that out I doubt that you would consider that person to be much of a friend. Eventually you might even be tempted to cut them out of your life entirely. Suffice it to say you will most likely lose your enthusiasm for helping them out once you realize that they only seem to be your friend when they need something. This principle holds true for our relationship with God (but fortunately God is more forgiving of us than we tend to be with our friends).
A third reason why we do not always receive an answer to our prayers is because not all of our requests that we make of God are righteous requests (asking Him to murder our boss for instance). But even if the request happens to be a righteous one (at least on the surface), if our reasons for asking are wicked then God will feel no compunction at denying our request.
The apostle James issued this stern rebuke to the saints in James 4:3-4, and in doing so he teaches us an important principle regarding receiving (or in this case NOT receiving) answers to our prayers:
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
So in order to receive when we ask, as Christ instructed us, we have to stop being an enemy to God. King Benjamin taught us in Mosiah 3:19 how to go about doing that.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
The trick here then is to yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, change our natures, and to become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (This is another way of telling us that we have to be born again-see Mosiah 5:7 and 27:25-26.) I testify that as you embark on this process you will become a true son or daughter of God, and furthermore you will come to understand your true relationship with your Father in heaven.
“As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are his children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work, and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.” (LDS Bible Dictionary, “Prayer”)
When we understand that “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other” we will realize that prayer is not solely a means to casually obtain those things that we desire, or to fulfill a passing whim, but is in fact a sacred opportunity to commune, or become one with, with our Father who is in Heaven. If we approach prayer in the right spirit we will truly become like a little child “who is willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”
“Our Father in Heaven has invited you to express your needs, hopes, and desires unto Him. That should not be done in a spirit of negotiation, but rather as a willingness to obey His will no matter what direction that takes. His invitation ‘Ask, and ye shall receive’ does not assure that you will get what you want. It does guarantee that, if worthy, you will get what you need, as judged by a Father that loves you perfectly, who wants your eternal happiness even more than do you” (Richard G. Scott, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 17).
When it comes to submitting our own will to the will of God, the Savior (naturally) set the ultimate example, both in word (as expressed in John 5:30 and John 6:38-40):
I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.
For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
And in actual deed, as he knelt in agony and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (in Luke 22:41-42):
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
Paul teaches us that it was God’s will that Christ undergo this suffering despite his plea to be released because it was necessary so that Christ (and all those that obey him) could be exalted (in Hebrews 5:7-9 and 2:9-11):
Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
If we want to become partakers of the glory that belongs to Christ we must become one of those people whom Christ “is not ashamed to call…brethren”. We must become God’s children by yielding “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit”:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
If we are truly born again as sons and daughters of the most high God, then we can ask God for a blessing and, if God deems it to be "right" or "expedient" for us (see 3 Nephi 18:20 and D&C 88:64-65), then we can reasonably hope to receive that thing which we ask. We can knock, and it shall be opened unto us, because we have access to God’s blessings and inheritance through Christ. It is only upon His merits that we can claim any entitlement to any blessing from God, even salvation and exaltation:
Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God—Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ's, and Christ is God's. And they shall overcome all things. Wherefore, let no man glory in man, but rather let him glory in God, who shall subdue all enemies under his feet. These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever. (D&C 76:58-62)