Home > Uncategorized > Wealth and Righteousness: The Mormon Paradox of Blessings

Wealth and Righteousness: The Mormon Paradox of Blessings

A recent Wheat and Tares post discussed this recent study on Mormons’ perception of wealth and righteousness. Conducted by a researcher at BYU-Idaho, the study suggests that Mormons (or at least Utah County Mormons, where the study took place) tend to view those who have achieved greater financial success as being more righteous and spiritual, and certainly more intelligent and hard-working. A nice car, a good house, or just the air of success can go a long way to convincing your fellow brothers and sisters that all is well in your personal Zion.

Of course, no one openly admits to believing this, and almost everyone would condemn such a notion publicly. But the “wealth=righteousness” mantra is one of those never-ending myths that people publicly denounce but which still creeps up in the way we think of others and view the world at large. Partly it’s because it is such a tempting belief: Mormons are prone like everyone else to the Just World hypothesis, the idea that people generally get what they deserve. But I think we also dismiss the recurring notion of wealth=righteousness as the rotten fruit of our American culture–the Mormon Work Ethic, our individualistic, pioneer heritage, our bourgeois values, etc.–while overlooking how deeply enmeshed this idea is in our theology. Until we’re willing to go that deep into it, we can only deal with the belief superficially.

For instance, we need to be frank about the very real overlap between principles of righteousness and ethics of wealth. Take consecration, for example. Consecration instructs us that all of our activities should be focused towards goodness and the kingdom of God. All greed, pride, materialism, thirst for worldly gain must be cast off for humility and a “consider the lillies” mindset. Now compare this principle with the wealth ethic of the world: in order to become rich, you must be willing to work tirelessly, save and invest wisely, and delay gratification in order to bank away more for later. In some ways, these two perspectives are contradictory, but there are obvious overlaps: both encourage some form of asceticism, a denial of immediate pleasures, and a fervent dedication to a cause (even if one is purely selfish). One who lives a consecrated life will most likely live crucial elements of a worldly wealth ethic. She doesn’t necessarily have to: a consecrated person might forgo the caution to be prudent with money and be so extremely charitable that they burn their earnings immediately. But most likely, one living according to consecration will have some things (though certainly not everything) in common with those focused on a wealth ethic. We can imagine how Joe the Consecrationist works hard, refuses to keep up with the Jonses, gives generously, but maintains a significant rainy day fund. Steadily, he bears all the trappings of a Tom the Wealth-Driven even if his heart is pointed in a different direciton.

So here’s the kicker: did Joe’s consecration “make” him wealthy? Is this the natural outpouring of blessings that righteousness promises, or is Joe inadvertantly aping some of the modern ethics of wealth and reaping the effects of that lifestyle?

I think if you plumb this causal link enough, you ultimately arrive at that most mysterious of Mormon doctrines: what is a “blessing?” What would it mean if Joe the Consecrationist stood up in a testimony meeting and say “I am so blessed to have a job during these troubled times”? Obviously Joe is indeed fortunate: everyone trying to care for themselves or a family wants steady work. And we would think Joe ungrateful if he were to jump up in that same meeting and say, “When the going get tough, the tough get going! I got work, and it’s all thanks to this guy!”, his proud thumbs banging into his bloated chest.

But what are the implications of attributing Joe’s employment or financial security to the bounty of Providence? Should Bill on the third row, who’s fasting for the second time this month in hopes of a job interview, simply grin and say, “Well, the Lord has found it in his wisdom for Joe here to have work–I’ll keep on keepin’ on with the trial that he’s given me”? That seems awfully meek of Bill, but it makes God seem incredibly capricious: why pick Joe over Bill? Or better yet, why pick Joe over the 400 Bills out there that applied for the same job and came up with nothing?

Let’s take a different example: Janelle and I are 37-weeks along with twin girls. We’re terrified, thrilled, terrified, excited, and terrified. Like many people, we feel the urge to thank God for being blessed with the opportunity to have two more children in our family. But can we say that we’re “blessed” without implying that those families around us that we know who can’t have children are, therefore, not blessed by God? I’m not sure how I feel assigning God with the responsibility to have a reason for not providing others with those “blessings;” that seems like it would be a lot to answer for. There are many people who leave church deeply hurt because they are struggling with anything from infertility to financial insecurity while others publicly give thanks for the many “blessings” of children and work that they’ve received at the hands of a merciful God.

Yet I feel the need to thank someone. I feel inadequate. So many of life’s joys I cannot trace to my own actions: a wonderful wife, a healthy daughter, a roof over my head, the opportunity to go to school. I’ve got very little to do with any of this. And if I don’t say these are blessings, then what are they? Random occurances of an inscrutable universe over which God only observes? The mindless lottery of human genetics? Pulling God completely out of the picture seems insufficient as well. I cannot help but think that he does step in at key moments in mine and other peoples lives–but I also cannot shake off the feeling that assigning everything good in my life as a divine “blessing” creates an image of God whose passing out goods like Santa Claus and–for inscrutable reasons–withholds those goods from more deserving and more needy people. I mean, we’ve only focused on First-World problems; what happens if we our expand our perspective on this? After all, what is our economic downturn compared to the generations of people all around the world that have suffered under political oppression or poverty to no avail? How can I say that I’ve been “blessed” with work, as if God’s greatest concern is to make sure I can still afford Netflix, while children starve?

So is wealth a blessing, the product of righteousness? Personally, I have no faith in the idea that God doles out financial rewards specifically according to spiritual obedience–that part I know. But both the idea that God is behind everyone’s financial well-being and that He plays no part in this area terrify me. Neither concept of God–one who doles out blessings to some but not to others compared to one who watches while the forces of the world wash over us–is very encouraging. I can’t help but think God indeed is present in all things but the implications of that belief become difficult to swallow. If the on-going assumption amongst many Mormons is that God blesses the wealthy persists, I imagine its because reconciling these two poles seem as unattractive to everyone else as it does to me.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Liz
    November 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    I have absolutely no idea on this one. I tend to think that Bill The Meek has it the proper attitude about it… and that God gives each of us different trials and blessings based on what our needs are. I generally go with “do the best you can and God will make up the rest,” with a caveat of “but that doesn’t mean your life won’t be really hard and/or suck.”

    But seriously, have you ever had a poor stake president? I haven’t.

  2. November 8, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Who consecrates these days? To consecrate means to give all your surplus to the needy, leaving you scripturally poor–having only sufficient for your needs and nothing more.

    We can imagine how Joe the Consecrationist works hard, refuses to keep up with the Jonses, gives generously, but maintains a significant rainy day fund.

    A significant rainy day fund? If he’s got “a significant rainy day fund”, he ain’t no Consecrationist. That rainy day fund is a surplus. It is the stuff that is to be consecrated to the needy.

    Under the law of consecration, there is a central treasury, into which the overplusses are placed, to be doled out to the needy. Whatever remains in that treasury after the needy are taken care of (making them scripturally poor–having sufficient for their needs and nothing more) becomes the property of all the consecrationists. They share in that surplus. That is the true “rainy day fund” under the law of consecration and it requires the common consent of all the other Consecrationists contributing to use any portion of it.

    Wealth does not equal righteousness, it equals wickedness, for if you have wealth (overplus) and do not consecrate it to the needy, becoming poor yourself, you are coveting the drop. Only the poor and needy are capable of obtaining the Lord’s approval. The Lord curses the wealthy by withholding the abundance of the gifts and powers of the Spirit from them. (See D&C 70: 13-14.) Everyone is to be equally poor in temporal things. If there is any inequality, it is a sign of wickedness.

    Material blessings, as in the Lord actually extending His hand and causing material wealth to come upon people, only happens to true Consecrationists. He gives them wealth, often miraculously, because He trusts them, for they give up the wealth they receive from Him to the needy. To everyone else in the world, including church members, who do not consecrate, He doesn’t intervene in their behalf materially, but let’s the chips fall where they fall. Only Consecrationists have the promise of the Lord materially intervening in their behalf.

  3. devin
    November 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    I have often thought about this paradox. I have spent time in a lot of countries and met many people around the world who are (in my estimation) more righteous than myself, yet have almost zero worldly possessions. They also (in my estimation) work harder (more hours at more physically demanding jobs) than I do and receive very little monetary compensation. My experiences led me to conclude that material possessions/wealth have no direct relation (or even correlation) with a person’s salvation, and that hard work is necessary, but not sufficient to produce wealth. My experiences have led me to conclude that money is a tool (one of the most useful tools in this world to be sure), but its label as a blessing or a curse depend largely on how that money is used, not the possession or non-possession of it.

    I am also convinced that God will give each individual an equal opportunity to receive salvation, even though each individual may have a very unique path to get there and may not have the same requirements as another person who receives salvation. (I’m using salvation as a generic term for the God’s greatest blessings/final state of righteous souls in the after life.) Any other arrangement, would make God capricious at best, or vindictive at worst.

    These two principles have led me to believe that God seeks to provide every individual with the tools needed in this life to qualify for salvation (including multiple opportunities to sin, repent, try to change, fail, and ultimately rely on the Savior’s mercy and atonement). The ultimate test for each individual is, “to prove them[selves] herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abraham 3:25). For some, the desire to use wealth for personal (and selfish) interests will be tested against God’s commandment to give all that thou hast unto the poor and follow me. (see Mark 10:17-27). For others, living in poverty may test a person’s ability to be meek and humble, and not to “covet that which ye have not received.” (Mosiah 4:25, see generally Mosiah 4:15-26) As stated above, wealth is not a blessing or a curse until the individual person uses it for good (provide for necessities of self and family, to serve God, build His kingdom, bless the lives of others, etc.) or for evil (any selfish, unholy, or impure action). So wealth and non-wealth can create an equally challenging stumbling block.

    However, I do not think that this means that all people who have wealth have a desire to spend it selfishly and must eventually overcome that desire by giving away all of their possessions and devote their lives to service like Mother Teresa. Neither must all people without wealth demonstrate their unflinching meekness and humility their whole lives in order to prove that they do not covet.

    I believe three principles come into play that shape how wealth/blessings are distributed and ultimately used in God’s plan. First, God is our Father and wants to bless us with the desires of our hearts. Thus, God seeks to grant us any and all desires of our hearts that will aid us in our efforts to qualify for salvation. (See Matt 7:7-11). But God is also bound by the laws “irrevocably decreed before the foundations of this world,” and must only grant “blessings” (still a vaguely defined term) when man is obedient to the law which (that “blessing”) is predicated upon. (See D&C 130:20-21). Finally, God has also said that all men are agents unto themselves and should be anxiously engaged in good works without being compelled in all things, and that those who gain more knowledge and intelligence in this life through their obedience and diligence will have so much the advantage in the world to come (and in this life). (See D&C 58:26-29 and 130:18-19)

    Thus, there are some blessings which individuals do not deserve, but are necessary for salvation, and are therefore granted simply because God wants each individual to have all tools necessary for them to receive salvation. There are other “blessings” which may be granted if an individual obeys divine law and qualifies to receive them. And, there are some “blessings” (light and knowledge are two enumerated blessings, but I believe this category is significantly broader than that) that are earned simply as a result or consequence (like some wealth from hard work) of our choices and actions in this life.

    However, there are so many seeming contradictions to these principles, that it becomes difficult to determine which “blessings” are derived from personal action and which “blessings” are divinely granted without regard to personal agency.

    To resolve this quandary, the only logical conclusion I can reach is that it is impossible to fully distinguish the difference between what is “earned” (by righteous action etc.) and what is “given (by divine providence) without being able to see the beginning from the end. Most, if not all of these “blessings” which people refer to are not strictly one type or the other, but are a unique confluence of personal choices and agency (e.g. hard work, personality, personal spiritual gifts, etc.), “blessings” qualified for with obedience, and “divine gifts” which are neither deserved nor earned. Furthermore, some blessings probably come to us by the agency of others (our family, social network, employers, etc.) Without being able to simultaneously see all of the past, present, and future, it is nearly impossible to determine the “source” of that blessing.

    But perhaps even more troubling are the people who appear to deserve many such “blessings” but do not currently enjoy them. There are many examples of people who may work harder, be smarter, obey more consistently, and be generally more “deserving” by worldly or eternal standards that do not receive the same unique “blessings” as another person. Again, it is unlikely that we can truly understand and label the withholding of blessings as a “punishment” or a “failure” on some part of the person. For example, when the disciples asked Christ who sinned to cause a certain man to be blind (the parents or the blind man), Christ said that neither had sinned and that this condition existed, “that the works of God should be manifest in him.” (John 9:1-3). Again, without being able to see the beginning from the end, it may be impossible to truly determine these distinctions.

    But maybe these are all distinctions without a difference. Maybe God does not really care to define the blessings in these ways, and maybe it is really immaterial in the eternal scheme of things. Maybe our efforts (and I am definitely included in this category) to delineate the source of blessings is born of our own pride or insecurity about our standing before God.

    We have been commanded to thank God in all things (D&C 59:7), and have been told that every good thing cometh from God (Moroni 7:12). We have been promised all that the God has if we will follow Christ and obey the commandments that he has given us. Every “blessing” or “injustice” is usually subjectively determined based on our limited knowledge and understanding (I’m pretty sure Paul did not initially feel that being struck blind for three days was a blessing. See Acts 9:1-9). Many seeming curses (such as cancer, losing a job, death of a child) can work to our benefit and salvation if they help us repent. And just as surely many blessings, (money, social prominence or worldly power, employment, unique talents) can be a curse if we allow them to draw us further away from God and his salvation.

    The real question of how we keep this mentality from creeping into our lens of the world and corrupting our views is very challenging. I think the most important thing that we can do to keep this tempting view from warping our perception is to remain focused on the true goal, which is salvation through obedience to the principles and ordinances of the Gospel. We should certainly rejoice and thank God for all blessings (defined as any event, opportunity, object, or thing that gives us the opportunity to draw closer to our ultimate goal of salvation, whether or not it appears as a positive or negative thing in our limited, subjective view) If we maintain this focus, we will be less likely to be tempted by Satan to believe that we “earned” wealth or that our “(un)righteousness” is the reason for such good(bad) fortune.

    I have come to feel like King Benjamin that I am eternally an unprofitable servant, and no matter how righteous, diligent, or obedient I am, I will never qualify for the blessings which I have received. But, in order to properly demonstrate my gratitude for the abundance which enjoy (as commanded to give thanks or live in thanksgiving daily), I ought to use those means to serve others–both in formal church service as called, and according to my own free will, acting as an agent unto myself, anxiously engaged in good causes and bringing about much righteousness.

    I am virtually certain that I will fail to use and share every blessing that I have to the fullest extent possible in this life, simply because I am imperfect and still subject to the selfish tendencies of the natural man. However, I also know that if we sincerely desire to become as unselfish as Christ, and we strive to act as he would have us act, we will eventually receive the desire of our heart to be perfectly unselfish by the power of Christ’s Atonement.

    I don’t believe that Christ would want me to live in a cardboard box just so that I would have more money to give away, but I also think it is very easy to rationalize my material wealth and my uses of it under the myth that these material possessions are the fruit of my righteousness or God’s desire to “bless” me. Most likely, we all have some room for improvement.

    But, if we ever reach the point where we have truly consecrated ourselves (including all time, talents, and material possessions), it is likely that God will put more wealth into our possession, so that we can further move forward the Kingdom of God on the Earth and hasten Christ’s return.

    (Sorry that this post is probably longer than the actual blog post and all of the other comments combined.)

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