Doctrine Hidden by Culture

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 299th week, and we’re covering the Saturday Afternoon session of the April 1994 General Conference.

One of the recurring surprises (how many times does it have to happen before I stop being surprised) is the consistency of the General Conference talks from decades past with the tone and concerns of our most recent addresses. Yes, there a handful of notable changes, but there are more examples where the stereotype of an austere, misogynistic is confounded than anything else. Consider Elder Ballard’s talk on councils, where he stressed that for bishops to be effective leaders of councils they needed to listen more, and especially to women:

Eventually I asked the bishop to try again, only this time to solicit ideas and recommendations from his council members before making any assignments. I especially encouraged him to ask the sisters for their ideas.

The problem Elder Ballard encountered was that leaders in the church were too much like leaders in the ward: eager to delegate and direct. They weren’t enough like Christ: eager to listen and understand. It was also a little depressing just how dysfunctional the councils were–although he didn’t use the word–in operating far, far below the optimum. 

Once the appropriate councils are organized and the brethren and the sisters have full opportunity to contribute, ward and stake leaders can move beyond just maintaining organizations. They can focus their efforts on finding ways to make their world a better place to live. Certainly ward councils can consider such subjects as gang violence, child safety, urban blight, or community cleanup campaigns. Bishops could ask ward councils, “How can we make a difference in our community?” Such broad thinking and participation in community improvement are the right things for Latter-day Saints to do.

The baseline–“just maintaining organizations”–is not where we want to be. To be a light that isn’t hidden and a salt that hasn’t lost its savor, Latter-day Saints ought to be engaged in “broad thinking and participation in community improvement.” 

I’ve never been in a ward or stake council. I have no idea how far we’ve come since the mid-1990s, but I hope we’ve made progress.

Another stereotype I often hear attributed to the Church–or, at least, to its members–is the prosperity gospel. I’ve certainly seen this one with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, but only at the local level. 

We often act as though we’ve heard it all before when it comes to General Conference, but if we would actually listen maybe we’d be able to move on from the basics, But as long as people are still emphasizing the way you can exchange obedience for material prosperity as though God were a cosmic vending machine, we’re not understanding what we’re being taught. Elder Lloyd P. George–in a talk about gratitude–provided just another in a countless litany of example from over the pulpit at General Conference about how just wrong this paradigm is:

I am grateful for the things which I have suffered in the flesh, which have been blessings in my life that have taught me patience, long-suffering, faith, and a sensitivity to those who are less fortunate.

Obedience does bring about blessings, but those blessings can include trials. Suffering is part of the plan, and it’s part of the plan for everyone. Sometimes suffering comes about because of our own choices or because we are victims of the bad choices of other people. Not every instance of suffering is heaven-sent or approved by God. There is more suffering in the world than there should be, and it’s our sacred duty to alleviate it wherever we find it.

But the amount of suffering that a righteous person should–and will–encounter in this life even when they are being obedient is not zero. The fact that we inhabit a world where suffering exists and even many specific instances of suffering are intended parts of the plans, and obedience is no shield from this fact. The General Authorities know this. They–and the scriptures–teach this. 

And yet somehow I feel we still have not learned the lesson, as a people.

Then again, I suppose I should concede that the message is a little paradoxical. I confess I was a little uncomfortable with (then) Elder Oaks’ talk on tithing in the same session where he emphasized the material blessings that come from paying tithes with stories that–I confess–I really dislike. Elder Oaks said:

During the Great Depression, President Grant continued to remind the Saints that the payment of tithing would open the windows of heaven for blessings needed by the faithful. In that stressful period, some of our bishops observed that members who paid their tithing were able to support their families more effectively than those who did not. The tithe payers tended to keep their employment, enjoy good health, and be free from the most devastating effects of economic and spiritual depression. (emphasis added)

He also cited President Joseph F. Smith, “By keeping this and other laws, I expect to prosper and to be able to provide for my family.” A basic aspect of the pride cycle in the Book of Mormon also involves the people being blessed with prosperity and material wealth whenever they are righteous. So it’s not as though the whole prosperity gospel heresy comes out of nowhere.

But that’s how heresies work, right? They don’t come out of nowhere. They are generally true and good principles that are ripped out of their proper context and/or pushed out of balance with other principles.

The prosperity that people experience collectively when they follow the commandments is just that: collective. It does not prevent individual people from suffering misfortune and tragedy. In fact, one of the major problems with the Nephites in the Book of Mormon is that when they prospered, they often grew in inequality. That tells you that the prosperity was not evenly distributed. Many people grew wealthy and the people overall prospered, but many individuals were left behind and faced hardship and want and this was not a result of individual disobedience

We know that because the Lord was often angry with the rich and the wealthy for setting themselves apart and refusing to help those who were being left behind. We also know that because it was often the poor people who were the more righteous. 

This collective / individual distinction is really important. Yeah, if people are obedient overall they will prosper overall, but this is much less about God handing out wealth like tossing candy individually into the bags of trick-or-treaters and much more about the fact that the Gospel is pro-social. When you have people who generally eschew war and contention and are basically honest, then society will grow wealthier as a natural consequence. This is less about divine favor and more about basic cause-and-effect. And it means that the distribution of wealth to individual people within an overall prosperous society will not systematically reflect their righteousness. Some of the rich will be good and decent and others liars and thieves. And the same goes for the poor.

It’s also worth noting that tithing is an exceptional case. Because tithing specifically asks us to give up our material possessions, it is not surprising that–more so than other commandments–the blessings it brings often tend to have a material component. 

The point is that the prosperity gospel didn’t come out of nowhere. The reason people keep falling for it is that there’s a kernel of truth to it. But there’s also a lot of lies. They include:

  • Following commandments will insulate you from suffering
  • God’s blessings always have a temporal component
  • A person’s material wealth is a proxy for their spiritual righteousness

The really dangerous thing about these lies is that when they become expectations they lead to really bad behavior. If you think God always blesses righteous people with money, then why should you help someone who is poor? You’d just be interfering with God’s system. And, after all, they deserve their poverty since it resulted from their disobedience.

And if God’s blessings always have a material component, how can you possibly lay up for yourself treasures in heaven? You will be so focused on the earthly treasures that you will miss out on the much, much more important treasures that God wants you to receive.

And perhaps most tragically, if you think that following commandments will insulate you from suffering then when you come to our own personal Gethsemane–and everyone must, to some degree or other, as part of the proces of learning and growing here on Earth–what will you think? Will you blame yourself and let a toxic, unhealthy shame eat away at your self-worth and your relationship to God? Will you grow bitter towards the Church or God Himself for deceiving you, misunderstanding your own warped expectations for what the scriptures and prophets teach?

I can tell you this from sad experience: I have seen too many otherwise good and obedient Saints founder on the rocks of suffering not so much because of the suffering itself, but because the suffering felt like a betrayal. Their false expectations created a trap within their own hearts, just waiting for the right moment to spring.

And so, while I confess I don’t love Elder Oaks’ talk, everything he taught was true. The danger is not in his talk. The danger is in taking his talk out of context.

This post is already a bit long, so let me just mention that Elder Johnson’s talk We All Have a Father in Whom We Can Trust, was also great. There were two parts of it that I liked.

First–going back to my theme that the Church’s teachings have been remarkably consistent–he said that he and his wife decided that “it was our responsibility to teach the gospel to our son and that Church programs would reinforce the teaching in the home.” Sound like home-centered church anyone? From back in 1994. I remember–a few years before this stuff became super-prominent in General Conference–trying to explain that it was my belief that the Church was for the family and not the other way around, and some (faithful, active) Latter-day Saints pushed back with, essentially, “That’d be great if it were true, but I just don’t think it’s what we’re actually taught.”

Yes, it is. Now and in the past as well. But–like the prosperity gospel heresy–you’ve got to get past some cultural chafe to find it. It’s there, though, I promise. And it always has been.

Second, I really love the mileage you can get out keeping in mind that we are children of God and comparing that to how earthly parents relate to their children. Elder Johsnson reflect on the time he spent helping his father build things as a child and noted:

As I look back and reflect upon those wonderful memories, I realize that my contribution was not necessary for my father to complete the work he was engaged in. I was the beneficiary, as through these experiences I came to know him and to love him.

How like the association we have with our Heavenly Father, believing at times that the service we engage in is for his benefit, when in reality it is comparable with my handing tools to my father. It is the relationship that develops that is of greater significance more than the contribution we make…

Just as I was not able to fully comprehend what my earthly father was building until he completed his work, so it is with our Heavenly Father. When his kingdom is established and the work is complete, we will recognize our home and shout for joy.

We are children of God. It’s not just the lyrics to a song. It’s a lens that can help to make so much sense of our often bewildering and frustrating experiences in this mortal life.

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