28 November 2006

Husband, Santa, Business Partner, or John?

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but I haven’t had the time to refine it; however, a recent post by Jim F urged me to publish “as is.”

One of the themes I have been developing throughout the year as I study the Old Testament in preparation for teaching Sunday School is that God is not a vending machine. You can read some of my posts on the subject here:

Commandments as Rewards
Taking in Adultery
Prostituting Oneself Before God

A brief summary of my point: A relationship with God is developed through obedience and faith; the ultimate purpose is oneness with him; obedience out of a desire for blessings (health, wealth, etc.) rather than a desire for oneness ignores the greater reward and is an attempted abuse of God.

Jim F calls this believing in the Santa-God; I call it treating God like a vending machine, a business partner, or a john. This perspective reminds one to pray for forgiveness, guidance, and mercy, and not for "rewards."

The problem I have with this is embodied in Nephi’s emotional prayer:

“O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy. O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever… Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee.” (2 Nephi 4:33-35)
Nephi is clearly asking for temporal blessings (and curses) and he implies that his own righteousness and trust in the Lord give him reason to expect to be accommodated. But wait! we're not supposed to ask God for anything—make a xmas list, feed quarters into the vending machine—because that is not what God wants our relationship to be.

What to do then, with Amulek’s teaching?
“Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks. Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.” (Alma 34:20,25)
Is there a paradox? God wants us to focus on the eternal relationship we can have with him, thereby dispensing with the cares of the world—what’s a few missing sheep in the eternal scheme, right? But at the same time, he seems not only to want us to ask for temporal blessings, he also seems quite mindful of our worldly concerns (Matthew 10:29) and indeed wants us to be attentive as well (Gospel Principles, Ch 27).

Personally, I feel like God really wants me to care about my job and my health, my car and my Frisbee game, the loss of a loved-one, family vacation, and so on. And I believe that in some ways those blessings are contingent upon my righteousness. I can’t reason why I feel that way—just that when I pray I feel that I should pray for those things and when I sin I sometimes notice how I miss out. That’s “an ‘n’ of one,” as they say, but that’s my “n.” Still, I can’t resolve my two beliefs.


Stephen said...

Your ability to communicate with God about things, and to know his will regarding them, seems to depend on your ability to be in tune with him, which requires righteousness.

Will that mean you give up everything and spend twenty years on a foreign mission with nothing to show for it in material terms? It may.

shelleyj said...

"A brief summary of my point: A relationship with God is developed through obedience and faith; the ultimate purpose is oneness with him; obedience out of a desire for blessings (health, wealth, etc.) rather than a desire for oneness ignores the greater reward and is an attempted abuse of God."

I don't see a paradox, and I think you've answered your own question--the key is not whether we ask for/expect blessings, but our motives for being righteous in the first place. I'm not sure how to articulate what I consider the difference to be--maybe asking for blessings but being obedient because we desire to draw closer to God, versus asking for blessings and being obedient because we want those blessings. It's kind of like spending time with a rich unmarried uncle because you love him and want to get to know him before he dies, versus spending time with him so you'll be mentioned in his will. In either case you're probably going to get something, but the motive is entirely different. Not quite the most apt analogy, but the best I can come up with now. But perhaps the best test of our motives is our reaction when we don't get the blessings we ask for--if we're disappointed but continue to be faithful, we're probably on the right track; if we're disappointed and decide obedience isn't "paying off" the way it should, we might want to reevaluate our desires.

Also, I think praying for what may seem to be inconsequential things (school, work, Frisbee, etc.) is a necessary part of developing a relationship with God--we tell Him about the things that are important to us (which is certainly a component of developing a meaningful relationship with anyone), and the fact that He listens/answers is His way of showing that he cares about those things, too, not because they are ultimately important to Him, perhaps, but because they are important to us and we are important to Him.

BrianJ said...

Shelley: The paradox is not captured too well in the brief summary, but in the post as a whole I think it is. I hesitate to summarize the post for fear that the words I choose will be taken too literally, but here goes:

When I ask for temporal blessings, I feel guilty for not focusing on eternal rewards; when I avoid asking for temporal blessings, I feel guilty for neglecting my work, distrusting God, not opening my heart, and not exercising faith.

Don't focus too much on the word guilty so that you can get the "damned if I do/damned if I don't" feel for what I'm saying.

I like the rich uncle analogy, so you know...

I also like what you say about God showing his love by caring about our cares.

Robert C. said...

Brian, I think you raise a very interesting question. Sorry to be redundant, but I'm going to recommend Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing again, "Chapter 4: Barriers to Willing One Thing: The Reward-Disease" in particular.

Scripturally, I think Jacob 2:19 point to an answer: if you truly have a pure heart, then the reason you ask for what might appear to be selfish things is actually not selfish b/c you desire such things so that you can be a better servant in God's kingdom (for example, by giving your children a home that is conducive to gospel learning and service). But this all hinges on truly having a pure heart, something that is not that easy to do, which is why I like Kierkegaard, so much (the inspiration for K.'s above-mentioned book is a passage in James about being double-minded; I also like Huck Finn's statement that you can't pray a lie, though I think it is precisely this that the BOM and NT warn us about: if we are not careful the Father of Lies will creep in and corrupt our hearts by giving us desires that might appear righteous but are not righteous in truth, as did the Zoramites, the Pharisees etc.).

Robert C. said...

By the way, I kind of like using apparent scriptural paradoxes sometimes to get discussion going when I teach in Church. Do you have any specific scriptures in mind that support the notion that we shouldn't pray for blessings in a vending machine way?

Aaron said...

Wow, this is a late comment. I have not visited your blog for quite a while I miss it a lot. I took the T.V. out of my bedroom 2 weeks ago. I have a lot more time now.

I think when we ask God for blessings over our temporal things it is showing humility. We are recognizing that He is the source of ALL things, both temporal and spiritual. If we do not ask God for temporal blessings then we are trusting in the arm of our own flesh to acquire those things. When we pray to Him to bless us in our temporal things it shows that we put him before those things. It is critical that we pray to him always, so that we constantly seek him. All the time and in all things

I think it appropriate to thank him for temporal blessings before we receive them. I think as long as we do not ask for things at the exclusion of others we are fine. God can bless everyone abundantly, there is plenty for everyone.

Prayer is bending our will to God's will. Some people try to bend His. If we then are praying with a heart that is in tune with, at one with God, then our desires and our prayers will be righteous.

I think that we sometimes degrade temporal things too much. If those things are so bad, why did we fight so hard for the opportunity to come to earth?

NathanG said...

I couldn't decide if this is more focused on why we keep the commandments, or the prudence of praying for temporal blesings. I will address the latter.

I think one thing that God wants for us is to always remember him. One analysis of the Law of Moses is that it takes daily activites and turns it into a way to remember God. True this is not the only point of the Law, but ultimately the Law should bring their thoughts to God. Jacob describes this concept (Jacob 4:5). Keeping the Law points their souls to God.

I think that by praying for our day-to-day, temporal activites we turn our life, as we are likely going to live it anyway, into a way to bring God into every aspect of our lives. God becomes intricately laced into all that we do. In turn, as we show gratitude for the blessings God has given us it brings our temporal successes/blessings back to God. By turning our day to day life into a way of remembering God we are more likely to remember the things that have more eternal consequences.

Another thought is that God is our Father and I think fathers should be interested in the day to day activities of their children. And fathers want their children to be successful. As I have pursued my education with the "heathens" I've found that they are blessed with similar successes regardless of their faith (perhaps because he is their father too), but my own successes are accreditted to God and it strengthens my faith and devotion.

Perhaps it is not the temporal blessings that are so critical here, but as to how we interpret them. We may attain to the same successes with or without God if we work at it the same, but for the one who is with God (keeping commandments, praying, studying, focusing on eternal things, etc.) the successes/blessings anchor himself to God, and the one without God may say to himself that his success proves he does not need God and he distances himself from God. If that is the danger, then we can not afford to go without praying for temporal things.

BrianJ said...


I think that's a very interesting point, and I like how you pull me in paralleling the Law of Moses (which was a very good parallel). That's very helpful.