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Mormonism, Evangelicism and Chaos Theory

Why I don’t believe obedience brings blessings

At least, not how most Mormons express it.

I was very confused today about a newly returned missionaries talk. In the first part, he described how he felt good about breaking a mission rule about playing N64 with a future convert. In the second, he proceeded to talk about how being obedient brings blessings.

Now, I’m all in favor of the op-amp viewpoint of obedience and blessings that is implied by DC 130:

20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— 21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

However, I think the common, folklore Mormonism belief must be modified somewhat to be inline with the scriptures. Unchecked, the folklore belief leads to those believing they can “bind the Lord, by their obedience” or even “bargain with God.”

I guess I should define my terms ever so slightly. For those non-electrical engineers who read this blog, an op amp is an integrated circuit that is usually used in a mode that provides some sort of a gain. You put something in, and you get something else out depending on the circuit.

For electronics, it looks like this:

Opamp Voltage

Opamp Voltage

For the general outline of obedience brings blessings, it looks like this:

Obedience DOES bring blessings

Obedience DOES bring blessings

K, up till now, I think the picture matches the scripture. When we are obedient God blesses us.

The problem, is that some Mormons don’t stop there. They continue forcing the metaphore. “Well if God blesses us when we’re obedient, maybe we can choose the blessings we want to, and we’ll bargain with God so that we can earn those blessings.” “Um, that’s not what the scripture says.” “Yeah, I know, but I read some talk on my mission about binding the Lord by our obedience, I think it was by a general authority.”

Hm. So the problem, as I see it, is that bargaining with God is a testable hypothesis. If I believe all I need to do is “be obedient enough” then I just have to “be obedient enough”, if I get what I want, and I always get what I want simply by being obedient, then the hypothesis is true. If, however, I’m “obedient enough” and don’t get what I want the hypothesis is false.

Now the problem, my problem, is I used to believe that could test it. I use to think the gain was the same for everyone. That is, if I view “marriage” as a blessing, and “abstaining from inappropriate movies” as an obedient acts, then I could assume that continually abstaining from inappropriate movies would eventually lead to a blessing, like perhaps marriage. In fact, I could compare many different obedient acts. Say, abstaining from swearing, abstaining from off-color jokes, word of wisdom obedience, etc. And yet, I can show you many people who watch R-rated movies, swear, tell off-color jokes, don’t obey the word of wisdom, etc. who get married/engaged, who are Mormon. Thus saying obeying specific commandments brings specific blessings is not true for everyone. I mean, if it were, it’d be a really unfair, cruel, and mean God that treats some Mormons different than others.

Therefore, I’m left recognizing the assumption that God treats everyone as if they had the same gain, is a false assumption. God apparently blesses some people for some levels of obedience, and withholds blessings from others for the SAME levels of obedience. In fact, for the same person, the gain may change at different points in their life. But we mortals have no way of knowing WHY the gain changes. We can’t tell if the gain goes down because God’s testing us, or because we aren’t being obedient enough. We have no way of knowing if the gain of others is higher because they’re less experienced, or more obedient. The problem is, trying to figure it out leads, in the end, to depression.

I accept and support the doctrinal teaching that obedience brings blessings. But please don’t try and quantify it. Please don’t tell me “If I want something bad enough God will give it to me.” Please don’t say, “If you were just more obedient, you’d get what you want.” Please don’t say, “We should just bargain with God, and bind Him with our obedience.”

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August 16, 2009 - Posted by | Religion

13 Comments »

  1. I am SO very glad you posted this. I’ve heard that unemployment is due to not working hard enough, or not being righteous enough. Challenges are not normally spread out evenly, unless it’s something like living in Europe after WWII, and even then, some countries were hurt badly, and others outright destroyed.

    After the Teton Dam disaster in 1976, Pres Kimball & Pres. Packer visited the area. They heard someone say “what did we do to deserve this?” Pres. Packer later on said that some suffering has nothing to do with Righteousness.

    I had a Mission President that was very big on binding the Lord through Obedience. Yet, some missionaries violated a number of mission rules, and still baptized people.

    As it was put somewhere else, an LDS member can forgo coffee, but gossip like mad, and be considered faithful.

    I’ve notice obeying some commandments gives differing blessing in different phases of life. And, some Church members won’t listen to my encouragement about something like Family History, since I’m not a Millionaire.

    Comment by Mike H. | August 17, 2009 | Reply

  2. I understand what you mean Mike. Certainly, one doesn’t choose when the economy tanks, and when one’s job is terminated. Before that, we can certainly choose to live providently, and follow the teachings of the brethren, but circumstances like that are always difficult when church members start to ask (or assign) the why’s.

    FWIW, I don’t consider those who gossip faithful (and I have angry letters I’ve written to church leaders to prove it). It would be nice, perhaps, if a church leader told those in their ward that gossiping about someone is worse than or at least equal to breaking the Word of Wisdom.

    Comment by psychochemiker | August 17, 2009 | Reply

  3. This is a thought-provoking post. It brings to mind the case of Job and the problem of human suffering. Job was the most upright person on earth and yet was tested beyond belief–to the point that it would break most men. Yet, he never cursed God. The problem with the obedience=blessing model is that we don’t always know what the blessing is! What I may consider a blessing may not be what God wants for my life. The oft-quoted verse from Psalms is also frequently misinterpreted to mean “Delighting in God=I get what I want”.

    Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psa 37:4

    A friend of mine applied this verse to herself a while back when she became engaged. She gushed about her engagement and how God knew that was the desire of her heart (to get married) and she had really been delighting in Him lately and that was why her prayer was answered. But I don’t think that is what this verse means. God doesn’t always give us the desires of our own heart–imagine the problems if He did this! A lot of us want things that are not good for us. I believe the correct interpretation is that God will give us His desires, as in what we should desire. It is easy to superimpose our desires onto God’s desires but very often they are entirely different.

    Comment by Stephanie | August 17, 2009 | Reply

    • The problem with the obedience=blessings model is that we don’t always know exactly what the blessing is

      Exactly, Stephanie. Either God is completely illogical in how he blesses and when or there’s some higher logic dependent on factors that aren’t apparent to us currently.

      I think the problem with the folklore-Mormon belief that I was obedient in this and was blessed in that, is that for those who are obedient to the same “this” and don’t receive the same “that” there are two logical outcomes. 1. You weren’t obedient enough or 2, God doesn’t love you as much. I think either outcome is equally abhorrent, so I’ve completely given up the fallacious assumption leading up to it.

      Re: your engaged friend. That’s a problem I currently see in folklore Mormonism, that isn’t be addressed very well by my standards. Your friend seems to be implying, “I’ve pleased God enough for Him to give me this blessing.” Someone else hearing that statement might thought, wtfreak have I not done to deserve this blessing. There is an inherent judgement, and hence isn’t true gratitude, it’s merely self-aggrandizement and pride that causes severe damage in the Church.

      I also agree that God doesn’t always give us what we want, and of course we would expect that if we were wanting “bad things”. But what if you’re wanting “Good things.” You want to be able to focus and study to pass a test, you want to be friendly and find a suitable spouse, you want your friend to learn from your religious outreach. All of these are “good things”, what does it mean when that prayer goes unanswered, God didn’t want it to happen? No. I’d rather blame chaos theory, God chose to not interfere with the natural consequences of the actions leading up to this. Maybe you ate paint chips as a child, and God choses to not overcome that natural physical outcome, or you’re really too mature for those individuals around you, and God doesn’t choose to raise those immature around you to a higher level, or the person has a hard heart, and God chooses not to break through their hard exterior.

      Comment by psychochemiker | August 17, 2009 | Reply

    • I have no doubt that if Job was living in our day, that many in & outside of the Church would say the same things to him, questioning his righteousness & motives to have so much trouble, just in modern language. I am also troubled that he had many things restored to him later on in his mortal life, something that rarely happens to many.

      Why was he an exception?

      Comment by Mike H. | August 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. This line of logic seems to be equally as challenging to naturalistic perspectives of religion: blessings emerge because complex conditions are altered which over time may lead to positive consequences. I suspect in any case – supernatural or naturalistic the problem is assuming one-to-one correspondence between effort and reward.

    Comment by sigo | August 17, 2009 | Reply

    • I suspect in any case-supernatural or naturalistic, the problem is assuming one-to-one correspondence between effort and reward.

      I agree sigo. I think we have to believe (scripturally) that obedience brings blessings. But when we go further into assuming we know which obedience triggers which blessing, we cause problems.

      Comment by psychochemiker | August 17, 2009 | Reply

  5. This reminds me of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, two Dutch women who helped to rescue many Jewish people during WWII. Both of them were single women in their 50s living with their father when God used them to help many escape the holocaust. They have similar stories of heartbreak as young women. Corrie was engaged to a man who ended up leaving her for someone who was more well off. She never did marry anyone else and remained single throughout her life. Betsie had a physical condition that wouldn’t allow her to have children so she chose to remain unmarried. These two women were faithful, sincere, wonderful Christians–surely deserving (at least in our view) of the blessing of marriage, children and a home of their own. But the blessing that God provided to the ten Boom’s was greater than an earthly marriage. He allowed them the blessing of saving many souls from death in concentration camps. I think that their reward for persistent faithfulness without “earthly” blessing is an eternal honor.

    Comment by Stephanie | August 17, 2009 | Reply

  6. OK, I’m late to the party but I do want to leave my thoughts. I gave a talk on this a few months ago and my conclusion was/is that we as mortals just don’t have enough information to attempt to assign the obedience/blessings correlations. Nor can we attempt to assign the time frame in which the Lord is bound to bless us. For me, it doesn’t seem appropriate to focus on what reward I’ll get for being obedient. It seems much better to obey out of love and trust.

    DC 82:10 – “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say ye have no promise.”

    The Lord is bound to bless us when we obey. But how and when are completely up to Him. So in a sense, we can “bind the Lord,” but not on OUR terms – it only works on HIS terms, and since He rarely reveals His terms to us, we should simply strive to follow Him and know that He will bless us as He sees fit.

    The words of Jeffrey R. Holland seem apt: “Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come.” (“An High Priest of Good Things to Come,” Ensign, November 1999, p. 36.)

    Comment by Tomchik | August 24, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hm. Somehow I messed up that link. This should work.

    Comment by Tomchik | August 24, 2009 | Reply

  8. Great post! I’ve commented enough on the general topic at T&S, but love how you presented this. My husband is an electrical engineer, so maybe I’m biased. :)

    Comment by Alison Moore Smith | August 26, 2009 | Reply

    • Ah ha, maybe there’s a schmidt trigger or zener diode on the input of that Op Amp! So, you need to get the input up to a certain level to trigger it? Maybe. I’m an unemployed electronics technician. ;)

      I also remember that Joseph F. Smith was unable to “bargain” with The Lord about his son’s illness & death in the big Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

      We don’t know what blessings are, in an exact sense, at the time, nor do we know when it will happen.

      Comment by Mike H. | September 23, 2009 | Reply

  9. And, a rotating Tagline at fMh:

    “God is not a vending machine for the righteous.”

    Comment by Mike H. | September 23, 2009 | Reply


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