Zelophehad’s Daughters

Obedience and Blessings

Posted by Lynnette

In sacrament meeting last week, one of the speakers in my ward quoted in passing some verses from D&C 130 which have often perplexed me:

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.

I spent several minutes reflecting yet again on why I find this passage challenging. Then after church, I came home and read Amelia’s moving and thought-provoking post at FMH about the rhetoric of marriage, and being single in the Church. Some of the discussion there reminded me of this issue. What is the relationship between obedience and blessings? Marriage and children are blessings, we are frequently reminded; many maintain, in fact, that they are the greatest blessings one can have. But does this imply that those who have been blessed with these things have obeyed a law which those who are single and/or childless have neglected?

Another example. It is not uncommon to hear a connection made between living the gospel and greater happiness. You keep the commandments, and are blessed with peace, joy, etc., as a result. Conversely, we know from Alma that wickedness never was happiness. I have no doubt that many people have found this to be experientially true. In my own life, however, this particular connection has not always held up. This has actually come as a surprise to me, because I grew up firmly believing in this link. But after years of living with depression, when happiness first struck in my life, I was quite taken aback by how out of the blue it was, and how little it had to do with my living the commandments (or not). Ahh, some will say, but there is a difference between happiness and joy, or perhaps between pleasure and happiness. I am not so sure; I do think there are probably relevant distinctions to be made here, but when it comes to my actual life experience it is all rather jumbled and I cannot so easily parse things out.

In addition, I have a lot of blessings in my life, such as generally good health, educational opportunities, and supportive friends and family members. I am not at all convinced, however, that I have these things because I somewhere somehow obeyed the law upon which those particular blessings are predicated. Yet this scripture says that any blessing we obtain from God is a result of obedience. Should I conclude that these blessings are not from God (which would be odd, given the injunction to acknowledge his hand in all things)? Or that, despite all appearances to the contrary, I did in fact obey some law which brought them about? Or that they aren’t actually “blessings”?

This is why this scripture confuses me. It raises a lot of difficult questions. One possible solution, of course, is to extend its scope. It’s not really referring to mortality, one might argue; it’s referring to eternity. Here in this life there may be serious and often troubling disjuncts, but eternally you will have the blessings that you have merited through your obedience to the underlying laws which govern their bestowal.

I think there is probably something to that. And yet I am still uneasy with this paradigm. For one thing, it sounds so mechanistic: you insert obedience O, and are rewarded with blessing B. Also, in what sense is a blessing truly a blessing if it is merited, earned through obedience? Where is the grace in this picture? (Perhaps in the possibility that the blessings exceed what the obedience merited? Or perhaps it is only through grace that we are able to achieve the requisite obedience?)

I do believe that there have been times in my life when I have been blessed for my obedience to particular commandments. But there have also been times in my life in which God has graciously offered help despite my rebellion. And I’ve also struggled at times (as I think most people have) with feeling like I was doing my best, and yet promised blessings never appeared.

How do you understand the relationship between obedience and blessings?

49 Responses to “Obedience and Blessings”

  1. 1.

    I don’t think there is a real link between blessings and obedience if by “blessings” you mean “miracles”. For example, you may be “blessed” with good health if you follow the Word of Wisdom, because scientifically it’s generally healthier to abstain from alcohol, but you could just as easily suffer from a chronic health condition while following the WoW.

    Likewise, I don’t enjoy the oft-repeated stories about people paying their tithing and then receiving an unexpected check in the mail the next day. There are no guarantees. We should do good works (or follow the rules) because they are good in and of themselves, not because we are anticipating a reward (or a miracle).

    Great post, Lynnette!

  2. 2.

    First of all, the wording of this verse is kind of ambiguous to me. It says there is “a law,” not laws, upon which blessings are predicated. I once heard someone argue that this law is faith, but I can’t remember any of their justifications for it.

    I think your example of marriage and family blessings are instructive. No matter how obedient we are, we can’t do any good thing that will cause Heavenly Father to take away someone else’s agency. At BYU I had a roomate who started going to the temple 6 days a week after a broken engagement, because he thought that if he was really super righteous for a while, then he would be blessed with his girlfriend coming back to him. Or something.

  3. 3.

    It seems to me that D&C 130:20-21is a “Law of the Harvest” passage of scripture. Basically, it says to me that if I till a good piece of ground, sow the seeds for my garden, and water and protect and fertilize my garden I will be able to harvest my desired fruits and vegetables at the time of reaping. The “blessing” I receive of that harvest is the result of following natural laws.

    The same general law of the harvest can be generally applied to all sorts of areas of life — personal relationships (including our personal relationship with God), finances, health, etc. But just like sometimes natural disasters can destroy crops, sometimes conditions beyond our control can mess up other parts of out lives too. So my take is that there are basically two types of trouble in our lives — troubles we could/should have prevented and troubles completely beyond our control. This scripture tells me that the commandments of God are largely instructions or directions that help us avoid the former and we then rely on God to help us past the latter.

    9 Or, in other words, I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to you for your salvation.
    (D&C 82:9 italics mine)

    Also, I don’t know why we should think all “blessings” should be free gifts from God. Most things we consider blessings in life don’t come for free at all (think liberty, etc.). Rather, the primary free gift I am aware of from God is his standing offer to us of a personal relationship with him even though none of us deserve such a gracious offer.

  4. 4.

    Thanks for this post. I can’t help but wonder it grace mediates obedience, so that it’s not obedience = entitlement to blessings, or blessings you want,

    but instead, obedience + grace = being blessed what what you really need when you need it. And sometimes, I think, there is room for grace=blessings, regardless of obedience. The atonement, I think, is that infinite. Perhaps the greatest protection of obedience, or more simply, faith, is the knowledge and the hope that we’ll never be hung out to dry by the Lord. Look at Job.

  5. 5.

    I would classify marriage as a commandment from which other blessings may flow, not a blessing itself.

  6. 6.

    Along the same line of recieving blessings, in Sac meeting today, a man was saying how he was blessed because of the prayers of his family. I was struck again by the question of how people are blessed by the prayers of others. If Joe and Bob are both struggling, and Joe has many people praying for him, but Bob is virtually alone in his difficulties, does the Lord bestow greater help and blessings to Joe?

  7. 7.

    Sally: If Joe and Bob are both struggling, and Joe has many people praying for him, but Bob is virtually alone in his difficulties, does the Lord bestow greater help and blessings to Joe?

    Yup.

    If we don’t assume that Joe is more likely to receive the benefits of divine intervention in such a scenario then we have to concede that prayer seeking divine intervention is completely futile.

  8. 8.

    One of my struggles with obedience = blessings is the opposite idea. If someone is having trials does that mean they aren’t being obedient? I know from experience is that the answer is no. Also, I struggle with the idea that we are supposed to be grateful to God for everything good and not blame God when things go bad. So far the whole idea just doesn’t make sense in my mind.

  9. 9.

    Geoff J., I think the “Law of the Harvest” idea is just like the other ideas that Lynnette is worrying about. I agree with Lynnette that it’s a mistake, a projection of human concepts and metaphors of causation onto a spiritual realm that we don’t understand all that well. We can’t manipulate God. We can’t make him conform to our plans, even by obedience and hard work. Think of Job; think of Joseph Smith. God’s ways are not our ways, we’re told, and He is not our tool.

    Your comment about prayer in #7 seems similarly mechanistic. Is prayer pointless if it doesn’t manipulate God’s actions? Surely not. Prayer serves relational purposes as well as the ends of efficacious causation. And it probably matters in other ways that we don’t understand, as well.

    These mechanistic ideas about God and the spiritual are obviously prevalent in our culture and to some extent in our church. I think we swim in them like fish in the sea to some extent. But I also think we ought to resist them, since a logical implication of these ideas is that they reduce God’s action to the equivalent of a computer program.

    Lynnette, on the “wickedness never was happiness” idea, it might be noteworthy that the passage in question doesn’t claim that righteousness is necessarily linked with happiness — just that wickedness isn’t.

  10. 10.

    I think about this concept a lot. Kind of like ECS said, it bothers me when people expect miraculous blessings when they pay their tithing. I had a stake president who said the better thing to happen is to pay your tithing when you can’t afford it and your tithing check actually does bounce. Then you are showing true sacrifice and obedience.
    I am bothered by the idea that I see all over in church culture that we only follow the commandments to get blessings. Sometimes life just sucks, so where are you left then if you are following the commandments and are expecting life to be grand? Most times, that just doesn’t happen.
    That scripture is quite puzzling. I had never thought about this concept in terms of that scripture (which seems an obvious enough link). So thanks for a great post.

  11. 11.

    Lynnette,

    Like you, I’ve wondered about this passage. I finally gave up on it and concluded that it was best to treat it something like a Las Vegas tout sheet which tells us the safest way to bet.

    If I am honest with others, pay tithing, and avoid alcohol, tobacco, and sexual infidelity, I am more likely to be happy than if I do none of those things. But I could still wind up broke and dying of lung cancer after a bitter divorce. And to start trying to match up each good thing in my life one to one with a previous good action is pointless and frustrating.

    C.S. Lewis, our thirteenth apostle, wrote a book entitled Surprised by Joy. To the extent that I have had joy and happiness in my life, it has mostly been a surprise, which made the experiences even better. And of course, the reverse is true as well. Some of my worst moments have come as I was trying my level best to be righteous. Go figure.

  12. 12.

    Wow Mark, that was well stated.

    It reminds me of when Joseph Smith said Happiness in life is most likely to be obtained by keeping the commandments etc. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but I assume you all know what I am talking about.

  13. 13.

    RT: We can’t manipulate God.

    It depends on what you mean by “manipulate”doesn’t it? I agree if you mean God is not our puppet. But you seem to be taking it much farther than that — you seem to be saying we can’t even influence decisions God will make. Are you really willing to preach impassibility? If God is impassible why on earth would we ever ask him for assistance in anything?

    But I also think we ought to resist them, since a logical implication of these ideas is that they reduce God’s action to the equivalent of a computer program.

    I disagree with the conclusions/implications you draw from this view of human interaction with God. I think we should more fully embrace these law of the harvest ideas because they portray God as a real person who is movable and who can be persuaded to intervene in our lives through enough personal interaction. If God is indeed unmovable then praying for divine intervention in our lives now is simply foolishness.

    Further, I am not talking about God as a vending machine — I am talking about God as a person with whom we interact. Like all personal relationships, we can make deposits in the relationship (through prayer, kindness to others, etc.) which draw us closer to God or we can make withdrawals in the relationship (through selfishness, breaking covenants with God, etc.). But in my experience, when the time comes that we need a miracle in the here and now, the degree to which we can persuade God to grant such miracles is directly proportional to the degree our confidence waxes strong in the presence of God as a result of the way we nurtured that personal relationship up to that point.

  14. 14.

    Geoff, I find it extremely hard to think of human interactions in terms of deposits and withdrawals. This is a metaphor that I can’t really process. Isn’t a relationship supposed to be non-instrumental behavior? Shouldn’t we want to spend time with our friends and loved ones because of our friends and loved ones, not because of any second-order benefits we might get from them?

    Leave impassibility aside. These things aren’t all or nothing. I have faith that God does indeed respond to earthly things, including us and our prayers. But I have a certain knowledge that He responds in His ways and not ours. If God will do what we think He ought to do, conditional on something (obedience, prayers, whatever), then God is rather a lot less than a person.

  15. 15.

    RT,

    I am using the deposit/withdrawal metaphor to represent relationship deposits and withdrawals . As in, if I have a friend who I make an important promise to and then I callously break that promise and our relationship naturally weakens. It is a law of the harvest thing. I sow meanness and disloyalty and I reap a weakened relationship. If I consistently keep my promises then our relationship strengthens. And of course that is reciprocal — if my friend betrays me or backstabs me it is a major withdrawal from my metaphorical emotional bank account and it causes greater alienation between the two of us. I might forgive, but closeness and deep trust in personal relationships takes time and ongoing “deposits”.

    Also, come on — you can’t start preaching impassibility and then insist we not discuss it when I call you on it. That is the Achilles heel of your arguments here. Mormonism is practically founded on the emphatic rejection of the notion of an impassible God and yet you are functionally preaching it here. His ways need not be our ways for us to have an influence on his present decisions. Our scriptures are full of indications that God does indeed change his mind at the behest of his children after all. If my daughter can influence my decisions does that me “less than a person”? Of course not. That logic is just silly.

  16. 16.

    Geoff, I’m not used to hearing God described as a person. Probably because I think of person as human. In my mind, God is a being, and not a person we can persuade, even to a small extent.
    This conversation reminds me of the bible dictionary’s entry on prayer. It describes prayer as the act in which the will of the child is brought into correspondence with the will of the Father. It also says something about our receiving blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional upon our asking for them.

    If Joe and Bob are both struggling, and Joe has many people praying for him, but Bob is virtually alone in his difficulties, does the Lord bestow greater help and blessings to Joe?

    So, in my mind, Joe and Bob are equal in accessing blessings, provided the blessings are the Lord’s will to begin with, and assuming each man is praying for help. I imagine that the prayers of Joe’s friends would give them a blessing of peace or something. But, again, I don’t see any reason to think God is persuaded by our prayers, just that we can be persuaded to accept God’s will through prayer.

    But, Lynette, to your original post, I agree with the confusion. It seems that a lot of members want to take those verses literally. I like the idea that obedience is important on it’s own, rather than because we will be blessed because of it. When I think about my 5 year old, I don’t think about blessing him when he obeys, but about not punishing him, how about that? :) Obedience leads to happiness b/c we are not punished.
    So even if Mark is right, and our unhappy times do happen to coincide with our striving to be obedient, perhaps we can use the scripture to see God as testing us, and not punishing us (of course the line there is gray and fuzzy, I’m just thinking this through now)
    Thanks for the post, I like thinking about this.

  17. 17.

    Geoff, God is not impassible, and RT clearly acknowledges that. That does not mean our relationship to him necessarily works in the way you’re describing here.

    if God works _only_ in that way, then prayer, obedience, blessings and so forth should work in a consistent, empirically observable fashion. Yet they don’t. People die, opportunities wither, failure happens despite the fervent prayers of the faithful.

    But miracles happen, too. God does sometimes respond.

    So clearly, what I’m saying doesn’t mean that God will not respond to our prayers. It does mean that perhaps there’s not a one-to-one correlation between what we ask for and what God does; perhaps we are not in command of all the reasons and factors that influence God’s behavior. This means that sometimes he doesn’t respond the way we hope and believe he should. It’s those points that command a mature faith from us.

  18. 18.

    Geoff, major trouble comes when we decide that “God is not X,” with X being the philosophical term for some traditional Christian belief — and therefore affirm that God is necessarily the extreme opposite of X. I’ve never preached impassibility here; you’re reading it in. But if God is a bank account that we make deposits and withdrawals into, we’re in the realm of some extreme opposite of impassibility.

    Also, the harvest/bank metaphors really don’t seem apt. Relationships are fundamentally about more than that; contracts and business ties work the way you suggest, but personal connections are different just exactly because they’re less conditional and less instrumental. Do you love your children more when they make their beds? Less when they don’t clean their rooms? Or is your love for them the context for both decisions?

    When you say, “His ways need not be our ways for us to have an influence on his present decisions,” you’re agreeing with me. But this means that, for example, we can’t possibly affirm that a larger number of people praying for me means more blessings for me. That’s thinking in a very human and mechanistic way. The prayers can have an effect of God without God providing extra blessings. To follow your analogy: if your asks you for a candy and you give it to her, does it follow that if she asks twice you’ll give her two candies? Or does your failure to give the second candy mean you’re impassible? Or are you just operating according to criteria she doesn’t understand? The line of argument you’re offering seems to me to need a bit more development and critical thought.

  19. 19.

    Here is a another post on these verses. In the comments several people who haven’t commented here give their take on the meaning.

  20. 20.

    jessawhy: In my mind, God is a being, and not a person we can persuade, even to a small extent.

    Really? So all this talk of “I am a child of God” and calling God Heavenly Father never gave you the idea that God is a person? As far as I can tell, the literal personhood of God is one of the key doctrines of the restoration.

    Matt B — I can’t tell if you actually read my comments or not because you seem to be responding to a lot of position that I haven’t defended here.

    if God works _only_ in that way, then prayer, obedience, blessings and so forth should work in a consistent, empirically observable fashion.

    Works what way? Like a real person? Your comment seems to assume I am saying God is a vending machine whereas I explicitly said he is not that.

  21. 21.

    A couple of people have mentioned the possibility that obedience should be in some sense its own reward, which is a way of thinking about this that appeals to me. Following the commandments is worthwhile because of the kind of person that you become as a result, or perhaps also because of the kinds of relationships you develop as a result (and given that we are fundamentally relational beings, those two things probably aren’t really separate). I like that. And yet I’m still not sure what to do with scriptural passages that hint at more external kinds of rewards.

    Silent Observer, it actually hadn’t occurred to me that it says law singular, and not laws. I don’t know that it makes any more sense to me that way, but it’s an interesting point.

    I’ve often wondered about the scenario that Sally brings up. I’ve had similar thoughts about the Alma the Younger story. God intervenes to send Alma in a new direction because of the prayers of his father. Does that mean that if he’d happened to have a different father, he would have spent the rest of his life in wickedness? Is God less concerned with people (or at least, less willing to act on that concern) if they don’t happen to have the good fortune of other people praying for them?

    For the record, I’m a strong believer in the passibility of God, that he’s really affected by us, that it’s a genuine relationship. However, I’d also say that being in a relationship with someone doesn’t involve a guarantee that you can do x and get y from that person. I remember years ago in some psychology class discussing the concept of relationships of gift vs. relationships of exchange. In the latter, you do think of it in terms of deposits and withdrawals, and try to keep the accounts balanced. In the former, on the other hand, you give what you have to give because you care about the relationship and the person, without worrying about whether you’re getting sufficient return. I would imagine that most human relationships have elements of both, but I would think that a human-divine relationship would be ideally a relationship of gift–certainly on God’s side, even if we humans frequently slip back into an exchange model and hope that we can get God to do what we want if we “invest” enough.

  22. 22.

    RT: But if God is a bank account that we make deposits and withdrawals into, we’re in the realm of some extreme opposite of impassibility.

    Hmmm… did you miss my last comment? I thought I specifically explained what that relationship withdrawal/deposit metaphor implied already.

    Do you love your children more when they make their beds? Less when they don’t clean their rooms? Or is your love for them the context for both decisions?

    You have completely changed subjects now. We were talking about influencing God’s decisions and now you seem to be conflating that with God’s love. They are two totally different things and conflating them is a mistake.

    If my children do as I ask them to do, yes they are much more likely to be able to go to McDonalds or whatever when they ask. If they have been disobedient or mean etc then I am much less likely to honor their requests for treats or whatever. As they grow older the more they prove themselves trustworthy the more I trust them. And the relationship goes both ways — as I keep my promises to them the more they know I can be counted on and the more they trust me.

    But this means that, for example, we can’t possibly affirm that a larger number of people praying for me means more blessings for me.

    If you are simply saying that more people praying for you doesn’t mean you will get a lot MORE blessings — especially more than you want or need — I of course agree. That seems obvious to me. But if you are saying that many people praying for you won’t increase your chances of persuading God to intervene on your behalf I disagree. Why wouldn’t the petitions of many people have a greater influence on God than the pleading of one? If one of my children asks for a cookie I might not be persuaded. But if all of them join together to petition me on behalf of the one I would be much more likely to be persuaded. To say otherwise is to say that group prayer is futile and I happen to know from personal experience that group prayer is indeed effective in persuading God.

  23. 23.

    Thanks for that link, Jacob; that discussion gave me some more ideas to think about.

    I’m wondering if I’d have an easier time with these verses if they didn’t have the “from God” clause. I can think of a lot of examples in life where there simply aren’t shortcuts. If I want to learn how to be a good friend, I can’t get there without spending a lot of time in actual relationships with people in my life, and experiencing and learning from the negatives and positives of those friendships. If that’s the kind of thing that this scripture is talking about, that makes sense to me. It’s pretty central to our theology, after all, that God couldn’t just exalt us; this earth life is a crucial step on the way, presumably because we learn things here that we couldn’t learn elsewhere.

    But when the passage talks about obtaining blessings specifically from God, it raises all those difficult questions about divine intervention, and why it happens sometimes but not others.

  24. 24.

    Geoff, I did read your comment about the deposit/withdrawal thing. That’s why I responded to it. It’s my sense that you haven’t fully engaged with the arguments that Lynnette and I, among others, have offered that personal relationships simply don’t — and clearly shouldn’t — work this way. Basically, I think the “law of the harvest” as you’re discussing it here is not part of my understanding of the gospel. So saying that the bank metaphor equals the law of the harvest doesn’t make it any more palatable to me.

    To say otherwise is to say that group prayer is futile…

    I’m going to stop beating this drum after one more comment, but the quoted remark is clearly incomplete. If prayer’s only purpose is to elicit a specific divine intervention, then this statement is correct. However, if we can conceive of prayer as having other purposes, such as changing our hearts, building a relationship with God, developing faith, and so forth, then prayer isn’t futile even in the extreme case that divine intervention is never forthcoming as a result of it. Only a very narrow definition of why prayer matters can lead to the conclusion that, in the scenario in question, prayer becomes futile if the probability of divine intervention isn’t a function of the number of people praying.

  25. 25.

    Lynnette, on further thought, I think it’s probable that the scriptural passage you quote is one of a number of scriptural texts — very well represented in the Old Testament, for example — reflecting a tradition that righteousness is blessed with material prosperity in this life. The famous Book of Mormon cycle of repentance-prosperity-pride-misery-repentance also builds around this world view. Yet the scriptures amply attest the opposite tradition. The righteous person may be a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief; God may chastise those He loves. The rich man may burn in hell while the beggar dines at Abraham’s table. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is as a testament to the diversity in human perspectives that is compatible with faithful belief in God.

  26. 26.

    Lynnette, I was going to cite that psychological research about different types of relationships, but you beat me to the punch! I think you’re right that we had certainly better hope that God is thinking he’s in a gift relationship with us since, as King Benjamin points out, even at our best we’re unprofitable servants. Certainly there is nothing we can do to pay back for the atonement.

    But regarding the scripture in D&C, do you think it would make more sense if it were less categorical? Certainly it would for me: “There is a law that some blessings are predicated on obedience,” etc. It doesn’t sound as cool, but it makes more sense. It kind of fits with Mark IV’s comment about it being a statement about the safest way to bet.

    Or how about this?

    There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all probability distributions of blessings are predicated—
    And when we increase the probability of obtaining any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
    But remember, remember, that the distribution may have a shape that ye know not, and that the population is as innumerable as the sands of the sea, and that in small samples, the distribution may be difficult to see.
    And because of this, blessings will still be given to those who obey not, and will still be withheld from those who obey.

  27. 27.

    Ziff, I’m inclined to like anything based in probability distributions. And yet my reading of the Old Testament, Paul’s letters, and so forth leads me to conclude that — on average — God’s prophets and apostles have a probability distribution that’s pretty dramatically skewed toward suffering, persecution, and heartache. From this, we might conclude that such divine messengers are on average pretty disobedient, or we might instead conclude that sometimes obedience and faithfulness shifts the distribution in the direction of suffering rather than happiness…

  28. 28.

    Lynnette,

    I agree, the passage is difficult for me for exactly the reasons you are highlighting. I don’t think I have an interpretation that is without problems.

    Over on my thread, I said that the reading that made most sense to me was that the one law was the law that God works with us only according to our faith. Jesus pretty consistently asked people who came to him if they had faith to be healed. There are hints in other places that it may be spiritually dangerous to have God intervene miraculously for us if we do not already have faith (faith precedes the miracle and all of that).

    Some things I like about this reading are that it does not imply that we have earned the blessing or that God is obligated to give us x if we do y. Faith is certainly not a merit-based requirement. In addition, we know that we may have faith and receive nothing. The scripture would be saying that faith was a necessary, but not a sufficient requirement to warrant God’s intervention on our behalf.

    One obvious problem with this reading is that there are all sorts of blessings which we receive from God which do not seem to be predicated upon anything at all. God rains on the just and the unjust after all and the light of Christ is given to all people who come into the world. For tihs reason, I think it works best if we take “when we obtain any blessing from God” to mean that it is limited in scope to blessings we are seeking through petitionary prayer.

    In the end, I guess I am most certain about what I do not want it to mean. I don’t believe there is a “do x and you will get y” relationship for blessings we obtain from God. I don’t believe God only gives us blessings when we deserve them, so I don’t accept the idea that it is saying we have to “earn” our blessings from God. I am left wondering, “what else could it mean that I can accept?” The idea that God limits his miraculous intervention on our behalf while we are here on earth by our faith is the best I can come up with so far.

  29. 29.

    There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all probability distributions of blessings are predicated—
    And when we increase the probability of obtaining any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
    But remember, remember, that the distribution may have a shape that ye know not, and that the population is as innumerable as the sands of the sea, and that in small samples, the distribution may be difficult to see.
    And because of this, blessings will still be given to those who obey not, and will still be withheld from those who obey.

    Isn’t there a scripture somewhere warning about the dangers posed by the church of the statisticians, which takes plain and precious truths out of the scriptures and replaces them with probability distributions? :P

  30. 30.

    One Alternative reading is that the law decreed before the foundations of the world is the great eternal law which has always existed (this may seem redundany, but I don’t want anyone to think I mean “eternal law” as in “God’s law”) as BH Roberts discusses in TWL, and all blessings are predicated by this law, just as Widtsoe says when discussing the “law of cause and effect” in rational theology. This law, then, is obeyed by God, and so he is able to bless us.

  31. 31.

    I think it is significant that, as others have mentioned, the verse refers to a law, not laws. It also says that when we obtain any blessing it is by obedience, but it doesn’t say that it is by our own obedience.

    I prefer to understand this law to mean the atonement. We obtain all blessings by grace and we have access to grace because our Savior was willing to be obedient to the law. Basically, under this reading, the verse says what Moroni says: any good thing comes from Christ.

    I understand, though, that this is very different from the traditional understanding of this verse.

  32. 32.

    Lynnette, I like your point about much of the confusion arising from the “from God” clause. If some of God’s commandments are descriptive of how contingencies work in the world, should we say blessings are coming from God when we use that knowledge to make things go well for us? For example, if God commands us not to abuse opiates because we’ll likely get addicted and it will disrupt the rest of our lives, and we listen and don’t abuse them, is that a blessing from God? Your point about acknowledging his hand in all things is relevant here too, I think.

    But are there commandments that aren’t reducible to “this is the way the world is so if you listen you’ll be happier”? Are commandments to perform ordinances exceptions? Or do they involve operating on the world or on us in subtle ways that we don’t see and they are in fact like other commandments whose ends are (or seem) more obvious?

  33. 33.

    Jacob J said,

    There are hints in other places that it may be spiritually dangerous to have God intervene miraculously for us if we do not already have faith (faith precedes the miracle and all of that).

    Wow, that’s such an interesting point that I’ve never heard put quite that way.

    And Lynnette, how can you say that I’m taking “plain and precious” truths out when the truths are clearly not plain enough? And what could statistics do but clarify things? :)

  34. 34.

    RT: It’s my sense that you haven’t fully engaged with the arguments that Lynnette and I, among others, have offered that personal relationships simply don’t — and clearly shouldn’t — work this way.

    Obviously the analogy I am using here is getting in the way of our understanding one another. I actually like the analogy of calling things like kindness, forgiveness, courtesy, honesty, loyalty, etc “deposits” in a personal relationship; while calling cruelty, being unforgiving, discourtesy, dishonesty, disloyalty, etc “withdrawals” from a relationship. I think that is how we all work. For instance, I have a high opinion of you because you have consistently made what I consider to be “deposits” into my personal/emotional back accounts in our interactions together by being courteous, level-headed, intelligent, kind, etc.

    Since that analogy is becoming an obstacle in our conversation, and since I work best with analogies, do you have any suggestions of something else we could analogize these behaviors that build or destroy personal relationships to?

    Second, you are right that I should have said “To say otherwise is to say that group prayer seeking miracles or other divine intervention is futile…” I was assuming that qualifier when I should have been more clear.

  35. 35.

    Ziff, thanks for confirming that my vague memory of different kinds of relationships is in fact a real concept in psychological research.

    Geoff, I’m uneasy with your argument for group prayer being more effective. It sounds awfully close to saying that God, too, is influenced by human popularity–the more friends you have (at least, praying friends), the more blessings you get.

    RT, I think the scriptural tension you mention really is at the heart of this. There seem to be at least two competing themes in the scriptures: the Deutoronomistic notion that righteousness is rewarded with blessings, a theme which also shows up frequently in the Book of Mormon–and the critique of that connection found in Job, and in the very idea of grace. Since both perspectives are clearly there, it seems difficult to opt for one as the obviously correct one. But I really like your point about this reflecting the diversity of human perspectives on the divine.

  36. 36.

    To be more specific, “To say otherwise is to say that group prayer with the sole motive of seeking miracles or other divine intervention is futile…”

    Let’s trade in the banking metaphor for the metaphor of the covenant. When we take the baptismal covenant, we promise to love the members of our community without regard to their emotional state or behavior: when they rejoice, we rejoice; when they mourn, we mourn; when they need comfort, we give comfort. Using covenant as a metaphor for personal relationships, we see such relationships as a commitment made to act for the other person’s best interests regardless of that person’s reciprocal behavior or attitudes.

  37. 37.

    Jacob, I enjoyed your thought-provoking comments about the necessity of faith. I agree that faith seems central to this process, though I’m not sure I completely understand what exactly it entails, or why it’s so crucial. On a bit of a tangent, I’ve noticed that some Christians will talk about faith as a response to revelation, whereas we LDS usually bring it up as something that precedes revelation (as in “no witness until the trial of your faith”.) Which maybe relates back to this scripture, because it has to do with how human and divine action are related. In any case, I like the possibility you propose that God requires faith not because the faith “earns” us the blessing, but because the blessing would somehow be problematic if we didn’t have the faith.

  38. 38.

    This conversation has been eye-opening.
    Geoff, I guess I didn’t accurately pinpoint what it was about your argument that didn’t make sense to me. It really is not the personhood of God. You are right that that is an important doctrine of the Restoration.
    I think others have said it better, I don’t think that more people praying for Joe will mean he’s better off than Bob. That isn’t a God I believe in. Perhaps it’s because I believe prayer is a lot more for us to find peace, love, etc. than to move God’s will. But, I am re-examining that idea while I read this thread. The Bob/Joe question is along the same lines of my longstanding question about a mother’s prayer for her child being more or less effective than a priesthood blessing.
    Anyway, quite interesting thread: carry on.

  39. 39.

    Lynette: Geoff, I’m uneasy with your argument for group prayer being more effective. It sounds awfully close to saying that God, too, is influenced by human popularity–the more friends you have (at least, praying friends), the more blessings you get.

    Of course God is more influenced by more prayers. How many times have you joined a family or ward fast for an ailing other? Why would we join together in petitioning God’s intervention on behalf of a loved one if we didn’t assume more petitions to God would have a more persuasive effect on him?

    RT: Let’s trade in the banking metaphor for the metaphor of the covenant.

    Alright, I can go with that analogy. But you only mentioned our part of the contract. What is God’s covenant-mandated response to fulfilling our end of that agreement?

    To answer my own question — among other things we know God’s side of the covenant includes the promise that we will “always having his spirit to be with us” if we keep our agreement with him. I take that to mean that we are close to him in a personal relationship and that we get to enjoy “dialogic prayer” with him all of the time. That means to me that we can hear what he has to say and not just the other way around. Plus it implies to me that we will know what sort of miracles he is willing to grant if we ask:

    30 He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh.
    (D&C 46: 30)

  40. 40.

    RT, I like your point (#27) that “God’s prophets and apostles have a probability distribution that’s pretty dramatically skewed toward suffering, persecution, and heartache.”

    So for us, does this mean that the key to happiness is generally righteousness, but if we see some big calling in our future, just a dash of wickedness to avoid the calling and its accompanying misery? ;) Of course, even that may not work. Look at Jonah.

  41. 41.

    Thanks for this post, Lynnette.

    As you know, my own experience is a lot like yours. The moments when I feel connected to God happen, and they’re wonderful. But I can’t claim to be able to control them, or call them down, or summon them. They happen, and I enjoy it when they do.

    As you said in a comment at T&S once, the spirit bloweth where it listeth. We don’t control the wind, and we don’t control God. Maybe some things we do will block God out — and so, by not-doing those things, we can infinitesimally increase our chances of the wind listing towards us — but either way, we simply wait for the wind.

    By the way, on the subtopic of the blessings of marriage, you should check FMH. ECS has a post up discussing a study about effects of marriage. Apparently, the two major effects for women are an increase in housework chores, and a lousy sex life.

    Don’t you feel just awful to be missing out on those blessings? :P

  42. 42.

    and so, by not-doing those things, we can infinitesimally increase our chances of the wind listing towards us — but either way, we simply wait for the wind.

    This is poetic and all Kaimi but do you really view God as being as capricious as the wind?

    A lot of people seem to think this is the case. I disagree. We discussed it at some length in the comments of this post.

  43. 43.

    Just one quick comment on group prayer. The focus in our ritualized group prayer is on unity. This focus is also found in the scriptures:

    And, as it is written—Whatsoever ye shall ask in faith, being united in prayer according to my command, ye shall receive. (D&C 29:6)

    Later in that section, the Lord says that he is going to have to dumb something down in order to communicate it, but he is going to tell them anyway simply because they asked in unity (D&C 29:33).

    So, I think those studies where they get a whole bunch of people to pray for the patients in one hospital and then see if people get better faster is not going to work because it is contrived and God is not a vending machine.

    However, I do believe that God wants us to be unified and will answer unified prayer more readily, simply for the sake of giving us positive reenforcement for becoming unified. I deal with my kids in a similar fashion, so it doesn’t seem that outlandish to me, but it may seem outlandish to someone else. A lot of it goes back to whether you think of God relating to us as a parent in a relationship verses his being an all-knowing being who acts based on whatever will bring about the “best possible future” through some sort of ethical calculus based on his forekonwledge.

  44. 44.

    Geoff #39, I think you may have disregarded my central point, which was that we ought to think of relationships more as the kind of thing that we see in covenant communities, and less as market exchanges. In covenant communities, we act in loving ways regardless of whether the others in the community respond in kind. In market exchanges, our loving act is conditional on the rational expectation of a loving response.

    God’s relationship to us is clearly in large part of the covenant community kind. “We love him because he first loved us.” Jesus did the atonement for us before we’d done pretty much anything for Him, right? And so forth.

    To answer my own question — among other things we know God’s side of the covenant includes the promise that we will “always having his spirit to be with us” if we keep our agreement with him.

    There are really different ways of thinking about this statement. Is it a conditional gift, which God will only give to those who have invested in loving Him? Is it a description of a law of supernature, in which God’s spirit is always with those who remember God but cannot be with the others? Is it an incentive scheme offered to all to encourage us to conform to the attitudes, personality, and behavior that will be for the best? And so forth. We don’t necessarily need to see this as a kind of trade, and the other options seem more sensible in any case.

    I take that to mean that we are close to him in a personal relationship and that we get to enjoy “dialogic prayer” with him all of the time.

    I doubt that there’s anyone in this conversation who would disagree with that, although it probably doesn’t follow from the quoted scriptural passage.

    That means to me that we can hear what he has to say and not just the other way around.

    I agree with that as an affirmation of faith. Obviously, in mortality, the part where we hear what He says is severely rationed; otherwise, we wouldn’t walk by faith and the prophetically declared purposes of life would be frustrated. But I do have faith that we can, at times, hear God’s voice in us. This seems to be totally off topic for this thread, though.

    Plus it implies to me that we will know what sort of miracles he is willing to grant if we ask: He that asketh in the Spirit asketh according to the will of God; wherefore it is done even as he asketh. (D&C 46: 30)

    There’s a trick here which makes this passage of far narrower application than it may initially seem. If we ask according to the will of God, then we’re already asking for what God already intends to do. This is because our will is His will and we want what he wants, etc. So the conclusion, that “it is done even as he asketh,” doesn’t demonstrate that God will ever act differently due to prayer. God, in this scriptural passage, does what He was going to do anyway. The one who “asketh in the Spirit” simply comes to share God’s will and therefore desire what God willed before the discussion started. This doesn’t mean that God is impassible, but it does mean that this scriptural passage doesn’t do anything to prove that He isn’t.

  45. 45.

    RT: In covenant communities, we act in loving ways regardless of whether the others in the community respond in kind. In market exchanges, our loving act is conditional on the rational expectation of a loving response.

    I heartily agree that this is how we ought to act with one another. This is how Christ acts with us and if we are to be like him then this is how we should act with each other. However, there is s major difference between our relationship with God and with our relationship with everyone in our community — we have entered in to covenants with God. I fully agree with you that God allows us to even enter that covenant relationship with him as an act of sheer grace. Yet none of that seems to undermine the basic relationship principles I have been suggesting in this thread. We create alienation with God when we spurn him and break our promises to him; we draw closer to God when we keep our promises and seek his embrace. This is all I meant with the “deposit and withdrawal” analogy to begin with.

    You have a point with regard to that D&C 46 passage. But I wasn’t quoting it to prove we can persuade God to change his mind. There are lots of other good passages that show that. Rather I quoted it to say that dialogic revelation reveals to us the range of miracles God is willing to grant upon our request. (This of course assumes God is not fated to a single fixed future and thus has legitimate options open to him to choice between).

  46. 46.

    Isn’t there some scripture in D&C that says God has to make exceptions for us when we fail to do what he says? I think it has to do with Zion, but can’t find it and it has been nagging me in relation to this conversation.

    Would that be considered us manipulating God, because we are forcing exceptions?

  47. 47.

    Matt, from your description I can’t tell for sure which scripture you mean, but it might be D&C 124:49-51

  48. 48.

    I would say The Silent Observer got it right in post #2:

    First of all, the wording of this verse is kind of ambiguous to me. It says there is “a law,” not laws, upon which blessings are predicated. I once heard someone argue that this law is faith, but I can’t remember any of their justifications for it.

    According to my understanding, faith is the law (singular) upon which all blessings are predicated. For example:

    FAITH—OR LACK THEREOF, DETERMINES LORD’S ACTIONS

    The Lord said, “And the days have come; according to men’s faith it shall be done unto them.” (D&C 52: 20)

    So, obedience to the law of faith is necessary. My understanding concerning faith is the following:

    FAITH—REQUIRES 3 INGREDIENTS: THE WORD OF GOD, BELIEF AND THE POWER OF THE HOLY GHOST

    Alma said, “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” (Alma 32:27-28)

  49. 49.

    It seems to me that at least part of our trouble with this verse comes from the fact that we tend to invert the cause/effect elements. It doesn’t say that obedience to the law will elicit blessings, only that blessings are not random. There’s not even an implied guarantee that obedience necessarily brings blessings, and certainly nothing like an enumeration of which laws bring which blessings or an explanation of the mechanism involved. The nature of the law(s) seems to be left ambiguous–I’ve always read this as a general reassurance that the universe is lawful and orderly, and an admonition to try to be in harmony with those laws so that we can receive the blessings that are inherent in that order. I find most attempts to parse the scripture beyond that level of generality unconvincing.

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