Bountiful Harvests and Death Camps

David - May 18, 2010

One of the things about being raised dye-in-the-wool Catholic is, you never say life is unfair. Seldom, if ever, do you not get something good you deserved, and never do you get something bad you didn’t have coming. It may not be clear what it is, but you could take it to the bank. If I bumped my head on the low-hanging light fixture in the dining room, it was definitely reproof for something. Catholics– real Catholics– bear their misery with wistful sighs and Gaelic ballads (I hear cattle on the hill with no one there to tend them ). You just keep trying not to be bad, and roll with the punches. “It was meant to be” covers a myriad of circumstances.

However, when I think of the rules of Mormon gospel living, I think of a formula that’s supposed to be more controllable. D&C 130:20-21:

“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.”

Or, as Scotty exclaimed with his impassioned brio: “Ye cannae change th’ laws of physics!”

This we are told repeatedly. Every Sunday in at least one meeting, every conference in at least a half-dozen talks: Disobey: There’s the door. Obey: Cha-ching– blessings galore!

Take the Law of Tithing (–please).

“Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

Yet, I know full tithe payers who can’t find jobs and shop at the bishops’ storehouse. I am then persuaded to believe the blessings are there, they’re either on their way– forestalled to make room for valuable trials of faith– or they’ll be manifested as something totally unexpected… like maybe a daughter giving up her emo boyfriend and going back to seminary.

For example, when I was a 17-year-old Catholic kid in Utah, Dad got a new job in another state and was getting ready to move us up to join him, but then he dies in a car wreck. Before that incident, I prayed more than I ever had, thanking God to be getting out of Mormon country and asking that we’ll be happy in our new home. Instead, Dad checks out and we’re left behind in Zion. Mom was scared; I was just confused. Five months later, I have this spiritual experience and become a Mormon. That particular prayer of faith didn’t exactly reap the kind of blessings I was expecting. But it did create a lifeline between my family and the Lord’s Church, and ultimately we will be happy in our new home.

On the other side of the coin, when I think of the cause and effect of obedience, I think of Helen Hirsch’s monologue in Schindler’s List:

“We were on the roof on Monday, young Lisiek and I, and we saw the Herr Kommandant come out of the house on the patio, right there below us. And he drew his gun, and shot a woman who was passing by. Just a woman with a bundle, just shot her through the throat. She was just a woman on her way somewhere– she was no faster or slower, or fatter or thinner, than anyone else. And I couldn’t guess what had she done. The more you see of the Herr Kommandant, the more you see there are no set rules you can live by. You cannot say to yourself, “If I follow these rules, I will be safe.”

I know and believe that Father knows what’s best for me, that He sees things I don’t, that His value set is different from mine, that His timetable runs off a different clock and His toe taps to a different rhythm. And over the course of my life, I have received countless, wonderful blessings, I can’t even begin to tally them. But sometimes the inconsistency of cosmic cause and effect just really bugs me.

As with probably a lot of you, my favorite talk this last general conference was President Uchtdorf’s “Continue in Patience,” delivered during the priesthood session (is it just me, or are all the best conference talks reserved for the priesthood session?).

The irony, of course– it being my favorite talk– is  that I hate all things sloow practically more than anything else this mortal frame has to endure. I don’t wait for the microwave to ding before I pull out my pot pie; I’ll sigh audibly when the benediction-giver gets inspired to pitch a litany of random supplications (oh, by all means, yes, bless Octomom…); Those days when 14.4k was the cutting-edge in Internet speed? It was like staying at the Hanoi Hilton (yes! yes! I’ll tell you anything– just load, you damned Web site!); And in the buffet lines… you see that look of contempt you get if you try to pass one of those heavy thinkers? For heaven’s sake– take the peas, don’t take the peas! It’s not like deciding whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire!

So, getting back to blessings. Apparently it’s not enough just to obey the commandments to receive their designated blessings, and it isn’t even quite enough to obey in faith. We must also obey with patience. As per President Uchtdorf:

“Nevertheless, without patience, we cannot please God; we cannot become perfect. Indeed, patience is a purifying process that refines understanding, deepens happiness, focuses action, and offers hope for peace.”

One could argue that the requirement of patience is implied in every commandment (frankly, I think that’s a rook, but whatta ya gonna do?). Still, the thought that “without patience we cannot please God” is troubling. As I’ve made clear, I’m not a patient person, and the idea that perhaps I’ve polluted my service and obedience with my impatience makes me feel… vulnerable. And apparently, without patience we’re pretty useless to the Lord:

“Let us always remember that one of the reasons God has entrusted the priesthood to us is to help prepare us for eternal blessings by refining our natures through the patience which priesthood service requires.”

There’s a lot more; it’s a great talk. The ultimate point of it was, “Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well!” President Uchtdorf’s talk did have an effect on me, and I’ve tried to exercise more patience out in the world. I think I’ve improved– not without slips, of course.

But that doesn’t help me resolve my issue with the promises of causality, not really. Obey and be blessed; maybe not right away, maybe not the way you expect to be, maybe not in this lifetime. Sometimes no answer is your answer.

But, here’s the rub: Despite all of that, I have faith. I know Who puts the kibbles in my bowl. I know where the love in my life comes from. I know where to go when my heart is battered and bloody. I know the blessing will be coming, eventually, exactly when it’s supposed to. And I know everything will be all right.

I just wish… you know… the cause and effect thing.

14 Comments »

  1. Would we need the atonement if events in this world weren’t just the results of physical laws playing out? I don’t know if I quite believe that 100%, but it does look very much to me like most of what people take as “guided” events are just normal coincidences being imbued with meaning they don’t have independently. I think there could be no, or almost no, divine interventions going on in *events* (minds is another matter) and we would be able to come up with just as many “faith-promoting” stories as we do now. The fact that so many of these things happen in unprovable ways, coupled with all of the crippled children in the church not being healed, makes me think we totally miss the mark when we look for God to make us win the big game because we gritted our teeth harder than the other team when we prayed in the locker room.

    When we are blessed in physical ways, it is the result of adherence to laws that create behavior in us that actually affects the physical world in normal, non-magical ways. The results of those behaviors take time to bear fruit. The miracle is that we’ve been told what to do to cause the effects.

    Comment by Believer — May 18, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  2. “If I follow these rules, I will be safe.” Makes life much more cheery to believe this though. That is, until the rug is pulled out from underneath you! I totally agree with Believer, too…I think way too many people try to ‘prove’ God with every little (good) thing that happens in their lives. Which is great, until you know, something really really REALLY bad happens. This is one major reason why Fast & Testimony meeting drives me absolutely batty. All I can think about is all the other people in the congregation who have also prayed, fasted, etc for the same ‘miracle’ and didn’t get it. Salt in an open wound. :/

    Comment by Olive — May 18, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  3. “Which is great, until you know, something really really REALLY bad happens…”

    Olive, when I read that, I immediately thought of that dear man, James Dalrymple, who shared his family’s story in PBS documentary. After explaining how his wife died giving birth to their eighth child, because she felt strongly that there was another spirit waiting for them, he said:

    “I’m hurt. I’m wounded. Someone has just torn at my heart. I still miss her horribly. If I knew that- I guess if I had to be honest, and say, ‘Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?’ There are days when I would say no, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it again because it came with a terrible price.

    “But I believe firmly that I will see my wife again and that we will be together again, that our family will be reunited again, and that this is not the end and we’ll hold each other and we’ll cry and we’ll laugh and it will be very much like it is now, except better.”

    I suppose someone in the congregation might feel hurt if a member got up and testified of the blessings they received after faith and prayer, when they– the one hearing this– didn’t get the same results. I can’t imagine the pain Dalrymple experiences when a brother gets up and joyfully exclaims how grateful he is for his partner. It’s tempting to be cynical about patience when others around you don’t have to bear the same endurance. I personally don’t recall feeling bad about someone else’s fortune, but I do wonder sometimes what it is about me when relief seems elusive. For what it’s worth, something else Uchtdorf said was:

    “Patience means accepting that which cannot be changed and facing it with courage, grace, and faith. It means being ‘willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon us, even as a child doth submit to his father.’ Ultimately, patience means being ‘firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord’ every hour of every day, even when it is hard to do so.”

    Comment by David T. — May 18, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

  4. Obey and be blessed; maybe not right away, maybe not the way you expect to be, maybe not in this lifetime.

    Yeah, I have major issues with this––which is not to say that it’s untrue––but, true or not, it really bugs me. If an earthly parent pulled these kids of shenanigans, it would significantly undermine the possibility of a loving relationship, because it destroys trust.

    Comment by Latter-day Guy — May 19, 2010 @ 1:48 am

  5. If you got a bowl of chocolate pudding, or some other immediate, obvious and tangible benefit every time you obeyed, would you have greater trust in the Lord? Maybe, but no faith.

    It’s important to remember that this life is intended as a test. It wouldn’t be much of a test if it were set up in the way you describe. The existence of God would be immediately provable and only the mentally ill would fail to obey all the commandments. The only way that obedience and faith are tested is when we have to trust that blessings come from obedience even when they are not immediately obvious.

    Comment by MCQ — May 19, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  6. MCQ (#5),
    Which is where the potency of patience comes into play (say that 3 times really fast). I agree with you. I’m just telling you why it makes me uncomfortable.

    Comment by David T. — May 19, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  7. Yeah, I was responding more to LDG’s comment. This is a great post, David, and I think it’s something we all struggle with to a certain extent.

    Comment by MCQ — May 19, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  8. Another aspect of blessing connected directly to obedience is that we get to judge others. Like “No wonder their kids turned out that way….considering what the parents did.” It was fine to do that until we had some big bumps in the road with one of our children.

    Plus this whole discussion doesn’t touch on the blessing we get or don’t get because of our pre-mortal life’s experiences.

    I’m just glad that God is just….and it will all work out in the end….somewhere, sometime.

    Comment by Don — May 19, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  9. Plus this whole discussion doesn’t touch on the blessing we get or don’t get because of our pre-mortal life’s experiences.

    I don’t personally believe in that, but if you do, I suppose it could help to explain some of the inequities that people are born into in this life. For myself, I just think this life is unfair, and that we were never promised that it would be anything else. If you start believing that some people are blessed here because they were more righteous in the pre-existence, then you are setting yourself up for some seriously abusive beliefs on the part of the oh-so-blessed, like they somehow deserve their situation and the poor/ill/disabled somehow deserve theirs. I don’t think so.

    Comment by MCQ — May 19, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  10. MCQ,
    I don’t equate an easy life because of “blessings” from the pre-mortal existence. What we see as an easy life may not be a blessing at all.

    I was more referring to the blessing because we have already developed the personality of obedience, or the lack of blessings because we have already developed a personality of pride. I think we bring into the world much of who we are already and that can be a blessing or a cursing. Our existence here is to overcome the weaknesses and strengthen the strengths.

    I certainly don’t want to imply that if we were a goodie-two-shoes there that we get a great life here.

    Comment by Don — May 20, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  11. That makes sense Don. I guess what you’re saying is that eternal progression is something that has been going on previous to this life as well as being expected to continue afterward. I think that’s right.

    Comment by MCQ — May 20, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

  12. My strong belief is that God intervenes less in our world than most think.

    My sense is he puts us her and asks us to follow commandments and then lets us deal with life.

    Yet, there is this strong strain that good things happen to good people. Correspondingly, bad things happen to bad
    /less faithful people.

    And, both are demonstratively false.

    Did the victims of the Holocaust get what they deserved?

    Or, how come the rich & corrupt (think Wall Street recently) don’t have a meteorite drop on their head?

    How come Utah has high bankruptcy rates and high levels of chemical support?

    Why do children ever get cancer, diabetes or suffer from a host of other illnesses?

    One could go on and on . .

    Rewards are in the here-after not the here.

    Comment by Steve — May 20, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  13. Steve, that’s a very common refrain, but it strikes me as mostly irrelevant. You can’t answer specific experiences of individual answers to prayers by citing statistics.

    People who have experiences of divine intervention in their lives are not saying that God is consistent and predictable in doing so. In fact, it’s obvious that he is not. If being a “good person” or an innocent child guaranteed what all would objectively agree were obvious advantages or “blessings” in this life, then, as was said earlier, life would not be a test, and faith would not be required.

    Obviously, it’s much more complicated than that and blessings from God are often a very subjective experience, viewed primarily through the prism of faith. I know that makes everything more difficult than if you could prove the existence or non-existence of God by citing a list of dubious statistics culled from anecdotal rumours, but it’s what we’re stuck with.

    Comment by MCQ — May 21, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  14. Well, if you’re having trouble enduring WELL I submit just endure the best you can. Heck with the well stuff.

    I’m mad at God a lot of the time and He knows it, believe me. For the unfairness in the world. I’m pretty sure that I had a hard time making up my mind about the plan and somewhere in my soul, that spirit that I was is very upset with the Lord and the way things have worked out for a lot of us. Boy, oh boy, are we going to have a long talk.

    Comment by annegb — May 26, 2010 @ 9:52 am

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