The semi-annual conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was held this past weekend. There were several exciting and remarkable moments. Five new temples were announced, including the first in east Africa, Nairobi, Kenya. President Uchtdorf condoned sleeping in church. And Elder Holland acknowledged that gay members of the Church in his analogy of a variety of voices within a choir. It was a beautiful conference.
But a few articles popped up on my news feed that made clear not everyone was happy with some of the messages from conference. In particular, some criticized Elder Cordon’s talk where he told a personal story regarding tithing:
“One day, during those difficult times, I heard my parents discussing whether they should pay tithing or buy food for the children. On Sunday, I followed my father to see what he was going to do. After our Church meetings, I saw him take an envelope and put his tithing in it. That was only part of the lessons. The question that remained for me was: what we were going to eat!”
I, too, was concerned with this story when I heard it. Another story from conference illustrate how one girl chose to be disqualified from a sports competition in order to attend her young women’s activity. If that were me, I honestly probably would have chosen the sports competition.
Talks from LDS members are filled with such miracle stories showing how the Lord was able to bless them when they chose to pay tithing first. Dallin H. Oaks, for example, shared a similar story regarding his widowed mother during World War II:
“Dallin, there might be some people who can get along without paying tithing, but we can’t. The Lord has chosen to take your father and leave me to raise you children. I cannot do that without the blessings of the Lord, and I obtain those blessings by paying an honest tithing. When I pay my tithing, I have the Lord’s promise that he will bless us, and we must have those blessings if we are to get along.”
I discussed this further with my wife, and we were able to find the principles that these stories try to convey. Both of these stories demonstrate the faith that these members had. But they do not advocate or expound as Church doctrine that paying tithing trumps feeding your kids. These stories show that all of us will find moments in our lives with competing priorities, competing goods, and it is up to us to make a decision. Caring for your children is just as strong a commandment within the Church:
“All children have claim upon their parents for their maintenance until they are of age.
“And after that, they have claim upon the church, or in other words upon the Lord’s storehouse, if their parents have not wherewith to give them inheritances.”
In fact, Mormon doctrine very explicitly shows demonstrates that we will have to choose between good and good, probably more often that we will have to choose between right and wrong. This goes back all the way to the story of Adam and Eve. God gave Adam and Eve two commandments that seemed to contradict each other. On the one hand, God told them to not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. On the other hand, he commanded them to multiply and replenish the earth. These commandments were mutually exclusive: the only way to have children was to partake of the fruit.
At first, Adam and Even were content to keep the first commandment, and passively went about tending the garden. But Eve eventually realizes that the only way to multiply and replenish the earth is to partake of the fruit. Together, they choose to enter mortality, with all its thorns and thistles, and keep the second, more active commandment.
Did they choose correctly? We think so. We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t choose to partake of the fruit. But many others blame Adam and Even for bringing sin into the world. To me, one major moral of the story is that there will be times where we have to choose between two things that can’t be simplistically broken down into good and bad. God isn’t testing us to see if we will choose the right one either. He leaves us to decide. If Adam and Eve hadn’t partaken of the fruit, I fully believe that God would have either come to give them further instructions or found another way to allow them to fulfill the plan of salvation.
If we try to rank the commandments, we can arrive at many false dilemmas. For instance, on my mission, I found that missionaries have varying understandings of obedience. Some, in a very Adam-like way, insist on keeping all of God’s commandments. This didn’t ever sit well with me. For instance, the white handbook, the book of guidelines for missionaries, instructs to never give money to beggars or panhandlers. I understood why this was important. But there were times when I saw someone in need, and my heart reached out to them. I wanted to give them something to help them in their need. This created a needless tension between being 100% obedient and helping a stranger. I often “gave in” and did give a few coins when I could.
Another rule in the white handbook is that missionaries should never find themselves alone with a person of the opposite gender. This means that in order for elders to visit single women, they must either bring along a male member with them, or find some other accommodation. This often results in odd pseudo-obedience, like leaving the door open, or meeting in the park, to ease the missionaries’ consciences. In the first city I served in, we went shopping weekly for an elderly woman who couldn’t leave the house herself, Frau Frerichs. Each week, we would write her grocery list down over the phone, bring it to her house, and she would cook us lunch. I loved serving this sweet lady, but it was in all respects ignoring the white handbook. I assumed that the mission let us use our own judgment in the matter. But eventually, I got a new companion who understood the white handbook differently. This was completely and utterly not allowed. We immediately stopped shopping for Frau Frerichs. I was torn. I called my mission president and told him, “She will starve if we don’t go shopping for her!” The story eventually made it around the mission, and I became a demonstration of what can happen when poorly planned service projects become ingrained. We were able to find an arrangement where members of the ward were able to help her with her shopping.
After my mission, I still had this attitude of 100% obedience. In one instance, I clashed with my dad over a seemingly innocent act. I wanted to drive to visit a family member on a Sunday, but my car was nearly out of gas. I asked my dad if I could drive his car, as I didn’t want to buy gas on Sunday. My dad asked why I couldn’t take my car. I explained my reasoning. He brushed it off, saying I could go and fill up my car with gas, as my family visit was completely justified. I escalated the conversation, continuing to argue that I was going to do “what was right.” My dad eventually called me out as a Pharisee, refusing to pull the ox out of the mire. I was hurt, but my dad was right. It took me a while to strip myself of this Pharisaical approach to the commandments.
Too often, we hear stories like the one in conference, and we codify it into a commandment. We could take these two stories from conference and say that the Church teaches (1) paying tithing is more important than feeding your kids and (2) attending young women’s is more important that any other secular activity you could think of. This is not true. These decisions are left up to us, and are situation- and individual-dependent. In fact, Dieter F. Uchtdorf has warned us against such behavior:
“Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles– many coming from uninspired sources– complicated matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with manmade addenda. One person’s good idea– something that may work for him or her– takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.”
I can see the danger inherent in a talk like this, becoming another “good idea.” In reality, each of us our agents. We have the Holy Spirit to help us with difficult decisions, but ultimately the decisions are our own. When confronted with two good things, we must be willing to make the decision, not expecting someone to have made it for us in a codified “good idea.”
When a lawyer asked the Savior, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. That is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Let us not spend too much time trying to figure out what the third, fourth, and fifth greatest commandments are.