Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Counting and Sacrifice

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Elder Hinckley's talk in this session has me thinking about counting. When and how am I counting up sacrifices? What kind of counting would God have me do?

I'm sure you've heard the advice that in a marriage, husband and wife should each plan to contribute 100%. It's slightly counterintuitive, because it seems like each person could just do half the work and it would all get done, but in practice that fails. If each person plans to give 50%, there is a constant accounting, a weighing, a concern with equity and reciprocity. Each feels put-upon and underappreciated. Neither wishes to do more. But if each partner is willing to do ALL, there is no need for measuring and counting. Both can rest and be at peace.

Then there's the "forgive others until seventy times seven" passage in the New Testament. I had a religion teacher who pointed out that "490 times" isn't really what Jesus is saying there. 491 is not the magic point of offenses at which we can suddenly begin to hold a justified grudge. No, by using "seventy times seven," Jesus is saying: "DON'T COUNT!" A willing and unrestricted forgiveness frees us to leave judgement in God's hands and find peace!

As I read Elder Hinckley's conference talk, I realized suddenly that the same principle applies in our relationship with God. We have to stop counting, and just give! Elder Hinckley describes our religion as "a religion which requires devotion, which asks for sacrifice, which demands discipline." It echoes Joseph Smith's statement that
"A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." (Lectures on Faith 6:7).
It dawned on me that of course a good relationship with our Heavenly Father MUST require the sacrifice of all things, because He gives all things. It doesn't really matter who, in our relationship, is actually giving more (hint: it's Him)—because worrying about whether or not you have "given enough" or been treated "fairly" or whether or not you "deserve" your situation—just as with a marriage—misses the whole point! God wants our whole mindset to change. He says, in essence, "Don't count!" He simply wants us to be willing to give all for Him, as He does and has for us. 

There's something else, though. As Elder Hinckley puts it, 
There is another side of the coin, without which this [willingness to sacrifice] is little more than an exercise. Discipline imposed for the sake of discipline is repressive. It is not in the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is usually enforced by fear, and its results are negative. 
But that which is positive, which comes of personal conviction, builds and lifts and strengthens in a marvelous manner. In matters of religion, when a man is motivated by great and powerful convictions of truth, then he disciplines himself, not because of demands made upon him by the Church but because of the knowledge within his heart that God lives; that he is a child of God with an eternal and limitless potential; that there is joy in service and satisfaction in laboring in a great cause.
In other words, the best relationship with God will come from not just being willing to give all—but from SEEKING to give all, because we WANT to and because we love God. I'm starting to see that God asks us to sacrifice because He wants us to feel the joy that comes from giving out of love alone. The pain and the hardship of sacrifice may refine us. It can be useful. But it is not the goal. Joy is the goal. 

Let me try to say why I think so, because there are two ideas here, apparently in tension with each other. The first idea is this "sacrifice of all things" perspective—the idea that the sacrifice requires doing MORE than we are comfortable with, because until it FEELS like a sacrifice, it's not enough. This idea also says that the harder a sacrifice is, the more it can refine you (e.g. the Abrahamic test).

Elder Hinckley tells a story that illustrates the hardship. It's about a man whose wife was investigating the church. 
One evening she indicated that she wished to be baptized. He flew into a fit of anger. Didn’t she know what this meant? This would mean time. This would mean the payment of tithing. This would mean giving up their friends. This would mean no more smoking. He threw on his coat, walked out into the night, slamming the door behind him. He walked the streets, swearing at his wife, swearing at the missionaries, swearing at himself for ever permitting them to teach them.
For this man, the sacrifices required to live the gospel felt too demanding. Even had he acknowledged that there would be benefits as well, he had counted up the cost and found it unbearable. He might be willing to give something, but not all this! In his current mindset, nothing God did for him in return would be worth such great sacrifice! It's easy to see why someone feeling like this wouldn't be able to have a fulfilling relationship with God. And you could say, hearing this story, "Well, that man ought to be willing to give those things up. It will be hard, but if he does it, it will be good for him."

But the story continues, and it turns out that hardship is NOT the main theme:
As he grew tired, his anger cooled, and a spirit of prayer somehow came into his heart. He prayed as he walked. He pleaded with God for an answer to his questions. And then an impression, clear and unequivocal, came almost as if a voice had spoken with words that said, “It’s true.”
 “It’s true,” he said to himself again and again. “It’s true.” A peace came into his heart. As he walked toward home, the restrictions, the demands, the requirements over which he had been so incensed began to appear as opportunities 
Then, before the congregation to whom he told this, he spoke of the gladness that had come into their lives. Tithing was not a problem. The sharing of their substance with God who had given them everything seemed little enough. Time for service was not a problem. This required only a little careful budgeting of the hours of the week. Responsibility was not a problem. Out of it came growth and a new outlook on life. 
And so the second idea is the "When we truly love God, giving to Him is a joy and not a sacrifice" view so beautifully illustrated by this story. It is King Benjamin's "unprofitable servant" mindset. When we're aware and grateful for God's gifts to us, how can anything really be a sacrifice? How can we consider giving our time or our talents to God "sacrificing" them, when those things were already gifts to us from Him?

Maybe it doesn't really matter which mindset we have, because both have the same underlying point: we must give our all to God. In his talk, though, Elder Hinckley weaves the two ideas together, showing a kind of progression in them. It made me think that the two perspectives build on each other. Yes, we should "give till it hurts." And we will indeed be asked to give up many things that hurt. But as we move forward from this place of difficulty, giving painfully when asked, Elder Hinckley describes the change that will occur. Far from feeling forced into grudging sacrifice against our will, he says "[We] will be inclined to discipline [ourselves]"! And this because we have a "knowledge of the meaning and purpose of life, of [our] great responsibility to [our] fellowmen, of [our] responsibility to [our] famil[ies], of [our] responsibility to God."

In other words, we will want to sacrifice! In terms of the marriage analogy earlier, we will be willing and even eager to give 100% to the relationship, without thought of whether or not our efforts are being reciprocated. This pure love is what allows us to stop keeping score, to stop counting, and just GIVE—and this in turn allows us to have the joy that such giving brings. Most miraculous of all, like the man in the story, we will find that many things that we thought were sacrifices are really blessings from God.

There are different motivations for obedience; we can give out of fear, out of duty and hope for reward, or out of love. And of course, we all know that the best and highest motivation is love. But I had not before considered the corresponding response in OURSELVES when we sacrifice under these motivations! If we sacrifice out of fear, our sacrifice will feel painful. If we sacrifice out of duty, we will feel unfairly treated or uncompensated when our blessings don't seem to outweigh our sacrifice (this is obviously a perspective problem, but our perceptions will make us believe we really do have a grievance!). But if we sacrifice out of love—no matter what follows, it will be a joy. Just as giving 100% to a marriage brings freedom, so giving 100% to God brings true joy.

In practice, I think the two perspectives, the pain and the joy of sacrifice, probably come in cycles for even willing servants of God. We are asked to do something difficult and uncomfortable, and we do it even though we hate it. As we obey and sacrifice, we begin to see why it is good for us, it becomes less difficult, and we start to count it less as a sacrifice and more as a blessing. Then the Lord asks something else that stretches us even further, and we feel reluctant again. But I think our eventual aim is to spend less time resenting the sacrifice and more time being grateful for it, because according to Elder Hinckley, it's when we count the sacrifice a joy that we learn and grow most from it! Again, 
Discipline imposed for the sake of discipline is repressive….But that which is positive, which comes of personal conviction, builds and lifts and strengthens in a marvelous manner.
No wonder Heavenly Father wants us to stop counting and give out of love. He asks us to sacrifice but in the same breath he explains how the "sacrifice" is all in our interest anyway:
For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift. And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. (D&C 88:33-34)
This must be why Elder Hinckley titled his talk "The True Strength of the Church." Willing, joyful sacrifice is the strength of the church. It is the law which the Savior followed to redeem us—and it is the same law which will, if we embrace it, perfect and sanctify us until we become like Him.

Other posts in this series:

2 comments:

  1. Oh dear. I just commented and it disappeared. And the thought of repeating is too exhausting. In short -- this is filled with hope. The things we dread being asked will all be to give us more joy, etc. AND I also typed something about my kids and the "sacrifices" I feel I've been asked to make in having them often offset with a realization that makes me gasp of a gift and blessing beyond my current comprehension.

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    1. Argh, I hate it when that happens! Thanks for not just giving up altogether. :)

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