Sunday Talk: Tithing

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Other Puritan Sermons (Thrift Edition)For all those curious as to what I subjected an entire congregation of 180 people to for 20 minutes, here’s the full text of my talk. It took me long enough to write–at least I can get a blog post out of it, too. NOTE: not all references are given. In my rush, I cut and pasted scripture with abandon. Hopefully God doesn’t bust me for the sloppy citation work.

“He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” D&C 64:23 That’s it. That’s my talk. I’ll give you three guesses which bishopric member gave it to me. I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback when I read the topic. I don’t consider myself a big fire and brimstone kind of guy, and that verse smells pretty strongly of sulfur. It hasn’t been easy for me to come up with a twenty minute talk based on eleven words of scripture I don’t typically quote on a regular basis, but I’ve tried. Bear with me.

When I got the assignment, I did what I typically do with a scripture: I put it in context. This revelation was given in Kirtland on September 11, 1831 through Joseph Smith, and it’s directed at some of the brethren in Kirtland who were preparing to leave for Missouri the next month. Verses 23 through 25 read:   Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.
 24 For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.
 25 Wherefore, if ye believe me, ye will labor while it is called today.

I’ll be honest. Scriptures like these have never really rubbed me the right way. For me, one of the biggest appeals of the gospel is how inclusive it is. When Joseph Smith went to the woods to pray in 1820, in many ways it was a reaction to the religious furor in his area at the time. The teachings of the day described a very exclusive heaven and an inclusive hell. Choose the wrong church, and you’d be paying for it for eternity. Our religion teaches the opposite: most people will be headed to a heaven of one degree or another. Outer darkness, on the other hand, is a very exclusive club. On the surface, this scripture seems to go against that trend. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” Are we sinners in the hands of an angry debt-collector?

Part of me really doesn’t want to believe in a god who, in order to punish someone who didn’t pay tithing, would resort to mass incineration. The US government doesn’t even do that, regardless of your political persuasion. So when I read verses like the one this talk is based upon, my knee-jerk reaction is to interpret it metaphorically. Surely God wouldn’t literally burn his children. It must mean that those who don’t pay tithing risk the spiritual torment of hell.

That was my plan when I set out to write this talk: to interpret the scripture from a metaphorical stance, distancing it from any literal application. Then I read this quote from President Hinckley in a First Presidency Message in 1982:

“Some years ago one of our brethren spoke of the payment of tithing as “fire insurance”; that statement evoked laughter. Nonetheless, the word of the Lord is clear that those who do not keep the commandments and obey the laws of God shall be burned at the time of his coming. For that shall be a day of judgment and a day of sifting, a day of separating the good from the evil. In my personal opinion no event has occurred in all the history of the earth as dreadful as will be the day of the Second Coming—no event as filled with the destructive forces of nature, as consequential for the nations of the earth, as terrible for the wicked, or as wonderful for the righteous.”

It’s pretty clear that President Hinckley was reading it in a literal light. So much for metaphorical, or at least for a purely metaphorical interpretation. Which led me to ask why. Why would a loving Heavenly Father feel the need to threaten his children with bodily harm unless they do what he tells them to do? Well, after having driven across the country in a Buick with my wife and two children, you might think I’d have a pretty good idea why a loving father would threaten something like that. But more is at play here than simple hard parenting.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that nebulous threats don’t add up to a whole lot when you’re dealing with children. You need specific consequences on a specific timetable. If I told my son that if he didn’t clean his room, I’d ground him when he was fourteen, I don’t think a lot of room cleaning would occur until about the week before his fourteenth birthday. Maybe the night before. I also don’t think my son’s unique in that respect. Semester after semester, I sit at the reference desk in Mantor Library and see the same pattern. Things are relatively quiet the first few months. Sure, there are the frequent inquiries about the location of the bathroom, but as far as serious research questions go, we don’t get a whole lot.

Then midterms and finals roll around, and you start seeing a plague of deathbed research papers. Students flock to the library, frantically searching for sources and panicked when they fail. It’s that whole eat drink and be merry principle in action. So if you’re going to make a threat, make sure it’s got a fairly immediate consequence.

Note what the verse says at the beginning: “now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man.” This phrasing is used elsewhere in the scriptures, as well. D&C 45: 6, for example.
 6 Hearken, O ye people of my church, and ye elders listen together, and hear my voice while it is called today, and harden not your hearts;
In John 9: 4, Christ says,
 4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

This lays out the concept that each of us lives according to our own timeline. We must work the works we have been sent here to accomplish while we are alive, because after we die, our “today” will be over. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” Yes, on one hand the scripture can be interpreted to mean we will be burned if we haven’t tithed when Christ comes. But on the other hand, Christ comes for each of us when we die. The Second Coming is conveniently distant in many people’s minds. Death, on the other hand, is but a heartbeat away. So, don’t just pay your tithing to avoid getting burned sometime in the future. Pay it to avoid getting burned tomorrow. Or five minutes from now.

There I go again, getting all doom and gloom on you. My apologies. It gets better, I swear.

It’s important to point out that what we understand today as “tithing” isn’t what was referred to in this scripture. The modern law of tithing is based on the revelation given in D&C 119, given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Far West, Missouri, July 8, 1838, almost seven years after the scripture we’ve been discussing. The heading to that section states, “The law of tithing, as understood today, had not been given to the Church previous to this revelation. The term “tithing” in previous revelations had meant not just one-tenth, but all free-will offerings, or contributions, to the Church funds.” So this scripture is not, in fact, referring to the importance of paying your tithing. It’s referring to the importance of making any contribution to the Church. You could interpret this literally–as financial or material contributions–or figuratively–as contributions of time, talents and energy. Both work.

So sacrifice or else. Is that what this scripture is telling us?

As I mentioned before, my family and I drove across the country this summer, stopping at many church history sites along the way. One of the ones that stood out the most to us was the Far West temple site. There’s practically nothing there: just a fenced in lot that has a small monument to the revelations given in Far West (including tithing, by the way), along with the corner stones of the temple that was never built. My children had a good time collecting acorns, but other than that, there wasn’t much to do there. However, the spirit there was very peaceful and memorable. It felt pure to me. Untouched.

When the Saints lived in Far West, it was a rapidly growing frontier city. Today, nothing’s left of it but the countryside. While it impressed me that they had the foresight to begin work on a temple, I also wondered why God would have his people start such a project when he knew full well they wouldn’t be able to finish—that they wouldn’t even come close.

Another place that impressed me was the Kirtland Temple. The first temple built in the latter days, it cost approximately $40,000 to make. In today’s figures that’s close to a million dollars. A million dollar building, constructed by a people who were too poor to build proper housing or own enough land to support their families. People who regularly sent the heads of their households off on missions. People who sacrificed their time and talents to making the temple.

Then there was Liberty Jail, where Joseph and his brother and three other men were forced to stay through the winter, underfed, unheated and alone. They were fed poisoned food and subjected to endless taunts. The ceiling of their prison was six feet tall. One man who was imprisoned with them would walk with a permanent stoop ever after.

And of course there was Nauvoo, a city where the Saints thought they would be safe at last. They put down roots. Built beautiful brick houses. And then stayed in those houses an average of less than ninety days after they were completed before they had to leave once more. Time and time again, God required His chosen people to make sacrifices. They gave up their homes, then turned around and did it again. They built temples, then left them. They buried children and loved ones by the side of the road.

Do you start to see a trend? Time after time, the Saints were driven out, until at long last they were able to settle in the Salt Lake valley. I wondered why. One answer I came up with was this: what would have happened if Joseph Smith went straight to Salt Lake? We wouldn’t be here today, that’s for sure. Life isn’t just about where you end up, because where you ends up completely depends on how you get there. The church wouldn’t have been strong enough to sustain the members on their journey across the Rockies. They needed Nauvoo, Carthage, Liberty, Kirtland.

Sacrifice or burn. Are those our only options? I’d argue that in the end, they are. Perhaps it’s more bluntly phrased than elsewhere in the scriptures, but compare it to this:

15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
 16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
 17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
 18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Or this

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [thou] that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under [her] wings, and ye would not!

Or this

Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

In many ways, we belong to an all or nothing church. It’s one of the things that sets us apart these days from other religions. We don’t just ask people to come to church, stay for a half hour or so, then go back home and carry about their business undisturbed. We’re an active religion. Church meetings last three hours. We don’t just listen to a sermon–at times we’re called upon to give the sermon ourselves. We don’t have teachers, we are teachers. We’re an active religion in a day where religion is becoming more and more passive, pressured by common opinion to become swayed by political correctness. True religion shouldn’t work this way. God doesn’t do polls, and He doesn’t care about popular opinion. If it were different, there never would have been that flood.

In his Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith said 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.” God doesn’t ask for a few moments of our time and attention. He demands our full heart, might, mind and strength. Because in the end, we’ll either be all his, or all not. We’re asked to sacrifice, because learning to put God’s interests before ours is necessary practice.

Many have questioned how can God be good when there’s so much evil in the world. Why are people allowed to kill other people? Why are there hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes? Who let the Holocaust happen? There have been many proposed answers to this question, answers ranging from the need for God’s children to have their free agency, or that it all evens out in the end, when God returns good for good works and evil for evil works. I have another proposed answer: there’s so much evil in the world because there’s supposed to be so much evil.

I know it sounds like I’ve delved back into the fire and brimstone routine, but I haven’t. As Latter-day Saints, we know we all lived before we came to Earth. We were capable of making good decisions and bad decisions. God presented a plan: we’d made all the progress we could make, and in order to take things to the next level, we had to leave God’s presence and come to a place where we could continue learning. The training wheels had to come off. Some didn’t agree with this plan. Lucifer thought training wheels were such a good idea, he wanted to fuse them to all bicycles in existence, then lock the steering wheels in place while he was at it. We disagreed with him.

Every single person here on the planet today is here because he or she signed up for the program. We wanted to come. We knew full well that there were going to be trials and tribulations. In fact, that’s why we were so anxious to get here. We all need our Nauvoos, Carthages, Liberties and Kirtlands. By overcoming those trials, we have opportunities to grow in ways that would be impossible without them. Yes, you can feel bad for someone conned into a bad contract against their will. But when that contract was spelled out line by line, crystal clear, and the person still signs it? The time for bellyaching is over. Don’t complain about the sacrifices we have to make–relish them. I know that’s hard to do when we’re in the middle of the journey, but once we reach our destination, I’m confident we’ll see that it was just those sacrifices that made it possible to arrive where we do. I know, for example, that without the church’s influence in my life, including all the rules and laws and service I’m required to do, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

When I was growing up, my grandmother made a deal with all her grandchildren. If we got married in the temple, and had up to that point always obeyed all church laws, from the Word of Wisdom to the Law of Chastity, she’d pay us $500. For a woman with twenty one grandchildren, that’s quite a sizable commitment. Being my grandmother, she never wasted an opportunity to remind us of her deal. I remember one time my sister Gretel and I were sitting talking with some other members of my extended family, and my sister brought up the fact that some of her friends just didn’t understand why she obeyed so many church rules. My grandmother spoke right up: “You told them about my deal, didn’t you?”

Gretel was silent for a second, then said, “Well, no. I told them about prophets and latter day revelation.”

My grandmother nodded, then said, “Sure, but the $500 helps a lot, too. Doesn’t it?”

I was very grateful for her gift when Denisa and I got married. (Yes, in case you were wondering, I cashed in. You would have, too. Admit it.) But the fact is that I didn’t follow the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity for 500 bucks, just as I don’t pay my tithing as fire insurance. When Christ came to the earth, he taught that the old laws had been replaced by newer, higher laws. No longer were men supposed to live by an eye for an eye, but they were to turn the other cheek. I believe the same goes for God’s laws. We can live them because we’re afraid of the punishments, or we can live them because we want the rewards. And no, avoiding a punishment doesn’t count as a reward in my book.

In this gospel, we learn and grow line upon line, precept upon precept. There’s a spectrum of possibilities between God’s plan of free will and Satan’s plan of slavery. You can make a decision because you’re forced to–because you literally have no other choice. You can make a decision because you want to avoid being hurt–because you’re threatened with dire consequences if you choose otherwise. You can make a decision because you want to be rewarded. But there’s an even higher motivation. You can make a decision because it’s the right thing to do. Because you want to make the right decision. I believe one of the main reasons we’re here on this earth is to learn how to want to make the right decisions.

When you look at the way the church has grown from its inception until today, you’ll see definite trends. Trends away from fire and brimstone and toward charity never faileth. Trends away from promised punishments and toward promised rewards. Trends away from exclusion and toward inclusion. Does that mean the punishments for sin have been lessened? No. They’re still there, but hopefully we as church members no longer need the ever-present threat of eternal torment to get us motivated to do something. Although perhaps if I instituted a “Come to Elders Quorum activities or burn in hell” program, I’d see a bit more attendance. Food for thought.

“He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” In the end, we can look at this scripture both ways. Yes, there is the foretold burning of the wicked that will happen at some point in the future. By making sacrifices and putting the Lord first, we avoid being in the charbroiled section that day, but by paying with a willing heart–by submitting our will to God–we gain the promised blessings. Peace. Love. Joy. In many ways, being forced to live without those rewards would be worse than any physical, passing torment we could endure. A few verses later in the same section my talk comes from, God reminds us of this important truth.

33 Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.

May we all be not weary in well doing is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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