Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Self-Reliance Trap

Self-reliance. In our modern world we can hardly go a day without hearing about its importance in getting us where we should be in life. The prevailing wisdom is that once we become self-reliant, we’ve achieved maturity of character and independence of mind. But is the prevailing wisdom true? As always, we should search the scriptures to find the answer to that.
There are 12 references to the word “rely” in the topical guide of the standard works. Let’s have a quick look at these examples. Focus on who is being relied upon in each of these verses:
“The children of Judah prevailed, because they relied upon the Lord God of their fathers” (2 Chr. 13:18).
“All mankind were in a lost and a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer” (1 Ne. 10:6).
“Ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Ne. 31:19).
“They came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them” (Alma 24:25).
“They did retain a hope through faith unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of these things to come” (Alma 25:16).
“We have traveled from house to house, relying upon the mercies of the world—not upon the mercies of the world alone but upon the mercies of God” (Alma 26:28).
“Let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren” (Alma 27:9).
“Their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful upon prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and finisher of their faith” (Mor. 6:4).
“That they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved” (D&C 3:20).
“You must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates” (D&C 17:1).
“I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written” (D&C 18:3).
“I say unto you, David (Whitmer), that you have feared man and have not relied on me (the Lord) for strength as you ought” (D&C 30:1).
Here there are six instances of relying on God (one of those calling to rely “wholly” upon, one calling to rely “alone” upon), three of relying on our brethren (one of those with a caveat to rely on God as well), two of relying upon the Word of God, and one of relying on the Spirit of prophecy.
Whatever the theme may be, I can tell you what the theme unquestionably isn’t—relying on ourselves, or the common beloved term, self-reliance. Not once in the scriptures are we admonished to rely upon ourselves. Not once. There are scores of verses about self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, but ultimately, nothing about relying upon anything besides God, whose hands we are to “confess… in all things”—nothing offends him more than when we fail to do this (D&C 59:21).

Now, the scriptures indeed instruct us to provide for ourselves and our families, for “if any provide not for his own…he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8). But all one must do to find out what Paul means by “provide” is to keep reading in 1 Timothy, in which it is stated that “corrupt minds,” “destitute of the truth,” suppose “that gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:5). For instead of falling into “temptation and a snare” brought upon by riches, we are commanded to be “therewith content” “having food and raiment,” understanding that “we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Tim. 6:7-9).

I maintain that self-reliance, as it is commonly defined, directly contradicts the gospel. We’ve been so caught up in condemning the entitlement, victim-mentality culture we’ve become immersed in—and it exists, no doubt—that we’ve forgotten that on the other side of the spectrum lurks a proud society that has all but forgotten its creator and sustainer. And if the scriptures are to be believed, it is this society that faces the greater condemnation from God.
Once we are able to distinguish the philosophies of men from correct principles supported by scripture, it becomes evident that we are asked to live according to divine reliance. Unfortunately, that means we have to let go of our haughty hubris, something most people cannot give up. Never mind the wisdom from Paul that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6), we continue to seek worldly gain. Satan has convinced us that “food and raiment” is not enough—we must have the finest food, the most luxurious raiment, and, of course, all the things that fulfill our wants as well. Think of the concept of “financial security”—a sacrosanct term among Latter-day Saints. An admirable goal at its core—securing food and raiment for one’s home—financial security has morphed into a self-reliance palooza of  private property, surplus savings, excess retirement funds, luxury automobiles, and vacation homes. We are instructed to live within our means, according to our needs, and while many apply that ideal to correctly avoiding debt, most forget that applies to that which we can immediately afford as well. We have wandered as far from the law of consecration as imaginable—the law by which the celestial kingdom happens to operate—no capital there!
Brigham Young said, “Our real wants are very limited. When you have what you wish to eat and sufficient clothing to make you comfortable you have all that you need; I have all that I need.”
As we develop the trust necessary to become entirely reliant on the divine, blessings will follow. But any blessing we do receive is a gift from God, not the reaping of the fruits of our own efforts. Said King Benjamin, “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for the gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mos. 4:19).

But assuredly there must be some wiggle room! Aren’t people who work harder of more worth to the Lord? We may like to think so, but King Benjamin also taught that even if we were to serve God “from the beginning” with our “whole souls” we would yet be “unprofitable servants” (Mos. 2:21). This makes it clear as day: we don’t earn anything. All that we have are gifts freely bestowed upon us by the Lord, with the only element required of us that we don’t reject them in a fit of self-righteous pride.
There is enough on this planet to provide for every man, woman, and child. It is Satan who demands a price, and whispers sophistic thoughts like “there is no free lunch.” And he convinces us that it is our hard work that gets us what we want. In a vacuum, it may appear that way. But as we’re patting ourselves on the back, hundreds of millions of people around the globe, many of whom work harder and suffer more in a year than we do in a lifetime, are going hungry. Let’s remember that there are two kinds of work—that which is required to build the kingdom of God and to provide for us and our fellow man, and that which takes us from our families for inordinate amounts of time solely for the purpose of increasing our stead. Which work has your focus?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a great exposition on man’s lust for gain at the expense of others. In one scene, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley. While they are conversing, Scrooge observes that Marley was always a good man of business. With a look of contempt, Marley replies, “Business?! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Later, while Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present is wrapping up (no pun intended), the specter reveals two “meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish” children beneath his robe. When Scrooge asks if they are his, he replies, “They are Man's. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Scrooge cries, “Have they no refuge or resource?” The Spirit, trapping him with his own words, replies, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
Self-reliance is a trap because it leads to attitudes that run contrary to the very purpose of the gospel. It makes us believe the false premise that we earned all that we have. And since we earned it, well, we shouldn’t have to give any of it away to someone who didn’t earn it, now should we? With this attitude, it’s only natural that we begin to believe, in essence, that we can save ourselves, installing a mutant gospel of repentance that excludes the infinite atonement, which we are to “rely wholly upon” (2 Ne. 31:19), and a mutant gospel of obedience that excludes Christ’s corollary to the great commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39).
Now, there is a teaching in the Book of Mormon that counters what has just been said. It reads, “Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore, every man prospered according to his genius, and…every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30:17). So indeed, self-reliance is taught in the scriptures after all—by the antichrist Korihor. And as the true Christ’s birth draws closer, Samuel the Lamanite laments that the people refuse to believe the prophecy, victims to hard hearts. Why? Because they “began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom” (Hel. 16:15). It’s amazing how many people—Latter-day Saints who have read the Book of Mormon included—agree with the Korihor philosophy, which is basically Social Darwinism. Just because the law of consecration isn’t currently being practiced by the church as a whole doesn’t mean that justifies our embracing its exact opposite.
We are taught to “becometh as a child” (Mos. 3:19) by King Benjamin. What child do you know who is known for his self-reliance? So perhaps this admonishment is given for other reasons, like because childlike natures are naturally “submissive, meek, humble, patient, (and) full of love.” Mosiah 4:21 teaches us that we are “dependent for (our) lives and for all that (we) have and are” on God.
“Rely” means to depend upon. It is the root of “religion,” which typically involves depending on God. Considering what Mosiah 4:21 had to say, true religion nullifies any need for self-reliance. Now don’t get the wrong idea—this doesn’t mean our agency is stripped away. We are commanded to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of (our) own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27). We are commanded to “work out our own salvation” (Alma 34:37). That means we must repent. We must forgive. There are essential ordinances we must have performed. But none of these things are calls for self-reliance; they are calls for self-sacrifice—a sacrifice, more specifically, of the natural man in favor of the spiritual man, through the exercising of our agency to serve and obey the Lord, who has already paid the price for our sins, whose “arm of mercy is extended towards (us)” (Jacob 6:5), ready to receive us back home.
The truly self-reliant person doesn’t need God. He’s self-reliant, isn’t he? Religion involves dependence upon some sort of external source. He doesn’t have the patience or the faith for that. He can take care of things on his own.
The truly self-reliant person won’t accept gifts or assistance from others. She’s not a charity case, after all. She doesn’t need to follow Moroni’s plea to “deny not the gifts of God” (Mor. 10:8), because she doesn’t need God.
The truly self-reliant person believes money in the bank—acquisition—is the indicator of success. He made his fortune, no one else, and he’s going to enjoy it. If someone else wants to enjoy similar rewards, he must work for it as our smug independent soul has.
Yet ultimately, these people follow a hollow philosophy that leads to nowhere, living in a material world that will soon perish along with them. Among the many eye-opening observations he made on this subject, the late LDS scholar Hugh Nibley observed: “There is no free lunch, we say; you get yourself financially fixed, and then you might consider some of the other things. Of course acquisition soon becomes the measure of existence; we become hooked on the idea of 'success' and everything goes into it. Yet once you have 'succeeded,' what else is there? Only retirement. I know of a number of men who looked forward to retirement, only to find when they had reached it that it was too late for the things they knew in their heart all along were the most important. Like the young man with a fine singing voice who worked in a boiler factory to get enough money for music lessons. By the time he had enough, he was stone deaf.”
It’s also important to point out that a close cousin to self-reliance is church reliance. The Church is not God and God is not a church; there are no calls in the scriptures to rely on the church, either. The Lord’s gospel transcends any earthly organization. The principle flaw of church reliance isn’t so much material in nature, but knowledge-based. It is up to each one of us to come to both a knowledge of the truths God has revealed to us, and to be open to receiving new revelations promised to us through the gift of the Holy Ghost, bestowed upon anyone who has been baptized. If we become dependent upon the church for revelation, we will find that truly revelatory teachings are few and far between, because we refuse to accept that gift. The entity we sometimes ambiguously refer to as the “church” was never intended to have the authority to interpret and declare doctrines that we must believe. Joseph Smith said, “Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth. Consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft...The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” One may consider this spiritual freedom a form of self-reliance, but it would only be that if we came up with our own truths; again, this is another matter in which we are entirely dependent on God. Our role is simply to ask, seek, and knock, “and it shall be given (us)” (Matt. 7:7).
To conclude, let’s turn back to the Book of Mormon, which indeed provides a marvelous commentary of our times. But it only gives us one side of the story—God’s. Aren’t we interested in what Satan has to say? Don’t we want to know the word according to the world too? Well, we shouldn’t particularly care, but let’s imagine for a moment. What might the world’s Mosiah 3:19 look like, for example? “For the poor man is an enemy to success, and has been from the book of Adam (Smith), and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of self-reliance, and putteth off the idle man and becometh a shareholder through the management of the creature, and becometh as a CEO, assertive, confident, determined, uncompromising, full of schedule, willing to submit to all things which money seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as morality doth submit to profit.”
Now I give this talk understanding we all face unique circumstances, and I have no interest in judging anyone’s personal situation. The temptations of pride and covetousness affect me just as much as any one of you. I just feel that, if one is to truly study the scriptures with “real intent” and a heart open to learning new things, as opposed to validating the beliefs one already possesses—creeds, if you will—and studies the words of those he esteems to be latter-day prophets, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and studies the words of Christ himself, there is no other conclusion that can be made on the matter of self-reliance and acquisition. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). On this, the Lord is clear and decided. You cannot mix Zion and Babylon. The point of life is the choice between the two.

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