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This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
This week we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1980 General Conference, and I’ll start with a quick mention that there were several “no”s from the congregation during the sustaining of church officers in that session. Controversy is not new!
It is the misapprehension of most people that if you are good, really good, at what you do, you will eventually be both widely known and well compensated.
It is the understanding of almost everyone that success, to be complete, must include a generous portion of both fame and fortune as essential ingredients.
The world seems to work on that premise. The premise is false. It is not true. The Lord taught otherwise.
Contrast that with (from Wikipedia) the definition of the prosperity gospel:
Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success or seed faith) is a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.
The prosperity gospel never really took hold among Mormons the way that it did among other Christian denominations, where it’s influence was so widespread that some even found connections between it and the housing crisis. But there is an informal kind of prosperity gospel that is still very prevalent among Mormons, and it’s not hard to see why. We are told—again and again by prophets and by the scriptures—that there are blessing for obedience. This is true. We also put a lot of emphasis on the peace and happiness that comes from the Gospel. Taken together, these often led to an unrealistic expectation that if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, then your life will go well. Even worse, they can lead to a dark mirror image where we assume that people whose lives are not going well must have done something to deserve the trials that they are going through.
As with many other common preconceptions, I’m surprised to find such clear statements in General Conference debunking them. The answers are there, but we have to actually listen if we want to hear them.
And so, in this case, we have Elder Packer forcefully and clearly repudiating the idea that righteousness goes hand-in-hand with prosperity. There is no such guarantee. Far from it:
You need not be either rich or hold high position to be completely successful and truly happy. In fact, if these things come to you, and they may, true success must be achieved in spite of them, not because of them.
And yet, Elder Packer continues, “It is remarkably difficult to teach this truth.” The reason, to put it simply, is that we don’t want to hear this message.
It’s not just a matter of being stubborn, however. The scriptures really are replete with God’s promises to the obedient. Unfortunately, we tend to misinterpret them. Citing Elder Packer again:
We come into mortal life to receive a body and to be tested, to learn to choose. We want our children and their children to know that the choice of life is not between fame and obscurity, nor is the choice between wealth and poverty. The choice is between good and evil, and that is a very different matter indeed.
God does send blessings for obedience, but they do not fall on the fame/obscurity or wealth/poverty axis. They fall on the good/ evil axis. That is why (citing a different talk from the same General Conference) President Benson could describe how:
One sister walked over a thousand miles with four small children, leaving her home in Poland. She lost all four to starvation and the freezing conditions. Yet she stood before us in her emaciated condition, her clothing shredded, and her feet wrapped in burlap, and bore testimony of how blessed she was.
When I was discussing religion with some friends of other faiths last year, I made the analogy that God is like a personal trainer. What I meant was that we expect God to make things easier, but God’s intention is to make us better. If we look for blessings of ease, we will be surprised and disappointed not to find them. If we look for blessings of becoming kinder, gentler, more honest, better people through our discipleship, we will be amazed at what we find. Those are the blessings we should seek. Those are the blessings we can find.
There’s more to discuss here—including the difference between peace on the one hand and happiness on the other—but let me point out one more thing Elder Packer called out:
Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age.
Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury.
All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect.
Everybody suffers and faces challenges, and there is no obvious pattern to it. There may “more quality” than we suspect, but it certainly won’t be clear.
If we have expectations that God is going to protect us from misfortune, from sickness, from hardship, or from tragedy we should let those expectations go. We have no such promise. We need to recalibrate and appreciate the promises we do have, and it’s better to do that before unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment that sours to bitterness.
Along side that effort, we should also redouble our efforts to appreciate that people who face monumental struggles in their life may not have done anything at all to deserve them. Some certainly have. It’s possible to bring down ruin upon yourself. Others, however, have done nothing wrong and still they suffer. It’s not our place to try and separate or judge between the two. It’s our place to comfort and aid where we can, free of judgment or comparison.
Let me wrap up with Elder Packer’s closing remarks, directed first to his own family and secondarily to all of us:
I can envision a day, in the generations ahead, when I would regard you and your children, and theirs, struggling with the challenges of life.
I may see you go the full distance of mortality without becoming either well-known or wealthy. I can see myself falling to my knees to thank a generous God that my prayers have been answered, that you have succeeded, that you are truly happy.