Many Saints are busily and passionately trying to fulfill President Nelson’s invitation issued last conference to study the blessings promised to Israel between then and the upcoming April General Conference, and then to talk about those blessings with their family and friends and look for them in their lives. Hopefully many people have had great experiences with this, and have found many places in the scriptures that talk about those blessings. At the same time, as we search for the blessings promised to Israel, and recognize that they are only available through a covenant, we have to ask ourselves why would God make the reception of blessings contingent upon entering into a covenant.
In other words, why doesn’t God just bless us? Why does he make the reception of blessings dependent upon our making and keeping covenants? Why is the path he has chosen a covenant path? I tried to address this in my recent book on the blessings promised to Israel in the Abrahamic covenant:
If all God desired was to give us various kinds of blessings, like a father who wants to spoil his child with all sorts of things that bring temporary happiness, then God could just pour blessings upon our heads in a ubiquitous and unsystematic fashion. But God cares more about the blessings that build our relationship with Him than He does about the bells and whistles that make us smile like a child on Christmas morning. Consequently, blessings are given within a specific context.
If certain blessings, such as prosperity, talents, health, etc., come with no clear connection to God, then they have a tendency to lift us up in pride. We begin to think that the good things in our lives are the results of our own abilities. Such thinking tends to push us further away from God, diminishing our relationship with Him. In this way, the blessings become curses. Contrast that scenario with receiving a blessing within a covenant context. God has promised us blessings when we do His will. If we have entered into a formal and serious relationship with God, then when we receive blessings we realize they are from God.[i]
As I wrote about in an earlier article, and in my book,[ii] the most important aspect of the covenant is the relationship it forms between us and God. Ultimately, this is what the Plan of Salvation is aimed at. God wants to help us become the kinds of beings that are capable of having a full relationship with him. That is only possible as we become like him, as we become godly or Christ-like beings. Thus, it is important to realize that the reception of blessings can actually turn us away from God, in which case they stop being blessings at all. It seems that one reason the path God has chosen for us is a covenant path is because God wants blessings to turn us towards him, not away from him.
The scriptures are replete with examples of people who have allowed blessings to turn them away from God rather than drawing them closer to him. Yet God has built a mechanism within the covenant that is designed to help solve this problem. Attached to every element of the covenant there is something we call a covenant benediction (“blessing” in the scriptures), and a covenant malediction (“cursing” in the scriptures). These maledictions are the opposite of the benedictions, and are really the natural result or consequence of breaking the covenant and having the blessing withdrawn. For example, when we cease to be blessed with prosperity, then we receive the opposite of prosperity. In a covenant context, we may receive the extreme opposite of prosperity as God creates a situation that is designed to help us remember and return to him. As I tried to explain in my book:
Covenant benedictions and maledictions can create an interesting pattern we often see in the scriptures. As we experience the great blessings of the covenant, we often easily forget that those blessings are the result of keeping the covenant. Thus, we have a tendency to start to take credit for those blessings ourselves, and we start to rely on ourselves or the ways of the world rather than on God. That usually creates a situation where we stop keeping the covenant. As a result, covenantal reversals follow. Because those reversals happen within a covenant context, they are designed to help us realize that our loss of blessings is a result of not keeping the covenant. Hopefully, then we return to God, who is willing to receive us back and gather us to Himself through covenant.
We see this pattern throughout every book of scripture. We often refer to this pattern as the pride cycle, but it could be just as accurate, or perhaps more accurate, to refer to it as the covenant cycle; perhaps more precisely it could be called the covenant corruption cycle. Recognizing the covenant aspects of the pride cycle helps us understand it even more. This recognition should also help us be even better at breaking that cycle, because it reveals that one of the keys to breaking the cycle is to consciously keep the covenant, no matter what. The elements of avoiding pride—or covenant-breaking—lie in focusing whole-heartedly on keeping the covenant. We do not forget God if we love Him with all our hearts and focus on keeping that love and our relationship with God as our highest priority. We do not persecute others in a prideful way if we love them as we are commanded to within the covenant and care for them as the covenant says we should. We do not focus on ourselves if we keep in mind the communal aspect of the covenant, and so on, and so on. A zealous keeping of covenant allows us to avoid swinging to the bottom of the covenant corruption/pride cycle.[iii]
If we want to be blessed and draw closer to God as part of that, then we not only need to keep the covenant, we need to recognize the blessings and obligations that are part of the covenant. That is why I wrote an earlier article on this subject, and have created a small brochure that summarizes the blessings and obligations of the covenant (available at outofthedust.org).[iv] At the same time, it is also important to realize that attached to every covenantal blessing is a possible covenantal “cursing,” or withdrawal of the blessing and replacing it with its extreme opposite. Of course, we can only recognize those “cursings” when we are familiar with the blessings. Thus, as we try to fulfill President Nelson’s request to study the covenant blessings, we will receive a number of benefits. Some of those will be the motivation to more fully strive to receive the wonderful blessings. Another, perhaps less expected benefit will be that when we are more familiar with the blessings we will more easily see the loss of those blessings, and realize that such a loss is part of our need to return to keeping the covenant. Further, as noted above, a careful keeping of our covenant obligations insures that we will not swing to the bottom of the covenant corruption cycle, and thus we will not need to experience covenant “cursings.”
Fortunately, God is always willing to accept us back when we recognize we have strayed and decide to return to him and keep the covenant. This is well illustrated in the scriptures. One way it is demonstrated is by the unending stories of God restoring covenant blessings to Israel after they had strayed and he had humbled them by administering the covenant maledictions. It is also illustrated in some events that were designed to dramatically teach the purpose of the binary choice of receiving either covenant benedictions or maledictions.
For example, when Israel came into the Promised land, they were to gather together with half of the tribes standing on Mount Gerzim and the other half just across a valley on mount Ebal. Those on Gerzim were to shout aloud the blessings promised for those who kept the covenant. Those on Ebal were to shout back the cursings that came upon those who failed to keep the covenant.
Most likely the text they used to list the blessings and cursings came from Deuteronomy 28-20. In this account:
after the chapter that outlines the obligations and promises of the covenant, Moses spends an entire chapter speaking to the people about how they can return when they have strayed. He tells them that such straying will lead to captivity, but that after they have fully experienced the covenantal cursings, if “[thou] shalt return unto the Lord thy God . . . thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul,” God will “turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee” (Deuteronomy 30:2–3). Moses tells the children of Israel that all of this is to happen so that “thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Deuteronomy 30:20). In other words, whenever Israel does not keep the covenant, they will naturally be humbled. And once they are humbled, hopefully they will be ready to return to God with all their hearts, at which point God is willing to fully honor His covenant with them. It is never too late for Israel. As God told the prophet Samuel when it seemed that Israel was rejecting both Samuel and God, “For the Lord will not forsake his people for his great name’s sake: because it hath pleased the Lord to make you his people” (1 Samuel 12:22, emphasis added). This concept is integrally interlocked with the idea of gathering Israel when they have strayed and been scattered as a result.[v]
Fortunately for us, God is as willing to gather Israelite individual back to him as he is covenant Israel as a whole. How blessed we are that God has chosen a covenant path for us, and that that covenant includes built-in aspects that are designed to help us keep drawing closer to God.
[i] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail. Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 7.
[ii] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 7, 45-47.
[iii] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 73.
[iv] See also Kerry Muhlestein “Recognizing the Everlasting Covenant in the Scriptures,” Religious
Educator 21/2 (2020): 41–71.
[v] Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 72.