We are here on earth to do good for others.
What the others are here for, I don’t know.
W. H. Auden
For the individual, what is the lesson we are supposed to learn from tithing? IMO, the blessing of tithing is the blessing of detachment (or maybe non-attachment). Jesus advocated detachment when he admonished his followers to go out without purse or scrip and he refers to the lilies of the valley, “they toil not neither do they spin, but Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed like one of these.” Likewise, Jesus advocates detachment from wealth in the story of the young man who had riches (Luke 18:22-24):
“Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!”
Viewing tithing as “quid pro quo” and “binding the Lord” goes in the opposite direction of detachment; it is still being attached to wealth but using indirect means to attain it. Some people focus on the entitlement of tithing: they have “paid” through obedience and sacrifice, and now God “owes” them blessings – like a vending machine. They literally “count their blessings,” not to rejoice, but to reconcile their accounts with God for the sacrifices they’ve made. People want to control the uncontrollable, which is frankly the appeal of religion to superstitious people.
Seneca said, “It is not the man who has little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
For a Buddhist, detachment reinforces the idea of a self that can be separated from the world. The Bible says we should strive to be “in the world, but not of the world,” although that expression is enigmatic. Does this mean to favor a theoretical future (and its rewards) over an actual reality (and its work and rewards)? How do we accomplish meaningful lives and God’s work if we reject the world? Isn’t some engagement with “the world” necessary to progress?
Burkeman (a Buddhist practitioner) said: “Since it isn’t external reality that determines emotions, you’re wrong to imagine that the perfect relationship, job or house would make you happy. What’s making you unhappy is the belief that you need them in order to be happy.” In essence, the entire story of Job is an illustration of the same principles. He doesn’t curse God and die because he hasn’t put his heart on external things, even his own children.
Detachment is possible no matter how much one has. It’s the willingness to give it up that is the key.
So what does this have to do with tithing? In my experience, detachment is not emphasized in how LDS people talk about tithing, and when this is the case, I think we are missing the point and the principle personal benefit of tithing: letting go of our need to control everything. LDS people usually talk about obedience (which means humility at best, binding God to give us blessings or using it to seek for a sign at worst), sacrifice (but of an insurance policy kind), building up Zion (through tithing funds – focusing on how funds are used, not our spiritual benefit), holding a TR (equating donations with worthiness like a membership fee), and avoiding getting burned at the second coming (fear-mongering, although usually tongue in cheek in this case). Similarly, we hear plenty of examples of how tithing resulted in greater temporal blessings, and while these are potentially faith promoting, they can lead to further attachment to wealth or Calvinist prosperity gospel thinking. The point isn’t the blessings themselves, but the process of letting go of our control.
The church’s focus has probably come about because people aren’t always motivated by personal growth, which is a spiritual endeavor. Some people are simply incapable of being motivated by anything but fear, guilt, promised rewards, or peer pressure, all of which seem like religious (but not spiritual) motivators. I’m not sure that’s a very good justification for our method of teaching tithing, though. Is it the tithing that matters or the tithers? Do we lead people to improve themselves or pander to their base impulses? (I suspect we do both).
IMO, we’ve become culturally misaligned with the intended meaning of this gospel principle. To the tithe-giver, tithing (like most acts of faith) is about relinquishing control, not about creating a new avenue for control. I certainly don’t think it’s the only example in the church culture of twisting a doctrine to use it as a vehicle to control the uncontrollable. Control freaks have a hard time getting the point of spiritual teachings, and they have a tendency to get into positions of control (go figure!). There are superstitious people in any religion. Given our doctrine of theosis, I’m just glad I’m not living on any of their worlds.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you think it matters? Discuss.