“The reason so many people in prison have found God is because nobody down here will talk to them anymore.”  Dennis Miller

Faith is when we look to a divine benefactor to help us solve our problems.  Self-reliance is when we develop our skills and work hard to improve our situation in life.  Competing Christian religions often criticize Mormons for believing we can merit salvation through our works when only grace saves.  Can faith and self-reliance successfully co-exist or will one always dominate?  What are the pitfalls of each?  How do we own our choices and their consequences?

The problems I see stem from these 4 mentalities:

  • Entitlement.  This happens when we rely on faith without first doing “all we can do.”  People who fall into this trap often talk about “binding the Lord” through obedience.  It’s fine, unless it’s a substitute for actual work on your own part.  For example, paying your tithing and expecting blessings in return is not a bad thing, but it’s also not a substitute for finishing your education, keeping your skills sharp, managing your career well, living within your means, and not sexually harrassing people (all of which are probably more directly related to a person’s employment situation). 
    • A Mormon example of this is the idea that missionary success is tied to following the rules in the white Bible (no offense to the white Bible; the rules are there for a reason, mostly to keep 19 year old boys from embarrassing the church, their families, and themselves or getting injured).  But success in terms of baptism is far more dependent on your social skills, the people you speak with (all of whom have their own free agency last I checked), your preparation, and a host of other things, much more than how obedient you are.  Some of the most successful missionaries I knew (in terms of baptisms) were the least obedient.
  • Resentment.  This happens when people don’t own their own choices, especially when there is only one “ideal” that requires sacrifice, and people feel forced (through guilt or being a people-pleaser) to take an action for the benefit of others that is to their (internally perceived) detriment. 
    • A few Mormon examples I can think of:  choosing to be a SAHM out of a sense of obligation or having children when you don’t feel ready physically or emotionally, accepting a calling because you don’t want the bishop to be mad at you, helping people move while simultaneously coveting their nice stuff, or paying tithing begrudgingly.
  • Victim mentality.  This happens when people feel removed from the consequences of their actions – people with a fatalistic attitude who see God’s will (rather than their own actions or inactions) behind everything that happens.  In the movie Easy A, for example, the Jesus Freak girl played by Amanda Bynes says that her boyfriend being held back multiple times in high school is “His will,” rather than considering the possibility that the boy just wasn’t that smart.
    • Mormons are not supposed to be Calvinists, but it seems that not all members got the memo.  Many members find it more palatable to assume God’s in control, even of a totally screwed up situation, than to acknowledge their own complicity.  Perhaps they have more confidence in God’s ability to sort out the mess than their own.  We hear this all the time when people say “God had a plan for me” and proceed to tell a story that seemingly everyone but them can tell had plenty of human frailty involved, not just divine intervention.
  • Superstition.  This happens when we are indecisive and lack direction.  People do something random to achieve an unrelated result.  This is why people wear a lucky shirt or read their horoscope or use the scriptures to “Bible dip” (open a random passage of scripture in answer to a question – very similar to the Magic 8 Ball, but with scripture).  It’s when we look for a random “sign” to dictate our course of action.  It often leads to some of the above issues as well:  resentment if the course of action we take doesn’t work out, victim mentality if we feel we didn’t make the choice, and resentment if the choice entails a sacrifice we don’t believe in. The thought process goes like this:  If [random thing] happens then I will take it as a sign that I should do [course of action unrelated to random thing.]

A life coach I used to know often said that you have to act as though you are responsible for 100% of all the things that happen in your life.  He said it’s not because that’s accurate (random bad things such as crimes do happen to people regardless of their actions); it’s because it’s the only perspective that gives you power over your life.  He said that you either keep your power, your accountability, or you give it away and take no accountability.  He didn’t have a lot of friends 🙂 , but his words strike me as wise.

People who lack self-reliance are like the footprints in the sand poster, but the entire length of beach they are being carried.  I have to think Jesus finds these people exhausting.  In our family, they are called children, but they have an excuse – they are still becoming self-reliant as they grow into adults.  (Skeeviness alert:  The picture of the “Footprints” metaphor that I’ve included looks more like it belongs on the cover of a romance novel than a religious poem.  The things some people find inspirational!)

I don’t think Mormons are any worse than any other group of people at these behaviors, but I have certainly seen these traits among Mormons.  They are, IMO, a misuse of the principle of faith because they are unsustainable; they are an example of building your house on a sandy foundation.  IMO, the best course of action is to act as if you are 100% personally accountable, and let your faith pick up whatever is left over.  Sometimes our actions aren’t enough to make a difference, and in those cases, faith can add to the foundation of our own effort.  But faith without any effort on our part or with wholly unrelated or inadequate efforts leads to spiritual shrinkage (the opposite of spiritual growth).

I should add, I think it’s good to be grateful when things go well – you don’t have to be arrogant and assume it was all you either.  Just be grateful things are going well, and continue to be smart about your own actions and taking responsibility. It ain’t rocket science.

What do you think?  Do you see these behaviors among church members?  Are they the rule or the exception?  Do you see them in other faiths as well?  Do you sometimes fall into these traps?  Discuss.