Gains from Trade and Gifts of the Spirit

Many within the Christian faith are familiar with the concept of the Gifts of the Spirit; certain talents or skills that might come to us naturally (though they can be improved with practice), as a gift from God, that provides us with the means to enrich our understanding of spiritual things and strengthen our personal testimony of Jesus Christ. Most Christians will be familiar with a description of these gifts found in the twelfth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.  Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might also be familiar with a similar passage found in the final chapter of the Book of Mormon as well as a more thorough treatment of the concept found in the forty-sixth section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

In each of these passages, you find an explanation that different gifts are given to different people, but with the intent that all may profit from them.  How does this work? If God gives me a gift, how does He expect you to benefit from it? TRADE! God expects that I will use my gifts for your benefit and that you will use yours for my benefit; that we trade the service of our gifts with one another.  Take a look at the various listings of these spiritual gifts. Many of these gifts are obviously designed for their to be a beneficiary of our exercising. The gift of healing is not intended to be used on the holder of the gift, but on those around them who are sick.  In the fourteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul explains how the gift of tongues is used improperly when there is no one to interpret.  If no one else can understand the words, who profits from this gift? Paul explains that the bearer of said gift might enjoy a wonderfully spiritual experience, but that is all.  Have all been edified? Is that not the intent of the gift gift to begin with?

In economics, there are several ways that we explain the process of wealth creation.  We can also apply these concepts to spiritual edification. When two people hold different resources (or spiritual gifts), and they have benefited themselves as much as they possible can through that resource, they might find that they can increase their benefit by trading with each other. The dairy farmer and the wheat farmer might find that if they trade, they might both enjoy buttered bread; a luxury previous afforded to neither one of them. The butter from the dairy farmer’s churn is is more valuable to the wheat farmer, who has naught with which to dress his bread.  The bread from the wheat farmers field and mill gains value in the eyes of the dairy farmer who had previously resorted to eating plain butter.  By trading resources, the two allocate those resources to where they are more valuable, and both benefit from the trade.

Well, I can practically hear your thoughts right now: “Why doesn’t the wheat farmer just buy himself a cow and the dairy farmer plant a little wheat in the back pasture when it’s not in use?”

Let me introduce you to a little concept economists call comparative advantage. This concept is based on the idea of opportunity cost, or in other words, what options you give up in order to pursue one option. Huh? What?  Let’s get back to our two farmers.  What does the dairy farmer have to give up in order to start growing his own wheat? What does the wheat farmer have to give up in order to raise his own cows and milking them? For the wheat farmer, the opportunity cost of raising dairy cows is a rather large area of his field and the wheat that it might produce.  For the dairy farmer, the opportunity cost of growing his own wheat is having a section of field that can rest from the difficult stresses of being pasture and the reduced output of dairy cows grazed on poor pasture.  For each of them, producing both wheat and milk for themselves costs more than simply trading with their neighbor. Instead, they choose to specialize in their field, improve their already superior skill, and continue to trade.  I know this concept can be difficult for someone not well versed in economic concepts, so if you are struggling with the concept a little bit, check out these short videos from Professor Art Carden and the folks over at Learn Liberty (video #1, video #2). The videos make it easier to understand and hopefully easier to apply here. Really, it’s okay, take a few minutes and watch the videos. I’ll be right here when you get back.

Good. Now, how do we apply those concepts to the idea that God has given each of us special skills and talents and how He expects us to use them for the benefit of one another? By building in an incentive for ourselves! When we exchange the service of our various gifts and talents, all parties benefit, including ourselves. There is actually a built-in incentive for us to use our spiritual gifts to serve one another!

“To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.”

~ Doctrine & Covenants 46:12


The Virtues of Coming in Second Place

This is just a quick idea that I want to throw out there, mostly to see what kind of information or research has already been done in this area, and also to see what your thoughts are.  I’m talking about the virtue of losing. Okay, maybe not losing, but definitely not winning.  Most of us want to win at something.  We want to win some contest.  We want to win a promotion at work.  We want to win friends.  In general, most of us want to win at life, though we may each define that differently.  Winning is good.  It is an admirable goal and victory is to be lauded for its accomplishments.

As an economist (hey, if my kids tell me that I am an economist, who am I to argue?), I recognize the importance of the valuable signals sent by profits and losses as to how society allocates resources.  I think this even applies to other activities. If I want to be a great musician, but I have limited natural talent for music, most economists would say that the market signals (the fact that people aren’t willing to pay to hear you play) should push you into more economically productive activities. Like blogging…

Well, I’m not most economists.  In fact, I wouldn’t really call myself an economist, just someone who likes to analyze life through the lens of incentives.  I wouldn’t tell you to give up your dream of playing music.  Heck, don’t ever stop believing that what you want can become your reality.  However, I will tell you that pursuing your dreams will likely consume vast amounts of resources, especially time. Is that sacrifice worth it? Well, that is entirely up to you, but just because it is not immediately economically productive does not mean that you have any moral obligation to stop pursuing that dream.

So that was actually a bit of a side road, and not what I actually want to discuss, but perhaps worthwhile nonetheless.  Can you tell that I like to write following my steam of consciousness?

So, what is so great about coming in second?  Well, our competitive nature has taught us that if you did not win, you lost.  This is a false dichotomy, and a destructive belief.

Let me put this first in the context of little league baseball, since I have a couple boys playing.  The younger of the two is in the earliest stages of learning the sport of baseball.  The rules have been changed for their age group so that every player on each team is able to bat every inning.  The final batter always hits a grand slam (since he gets to clear the loaded bases). Sometimes players get out, but the fielding is atrocious.  I mean, I love my son dearly, but this is simply painful to watch. They don’t keep score, and both teams walk away claiming victory.

That used to drive me crazy. What is wrong with teaching kids the pain of losing, as a valuable market signal to improve or move on to something else? The answer is nothing.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that perspective, but that is not the intention of this age group.  These boys and girls are not playing against each other.  They are playing against themselves.  It does not matter whether they won the game or lost the game.  What matters is whether or not they played better today than they did last week.  For this age group, it works. and it works fairly well.

My older son (going on 9) is much more competitive. The skill level on the field is greatly improved, and if a player gets out, there was nothing accidental about it. In his age group, they keep score. They win games. His teams wins most of their games.  Just a few days ago, they lost their first of the season. After the game, the coach sat the boys down and explain how they had really lost to themselves, because they didn’t play better this week than they had the week before.

So, you still haven’t mentioned anything about coming in second place. What is so great about it?  Well, imagine what my older son’s league would look like, if every player who was not on the championship team took that as a signal that they should stop wasting their time with baseball and allocate their scarce resources elsewhere.  There would only be fifteen youth to sign up the following season. Who would they play against? How would they continue to improve their own skills if everyone in second place (or lower) simply gave up?  While winning is desirable and the pursuit of victory is definitely a virtue, their is virtue to be had in simply competing.

Let’s flip this over into the business world.  As long as I can remember, there has been a Cola War between Coke and Pepsi.  I might be mistaken, but I believe that Coke has been number one in that competition for a long time now.  What would happen if Pepsi simply decided that they were never going to “win” the Cola War, so they packed up their bags and went home? Millions of people would have the quality of their life diminished (in their subjective opinion, of course). No one would applaud them for their recognition of inherent market forces.

The idea is that second place is not a signal to give up.  If anything, it is a signal to try harder and take solace and comfort in knowing that even if you did not win, your competitive spirit helped drive the skill and talents of those who did win beyond where they otherwise would have reached.

Winning is not everything.  Not winning is not the same thing as losing.  Sometimes, we just have to figure out what we are actually competing against and identify beforehand what our measure of success will be.

You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses, just the to-do list that you create for yourself.


The Opportunity Cost of Sacrifice

This post is not designed to instruct or inform, but to solicit your views.  I was sitting in a meeting today when I began to think about the concept of sacrifice.  From a religious perspective, sacrifice takes a number of different forms.  Whereas in times past, sacrifices were offered in the form of animals killed in a ceremonial fashion, in modern times, we are asked to sacrifice in different ways. Sometimes we are asked to give of our time to serve those around us.  Sometimes we are asked to give of our wealth for those who are less fortunate (from a temporal perspective). Sometimes we are asked to use our talents, even those which we might normally use to provide for our own material needs, solely for the benefit of others. And we do it.

There is no guarantee of any recompense.  We have faith that God will accept our sacrifice, and that we might find favor in His sight. We hope that by finding favor in the sight of God, that he will bless us.  By sacrificing our desires for the benefit of another (not measuring the effectiveness of that sacrifice, but merely the intent) we expect that, at the very least, we might feel the hand of the Lord in our life (you know, those warm-fuzzies of service).

It is commonly said that he (or she) who makes difficult sacrifices willingly is blessed beyond  the measure of their sacrifice.  If that is true, to what extent can we call it a sacrifice? What is the true definition of a sacrifice?

One of the most basic concepts in economics is that of scarcity: the idea that not all wants and needs of every person can be met at all times. [As a side note, some people might imagine that a world without scarcity, an Eden, if you will, would be the epitome of God's creation and an ideal for us all to strive for.  I whole-heartedly reject this assumption, but that is for a different post.] As a result of this scarcity, we are faced with choices, and each choice comes with a trade-off.  The trade-off is that if I pursue option A, I must forego option B. If I pursue option B, I must forego option A. The option that we chose not to pursue is referred to as the opportunity cost of the option which we did pursue.

With that in mind, it should be said that we the opportunity cost of sacrificial service is what we would have otherwise chosen to do with out time, talents, or material possessions had we not chosen to use them for the benefit of another. These two concepts are nearly one and the same.

So what, if any, is the difference? If we believe that our sacrifice will be for our benefit, is it a sacrifice at all? Is it merely a spiritual investment, where we forego what we desire now in order to increase the likelihood that we might have what we desire in the future? Is it the intention of your heart that turns a simple opportunity cost into a sacrifice worthy of acceptance by God? Does an understanding of economic concepts such as these demystify the gospel and enlighten the mind, or does it disintegrate faith into a series of cold calculations?


How does God govern?

Okay, so this is just a short post that is going to have a lot of bugs in it, but I just want to get the ideas out there.  Feel free to comment and correct.  I know this isn’t a finished work.  If it was, you’d be reading it in a book, not on my blog.

So, I was initially going to write about how having restrictions on choice can sometimes make us more free (refraining from drug use helps us to maintain mental clarity, etc.), but I changed my mind.  If you want to learn more on that topic, I suggest that you start with Elder Perry’s address from the Sunday morning session of the April conference of the Church or Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Click here for a preview.

See, the more I thought about that topic, I realized that no matter how many rules, guidelines, or commandments God places on His children, it is impossible for him to force us to follow those commandments. It really is one of those “if so, God would cease to be God” rules. It would frustrate both Justice and Mercy (see Alma 42 for additional reading). God cannot violate our agency, and so he doesn’t even try.

So, what does God do to get us to do what He wants? How, then, does God govern? Well, he simply gives us specific blessings (spiritual or temporal gifts) based on our level of obedience to his laws.

 “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”

~ Doctrine and Covenants 130: 20 – 21

He does not force us.  He does not put us in jail.  In fact, he doesn’t even actually punish us.  The consequence of our disobedience is simply an absence of the blessing which we could have received.  When it comes to our ultimate judgement, even then it is not God who punishes us by casting us into an eternal state of misery, but it remains our own choice to resort to that awful state (See Jacob 6:9, Mormon 9:3, Alma 5:18, among others).  At no point in God’s Plan of Happiness does he use force to change our will.

This insight gives new meaning to the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants. I will post the relevant section here. If I could point your attention to the last twelve words of this section, I feel they are particularly poignant in understanding the governance of God.

“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?

 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—

 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile

 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

~ Doctrine and Covenants 121: 34 – 46


The Politics of Envy and Covetousness

This post will be short, but I want to share a couple of quotes that I particularly like in relation to envy and covetousness. Of course, since I am supposed to be discussing religion, I’ll throw in a few scriptures as well.

First, let’s look back to the Lord’s original command with regard to covetousness:

Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s house, thous shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

~ Exodus 20:17

Okay, so that seems fairly straightforward. Don’t covet what other people have, right? Well, what does it mean to covet? Frequently, we can look at the original Hebrew and find some synonym that make’s it easier to understand. In this case, the Hebrew word is “tahkh,” or translated into English, to have selfish desire towards or to lust after. In other words, it translates into “covet.” But again, what does it mean to covet? We’ll answer that question shortly.

I find it interesting here that the message is not “thou shalt not desire things,” but rather “thou shalt not desire things that belong to other people.” Why is the distinction of ownership included? Why should it matter?

I’d like to present a small chain of scripture and other quotes (from men far more intelligent than myself) to hope to answer those questions in at least two different ways. But first, let’s get back to that first question. What does it mean to covet? In his book, The Cleansing of America, publish posthumously, W. Cleon Skousen defines coveting as “wanting something for nothing” and “to want something which cannot be gained legitimately.” Most dictionaries agree with his definition.  See, we get confused here, because we assume that coveting is simply setting your sights on something that you don’t have, but that is incorrect. The verb “to covet” means “to desire wrongfully or without due regard for the rights of others.”

So, it is okay to want something nice for yourself, so long as you are willing to do the work necessary to obtain it.

Okay, so what does that have to do with politics? Ah, cue quote from another person smarter than myself. 

Don’t be a sucker for the politics of envy. Envy is the dirty, demoralizing business of counting the other guy’s blessings instead of your own.

~ Lawrence W. Reed

 

See, Mr. Reed is the current president of the Foundation for Economic Education, and he’s pretty smart. Replace the word “envy” with the word “covetousness” (trust me, it’s a correct synonym) and things start to make sense.  When you get tied up in the politics of “he has too much and I don’t have enough,” or the old “he doesn’t pay his fair share,” what we are really doing is coveting. Either we covet their stuff, or we covet their intangible blessings. 

So this helps explain why, in the original commandment found in Exodus, ownership is an integral concept when it comes to correctly understanding this commandment. When we concern ourselves with the property or other blessings of others, we tend to forget to count our own blessings. The Old Testament prophet Micah explains how covetousness in our thoughts leads us into a pattern of sinful actions.

Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand.

And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.

~ Micah 2:1-2

When we think covetous thoughts, it can lead us to take the property of others through the use of violence. So the politics of envy don’t just cause a spirit of ingratitude for our blessings, but ultimately lead to violence and oppression. French Revolution, anyone? Don’t get me wrong, the French had many legitimate reasons to throw off their government, but the catalyst to revolution was ultimately the spirit of class warfare that Robespierre was able to instill in the people, which ultimately led to the oppression and murder of many innocent people. 

I have two last scriptures that I want to include here. In the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord reminds Martin Harris not to covet his neighbor’s property. However, in verse 26, the Lord also instructs him not to covet his own property. Huh? Doesn’t that disprove my very first claim? No, it doesn’t, so long as you recognize that everything you have is simply a stewardship given to you by God. If you remember that, you must recognize that God may choose to allocate his property as he sees fit. If Martin Harris were to withhold his stewardship from the Lord’s purposes, did he not desire it wrongfully, without due regard for the rights of others? 

This leads me to my final scripture:

And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.

~Doctrine and Covenants 59:21

When we get caught up in the politics of envy, we fail to recognize God’s hand in our own lives and ignore the stewardship that he has given to us. When we covet the goods of another, or covet our own resources when God has called upon us to provide them for his purposes, we fail to recognize and respect his property rights and his judgement in how to allocate those resources. In other words, envy and covetousness lead us down a very dangerous path. Perhaps this is what Benjamin Franklin was trying to warn against when he designed the 1878 fugio cent and included the phrase “Mind Your Business.”


Charity and Self-interest: Two sides of the same coin.

Would you consider God to be selfish? Consider the scripture in Moses:

For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

~The Pearl of Great Price, Moses 1:39

This scripture is so packed full of information and gospel truth that books could be (and probably have been) written about it alone, but I only want to address a few of the main points.  First, this scripture tells us what God’s work is: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.  Second, it tells us what his motivation is in performing this work: to attain glory. So, in order for God to get what he wants (glory), he must do something that benefits others. We give glory to God for what he has done for us in providing us with access to both immortality and eternal life. So, is this a charitable act, or is God simply acting in his own self interest?

How is it that Christ obtained a glory equal to that of the Father? Remember that they are one in purpose.  They have the same mission, and although they fulfill different roles in that mission, the glory upon it’s completion is the same.  The second chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews give us profound insight into the entire process, as well as the role of mankind in the process.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.  For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

~KJV Holy Bible, Hebrews 2:9-10

Christ obtains his glory by means of the role he plays in providing others with access to immortality and eternal life. In the process, he must make personal sacrifices to benefit others. But his reward is glory upon his own head. So was his act one of pure charity, or was there any self interest involved?  With this scenario, we have a little more information.  Let us visit the accounts in the four gospels of the moments when Christ was in the very depths of suffering on our behalf.  Luke records that when Jesus kneels to pray in Gethsemane, his first inclination is to ask the Father if there is any other way for him to fulfill his role in this eternal plan.

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,

Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

KJV Holy Bible, Luke 22:41-42

At this point, it might appear that Christ has actually given up his free will, but that is not the case.  In order for his sacrifice to have any efficacy in fulfilling the demands of justice, it must have been done voluntarily.  Perhaps a better scriptorian that myself can explain the why behind that, all I know is that it must have been done voluntarily, and it ultimately was.  This is made evident to us in the record of both Mark and Matthew as they describe how the Spirit ultimately withdrew its presence, and at the very moment when Christ makes his ultimate sacrifice, he is acting solely under the influence of his own will (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46). So in this instance, as with all others prior,  the Savior does not deny himself of his self-interest.  Instead, he has brought his interests into alignment with those of the Father. So were his actions charitable or selfish?

So what then, ultimately, is the lesson for us?  I believe the lesson to be thus (and this is profoundly important when analyzing the gospel through and economic approach, and vice versa): charity and self-interest are not inherently opposite forces.  Ayn Rand and the objectivists would have you believe that they are.  In fact, most of the world would have you believe that they are, and indeed these two forces can work against each other.  God, however, does not view them as inherently opposite.  In fact, the economic model that God has laid forth (and will one day call upon us to live) requires that charity and self-interest work hand-in-hand.

The scriptures are full of examples showing that when a person seeks to gain at the expense of another, it is frowned upon, but the the Lord has laid forth a pattern by which we might be permitted to improve our own lot by seeking to improve the lot of those around us. Here are a handful of examples:

Behold, here is wisdom also in me for your good.

And you are to be equal, or in other words, you are to have equal claims on the properties, for the benefit of managing the concerns of your stewardships, every man according to his wants and his needs, inasmuch as his wants are just—

And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord’s storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church—

Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.

~Doctrine and Covenants 82:16-19

Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:

For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.

~1 Corinthians 10:24-26

And in doing these things thou wilt do the greatest good unto thy fellow beings, and wilt promote the glory of him who is your Lord.

~Doctrine and Covenants 81:4

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

~Matthew 25:34-40

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

~Matthew 22:37-40

What I guess I am really trying to say is that the Lord acknowledges a system whereby men seek for gain merely by seeking for the benefit of those around them, and in so doing, they are rewarded.


Justice, mercy, and contract law

I was recently in a discussion with a couple of my sisters and my mother regarding a recent news story involving an airline and a sick military veteran.  Without going into the minutia of the story, our argument was essentially over whether or not it would be good for the airline to forgive the man for violating his contract of a non-refundable, non-transferable airline ticket.  I must admit that in my zeal to defend the company’s RIGHT to uphold the contract, I probably came across as a heartless jerk.  Believe me, it’s been known to happen. Anyway, after going home with my tail between my legs for not being able to successfully get my point across, and wallowing a little bit, I sat and thought about what gospel principles might relate, and where I should look to find a solid foundation upon which to base my beliefs.  Is there ever a time when we are justified in breaking a contract? What about forgiving another’s violation of a contract? What do the scriptures have to say about the principles of upholding a contract or expecting other to uphold their end of a contract?

Immediately, my mind drifted towards the idea of a covenant and how that might compare to my understanding of a contract.  For our purposes here, let’s define both of those words.  A contract is an agreement between two people, where both parties have an equal opportunity to set the terms of the agreement (or at least an opportunity to accept or reject the terms), usually to exchange one good for another.  A covenant, on the other hand, is between man and God, with God setting the terms of the agreement, usually designed to determine a sense of loyalty in exchange for “blessings” both tangible and intangible.  Throughout history, the two terms have been used interchangeably, so there is a close relationship between the two.  They both seem to serve the same general function, as to set the terms of some mutual agreement between two parties.  It might be an important distinction to note that the legal mechanism of a contract seems to be man’s best effort at attempting to mimic the pattern of God used to hold people accountable for mutually agreeable terms.

When we look at scriptural references to the importance God places on covenants, we are handed what seems to be an interesting paradox. Multiple scriptural references and modern revelations describe the power and authority of the priesthood of God as having power to bind on Earth and in Heaven (D&C 124:93, D&C 128:8-9, Matthew 16:19).  Since contracts are a creation of mankind, these scriptures must make reference to covenants, with the priesthood holders acting as the agents of God to officiate in the creation of these covenants.  The paradox in this is that a covenant with God appears to have some sort of limiting power over God. Huh? Yes, I know, it sounds crazy and it may simply reflect my own incomplete knowledge of doctrines, but that is one reason why I write; so that others can provide feedback to help correct my errors.  Even if I am wrong, let’s take a look at what the scriptures actually say.

 “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”

~ Doctrine and Covenants 82:10

So, when we enter into a covenant with God, he is bound to keep his word.  If we fail to uphold our end of the bargain, we lose out on whatever blessings are associated with the covenant.  However, if God fails to uphold his end of the bargain, the Book of Mormon prophet teaches us that “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13). In fact, this chapter is one of the most direct and specific scriptural accounts of the doctrines of justice and mercy.  Alma explains that any time we violate God’s law, we are subject to the demands of justice.  The atonement of Jesus Christ provides us with an escape route of sorts, but does not operate the way that many people understand.  Many people accept that because of the atonement, God will simply forgive us of our transgressions and the covenant which had been made is simply forgiven, including all of our spiritual “debts.”  This is a false notion and negates the importance of the atonement.  See, in our moment of weakness, we have violated justice, which will not forgive debts:

What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.

~ Alma 42:25

So, if mercy cannot rob justice, and we remain indebted to justice, how can we ever repay that debt? How can we make good on this covenant, when we clearly are not able to do so on our own.  This is where the full breadth of the suffering of Christ comes into view.  He met the demands of justice, paid the debt on our behalf, and made whole the demands of justice and mercy. This could be completed only by the very Son of God himself, being beyond the capacity of any fully mortal being.  No simple blog entry can fully convey the importance of that act.

So what does this teach us, if anything, about a contract between two humans?  Well, this is where I think the message is not so clear, and there are a number of different viewpoints.  I doubt that any of them can necessarily claim to be condoned by any heavenly being, as several scriptural references could be produced to both defend and disprove each perspective.  Also, God, being no respecter of persons (or human laws, for that matter), does not recognize the validity of mere contracts beyond this life (D&C 132:18). There are, however, scriptures which explain that God would expect us to uphold personal contracts (I’ll let you look those up on your own).  So how would God have us make good on a contract we an unable to uphold?  If we follow the justice and mercy model, we must somehow pay off the contract.  The contract itself is not forgiven, but is instead paid of by the merciful act of an intermediary.

While this is not the only way to view a spiritual approach to human contracts, this methodology, which mirrors God’s treatment of covenants, points out to us that it is not our duty to seek out opportunities to demand justice, that justice demandeth its own.  Rather, it is our duty to seek out opportunities to satisfy justice on behalf of another who is unable, thus the laws of justice and mercy, as well as the human concoction of contract, are all upheld.


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