The following was clearly written with a Latter-day Saint audience in mind; however, the bedrock principle that I want us to consider–that we need to seriously evaluate how attached we are to spiritually-cankering material possessions–is of real value to all readers:
What have been some of the major themes of General Conference talks the last few years? We can easily rattle off a list: morality and pornography, social issues, debt, and raising the bar on missionary work, to name a few. But there is one other theme that is rarely mentioned because, frankly, it makes us uncomfortable.
Money. We’re being warned about our attitude toward it, and that often makes us defensive. We’re warned, but since the Church can’t simply place a limit on our assets, we may not be sure what the ideal position is. But if our leaders have seen fit to bring it up, we ought to think about it and realize we may need to make some changes. This is a sensitive subject, so let’s be clear on the purpose of this essay: not to accuse anyone of anything, but to serve as a guide for self-analysis in an area that we may often ignore exactly because it is so sensitive.
At the October 2004 General Conference, two general authorities gave consecutive talks denouncing materialism among the Latter-day Saints. Presiding Bishop David H. Burton spoke of restraining our worldly success, concluding by saying, “A prayerful, conservative approach is the key to successfully living in an affluent society and building the qualities that come from waiting, sharing, saving, working hard, and making do with what we have.”1
Then, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “We should end our fixation on wealth…. I feel that some are so concerned about the type of car they drive, the expensive clothes they wear, or the size of their house in comparison to others that they lose sight of the weightier matters.”2 More recently, Elder Mervyn B. Arnold of the Seventy has written in the March 2005 Ensign of a concern he shared with a stake president for an “increasing number of Church members who focus their attention” on worldly possessions.3 Indeed, the prophetic warnings on this issue also seem to be increasing, just as they may be increasingly ignored.
People often take this statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley as their guideline on the subject of money: “The Lord did not intend that his people should live in poverty and misery and insecurity forever, the Lord intended that they should appropriately enjoy the good things of the earth.”4
But it’s hard to square building mansions for ourselves and collecting as many gadgets as we can with President Hinckley’s observation that we should “appropriately” enjoy the good things of the earth, especially in light of what else the prophets have said about amassing wealth. After all, this is the same President Hinckley who famously said, “I urge you to be modest in your expenditures.”5
We all think we’re living acceptably in this area, but have we really put enough thought and prayer into it? Let’s put it this way—if we, as individuals, did make the pursuit of money our top priority, would our actions be any different? Discussions among members about materialism usually seem to end up comforting everybody, but if nobody ever feels the need to change, how can that be the right message? Doesn’t anybody need to repent of excess worldliness?
Realistically, there is no rule for how much wealth is too much, so the individual must decide how to live. But isn’t it strange then that nearly all Latter-day Saints still live as lavishly as they possibly can? Rare is the man who actually lives below his means, who chooses a humble life free of material distractions.
If there’s no absolute standard for how many possessions we can have, but we know that comfort can corrupt us, isn’t it safer to choose less rather than more? Aren’t affluent Latter-day Saints playing with fire? Isn’t actively avoiding materialism more virtuous than trying to preserve the Spirit in a home choked by abundance?
In the April 1999 General Conference, Elder Joe J. Christensen denounced another excuse of Latter-day Saints for focusing on financial success: raising their children. “We should avoid spoiling children by giving them too much. In our day, many children grow up with distorted values because we as parents overindulge them… One of the most important things we can teach our children is to deny themselves. Instant gratification generally makes for weak people. How many truly great individuals do you know who never had to struggle?”6
Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy, in his counsel to wean families from worldliness, even advises not to give a car to older teens.7 Surveying those who reduce material sway in their lives, one Latter-day Saint biographer wrote, “Several individuals noted that buying less made their children more appreciative and less demanding.”8 Here’s another question for introspection: what model of excess do we have to compare ourselves to before we look humble?
Some have even interpreted the fact that early members received materials according to their “wants and needs” (D&C 51:3) to mean that the righteous may be supplied with whatever they desire, but the word “want” here means a lack of something necessary, as in D&C 84:112: “Search after the poor and administer to their wants.” Especially relevant to the idea of greed is D&C 70:7: “Inasmuch as they receive more than is needful for their necessities and their wants, it shall be given into my storehouse.”
This commandment reminds us that our surplus is not ours to keep; it is to be given to the Lord’s work. Holding back by creatively defining what is “needful for our necessities” is also wrong for, as we are taught in the temple, the righteous approach to money is to be content with sufficient for our needs.
President Heber J. Grant echoed this thinking: “Another thing that we want to learn as Latter-day Saints—and I have gone to work to learn it—is to… confine ourselves to the necessities of life, and not to indulge in extravagant habits. If we have a surplus, use it as God desires that we should use it—for the onward advancement of His kingdom and the spread of the Gospel…”9 Can you name all nine categories of donations listed on a Church tithing slip?
President Spencer W. Kimball challenged church members to dissociate themselves from material goods and increase their fast offerings as much as possible: “I think we should be very generous and give, instead of the amount we saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more where we are in a position to do it.”10
Two years later, President Kimball spent the bulk of a message meant to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial on a warning about our increasing idolatry, to use his word: “I am afraid that many of us have been surfeited with…acres and wealth and have begun to worship them as false gods, and they have power over us. Do we have more of these good things than our faith can stand? Many people spend most of their time working in the service of a self-image that includes sufficient money, stocks, bonds, investment portfolios, property, credit cards, furnishings, automobiles, and the like to guarantee carnal security…Forgotten is the fact that our assignment is to use these many resources in our families and quorums to build up the kingdom of God.”11
The concern in LDS leadership about straying into worldliness has its paragon in a prophetic warning given by Brigham Young: “The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution and be true. But my greatest fear is that they cannot stand wealth.”12
What a prophecy! Nobody can argue that he was wrong: we, as a people, have become rich, and have often become comfortable because of it. Of course, this material comfort may largely be the natural result of generations of wholesome living, but it’s still part of the test of life. How many of us are willing to face the Lord right now and declare a righteous investment of the resources He’s given to us?
LDS historian Hugh Nibley described a proper gospel mindset concerning money: “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion…. God recognizes only one justification for seeking wealth, and that is with the express intent of helping the poor…. Man’s wants are few. ‘Having food and raiment,’ says Paul, ‘let us therewith be content’ (1 Timothy 6:8)…. To take more than we need is to take what does not belong to us.”13 Each of us who is endowed is obligated to live the law of consecration now, which requires us to give everything we have back to the Lord.
Compare this idea with images of Latter-day Saints who live simply: “One woman, after reading Approaching Zion… now buys clothes only when she actually needs them. These and other changes, she testifies, have made her life simpler and calmer. Another correspondent took Hugh’s warnings about materialism to heart and has stayed in his ‘starter’ home… Several others identified similar Nibley-influenced lifestyle changes: they buy less, live more modestly, and give more of their income to support the Church, the missionaries, and the poor.”14
LDS leaders have always emphasized sacrifice as a necessary element of their worship. Joseph Smith wrote: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”15 A March 2004 Ensign article collects teachings of several prophets extolling sacrifice as a virtue in and of itself.16 It hardly needs to be explained that a sacrifice, by definition, is volunteering to give up something that we will be worse off without, something that hurts to give, not just throwing a few spare scraps to D.I.
So instead of living as opulently as we can, it seems that we should spend as little as possible, not purchase things we don’t need, stop spoiling our children, give all our surplus resources to the Church, make serious physical sacrifices for the Church, and be content with a materially simple life.
This isn’t to say that we’re all terrible or that nobody is a good example, but couldn’t we all do a little better? Shouldn’t we honestly examine ourselves in light of what our leaders have taught and stop saying, “I’m good enough,” and start asking, “How can I change to become as Christlike as possible in this area?”