In a recent post, Matt quoted Elder Maxwell talking about the submission of our wills as the only real gift we can offer God. It was one of Elder Maxwell’s favorite doctrines to expound upon.
The submission of one’s will is placing on God’s altar the only uniquely personal thing one has to place there. The many other things we “give” are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. However, when we finally submit ourselves by letting our individual wills be swallowed up in God’s will, we will really be giving something to Him! It is the only possession which is truly ours to give. (Neal A. Maxwell, If Thou Endure It Well, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996, pg. 55.)
The central premise here is that there is nothing we can give to God (except our wills) that he does not already own. We often make similar statements when talking about tithing; we say that God already gave us everything we have, so paying a tithe is really just giving back to God what was already his. This idea is expressed above by saying that the things we have now are actually “loaned to us” by God. God is the owner.
But what do we mean when we say that God already “owns” everything?
One thing we might mean is that God could take our things from us if he wanted to. While it is certainly true that God could take our things from us, this is not a very appealing concept of ownership in the context above. The idea that God owns whatever he can take makes God sound like a tyrant, which obviously will not do.
Another thing we might mean is that we are dependent on God for our life on earth, so anything we have is owed to him by virtue of our indebtedness to him. King Benjamin expresses this view of our indebtedness and speaks of God “lending” us breath and supporting us from “one moment to another.” Although there may be something to this idea, it does not seem to fit well as an explanation of what is going on in the quote above. Elder Maxwell is not merely saying that we owe God all that we have, but that we genuinely have nothing but our will to offer that is not already God’s.
The third thing we might mean when we say God owns everything is that he created it. Of course, in a Mormon context “create” does not mean to bring into existence out of nothing, but to organize pre-existing material into something useful or beautiful. Robert Fogelin says this about the concept of ownership:
That some things are social constructs is clear. Money, for example, is a social construct. It is not, however, always obvious whether something is a social construct or not. Locke, for example, thought that property ownership reflected a natural relationship. For him the primordial notion of the ownership of an object is a function of the labor that one puts into it. Marx held a similar view. Hume, in contrast, held that property reflects a conventional relationship determined by the laws that protect people from having things taken from them. (Fogelin, Walking the Tightrope of Reason pg. 74)
Locke’s concept of ownership strikes a cord with the way we think of God in relation to his creation. God owns the Earth because he created it. The raw materials were co-eternal with him, but it is his because he organized it. When speaking of ownership with reference to God, this is the only concept of ownership that makes sense to me.
What does Locke’s concept of ownership say about giving gifts to God?
If ownership is really a function of the labor one puts into something, this seems to undermine our original premise, which was that we don’t truly own anything. I do put effort into things. I create things. I take raw materials that are relatively useless and turn them into useful things. My money represents the things I have produced and the value I have added through my own effort and labor. Doesn’t that mean that I own my things and my money in a real sense? I think that it does mean that. Further, I think this conclusion is really required by Elder Maxwell’s reasoning. Notice:
If it is true that our wills really are our own, then what we do with our wills is also our own. This should not be a controversial claim because it is the basis of accountability. The reason I can be held accountable for my actions is that they are mine. No one make me do the things I do. I choose. But this goes both ways. If I am responsible for the bad things that I do, I must also be responsible for the good things that I do. I didn’t have to go to work; I could have sat on my couch listening to Rage Against the Machine. Because it was my choice to go to work, the fruits of that labor are mine. It is a false humility which looks at everything bad I do and blames me, but then turns around and gives full credit to God for everything good I do. If all the credit truly belongs to God, then there is nothing praiseworthy about me when I do good.
Where does this leave things?
Far from undermining Elder Maxwell’s point, I find that this analysis makes me even more appreciative of the quote above, although I read it differently now that I once did. I think Elder Maxwell is absolutely correct when he says that our will is the only uniquely personal thing we have to offer God. However, our possessions and our money are sometimes the fruits of our wills exercised in righteous endeavors. In such cases, giving our possessions and money to God are genuine gifts. What we are giving only exists because we willed it into existence. God’s kingdom will not build itself, it requires our effort. This is why I sometimes cringe when we say about tithing that “God does not really need our money.” He most certainly does. That money pays for temples, and buildings, and missionaries. The bottom line is that what we do really matters. The idea that God is responsible for everything good seems reverent, but it takes the pressure off of us to bring about good by or own free choices. God is not so quick to take the pressure off:
Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. (D&C 58:26-27)
God is not ashamed to give us credit, nor is he hesitant to hold us accountable. Next time you donate your time, or talents, or money, realize that this is a genuine gift to God and contemplate on the fact that what you do matters, in the deepest sense of that word.