Ownership, Will, and Giving to God

February 23, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 2:29 am   Category: Theology

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.

29 Comments »

  1. I’m following your argument so far, but there are nuances you haven’t addressed. There are things which we have put labor into, and which we possess, but we may not truly “own.” For example, I am thinking of land ownership. We have paid for this, put time and effort into it, and currently hold possession of it. However, it, being created by God, is owned by him. Can we truly give this back to him as a gift?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — February 23, 2007 @ 9:20 am

  2. Well done Jacob. I think in the church we are quick to beat ourselves up, and sometimes slow to see the good that is being done.

    I think that when we turn our will over to God there will then be many things that go along with it. The time talents and possesions wil follow by and by.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 23, 2007 @ 9:46 am

  3. I know that this is going to sound really harsh, but…

    How is Elder Maxwell’s statement any different from what Lucifer proposed in the pre-existence? I have no trouble at all imagine him saying those exact words to make his case.

    I’m not trying to make a criticism here so much as request an explanation.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 23, 2007 @ 10:22 am

  4. Jeff G, Isn’t this like asking the difference between giving and taking?

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 10:39 am

  5. Jacob,

    I like your approach to point out that our “will” is sort of meaningless if we don’t include in that concept all of our time, talents, and energy. It seems to me that the will Elder Maxwell is talking about is the umbrella term that encompasses all of our time and energy and stuff. I mean, what good is saying God can have our “will” but not our stuff or time? So in a real sense, this favored saying of his (and he used in in General Conference as well) is mostly a poetic attention getter I think. It is designed to have us look at the whole of what we ought to give God rather than the individual parts. It is the equivalent of talking about the law of consecration I think.

    Now having said that; I think you made a comment that is a bit too broad in the post:

    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.

    First of all, he doesn’t need my money or time or talents per se. His work will continue whether I accept or reject his gracious offer of a personal relationship. But his work and his glory is to convince us to enter a personal relationship with him and the deeper and richer that personal relationship becomes, the more we are willing to sacrifice and consecrate to him to help him persuade others to accept his gracious offer of a personal relationship too. So I guess I’m saying that the stuff we give is a) part of giving our will to him and thus deepening our relationship with him — and that is his end goal for us individually; and b) the stuff we give also moves forward the earthly efforts to persuade others to accept his grace, so it serves a dual purpose.

    In short, I think your quote above is true when speaking of us collectively but not so individually.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 23, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  6. Jeff,

    Can you explain what assumptions lead you to that question? What do you assume Satan’s plan was and how do you equate it with the idea Elder Maxwell proposes about us freely giving our will to God? (I could make some guesses but I figure I’d let you explain instead.)

    Comment by Geoff J — February 23, 2007 @ 10:45 am

  7. One of my favorite forms of this maxwellian idea was presented in one of his last conference talks.

    “Of course we cannot fully comprehend all this right now! Of course we cannot know the meaning of all things right now. But we can know, right now, that God knows us and loves us individually!

    But, brothers and sisters, what keeps us from knowing and loving Him more? Our reluctance to give away all our sins—thinking, instead, a down payment will do. Likewise, our reluctance to let our wills be swallowed up in His will—thinking, instead, that merely acknowledging His will is sufficient! “

    If nothing else, all this reminds me that I miss Elder Maxwell.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  8. The will we are giving to God in Maxwell’s quote seems to encompass time, talents, and things.

    I believe while God does not need certain things, the giving of those things is an act of submitting our will, ie making a choice to part with things my will might want. I believe the giving of things is synonymous with giving our will.

    While the possessions may not matter to God, the willingness to give them does.

    Comment by Josh Madson — February 23, 2007 @ 11:14 am

  9. Biv,

    If we view ownership as suggested in the post, then there are not always bright lines of division. Rather, we own things to the degree that we have invested our labor in them. This gets the heart of what I am really trying to say, which is that anything we freely choose to do should be considered a genuine contribution to or withdrawl from the universe.

    Take your example of land. As the poem says, only God can make a tree, which I take to be an acknowledgement of our wonder and awe when we plant seeds, they sit in the ground surrounded by nothing but dirt and water, and somehow wheat pops up. In that sense, when I grow wheat, I acknowledge that I was not solely responsible for the wheat. However, I could have been lazy and overslept instead of getting up to plant and water and hoe. So, there is a real sense in which the wheat exists because of me. We can only take credit for that which is a consequence of our own free will, but that part is non-zero, and often non-trivial.

    Does this help with the nuances I am glossing over?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:26 am

  10. Jeff G,

    You are welcome to clarify your position as Geoff suggested, but I think I know what you are getting at. I think the difference ends up hinging on the fact that when we say “God’s will” we do not just mean whatever God happens to prefer. We have in mind that God is all-benevolent and thus his will (to which we submit our own) is actually a personification of “the good.” One might ask “why should I follow the good and not the bad?” but that simply challenges the notion that there is such a thing as the good to start with.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  11. Geoff,

    It seems to me that the will Elder Maxwell is talking about is the umbrella term that encompasses all of our time and energy and stuff.

    I cannot say for certain what Elder Maxwell had in mind, but in one sense I see his comments as running directly contrary to your umbrella. At least in one popular interpretation of this doctrine, the idea is to point out that your stuff is not yours, so it does not fall under the umbrella. It may be that he was using this as a poetic attention-getter, which would mean me and Elder Maxwell are in full agreement. However, I am quite certain that there are lots of people I interact with at church who do not take this doctrine in the way you decribed.

    We have a few aphorisms out there that sound good but actually undermine the importance of free will. One popular one is to say “everything happens for a reason” or “everything is part of God’s plan.” The problems with that position are obvious. I see this as creating a subtle version of the same problem if we are not very careful.

    Now, as to my overbroad statement to which you take issue, I agree with everything you said, but thought that was what I was saying originally. So, thanks for clarifying it.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:53 am

  12. Something I could add is that “our will” is not some physical thing which, once we give to God, he has, and we can’t take it back. If we are giving our will, we must, by our own effort, continue to give it.

    It’s a lot like being married, which is what I was trying to point out in my last post. We can commit to give our love and lives at the alter of marriage, but if we don’t help each other 10 months later, then the giving of the hand in marriage doesn’t really matter as much in that moment.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  13. Jacob: One popular one is to say “everything happens for a reason” or “everything is part of God’s plan.” I see this as creating a subtle version of the same problem if we are not very careful.

    I guess I’m having trouble pinning down the problem you are concerned about here… With the examples you gave there is a certain fatalism built in that I fully agree can discourage us from acting when we should act by crippling our faith in our ability to change the future. (Which was my point in the monster thread).

    But I guess I don’t really know what giving my “will” to God would even mean if it didn’t entail eventually giving my time, talents, and stuff. Do you think there is a problem of people in the church who claim to give their will to God while withholding their time, talents and stuff from him? Or more specifically, do you think Maxwell’s preaching might lead to that?

    Comment by Geoff J — February 23, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  14. Geoff, I think Jaco is concerned that the idea that “It all already belongs to God” is crippling, and not so much the other.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 12:40 pm

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading the initial post as well as the additional comments and would like to add a few of my own.

    On one hand, when we talk about whether God needs anything from us, I think we need to distinguish between God and the Church. In my opinion, God doesn’t need anything from us. He wants us to do certain things that our for our own benefit, and that includes giving of ourselves. I believe God can very well accomplish his purposes independent of anything that we give or don’t give. The Church, on the other hand, does need our time, talents, and resources to build up the kingdom.

    When I think of submitting one’s will, I don’t think of it as giving anything in particular but rather giving our whole hearts to God. To me it is more a matter of humbly seeking to do his will, forgetting myself, being obedient, etc.

    Also, in terms of giving, I think it is important to mention that attitude is key. For example, we can serve for selfish reasons, we can pay tithes and offerings “grudgingly,” etc. Perhaps it is always better to give than to not give, but there seems to be a level of progression as to our desires and reasons. I love the scripture in Moroni 7: 5-12 that speaks of these things….

    Comment by Jim — February 23, 2007 @ 1:11 pm

  16. Matt: I think Jaco is concerned that the idea that “It all already belongs to God” is crippling

    My question is: In what way is it crippling? I just don’t see it.

    Jim: I believe God can very well accomplish his purposes independent of anything that we give or don’t give.

    Welcome to the Thang Jim. I wanted to point out that this statement just isn’t true if you are talking about people collectively. God cannot accomplish his purposes for us as a people if we don’t freely give to him. His purpose is to bring about our eternal life via a oneness with him after all and that oneness cannot be accomplished without our accepting him and giving as he has directed.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 23, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  17. Geoff,

    Good point, and thanks for the welcome. I’ve been checking out the various LDS blogs and appreciate the exchange of ideas.

    I guess I was mainly trying to say that if he wanted to, God could take care of building temples, churches, etc. without our money, so in that sense, he could accomplish those things without our giving. But a wise and loving Heavenly Father knows what is best for us, so he allows us to participate in his work….

    Comment by Jim — February 23, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  18. Interesting post Jacob. I think this is related to several points already made, but I think another view of what Maxwell might mean (and an interpretation that I’ve heard, or thought myself–can’t remember which!) is that giving our will to God is a unique gift b/c God already has everything he needs, so the only meaningful gift that we can give him is our will (“we will really be giving something to Him!”). The creations that come about as a result of our will aren’t really all that useful to him b/c he could easily make them himself. Here’s a stupid little analogy, though I think my point is already clear:

    Giving something I’ve created to God is like me giving $100 to a mega-billionaire. I might think it’s a great gift, but the mega-billionaire wouldn’t really consider the money itself a meaningful gift–he’s got so much that $100 is nothing to him. But he might truly appreciate the fact that I freely gave something to him that was a sacrifice on my part to give–in other words, it’s what I will-ingly give that makes the gift meaningful, not the object that comprises the gift ($100 in this case).

    Comment by Robert C. — February 23, 2007 @ 3:32 pm

  19. I must have a completely different perspective on the pre-existence story than everybody else.

    As I understand it, Satan asked people to willingly forfeit their will. Thus, he wasn’t trying to take anything. Furthermore, the whole point was that we would give it up in order to do what was good.

    In other words, the only difference which I see between what Lucifer (he wasn’t Satan yet) proposed in the preexistence and Elder Maxwell proposes in this existence is in the probation which the proposal is being made.

    This difference might offer some way of drawing a meaningful difference (but what?) but I see problems for those who hold to some form of MMP.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 23, 2007 @ 4:51 pm

  20. The problem which I am trying to get at is certainly NOT that Maxwell is the devil. C’mon, that’s retarded.

    What I’m trying to get at is that all the reasons why Lucifer’s plan was bad seem to speak against Maxwell’s statement as well.

    The difference between probations approach which I hinted at above, I assume, basically makes some kind of appeal to living by faith vs. knowledge or something like that. I think that this is a rather childish view of this life: “Let’s just see what they do when they don’t know…” This life must be so much more meaningful than that.

    The reason why it is so meaningful is that we get to do what we want. We get to express ourselves rather than somebody else’s (God’s) self. THAT is the main reason why Lucifer’s plan was rejected. That, in turn, is also why any strong or straightforward interpretation of Maxwell should be rejected as well.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 23, 2007 @ 5:06 pm

  21. Under Maxwell, as we give our will to God(Choose God in the instant), we retain our will(ability to choose). Under Lucifer, when our will was taken away (whether we chose to give it up or not. It was not voluntary, as is the Maxweelian state) we did not retain the ability to choose.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 23, 2007 @ 7:19 pm

  22. Perhaps agreeing with God’s will is a simple expression of gratitude and love. Moreover, when I discover tht God loves me and that God is committed to my best interest, I learn that agreeing with God is really the only rational thing to do. He knows better than I what will lead to my greatest good. Now I am certain that submitting to God’s will doesn’t entail that I give up my own — instead it affirms my will because my purposes and projects for my life become God’s.

    Look at it this way. God didn’t give me life just so I could be caused to do what he would choose. He delights, I believe, in my creativity and choices and what I choose for me life. So in submitting to God’s will for me I am in fact mrely affirming my own creativity and gifts. In affirming God’s will, I am choosing to forego self-destructive and usely endeavors and pursue that which will lead to my fullest realization. God will for me, amazingly enough, is my will for me. He doesn’t want everyone in his kingdom — as strange as that sounds. Rather, he wants everyone in his kingdom who freely chooses to be in his kingdom. He honors the choices of those who choose to pursue a different path.

    When persons are committed in love to each other’s best interests and honoring each other’s choices, then submitting to the other’s will becomes a way of realizing and affirming one’s own. It is only when we seek our own destruction and misery that our will departs from God’s will for us — and it is sheer foolishness of the most rash sort to disagree with God in that instance. But even then, God honors that choice too!

    There are only those who say to God, “thy will be done,” and those to whom God finally says, “thy will be done.”

    Comment by Blake — February 23, 2007 @ 10:20 pm

  23. Geoff (#13),

    I can understand your trouble pinning down just what I am troubled by here. It all ties together in my mind with a bunch of other related things, but I am having trouble boiling it down to one concise summary sentence. So, clearly it is my fault not yours.

    The connection with your post about faith-crippling determinism is interesting. I like it. However, in truth, the post is primarily concerned with shining light on what I consider to be a misunderstanding. I am not too concerned that this misunderstanding will be crippling in any way, or that people will think they can give their wills to God without giving their stuff. In this regard, I think people are often smarter than the things they say.

    Let me explain what I meant in the sentence you pulled from #11. When something bad happens to you and someone tells you “it is all part of God’s plan,” I suppose it is harmless enough if it does comfort you, but I think it expresses a completely misguided view of God and the universe. Everything that happens is most certainly not part of God’s plan. The only reason God needs a plan to begin with is that lots of people are working against him. He doesn’t control everything. He leaves us free and we act based on our will and people are constantly doing things that work against his plan. Why am I bothered that people say everything is part of his plan? Well, just because it is a wrongheaded view of God and his plan and it annoys me that people say something so misguided.

    I have a similar reaction to one of the popular interpretations of Maxwell’s quote. It seems to me to be based on a misguided notion of ownership and it trivializes the importance of our contributions to bring about God’s purposes.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:20 pm

  24. Jeff G (#19, #20),

    I see what you mean now. I guess I did have something different in my mind regarding the story of the pre-existence, but then, the story has always seemed a bit nonsensical when it got to the part about Lucifer’s plan.

    To get to the meat of what you are saying, though, I agree. I totally agree with your statement in #20 about what makes this life meaningful. I think that saying we must submit our wills to God and have our will swallowed up in God’s will paints a very useful picture from a devotional standpoint, but a poor one if it is to be taken as a technical description of what we are after. I am in agreement with Blakes direction in #22, especially when he says “now I am certain that submitting to God’s will doesn’t entail that I give up my own.” Amen.

    (By the way, I never took you to be saying that Maxwell was the devil, no worries.)

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:32 pm

  25. Robert (#18),

    You raise an interesting point about what it means to talk about God not needing something. We commonly say that God does not need anything from us (as in #15, thanks Jim), but I can’t think of anything at all that God needs. At least not in the sense that we need things. Can you?

    If God doesn’t need anything at all, then it is not particularly surprising that he doesn’t need anything from us. So, instead of talking about God’s needs, we talk about God’s purposes. He doesn’t need to make us celestial, but he chooses to and makes this his work.

    So, now I get to your point (I am very long winded today, I apologize). When you say that God doesn’t need the things we have to give him, it seems to me that you are talking in the first sense and not the second. Sure, he doesn’t need the boat I created from lumber. But, he did need Brigham to work on the Nauvoo temple. He does need me to visit the widow next door. He does need my money to build a meeting house in Equador. For my own salvation, he needs me to align my will with what is right. But in order to save other people he might very well need my work and my money.

    Perhaps this is a relevant consideration as well: We assume that God could use his magic wand to make temples without our money or work. Do we conclude from this that he has us build temples with our own money and effort because it is good for us? Or is it that he is unable to use his magic wand without ruining other parts of his plan and is thus forced to rely on our labor?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2007 @ 11:56 pm

  26. What does it mean that I read this title as, Ownership, Wii, and Giving to God?

    Comment by Susan M — February 24, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

  27. Yea, that is concerning Susan.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 24, 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  28. Jeff (#19),

    In my opinion there is a lot of theological nonsense that floats around the church concerning the “council in heaven” and the specifics of our premortal existence. As I have written here in the past, I think it is all part of a naive “My Turn On Earth” view of the eternities. See here, here, and here.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 24, 2007 @ 7:52 pm

  29. Jacob: Do we conclude from this that he has us build temples with our own money and effort because it is good for us? Or is it that he is unable to use his magic wand without ruining other parts of his plan and is thus forced to rely on our labor?

    Why would God want to build temples if no one on earth was willing to even obey his commands to build them? Wouldn’t the temple be moot under such circumstances?

    Comment by Geoff J — February 24, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

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