An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Luck, Grace or Reward?

In his graduation speech at Princeton last week, successful author Michael Lewis raised eyebrows by telling graduates that luck is a major component of success. Naturally, successful people prefer to attribute their good fortune to their brains, talent, and hard work. Of course, effort and ability play a key role in achieving success, but much can be said for being in the right place at the right time.

Lewis told Princeton graduates that with luck comes obligation: “You owe a debt, not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” He cites corporate greed as evidence of a sense of entitlement by those fortunate enough to attain leadership positions.

Now, a religious person might substitute the word “blessings” for “luck” in Lewis’s discourse. I think a Protestant who believes in grace as unmerited, undeserved blessings from God would go along with Lewis’s admonition for the lucky (or blessed) to help the unlucky.

Mormons, however, generally do not use the term “grace.” In Mormon culture, blessings are rewards for righteous living—even extending that to the pre-existence where some of God’s children were more valiant than others and earned birth into more advantageous circumstances.

Non-Mormon Christians believe God should be loved and served out of gratitude for His grace, freely bestowed. Mormons tend to cite the need for blessings as their reason for keeping commandments. I suspect the concept of serving God out of gratitude rather than as a way to merit blessings makes other Christians less inclined to be judgmental than Mormons.  I’ve heard many harsh judgments against the poor from good Mormons: “I’ve worked for what I have. People who don’t work shouldn’t get free food.” “If people want health insurance, they should get a job that provides it.” Even, “People on Medicaid should have to work for it.” (Lots of luck getting those in nursing homes to earn their keep.)

Sure, some people bring some of their misery onto themselves, but how do we know we wouldn’t do the same had we been born into their circumstances? In the Book of Mormon King Benjamin tells his people not to judge the poor:

  “And now, if God, who created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right . . . O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth . . . .” (Mosiah 4:21-22)

From what I’ve seen, many Mormons ignore this scripture. As a people, I think we would benefit by following King Benjamin’s advice—recognizing that most of our blessings are unearned, and we have no right to judge the less fortunate. We could also learn humility from Michael Lewis who attributes much of his success to luck—and we could heed his call for noblisse oblige. As the saying goes, “Where much is given, much is expected.

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Comments on: "Luck, Grace or Reward?" (4)

  1. Boston H. Manwaring said:

    Not only do we see blessings as rewards, there has been an odd trend of late in the way we think and discuss the Atonement. It seems to have become, together with temple covenants, a kind of talisman or magic wand that can be wielded to solve or avoid many problems and difficulties. I would be interested to know if others have remarked this usage as well.

    • Boston

      How interesting. I only attend my ward once a year (to see if I’m right in staying away), so I haven’t noticed this. Seeing the Atonement as a talisman for good fortunate, is disturbing. Puts us right on what Ken Wilbur refers to as the “mythic stage of development.”

    • I would disagree somewhat. I think we have certainly have a theological belief that righteousness brings blessings, but these need not be material, and I think we have moved away from that sort of belief in recent decades, possibly in response to similar claims by more modern versions of Christianity.

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