Cause/Effect Mormonism

I have a friend and coworker with whom I had a discussion a few months back. The bulk of the conversation centered on his thoughts of “you do your home teaching and things just run better in the ward.” I couldn’t deny him his feelings on the subject, as he had loosely put together examples of how this has worked in his life. But more importantly, his conviction of this was strong.

This, however, doesn’t keep me from being my usual skeptical self. I’ve since reflected on my interaction with this person, as I seem to keep witnessing more and more examples of the larger concept at play. Our religion (as are many religions) is focused on certain ideals that must breed certain consequences. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I suppose it’s more that I am curious how much of it pleases God and how much of it frustrates Him (if at all).

In case I’ve been too cryptic so far in this post, here are some of the more common examples I’ve witnessed recently:

Consistent home teaching = Things run better in the ward (whatever that means).
Word of Wisdom = You will live a longer, healthier life.
Tithing = Fire insurance in the last day (ha, ha, not really; I never thought of this cute saying as that funny) plus you won’t loose your house and/or have severe financial problems.
Garments = They protect your body, literally.
Prayer / Fasting / Temple = You have a need or want and begin with prayer after which you escalate the issue by fasting and then praying in the temple. If this need or want is concerning sickness, usually a blessing is an order followed by the escalated level of having as many people pray for you as well as your name submitted to as many temples as possible.
Any Natural Disaster = A Sign of the Time

These are the more commonly witnessed — more universal — cause/effect relationships I’ve seen time and time again within the Church. There are more, of course, and some can be of a personal nature (i.e., examples like such and such happened and I knew God was “punishing” me or “blessing” me).

So the question of the day is, where do we draw the line (or perhaps, where do you draw the line, as this probably falls into the category of “there isn’t one right answer”)? How much of this is a “good” thing and when does it become a “bad” thing (if ever)?

I’ll be the first to answer my own questions. For me personally, I don’t subscribe to much of the mentality in my quick list above. However, I was raised as such, and I still cling to the Prayer / Fasting / Temple category quite a bit. As much as I like to joke about the concept of “temples on speed dial,” the idea that you move from personal prayer > personal fasting > blessing > many praying > many fasting > blessing > temple visit will probably never leave me.

As to how much of this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing … Well, I’m not sure; I’d rather hear your thoughts. Discuss.


  1. First, I would probably suggest that as any of these consequences are good, that is they build up testimonies, help people overcome obstacles in their life and build up the church, I believe God would be pleased for them to be taken more seriously.

    I would add a caveat to the HT example. Consistently done does not mean well done. I have a few people in my EQ that get their 30 minute HT lessons done just about everyweek, but they are not fuffilling their stewardship with regards to what their families really need. If the latter is done consistently it will make the ward run smoother. It frees up time for the Bishop and others to do their work and who to focus their efforts on. I know its a personal testimonial and probalby one that unless you have seen the impact you have on some families or unless you yourself have been impacted its harder to see the importance of it.

    I’m reminded of two main thoughts about this. One is that we answer eachother’s prayers. So the cause and effect of prayer and fasting can sometimes be attributed to others living up to their standards and us as well and the other and more important one is in 2 Nephi 27:23, we are reminded that miracles and answers to prayers are given to us as our faith draws them out. I talked about this a couple of weeks ago on my own blog as “Faith as a Catylist”.

  2. Good post.

    I think that the cause/effect action-oriented list you give is more a “bad” thing IF the individual expects the outcome to be what he/she consistently hears repeated at the pulpit. For every story I hear about someone paying their tithing in the most dire of circumstances and being saved at the last moment by a mysterious check, there are thousands of others who stay finacially broke. I only hope those that stay broke aren’t continuing to pay their tithing in hopes of that action alone providing their financial security.

    It seems to me that in our church we focus so much on the temporal effects of commandments/religious devotion–I rarely hear the word “grace” spoken at church.

    One story, last testimony meeting my husband (who is not Mormon) and I listened as a gentleman sobbed and sobbed at the pulpit asking the congregation for “retribution.” We were visiting my parents’, so I didn’t know this man, but thought “wow, he must’ve done something juicy” He proceeded to ask individuals for forgiveness for NOT BEING A CONSISTENT HOMETEACHER. My husband was so confused. All I could say was, “hey, we’ve got a lot of guilt.” He understood. He’s Catholic.

  3. Bob,

    Your prayer/fasting/temple example seems out of place on the list. All of the others lead to specific blessings/results, but that one leads to nothing as you have described it. What did you have in mind for those acts of faith and supplication to lead to?

    As for the others, I can’t see any problem with some of them. For instance, it is demonstrably true that abstaining from smoking, drinking, inappropriate drugs, coffee, etc. will allow a person to live a longer and healthier life than if that same person partakes in all of those. Further, who would argue that a ward that consistently does home teaching will not run “better” than one that rarely does it? Isn’t this just common sense?

  4. Last Lemming says:

    The difficulty I see is that these are often interpreted as deterministic laws when, in fact, they are probablistic. You can keep the Word of Wisdom and still die young, it’s just less likely that you will. I have been trying to find ways to render these ideas in probablistic terms without sounding totally wishy-washy. It’s not easy.

  5. Geoff,

    This just in: Coffee is good for you

    yeah yeah, science (esp. nutritional science) is always changing. What doesn’t change is that moderation is always key. Abstaning from alchohol, coffee, etc. won’t result a longer life than someone who has a glass of wine a day and a mug of coffee.

    I think Bob’s post was essentially about thinking that doing A will begat B (where B is not spiritual but temporal). Again, faithful, prayerful people when doing action A can result in a myriad of effects, not just the one ideal “B” that we seem to focus on.

  6. Bob Caswell says:

    Geoff J,
    My prayer/fasting/temple example does seem a little out of place without further clarification. To be congruent with the rest of them up there, it should have read, “When you pray, you receive blessings.” But the truth is that I would have been met with a lot of criticism had I said it like that. Not that I don’t think a person receives blessings when he/she prays or fasts or goes to the temple (even if done in the formulistic pattern I mentioned), my point was more that the Church as I see it is a means to a life of oversimplification.

    When you say, “who would argue that a ward that consistently does home teaching will not run “better” than one that rarely does it?” I have to answer you by explaining that I have been in a branch that has run much “better” with no home teaching than the ward I am in with plenty of it. The branch in question did not have enough priesthood holders to have home teaching. But the lack of home teaching didn’t stop that branch from being run “better.”

    The “common sense” approach you talk of is only common sense when millions of variables in this world are held constant. This is true with any of my examples above, I think.

  7. Nice post, Bob.

    I don’t object to people believing that certain actions will bring certain blessings. What troubles me about things in your list, and others that Mormons associate with, are the spoken and unspoken digs at those who have different results. A friend of mine attended a talk on missionary work by a member of the Seventy. This Seventy (my friend told me who it was, but I’ll refrain here) said that *no* missionary would ever be harmed in the field if they are obedient and doing their job. Those missionaries that are hurt or killed must somehow be disobedient.

    Whether it’s idiocy like this, or simply not thinking through the consequences of saying your prayers are answered, it bothers me. For example, I begrudge no one the faith to believe that their prayers saved a loved one’s life. But when we bear testimony that our prayers made a difference, how are those who have prayed just as hard as we have, but have had different results, supposed to feel?

    I’m not suggestiong no one should be able to bear testimony or share stories about how their faith and prayers did good, I just wish we were more aware of those for whom it didn’t do good, or at least didn’t result in the outcome they’d hoped for. Especially when our answered prayers are about far less important issues (like the time a woman bore her testimony on my mission about praying and not having to buy gasoline on Sunday as a result).

  8. John H,
    I was in the MTC when a guy “escaped,” went climbing, fell, and died. Many of us could not believe that this tragedy was used in a devotional that week to ram home the principle of obedience. Really tasteless.

  9. I used to be a skeptic about divine intervention in our lives and how we might avoid trouble by living commandments. I’m still skeptical of this because I have seen much evidence of the opposite. When we moved to the East Coast from Utah many years ago we moved across the street from another recently moved-in family who were church members and who had children almost the same age and exaclty the same quantity and gender as my children. It made the move more comfortable for my family who missed their extended family a great deal. I thought then that God had a hand in that circumstance and he probably did. But it wasn’t because I was “living the commandments”. Oh I wasn’t living in iniquity but I was definately falling short in many areas.

    However, in the meantime I have come to learn that living the commandments helps us to personally see the world in a different perspective and to recognize blessings when they come to us. We will still experience hardship in our lives (hopefully because they will make us better individuals) but we will see them as a challenge to our strenght rather than as punishment for our behavior.

    We nearly lost a wayward son several years ago and then he turned his life around and came back to us. It was at a time when I had turned my own life around and finally became a committed church member and I learned from that experience that the best way to insure the path of our children is to walk in that same path ourselves. I’m not sure there is much more we can do. I know that nothing is guarenteed in life and that my son, or one of my other children, could lose their way again. But of course I pray every day that they won’t and pray that I can remain steadfast as well. It’s a battle worth fighting.

  10. Well, wickedness never was hapiness. :)

    I think that if everyone in the ward Home taught each other becasue they wanted to, because they really enjoyed the people they home taught and desired to go over and visit, the ward would run alot smoother. It is just tantamount to saying that if we were all perfect the ward would be perfect. It is when the actions themselves are removed from the context of reasons, desires, and belief that such cause/effect clauses become ridiculous.

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    Religion as survival guidebook? I guess…

    There are plenty of things that seem extreme about our beliefs. I have a hard time thinking that someone is ruining his life and chances for salvation by having a cup of coffee in the morning to wake up.

    I also think it’s extreme to lock somebody out of loving whom they want to love (i.e., somebody their same sex). Two can survive better than one, and that means any two.

    I go along with the Church on a normal, daily basis, but I steer clear of extreme beliefs, partly because I’m a compulsive/obsessive type, more prone to take things way too far.

  12. Bob Caswell says:

    “It is when the actions themselves are removed from the context of reasons, desires, and belief that such cause/effect clauses become ridiculous.”

    Nicely said. So what about Mormonism facilitates such behavior, I wonder? And how do we “fix” it?

  13. I think prayer brings specific results. When I try to refrain from asking for things to happen, when I pray from a place of gratitude, turning things over to God, saying, and meaning, “thy will be done” I am more at peace and find that my life goes more smoothly. There are bumps, but I negotiate them better.

    I am lazy about it, though.

  14. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    After my son died, a sister in the ward began telling people that if he were living right, he wouldn’t have died. I wonder if she thought the same thing when her husband had an accident and became brain damaged?

    Too often we forget the often unspoken proviso in all our prayers, offerings, and obedience: *nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt*. If the Lord choses not to give us wealth although we pay our tithes, fine. He knows best.

    Those who say to themselves *if I do A, then I will have B* remind me if the couple in *The Good Earth* who when the crops are good, dress their clay gods well, but when the crops are bad, they spit on the clay gods. Are we doing God’s will because we love Him and wish to be obedient or because we consider Him to be a cosmic vending machine? How far removed is the second attitude from idolatry?

  15. Speaking Up says:

    “If the Lord choses not to give us wealth although we pay our tithes, fine. He knows best.”

    In agrarian societies you could argue that God issued wealth from on high using weather, animal reproduction, etc. In today’s capitalist society if you want to be wealthy, than you need to supply or invest in a needed/wanted service/product/labor to society. There is NO OTHER WAY outside gambling. Tithing will not make you wealthy. It CANNOT make you wealthy.

    Wealth and Tithing are completely unrelated.

  16. You’re right, Bob. That fire insurance joke is just not funny.

  17. Someone once said that the only sin that matters is selfishness. Riffing off of Floyd T. Wonderdog, I would say that if we are obedient because we expect a blessing, we are being selfish. Perhaps not a sin, but not much better.

  18. Bob Caswell says:

    This has been a good discussion with some very good comments. To answer my own question from comment #12, I think the main facilitator of this aspect of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon. We all know the saying that’s repeated at least dozens (maybe hundreds) of times in the BOM, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land; otherwise, I shall crush thee like a tiny ant.” Forgive my direct quote, I don’t have a BOM in front of me. As to how we “fix” it, still not sure…

  19. Ronan in #17: this is an issue for me in teaching my kids to obey the commandments. Why do we obey the commandments? Kids see two options: because it makes us happy, or because God will punish you if you don’t. Is there a third way? Obedience for obedience’s sake is hard to explain to a 6 year old, and pretty much any other explanation falls into the reward or punishment catagories.

  20. Nice post, Bob, I can’t believe I haven’t posted a comment on it yet. I think it could have been titled “Folk Beliefs of Average Mormons.” Folk beliefs aren’t irrational; they are based on seeming confirmation by personal experience, which is why they are so persistent. But it is generally anecdotal experience, not systematic data collection, and it is selective in the sense that most people simply ignore disconfirming or inconvenient facts.

    So if a Mormon has a neighbor who is a smoker and lives to 85, while another neighbor who has lived the WoW his whole life has a heart attack and dies at age 50, does the Mormon change his beliefs about the health effects of the WoW? Likely not, because those beliefs aren’t really based on facts. I think that goes for most religious beliefs. But that doesn’t stop people from citing facts to support their beliefs as if the beliefs follow from the facts. It makes for very confusing conversations on these topics.

  21. Bob Caswell says:

    Thank you, Dave, for pointing out where quite a bit of the confusion arises. The intermingling of beliefs and facts does seem to cause somewhat of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. The trouble is when Mormons say (or imply) the chicken came first in one conversation and then in another turn around and say it was the egg. This seems to be done subconsciously out of convenience; I don’t think it’s on purpose. But that doesn’t change how confusing it is.

    And Claire, I’m no parent, but as my wife and prepare for that, we’re scared to death of the question you ask. I was hoping someone with vast experience would answer your question very wisely so that I wouldn’t have to admit that I didn’t know the answer and was still waiting for another comment explaining your “third way.”

  22. I know of two bishops who went through personal bankruptcy during their tenure as bishop. One was a small businessman who took serious hits, year after year, by not having the extra time to apply to his business demands. At first he thought it was his problem, ie. bad time management skills, not enough delegation, etc. But in retrospect (he’s been released) he feels he simply had to make a choice. Ward or Work. He chose to skew towards the Ward in time spent. Funny, the bishop’s wife has the biggest problem with this. He has come to terms with it, but she is bitter. I think the notion that the Lord “prospers” them that serve him was what she was counting on. Instead, at age 65, they have lost their house, savings and most of their income. He feels he did the right thing and the chips fell where they did. No guarantees.
    As a bystander to this and other financial disasters suffered by good tithe paying Mormons, my notions of prosperity, windows of heaven, and financial self sufficiency have been challenged. These are good self sacrificing people.
    So here is my current stance.
    We pay tithing, not because God needs the money, but because God is trying to do a make-over on his children. He wants us to be givers. He wants to create us in his image, with his attributes. God is a giver. Tithing is giving with training wheels. The wheels come off and we are consecrating, closer to the image of God. This is all about spiritual progression.
    Regardless of the outcome of our financial life, if we’ve tithed for the right reasons, we are made-over in the image of God.
    This notion can also be plugged-in to WoW, temple attendance, prayer, etc.

  23. One way I’ve communicated obedience to my grandchildren is “get hurt” analogy. If I tell them not to touch a hot stove and they disobey, they get hurt. I don’t punish them, it happens because they’ve disregarded my advice. Same with running stop signs or running out in the road.

    I think most of the commandments are for the same reason.

  24. joeshays — Another common “folk belief” or cause and effect type myth that is often told to family members when a bishop (or probably other leader) serves and sacrifices for the church is that the Lord will make up for the difference in their family life. I’m not convinced that this is true, or at least it certainly doesn’t seem to always happen the way we think it will in our human imaginations.

  25. To Lamonte, comment no. 9: Even if it were possible to ensure the path of our children, is that a desirable thing? The best of humankind seems to have little more than the foggiest notion of where this thing is going. Do we fear that our children will find something better than the scraps we’ve left them?

  26. annegb —
    This stuff is real and sometimes very sad. An aquaintance served as a mission president in Europe and left the extremely successful family business to be run by a hand-picked board of trusted family members. He returned to find the business in disarray, bankrupt and family infighting destroying the business. Long story short, he lost everything. Three years of service to the Lord and now not only a collapse of an empire, no one is talking to each other within the family.
    It has been three years and the Lord has not made up the difference. The guy has to start from scratch. BUT…
    He is not bitter towards the Lord. His attitude? It wasn’t my money in the first place.
    I can’t honestly say that I would be in such a place so soon, spiritually. Hope I don’t have to find out.