Considering the Lilies

I was looking for someone’s name in one of my old journals and starting skimming; I came across this entry:

Feb. 7 1997

Last night was stake priesthood. A farce. First talk starts with ten virgins and prodigal son and uses them to say we should be careful with our resources. Is that what Christ meant? Hmm. Then talked about 401Ks and mortgages and whatnot. Very practical I guess. Next was the importance of appearances. White shirts! Get your haircut! No references to scripture. Then came how Christlike attributes will make you more successful in your career, and some advice on career planning for boys. Apparently Monson doesn’t care for basket weaving [1]. Last was an appeal for more fast offerings. No problem, but not spiritual. I can’t believe I dragged [named some YM] there. Like a bad joke by Mencken [2], or from a Sinclair Lewis novel. These are not my people [3]. Weren’t we supposed to consider the lilies?

[1] I think this obscure statement was responding to an anecdote about President Monson, but I don’t recall.
[2] H.L. Mencken: ‘Perhaps the most revolting character that the United States ever produced was the Christian businessman.’
[3] This is a phrase that runs throughout my journals when talking about the church. It’s from a Joe South song.

Now obviously this was an unusually bad meeting, even by stake priesthood meeting standards. But I think there are elements of this in many meetings. We are a practical church. I was struck by how much of General Conference Priesthood Session was taken up by very practical matters: getting a job, staying out of debt, etc. I’m not against these things: we do stay out of debt, and I went and bought ten kilos of rice last week.

Yet there are the lilies of the field:

28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matt. 6:28-29; Luke 12: 27; 3 Ne. 13: 28; D&C 84: 82)

One of the common responses to this is that it is meant for the apostles, so don’t worry about it. But we apply the things meant for specific people all the time. (‘Elder Holland: To shift the emphasis a little for broader purposes here, let’s substitute the word called for ordained. Ordained would be priesthood language, and we are going to talk about the general call to teach.’) As John Taylor says, ‘We, of course, must take this as being specifically addressed to his disciples under the circumstances in which they were then placed; the principle involved in his words is nevertheless true.’

So what is the principle? I’ve always read this as saying, Don’t worry about the physical details: focus on the spiritual and all will be well. It repudiates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggesting that we become self-actualized in our relationship with God first and the physiological need will be met (v. 33: But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you). There are scads of scriptures that support that sentiment. But it seems that recently the only thing we consider about the lilies is that the pioneers found them edible.

So. Consider the lilies of the field.

And when did the church become so provident practical?


  1. To see if the lilies had been considered and I had just missed it, I looked the scripture up on the Scriptural Index to the Latter-day Prophets. There were fourteen references to verse 28 alone or in combination with other verses. Nine of those were from the Journal of Discourses, and I was looking for more recent musings. Of the other five, only two deal with the principle involved. Here they are:

    David O. McKay, Conference Report, October 1956, pp. 88-91

    I like that parable Jesus gave when he said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

    “And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt. 6:28-29).

    “Consider the lilies, how they grow,” with their roots down in the ground seeking for sustenance, and all that sustenance and vitality going up through the stem for one purpose, until that flower blossoms in the sunshine in fulfillment of its life, receiving the glory of the sunshine, and the completion of pistol and stamens.

    So we, with our tentacles in the earth, our hands, our brains, which God has given us physically, seek life and sustenance in subduing matter. Why? That we might realize the ideal, that our souls too may blossom in the sunshine of God’s Holy Spirit, “that thy Spirit may be always with us.’

    Mark E. Petersen, “Blessings in Self-Reliance,” Ensign, May 1981, 61

    They teach us a great lesson in self-reliance. It is a lesson that is applicable to human beings as well as to the creatures of nature.

    Then will God also help us in our times of stress? Of course He will! Did He not say, “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:28) and “behold the fowls of the air: … Are ye not much better than they?” (Matt. 6:26.)

    Of course He will help us. But there is an important if involved—if we keep His commandments.

  2. The church tried the “without purse or scrip” thing once. Mixed results.

  3. Norbert, the inconsistency seems to be borne out in the scriptures themselves. That is, how do you personally reconcile Jesus’ saying about the lilies of the field with the curse of Adam and Eve; namely, that by the sweat of their brow they should toil for their sustenance all the days of their lives.

    Despite the severity of this reality, other examples in the scriptures bear out the exact principle of the lilies of the field; i.e. where those keeping the commandments are provided for so that they survive hardship or famine. The avoidance of toil, however, was never involved, it seems to me. Thus, it is truly mysterious what Jesus meant by this saying, unless he meant more generally that we should not be concerned with accumulating wealth.

  4. Norbert,

    I shared a similar reaction to the most recent general conference. For whatever reason (probably my own internal stuff), one of the strongest impressions I came away with was the distinction between addresses that focused on the Church and addresses that focused on living the gospel. To my (issue-attuned) ear, there were many, many more talks focused on the Church than on the gospel.

    I’m among the first people to agree that the Church is tremendously important, but it is important as a vehicle for getting me into a situation where the gospel can change my soul. Talks that focus on the Church (“the Church is true because of X, Y, and Z”; other churches are not true because of A, B, and C”; “you should pay more fast offerings/tithing to the Church”; “you should accept callings from the Church”; “you should do your home teaching”; “my, isn’t the refurbished Tabernacle amazing”; “I’ve given 2,345 talks from this pulpit”; etc.) are the sorts of things that I suppose are inevitably going to come from the people who are charged with administering the affairs of the Church. It’s what they’re focused on.

    There were some talks that focused on the gospel — Elder Faust’s Sunday sermon was noteable in this regard. But I readily admit that there were far fewer than I’d like to have heard.

    I’m reminded of guys I grew up with who spent a lot of their time working on their cars. They liked talking about carburetors and master cylinders and the like, and talked less about where the car could take them.

  5. Ronan, The Boston Mission back in the early part of the century tried going with out purse or scrip. Bonner Ritchie and, I believe, Lester Bush are both veterans of that mission.

    I guess, we could also ask why we don’t live the law of consecration either. There are pious activities that are beyond us, for now.

  6. Norbert, this criticism was levelled at Smithian Mormons in the 1840s by two separate observers, an Anglican and a Methodist (Caswell and Kidder, both 1842). They groused that it could be no religion that encouraged secular business during sermons, and Kidder even accused Mormons of violating the Sabbath by engaging in such behavior. It’s been with us for a long time. (Not that I love it, but it’s been with us a while.)

  7. Yeah Stapley, I put “consider the lillies,” and “without purse or scrip” in the same category as “be ye therefore perfect.” It’s something we’re aiming for. We’re not there yet.

    Either that or they’re in the same category as “blessed are the cheesemakers.” You know, “not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

  8. I think one of the lessons of consider the lillies is that we have been given so much, regardless of our station in life, or what difficulties we may be beset with. Could not the Savior be hinting we should count our blessings? So many of the best things in life are free, like, say, the lillies of the field.

    I like the DOM analogy you gave as well. We are building ourselves into something better, if we put our roots down in good soil, we can’t help but bloom and grow into something magnificent. It is a picture of the miracle of God’s grace.

    It seems to me that the scripture has much deeper meaning than stating we need to take a vow or poverty or stop planning for the future because it is faithless to do so.

  9. a random John says:

    Honestly, if PH and RS were devoted entirely to sound financial planning specifics once every year or two (combined 5th Sunday lesson perhaps) would that be the worst thing ever? I see a lot of people living beyond their means without any savings. The specifics of saving providing for your family is a relevant topic for many wards. When I was EQP we had a Saturday meeting on this topic once. It was well attended and very interesting. A lot of people learned some basic stuff and made major changes.

  10. I’ve always thought the “why take ye thought for raiment” part meant “why are you worried about this?” or more specifically, “Don’t use worldy concerns as an excuse to not be about the work you’ve been called to do.” Many times we may have an attitude of “I’ll do what the Lord asks, as soon as I take care of ____.”

    But this teaching, when viewed in isolation, can give a distorted view of our duty, as can any other verse of scripture if we focus on it and ignore all other counsel, as John F. said in #3. Should I give every extra dollar away to the poor and needy? (King Benjamin) Or save it so I can be self-sufficient? In SWK’s more recent biography, his son asked him about that and he said he didn’t know the answer, that he always tried to read really fast when he got to that part. That makes me feel more comfortable when I have a hard time figuring it out.

    As to the temporal, practical teachings from the pulpit, I imagine that the Brethren wish they didn’t have to talk about it. BKP said if we understand the gospel, we wouldn’t need to ask the church’s position on things. We would just know the right behavior. But the number of members with excessive credit card debt probably means we need more direct, explicit teaching.

  11. Not only does Elder Monson hate basket weaving but he’s none too excited about corporate dinners.

    Back when G.A’s could still make oodles of money sitting on corporate boards, I had an opportunity to attend a corporate Christmas party and the good fortune to be seated at a table next to Elder Monson. After a few bites of dinner, he excused himself to attend the second party of his evening (poor man), and I was close enough to hear him say, “I hate dining on the corporate chicken circuit”.

    I’ve forgotten everything he’s ever said in conference but I’ll always remember that line and raise a toast of sparkling cider to Elder Monson.

  12. I love the practical lessons, along with the spiritual. These things are really helpful to me. People don’t just know how to have loving families, or how to live within their means. We have to be taught. I think perhaps especially for converts like me, the practical how-to lessons of provident living, family life, dealing with non-member families, or whatever it may be, are extremely useful. I think of all of these things as part of becoming a latter day saint.

  13. Norbert, I hope it’s OK to say this. Don’t be a hater.

  14. Not to get all Opus Dei-y on you, but isn’t the practical spiritual? Couldn’t those talks in your Priesthood leadership meeting have flowed from a Stake Presidencies prayer to determine appropriate topics for instruction in that meeting?

    I think we sell ourselves short when we determine that Priesthood instruction just “doesn’t apply” because some scripture somewhere tells us to take a moment to consider the lilies. Important? Yes. All encompassing? I think the provident living pamphlets would say no.