I the Lord Am Bound

I recently attended sacrament meeting in the Mormon settlements[1], where a passionate orator discussed the power, through covenants, that we have to bind the Lord. I have been sheltered from this doctrine for several years, but when he held up his hands bound like a prisoner’s to demonstrate how we bind God, I instantly recognized a longstanding tradition in both official and folk Mormonism. While my response to this doctrine, other than several miserable months on a mission in the American South, has generally been one of revulsion, my understanding of the historical contexts of this tradition have matured substantially since I last encountered it on my mission in the early 1990s.

The view that humans can command God is one that is most traditionally associated with magic. Douglas Davies has rather graciously referred to this Mormon tradition as “manipulationist,” by which he means that some LDS believe that they can gain control over God by token of an idiosyncratic reading of “covenants.” For a Christian tradition which defines God axiomatically as incontingent, such a view is a serious heresy.[2] Such a view even strikes many Latter-day Saints as heresy–my mother quotably rejected this teaching with a phrase I have treasured for almost 20 years–“God is not a vending machine.”[3]

Today I want to reflect on what I believe is a more persuasive and spiritually powerful reading of the binding of God, even as I confess that the manipulationist view has roots in the Mormonism of Joseph Smith[4]

Joseph Smith thought a great deal about the meaning of the word “bind.” Almost invariably he used the term to describe an indissoluble union, a relationship impervious to the vagaries of mortality. In 1844, during an influential sermon on Elijah, Smith announced that the KJV had got the end of Malachi wrong: “turn” in that scripture would be better rendered “bind or seal.”. This was the patriarchal priesthood intimately associated with the immortal prophet Elijah, and it was the sacred power by which a welding link would be forged to bind together all the generations of humankind. As Joseph Smith worked out the meaning of the Restoration and the temple through the early 1840s, he often returned to the question of binding, most often as a description of permanent relationships.

The early Saints and their leaders sought and identified various avenues to secure such bound relationships with God and each other, from baptism for the dead to the Order of Zion, from patriarchal blessings and their associated priesthood to the topical administration of cleansing liquids and olive oil, from celestial marriage to the Law of Adoption, from missionary and congregational covenants to the “new and everlasting covenant.” In each of these ritual and symbolic systems the Saints struggled to hope that they could continue to love each other, to belong to each other and to God forever.

With Jonathan Stapley, I have been exploring the framework of adoption for a pair of essays we hope will become the standard account of this complex of beliefs and rituals.[5] Fundamental to this complex of beliefs is the glorious proclamation of Romans 8:14-17:

as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

When I think about binding God, this is the image that fills my soul with light. That God has adopted me, that he will claim me–bedraggled, bemused, bedeviled me–as his son, that he will allow our relationship to be the tender and overwhelming and often ineffable relation of parent to child. This to me is the great promise and reassurance of the possibility that God is willing to be bound to us.

Of course this is not the scripture that LDS who hold to the manipulationist tradition adduce in support of their belief. The scripture most often used to push the binding of parent and child into manipulationism is D&C 82:10, an 1832 revelation relevant to the building of the Missouri Zion.

I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.

This proof-texted verse does the lion’s share of the work for the manipulationist view. A little work to contextualize this scripture, though, secures a dramatically less manipulationist reading. The verse prior to the proof-text makes clear what was intended.

I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to you for your salvation.

What Joseph Smith appears to have been communicating was that God would save his children, that as the early believers participated in the church covenant, they entered God’s family. Abandoning God’s family would imperil salvation. While this is far from Calvinist orthodoxy, this contextual Arminianism is a far cry from the manipulationist view.

While the verse preceding the proof-text situates God’s binding as the promise of salvation (and only salvation) to God’s family, the verse following emphasizes the sense of binding as relationship. According to the requirement of the revelation, several participants in the early Zion experience in Missouri were

to be bound together by a bond and covenant that cannot be broken

The human covenant seems here to be a reflex of the divine covenant, and in this context, “a bond and a covenant” refers to mutual commitment, to the establishment of a durable relationship.

In my times of yearning and struggle, when I most hunger for God’s presence, it is the promise of a “bond and covenant that cannot be broken” that buoys me up. It is not the promise of blessings, the prospect that if I insert my dollar bill God will dispense a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, the belief that I will command God by mere token of my accomplishment of certain basic behavioral tasks. It is the knowledge that God’s spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God, that he has blessed me with the spirit of adoption that helps me believe that there could be a place for me in heaven, that I could be bound to God and those I love and hope to love.

1 I use the term to describe the highly Mormon areas of the Wasatch Front–basically Davis County, the Jordan areas, and Utah County.
2 It’s in his Culture of Salvation. I don’t have time for scholarly references today, particularly as I’m writing most of this on my handheld during the Primary program at church.
3 Personal communication to the author, 7 August 1990.
4 In my personal devotions and my scholarship, I believe/argue that Smith was using a Calvinist caricature as a strawman in some of his crucial sermons.
5 People have been asking when we will be done, and I confess that I’m slowing things down by being overcommitted. We’d like to be done with both essays by early 2010. Note that Kathleen Flake is working on a
parallel project on sacred kinship–all three of us are on a proposed panel for MHA 2010.


  1. Jake Abbas says:

    Lurker here…

    Agreed – that reading of “binding” God, frequently used on my mission by the zone leaders, et al., frustrated me to no end. The idea that we could command God, especially when we invent the covenant that we supposedly make with Him, rang hollow and blasphemous to me.

    I prefer, by far, my interpretation of D&C 82:10 as written here:

    “I, the Lord, [will uphold my end of my covenant with you] when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”

  2. I think this is probably more or less how most reflective Mormons that I know see this scripture.

    There are, of course, other sources that seem to fit with the manipulationist perspective, such as Helaman 10:5-10, in which the blessing resulting from unswerving obedience and submission to God’s will is unlimited power to ask anything and God will do it.

  3. Hit submit too soon — add to the above that this just supports the First Folk Theorem of Mormon Scriptures: everything and its opposite is to be found somewhere in our standard works.

  4. #1 the missionary applications are often the most stunningly blasphemous.

    #2 antinomianism is another interesting topic, and as I confessed there is clear manipulationism in early Mormonism. it’s just funkier than this binding the Lord stuff.

    #3 i like your theorem.

  5. Whatever, Sam. Next thing you’re going to tell me is that God doesn’t want me to be rich.

  6. I have heard it spoken from the pulpit, more than once, that the way to get a raise, or at least to earn the amount one needs, is to pay tithing in advance on the amount one needs. That is actually a pretty good investment–for a dollar invested I get $9 in return. I am thinking of starting a hedge fund.

  7. That is, I do what God says because I want to bind him into making me a millionaire. Or at least rich. Because that’s the implicit truth implied by D&C 82:10.

  8. DavidH,
    And think about what you could make if you levered up—instead of paying one dollar of tithing, borrow two, pay three, and you’ll get a return of $29 less interest!

  9. Sam, just to be clear, my comment #2 wasn’t intended as disagreement, but rather as amplification on your point that other texts do seem to contain magical/manipulationist ideas. I also definitely agree that they’re funkier than the self-help kind of nonsense that gets made out of binding the Lord. The Helaman text is sort of terrifying, whereas Grant Von Harrison really just reads like The Secret.

  10. Sam B, that’s barely leveraged at all. Make like Bear Sterns and leverage your assets by, say, a factor of 100:1 (during the middle of quarters). Your $1 can now earn a return of $1000 minus interest. Plus if your investment turns out badly, you can get TARP money.

  11. JNS,
    I like that. TARP may not even be necessary, though—if you get the financing non-recourse and it doesn’t go so well, you’re only out $1 plus a hit to your credit rating.

  12. Once upon a time there was a beer-drinking inactive father of an almost eight year old girl preparing for baptism. The EQP suggested to the dad that he could control the upcoming situation and baptise his daughter simply by quiting the beer. That’s what happened and they have lived happily ever after.

  13. “I, the Lord, am bound (to you) . . .”

    That’s also how I read it, Sam. I hate (truly loathe) the image of a trussed up God, but I love the image of having an unbreakable relationship with him. Likewise, the imagery of hearts “knit together” is beautiful.

  14. Great post. This binding talk was rampant in my mission and did me a lot of harm. When you bind the Lord by act x, and He doesn’t come through, the only thing that can be wrong is you didn’t perform act x, with enough righteousness, sincerity, exactness, faith, or whatever, and you begin to try and refine act x and it sets up a self defeating sense of inadequacy that you just cannot get it right. During my mission I was crippled by these kinds of doubts that produced nothing but guilt and self-loathing. How much harm is caused by this kind of nonsense I cannot imagine. Away with it I say. Thanks for bringing this to light.

  15. Regarding the prevalence of these ideas among missionaries: I remember too well when my mission was into making up and then making covenants with the Lord. I especially remember how devastated I was when my companion and I failed to attain all of our figurative gold stars for the day, thereby breaking our covenant. For a while there I thought I was damned. True story.

  16. Thanks for this post.

    The hedge fund comment had me chuckling….

  17. I don’t know Sam. Considering that “In as much as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” is the most repeated line in the Book of Mormon and the fact that what you (and many Calvinists types) call manipulation is fundamental to almost all systems of religiosity worldwide, “blasphemy” seems a little strong. I agree with the religiosity you propose, but it seems to me that God uses such “materialism” (as I would call it) to start people on the path and then leads people to higher motivations. Just like Iamblichus said (who Porphyry accused of being a manipulist–a little late pagan name dropping just for fun).

  18. Steve F, I’m not aware of any instance in the BofM where that promise was directed to an individual. It is directed always to a people – a people that included the righteous poor (non-prosperous) even during times of great prosperity. That last aspect (the existence of individual poverty even during prosperity) gets overlooked nearly always in these discussions, but I believe it is critical to understanding the principle this post addresses and the promise you cite.

    There is only a conflict, imo, if the promise of material prosperity is mis-applied to individuals – which happens FAR too often in the Church, unfortunately.

  19. I think you bring up some very valid points for all LDS to remember. I’m not sure that most Mormons (at least the ones I know in Washington) feel they can bind the Lord in a manipulationist sense, but you do a very good job of clarifying what the scripture means in context.

    God can give us or not give us what He feels like giving us. If we keep the commandments with the expectation that He’s bound to bless us and if we don’t get blessed in the way we want to, we’re going to be very dissapointed in God, rather than grateful.

  20. Bostonian Saint says:

    I was always under the impression that regarding D. & C. 82:10, et al, that our side of the covenant/contract was that we were to also fully live all Gospel laws in addition to the particular one which is supposed to render the desired blessing. After all, was not this the original intention of building Zion, that it was to be built and inhabited by Saints of the same calibre as those ancient inhabitants of the City of Enoch? Personally, I found that an incredibly tall order to fill on the American frontier of the 1830’s.
    In restoring the Church, I believe that there were times when Joseph was ‘flying by the seat of his pants’. He felt that he understood the principles being revealed to him but subsequent events proved that on occasion he missed the mark a bit. The Lord then prompted him to make the necessary corrections and once done the Work proceeded apace.
    Our Father in Heaven and the Savior could have made it much, much easier if the sealed portion of the plates were unsealed, translated and found to be step by step instructions for the Restoration of the Church down to the finest minutae. The Prophet Joseph would have only had to follow the scripted schedule of a supremely choreographed Restoration agenda. (Oddly enough, many investigators I taught thought that this was how the Gospel and Church should have been restored, rather than what actually happened as a result of placing frail, imperfect human beings in charge of a Divine Work.) But I believe They preferred to let Joseph develop his spiritual abilities in consulting, understanding, and following the ‘still small Voice’ of the Holy Spirit.
    Our challenge is exactly the same for us to become a Zion people who are worthy to stand at the day of the Savior’s return. We must also develop such an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit so that we inherently know, (i.e. receive clear and unmistakable confirmation), when we have reasoned rightly in making our life’s temporal and spiritual decisions. Concurrent with this we also should have mastered living the Fulness of the Gospel so that we are worthy to share that high level of intimacy with the Holy Spirit. I find myself, even at this late stage in my life, still ‘seeing through a glass darkly’, and I fear that I will depart this life and enter into the eternities qualified only for a VERY extensive course in remedial spirituality.

  21. While you do mention the inter-mountain Mormon settlements, I believe the manipulationist theory is pretty much standard doctrine throughout the church.

    At times, I have approached this passage of scripture as being a form of “divine hyperbole”. But, I find little in Mormon theology to support such an approach.

    While I do not want to de-rail this thread, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the common LDS pulpit usage of the related scripture found in DC 130:20-21 – that “any blessing” is predicated on obedience to a specific law. Our stake presidency has repeatedly preached that if we want blessings, we must go and obey the law upon which that blessing is predicated… here is the ultimate manipulationist doctrine. My own life experiences do not suggest such a tight one-to-one relationship. [Rather than comment on this citation, would someone please start a new thread?]


  22. Ray No. 18. And most frequently in respect to financial or material favors involving tithing. While I can see a dollar-sign in the giving, I have looked in vain for a dollar-sign in the windows of heaven.

    Is the term “windows of heaven” an ancient metaphor for prosperity or material well being? [Better asked in a new thread… sorry…]


  23. Manipulation is trying to get someone to do something that they ordinarily would not be inclined to do. I don’t see too many of the views described here legitimately termed “manipulationist”.

    What we really have here is naivete about the timing and manner of heavenly blessings, and divine economy to boot, credulous beliefs with relatively little support in scripture.

    It is like “God wants to give me every possible blessing, he doesn’t want to spoil me, so he is just looking for a good excuse – if I give him one presto, no more worries for me”.

  24. What I have understood the scripture to mean is that “I the Lord am bound [to do as I have promised] when you do what I say”. This fits with other teachings of Joseph Smith that God is limited in certain ways: principally by his own nature, or integrity, and commitments, if you will. The “all power” described in the scriptures is not the same thing as the omnipotence of the philosophers.

    The scripture decidedly does not mean “I am bound [to do what you want] when you do what I say”. There may be a huge gap between what we want and what the Lord has promised. There may even be a large gap between what the Lord actually promised, and what we thought or understood him to promise. And there’s always the matter of timing.

    One thing I learned in my own spiritual struggles was that if I wanted to be a scriptural rules lawyer to try to manipulate God, He was so much a better one that I was completely outclassed. I would lose a contest, every time. My obedience was never good enough…never could be enough…to prevail in any adversarial situation. That lesson did not go down easily.

  25. “Manipulation is trying to get someone to do something that they ordinarily would not be inclined to do.”

    All of God’s laws serve exactly this purpose. Are they manipulation too? Perhaps the definition of manipulation, or else the value judgment attached to it, needs to be refined a little.

  26. Sam, I think your thoughts on this are simply beautiful.

  27. #24

    “My obedience was never good enough…never could be enough…to prevail in any adversarial situation.”

    Did your father never let you beat him at basketball, even though he was twice your height? Often, in the Old Testament, man is shown to prevail arguing with God (Noah securing guarantee of no more floods, Jacob wrestling the Angel, Lot haggling with God).

    Perhaps God was eager to be so “manipulated” and just wanted to encourage man to seek justice and learn the value of a promise made.

  28. Thanks, smb.

  29. Incidentally, the -ist is important here. Davies is using manipulation_ist_ in an academic sense of “humans able to direct the higher powers.” He’s using it instead of “magic,” which has a long and checkered past and many LDS would find insulting.

    Fleming, there’s a rich and complex set of narratives relative to Providence that I think are relevant to notions of prosperity, as well as the idea that the covenant people of God tend to do well as a people (or tend to want to do well). And I’m agreeing that manipulationism is present in LDS and many other religions. The question is whether it’s a folk tradition that we ought to work to eliminate or is a glorious doctrine we ought to embrace (or something in between).

    Although I’m aware that the tradition circulates in various pockets of Mormonism, I haven’t been assaulted by it outside the settlements in many years.

  30. ohhh, I love it–both what you’ve said and how you’ve said it.

    That God has adopted me, that he will claim me–bedraggled, bemused, bedeviled me–as his son, that he will allow our relationship to be the tender and overwhelming and often ineffable relation of parent to child. This to me is the great promise and reassurance of the possibility that God is willing to be bound to us.

    This is particularly gorgeous prose, Sam, as is the last paragraph.

  31. “Manipulationist doctrine.” Never heard the term before, but how apt. I grew up on a soft version of this doctrine, and that, combined with the idea that since miracles haven’t ceased, we should pray for them and expect them to happen, has led to some major disappointments. I think I’ve finally realized that wanting something really badly isn’t the same thing as having faith, but it’s taken some heartbreak to get me there.

    I wrote about one of those disappointments here:

  32. “Manipulation is trying to get someone to do something that they ordinarily would not be inclined to do.”

    Kind of like parenting or educating or inspiring or motivating **or repenting** . . . I can embrace manipulation of myself and others in mortality completely if that’s the definition being used.

    The problem arises when talking about God, or when manipulation means controlling someone against their will or without their full understanding and assent – tying them up with ropes and moving them about or using them like a puppet on strings.

    I don’t believe we can manipulate God in either of these ways, but I think we must strive to manipulate ourselves and others in the way Mark defines it.

  33. The heart of this post is something with which I have struggled in the past. At its heart, religion is reduced to a simple formula: follow God’s will = blessings, don’t follow God’s will = damnation / turned over to evil. This follows what we see in the natural world when consequences follow actions. This scripture is usually interpreted with this same meaning in mind to the “next level” – ie. not only does following God’s will lead to blessings, but God is BOUND to give you those blessings.

    However, this ultimately leads to disappointment. Inevitably, things aren’t as clear cut. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. There often doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason to what happens. Some of the absolutely worst periods of my life have been when I have been the most active and most involved.

    So, I like the idea of reinterpreting this scripture to something that is actually useful and not just a source of discouragement.

  34. psychochemiker says:

    Ray #18.
    I really appreciate you sharing this insight. It was a turning point for me when I recognized how my preconceived thoughts that I bring TO this text affects how I interpret the text. I wrote about it here.

    Sam MB, @the Topic,
    I wrote a similar post here, and include an excerpt of what I wrote:

    Therefore, I’m left recognizing the assumption that God treats everyone as if they had the same gain, is a false assumption. God apparently blesses some people for some levels of obedience, and withholds blessings from others for the SAME levels of obedience. In fact, for the same person, the gain may change at different points in their life. But we mortals have no way of knowing WHY the gain changes. We can’t tell if the gain goes down because God’s testing us, or because we aren’t being obedient enough. We have no way of knowing if the gain of others is higher because they’re less experienced, or more obedient. The problem is, trying to figure it out leads, in the end, to depression.

    I accept and support the doctrinal teaching that obedience brings blessings. But please don’t try and quantify it. Please don’t tell me “If I want something bad enough God will give it to me.” Please don’t say, “If you were just more obedient, you’d get what you want.” Please don’t say, “We should just bargain with God, and bind Him with our obedience.”

  35. Beautiful. This is an excellent post. Period.

    Some of my favorite lines:

    “When I think about binding God, this is the image that fills my soul with light. That God has adopted me, that he will claim me–bedraggled, bemused, bedeviled me–as his son, that he will allow our relationship to be the tender and overwhelming and often ineffable relation of parent to child. This to me is the great promise and reassurance of the possibility that God is willing to be bound to us.”

    “God is not a vending machine”

    “In my times of yearning and struggle, when I most hunger for God’s presence, it is the promise of a “bond and covenant that cannot be broken” that buoys me up.”

    Those are going to be some wonderful essays…

  36. “Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee”

  37. I remember many of these manipulative zone meetings while on a mission. In one in particular, I knew we were working pretty hard, teaching plenty, had some follow-up discussions scheduled, but I didn’t feel comfortable setting a “goal” of eight baptisms for our companionship when we hadn’t had one in two months. After about an hour of high-pressure sales tactics and prooftexting, I finally said I wasn’t about to “covenant” with somebody else’s agency on the line. I explained that it was our job to teach, preach, and invite people to come to Christ. It wasn’t up to us to “force” them to do so.

    As a result, I got a good butt-chewing from the Mission President, and never served in any kind of leadership capacity. Which was fine. I’d been in the building during one of their “leadership conferences” and heard the DLs and ZLs bearing testimony about how they were the elect of the mission, called to show the rest of us how to behave and work. I knew some of those DLs and ZLs as the same guys who called girlfriends for their birthdays, who got too close to Laurels in their areas, and who weren’t all that different than any other hormonal, idiot, called by the same Prophet as the rest of us, inexperienced boys.

    The easiest place to see this “doctrine” being used is on Sunday morning televangelist shows. “God will make you rich, if you first make yourself poor by sending me a check you can’t cover.” This is a heresy equal to “Lord, let me prove that winning the lotto won’t spoil me.”

  38. StillConfused says:

    The people I know who rely on this most are the ones who are complying with the covenants in name only but have the hearts of demons.

  39. “Manipulation is trying to get someone to do something that they ordinarily would not be inclined to do”

    I agree this definition isn’t complete. Add “in an unethical manner” if you want a catch all for the things that need to be added to fill this out. However, I think it is complete enough for the purpose at hand.

    None of these folks (that I can tell) think that they are trying to trick God into granting blessings that he would not grant otherwise. They are simply naive about the timing and manner of divine blessings. Putting words into his mouth, in many cases.

  40. My paraphrase of the ubiquitous D&C 82:10 is as follows:

    “I the Lord am bound when . . . wait, wait, wait a minute, folks. There are thousands and thousands of other scriptures in the canon. Why should you elevate this one little verse above almost everything else in the scriptures? I am God and I provided a Savior for you to return to me. Quit making up weird new doctrines about binding me. And now back to your regular D&C reading.”

    At least that’s how I wish D&C 82:10 would read. [sigh]

  41. The idea of God being bound if we are just righteous enough took my sons away from the church. They couldn’t handle the idea that if things weren’t working out for them it was because they weren’t righteous enough–especially when they saw others with faults receiving blessings.

    They joined a Calvinist denomination because the the blessings promised in Romans 8:14-16 gave them hope that they were among the elect.

  42. Sam, this is a nice, thoughtful post, and it explains the doctrine very well. Thank you.

  43. I compared this post’s interpretation of D&C 82:10 to the exegesis/eisegesis/prooftexting of D&C 82:10 by various church leaders (scriptures.byu.edu) during the last 150 years. One man’s heresy is another man’s sound doctrine?

    An excerpt from a 20th-century General Conference address:

    “There is a set of what someone has called ‘promissory notes’ in the Bible. Every commandment has a blessing attached for faithful performance. But the Lord has said, ‘I, the Lord am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise’ ( D&C 82:10). He said, ‘I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing’ ( D&C 58:32). That means that all blessings do not apply to us individually. Only those laws apply to us that we actually live; for example, the Lord said through Malachi, ‘Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse . . .’ then he promised, ‘and prove me now herewith . . . if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it’ ( Mal. 3:10). But that does not apply to us, unless we pay our tithing.

    Suppose that we tear out of the Bible those portions which do not apply to us personally. That is, if we do not keep the Sabbath day holy, or if we fail to observe the laws of honesty, chastity, temperance, repentance, and baptism; then we had better tear those parts out of the scripture, so we will not deceive ourselves unnecessarily by imagining that they apply to us. It would be interesting for each of us to find out just how big our own particular version of the Bible would be under these circumstances. Someone was once asked whether or not he was a Christian and he said he was, in spots. I suppose that it is better to be a Christian in spots than not to be a Christian at all. But we ought to keep in mind that when our Christianity comes in spots, then our blessings will come in spots also.

    So far as I know, the most thrilling, exciting idea there is in the world is that if we choose, we may live every single one of these great commandments of God, and thereby we may make ourselves payees on every one of these scriptural promissory notes.”

  44. #43: these doctrines are difficult to maintain without periodic infusions of credibility from over the pulpit. Whether such periodic infusions require that we continue to emphasize the fully manipulationist view is the open question that I have tried to address in this post.

    And I’m sympathetic to concerns about becoming too Calvinist as well (even though I have great respect for Jean Calvin and the Reformed traditions). Joseph Smith clearly understood the Restoration to be a sustained and robust rejection of Calvinist orthodoxy, and Mormonism is more than a Protestant denomination. On this particular issue, since the adoption model is more prominent in our earliest history, despite the ongoing presence of the manipulationist model, I feel confident pushing the dial back toward adoption and away from manipulationism.

  45. Single Friend says:

    (off topic)

    Sheesh. You guys really ought to warn your readers about some of your links — that “What Is It With Mormon Men” in your headlines is so foul that it burned my eyeballs. Thanks heaps.

  46. Wonderful post. Where should I send the residual checks for the many, many times I will be using the phrase “God is not a vending machine.”

    I too had awful encounters with this doctrine in the mission field. It seemed to me like yet another jockish, used-car-salesman wresting of scripture. An attempt to impose a false Newtonian, causal order on the quantum world of people’s spiritual experiences and the exercise of their agency.

    It also expressed a distasteful hubris: we’re in control, not God. God himself doesn’t even make such a claim of infringement upon the agency of his children.

    Thankfully, when my mission president heard about “Bind the Lord” posters hanging on refrigerator doors, he reproved us betimes with sharpness.

  47. On my mission we had explicit instructions that the missionaries were not to atttempt to bind God to a covenant. The MP further emphasized that only God can offer a covenant to his people.

  48. Wow, did all of us who served missions during a particular era (early 90s?) encounter the same bind-the-Lord-in-a-covenant-of-your-own-making space doctrine? I was so glad I was nearly done before it really hit my mission. It certainly sounds as if it was alarmingly pervasive.

  49. Eve, I think the Grant Von Harrison book was key. It was published in 1979, I think, so I wonder if perhaps these ideas were in circulation through the 1980s — or did it take some time to reach the mission president audience?

  50. If we can’t depend on the integrity of God to keep his promises, what sort of religion are we involved in? While I agree the “adoption” analogy is a good one to use here, I do think there is a bit more to D&C 82:10 than we are letting on in this discussion.

    Perhaps it is because I never served a mission that I missed out on the kind of distasteful examples some have referenced here. I will admit that I run across this kind of thinking in meetings with ward mission leaders and stake leaders heavily invested in member missionary work.

    But don’t we all have a longing for a sense of security that comes from a sincere form of obedience based in humility that says “I will maintain my faith through adversity in anticipation of the blessings in the eternity that I aspire to”?

    When I served as a bishop, I often counseled during tithing settlement using Malachi as a text, and warning people that the promised blessings didn’t always come in the form of a check in mail, or unanticipated prosperity, but did lean heavily on the next verse, far less often quote, which says “… and I will rebuke the Devourer for your sake…”. That is not a bad thing to hope for.

    Blessings do not follow immediately on obedient acts, just as curses or misfortune does not follow hard on the heels of disobedience. The essence of faith is that we don’t have unambiguous road signs giving certain direction on the road to exaltation and eternal life. I have also often felt that one of the signs of the true church is that we have to deal with difficulties and adversity, that personal righteousness is not a “get out of jail free” card. However, having faith in Christ does imply that I do believe that there is some sort of promise out there, and I am counting on it.

    Manipulation=bad motives, in my view. Trusting in the Lord to keep his promises, though, including the adoption analogy used here, is a beatiful thing.

  51. Let me try my fourth paragraph in # 50 again.

    When I served as a bishop, I often counseled during tithing settlement using Malachi as a text, and warned people that the promised blessings didn’t always come in the form of a check in mail, or other unanticipated windfalls. I did often lean heavily on verse 11, far less often quoted, which says “… and I will rebuke the Devourer for your sake…”. That is not a bad thing to hope for.

  52. Perhaps, kevinf, it’s worth thinking about what God’s promises really are. If they are primarily or exclusively promises about our ultimate salvation, then we are on very firm ground in terms of the adoption model. If they are a promise to be present in our lives no matter what happens to us, to turn both our happiness and our misery to our greater good, then we are on firm ground with the adoption model. If we understand them as highly specific promises on a parallel to a vending machine (insertion of 0.75$ US yields a 12-oz can of Tab, high-intensity pharisaism yields 4 converts, payment of tithing yields double monetary return), then the adoption model is not secure. My suggestion is not that God is less than faithful to his promises, but that the real promises God makes to us are to love us, to treat us as his children, to bring salvation to us through Christ, to bind himself to us in a parental relationship for all eternity.

  53. smb, that’s pretty much what I was getting at, which is that as your mother said, “God is not a vending machine”. I still, though, rely on the concept that if you want blessings, you have to put yourself where the blessings are if you have any hope of receiving them. Those blessings, though, will be what God wants us to have, and are not crafted by our own ambitions.

  54. #43 I don’t see this conference quote as manipulationist; the speaker could have been talking about unspecific blessings received by specific individuals for living a host of specific commandments. I suppose that’s the problem with over-the-pulpit evidence: I see what I want to see.

  55. A description of what I meant in #54 by “unspecific blessings” is found in #52.

  56. #53, in the adoption model the act of putting ourselves “where the blessings are” is the act of accepting God as our parent, entering into and relishing the relationship of child and parent. There is no doubt in my mind that being in such a relationship with God is a glorious thing, and it would be easy to use the language of act–>reward to describe it, but I think you’ll agree there is a subtle but crucial difference.

  57. kevinf:

    That’s just the thing – we (as a group) tend to get wrapped up in “What can God do for me today?” The extreme example comes in the attitude I saw aplenty on the Wasatch Front, particularly while working at a couple of the trademark “Mormon” businesses.

    Tithing brings prosperity. Therefore, if someone isn’t prospering, they aren’t paying enough tithing. If somebody is out of work, suffering extreme medical bills, broke, filing for bankruptcy, or lost all your savings on a network marketing scam, it’s because they have been paying tithing on net instead of gross. Or not paying enough on gross. Or they need to pay more in fast offerings.

    Likewise, cancer comes from a lack of faith, children leave the church because parents didn’t pay enough attention to their church callings, and car accidents happen because of impure thoughts. Miscarriages come from having sex before marriage. Spouses die simply because somebody needed to be taught a lesson. Businesses fail because Mother should have been in the home, baking bread and doing family history. All are heresies of the most unkind, yet I’ve heard all of these stated by people who should have known better. Nobody (as a group) remembers that “rain falls on the just as well as the unjust”, and bad things happen to good people, just like how good things happen to bad people. A vending machine mentality of God destroys faith. When we expect immediate results for obedience, we tell God, “I don’t have faith that everything will be all right eventually. I want everything to be all right, right now.”

  58. Kevinf, if “the blessings” that we want to receive include things like good health, wealth, fame, professional success, etc., we’ve got a broader logical and empirical problem: the evidence suggests that the “location” of these blessings is highly diffuse. Lots of very bad people get those good outcomes, and plenty of very good people don’t. It’s not even clear that there would be a correlation between our morality and these kinds of outcomes. So these sorts of “blessings” evidently don’t conform to the “put yourself where the blessings are” model.

  59. I do not understand how the adoption model addresses the core question of whether or not the Lord is “bound”. It seems to say that the Lord is happier about being “bound” because He is our Father and He loves us. Other than that, I don’t see how it addresses the central question about whether the Lord complies with his commitments because he wants to (loving Father) or because he has to (perfect and just God). I have always that that the answer was both and that both can be amply supported scripturally. However, DC 82:10 clearly supports “he has to”

  60. Also, I think that the abuse of this scripture in the mission field and many other settings really is kind of a straw man argument because there is no reason to believe that valid covenants were ever established between the Lord and the other party (praying long and hard does not a covenant make).

    While I do think that personal covenants can and should be made with the Lord, their subjective nature make them unavailable or at least unconvincing to cite as evidence for or against a particular reading of this verse. The remaining question is whether or not the Lord is bound by valid covenants (baptismal covenants, temple covenants).

  61. Michael and JNS, the blessings I am talking about primarily are the peace of mind the gospel brings, spiritual promptings, and the occasional guidance. I have never subscribed to the notion, Michael, that you describe in #57. That kind of thinking, though, is endemic throughout the church, not just the Wasatch Front. The extreme examples you give seem to be the exception, rather than the standard of this sort of thinking. Although, I think I recall hearing more of that when I was in released time seminary in Utah in the 60’s.

    Mateo, when I think of binding covenants, I also think of baptism and temple covenants. A covenant that I propose and then aspire to bind God to is pretty much a vain hope, I believe, and is the sort of thing that this post was addressing.

  62. kevinf, fair enough. Perhaps it’s best to be very clear about all this, since such thinking is prevalent.

    Mateo, I doubt that God is bound by many covenants with humans, given that virtually all humans have violated the terms of virtually all covenants many times over.

  63. Forgive me, but I am baffled and suprised by the fixation on covenants in this post.

    If there were no causative personal benefit from tithing, would you not still tithe for the good of the Church as a whole? If there were no Church teachings on the subject, would you not still be faithful to your spouse? If gays could get married, would you suddenly turn homosexual? If even there were no post-mortal existence, even then, would you not still continue to obey God’s laws (as even the Jews do, without the promise of heaven) merely because it is pleasing to Him?

    I am bemused by the “what’s in it for me” attitude in many of the preceding comments. Surely the truth of the Restored Gospel does not depend on your getting a return on your tithing, else the Church, given such certain odds, would be better off lending you the money to tithe.

    Blessed are those who do right without promise of reward. Even atheists of good character strive to do good with absolutely no expectation of future reward. Cannot at least the same be expected from people of faith? I must be misunderstanding something important in this discussion to be left with such a disconnect.

  64. kevin f
    Expecting to be able to bind God to a proposal would be a vain hope indeed. However, as a covenant was defined in the original post as a mutual commitment, the question remains as to whether or not god is bound by his perfect nature when he does enter into a covenant. I find no reason to make a distinction between personal covenants like those made to Abraham and Israel and more standard covenants like those made at baptism.

    I do not see the relevance of your comment in 62 as God is obviously not bound by broken covenants. At best your argument would be that it is impossible to know if God is bound when he enters into a covenant because no valid unbroken covenants exist. Then there is no evidence for any interpretation of the verse in question.

    Also, God appears to consider the covenants that He made with Abraham and Israel to be valid. The question might be better expressed when couched in more specific terms. Does God keep the Abrahamic covenant because he wants to (i.e. bless Abraham for obedience), because he has to (ie God is incapable of not doing what he said he would do) or both. Again, I have stated that I think the answer to that question is both, but DC 82:10 is support for only the latter

  65. Dan Weston,

    A better, more well-thought out response is deserved for your comment, but I hope a simple, “You’re totally right,” will suffice for now.

  66. For various reasons including prior blessings, I was very much a believer in D&C 82:10 for the majority of my life. I believed that if I did what I was “supposed to”, than God would “take care of me”. During a time in my life when I was probably closer to God personally than any other, including being very busy in callings, etc., my family and marriage were very nearly destroyed. It wasn’t until I finally got out of my calling than things started to return to normal. I have absolutely no desire to ever have a “big” calling ever again – they are very destructive. And I have little faith in the “traditional” interpretation of D&C 82:10.

    I therefore really like the point of this post and its interpretation. Thank you. It gives me hope.

  67. Mateo, let me try to elaborate a bit. The Abrahamic covenant as applied to Abraham personally is perhaps unbroken. But as applied to Israel in general, it was quite definitely broken; for evidence on this point, see virtually the entire Old Testament. God saw the people of Israel as being in total rejection of the covenant, and so he killed lots of them and sent many of the rest into slavery in foreign lands. If the covenant is still operative, it is not because it has not been broken but rather because God for some reason chooses to act as if the covenant is valid even though it has been invalidated for more millennia than not.

    In other words, if God is not bound by broken covenants and given that humans are by nature covenant-breakers in ways large and small, then if God ever does any of the good things He promises, it must be because He wants to and not because He is obligated. Hoping to “bind” God to completion of a covenant is a doomed endeavor. So a reading of the verse in question that emphasizes God’s obligations conditional on us being perfect simply makes the verse irrelevant noise, as spiritually and practically important as the sound that comes through when you mistune your radio.

  68. Hear, hear, Dan.

  69. I, for one, do not doubt that the Lord is bound under these conditions in the slightest – the whole issue is the nature, timing, and manner of what he is bound to.

  70. And I mean willingly bound to do, of course, as a matter of integrity.

  71. Peter LLC says:

    Even atheists of good character strive to do good with absolutely no expectation of future reward. Cannot at least the same be expected from people of faith?

    I blame the prophets for this deficiency. When they’re not busy extolling the virtues of eternal increase, they’re promising a seat on the right hand of God or throwing open the windows of heaven with reckless abandon. Tsk.

  72. JNS
    We are in complete agreement about the covenant-breaking on the part of Israel as a group. I was referring to the Abrahamic covenant with Abraham as a person. Similar to the covenant with Israel as a person.

    Perhaps the clearest, most detailed example of personal covenant making is Enos. It appears that Enos and his unspecified fathers (read Jacob and Lehi) had asked the Lord that he bring forth the records to the Lamanites at some point in the future. It is apparent that Enos considers this conversation with the Lord to be a covenant. A large part of Enos’ faith in God appears to depend on his belief that God cannot lie.

    I think that based on the text, we would be correct in saying that in addition to a personal desire to bring forth the Book of Mormon, God also had an obligation to do so because he told Enos and his fathers that he would and he cannot lie. He said it would be done unto them according to their faith.

    My main point in referring to Enos and Abraham is to point out that the Lord honored and continues to honor these covenants despite the fact that Enos and Abraham were both imperfect. Perfection is apparently not a requirement for valid covenants.

  73. #63 Dan, your point is an excellent one, but I think at times God says “Here’s what’s in it for you”. The topic of this conversation seems to be understanding what exactly he desires to bestow and when. This is not necessarily the same thing as wondering “what’s in it for me”, but it’s tough to differentiate the two.

  74. This discussion has been good, and has given me reason to rethink some of my thoughts about “binding the lord in cords of righteousness” as I have often heard it preached from the pulpit.

    There are a couple of scriptures I would like to add which pair nicely with Romans 8:14-17 and D&C 82:10 as presented in SMB’s post.

    Mosiah 5: 15
    Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life, through the wisdom, and power, and justice, and mercy of him who created all things, in heaven and in earth, who is God above all. Amen.

    and in contrast we have:

    Alma 34: 35
    For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.

    I find it interesting both scriptures use the term “seal you his”, and both are linked to our actions. Likewise the D&C scripture and ,somewhat less overtly, the Romans scripture also imply our actions are at the root of being sealed to our God.

  75. Since the comments are bringing up tithing I’ll add in my own counter-counter factual.

    I once received a cash bonus for my job, and forgot to pay tithing on it since it was cash (but it would show up on my W2 at the end of the year). I remembered out of the blue a couple months after getting it and promptly paid tithing on it, with no question about it, but still feeling the sting a bit because the bonus was already “allocated” in my mind.

    The next week I got a call discussing my progress/success so far and a 25k bonus on top of what I received. From a very stingy boss, who was known to act rashly. From the very second my boss told me the numbers over the phone my tithing payment immediately sprung to the top of my mind and it was not of my own accord…

    Now this happens like .01% of the time I suppose… but with everyone tossing out their counter factuals, I figured I would throw in something to say that sometimes miracles do happen with tithing in -exactly- the way it is spoke of in terms of receiving blessings without room enough to receive it–literally.

    Whatever the case, it’s not the reason why we pay tithing. But it is a neat story.

  76. sam, probably not a miracle, just the unlimited human power to find patterns in randomness. The argument against miracle here points to the large number of raises and bonuses that come without tithing payment, as well as to the large number of tithing payments that come without raises/bonuses, and then points out that it’s inevitable that regular tithe-payers who are also productive people will occasionally have a chance correspondence between the two categories of events. It may have been a miracle in your case, but in statistics terms the P value is way too high to be anything like confident.

    Mateo, the Enos usage suggests that sometimes the word “covenant” is used in the scriptures to represent unconditional one-way promises — for that is what the Lord gives in the text there. Obviously, God is bound by unconditional promises.

    On the Abraham front, the Abrahamic covenant as reported in the Bible is pretty totalizing. All that’s required of Abraham is that he be “blameless.” Theologically, we’re required to believe that Abraham wasn’t in fact blameless — only Jesus was — and so that means the covenant was broken. If God kept to the covenant in spite of Abraham’s sins (whatever they were), that logically has to be a choice on God’s part to give the blessings in spite of the covenant condition not having been met. God can’t be “bound” in the honor-on-the-line sense regarding a broken covenant. But God is always free to give blessings anyway, as it seems He did for Abraham.

  77. There’s little doubt in my mind that my employer was inspired to extend that bonus to me. Was it because I paid my tithing a week earlier? I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter to me.

    I can say I’ve always had a testimony of tithing, and this experience strengthened it. In line with all good things are from God. I’ll give the credit to him and not worry about what the P-value is! But I do enjoy the absolute brain-twist that thinking about this issue (and plenty of others) cause me to do. Typically, the end the same anyway–give thanks to the God.

    The question for me is, why we do it and what we expect in return. What happens to me is almost inconsequential in my mind. (sounds really strange to say that…)

  78. sam, I have no logical objection to giving thanks to God! But connecting it with tithing is problematic both in terms of evidence and in comparative terms: if this is one of the things that God does for people who pay tithing, what about all the very poor tithe-payers who need the money more than us? I bet there are more than a few tithe-paying Saints in Brazil, say, whose lives would be deeply and permanently changed by a $25,000 bonus…

  79. Agreed! Except that kind of calculus can be applied across the board. If there are plenty of Saints all over the world who could use a bowl of rice on the table and a roof overhead, and there certainly are, then any blessing dealing with finances, shelter, food, etc. are probably undeserved.

    I think that kind of blessing-calculus misunderstands blessings, but then again just as I said above so does the faulty conclusion of “if I pay tithing I will get X dollars in return.” I never said that, at least if I did I made a mistake.

    I did feel my story was related to tithing as I was prompted to think of it. That’s all. But it does get in the way of people rushing to declare on any form of immediate blessing as coincidental. I don’t know why things happen the way they do. But sometimes they do and like we both agree let’s give the credit to the Lord.

  80. I’ve been blessed greatly by paying tithing.

    I have had multiple stretches of extended unemployment, lost my life’s savings and currently am broke, all while I have paid a full tithing.

    I see no contradiction in those two realities, because I feel bound to the Lord despite my finances at any moment in my life.

    I also hope I’ve learned my lesson and He will let me prove I can handle riches now :) – but I really don’t care in the end.

  81. Just a quick note… all our blessings indeed are probably undeserved… poor choice of word…

  82. sam, any form of immediate blessing probably is coincidental almost all the time — although I don’t have any objection to the idea that some immediate blessings may not be coincidental, although statistically we can’t recognize them… That is, they can be persuasive to the person involved but rationally should not be persuasive to others.

    But, more generally, yes, all material blessings are probably undeserved and apportioned unjustly. It’s the blessing side of the problem of evil. If God gives any blessings and the world is the way it is, it’s hard to give an account of God that doesn’t involve making Him out to be malicious or at least uninterested in justice and mercy.

  83. J,
    Your thinking is very logical. Do you prefer Data or Spock?
    More seriously I’m interested in what your take on the story in this video is:

    Aside from the point of helping others (which is the main point), what do you think of the story, if it were true?

  84. Terrakota says:

    When I think about binding God, this is the image that fills my soul with light. That God has adopted me, that he will claim me–bedraggled, bemused, bedeviled me–as his son, that he will allow our relationship to be the tender and overwhelming and often ineffable relation of parent to child. This to me is the great promise and reassurance of the possibility that God is willing to be bound to us.

    Thank you for such a touching description.

  85. Jay Hinton says:

    This scripture was the source of 3 months of tortuous frustration on my mission. I thought doing things like doubling the amount of hours we worked, forgoing our mail until p-day, working through p-day and other forms of “sacrifice,” the Lord would finally bless our area with baptisms.

    He didn’t.

    It wasn’t until a few months ago that I came to understand what the post suggests, that is that we can’t bind the Lord to what we want. We can only bind him to the covenants we have made.

  86. Jake Abbas says:

    Since I mentioned the mission (and for the record, I’ve only been home two years), I’ll respond to the issues raised concerning personal covenant making and specificity.

    The issue wasn’t the covenant-making in and of itself in our District/Zone/Mission-wide “Bind the Lord” sessions – it was more so the arrogance of the leadership saying that “if you Elders do ‘x’ then the Lord will do [a very specific ‘y’].” They boldly declared the LORD’S END of the covenant they were proposing with him, HIS TERMS. I found it more than presumptuous, a tit-for-tat exchange where we got to declare the blessings.

    #85 – Exactly my point. We must be extremely careful to ensure that God declares the terms of the covenant. In most cases, he has so specifically declared them in the ordinances of the Gospel, which in large measure already encompass everything about which we would need to covenant with Him.

    I like the comparison with the tithing examples. Most certainly, the Lord honors His covenant by opening the windows of heaven. However, who are we to say that those blessings appear in cash, check or money order?

    God didn’t bless me with more baptisms, more lessons, more investigators, more obvious miracles. The blessings I gained from my sacrifices were primarily internal. I didn’t get more success, but I learned to know God and His mercies on a much more personal level. Dealing with difficult areas, impossible companions, and a protracted struggle with depression would not have been possible if those Windows of Heaven had remained shut in my face. I didn’t demand those from God, however. I didn’t “bind” him into blessing me with the things I wanted (or, perhaps more specifically, the things I thought I needed).

    The rain may fall on the just and unjust alike, famine and death may stalk children while kings seek harlots and wealth, but the peace of God given through His Spirit is the guaranteed blessing to the faithful. That is one blessing we can ask for, one blessing we can (in a sense) specifically bind God into granting us.

  87. Most certainly, the Lord honors His covenant by opening the windows of heaven.

    Or temple blessings. (window –> curtains –> veil)

  88. that last comment was supposed to include this:

    However, who are we to say that those blessings appear in cash, check or money order?

    I think we often think too linearly about God’s blessings and how He works, which is why I liked this post. Sometimes blessings ARE that linear, and sometimes they are a lot more multi-faceted and varying in timing and type of blessings. His economics are much different from ours.

%d bloggers like this: