Ah, the pride cycle: the idea that humility leads to righteousness, which leads to material prosperity, which itself leads to pride, which then leads to sin and to a loss of material prosperity, which leads back to humility. So it goes.
I have one major complaint against the pride cycle, at least with the way it is often interpreted. If we interpret the pride cycle to mean that material prosperity is the result of righteousness, we come dangerously close to teaching a form of the prosperity gospel, which Elder Oaks has recently denounced, saying this in April 2015: “Those who believe in what has been called the theology of prosperity are suffering from the deceitfulness of riches. The possession of wealth or significant income is not a mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor.” (Elder Oaks’ reference to “the deceitfulness of riches” is a quotation of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower in Mark 4.) And of course, scripture recognizes that, as we all know through our own experience, often “the wicked prospers,” and expressly teaches that God sends his blessings on both the just and the unjust.
This objection may not be fair to Mormon. Note that Mormon doesn’t ever actually say that righteousness always leads to material blessings. The pattern he portrays can lead readers to that conclusion, but he does not say it. He says that prosperity was the result of God’s blessings, but does not necessarily say that those blessings are always earned by righteousness or that they always follow from righteousness. To be sure, when the Nephites lose those blessings, Mormon doesn’t hesitate to attribute it to pride, but it is a logical fallacy to assume (from Mormon’s statements that loss of prosperity was the result of wickedness) that the inverse is true (that prosperity was a result of righteousness). Mormon is less concerned, I think, with teaching a version of the prosperity gospel than he is with emphasizing God’s goodness, and humanity’s fickleness–in fact, that’s the whole point of Helaman 12, which basically serves as a summary to the preceding 11 chapters. In service of that goal, it is not that Mormon teaches that goodness results in wealth, but rather that he takes an almost medieval view toward prosperity and penury, under which prosperity is attributable to God’s goodness, and penury is attributable to man’s badness. When the Nephites prosper, and have peace, he nearly always attributes that to blessings from God, rather than to naturalistic causes. And when the Nephites suffer losses in war, or famine, or disease, Mormon says plainly and unmistakably that the reason for the Nephites’ material losses was because of their pride, exceeding riches, and oppression of the poor.
And besides that, unlike the prosperity gospel, which basically promises an unending ladder of ever-increasing wealth to the faithful, the pride cycle portrayed in the Book of Mormon is, well, cyclical. It doesn’t just teach, like the prosperity gospel, that goodness leads to wealth, it teaches that wealth is simultaneously a blessing, insofar as it comes from God and benefits his children, and a curse, insofar as it instigates pride. The pride cycle takes a much more ambivalent view toward wealth than does the prosperity gospel.
In this post, I am interested in taking a closer look at the idea that wealth is a curse inasmuch as it leads from humility to pride. Specifically, I want to look closely at how wealth lead the Nephites from humility to pride, and to explore how the way we think about the role of grace might affect the link between blessings and pride.
How is prosperity linked to pride?
Mormon doesn’t elaborate much on the specific issue of how prosperity leads to pride, he seems to just take it for granted, since that’s the pattern he portrays. But Jacob, generations earlier, gave some clues about the how the Nephites’ prosperity in his time let to pride. He says this:
Because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren, ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren, because ye suppose that ye are better than they. (Jacob 2:13)
According to Jacob, the cause of the Nephites’ pride was that those who prospered more “suppose[d] that they were better than [those that prospered less],” because they had “obtained more abundantly than that of [their] brethren.” Jacob seems to be saying that the real issue is not the possession of riches themselves (to be sure, although Jacob says God condemns the Nephites for their pride, he also says that even seeking riches can be good if it comes after conversion and if it is with the intent to relieve the poverty of others). Jacob seems to mean rather that the problem is the assumption that having riches is the result of righteousness, and therefore proof of righteousness, and that greater riches are therefore proof of greater righteousness, comparatively speaking. Jacob, like Elder Oaks, is no fan of the prosperity gospel.
But here’s the rub: when we discuss the pride cycle we often make the same basic assumption that the Nephites made, that material prosperity is the result of righteousness. When pressed, we might allow that there are exceptions to this rule, but speaking of riches and righteousness as a cycle where prosperity follows righteousness, we seem to assume that aside from a few exceptions, the regular rule is that righteousness leads to prosperity (which is often assumed, though it is not always stated, to mean material prosperity). If that is true, then if you are materially successful, it becomes easy to assume that such success must be the result of righteousness. So when we speak of the pride cycle as a cycle where riches always (or even just usually) follow righteousness, are we in danger of committing the same mistake that the Nephites committed?
How to break the link?
Perhaps it would be better to not believe that riches are the result of righteousness. Maybe it would be better to ascribe material prosperity to other, morally neutral causes.
There are other ways of thinking about the causes of prosperity and inequality. In the ancient and medieval world, there was the concept of the “wheel of fortune.” This meant that a person’s material state was largely the product of fate, and the idea of fate as a wheel meant that that sometimes the rich would be humbled, and sometimes the poor would be exalted, but that nobody should get too comfortable with their position, because the wheel will always turn. Fate always changes, and there’s very little you can do about it.
So here are the facts: sometimes people prosper, sometimes they suffer. One interpretation of those facts is the pride cycle: when they prosper, it is the result of righteousness, but also the foreunner of pride, which leads to humiliation, but humiliation ultimately leads to humility, and righteousness. Another interpretation is the wheel of fortune: bad stuff just happens to some people, and good stuff just happens to other people. It’s not the result of pride or humility, it’s just fate.
And honestly, the wheel of fortune kind of resonates with me. Like Jeremiah, I’ve seen too many good people suffer losses of all kinds, and too many proud and dishonest people prosper to believe that prosperity always follows righteousness or that penury and loss always follow pride. In my own experience, de-coupling righteousness from prosperity is a healthier way to approach our own successes than to believe that if we are successful it is because we are righteous.
But wheel of fortune thinking has its drawbacks. Taken to an extreme, it can easily descend into fatalism or nihilism. Why thank God for prosperity if prosperity is just dumb luck, rather than a blessing? If it’s just fate, then does that take God out of the picture? Ascribing prosperity and inequality to fate can be comforting because it relieves God of responsibility for the fact that the wicked prosper and that the righteous suffer, and thus preserves the idea that God is just. But it’s also a bit of a cop-out, because the problem is that God commands us to confess his hand in all things.
And there’s good reason to make sure that we recognize God as the source of prosperity. If riches don’t come from God, then maybe that means that they are just the result of hard work and smarts. If you take that view, it’s easier to fall into the Korihor/Ayn Rand trap, that every man prospers “according to the management of the creature.” In that case, wealth becomes proof of one’s superior “genius” and “strength” over others, which in the end, is a kind of pride that may not be all that different from the notion that one’s wealth is proof of greater righteousness.
Maybe this is why Jacob, for example, though he calls the Nephites to repentance for supposing that they are better than those that have not obtained riches, still recognizes the hand of God in their acquisition of riches in the first place. “The hand of providence hath smiled upon you,” he says.
Can we break the link without removing God from the picture?
But if the source of material prosperity is “the hand of providence,” then doesn’t that at least suggest, contrary to Elder Oaks’ warning that the possession of wealth is evidence of divine favor, that those who prosper do so because they have received divine favor, because the hand of providence has smiled upon them? How can we be faithful to God’s direction that we confess his hand in all things and at the same time avoid the trap of ascribing wealth to righteousness?
I suggest that the answer is grace.
I suggest that the best way to recognize that God is the source of our prosperity without falling into the trap of assuming that prosperity is proof of righteousness is to look to God as the source of our prosperity, but to de-couple God’s blessings in this respect from our righteousness, and to see that material prosperity is not a reward for our righteousness, but as an unearned gift, an act of pure grace. Something that God gives to us not because we are righteous, but simply because we are his, both the evil and the good, both the just and the unjust. 
Having a works-based gospel mindset works against you in this context. If you believe that nothing is free, that all blessings are earned by righteousness, and that prosperity is a blessing to be earned, then it is logical to assume that righteous people will be prosperous people and that wicked people will not be prosperous people. And from there, it’s not far to believing that a prosperous person is a righteous person. By contrast, if you believe that blessings are not earned by righteousness, but are gifts of grace, then it is easier to see your prosperity not as proof of your righteousness or other superiority, but as proof of God’s goodness.
The Book of Mormon teaches a grace-based mindset. As King Benjamin emphasizes, for example, we are all unprofitable servants, undeserving of anything, and our very breath is an act of grace. The Nephites in Jacob’s day, unlike Korihor, apparently did not boast in their own strength as the source of their wealth; they piously acknowledged God as the source of their wealth. But they assumed that the fact that they received God’s favor in this particular manner to a greater degree than others did meant that they were better (that is, more righteous, more deserving) than others. If the Nephites in Jacob’s day had treated their material prosperity as an act of undeserved grace, unconnected to their worthiness or unworthiness, rather than as a reward, they would not have seen it as proof of their being deserving of anything, and perhaps they would not have supposed that they were better than those whom God blessed in other ways.
The grace vs.works debate is often presented as a question of soteriology only–that is, a question of how we are saved from death and sin. But the pride cycle shows us, I think, that the grace and works question has consequences to our relationships every day in mortality–our relationships with God and with our fellow-wanderers in this fallen world–consequences that are, if not more important, than at least as urgent as its consequences to our ultimate salvation. And ultimately, perhaps it is the same question, because the most reliable proof of our conversion (that, is, our salvation) lies in how we treat others, as the parable of the unforgiving debtor vividly emphasizes.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting because we should consider material prosperity as an unearned gift of grace, rather than a reward for righteous living, that we should just stop doing good works, or that we should stop trying to keep the commandments, or that obedience and doing good don’t matter, or that God does not bless those that seek him. As Paul said, and as President Uchtdorf has recently reminded us again, may “God forbid” that we use grace as self-justification for being lax in our discipleship. Of course we should do good works and of course we should keep the commandments. But at the end of the day, no amount of obedience or good works can balance the scales against the blessings God constantly gives us. So we don’t obey the commandments to earn blessings, we obey them out of gratitude, out of love, and because that is our calling: God has “saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace.” The new and everlasting covenant of the gospel is not a quid pro quo arrangement; it is not an arms-length business deal between equals where each party’s performance is contingent on the other’s promise to perform; it is, rather, an intimate, covenant-based relationship where God freely offers his whole infinite self and all that he has, and to accept his offer, we pledge our willingness to unconditionally give God our whole selves and all that we have.
So I suggest that perhaps the exit ramp off the pride cycle lies in recognizing God as the source of our prosperity, but understanding that when God gives us wealth, he does so “not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace.”  That way, we still recognize God as the source of all good gifts–including, but of course not limited to material prosperity–but we can avoid becoming self-congratulatory about the fact that we receive such gifts, because the fact that we have them is proof that God is good, not proof that we deserve them.
We can also recognize that “his own purpose” might include reasons that are not immediately apparent. The possession of wealth may be as much a test as it is a blessing, because our use or misuse of the resources God gives us, our willingness or our failure to consecrate our property to the poor, may be our salvation or our undoing. “His own purpose” might mean that he chooses to show his grace to his different children in different ways, so that the fact that one person does not receive material prosperity to the same degree as another, does not mean that that person does not receive his grace and blessings in other ways perhaps to an even greater degree.
Recognizing the role of grace in this manner reconciles Mormon’s and Jacob’s insistence that God is the source of prosperity with Elder Oaks’ important teaching that prosperity is not evidence of divine favor and lack of prosperity is not evidence of divine disfavor.
 See also President Uchtdorf in April 2016: “[W]hat must the sheep do to qualify for this divine help? Does the sheep need to know how to use a complicated sextant to calculate its coordinates? Does it need to be able to use a GPS to define its position? Does it have to have the expertise to create an app that will call for help? Does the sheep need endorsements by a sponsor before the Good Shepherd will come to the rescue? No. Certainly not! The sheep is worthy of divine rescue simply because it is loved by the Good Shepherd.”
 Now, an objection to my statement that the Book of Mormon teaches a grace-based mindset and does not teach the prosperity gospel might be the oft-repeated statement that keeping the commandments leads to prosperity. In fact, it may be that the Nephites’ adoption of a sort of prosperity gospel thinking was the result of the oft-repeated promise that “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.” That promise appears to play a huge role in the way that the Nephites thought about prosperity, God, and even their identity as Nephites. But “prosper” in this promise is not defined, and it is possible that it could mean something broader than just material prosperity. In fact, the way “ye shall prosper in this land” is set up in opposition to “ye shall be cut off from my presence” suggests that “prosper” here refers primarily to enjoying the Lord’s presence rather than to material wealth. This is also supported by the fact that when Mormon uses “prosperity” in the early chapters of Helaman, he refers to the fact that the church made lots of converts. In short, “prosper” often refers to spiritual blessings rather than material wealth, so I don’t think the promise that obedience to the commandments will lead to prosperity from God teaches the prosperity gospel.
 But what about section 130? The statement that “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” Does this disprove the idea that when God blesses us with wealth, it is because of unearned grace rather than because we earned it? I don’t think so.
Speaking from personal experience, I know that I do not completely and perfectly obey the law of the gospel. And while I try to obey the commandments, I do not always do so joyfully. Yet, despite the fact that I have never perfectly and completely obeyed the law, I have been and am constantly blessed. The question we need to ask ourselves is, whose “obedience to that law” is the obedience upon which all blessings are predicated? If it is our own obedience, then justice would require that none of us ever obtain any blessing, for the reasons King Benjamin explains so vividly. I suggest that this “law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world” is the law of grace, the law of the atonement, the law of the Father’s will, and I suggest that it is Jesus’s obedience to that law, his obedience to the Father’s will, that makes all blessings possible. After all, it is Jesus’ reconciliation between us and God that makes it possible for us to receive God. Thus, when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by Jesus’ obedience to this law. In fact, if we take seriously the Book of Mormon’s statements that Jesus created the earth and created man in his image, then the earth itself and our mortal existence is the result of Jesus’ obedience to the father’s will. Thus, the earth itself and even our bodies themselves are given as acts of grace.