Virtue and Self-Reliance

One summer, my parents’ ward held a special Sunday School class for the kids who had come back from college for the summer.[fn1] The Sunday School class was essentially a basic financial life skills class, the kind of thing that every college student (and most of the rest of us) needs, but that is woefully undertaught. The teacher, a member of the bishopric iirc, was a financial planner. He talked to us about budgeting, about saving, and other simple, practical skills.

I haven’t thought about that class in years, but my memory was jogged as I read (on Twitter) about a combined priesthood-Relief Society lesson on self-reliance.

I don’t know about your stake, but recently, mine has gone all-in on self-reliance. We had the combined lesson a couple weeks ago,[fn2] and at the end of this month, the stake is having a self-reliance devotional. And then we’re going to have a weekly self-reliance group that people can go to if they feel like it.

Now, I’m of two minds[fn3] about this. On the one hand, I’m a fully committed modern American. Frankly, helping people learn the basics of economic independence is unquestionably a good thing. Our social safety net has way too many holes and traps. It is super-valuable and super-helpful, but also super-difficult to navigate.[fn4] I mean, thank goodness it’s there—it is truly a blessing for those who need it—but it’s better to not have to rely on it.[fn5]

And I don’t think there’s anything wicked or anti-spiritual about addressing money at church. To the extent we believe that there is nothing that is purely secular, money is part of our spiritual lives. The Gospel should suffuse both the transcendent and the mundane parts of our life.

On the other hand, though, economic self-reliance can be done poorly. Even harmfully. The special Sunday School I went to when I was in college was good—it was pitched specifically as a practical and useful set of skills.

But the idea of self-reliance can become dangerous when we transmogrify it into a spiritual virtue. Why? Because it’s almost precisely the opposite of what our scriptures teach. The scriptures command us to care for each other, to rely on and support one another. Moses’ followers depend on God for their daily manna. The children of Israel find salvation as a community. Jesus commands the Apostles to feed His sheep. After His death, the Apostolic church practices communitarian economics. The Nephites rise or fall collectively. The D&C restores Apostolic economics, and even into Utah, the church experiments with various types of communitarianism.

I want to reiterate that none of this argues against teaching self-reliance at church. It’s a good thing, and, as a practical matter, a necessity. But it has limited moral valence, and is certainly not a spiritual virtue. Our brothers and sisters who can’t make ends meet are not spiritually inferior to those of us who can, and aren’t in a worse position than us when it comes to salvation. [fn6]

In fact, as we look at camels and needles, they may be in a better position.


[fn1] At the time, the church encouraged college students on summer vacation to go to their home ward, not to the local singles ward. I have no idea why, or, for that matter, whether that’s still what the church encourages, but even without that directive, I wasn’t interested in the singles ward in my parents’ stake.

[fn2] (which I missed—the Primary didn’t have a pianist, so I filled in)

[fn3] At least.

[fn4] For a first-hand account of the practical difficulties of navigating the U.S. social safety net, you could do far worse than reading Tracy’s recent book.

[fn5] That’s something we who are U.S. voters should work to change, but that observation’s outside the scope of this post.

[fn6] As best I can determine, the self-reliance push isn’t just financial, but also helping us work on spiritual self-reliance. On that front, I’d level the same response and critique: spiritual self-reliance isn’t a bad thing, but we can’t ignore the communal part of spirituality.

Comments

  1. John AC says:

    Great post, Sam. I’m in the same stake and have heard the self-reliance stirrings, though not to the same extent yet. Do you think the problem is mainly with the term “self-reliance”? For a while it seemed like the church had replaced that term with “provident living,” which sounds cheesy to me but I thought had the virtue of avoiding the problem you identify.

  2. Jason K. says:

    I appreciate your balanced perspective on the merits and limitations of self-reliance. Much the same could be said of obedience, I think: it’s useful and necessary, but dangerous if carried too far.

  3. This is important. Thank you.

  4. You can’t help others if you can’t take care of yourself.

  5. Thanks, John. The name definitely compounds the problem, imho. “Provident living” ischeeset, but better. I’d even prefer “budgeting” or “financial management” or something.

    And that would take away the veneer of spiritual virtue that, even if not inherent in the church’s self-reliance rhetoric threatens to invade it. It strikes me as a whole lot harder to make budgeting anything more than a practical value.

  6. Mark, that’s not true. You can 100% help others, even if you can’t support yourself. The poor—even the poor living off of others’ generosity—regularly provide food, comfort, and shelter to others.

  7. jaxjensen says:

    The only way in which we should be spiritually self-reliant is with our testimony: we should have one ourselves, independent of others. In almost every other aspect we should be striving for interconnectedness, not separateness.

    Physically, the biggest issue I have with a lot of the self reliance lessons is that many feel that if they make enough money that they are doing it right. That they are self-reliant because of their monetary income. But then they rely on the supermarket/restaurants for food, the power company for energy, etc. They aren’t self-reliant at all, but are completely dependent on others to provide things for them in exchange for money.

    IMO, being self-reliant means providing as much as possible for yourself (I realize nobody can provide everything in the modern world for themselves). So, grow as much of your own food as possible. Find a way to provide your own energy needs (fire, solar, wind, etc). Even give a try to making your own clothes (D&C 42:40). Learn to make repairs to your home. Etc.

  8. jax’s point illustrates exactly why self-reliance is not necessarily a virtue – a kind of personal Benedictine Option that deprives us and our community of the benefits of society. Benefits that are both temporal and spiritual, especially as we consider that we are tasked with succouring the poor and needy, and well-off people withdrawing from the world leaves the marginalised to fend for themselves.

  9. Reminds me of discussions about food storage where there’s always somebody who wants to talk about how you have to stock up on ammo too, because when society collapses you’ll have to defend your food hoard against the hordes of unprepared that will be trying to steal it. And I’m over here like, maybe the Lord wants us to be prepared so we’ll be in a position to give to somebody else that may need it more than we do?

    As for spiritual self-reliance, there’s no such thing. At least for me, trying to rely on myself for my spiritual life leads only to despair. Rely on Jesus alone is the only thing that works.

    That said, I appreciate the point that we need to have our own faith in Jesus and experience our own conversion through repentance, not just asset to somebody else’s claims about it all. And in a sense, you could call that self-reliance, but more precisely, it’s reliance on Christ.

  10. the other Marie says:

    Thank you–I’ve been alarmed by this and even thought of sending a note to the BCC bloggers asking you to address this in post. I was assigned by my bishop to attend our stake’s self reliance groups this time around (odd to me, as I have a good job that I like, I max out my 401k contributions each year, pay for my cars with cash, have most of a year’s salary in a rainy day fund, and even my family mocks me for being too reluctant to spend money….but I decided to be obedient and give up at least 2 hours a week for three months to see if the groups had anything to offer me). I chose the “Personal Finances” one. Each time I’ve attended I’ve felt compelled to speak out about ideas in the handbook that I find off or at least sloppily phrased. One of them (“God can and will provide a way for his righteous children to become self-reliant”) I posted on social media, stating that I didn’t think it was true and that some of my group members had disagreed with me. Several of my most straightarrow LDS Facebook friends, while reluctant to disagree with a church manual, agreed that it needed to be worded differently in order to be correct and not lead members to believe that those who don’t achieve temporal self-reliance in this life are insufficiently righteous. Additionally, the scripture used by the manual to support that quote, D&C 104:15, is about God providing for his faithful saints through the radical interdependence of the Law of Consecration, which was instituted anciently and in modern times precisely because there would always be saints, including very faithful ones, who were incapable of providing for themselves. As Kristine noted in a comment on my FB post, Joseph Smith was never self-reliant.

    I hope that future editions of the manual will be revised to make it clear that temporal self-reliance, while a worthy goal and useful in preventing abuse of the charitable assets of the church, is no reliable proof of righteousness.

  11. John Jacob says:

    Nowhere in the scriptures are there any references to individual self resilience. It is the church, not the individual, that must stand independent. Obviously some individual self reliance helps that–but the focus is community, not individuals.

  12. N. Bailey says:

    Interesting to read Mosiah 21,22 against 23 and 24 and see the types of salvation going on there. You have Limhi and Mr Self Reliant (Gideon i.e. tried to kill Noah, comes up with the plan to escape, later slain trying to kill the Nehor, the guy just doesn’t really like to “wait on the Lord”), that group was lead to humility through —> self reliance, then Alma and his folks, they were lead to surety of God’s involvement in their lives through a lightening of burdens. Then both groups are mixed to form a solvency to create a strong church. Never really have figured if one way is preferable or if it is just another one of those living paradoxes- you need to be self-reliant and fully-dependent.

  13. My wife and I were called to be the “Self-Reliance Specialists” for our stake in Texas a few months ago. I wasn’t enthused about this calling and really only associated the topic of self-reliance with having a budget and maybe some food storage. I had a pretty limited perspective. In handbook 2 and the self-reliance materials on LDS.org, the Church defines the term “self-reliance” as: “the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family”. In light of that definition, I’d argue that self-reliance is very much a spiritual virtue. Self-reliance is a means to an end and the end is personal growth and serving others. A lot of churches in our area have weekly classes for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. In addition to a class on Personal and Family Finance, the LDS Church now offers self-reliance classes on Finding a Better Job, Education for Better Work, and Starting or Growing Your Own Business. I’m told an English as a Second Language class will start later this year. The Self-Reliance initiative is new in our stake, so it’s hard to project how big the impact will be, but at least for me my vision of what “self-reliance” means has been expanded and I can see the wisdom behind the renewed emphasis on this topic.

  14. Adam, that sounds great, and strikes me as potentially a huge benefit for your stake. As long as self-reliance isn’t equated with righteousness or virtuousness. In my mind it’s clear that the church’s voice shouldn’t be limited to the salvific. It’s also clear that salvation doesn’t come from being self-reliant, even though it certainly makes life easier and more convenient.

  15. Great points JKC @ 10:04am (and great post, Sam). Pope Benedict XVI noted that misguided belief in spiritual self-reliance — a natural result of cultures that depict self-reliance as a virtue — draws one away from dependence upon Christ.

  16. Ah, Adam, I just reread your comment more closely. And while I continue to agree that your stakes program sounds wonderful, this troubles me deeply:

    “the Church defines the term “self-reliance” as: “the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family”. In light of that definition, I’d argue that self-reliance is very much a spiritual virtue.”

    The ability to support self and family is objectively good. But it’s not a spiritual imperative. If self-reliance were a virtue, those who cannot support themselves would be less virtuous. And they’re not.

  17. governingmyself says:

    I completely agree with the statements provided in regards to the problematic relationship between self-reliance and our spiritual responsibility to care for one another. However, there has been an aspect of the new self-reliance push that I have been pleasantly surprised by. In my area, leaders are admonishing women to gain useful education and skills that would allow them to provide for their families. As a mother of 6 and a graduate student who works, I see this as welcome advice. Many women have approached me since I went back to school and questioned whether it was OK for me to seek education or job skills. They wondered if it was sinful for me to return to work or go for a grad degree when in their view I didn’t need it (married to an individual with an income). At the same time, we have seen several women in our stake find themselves alone with children and no job skills to provide. Many of these women thought they were choosing the ideal path in the eyes of the prophet and the Lord. The results have been painful. I’ve been grateful for some new messaging that props open the door for women to seek opportunities for personal growth and even financial security. Unfortunately, the only educational opportunities that are discussed are Pathways and BYU online.

  18. In response I’d say that self-reliance is not the same thing as independence or not needing to rely on others or the Lord for help and support. It’s not evidenced by having a good job or big bank account. I readily and totally agree that a person can be poor or unemployed and receiving public or church assistance and still be virtuous, righteous, and self-reliant (I say this as one whose received both types of assistance in my lifetime). I think self-reliance as taught in these new Church materials is meant to be much broader than what my limited understanding was (having a budget and some food storage), and it implies doing what we can for ourselves, working to improve our skills/develop our talents, and asking for and receiving help along the way. I think the term “self-reliance” is an umbrella term describing a process rather than a result, and describing a variety of traits or characteristics, including stewardship, hard work, accountability, resourcefulness, responsibility, time management, trustworthiness, reliability, etc. These are good traits to develop and could rightly be called “virtues”. So to clarify my earlier comment, I think the traits that undergird the term “self-reliance” can be considered spiritual virtues. I think the point of the Church’s self-reliance initiative to more to help members develop these traits virtues and less about helping the members make more money (though making more money, finding a new job, etc., may be a byproduct).

  19. Many women have approached me since I went back to school and questioned whether it was OK for me to seek education or job skills. They wondered if it was sinful for me to return to work or go for a grad degree when in their view I didn’t need it (married to an individual with an income).

    That they would do this to you shows why we can’t have nice things as a people and culture. Sad.

  20. governingmyself, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Wilhelm says:

    Sam Brunson @ 11:56 am:

    “The ability to support self and family is objectively good. But it’s not a spiritual imperative.”

    St. Paul @ 1 Timothy 5:8:

    “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”

  22. Mark Clark says:

    Great post. Self-reliance is very important. But the cult of self-reliance can be damaging especially when it imposed on others. Balance and temperance in everything.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    the other Marie, I wonder whether they asked you specifically to participate because you’re doing so well already and might be a helpful influence on others.

    Somehow I’ve missed this new fashion in church, complete with callings and meetings and handbooks. (Not that I’m complaining…)

  24. the other Marie says:

    Kevin–whether or not that’s the case, the manual’s promise that sufficient righteousness will always make temporal dependence on church, state, or others unnecessary has made me a cranky problem student, though I am complying with the weekly assignments. If I felt the foundational promises of the program were sound I wouldn’t mind the time investment* even as a relatively financially stable person. There is plenty I have yet to learn about finance.

    * If the weekly time investment doesn’t increase too much, that is–we were told to expect 4 to 10 hours of weekly homework outside of the two-hour weekly class time, but so far the assignments we’ve had have not required more than a few minutes outside of class–if the time demands creep up too much in coming weeks I’ll probably drop out.

  25. EnglishTeacher says:

    The approach to this lesson (that I taught yesterday as a sub in Relief Society), for me, was to divorce self-reliance from the Puritan ethos of work that has permeated American culture, for better or worse. Material wealth as a sign of election is alive and well, but self-reliance as a principle is not an end unto itself–it should be a means to charity and compassion for those not yet self-reliant. Since most of the families in my ward own homes, have stable jobs, and are comfortably middle class, we mostly talked about what our responsibilities are after we become self-reliant to avoid falling into the pride cycles described again and again throughout The Book of Mormon. Several women told me they enjoyed the lesson as it was presented, but I struggled as I prepared. I am much more of the Emersonian school of self-reliance, and fully agree that “a foolish consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds.” Sadly, much of the rhetoric in the manual about temporal self-reliance seems an endorsement of that sort of foolish consistency, and at worse, reads in a sort of self-congratulatory way about the virtues of working hard throughout one’s life for the satisfaction of productivity for productivity’s sake. I agree that there are certain moral limits to talking about self-reliance without some sort of spiritual component. I shared some of Mosiah’s thoughts on what the self-reliant should do with their time and wealth to conclude, and emphasized that charity *should* be the end game to the principle.

  26. Old Man says:

    Wilhelm:
    I think your scriptural reference is vital to an understanding of what the Church attempts to teach with the term “self-reliance.” Those who neglect their family’s material needs have “denied the faith.” But those who fail to nurture their talents, serve in the community and teach the Gospel also deny the faith in other ways.

    I’m afraid that many of us believe we are self-reliant when we are successful in a material sense. The problem is when we get bogged down in the necessary minutiae of creating monetary wealth and stop refining the precious soulful materials within ourselves and others. Self-reliance implies that we are “conscientious consecrators” of our time, talents and material means. We obviously need to recognize mortal limits. We demonstrate that we care for others and our communities by how we develop our lives and talents in a very broad sense.

  27. Kristine N says:

    EnglishTeacher–thanks for that insight. I’m teaching the EBH lesson this coming week and haven’t yet come up with a way to treat the material that doesn’t end with me imagining going off on a rant about rich white guys searching for justification to deny welfare to poor people.

    I did the ‘starting a business’ self-reliance course last year, or half of it at least. It’s a nice idea, and I’m wholly supportive of the church helping people learn basic economic skills. It does seem like teaching people skills without also giving them access to the resources they need to practice those skills is perhaps not going to be all that productive, but that’s another topic. The material in the manual seemed like it was pitched toward people who have only the most basic education, so for me (a person who uses math in my job and can already do things like balance a budget and calculate terms of a loan) the course rapidly started feeling like a waste of time. I also found it annoying that we had to spend at least half of every meeting talking about the spiritual side of each principle. My time is precious and if I’m going out to learn a new skill I want to focus on that skill so I can pick it up as efficiently as possible. It’s a sacrifice to leave my family for two or three hours every week to take a class, and I want that sacrifice to be treated seriously.