Call Nothing a “Blessing” Until You Are Dead

“Call no man happy until he is dead.”–Herodotus

 

This oft-quoted line from Herodotus requires some unpacking before it makes sense to modern ears. In the first place, Herodotus is not speaking for himself. He is quoting a conversation between Solon, the great Athenian lawmaker, and Croesus, the fabulously wealthy and magnificently powerful King of Lydia.

This is the point at which (unless you are a Classics student or ancient historian) you say, “wait a minute, I’ve never heard of Croesus. And where the heck was Lydia?” This, it turns out, is precisely the point.

In the conversation that Herodotus reports (or, perhaps, invents) Croesus asks Solon who the happiest man in the world is, and Salon gives him the name of an Athenian that Croesus has never heard of. This irks the King (who is, after all, fabulously wealthy and magnificently powerful), so he asks who comes in second and third. When Salon answers with two more non-Croesus names, Croesus becomes incensed and asks, in effect, what it would take for Salon to consider him happy. The answer gets to the heart of the way that the Ancient Greeks saw the universe:

Thus then, O Croesus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for thee, I perceive that thou art both great in wealth and king of many men, but that of which thou didst ask me I cannot call thee yet, until I learn that thou hast brought thy life to a fair ending. . . . We must of everything examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them. (I: 32)

Even if you have never heard the story before, you can probably guess how things turned out for Croesus. Hint: it sucked. Soon after speaking with Solon, the king’s beloved son is killed in a hunting accident, his wife commits suicide, his Kingdom is destroyed by the Persians, and he is defeated on the battlefield by Cyrus the Great. At his lowest moment, he remembers the words of Solon and realizes that the Athenian had been correct.

This story is the essence of what the Greeks called hubris, or the extreme pride that tempts the gods to teach human beings a lesson in humility—a lesson that never ends well for the human being.

But Solon’s explanation of the God’s favor works just as well in the Judeo-Christian context as it does in the original Greek. All we have to do is translate Croesus’s original impulse—the belief that his great wealth and power proved that he was especially favored of the gods—into the more contemporary vocabulary of “God’s blessings,” which, we are taught in the scriptures, come to us as a result of our righteousness.

The minute we start to believe that that God blesses us when we do good things and punishes us when we do bad things—and it is virtually impossible to accept the scriptures and not believe this on some level—we find ourselves dangerously far down the path of seeing righteousness as a transaction. God, in such a view, becomes a giant Pez dispenser in the sky—one who rewards us with new cars and attractive spouses when we are good and gives us poverty and zits when we sin. And once we buy into such a concept of God, we erase the difference between “being a good person” and “pretending to be good so we can get stuff.”

Seeing God and morality transactionally causes all kinds of problems. It causes us to confuse material prosperity with righteousness, to blame the poor for their own suffering, to think ourselves good when we are really only rich, and to follow the Nephites off of the cliff known to seminary students everywhere as “the pride cycle.” The primary objective of the Book of Job is to prevent us from every starting to think this way, or to ever believe that we can look at a person’s material circumstances, even our own, and say anything important about their moral worth.

But what about all of the scriptures that say that God will bless us if we are obedient? How can I possibly say that there is no connection between what we do and what we get? Don’t I believe in blessings?

This, I believe, is where we have to invoke the wisdom of Solon and Herodotus and call nothing a blessing until we are dead. More concretely, we should all agree that we can never know enough about how our eternal life is going to end up to be able to call any specific circumstance a “blessing” or a “punishment.” 

Consider, for example, the well-known Taoist parable often cited in Zen Buddhist circles (because we need two more major world religions in this discussion):

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

The key narratives all go in the same direction. This Zen/Taoist story, the Judeo—Christian Book of Job, the pride-cycle stories in the Book of Mormon, and of the polytheistic philosophy of Herodotus and Solon—all bring us to the same conclusion. Human beings do not have sufficient wisdom or perspective to look at a set of circumstances and pronounce it the result of divine favor. And we lack both the ability and the authority to look at a material effect and trace it back to a spiritual cause. This does not mean that there are NOT spiritual causes for material effects. It just means that we have to be dead before we can know for sure what they are.

Comments

  1. I love this. Ancient wisdom lets off a unique illumination on our paths and I wish I had studied it more when I was younger.

  2. Thanks for the post, Michael. Good stories wrapped deftly by you into a gift that will prove to be a blessing–maybe.

  3. Gordon Boyce says:

    I think James chapter one speaks to this. Be happy that things don’t always turn out the way you expect, or you wouldn’t seek. But in the end seeking isn’t as important as being kind to the meek.

  4. Isn’t this the kind of wisdom why we should all “die” at baptism and be reborn, knowing that nothing really of this world is going to save us? If you can manage to live that way, a -maybe-response to life’s incidentals or a “this too shall pass” attitude in general can be a source of much happiness even before you really are dead, thanks for reminding this particular incompetent judge.

  5. Probably even more important, is don’t call anything a curse until death.

  6. I have the further word:
    Every blessing comes with a curse and every curse comes with a blessing.
    So, maybe.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    And ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with. (D&C 46:32)

  8. Aaron Brown says:

    I don’t care what you say, I just know that my raise at work was a direct result of my refusal to watch R-rated movies.

  9. Matthew Crandall says:

    Sign a petition to rename BYU, remove Brigham Young’s name from BYU!
    https://www.change.org/p/lds-church-change-the-name-of-brigham-young-university

  10. Left Field says:

    I’m sure the spam will be removed soon enough, but even if I thought it was a good idea to rename BYU, I would come up with better suggestions than “Desseret” University or “Hue B. Brown University.”

    Brown IS a hue, I guess.

  11. Jonathan Cavender says:

    You have created a philosophical worldview with no room for gratitude. Moment by moment, we are each blessed continually. Some are material blessings, and some are not, but we are all always blessed.

    I understand what you are trying to accomplish here – escaping the idea of the prosperity gospel – but you are doing it the wrong way. Look instead to Brigham Young and his comments that this people will be tried with affluence. Is wealth (for example) a blessing? Yes. Is it a blessing I get because I’m righteous or is it a blessing because it is a trial intended to help me overcome selfishness or pride or any number of other character flaws? Who can say? But either way it is a blessing. I can recognize that without being down the road of seeing myself as righteous.

    Having wealth makes you blessed. Having wealth doesn’t demonstrate you are necessarily a good person (or, necessarily, a bad person).

    One final comment on transactional obedience. You should be aware of what C.S. Lewis said on the subject – you need never be concerned that someone will be righteous only to get the blessings of heaven because the true blessings of heaven are those that will only be enjoyed by those who are truly righteous. In the end, we are all working to become those who will find joy in service, family, work, charity, and so forth, for an eternal opportunity to engage in such activities is the essence of eternal life.

  12. It is a philosophical worldview where one express gratitude for all of life, not just the things one perceives as blessings or benefits to one’s self.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    Brown IS a hue, I guess.

    Indeed. This hue? It be brown.

  14. Left Field says:

    School colors no longer blue and white. The new color? Hue be brown.

  15. FWIW, excellent thoughts…except for your basic point: “This does not mean that there are NOT spiritual causes for material effects. It just means that we have to be dead before we can know for sure what they are.”

    I infer that you still believe in the transactional nature of our relationship with God (spiritual effects?). You just think we aren’t able to clearly know, nor should we view the good and bad things in our lives as emanating from some other being during our lives (because of the problems it causes in our behavior–doing good because we want a Pez)?

    My belief is that there are neither rewards nor punishments–both requiring some external rewarder/punisher. Simply put: There are consequences to ourselves and others that arise from our behavior, and there are just random good and bad events. As for our “righteousness” it is, again simply, the nature of our character–developed by our inherent agency/will.

    I strongly agree with your other main point that “…[believing that doing good brings blessings] far down the path of seeing righteousness as a transaction. God, in such a view, becomes a giant Pez dispenser in the sky—one who rewards us with new cars and attractive spouses when we are good and gives us poverty and zits when we sin. And once we buy into such a concept of God, we erase the difference between “being a good person” and “pretending to be good so we can get stuff.” But that brings up a critical other point: The scriptures also teach (and it is reinforced in our religion continuously) that God is the author of the “scriptures” (notwithstanding all the errors and provenance problems therein). If He is the author, He must want us to believe he is the Great Pez Dispenser. A more sensible belief, but not nearly as strong motivator to obey, is that the “scriptures” are an ancient collection of man’s wisdom, experiences, platitudes, etc. Some of them *may* have had spiritual experiences with God.

    IMHO

  16. I’ve been thinking about Jonathan’s comment that this leaves no room for gratitude. I don’t think this is true- if anything it reinforces the commandment that we should be grateful in all circumstances. We don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but like the difference between a stepping stone and a stumbling block our response to it is what matters.

  17. I remember watching a documentary years ago, which went over how the brunt of the Catholic message during the middle ages was “Life sucks and there’s nothing which can be done about that. Be righteous anyway, and hopefully you’ll make it heaven and it will all be worth it.” I remember thinking how glad I was that the gospel isn’t that way. We can see blessings from heaven in this life, not just in the next. True, most of the blessings probably aren’t material wealth, but sometimes they may be, and we need to learn to recognize them when they are.
    I also recently finished “The Many Panics of 1837” and it went over how some of the best sellers in the early 1830’s taught a direct correlation between righteousness or self control and prosperity. Everyone was in command of their economic outcome. Little did they know that a lot of the economic boom was due to Andrew Jackson getting rid of banking regulations, and with a lot of cheap credit, a lot of companies started having an unstaintable amount of debt (sound familiar?). Then when the Bank of England decided not to make loans to some American cotton businessmen (who already had obligations which depended upon those loans being made), the market collapsed. It was very difficult for the people who had spent the last decade preaching the prospertiy gospel to explain the current situation. The shift in the themes of books and editorials in newspapers, was that properity was a great mystery and nobody knew how it worked. It certainly couldn’t be tied to righteousness anymore.
    I know that I have heard a lot of talks and lessons about praying for inspiration on what you have been blessed with, so that you can feel gratitude. Because what we do get bleseed with is probably not what we thought we needed.
    I creatinly hope that God is not witholding all blessings until I am dead.

  18. This is SO enlightening for me. This is a topic that has always really bothered and confused me and so I’m excited to have a new way to think about the pride cycle and blessings/ cursings!

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