More Blessed to Give

February 19, 2008 | 44 comments
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A few months ago I read Kate Braestrup’s excellent memoir Here If You Need Me, and I’ve been thinking about this passage ever since.

My son Zach is the child of Unitarian Universalists, so naturally he didn’t know a lot about Jesus. But I heard a lot about Jesus at my Christian seminary, and a lot of it was pretty cool.

So one day, I found myself telling Zach about Jesus’s life and death, the stories they told about him, what he said to his disciples.

“When Jesus talked about loving,” I said, “I think he meant something really radical. I think he was talking about loving as God loves; loving completely, loving with a whole self. He told his disciples to give everything they had, everything they were, to hold nothing back, not money, not time, not even life itself. Everything was to be given over in the service of love.”

I went on about this for a while, sermonizing in a motherly sort of way, and Zach listened carefully, because even as a young boy he was always a careful listener.

“So, Mom,” he said at last. “Let’s say I decide to become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ.”

“What?” I said, startled and alarmed.

“No, but let’s say I do.”

“Okay,” I said cautiously.

“And I die, and because I’m a Christian, I get to go to heaven instead of going to hell.”

“Yeah . . .”

“If I really take Jesus seriously, if I really am willing to give up everything I am and everything I have in the service of love, if I am really a Christian . . . it seems to me I would have to give my place in heaven to someone else, someone who otherwise wouldn’t get to go.”

I stared at him.

“I’d have to go to hell, so this other person could be in heaven. Right, Mom?”

If Zach were your son, what would you say?

44 Responses to More Blessed to Give

  1. Julie M. Smith on February 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    “I think Jesus would be pleased that you wanted to help someone else get to heaven. But that isn’t the way to do it. Heaven isn’t a bus with only a certain number of seats–if you give up your seat, it doesn’t mean someone else gets to go in your place. Everyone who wants to can get on the bus–but they’ll need to do it themselves by following Jesus onto the bus. But you can help people get to heaven by doing temple work for them when you are older.”

  2. Jonovitch on February 19, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Wow, and incredible insight. Kids are great.

    I’d tell him something along the lines of what Julie said: “Just because you’re in, does not mean that someone else is out. That’s not how heaven works. That’s how some things here on earth work, but heaven is above that [pun intended]. There’s always room for one more.”

    And I’d go from there.

    Jon

  3. Josh Smith on February 19, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Julie and Jon,

    Come on you guys. Zach isn’t talking about heaven as a zero sum game. He isn’t saying that someone wouldn’t get to go because he is taking up a spot. Zach is talking about putting everything on the altar in the service of others–even sacrificing heaven. I think Zach is talking about sacrifice of the highest order.

    I don’t know what I’d tell him. I haven’t really thought about it. My initial thinking is that only Jesus can make that sacrifice. Only Jesus could pass through hell so we don’t have to. Good post, it has me thinking.

  4. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Heaven isn’t just a place, its who you are.

  5. Jonovitch on February 19, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Josh (3), it seems to me that that is actually what Zach is talking about. He would have to “give up my place” and would “have to go to hell” so that “the other person” gets to be in heaven. That certainly sounds like a zero sum to me.

    I liked your other comment, nonetheless, about Jesus being the only one who is able to “go through hell” so that we can all get to heaven. It’s very 2 Nephi 2 — some of my favorite verses about the merits and mercy and grace of Christ. I’m a strong believer that our Sunday lesson manuals could use a healthy heaping of more “grace.”

    Jon

  6. Wilfried on February 19, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    “Yes, Zach, you would have to go to hell. But because you have shown such great love to do even that, Jesus will make sure that it won’t happen. If you are willing to sacrifice to such an extent, God will intervene in time. There is a story about this, Abraham and Isaac … ”

    Just trying … Thanks, Kathryn, for making us think.

  7. TMD on February 19, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    one might note that S 138 says that they do, in a sort of way. Note also that someone can’t be forced to heaven, and if they were, they’d be unhappy and uncomfortable there.

  8. Nathan K. on February 19, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    In my considered opinion, heaven is exactly the kind of “place” Zach describes: you can only arrive there if you are willing to give up the project of securing your own salvation.

    It seems to me that there may be something irremediably selfish (and, thus, damnable) about being concerned about my own salvation – unless I’m really only concerned about whether or not I can help other’s gain salvation.

    The logic of heaven is, I think, pretty clear: you can only get there by abandoning your project to get yourself there; you can only save your life by willfully abandoning it.

  9. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    My assumption was the same as Josh’s–that Zach was asking about the ultimate Christian sacrifice.

    Would a true Christian have the desire to give her salvation to another, if she could?

    Wilfried, thank you for bringing up Abraham and Isaac.

  10. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Nathan, that was brilliant.

  11. Josh Smith on February 19, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I still don’t know what I’d tell Zach. But, his question reminds me of a Mark Twain scene. Huck Finn has to decide whether he would turn Jim in, or, as his society taught, face the punishment of one who helps runaway slaves:

    “I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote…I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘Alright, then, I’ll go to hell’-and tore it up.‘”

  12. Ray on February 19, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    #4: My first response would be, “Exactly, Zach. You have to learn to love people enough that you would be willing to give up heaven so they could make it – and the best way to determine if you have reached that type of love is if you are giving up your picture of the ideal life HERE on earth in order to make others’ lives more ideal HERE on earth.”

  13. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    The scriptures are constantly aimed at getting people to think about their salvation. There is no evidence whatsoever in scriptures that its admirable or good to do evil if we think it will benefit someone else. Ever since I read Perelandra this last has struck me as a particularly devilish, prideful, and self-regarding argument. The love we should have includes a love for God.

  14. greenfrog on February 19, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    “Zach, you’ve got it right. Among Jesus’s teachings are these:

    If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

    and

    Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.

    But our egoic instincts for self-aggrandizement and self-preservation read into Jesus’s words rationalizations and qualifications he didn’t allow himself or his disciples. If you do seek to be a Christian, Zach, don’t protect yourself from Jesus’s instructions. Uncensored, they illuminate a path to transformation and eternal life. Censored and qualified into pablum, they lead only to a different room in the world’s mansions.”

  15. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Why shouldn’t we systematically murder infants, damning ourselves to ensure their salvation? I assume there’s an answer other than that we don’t think murdered infants are really saved.

  16. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    On reflection, that’s what I would ask Zach.

  17. Jonovitch on February 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Nathan (8), I had all sorts of thoughts, including Harry Potter and the Mirror of Erised, and other analogies, but I don’t think I could add in any significant way to what you wrote: the best way to get to heaven is to not be so worried about getting to heaven.

    Okay, I lied. A bit of expounding.

    I recently remembered something I saw long ago that relates to this discussion. Something to the effect of this: the celestial kingdom is not the grand reward and final resting place for people who in this life have worn themselves out serving others, rather service is the stuff that the celestial kingdom is made of. If you think of God’s purpose and his work, all of it — every bit of creation — is for the benefit of his children. He gives us everything he can; he serves us and supports us constantly. His entire existence is focused on the exaltation of his children. He gives and gives and gives and serves and loves and supports, and asks for so little in return. God is service, which is the true definition of love. True love is thinking of the other one before thinking of yourself. God always thinks of others before himself — his love is perfect. So if we want to live with him and become like him, our purpose and life’s work has to become like his, in that we learn to put the needs of our wife and children and brothers and sisters above our own selfish desires. If we are to become like God, as he wants us to, then we need to act like him in that we give up our own lives and work for the benefit of others.

    I like to think I’ve started at least on the right path in that my children have clothes to wear and food to eat and I still don’t have my iPod. :)

    Jon

  18. Ray on February 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Ironically, Adam, I was trying to agree with your #4 – that you have to become the type of person who is willing to lose your own life to help others. When I re-read my comment, it was obvious that it appeared I was disagreeing with you. I actually referenced your comment because I thought it was spot-on.

    The worst effect of the apostasy, imo, was the removal of becoming like the Father as the goal of our mortal existence and replacing it with a bastardized form of heaven. I believe in the idea of creating Heaven on earth – and that those who “really get it” are far more focused on helping those around them in the here and now than on securing a reward in the hereafter, specifically because they know their Father and love Him enough to sacrifice their all, if necessary, to do what His Son did when He was here. He spent His life ministering to the poor and despised and rejected – giving up the comforts He could have enjoyed in order to mourn with those who mourned and comfort those who stood in need of comfort.

    One simple, minimal example: I believe that someone who can afford to pay a generous fast offering and does not do so does not understand the Gospel very well. That person, imo, has put his own luxuries ahead of others’ needs and is not living the foundational heart of the Gospel.

  19. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Ray, my #13 was originally in response to another comment but I deleted the quote and let it stand on its own. It wasn’t in response to you.

  20. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Adam, I’m not sure what’s bothering you so much.

    Nobody’s saying we should do evil to benefit someone else. What I’m asking is, does charity include a willingness to forego salvation for the sake of another, if that were possible?

  21. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    The question about murdering infants is the same question, is it not? Does charity require that I forego salvation (as a murderer) in order to save infants (by murdering them)? I think Zach’s answer to that specific question will help him with his more general question.

  22. Sam B. on February 19, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Adam,
    You’re asking a different question: you’re asking whether we should, as it were, lose our chance at salvation by doing something wrong, but that will ensure the salvation of a person who deserves, but may lose, that salvation. Which is an interesting question, but not the one framed here. (And the answer is no, of course.)

    The question here is whether, at the point of salvation (when it’s too late to lose), we should give up our zero-sum spot for a person who has already lost their salvation. The zero-sum doesn’t fit with our (or at least my) understanding of salvation, but it does ask how charitable we need to be. And I think that we do need to develop sufficient charity that we allow the undeserving step in front of us, a la the parable of the laborers. And, in fact, that parable may be my answer to Zach.

  23. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    No, I don’t think that’s the same question.

    Take two accountable people. One has forfeited salvation by refusing grace. The other has merited salvation by accepting grace. Would the latter trade places with the former, if she could, out of desire to save her from suffering?

  24. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks, Sam B.

    I don’t think zero-sum has anything to do with this scenario, though.

  25. Josh Smith on February 19, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Sam B.,

    I had a conversation once with my Methodist-by-birth grandfather about the parable of the laborers. I was recently back from my mission and was talking with my grandfather about the Bible. He explained to me that he used to read it quite a bit (in the bathroom) but had dropped the habit because of the parable of the laborers. He told me he couldn’t believe in a just God that would allow the workers who only worked a few hours to entire Heaven with the rest: “they must have been union.” Nope. No union workers in heaven for grandpa.

    Zach,

    I’m probably the wrong guy to be answering this for you. I’m not even close to making such a sacrifice: I rarely even let cars in ahead of me on the road. I think you have a noble question and good intentions. I admire you.

    P.S. Zach, don’t kill infants even if Adam poses the option.

  26. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    All right, KLS. I don’t see any important distinctions between the two questions, unless you think that “foregoing salvation” is not equivalent to damnation, and you don’t think that accepting damnation is evil. But its your thread. Have at it.

  27. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Foregoing salvation/accepting damnation in this theoretical situation wouldn’t be wicked, unless Christ’s expiation was also wicked.

    That’s the whole point–shouldn’t we be willing, even eager, to do what Christ did? Zach’s question presented the topic in a way I’d never considered.

    Would you give your salvation to one of your children if needed, and if possible?

  28. Sam B. on February 19, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Kathryn,
    I don’t think zero-sum is central, and am happy to drop it, but Zach’s question seems to implicitly suggest that if he’s there, he’s taking a spot, and the only way someone who’s not there can have the spot is by Zach’s dropping out.

    But you could write the story without that. Then it would be a lot closer to the Atonement, though, which Zach isn’t able to do. (That is, Christ did not give up His spot in Heaven, as it were, to get us there.) But I understand that your question really is (or, at least, I understand your and Zach’s question to be), how charitable must I be to be Christian. And I like what underlies a lot of the answers here.

  29. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Foregoing salvation/accepting damnation in this theoretical situation wouldn’t be wicked, unless Christ’s expiation was also wicked.

    I think we must be working off different definitions, since in the way I’m thinking about it I wouldn’t say Christ is damned or “not saved” (not that Christ needed to be saved, of course, but he is clearly in the state that for us is called salvation)

  30. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    The more I think about it, the more I realize Zach could’ve meant something different than what I thought he meant.

    I envisioned the scenario this way: Zach’s holding salvation, like an apple, in his hand. If he gives it to someone else to enjoy, he can’t eat it himself. (God has plenty of apples, but some people didn’t show up to get one.)

    Of course, if a person wouldn’t accept salvation from Christ, why would they accept it from someone else? But that’s not really the point. I’m just wondering, how much do I really care about the salvation of others? How much should I care?

    btw, Sam, I was thinking the same thing–Christ didn’t have to (permanently) give up his own salvation to give us ours. That’s something I would be sure to tell Zach if I were his mom.

  31. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Adam, of course you’re right. But he temporarily accepted damnation to save us–would I do the same? (Admittedly, that wasn’t Zach’s question.) And the compassion resulting from the atonement makes him forever vulnerable to pain resulting from others’ choices–am I willing to love that deeply?

    I’m just thinking out loud here.

  32. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Great questions, KLS. Hard questions. I’d like to answer them but, uh, my pixel budget just ran out.

  33. Ray on February 19, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    #31 – Not to beat a previously ridden horse, but can we judge how we “would” answer those questions as to “spiritual salvation” by how we “do” answer them as to current “physical salvation”? Iow, can we tell how we “would” sacrifice for others in the future by how we “do” sacrifice for them in the here and now?

  34. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 19, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Adam, lol. Your pixel budget must be something to behold.

    Ray, that’s a great question. I loved your comment about how our decisions now reflect our true disposition toward others. I think this applies to relationships as well as temporal matters. One of the hardest lessons I’m learning in my family life is the necessity of letting go of my self-centered ideals so that I can truly nurture others. I spent the first decade of motherhood with a “good family” script in my head (I was the star, of course), constantly trying to get everyone to play their parts. Me oh my. I’m repenting, but I still get stuck. It’s amazing how selfish we can be without even realizing it.

    Seeing my deficiencies greatly increases my awe for Christ.

  35. Kevinf on February 19, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Ray’s question is a good one. There is the whole question of “becoming” vs “being” involved here. What Zach has described is someone who has truly actualized charity to the core of their being. What we are all doing is trying to “become” that person, although I know a few who are pretty much already there.

    I like Kathryn’s analogy of the apple. We learn charity, become more selfless, and in our limited, mortal existence, we suddenly find that God has given us an apple (salvation). It’s cool, and we weren’t expecting it, and we’re not sure we understand it. But then we notice someone else that we love (because we are full of charity) and without thinking much about the consequences, we give them our apple. We have no thought that God has a limitless supply of apples, and that he will have another for us, each time we give ours away. It will always be a mystery to us as to why we keep getting apples, because of what we have become, a state of being like God in love. We give it without any thought for ourselves.

    Adam, sorry, I’m not seeing that deliberately performing a wicked act to ensure someone else’s salvation is at all similar. I know that you aren’t promoting that, but that particular act, or something like it, while securing a place for someone else, still robs them of their own experience at agency and free will. So it doesn’t sound to me like it is founded in charity, but a selfish desire to say “look what I sacrificed to save others”. I think there was a war in heaven over that.

    It’s an interesting question, but not any kind of answer for Zach.

  36. Latter-day Guy on February 19, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    This is not unheard-of in Catholic theology. There is an idea (in more traditional Catholicism) that one can dedicate all of one’s suffering in life to the salvation of souls in purgatory. For example, a person dying with cancer, who could accept the suffering they undergo as partly salvific, can also offer that suffering to others. It is a pretty heroic way to approach life. Makes me think I ought to spend more time in the temple.

  37. Michelle on February 20, 2008 at 2:47 am

    Zach’s question makes me think of the sons of Mosiah:

    “…for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” (Mosiah 28:3)

    Trading away your salvation seems impossible, but working ceaselessly to help others receive salvation, like the sons of Mosiah, might be the best you could do.

  38. TonyP on February 20, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Reminds me of the story of the little boy who was asked to give a blood transfusion to his gravely ill sister. Because he was so young, he misunderstood and thought that in giving his blood he would be giving his life — which, after thinking about it, he was willing to do. Somewhere in the purity and innocence of that willingness — which I think is the issue you raise here — lies the heart of salvation. Who cares whether you can actually trade away your salvation? The fact that one would be willing to do so speaks volumes.

  39. Kathryn Lynard Soper on February 20, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Michelle, I’ve been thinking about the SOM too. And Jon’s comment in 17 reminded me of this verse from Mosiah 26, regarding Alma the Elder:

    20 Thou art my servant; and I covenant with thee that thou shalt have eternal life; and thou shalt serve me and go forth in my name, and shalt gather together my sheep.

    Our reward for becoming like Christ is the opportunity to continue doing his work.

    Latter-day guy, great reminder re the temple.

    Tony, that’s a fictitious story, but your point is well taken. It’s the desire/willingness that matters.

    And greenfrog, I agree one hundred percent. Christ’s teachings are so counterintuitive to the natural man that it’s easy to say, “oh, that can’t be what he *really* meant.”

    I’m thinking that being Christian ultimately isn’t about valuing others more than ourselves, but in discovering that the boundaries that separate us from others are, for the most part, illusory. When we do take Christ at his word and try to follow him in our halting and imperfect ways, those boundaries begin to come down, and we start to truly care about others, because we realize we’re all part of a great whole–their happiness is ours, their peace is ours.

  40. greenfrog on February 20, 2008 at 11:48 am

    It occurs to me that another story for Zach would be that of the three Nephites, who didn’t exactly give up their place in heaven for someone else, but they certainly postponed receiving it for several thousand years (at a minimum).

  41. Gilgamesh on February 20, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I think my response would be that his gesture is exactly what Jesus did for all of us – and in the Mormon faith, they believe that all people get a chance to go to one of three heavens because of that love. And, since I believe in progression between the kingdoms, all those people wiull be able to progress if they choose to accept that gift.

  42. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 20, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    The simplistic, zero-sum, \”there\’re only so many seats on the bus to heaven\” idea is precisely what stands behind the question in the story.

    The one way that the kind of sacrifice hinted at by the boy in the story comes about in reality is when we are willing to go through \”hell on earth\” in order to save others. That was precisely the experience of many missionaries, like Paul and Barnabas, Alma the Younger in Ammonihah, and Aaron and the other sons of Mosiah. Clearly, Joseph Smith went through that kind of experience in fulfilling his own mission on earth, so that he could \”do more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men\” than any other single person.

    Indeed, when has anyone seriously helped others to get to heaven who has not been going there himself? The examples are the opposite, like Enoch and his City of Zion, and Melchizedek and his City of Salem. The ideal society established by Christ in both the Old and New Worlds involved communities of people helping each other to live a celestial order of existence, not people obeying some kind of Newton\’s Law of Salvation by propelling someone into heaven through an equal and opposite reaction to their own descent into hell.

    The scriptures are pretty clear that we can\’t push anyone into heaven from below. We can only help someone up by pulling them up to a level where we already stand. And they have to want to go there. It is vanity and pride to think that the other person\’s choice does not matter, that you can put someone into heaven against their will, a pride that can become an abuse of the priesthood, whether by a missionary or a bishop or a father.

    But if the person responds, then \”how great will be your joy with them in the kingdom of my Father.\” The key phrase is \”with them.\”

  43. Cicero on February 21, 2008 at 12:53 am

    I’d just point out that heaven isn’t his to give away.

    It belongs to God.

    After all, I can’t give away my father’s love, even if he has given it to me.

  44. John Mansfield on February 22, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I read Zach’s question in the context that being a devoted follower of Jesus is something that alarms his mother, something that he wouldn’t be, but is only considering as a hypothetical situation in order to frame his question. His question is a device for poking a finger at what he thinks is an inherent hypocrisy in Christianity. If I were his mother, I guess I would be pleased that he’s been receptive to my religious training.

    This cynical observation in no way extends to the commenters on this website who are thoughtfully considering what the question means to them as followers of Christ.

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