Faith vs. Self-Reliance

by: hawkgrrrl

October 11, 2011

“The reason so many people in prison have found God is because nobody down here will talk to them anymore.”  Dennis Miller

Faith is when we look to a divine benefactor to help us solve our problems.  Self-reliance is when we develop our skills and work hard to improve our situation in life.  Competing Christian religions often criticize Mormons for believing we can merit salvation through our works when only grace saves.  Can faith and self-reliance successfully co-exist or will one always dominate?  What are the pitfalls of each?  How do we own our choices and their consequences?

The problems I see stem from these 4 mentalities:

  • Entitlement.  This happens when we rely on faith without first doing “all we can do.”  People who fall into this trap often talk about “binding the Lord” through obedience.  It’s fine, unless it’s a substitute for actual work on your own part.  For example, paying your tithing and expecting blessings in return is not a bad thing, but it’s also not a substitute for finishing your education, keeping your skills sharp, managing your career well, living within your means, and not sexually harrassing people (all of which are probably more directly related to a person’s employment situation). 
    • A Mormon example of this is the idea that missionary success is tied to following the rules in the white Bible (no offense to the white Bible; the rules are there for a reason, mostly to keep 19 year old boys from embarrassing the church, their families, and themselves or getting injured).  But success in terms of baptism is far more dependent on your social skills, the people you speak with (all of whom have their own free agency last I checked), your preparation, and a host of other things, much more than how obedient you are.  Some of the most successful missionaries I knew (in terms of baptisms) were the least obedient.
  • Resentment.  This happens when people don’t own their own choices, especially when there is only one “ideal” that requires sacrifice, and people feel forced (through guilt or being a people-pleaser) to take an action for the benefit of others that is to their (internally perceived) detriment. 
    • A few Mormon examples I can think of:  choosing to be a SAHM out of a sense of obligation or having children when you don’t feel ready physically or emotionally, accepting a calling because you don’t want the bishop to be mad at you, helping people move while simultaneously coveting their nice stuff, or paying tithing begrudgingly.
  • Victim mentality.  This happens when people feel removed from the consequences of their actions – people with a fatalistic attitude who see God’s will (rather than their own actions or inactions) behind everything that happens.  In the movie Easy A, for example, the Jesus Freak girl played by Amanda Bynes says that her boyfriend being held back multiple times in high school is “His will,” rather than considering the possibility that the boy just wasn’t that smart.
    • Mormons are not supposed to be Calvinists, but it seems that not all members got the memo.  Many members find it more palatable to assume God’s in control, even of a totally screwed up situation, than to acknowledge their own complicity.  Perhaps they have more confidence in God’s ability to sort out the mess than their own.  We hear this all the time when people say “God had a plan for me” and proceed to tell a story that seemingly everyone but them can tell had plenty of human frailty involved, not just divine intervention.
  • Superstition.  This happens when we are indecisive and lack direction.  People do something random to achieve an unrelated result.  This is why people wear a lucky shirt or read their horoscope or use the scriptures to “Bible dip” (open a random passage of scripture in answer to a question – very similar to the Magic 8 Ball, but with scripture).  It’s when we look for a random “sign” to dictate our course of action.  It often leads to some of the above issues as well:  resentment if the course of action we take doesn’t work out, victim mentality if we feel we didn’t make the choice, and resentment if the choice entails a sacrifice we don’t believe in. The thought process goes like this:  If [random thing] happens then I will take it as a sign that I should do [course of action unrelated to random thing.]

A life coach I used to know often said that you have to act as though you are responsible for 100% of all the things that happen in your life.  He said it’s not because that’s accurate (random bad things such as crimes do happen to people regardless of their actions); it’s because it’s the only perspective that gives you power over your life.  He said that you either keep your power, your accountability, or you give it away and take no accountability.  He didn’t have a lot of friends :) , but his words strike me as wise.

People who lack self-reliance are like the footprints in the sand poster, but the entire length of beach they are being carried.  I have to think Jesus finds these people exhausting.  In our family, they are called children, but they have an excuse – they are still becoming self-reliant as they grow into adults.  (Skeeviness alert:  The picture of the “Footprints” metaphor that I’ve included looks more like it belongs on the cover of a romance novel than a religious poem.  The things some people find inspirational!)

I don’t think Mormons are any worse than any other group of people at these behaviors, but I have certainly seen these traits among Mormons.  They are, IMO, a misuse of the principle of faith because they are unsustainable; they are an example of building your house on a sandy foundation.  IMO, the best course of action is to act as if you are 100% personally accountable, and let your faith pick up whatever is left over.  Sometimes our actions aren’t enough to make a difference, and in those cases, faith can add to the foundation of our own effort.  But faith without any effort on our part or with wholly unrelated or inadequate efforts leads to spiritual shrinkage (the opposite of spiritual growth).

I should add, I think it’s good to be grateful when things go well – you don’t have to be arrogant and assume it was all you either.  Just be grateful things are going well, and continue to be smart about your own actions and taking responsibility. It ain’t rocket science.

What do you think?  Do you see these behaviors among church members?  Are they the rule or the exception?  Do you see them in other faiths as well?  Do you sometimes fall into these traps?  Discuss.

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30 Responses to Faith vs. Self-Reliance

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 11, 2011 at 5:55 AM

    it’s because it’s the only perspective that gives you power over your life. He said that you either keep your power, your accountability, or you give it away and take no accountability.

    That is a very important step, as much as the one where you acknowledge that in many ways you are powerless.

    Eventually you can learn to accept they things you cannot change, have courage to change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

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  2. Aaron L on October 11, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    At the end of the day, as much as I want to believe, I just can’t buy that prayer or trying to invoke god’s will really does anything. The example you have of missionaries trying to bind the lord through uber righteousness is a great one. I tried that one as a missionary and saw many others do the same – it didn’t work. Other ‘apostate’ elders continued to have great success despite their indifference to any of the rules or things that were supposed to matter.

    Plus, we are not supposed to be able to change god’s will anyway.

    And it makes God accountable for all the horrible things in the world if we believe that the events of our lives are his fault. We have to give him credit for the good and the bad – killing and torturing little kids in addition to helping us find our car keys.

    We as Mormons love to free agency as God’s get out of jail free card, but all that really breaks down in light of 2 Nephi 2:16.

    OTOH, I can certainly see the benefits of belief that god is running the show. It gives a sense of control in an otherwise fickle and capricious world, and helps us feel like there is ultimate justice when justice is not done here. Even though in some way it feels good to believe and pray like god is going to intervene, I just don’t see it is being efficacious, other than maybe becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. Either way, the results come from you, not divine intervention.

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  3. Cowboy on October 11, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    theres the old saying that we are to

    “act as though it were 100% up to me, and pray as though it were 100% up to God”.

    To me this really all just begs the question of, where exactly is God’s effort evident? If I grow up in the faith, pay my tithing, study hard, get into a good school in a challenging discipline, fullfill my callings, continue studying hard for good grades, graduate, get a good job, act as the model employee, climb the latter, etc, etc, etc – and then look back and say, “wow, I’ve been blessed” – what does that mean exactly?

    I can accept that God would expect us to sort of do for ourselves, but what are reasonable expectations from him? In what area’s of our lives should we expect to see God’s 100%? I sometimes wonder if this attitude isn’t akin to the problem with selling our kids the idea of Santa Clause. Sure, Christmas and imagination are all fun, but why give all the credit to someone who clearly did nothing? You go to a ton of effort to show your kids that you love them, and did everything you could to make Christmas special for them, and then redirect all of their goodwill towards Santa. It doesn’t make sense in my mind.

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  4. Mike S on October 11, 2011 at 8:59 AM

    I think many of these attitudes are prevalent in the Church, and magnified 100x in the missionary program. I, too, saw the “best” missionaries in my mission in terms of baptisms (long-term remaining members) also be the most “apostate” – although being “apostate” on a mission would often be “angelic” in a college-aged peer.

    When I was younger, my attitude fell much more in these categories. For better or for worse, life experiences have changed me. For example, I’ve seen people miraculously healed, with or without blessings of recovery. I’ve seen people die, with or without blessings of recovery. And I haven’t really seen a correlation. I’ve seen things happen that I can’t explain logically, and I’ve seen explicit blessings and promises fail.

    Because I can’t figure it out, my prayers are mostly prayers of gratitude. I have been supremely blessed in my life in so many areas. I thank God each day for what I have, yet try not to get too attached to any of it as it may be gone tomorrow. I pray that as I stumble through life that I can generally stumble in the right direction. And I pray that I can be of some good to someone else. And that’s about it.

    I will admit to one set of superstitions – if you are on call, NEVER walk through the Emergency Room, even if you have to walk the long way around to your car. And if things have been quiet and you haven’t been paged, NEVER under ANY circumstances mention how “quiet” call has been – otherwise you just jinxed yourself and will be up all night fixing some broken bone. And I’m serious about that. :-)

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  5. GBSmith on October 11, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    “Faith is when we look to a divine benefactor to help us solve our problems. Self-reliance is when we develop our skills and work hard to improve our situation in life.”

    I guess I’ve never seen faith that way. I’ve tried over the years to believe in God and that Jesus died for my sins but my problems are mine and mine to deal with. Benefactor is not a word I’d use for diety other than with the atonement. My sense is that what I’ve received from God in the problem solving department is a hand shake and and a good luck and that’s about it.

    It’s interesting to think back on my mission experience. Then the handbook was some looseleaf pages in a small black binder. I bought into the obedience thing but always assumed my lack of success (i.e. failure) had to do with not being obedient enough. I had these nagging doubts when the mission president wanted committments for baptisms but assumed then it was becuase I was faithless. I don’t see it that way anymore. Another of life’s little lessons.

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  6. Jeff Spector on October 11, 2011 at 10:34 AM


    “Faith is when we look to a divine benefactor to help us solve our problems. Self-reliance is when we develop our skills and work hard to improve our situation in life. ‘

    I guess I am with GBSmith on this. this premise is pretty weak since I’ve never seen a definition of faith that included this.

    I am more in the camp that the “Lord helps those who help themselves.”

    Who has given us the where with all to develop self-reliance? Who has given us the talents and the skills we have?

    Is it a question of faith or of simply acknowledging where it all comes from?

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  7. Paul 2 on October 11, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Faith is a word that is used in many ways in our scriptures and our discourse. My favorite way is “faith unto repentance”, that faith gives us the courage to change, to rethink who we are and what we want to do, and to try again to be our best self, and that we don’t need to be weighed down by past moral and other failings, that it is worth it to try again. Faith in Christ is supposed to produce this. (This is a BoM-centric view.)

    I think that the kind of faith that produces repentance is the one that best cuts through these difficulties.

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  8. Cowboy on October 11, 2011 at 11:08 AM

    “Who has given us the where with all to develop self-reliance? Who has given us the talents and the skills we have?”

    In which case we then have to acknowledge the disparity, which begs the question of whether God is in fact a respector of persons. If God expects self-reliance, and that self-reliance depends on possesing some innate skills, we have to either believe that we were all born more or less with the same skills, or that God is fundementally unfair.

    This is also a problem in the context of the scriptures where we are told to lean on God who will provide for us. “take no thought for the morrow”, “consider the lillies of the field”, Mosiah 2: 15-25, etc. It would seem to me that the scriptures insist that God blesses us with more than just the skills – but that they also demonstrate the inequity of God. Jacob when working for Laban, Joseph in Egypt, etc. How could Jacob’s family and the surrounding nation(s) be self-reliant if God is going to impose a famine forcing the world into the socialist hands of Joseph of Egypt?

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  9. KLC on October 11, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    I thought of this during the 29 cent chicken talk in GC. I wish that 70 would have told us that he was so diligently looking for God’s spare change that he accidentally ran into a parked car and broke his arm, which hampered his medical education and cost him a lot more than 25 cents and then admonished us to rely on the brains and talents God gave us a little more and a little less on prayers for trivial things.

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  10. Douglas on October 11, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    This is kinda like “Joker” from “Full Metal Jacket” explaining to an officer why he wore a peace symbol on his uniform’s lapel and wrote “Born to Kill” on his helmet (both obviously a serious deviation from the uniform standards expected of a Marine non-com)…he was commenting on the “duality of man”, the “Jungian thing”. A journalist like “Joker” might have felt that it made sense, but it seemed like subversive nonsense to the Pogue Colonel.
    Our “hew-mon” nature impels us to utilize the talents and resources that Heavenly Father has blessed us with. This is not lack of faith, but living in the world that Jehovah and Michael were sent down to create. We pray and importune our Lord to help us as He sees fit. Where it goes wrong is when we prejudge the outcome, when; after all, the ultimate outcome to concern ourselves our own salvation. That’s why we can’t blame “Gawd” for when we’re faithful yet setbacks happen anyway. We look at the score, not the time left on the clock

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  11. Jared on October 11, 2011 at 9:29 PM

    My experience is that God will be our friend, a perfect friend.

    We’ve all had friends that we could count on, especially when we were young. When we had some heavy lifting to do, we turned to our friend(s) for help.

    Some times they helped by being there and listening, other times, they rolled up their sleeves and put their shoulder to the wheel in our behalf.

    I’ve found that the Heavenly Father can be like a close friend. He lightens burdens at key moments, brings about serendipitous meetings, events, and ideas that create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available.

    Those who learn to balance faith and self-reliance walk with God; not carried.

    When we look back on our lives from the perspective of the spirit world, we will see more clearly how we could have been the recipient of more blessing God planned for us, if we would have spent more quality time with the Lord.

    I prepared a 10 question quiz on the basic doctrines of the gospel. So far 135 people have taken the quiz.

    The results suggest that most of those who have taken the test don’t understand some basic concepts of the of the gospel.

    If you’re interested in taking the quiz click the link below. After you receive your score, if you have questions or concerns, please email me.

    By the way, I have no way of knowing who takes the quiz.

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  12. Cowboy on October 12, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    Do the results show that people truly don’t understand some basic concepts of “the gospel” – or that their understanding is different from yours?

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  13. Jared on October 12, 2011 at 9:35 AM


    Good question.

    In my opinion, LDS who are enthusiastic about the gospel should be on the same page with the basic principles of the gospel.

    That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have some differences of opinion, but the differences shouldn’t be significant.

    What really counts is the results their experiencing.

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  14. Cowboy on October 12, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    “In my opinion, LDS who are enthusiastic about the gospel should be on the same page with the basic principles of the gospel.”

    Perhaps as a normative ideal, but I would argue that the vast diversity of religious opinion already extant across the enthusiastic landscape suggests otherwise. This is apparent both in Christianity broadly, and within LDS spheres. Joseph Smith noted this and stated that it “destroyed all confidence in settling the question through an appeal to the bible”. He had to ask God. Joseph alleges to have recieved the First Vision, whereas I think you would argue that the question would be settled generally by the Holy Ghost. But then, whose Holy Ghost? It seems that an account of spiritual manifestions of a personal nature many are still crying “lo here” while others retort “lo” there.

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  15. Jared on October 12, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    #14 Cowboy-

    I agree with much of what you stated. LDS do see through a glass darkly. Even those who have the companionship of the Holy Ghost experience it differently. This shouldn’t be too surprising. The Book of Mormon provides many examples of this.

    I’ve been straight forward about some of the experiences the Lord has given me. I decided to testify as I have because I asked the Lord if I could because I’ve found that for some it is helpful. I know the restoration through the prophet JS is true.

    However, even though I have had many prayers answered in miraculous ways I still find the Lord will not answer some of my prayers. I am not sure why some prayers are answered, and others remain unanswered.

    My explanation for this is that we live in a fallen world and that means we’re spiritually dead until we are born again. But even then, we are still a long way from being totally free from the power of the fall. That’s why I say, we see through a glass darkly. Even those who God calls to lead his church struggle to obtain answers to prayer. The Lord lets us learn my mistakes as well as revelation.

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  16. Cowboy on October 12, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    So then…how valid is the survey?

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  17. Jared on October 12, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    #16 Cowboy said: So then…how valid is the survey?

    I would say it is as valid as the person taking it wishes it to be. By this I mean, the quiz is designed to help whoever takes it. If they miss a question, then I hope it will prompt them to study the topic they might need to study up on for their own benefit.

    So far, I have had only one person email me taking issue with one of the questions on the test. I thought for sure there would be more.

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  18. Cowboy on October 12, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    Yeah, I took it – but to be honest, I answered the questions the way I thought you would interpret them (70% right) – but it has me wondering how the answers were determined. I’m sure you will argue by the “scriptures”, and you could support your position on scripture, but you could also support many other positions that way as well.

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  19. Whizzbang on October 12, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    How do you factor in Korihor’s idea that people fared in life according to the management of the creature? I wonder sometimes about people’s lives that become so complicated for not always their fault and they lack the capabilities to handly situations on their own and become so overwhelmed with life and tribulations and yet some stuff isn’t always their own doing. I totally agree with you about the missionary system, I still don’t know what the relationship is between God and the Missionary.

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  20. Jared on October 12, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    #18 Cowboy

    I believe the answers to basic gospel questions can be answered with high assurance using the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets.

    It appears to me that many church members, especially in the nacle, don’t put their best effort into studying the basic gospel doctrines.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on October 12, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    threadjack much?

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  22. Jared on October 12, 2011 at 7:48 PM


    I haven’t seen you or the other authors worried about “threadjack” on this site. It seems nearly every post gets off topic.

    Is this a new policy? If so, I’ll certainly be more careful. But don’t you think it should apply to everyone?

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  23. Bored in Vernal on October 12, 2011 at 10:02 PM

    Jared, As far as I know, it is ALWAYS in bad form to threadjack, no matter whose blog you are visiting. Just because some of the permas here are polite it doesn’t mean you should take advantage. It might be more appropriate to discuss your survey over at your own blog.

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  24. LDS Anarchist on October 13, 2011 at 5:04 AM

    Ah, Whizzband, you beat me to it about Korihor. Is not what Korihor taught not another way of saying self-reliance?

    Jared wrote, “I am not sure why some prayers are answered, and others remain unanswered.”

    God answers all prayers that ask, seek and knock, without exception. “And whoso knocketh, to him will he open.” However, to those who pray without asking, seeking or knocking, “he will not open unto them.” You must consider yourself a fool before God and “come down into the depths of humility” in order for your prayer to be considered by God as a “knock.”

    I will give you the key to having all your prayers answered: you must cry to the Lord, meaning that you must be weeping because of the sorrow for sin that you feel. If you do not feel sorrow for sin, you are not in the “depths of humility” and He will not open up to you. And if you think you feel sorrow for sin, but you are not weeping, which is its outward manifestation, you still aren’t there, yet.

    If you seek and obtain this state of humility, then the scripture will be fulfilled even as it is written, and everything you ask the Lord will be answered, even as you desire. If you pray to the Lord without this deep emotional state (sorrow for sin with accompanying tears), you are considered by the Lord to be a hypocrite, praying to “be seen of men,” your lips drawing near to the Lord, but your heart being far from Him.

    This is why the prophet said, “Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them.”

    One last thing, tears of sorrow due to affliction is not tears of sorrow for sin. It must be sorrow for sin. When you possess that, then and only then is the Son of God “quick to hear the cries of his people and to answer their prayers.”

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  25. Jared on October 13, 2011 at 6:41 AM

    LDS Anarchist-

    I haven’t progressed that far. In fact, I would be interested in knowing someone who is experiencing the Lord on that level.

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  26. Jared on October 13, 2011 at 6:46 AM

    BiV and Hawkgrrrl–

    Now that I know posting a link to my site is offensive to you, I won’t do it again.

    btw-I noted that many of your readers took the time to take the quiz. I think that says something.

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  27. hawkgrrrl on October 13, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Jared – I’ve emailed you.

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  28. jmb275 on October 13, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Yeah, too bad this thread got taken over. I liked the post Hawk. I agree with most of it but I do think there’s another side of the coin that you didn’t address.

    You listed a couple examples under the “resentment” category. But I can’t help but feel that some of those things are the very issues of faith you’re implicitly condemning. The mom in your example might very well be putting her “faith” in God by choosing (even resentfully) to have kids and be a SAHM even though she feels she’s not ready. And I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing.

    To draw a parallel, I want my children to just “trust” (i.e. have “faith”) in me and take some of my recommendations whether or not they think it’s best. They may even resent me for it. But to me, this is a “ends justifies the means” question. And yes, sometimes the ends do justify the means. In matters of God, and faith, it’s less clear to me that such is the case. But I think it’s worth leaving the door open that there are some things I should perhaps do, even if I resent it and would do otherwise, because “God” tells me I should.

    Maybe I’m partial to this because it’s how I’ve lived my life. I feel like I strike a pretty good balance between heeding the advice of others, and doing what I think is best. It has worked out for me pretty well. And I still do some things based on feelings of guilt and because I’m a people pleaser. I’m not entirely convinced that this hasn’t worked out for my benefit in the long run.

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  29. Heber13 on October 13, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    I agree with GBSmith in post#5, that the Lord helps those who help themselves, as it seems good things happen when you are active (faith is an action word), although I admit I find it very difficult at times to distinguish if the good is happening because the actions are producing them or there is an unseen force at work. But most reasons I have faith God does send help is usually because I see other church people, friends, or even co-workers do or say something that helps me in times of need…and it just feels in my heart like those people were sent in my pathway to help me. So most “help” is given through other people, not by having the universe produce results in my life (baptisms for missionaries, good fortune through investments, etc). A supportive word of encouragement, service or compassion from others feels like God is hearing my prayers and sending angelic visits through those around me.

    I think we need to take responsibility and action and have self-reliance, while staying humble that God can help or direct us if we are open to it. But he won’t solve our problems for us…just help give a nudge from time to time, if we believe He is there and we’re open-minded to it.

    Where I do have faith in God is in the area of forgiveness for sins. The blessings for daily problems and support is hit or miss. So in the end, I’m best off being self-reliant, while relying on my Savior for salvation.

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  30. hawkgrrrl on October 14, 2011 at 8:33 AM

    jmb275 – I think you make a great point about faith & resentment worth exploring.

    The real cure, IMO, is to own your choices, regardless of your reasons for having made them at the time, and for the church to create a system that supports choice when sacrifice is sought. I’m not sure the church hasn’t.

    I do think people make sacrifices based on faith and later resent those choices and disavow their ownership claiming they were coerced or “guilted” into things. Still, behaving based on guilt is still a choice. We still have to own it.

    And I like your notion that if we don’t act in faith when sacrifice is required, we stilt our growth in unforeseen ways. So, excellent point!

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