Friday, January 22, 2010

Ananias and Sapphira: No room for distrust in consecration

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. (Acts 5:1-5)
This is rather an alarming story. It’s alarming nature stems from the fact that the punishment (death) of this fellow Ananias (and later his wife Sapphira) seems to us to be far out of proportion to the sins committed—selfishness, lying to the Holy Ghost, and lying to God. Because of this, it behooves us to carefully study this story to understand exactly why Ananias incurred the wrath of God to such an extent so that we can avoid making the mistakes he made.

It might help us to first make some observations about this story. We must make sure that we see the events with an eye of faith. This will put us in a frame of mind to understand the higher wisdom of God in it.

First, I observe that Peter knew by the Holy Ghost and the spiritual gift of discernment all about what Ananias had done. Peter could have let it pass, but he didn’t. The intelligence Peter received seemed to have come with the conviction that it was his responsibility to confront Ananias with the truth to show him that God knew all about what Ananias was doing and that Ananias couldn’t put one over God or his apostles.

Second, I observe that Peter did not call down any sort of curse on Ananias. He asked Ananias why he had thought of doing it. "[W]hy hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?.... why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart?" (Acts 5:3-4)

Peter’s words suggest that the Holy Ghost had been working on Ananias to give the full price of his possessions to the apostles and Satan had been working on him to withhold part, and that Ananias had yielded to the temptation and had rationalized (told rational lies) to justify his actions to himself.

The question that will no doubt come to all of us about Ananias’s deeds is “Sure, it is great to give all your possessions to the church, but what is so bad about deciding to only give half?”

The answer can only come if we understand the nature of the offering Ananias was pretending to make. We are very used to the idea of offerings when you give as much as you feel inclined to. However, this doesn’t seem to be the type Ananias was making. He seems to have been pretending to make an offering of consecration, of the strictest all-or-nothing variety.

Something I realized as I looked closely a few verses in the chapter just before this story is that the early church’s consecration was carried out quite similarly to the method of consecration revealed to Joseph Smith.

Here’s the revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1831:
30 And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.
31 And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.
32 And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they cannot be taken from the church, agreeable to my commandments, every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, as much as is sufficient for himself and family.
33 And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants. (D&C 42:30-33, emphasis added)
Those who desired to consecrate their properties were to lay everything in front of the bishop, who was acting in the stead of God, to receive their offering. The offering was to be a tangible testimony from the saint symbolizing their knowledge that everything belonged to the Lord.

Here’s how it was done in the New Testament:
32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common….
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32,34-35)
I’m going to rearrange the order of some of those elements to make it more clear. Here’s my ultra-unofficial version:
32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own;
34 for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need; so they had all things common, Neither was there any among them that lacked.
These were the circumstances in the church at the time of Ananias’s story. Maybe Ananias felt like he was under a little bit of social pressure to do what others were doing. We’ve already noted that the Holy Ghost had also been working on Ananias in this respect. Perhaps he felt like he was being forced. If he was being forced, any of us can understand why he might try to hold something back for himself.

However, Peter tells Ananias that force had never entered into the case. “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts 5:4) To me this suggests that Ananias had had a choice to consecrate or not and that he wouldn’t have been penalized if he had chosen not to. It also suggests that he could have given it in part of he wanted to, as long as he hadn’t pretended to completely give it all. There had to be something about laying it at the apostles’ feet that ceremonially implied that he was giving it all.

Another thing that we have to remember about this act of laying everything at the apostles’ feet is that once all was given, it was the apostles’ turn to give back--“distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). Everyone received their stewardship as though from the hands of God. It would take strong faith to give everything you had and trust that the apostles would be both fair and charitable and counsel with you to make sure you were given everything you needed. It would take great discipline of mind and heart to be content, to refrain from envy.

With this in mind, we begin to see Ananias’s fault. He wanted to look like he was giving it all without actually doing it. And he lay only part of his possessions at the apostles’ feet, expecting that they would distribute a stewardship to him afterwards. He didn’t give it all because he didn’t trust that he would be given enough for his needs, so he was hedging his bets. He doubted the apostles’ generosity because he wasn’t very generous himself. He couldn’t believe in that kind of complete charity. The thing is, consecrating all you have isn’t about trusting to the mercy of man—God’s apostles. It’s about developing inner charity and trusting that God will provide for you if you have sudden needs after having given away that comforting mound of surplus. Saying you are not holding back anything from God when you really are shows distrust in God’s ability to provide, and if you are taking a covenant to consecrate and give it all, that is lying to God.

And we LDS know how high and holy the covenant of consecration is. It stands to reason that there is terrible price to be paid if that covenant is broken or taken “in vain” with feigned words.

You and I do give of all we possess to help build the kingdom. We give time, talents, and so much energy! We pay tithing, which could be seen as a minimum sum that we consecrate. We pay fast offerings, donate to temple funds, perpetual education funds, missionary funds, humanitarian aid funds, and so on. We do all of this, more or less, to greater or lesser degrees, in all varied combinations of focus. We give so much already! I wonder what is stopping us from going the rest of the way?

Nothing is really stopping us from laying our possessions at our bishop’s feet and then receiving our stewardship. Sure, it doesn’t seem to be done today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start to do it. We just have to be willing to give it all if we do.

This story also gets me thinking. It reminds me that someday this practice of consecrating our possessions will begin again in the church. It shows me most emphatically that we cannot and will not be forced to do it. We must choose it of ourselves. It shows me that if it begins in the church and I find myself unwilling to do it myself, I should not allow myself to feel pressured to do it. It has to be a completely voluntary act to give it all and hold nothing back. There is no halfway consecration. It’s all or nothing.

Now, here’s another thought that occurred to me that was rather intriguing. This act of laying it all out on the line reminds me a little of a technique used by some professional organizers to help their clients de-clutter a room. Everything in the room is pulled out and put in the front yard and the driveway and then the client gradually puts back in the room just what they need. Of course, the client hasn’t given it all up in the beginning, and they will still need to work on letting go at the end, but all the same, it shares some elements of consecration.

So this kind of gets me thinking that it might be possible to make up an exercise for ourselves, a thought experiment if you will, to see how we would do at this if we were really to consecrate all we possessed and lay it at the feet of the bishop and his counselors. Are you up for this? Yeah, this might take some time, but the self-knowledge gained will probably make it totally worth it. Get ready to use your imagination.

First, make a list of everything you own, leaving nothing out. (Inventories are useful anyway for insurance purposes in the event your house burns down or something.)

Second, pretend you have consecrated the whole list and are laying it before your bishop. Imagine what it would be like. Imagine yourself signing a deed to transfer it to the ownership of the church. Pretend you are now completely without possessions.

Then pretend that your bishop asks you to tell him what you need as part of your stewardship. Imagine that he asks you to “go shopping” or pick out what you need from a catalogue that happens to be the list that you have just presented to him. Do you know what you need? Circle or highlight everything you have chosen from the list..

Then your bishop asks you if there is anything you need for your stewardship that is NOT listed. What would you say? Can you say exactly what it would be without hesitation?

This might be a good exercise to try for family home evening just to see what would happen. (To some it might be an exciting challenge, while to others it might seem like a test of Abrahamic proportions.) Allow each family member to help decide what they need for their stewardship. (Maybe you will find you have to teach an impromptu lesson about “greed versus unselfishness”.)

This exercise could help prepare us to do the actual deed.


Anonymous said...

Excellent idea. We are just about to move into our house - so the inventory exercise would work out really well...I think that we may just give this a try.

Thanks for the post.

Michaela Stephens said...

Ooo, I hadn't thought of it as a moving exercise. Good idea!

Anonymous said...

Remember, the first time in this dispensation that Zion was attempted was the physical building of it happened first, and then the people were trying to be spiritually ready. This time, the spiritually ready will be called upon to build the physical last.

We have already been called upon to consecrate. We have already covenanted to live it NOW. Now is the time to prepare...

Good post!