So wrote the apostle Paul. Although his words reflect the way we mature as human beings, he was referring to the way we as Christians mature in our spirituality, or closeness with Christ. Earlier to the Corinthians he said, "However, brethren, I could not talk to you as [I would] to spiritual men, but [instead I have to talk to you] as [I would] to non-spiritual men of the flesh in whom the carnal nature predominates; as [I would] to mere infants in Christ. I have fed you with milk and not with solid food, for you were not yet strong enough to be ready for it; but even now you are not strong enough for it" (1 Corinthians 3:1,2, Amplified version).
When we first join the church, either as converts or as children, we are very much like babies. In order for infants to grow they must be fed, but their bodies can't digest anything stronger than milk. Yet as we mature, although milk is still good for us, our bodies need something much more substantial to help us continue growing and remain active. The same is true of our spiritual development. As new creatures in Christ we know there is much to learn, but we are not able to absorb the full knowledge of the gospel right away, nor do we have the strength and the skill to apply what knowledge we do gain.
For example, new members are taught to keep the Sabbath day holy, yet this is not something that many find easy to do. Children can't understand why they need to rest from playing on Sunday. To them, doing spiritual things seems dull and boring. For adult converts who were used to Sunday being a day for watching football games or going on picnics, they too have trouble understanding what's so wrong with such activities. But as their spirituality matures, they begin to understand. And then, slowly, they learn how to implement the principle in their life. With each small attempt, their spiritual muscles become stronger and they are able to apply their knowledge with greater strength of testimony.
The word of wisdom is another principle that is hard for many to accept at first, let alone put into practice. For smokers, giving up an addictive habit is hard enough when the will to do so is strong, but to give it up, simply because someone says that's the rule, can be very difficult. For coffee drinkers, the problem can be even worse because it's harder to understand why such an enjoyable habit would keep someone from being a better Christian. Again, the principle first has to be digested and absorbed into our knowledge before a person can even begin to attempt putting it into practice. Once that has happened, then the person slowly struggles to gain sufficient strength to stand firmly on that principle.
This same process occurs with regard to tithing. Money is perhaps the most valuable commodity of mankind. Throughout all history, it has been the most sought after, the most talked about and the most thought of subject. So important is this topic that even the scriptures have a lot to say about it. Money doesn't come easy, for children or for adults. It's something almost everyone works hard to acquire. In fact, money is the result of the long hours and the strenuous effort we put into our employment. The money we make comes at the expense of a lot of personal sweat and energy.
Therefore, when the missionaries tell a convert that they should give one tenth of that hard earned money to the church, for many, that is not only a hard thing to do, but a difficult concept to understand. The poor say they don't make enough money to pay tithing. Since they make so little, they need every penny just to meet their basic needs. The wealthy say they can't afford to pay tithing because they make too much. One tenth of their income would be a sizable amount and that would leave them unable to afford the debt of luxury they have accumulated.
Thus, the new babes in Christ are weak when it comes to parting with ten percent of their money. It's something that many times seems almost impossible to do when there are so many other things for it to be spent on. And so these infants in the gospel are fed milk to help them grow. No one forces them to pay tithing, but instead, the leaders persuade and counsel and advise, while patiently waiting for the individual to digest and absorb the new principle.
The prophet Malachi wrote, "Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings" (Malachi 3:8). But the new convert asks, "How can I possibly be robbing God since He has everything? Why does He need my money?" Yes, God has everything, but in practical terms, it takes money to do things in this life. It takes large amounts of money to build and maintain chapels, temples, church office buildings, and mission homes. It takes money to print and freely distribute books of Mormon. It takes money to send General Authorities all over the world to preach the gospel at stake, area, and missionary conferences. It takes money to buy satellite dishes and television equipment so that members can hear from their own chapels the words of counsel and instruction directly from God's appointed leaders. It takes money to print and distribute the lesson materials that each auxiliary uses in every ward and branch. Without money, the gospel could not be taken as easily or as quickly to every nation, kindred and tongue. When we withhold our tithing, we are literally robbing God of the funds needed to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, once a person finally comes to understand the importance of tithing, they often still lack the spiritual strength to stand forth and do it. And when the first attempt is made, it usually comes after much energy has been spent debating with one's self, and it's often done only with great trepidation. Then, when a financial crises arises, the will to pay tithing quickly evaporates and the new babe in Christ falls back into their old financial habits.
For some, the effort to stand on their spiritual feet again is very difficult. Slowly, however, with the pushing, prodding, and pulling of the Spirit, the person may once more try to do what they know is right. Often what does the trick is the additional words of Malachi when he wrote, "Prove me herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10).
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in the heavens, that whenever we do something good, good comes back to us. Our Father in heaven obeys that law, and thus, when we pay our tithing, He blesses us in accordance with that law. It doesn't take long before we begin to realize that this is a true principle as we experience the way money miraculously comes to our aid in time of want when we have sacrificed to pay our tithing. Pretty soon, the very people who were once skeptical of giving their money to the church bear testimony that they now can't afford not to pay tithing. They need the blessings in order to financially survive. I guess it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that they have then become hooked on tithing.
Although there is nothing wrong with this principle, it is only gospel milk. To become more spiritually mature, however, we need to move past the milk stage to where we can digest more solid food, for without doing so, we will not become stronger. It is understandable that we all desire to receive blessings, but there is something infantile in the attitude of paying tithing only because of what it can do for us. The more mature person does things because of what benefits others receive.
King Benjamin told his people, "I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another -- I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls, yet ye would be unprofitable servants" (Mosiah 2:21).
Life in mortality is a great blessing. We fought a war in heaven for the privilege of coming here. Whether we are righteous or evil, God blesses each person with this wonderful gift. The food we eat has been freely provided to us in raw form. The air we breathe which keeps us alive is another gift from God. The ability to think, move and communicate are all great blessings, as those who have lost such things can testify to. When we join the church, we are given the gift of the Holy Ghost. Even before we joined, God's Spirit was instrumental in bringing us to a knowledge of the true, restored gospel. It is a wonderful blessing to live at a time when this knowledge is once more available. The child in Christ asks, "What can tithing do for me?" The mature person in Christ asks, "What can I do for God?" The child in Christ says, "I need the blessings." The mature person in Christ says, "I owe God a large debt for the multitude of blessings I've already received from Him." The child in Christ asks, "How can I benefit from the tithing of others?" The mature person in Christ asks, "How can I help benefit others with my tithing?"
Most of us have entered into a contract with a landlord or mortgage company where we pledge to give an agreed upon monthly payment of money. In exchange for that money, we are allowed the privilege or blessing of living in a particular house. If we fail to honor our part of the agreement, the privilege of occupying that house will be taken from us. We also make several other contracts to give a monthly payment for the blessing of using someone else's electricity, water, phone lines, sewer, gas and other services. If we fail to keep our financial pledge, we will lose the opportunity to enjoy these benefits. The same holds true for the purchase of automobiles, furniture and other items.
When we were baptized, we made a covenant (a contract, pledge, or promise) to pay the Lord one tenth of our increase. That is a debt we owe Him for services already received. All the things we enjoy in the church were made possible because of tithing money. When we fail to pay our part, we are, in effect, robbing God. Since all of us in the church benefit from things provided by the tithes of others, we need to show our gratitude for such blessings by willingly paying our promised share.
Yet, unlike others institutions, when we fail to keep our pledge to pay God, He still loves us, He still watches over us, and He still blesses us. It's true He can't bless us as He could when we do pay our tithing, but He doesn't kick us out His church, He doesn't take punitive action against us, nor does He carry a grudge for our breach of contract. And since He is so gracious to us, even when we violate our word to Him, how much more grateful should our hearts be when we pay the debt we owe Him?
For some, this is a hard principle to swallow. For some, all that keeps them from going back on their covenant of tithing is the hope of promised blessings. There is nothing wrong with that, but it must be kept in mind that the principle of tithing itself is pabulum. Tithing is only ten percent, or, put another way, the Lord allows us to keep ninety percent of what we make! In contrast, most people readily give twenty-five percent of their income away for house payments and an additional twenty-five percent for food and clothing! King Benjamin said that if we were to serve the Lord with everything we have we would still be unprofitable servants.
But, just as a child grows a little at a time, so we must also grow one step at a time in the gospel. In order to advance to the next step, however, we must first become strong in our present step. Accepting the idea of paying tithing as our debt of gratitude to God is a step forward from doing it for the sake of personal blessings, but it is not the final step in our progress. Rather, it is a prepatory step to becoming even more mature in our relationship with Christ. When asked what the greatest commandment in the law was, Jesus replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37). Paying just ten percent to God and keeping ninety percent for ourselves doesn't really qualify as showing love to the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind.
The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith a greater law than tithing, known as the law of consecration. It is often referred to in the church as the United Order. Under it's provisions, we consecrate and dedicate not just our increase, but everything we have to God. That means we give Him one hundred percent of all we have. According to this law we would promise to give all of our time, talents, and everything else with which the Lord has or will bless us for the purpose of building up the Kingdom of God upon the earth. If the law of tithing is hard to keep, then the law of consecration is impossible to obey.
We can compare the law of tithing to the Aaronic priesthood, and the law of consecration to the Melchezidek priesthood. Just like the ancient Israelites were not ready for the higher law, so even we today are not ready to live the higher law unless we first become more spiritually mature. And we cannot hope to have the strength to consecrate our whole heart, mind and soul to God as long as we pay tithing just for the promised blessings. We need to come to the realization that we owe God everything, even our very lives, and that our tithing is just a token payment toward that debt. While it is true He will still bless us for doing it, we must cultivate the desire to pay tithing for the purpose of helping our Father bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, instead of just trying take care of our own needs.
It's such maturity that leads people to give forty or more hours of their leisure time every week to serve as a bishop or stake president. It's what motivates a person to interrupt a successful career and spend several years at their own expense serving as mission and temple presidents. It's what compels people to abandon their worldly pursuits and spend the rest of their lives working seven days a week as a General Authority.
But to reach that level of spiritual strength and maturity takes going from speaking as a child, understanding as a child and thinking as a child in the gospel, to putting away such childish ways and speaking, understanding and thinking as a mature person in Christ. In other words, it takes going from milk to meat.