John, in his early twenties, was considering his goals in life.
“First of all,” he mused, “I plan to be a financial success and make a fortune by the time I am thirty-two years old. Then I will be economically free to serve the Lord on a mission, as a bishop, or in whatever capacity he may want me.”
Surely these are lofty goals. John is not only intent on achieving financial independence, but apparently he wants to use that independence to devote himself to the Lord’s service. Lofty goals indeed. But is John planning to achieve his goals the way the Savior would have him achieve them?
To his disciples, Jesus taught: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. …
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. …
“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:19–24.)
James put it another way. “Pure religion” he said, is to keep oneself “unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27.)
Is the acquisition of wealth therefore evil? Not necessarily. As Jacob pointed out, we may seek for riches after we “have obtained a hope in Christ” if we seek them “for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and afflicted.” (Jacob 2:18–19.)
Seeking the kingdom of God, then, must always be the major focus of any activity we undertake if we are to live righteously and enjoy the “riches of eternity.” (See D&C 68:31.)
One of the highest rungs on the ladder to living righteously is “loving our neighbor as ourself.” That is, we must be as concerned about others’ well-being as our own. By contrast, the worldly primarily seek riches, power, position, and recognition. Their motivation for seeking wealth usually lies in the desire to enjoy the good life—fast cars, big houses, expensive clothes, and luxurious travel. Their charitable contributions are made only after these primary goals are achieved; and even their charity is often clouded by ulterior motives—the need to save taxes or gain further power and prestige.
Worldly success—almost always measured in terms of financial success—is sometimes justified by such statements as: “But look how much good his money does. Does it matter if his motivation is wrong?”
The answer, of course, is yes, it does matter. One of the reasons the world’s preoccupation with financial success fails is that it tends to breed selfishness. First and foremost is the desire to get what I want—cars, houses, swimming pools, jewelry, and so on. These efforts to gain “the good life” for “me and mine” may lead one to think, “I worked hard for this; I deserve it. If others were more ambitious, they could have it too” (implying the poor are such because they are unwilling to work). This attitude leaves one reluctant to go without so another with less might have. It dulls the spirit of sacrifice and feeds a spirit of avarice, self-aggrandizement, and pride.
Does Alma’s description of the Church in his day apply to 1987? “The people of the church,” he wrote, “began to wax proud because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, … and their gold and silver.” They began “to set their hearts upon riches and the vain things of the world,” so much so that there was “great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs on the needy and the naked.” (Alma 4:6, 8, 12.)
In another scenario, recorded in Helaman 6:39, those heady with power and position “turn their backs upon the poor and the meek.” [Hel. 6:39] It seems to be a fact of human nature that those engaged in pursuing “the good life” also spend much energy, time, and money seeking association with the wealthy, powerful, and famous. They live where there are no poor, socialize in private clubs where there are no poor, travel first class, and otherwise isolate themselves from regular exposure to the needy except for occasional giving on the street or to the seasonal charities. Such benign neglect can often be as devastating as a deliberate reviling of the poor. This is in contrast to Him whom we claim to follow, who deliberately lived with and, for the most part, regularly sought out the poor and needy.
For many, even those who have started out with good intentions, the earnest pursuit of riches too easily gives way to greed. This phenomenon is known as the Frog Principle. It is said that if a frog were dropped into a pan of boiling water it would immediately jump out to save its life. However, if that same frog were placed in a pan of cold water and the heat was gradually turned up, the amphibian would stay put until cooked.
When pursuing wealth for the wrong reasons, it is very easy for the Frog Principle to take over. The process of accumulating a large enough bank account to acquire that “nice car” whets the appetite for a fur coat, then jewelry to go with the fur coat, then a better house to go with the car, then better furniture to go with the house. All of this requires more and more money until a person’s appetite for luxury devolves into a spirit of avarice.
This Frog Principle illustrates just how subtle greed can be. In recent years, Church members have had cause to ask searching questions upon news that some of their acquaintances, even family members, have been made victims of scams and fraud. Far too often some have even been the perpetrators of these criminal activities.
The questions and comments exhibit concern and surprise. “Has he always been a crook?” they ask. “He seemed such a nice, generous, thoughtful man, how could he be so dishonest?” “Didn’t he know he was doing wrong?” “Was it someone else who made him do it?” “We grew up together; I never dreamed he could do such a thing.”
It is the Frog Principle at work. People sometimes encounter and fall victim to it as they pursue their careers. When first starting work with an organization, some receive propositions to do certain things so unethical that they dismiss the idea with a resolute “never.” As time passes, however, they may slip into deeds that are barely questionable.
At first, they may distort the truth only slightly—through overstatement, understatement, or omission of a bit of information. Such actions are easily justified with, “That’s the way things are done here.” From there, it’s only a small step to a minor cover-up to preserve the organization’s (or their own) reputation of being reliable or honest or knowledgeable. “It was only a small mistake I made, but it’s so embarrassing. I don’t believe anyone will know if I handle it right. I can imply that I was led to believe it should be done this way, or I really thought that it was Jerry’s responsibility.”
These cover-ups, small at first, tend to grow and grow just like the heat in a pan until one is eventually caught in blatant dishonesty. The path to sin is negotiated step by step, not in one tremendous leap.
Korihor in the Book of Mormon is a prime example of this principle at work. After being struck dumb for preaching false doctrine and deceiving many in the land of Zarahemla, Korihor confessed he taught the doctrines delivered to him by the devil “because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.” (Alma 30:53.)
One of the young men involved in the Nixon Watergate affair in the United States expressed it well after the cover-up had been exposed. “During the heat of battle I really thought I was doing the right thing. Now the smoke has cleared I can’t believe how I could have even thought it was all right, let alone do it.”
We might turn to the words of another who was the victim of the Frog Principle. J. David Dominelli, an American entrepreneur, was well on his way to building a financial empire when it evolved into a scam and collapsed in April 1984. After Dominelli’s financial collapse and arrest he wrote a letter to a friend. One quote gives some practical insight into another example of how creeping deviltry works. “I have caused you so much grief by my lies,” he wrote, “Another lie to cover the first lie … and although this is no excuse, most lies I had always hoped to convert to reality.” (Barrons, 7 May 1984, p. 26.)
The allure of the “good life” and associating with those who are preoccupied with expensive cars, big houses, luxurious travel, vacation homes, and big investments causes people to think and feel differently. As Nephi, the son of Helaman, proclaimed, “How could you have forgotten your God? … Behold, it is to get gain, to be praised of men, yea, and that ye might get gold and silver.” He goes on to state how setting one’s heart upon riches causes people to bear false witness, steal, plunder, and even murder. (See Hel. 7:20–21.)
In summary, centering our thoughts on obtaining riches tends to feed many of the sinful inclinations of man, often edging people away from the Christlike life rather than pulling them toward it. By contrast, centering our thoughts and desires on the Lord and his work inclines one to become more like him in several important ways.
First, selfishness and greed are eliminated because one’s eye is kept focused on keeping the commandments and using what means one acquires to help provide for the needs of those who are without.
Second, the sin of pride is precluded. Because sharing and compassion are the motivating forces in our lives, whatever wealth we obtain serves as a resource for generosity rather than the means for boasting and ostentation.
Third, we remain “other” oriented. We keep Christ first, our neighbors second, and ourselves third—a very spiritually healthy order of priorities.
John, and others like him, should recognize the dangers in seeking wealth ahead of seeking the kingdom of God. In fact, wealth has little to do with one’s ability to serve the Lord. In the Lord’s church, those who manage the store and those who punch the time clock, those who administer the school and those who teach the third grade—all have opportunity to serve if they are faithful and capable.
“Behold, the field is white already to harvest,” the Savior taught; “therefore, whoso desireth to reap, let him thrust in his sickle with his might, and reap while the day lasts, that he may treasure up for his soul everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God. …
“Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion;
“Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (D&C 6:3–7.)
Following the Lord’s counsel to seek his kingdom first is our only means of earning His marvelous approval: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 25:34.)