In bishopric meeting a month or so ago, while we were discussing topics for sacrament meeting, one that our bishop asked to have addressed again was tithing and fast offerings, the commandments, and the blessings.

We don't address this topic repeatedly because the ward needs more money or because the stake president is breathing down our necks to help the stake get caught up on bills. Most of what we donate here goes straight to church headquarters and doesn't affect the budget that the church has given us -- which is sufficient for our needs. And while the amount of fast offerings that are donated by ward members does determine how much fast offering assistance can be given without needing approval from the stake, this isn't so much a question of trying to balance budgets as it is a spiritual matter.

We address this topic out of concern for the welfare of those who aren't currently receiving the blessings that the Lord gives to those who have the faith to sacrifice in order to obey his laws.

If you've struggled with the law of tithing or with fast offerings, don't worry. My goal isn't to get on your back or pester or criticize you, or to pass judgement. My goal is to help you catch the bigger vision and become converted. Because I believe that if you haven't become converted deeply enough to live these laws, you'll miss out on blessings that you can hardly imagine. If you could imagine them and believed in them enough, you wouldn't have any difficulty obeying these laws.

A few days ago, I was reading the place in the Book of Mormon where Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection. Near the end of his visit to them, he gives them some of the words of Malachi, which were spoken after Lehi's family left Jerusalem, and it struck me a little more than it has in the past. In the early verses of III Nephi chapter 24, we read:

But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap.

And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

And then a few verses later:

For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

So the chapter starts off talking about purifying people before the Lord comes so that they'll be able to abide his coming. This reminds me of some verses from Doctrine and Covenants section 88, which say:

And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom.

For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.

The laws that we're willing to obey determine what kingdom we're able to inherit. If we don't obey the whole law of the celestial kingdom, or if we're not at least honestly trying to obey the whole law, we can't inherit the celestial kingdom, because we won't be prepared to abide its glory. A few verses further on, it talks about what will happen if we try to pick and choose which parts of the gospel we're going to live. It says:

And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.

That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself [or to pick and choose whatever pieces of the law may suit our preferences,] and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.

And we know from the Book of Mormon that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God.

So Malachi started off speaking about becoming purified so that we'd be able to abide the presence of the Savior when he comes again. He then continues on to the part we're all familiar with, saying:

Return unto me and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of Hosts.

And I want to interject right there that if we feel like the Lord has left us to fend for ourselves, and that we can't spare the 10% he asks of us because we're on our own, we need to return to him first before we can expect him to return to us. He does still love us and is still trying to bring us back. But he's not going to bribe us to come back by saying, "here, I'll give you the blessings now and solve all your problems so that it's easy to believe."

It's up to us to return to him first. And then he has promised to return to us. And that's for good reason, because if the way back were too easy, following it wouldn't teach us anything and wouldn't make us stronger.

Malachi continues:

But ye say: Wherein shall we return?

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say: Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

Ye are cursed with a curse, for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in my house; and prove me now 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.

The Lord says "return to me by obeying the law of tithing and the law of the fast, and then you'll see that I'll return to you with blessings you can hardly imagine now."

Now, it's important to understand what this verse doesn't say, as well as what it says. It doesn't say "you'll make so much money that the bank won't have room to hold it all." If that's what we expect when we pay our tithing, we're likely to end up disappointed.

The blessings we receive may or may not be financial. If they are in part financial, the financial part may not be enough to keep us from struggling. But there are greater blessings than riches, or even, if it's the Lord's plan for us, than having enough to get by.

It's possible that the Lord may bless us with a trial. I know that's not what any of us wants to hear, but if we believe that the purpose of this life is to learn and grow and prove ourselves, then we know that trials are blessings. Can we expect to spend 97 years at ease, sitting on the couch flipping channels, and then saunter up to heaven a get a reward for what we've done? That wouldn't make much sense to me.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 58, the Lord says:

For verily I say unto you, blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven.

Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.

For after much tribulation come the blessings.

If we have faith that the Lord has a plan for us, and that he'll keep our lives moving forward according to that plan if we're obedient, then whatever trials we may face need not discourage us. One of the reasons that I've been grateful for some of the trials I've had in recent years is that they've helped me to learn better how to trust in the Lord, and that the strength and peace that comes from learning to rely on him in one trial can sustain us during other trials and challenges.

Of course, on the other hand, maybe the Lord will bless you with riches. I'd say the odds of it are a lot better than the odds of winning the lottery. So put your trust in God, not in the lottery.

Those of you who've had a temple recommend interview know that one of the questions you're asked is whether you're a full tithe payer. That and the other questions in the interview are designed in part to help us asses the depth of our conversion and commitment to the gospel. The questions don't go into every commandment in detail, but they cover a broad range of important issues and help us to know whether we're lukewarm or all-in with our faith.

In December, our sunday school classes covered the chapters in the Book of Revelation where John wrote to the people of seven branches of the church. It was interesting to contrast what he wrote to Smyrna with what he wrote to Laodicea.

In chapter 2, he writes to Smyrna:

I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)...

Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

In chapter 3, he writes to Laodicea:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:

I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed...

The Lord called the people who were in poverty and would be thrown in prison and killed rich, and those who were living lives of ease "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked". And then he counsels them to buy gold tried in the fire, which sounds a lot like what Malachi was talking about. If we want to be what the Lord calls rich, we need to be sanctified, and sanctification comes by obeying the law, which often involves sacrifice.

I don't know whether the white raiment he mentioned referred to the temple garment, but it certainly would seem appropriate.

So, what reason would a person have for not paying a full tithe or fast offerings?

The first would be that they don't know the laws or don't understand them. But they're pretty simple, so that shouldn't be a big barrier.

For tithing, we pay, in the Lord's words, "one tenth of our interest annually", which is understood to mean one tenth of our income. The Lord hasn't specified whether that's before taxes or after taxes, so that's between each individual and the Lord.

The law of fast offerings is less specific as to the amount. We're to fast 24 hours and donate at least what we would have spent on the meals we skipped to help the poor and needy, and are encouraged to contribute much more if possible.

That's about all it takes to understand the laws.

The second reason a person might give for not obeying these commandments, which I'd guess is probably the most common, is "I can't afford it."

If you're truly converted to the gospel, then even if that's true, it won't be enough to stop you.

We've read about the saints who gave up everything, even their lives for the gospel. That's not a sacrifice we're routinely called on to make. But if the Lord calls on some people to give up their lives for the gospel, why should we be surprised to be called on to give up our cell phones or cable TV or restaurant dinners for the gospel. And why should we be surprised if the Lord calls on us to pay our tithing with the last dollars we have to pay our bills? Which is worse: to be behind on your bills, that will all be cancelled when you die, or to be behind with the Lord.

We shouldn't be surprised at the sacrifices the Lord asks of us. In fact, we should expect the Lord to try our faith.

Not everyone will have it tried in this way. But some of us will. Those who, instead of asking, "Lord, why me?" meet their trials head-on with faith, will someday be grateful for the trials they were given because of the things that they learned, the strength that they gained, and for the privilege of proving themselves worthy by their faithfulness in difficult circumstances.

But if we never rise to the occasion, will we ever be grateful for our trials? Instead, we'll someday be forced to acknowledge that we squandered the opportunities we were given. Trials may feel like a lack of opportunity, but in fact, they're simply a different kind of opportunity.

The Lord knows better than we do what kinds of opportunities each of us needs. And I'm guessing that the kinds we need most generally aren't the kinds that we'd choose for ourselves.

Ultimately, if you struggle with the tithing or fast offerings, I hope you'll accept the invitation to become more fully converted. As I mentioned earlier, we can't expect to receive all the blessings of the gospel if we're not fully converted, or at least seeking to become fully converted and obey the whole law.

As it says in Doctrine and Covenants section 130:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated

And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

The laws of tithing and the fast are the path to certain blessings that we can't receive without obeying them. Among these are the blessings of the temple, which ultimately lead to the greatest blessings God offers to us.

Sometimes, I think we avoid becoming converted to things that we think we don't want to do. But in fact, when we're fully converted, our desire to obey our Father in Heaven becomes greater than our desire to avoid the particulars of whatever he asks.

Think of Jesus in Gethsemane. As we read in Matthew 26:

And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

If you haven't yet learned to love paying your tithing for its own sake, follow the Savior's example and do what you wouldn't choose to do because of your desire to do God's will. When we follow his example, and make the sacrifices that are asked of us, we become worthy of the sacrifice he made for us.

Are you converted enough to want to be more fully converted? If you are, then prove the Lord, as he invited you to do in the words he spoke through Malachi. Obey the law, and it's my testimony that you'll receive the blessings. I don't exactly what those blessing will be, and I don't exactly when they'll come, but it's my testimony that they will come in response to your obedience.

The Lord says, "I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say..." He will bless you. And however difficult it may be for a time, the day will come when you'll rejoice that you had the faith to do it, and I believe that you'll even be grateful for having been able to experience the challenge.