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Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Post: Spectrum of Gray

Seattle-based Bow Tie Guy sent in the following post on tithing. Maybe for his next guest post, Bow Tie Guy could provide us step-by-step instructions for tying a bow tie?

Image via Post Sacred. R.I.P.

What is Tithing?
I'll tell you every time--
Ten cents from a dollar,
and a penny from a dime.

In my high priests group we recently got to the gospel principle chapter on tithes and offerings. I expected (and got) the standard pronouncement that the only authorized statement on what constitutes tithing is the Section 119 revelation that it represents 10% of your interest (or income, say the modern interpreters) annually.

I decided to mix things up a bit by asking the instructor to let the group share some of their thoughts on what should and shouldn't be in the numerator of that little equation. My stated purpose was to understand how different people think about close cases so I had more grist for my personal mill in deciding where to draw my line. I was also curious if there were accepted interpretations that everyone else but me knew about (by way of background, my Mom was a convert, my Dad a non-member, so I grew up without a lot of the cultural collective consciousness many lifetime members enjoy. For example, I first heard about garments when I was a freshman in college, three months before my mission. That was a surprise.).

What followed was an interesting and wholly inconclusive discussion:

• Some pay on gross income without any adjustment.
• Some deduct social security taxes, but then pay on the payments when received later on, while others reverse that. One brother (an accountant) tracks how much he has contributed to social security and then has committed to pay tithing after his receipts exceed his contributions.
• Some pay on income net of all taxes because those dollars aren't in their control and the personal benefit derived from taxes is perceived as remote.
• Some pay on gifts, others only on earned income.
• Some pay on inheritances, others don't.
• Some deduct for 401(k) and IRA contributions currently but pay on distributions paid out. It was unclear whether folks were making a distinction between Roth and traditional accounts.
• There seemed to be consensus that you would encourage kids to pay on their allowances, but not on the value of the shoes/clothes/food/movie tickets/ice cream/etc., that you provide them. Most folks put tuition and mission payments on your kids behalf in the shoes category and not the allowance category, despite the fungibility of cash.
• Similar consensus that you'd pay on investment capital gains even if the profits are reinvested, but that you wouldn't pay on capital gains on your house if you reinvest those profits in a new house (though that distinction makes no sense).
• Some are self-employed and they just make stuff up.

When I got home and shared my wealth of collected insights with my wife, she let me know that I'm evil. Apparently, I took something that was a private matter of personal conscience and turned it into a public spectacle of comparative righteousness. If there was a "right" answer the Lord would have seen fit to elaborate. He didn't, so the only possible purpose of my inquiry was to find out if I was being righteous enough by measuring my mote against my neighbor's to see whose was bigger. She was mostly right, of course. I did want to know if I was using the same formula as people that I respected so that I could rest easy that I was doing at least as well as them on this particular commandment.

There are so few commandments where perfection is possible (Have I loved my enemy enough? Have I sufficiently magnified my calling? Have I done enough good in the world today? Have I eaten meat sparingly enough? Was I sufficiently honest in my dealings?). When I was a kid, I thought tithing would be one where I could always have a clear conscience, but apparently not. I long for black and white and clear choices and I'm given a spectrum of gray, inconsistent interpretations and "it's between you and the Lord". Maybe that would be fine if I had a clearer line of communication between me and Him, but He's a little light on specifics when we talk.

I'm also a little skeptical of any perceived inspiration I might receive on the topic. I've got a lot of respect for the men in my high priests group (former and current bishops, stake presidents, patriarchs, temple sealers and other salt of the earth types) and yet they've managed to feel comfortable with a broad range of interpretations. What confidence can I have that my answer is the right answer when it conflicts with theirs?

Is it enough to care? To ask the question and be open to an answer? Does God not care how you got to the check amount as long as you are willing to write it? I kinda hope so, because that's all I've got going for now.

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