As an ethnobotanist, I have always been moved by protocol at Polynesian kava ceremonies. After briefly summarizing the history of the island, village chiefs pour a few drops from the kava cup on the ground before drinking, symbolizing returning goodness to the earth. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, this humble gesture reminds me of paying tithing.
I would like to share why the principle of tithing has been so precious to me.
First, tithing allows me with some frequency to review the blessings of God in my life. Those blessings include saving the life of my young family during a Category 5 hurricane that nearly killed all of us in a remote Samoan island. The storm and wave surge wiped away most of the village, our vehicle and our possessions. As I held my young daughter Hillary in my arms and felt her heart beat, I realized that none of those material things mattered. I was grateful for her life and for the temple sealing that ensured our family would continue into the next life. Just as the residents of Oberammergau, Germany, perform the Passion Play every 10 years to thank the Lord for sparing their village from the bubonic plague in 1634, giving a tithe of my income allows me to show my gratitude to the Lord for sparing our lives during the storm.
Second, giving tithing of my income forces me to be aware, on an ongoing basis, of that increase and to show that I consider earthly blessings to be secondary to my support of the kingdom of God on earth. Tithing helps me be a better steward in acknowledging the source of my blessings.
Third, giving tithes and offerings allows me in a very personal way to show the Lord that I will always remember Him, that I am willing to take His name upon me and that I will keep His commandments. Tithing is thus for me a type of sacrament, a religious observance that I can quietly partake of frequently.
Fourth, like most people, I aspire to become a better person. Tithing is one commandment that I can live perfectly. Paying a full tithing reminds me that despite my failings, I can improve other aspects of my life as well.
Fifth, I am pleased with what happens to the funds I give to the Church. They are used for educating tens of thousands of students, building hundreds of chapels and temples — including for members in the poorest nations on the earth — and for many other charitable purposes.
Sixth, I like the idea that tithes are allocated by the Council on the Disposition of the Tithes, composed of the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I am deeply impressed by their diligence and devotion. Just as I benefited from a receiving my graduate education at a university with a significant endowment — thus allowing the university to consistently pursue its educational mission over three and a half centuries independent of the vagaries of the national economy — I am grateful that my church of 16 million members sets aside funds so that it continues its religious and charitable mission during good and bad economic times ahead. What a great example of self-reliance for me and my family to follow.
Seventh, I like the way the Church collects tithing. It never beats the drum or has a big fundraiser or puts the names of donors on board. I give my tithes and offerings quietly and privately. Formerly they were presented in a small white envelope, and now they are sent with a few keyboard strokes on the Church website. Once a year, I meet in private with my bishop, who asks a simple question: are you a full-tithe payer? The answer to that single question is solely between me and the Lord.
I understand that some people might think I am foolish to give a tithe on my income to the Church. Anciently, criticism was leveled at Mary, who took a “pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair.”
“Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” one of His disciples complained. (See John 12: 3-5)
That critic clearly did not understand Mary’s act of devotion. Perhaps modern-day critics will not understand mine.
As an ethnobotanist, Paul Alan Cox searches for cures for serious illnesses. He is currently executive director of the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.