Garments and Heavenly Power

The story of the woman with the ‘issue of blood’ is an interesting one in the scriptures:

25 And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years,

26 And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,

27 When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.

28 For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.

29 And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague. (Mark 5:25–29)

Nothing special here–one of many miraculous healings that happened during the Savior’s ministry.  Next, though:

30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?

31 And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

32 And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.

33 But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.

34 And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

Many times in the past, Jesus had avoided public acknowledgement and ‘credit’ for miracles, but here he purposefully called attention to the woman and her healing where by doing nothing, no one except the woman herself would have known what was going on.

Why?  Because an important lesson was in order–the woman needed to know that her healing was a deliberate gift from God according to her faith, not some automatic manifestation of spiritual power caused by touching a (supposedly) holy object.  (The difference between obtaining a can of soda from a lifeless machine by pushing a button, and someone deliberately handing you a can of soda instead…)

Had this lesson not taken place, an abstract detachment might have formed between the woman and the source of the miracle.  She might have assumed ‘The Garment’ was what healed her, not ‘God’.  As people heard the story, others might have assumed ‘The Garment’ inherently had some great healing power attached to it, perhaps leading to someone stealing it one day, when Jesus changed into other clothes.  People might have then started to worship the great healing power of ‘The Garment’ without Jesus attached to it, and someone else might have started selling pieces of it as "holy relics" on the 1st century equivalent of eBay. 

And, yet, ‘The Garment’ is nothing but a piece of cloth.  The woman was healed because (1) she believed, and (2) God wanted to heal her.  Jesus called attention to her specifically to teach her this lesson, although we read in the next chapter that, afterwards, "whithersoever he entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment…" (Mark 6:56)

(Mark notes that they were also healed by doing so, according to their faith, but it seems obvious that this separation of the power of God versus the power of "The Garment" had already started taking place in the minds of many people…)

One example that comes to mind of this same detachment of God’s power into physical objects comes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark".  You’ll recall (you have seen it, right?), that the Nazis are on a quest to find the ark because the army that bears the ark is "invincible" in battle.

Okay…let’s hold on a minute, here.  The ark was just a box made of wood.  It has no ‘power’, certainly not to help armies win battles.  Any ‘power’ that the ancient Israelites obtained from the ark is because God deliberately gave it to them…and the thought that God would deliberately give the Nazis the power to win battles simply because they possessed a box made of wood is laughable.  The Nazis (and perhaps the filmmakers too–the same concept applies to the Holy Grail in the third Indiana Jones movie as well…) made the mistake of thinking holy objects are creators of God’s power, versus just inanimate receptacles for God’s power…when He chooses to use them.   There is nothing inherently special about the staff that the Israelites had to look at to be saved from the poisonous snakes, nor of washing seven times in the river Jordan to healed from leprosy–those were just excuses for man to show their faith and be (deliberately) healed by the Lord. 

In our day, we have the equivalent of ‘The Garment’ in the temple garments of endowed Church members.  We’re promised that by respecting the sacredness of the garments they will be a protection to us.  And yet, they are just pieces of cloth.  Any blessing obtained from wearing them comes directly from God, not from "The Garments" themselves.  (Likewise any punishment for disrespecting them…)  Garments are an opportunity to fulfill covenants and show reverence towards sacred things–not in themselves holders of godly power.

That’s why the angry uproar from members over mistreatment of garments around Temple Square and the selling of them on the 21st century equivalent of eBay is a little misplaced.  They’re just pieces of cloth.  They have no more inherent holiness than a picture of Christ does.    We can respect the garments by being cognizant of what they represent and by personally fulfilling our covenants.  Getting in fistfights over pieces of cloth (as some overzealous members have done around Temple Square) is going overboard. (If God wants to ‘defend’ His garments from misuse, He is more than capable of doing so Himself…)

There are many symbols and objects that play important parts in the gospel, but learning that objects have meaning and power if–and only if–God wills it is an important principle.  (This is one reason why the LDS Church de-emphasizes the cross.  The cross is just two pieces of wood lashed together.  The cross doesn’t forgive sins, nor create miracles–Christ does…) Not ascribing mystical powers to inanimate objects helps us keep our focus on the true source of holy power, and the real reason for obtaining blessings…our faithfulness.

26 thoughts on “Garments and Heavenly Power

  1. Great post Kevin. I find it frustrating when members of the church refer to garments as some sort of “magical underwear” that protects you from flamethrowers etc. The power is the ability of the object to remind us of the covenants we make and so keep them; the power is in keeping covenants, not simply wearing an item of clothing.

    However, conversely it troubles me when we take these things too lightly. I can’t say I wasn’t upset to learn of the use of garments by so many anti’s. Yes, it’s just a piece of clothing, and not holy to them, but it’s still a shame to see such an important symbol defiled; disrespected. I can’t say I feel as negatively as you, Kevin, about the fistfight. Maybe I need to work on that.

  2. Well, getting in a fistfight is (a) un-Christian, (b) what those people want anyway, because it makes Church members look bad, and (c) not worth the trouble anyway, since, as mentioned, they’re just pieces of cloth that don’t need ‘defending’.

    Imagine they were setting pictures of President Hinckley on fire outside Temple Square (I don’t know…do they do this already?). Sure, still upsetting to some, but not terribly meaningful from any standpoint when you look at it. I would think there would be fewer fights in that instance…

  3. This reminded me of a Hugh Nibley quote.

    An Oxyrhynchus fragment from the third to fifth century has received a good deal of notice. It is a story about Jesus, regarded as authentic. One of the high priests, a Pharisee who meets him in the court of the temple, takes him to task, saying, “What is this talk about being pure? I am pure. I am pure, for I have washed in the pool of David and I have changed my old clothes and put on the white garments; and being thus purified, I proceeded and participated in the holy ordinances and handled the holy vessels.” Jesus replies to him, “The dogs and the pigs have bathed upstream from the pool of David where you bathed. You anointed yourself, but the whore and the tax collectors do that. They bathe and anoint themselves and put on fair garments, but does that cause them to be pure?” This is an important point. Jesus is not making fun of the purification and anointing, but is saying that the garment is inadequate without the thing that it signifies. It will not protect you unless you are true and faithful to your covenant, and only to the degree to which you do not dishonor your garment has it any significance at all.

    On the other hand, you say, “Well, if you have these virtues, what do you need the garment for anyway?” It has been commanded, and this is an important principle, because it works both ways. The garment will teach you sobriety, and sobriety will sanctify the garment and make it meaningful.

    -Temple And Cosmos, p. 121-122

  4. Just a note on garments and what they can possibly represent in our lives.
    I was in a major traffic accident the night before President Kimball died in 1985. I was in a subcompact car doing 60MPH when I was faced with a 1/2 ton truck that had gone out of control and was broadside in front of me. I do not know how fast he was going, but we were on a major highway and he was travelling towards me.
    I should have died in the accident, according to the police. I was suspected of having massive internal injuries, a broken back, as well as my right leg hanging like a piece of meat below the knee and serious facial injuries.
    Anyway, when one of the ward members came to visit me in the hospital a week later, he pointed out that all my injuries(other than severe bruising)were above and below the garment line.
    I don’t want to make this an argument for or against the above arguments, but in my case they hold a significant place in my heart that makes them more than just a piece of cloth.

  5. Interesting thoughts, Kevin. I marvel at the ability of M* bloggers to address controversial topics (stuff I wouldn’t touch on my own blog, hardly a model of orthodoxy) with a straight face. Maybe it’s one of those “only Nixon could go to China” things.

    While you outline a pleasantly reasonable position in your post, I think it is misleading to attribute this position to the Church at large. If there’s one thing that sets Mormonism apart from contemporary Christianity, it is a deep belief in supernatural objects such as Nephite interpreters (aka Urim and Thummim), the supernaturally preserved BoM plates themselves, and the sword of Laban (see D&C 17:1).

    Furthermore, the Bible as a whole is certainly friendly to the idea that object possess a certain sort of vested divine power, such as the staff of Moses, the ark of the covenant itself, or the bronze serpent. That extends to the idea of “holy ground” as well, from the site of the burning bush (where God himself announced the site as holy ground) to later temples (also blessed with the divine presence). So the Mormon view of “divine objects” has considerable support in the Bible, however much it is out of step with scientific naturalism or modern Protestant sensibilities.

  6. “While you outline a pleasantly reasonable position in your post, I think it is misleading to attribute this position to the Church at large. If there’s one thing that sets Mormonism apart from contemporary Christianity, it is a deep belief in supernatural objects such as Nephite interpreters (aka Urim and Thummim), the supernaturally preserved BoM plates themselves, and the sword of Laban (see D&C 17:1).”

    Do Mormons really believe that these were really supernatural objects? Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim for translation, but that doesn’t mean that they themselves had the power of translation within them. If someone had stolen the U&T from Joseph Smith and tried to translate, they wouldn’t have been able to, because it’s the Lord’s power that allows the translation, not something inherent in the U&T that do so. Even the Liahona, one of the more ‘supernatural’ objects from the scriptures, only worked if the Lord wanted it to.

    So…whether the Church membership at large believes in supernatural objects with vested divine power or not, I don’t. Laban’s sword was just a sword–no different than thousands of other identical swords that were probably in Jerusalem at the time. If it held special significance to the Nephites it’s because the Lord desired it…and could have done so with any sword that happened to be in their possession.

    Even larger objects like temples have no inherent ‘holiness’ within them. They’re created from ordinary physical materials just like any number of other buildings. If a temple ever gets ‘decommissioned’ (Kirtland, maybe?) it becomes just a building–nothing special about it. The only specialness comes from how we treat it and what we do in it.

  7. Anyone care to speculate if the jaredite stones are still giving forth light? 8-)

  8. I think there’s a reasonable middle ground between Dave’s and Kevin’s positions. The garment is holy, as it is endowed with holiness. No, the cloth itself does not possess indepedent power, but God does choose to exercise his power through the cloth, as with the Liahona, Urim and Thummim, and sacrament bread.

    But I think it’s taking it too far to say these things do not possess power and holiness. There are many believable instances of people finding miraculous physical protection through garments. We are lazy in saying that the garment protected the person, but we all understand it was God who did it. As Kevin points out, no one believes you could steal any of the above holy objects and exploit their power for evil purposes. But I’m not ready to go as far as Kevin in saying that these things are just symbols. While used properly, there is real power given through them, which is not given to others of equal faith that lack the symbol. Put two faithful saints in a maze, one with a working Liahona, and the other with just the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and I’ll put my money on the one with the Liahona.

  9. I’m not an expert on the relevant history, but it’s my impression that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries most probably did attribute supernatural powers to physical objects in themselves; this is an important feature of that celebrated magical world view. I think it’s our modern rationalism that wants to reinterpret the event—and reassign the source of power—in a way that more comfortably fits our own experiences and intuition. Of course, being rather taken by modern rationalism myself, I happen to think that the modern reading is correct, but I’d guess that Joseph would disagree.

  10. You know what, though, this is a true story: My husband went out to cut wood on the mountain and he accidentally cut through his pants with the saw. Well, I mean, he thinks the garments saved his leg because the pants have a big wide cut in the thigh part and his garments weren’t cut. So, there is something there. I think it would be very hard to cut through a pair of levis with a chain saw and not through your leg.

    He saved those pants and used them for talks when he was on the high council.

  11. Some of these comments remind me of LDS who still teach from the King Follet sermon after GBH hammered the nails on that coffin. Why don’t we all go around with burka type head-to-toe garments representing the whole amour of G-d? Wouldn’t that give ultimate protection?

  12. If we start asking wrong questions we are going to get wrong answers.
    The garments are a part of the endowment. They represent sacred covenants. They do represent power insofar as they are regarded as sacred. Someone else in my situation might have died, which makes it a mute point as to whether or not the garments saved my life.
    What it does represent to me, is that in allowing me to live, the Lord allowed me a particular blessing wherein my garments did act as a shield. As Annegb pointed out, some things are too real to be mere coincidence.

  13. I’m not denying the reality of your experience (nor of similar ones we’ve all heard of)

    What I am denying is the likelihood that you could take off your garments, give them to some non-member guy down the street, and have them protect him in the same circumstance. The fundamental question is whether the garments protected you, or God protected you through the garments.

    And one of the difficulties is that it’s basically impossible to determine which one it is…which makes this discussion somewhat meaningless in the end because there can’t be a resolution. (Not that that’s ever stopped us before!)

    I maintain, though, that inanimate objects possessing heavenly power of their own accord raises the possibility of God’s power being used outside of God’s control…which seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But, hey…it’s not like I know what the Urim & Thummim were really made out of, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong about certain objects being inherently more ‘special’ than others…

  14. Kevin,

    It is not difficult to determine which one it is. The 2 options you raise are not mutually exclusive.

    The power always come from God. In 1Ne.22:17 Nephi tells us: “Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it is by fire.”

    There is power in covenant making with the Lord. That includes anything associated with that covenant, including the symbols, as represented by the garments.

  15. Steve (FSF),

    Regarding comment #12, you mention in passing that Pres. Hinckley “hammered the nails on that coffin,” referring to the King Follet Discourse (KFD). The only source from which I surmise you came to the conclusion that doctrines expounded in the KFD have been discredited is from an interview of Pres. Hinckley by David Van Biema in Time magazine in 1997. Far from making a declarative statement such as “These teachings are regarded as heresy by the current administration and any further public teaching of it by members may result in church discipline,” Pres. Hinckley’s response seems more to have been an effort to move the interview along to another subject by being vague and noncommital on the topic (of course this is my own inference and you are welcome to draw your own conclusions).

    This was an isolated incident in 1997 and I am not familiar with any other statement by Pres. Hinckley since then that has either explicitly endorsed or explicitly condemned KFD teachings (in General Conference or otherwise). Hence your metaphor of “hammered the nails on that coffin” does not accurately portray Pres. Hinckley’s or the Church’s stance on the subject.

    Michael W. Fordham posted an interesting commentary on the Time interview at the FAIR website, which can be found here: http://www.fairlds.org/apol/misc/misc09.html.

    P.S. Kevin, sorry for the threadjack but I felt that this has to be addressed.

  16. When I was a kid in the South I read an article (an ad really) about a charismatic preacher who was telling people to send him handkerchiefs (sp?) in the mail that he would bless and send back so that they could draw healing power from them. I thought that this was ridiculous.

    Then I read that Paul did the same thing in Acts.

    I think that we all agree that the power comes from God. I also think that the experience requires a person to have faith in the object itself as a recepticle of God’s power. I think this is why garments are treating differently than bales of cotton-poly fabric and why er…some general authority (Marion G. Romney?) put his suit on before he gave an important blessing (anybody know what barely remembered story I am referring to?). I think this also applies to Joseph Smith and the early saints use of seer stones and what not. They had faith that God would work through such things and, therefore, he could.

  17. Yes, and you guys, I was not exaggerating that by any stretch of the imagination. My husband is not even a spiritual guy, but he’s a believer now.

    Although, yeah, why don’t babies wear them? Then we couldn’t have that fight over whether babies shouldn’t wear those sexy, pedophile-inspiring sleeveless shirts.

    Apologies in advance for the sarcasm, Geoff.

    You know, there are Geoffs and Julies and Lisas abounding and I never know who I’m talking to.

  18. Yeah, the Bloggernacle skews toward GenX right now and there are plenty of Lisas, Julies and even a handful of us Geoffs in GenX.

    As for the post, I agree with the Baron. I even think Joseph would agree. There is no power in the object itself. As I understand it, Joseph stopped using the Urim and Thummin and the seer stone after he got better at revelation. I think they acted as a crutch to him but soon became unnecessary. For that reason I disagree with Ryan’s maze theory (#9). I think we can actually become the instrument with enough practice and the external helpers (like the Liahona) can become completely superfluous.

    That said, I think the line that Ben quoted from Nibley is very useful here:

    On the other hand, you say, “Well, if you have these virtues, what do you need the garment for anyway?” It has been commanded, and this is an important principle, because it works both ways. The garment will teach you sobriety, and sobriety will sanctify the garment and make it meaningful.

  19. Just a brief comment. You state that the “garment” is worn as an opportunity to fulfill covenants and show reverence towards sacred things–not in themselves holders of godly power. Likewise, as a non LDS christian, the cross is also a reminder of our covenants we took upon our baptisms…just as the “garments” are a reminder of the covenants the LDS take. We do not feel that the cross has any special power, forgive sins nor does it create miracles (as you stated)…it is a constant reminder of our sacred batisms.

  20. The cross is also reminds us of the selfless act Christ did in order that we all may be “saved”.

  21. Thanks Mark. When non-LDS ask me about the “special Mormon underwear”, I say there are marks on the underwear that remind us of covenants we make in the temple in the same fashion as some Christians wear a cross. It’s an explanation that is easily understood even by non-Christians. For the record, I always viewed crosses and crucifixes as a worship aids and viewed the LDS non-use of the cross as an historical accident. Brigham Young used to say keep your mind focused on the cross, so I’m not sure when the non-use actually began. Thanks again for your comments.

  22. Garments also act as a social control point, a deterrent to wearing strappy outfits, short hemlines and bare midriffs, and as a fabric chastity belt (the key is both embarrassment and self-policing).

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