Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters

The writer of Ecclesiastes teaches us an important principle through a vivid metaphor:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

Ecclesiastes 11:1

I don’t have a lot of experience throwing bread into water (other than feeding ducks) but this metaphor rings true to me. There is something uncontrollable about water, particularly the ocean with its waves and tides. Once you let go of something valuable in it, you may never see it again. It takes faith to set it free and trust that everything will be okay.

Some other translations of the Bible interpret the same metaphor on a larger scale. For example:

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.

Eccesiastes 11:1, New International Version

The expected return seems more attractive in this version. (Who wants soggy bread?) But I still prefer the King James translation. It seems more intimate and personal, which is how I think of this passage in my daily life.

I’ve been reading the book Give and Take by Adam Grant. He divides people into three groups: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are focused on serving others and adding value without thinking about how they will personally benefit. Takers are the opposite, focusing only on themselves, seeking rewards while minimizing any contributions they have to make. Most of us are matchers: willing to help as long as the recipient reciprocates. Matchers want to know that their actions will be rewarded before committing. According to Grant, in a number of contexts including engineering professions, medical school, and sales, givers are the least successful of the three groups in the short run. But in the long run, they tend to come out on top.

The author of Ecclesiastes points out the hazard of being hyperfocused on outcomes. There are so many things we can’t control, he says. “If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.” So if we wait to do something until we’re sure of the outcome, we will never do anything: “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.” The author advises us to simply do our work, because we don’t know how things will turn out: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (Ecclesiastes 11:3-6).

The Sanskrit word karma (कर्म) means “work” or “action.” In several Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the term carries an important moral meaning: We should do good without worrying about outcomes. We should trust that our ultimate destiny will be an appropriate response to our actions. In the Bhagawad Gita, a Hindu scripture, the god Krishna says, “Actions do not cling to me because I am not attached to their results. Those who understand this and practice it live in freedom” (Baghavad Gita 4:14).

Elder D. Todd Christofferson taught the same principle in our most recent general conference:

Some misunderstand the promises of God to mean that obedience to Him yields specific outcomes on a fixed schedule. They might think, “If I diligently serve a full-time mission, God will bless me with a happy marriage and children” or “If I refrain from doing schoolwork on the Sabbath, God will bless me with good grades” or “If I pay tithing, God will bless me with that job I’ve been wanting.” If life doesn’t fall out precisely this way or according to an expected timetable, they may feel betrayed by God. But things are not so mechanical in the divine economy. We ought not to think of God’s plan as a cosmic vending machine where we (1) select a desired blessing, (2) insert the required sum of good works, and (3) the order is promptly delivered.

God will indeed honor His covenants and promises to each of us. We need not worry about that. The atoning power of Jesus Christ—who descended below all things and then ascended on high and who possesses all power in heaven and in earth—ensures that God can and will fulfill His promises. It is essential that we honor and obey His laws, but not every blessing predicated on obedience to law is shaped, designed, and timed according to our expectations. We do our best but must leave to Him the management of blessings, both temporal and spiritual.

Our Relationship with God,” General Conference, April 2022

The Book of Mormon prophet Alma also taught this principle, which he simply called restoration: “That which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored,” he said to his son Corianton (Alma 41:15). Focus on doing good, trusting that everything will work out in the end:

See that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again.

Alma 41:14

Today, I will “cast [my] bread upon the waters.” I will work hard and serve others without trying to predict or control outcomes. I will trust in the law of restoration and be grateful that, through Jesus Christ, all the good I send out will ultimately return to me again.

3 thoughts on “Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters

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  1. Thanks for this Paul. I was recently reading “Original Grace” by Adam S. Miller and he made a point along the same lines as Elder Christofferson’s “cosmic vending machine” remark.

    The cosmic vending machine metaphor imagines a God who is passively awaiting our obedience so he can dispense blessings. In this metaphor, we are the ‘cause’ that compels God to produce an ‘effect’ (blessing) in a transactional relationship.

    In reality, God is the ‘cause’ of all good. His grace is the “enabling power” that enables us to abound in good works. He does not passively and dispassionately wait for us to earn a blessing but, instead, actively seeks to curate our environment and experiences so that we can learn and progress by exercising our agency righteously. Furthermore, He does not seek to transact with us but, on the contrary, craves to nurture a loving, eternal relationship with us.

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    1. I agree. A giving mentality is more consistent with building a relationship. Matching seems more transactional. Since God has already given us far more than we could ever repay, and since His promised blessings are far beyond anything we could earn, a matching mentality seems entirely inappropriate for our relationship with Him. Thanks for the comment!

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