It’s quite some trick that our centres of learning are now full of people who either feel obliged to say things they know are not true or don’t believe any truth exists at all…
It has consequences.
It’s quite some trick that our centres of learning are now full of people who either feel obliged to say things they know are not true or don’t believe any truth exists at all…
It has consequences.
And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.
In our current age tolerance is frequently affirmed as the supreme virtue. One aspect of this I’ve seen expressed in a number of places is the belief that the only acceptable attitude to other people’s actions is one of unconditional approval, lest on be guilty of the modern sin of “judging”. Some people seem to have a genuine outrage that someone, somewhere, might disapprove of their actions, while others seem to have misunderstood the whole business of “judge not, that ye be not judged” (something I’ve covered a couple of times before).
There are some others, however, who seem to have formed the opinion that the only loving response to others is to endorse all and any of their actions. Jacob’s attitude here is a distinct contrast to this: having been ordained a priest and teacher (an important point, since in our private capacity our primary concern should always be our own sins), he did not express his concern for the people by telling them everything they were doing was okay. Instead for him it was a sacred duty to point out sin, and if he did not “their blood would come upon our garments”. Jacob knew that the only moral response was to warn people of things that would otherwise bring them eternal sorrow, and that if he did not he not only would not be acting in a loving fashion, but would be potentially be held responsible for not speaking up.
I was struck by Jacob’s statement in verse 5:
For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them.
That faith was a prerequisite for their revelation comes as no surprise; what’s interesting is the role played by their “great anxiety”. It reminded me of those periods in my life when I had some really powerful spiritual experiences. I remember a year or so later, too, when I was reflecting on that in my journal, but reflecting I hadn’t quite had anything of the same magnitude at that point, and wondering why, and realising that part of that was down to the desperation I felt at the time of those experiences. My desire for guidance and reassurance from the Lord was fuelled by the significant emotional trials I was experiencing at the time, so that I didn’t just want and need such help, I was desperate for it. In short, I too was experiencing “great anxiety”, but that paved the way for great experiences that at the time served as oases for my soul. We cannot force the spirit nor the Lord’s timetable, yet sometimes the key to spiritual things is not just whether we want the right things, but how badly we want them, and what we are prepared to do to obtain them.
Stories can be powerful things. I think it is no accident that much of our scriptures come in the form of stories; God, if he’d wanted to, could have chosen instead to give us an inspired Gospel Principles manual… but he didn’t. And in many instance I believe that – while it is important to know that such events took place (particularly with things like Christ’s resurrection) – in many instances there are messages we can learn from those stories that go far beyond the simple fact that such events took place. And I’m not alone in that: Paul writing to the Corinthians states the scriptural events “happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11) while Alma looks upon the account of Lehi and Nephi’s journeys through the wilderness as a “type” of our journey through mortality (Alma 37:38-45).
Fiction too can teach powerful things. While fiction can’t serve the same purpose as, say, Christ’s ministry in 3 Nephi (where the text’s ability to serve as a witness depends very much on it having actually happened), I think fiction can teach of true things. I personally enjoy quite a bit of both fantasy and science fiction, for instance, but I’ve long been persuaded that – while talking of quite unreal things – they can teach of really true things like courage, justice, duty, humility and many other things. Balrogs and magic rings may not exist, but the seductive appeal of power and its corrupting effects seen in The Lord of the Rings does.
I occasionally have a desire to write some stories that have been on my mind for a long while, so I think of this sort of thing occasionally. In the last couple of years, my attention has been drawn to more recent fictional franchises, and as it has I’ve become a little more aware, and slightly disturbed, by the “moral universes” depicted in those works. What I mean by that is the morality and the moral consequences displayed in those works. This has been justified as “more realistic” or more “gritty”. But they are not. Even a godless world would be simply amoral, yet in these created worlds fate itself bends so that evil triumphs, even when said perpetrators of evil have behaved in a stupid, reckless or short-sighted manner. The accusation is that works in which good wins because it is good are naive. In some cases it is. But what then are we to make of works in which evil wins simply because it is evil? I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the postulated moral landscape of some of these universes are not godless worlds; they have a god, and he is the devil. A world in which chance itself reliably rewards the most outrageous performer of evil is one based on a thoroughly unpleasant calculus. What sort of world is that imagining? What can that inspire or teach?
So I was very interested to come across the following article by some chap called Tom Simon, who explores this whole issue in fantasy in some depth drawing upon C.S Lewis’s concept of “the Tao“. The whole thing is worth a read, but a couple of highlights:
When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In the stories of the past – in nearly all fiction before, say, the late nineteenth century, and all popular fiction until a much later date – the Tao is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do not observe the Tao. These people are called criminals, or outlaws, or villains. In the older kind of fiction, the villain upsets the Tao to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero restores the Tao by avenging the victim.
He then covers some of the directions that fantasy literature has taken, including anti-heroes such as a Conan, the supposed “simplistic” Tolkien (a critique he neatly dismantles) and then the more recent “full-throated reaction against the Tao” seen in things like Game of Thrones and Sin City. And he goes into both why such works caricature reality and why they may be so popular today as they cater “to a thoroughly jaded and desensitized audience”
However, I particularly like how he finishes. His essay is not a counsel of despair, but rather a call for “superversive fiction”:
…But people want stories about violence and criminality? Very well; let us tell them. But let us tell the whole story, with the post-mortems and the blood feuds and the vengeance. And let us contrast it with some instances of actual heroism…
There does, I believe, come a revulsion; a point where people are no longer content to be fifteen-year-old rebels even in their fantasies, but want more sustaining food for their imaginations. Let us be there to give it to them. We can produce better effects – better conflicts – with chiaroscuro, with darkness and light, than the nihilists can ever produce by layering darkness upon darkness.
I highly recommend reading it all.
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.
(2 Nephi 33:10)
This verse always sticks out to me as I consider myself a recipient of this promise. There was a time in my life when, though I knew God existed, I became confused about everything else, and really felt I didn’t know which way was up or which way was down. I continued to read the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, but I did not know they were true. Yet I continued to read them, and many other things, as I really wanted to know one way or the other (after all, I felt my soul was at stake), and if you want to find something out you have to put some effort and research into it. You can’t expect ultimate answers if you can’t be bothered to do more than cursory reading.
In any case the concept of prophets made sense to me; it made sense that if God expected us to do his will, he had to communicate it somehow. Of course, then there’s the question of which prophets. And I remember one night contemplating “well, Islam has Muhammad – maybe Islam has it right”.
It was at that very moment – and I do not know whether I somehow had already known it, but didn’t know I knew it, or if I was taught it in that very moment – that I realised we needed a Messiah to reconcile justice and mercy, and that that Messiah was Jesus Christ. Which narrowed down my options a bit.
What struck me, in years to come and reflecting upon that experience, was that the very terminology in which this insight struck me comes from the Book of Mormon (Alma 42 is a good example). While I did not yet know whether to believe the Book of Mormon, reading it brought me to Christ. And in time – now that I knew Jesus was the Christ – I came to believe and gain a witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Though I did not believe “in these words”, I read them and they taught me of Christ, and then “believ[ing] in Christ [I did] believe in these words”.
And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
Verse 1 caught my attention right from the beginning. It’s not the only time this sort of sentiment will appear in the Book of Mormon (Moroni expresses something similar in Ether 12). There’s some subtle differences though: Moroni was comparing his words to those of the brother of Jared, who apparently did manage to capture power in his writing, while Nephi almost takes it as given that speaking (at least of the gospel) is more powerful, because to the role and power of the Holy Ghost. Yet I see no reason why the Holy Ghost cannot do the same for writing, indeed I know he can, since I have felt the Holy Ghost do that as I’ve read inspired writings. Nephi doesn’t quite describe it as a universal law, however, but writes rather of his own experience and his ability to express inspiration in speech and writing. That accords with what Moroni says and my own perception: we have different gifts, and some are particularly gifted in speech, others in writing, and some find it easier to communicate via the spirit in one medium than in the other.
There’s an element of a general writers dilemma here too, however, that applies beyond the writing of inspired works. I have felt frustration myself that some of the things I write simply can’t quite express – and certainly not with the same power or emotion – the things in my head. Sometimes the words just seem dead on the page, compared to the metaphorical vision in my mind. I’m sure I’m not the only writer to face this problem. It’s reassuring in part that despite Nephi and Moroni’s own assessment of their writing skills, their works are some of the writing that I’ve felt have both an emotional and a spiritual impact upon me.
I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.
Verse 6 is an example of this: simple, plain, yet powerful. But when reading it today I was also struck by the power of his statement that Christ “hath redeemed my soul from hell”. For some reason when I talk about wanting to avoid hell in Church settings people tend to laugh. It struck me when reading this today that one shortcoming of the modern heresy that there is no hell is that it robs Christ of the credit for one of the things he saves us from. We talk about salvation, and Christ being our Saviour, and forget these are terms with a reference: to be saved is to be saved from something. There are lots of things that Christ saves us from, different ways in which he is our Saviour, but surely two of the biggest (especially according to passages like 2 Nephi 9) are death and hell. If we deny hell, we deny that Christ can or has saved us from it.
And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.
And it speaketh harshly against sin, according to the plainness of the truth; wherefore, no man will be angry at the words which I have written save he shall be of the spirit of the devil.
I really felt like quoting verses 4 and 5 here, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s a powerful summary not just of the value that Nephi saw in his words, but the value which is in his words. I also see an interesting balance: on one hand the words persuade us to do good and believe in Christ, in a rather gentle description, but on the other they speak harshly against sin. Yet it’s just such a balance that is encapsulated by the character of God himself, as described by Joseph Smith in the oft-selectively quoted description that:
Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.
As to Nephi’s words about the final judgment, thee’s two observations that really come to mind every time I read this passage. One is the way in which his description (and not only his, but Jacob’s, Alma the Younger’s and Mormon’s) captures his own personality:
I have charity for my people, and great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat.
I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came.
I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.
(2 Nephi 33:7-9)
It’s not that he is teaching different doctrine from Jacob, Alma or Mormon. What I find interesting is how their personalities shape their emotional attitude and description of the same truths. Jacob mentally includes himself with the wicked, Mormon is grimly realistic. Nephi however expresses optimism: he has “great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat”, and in verse 12 speaks of praying that “many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom at that great and last day”. But Nephi is also uncompromising about the truth, and so why expressing these hopes he also doesn’t back away from the fact that this salvation is only possible through “the strait path” of the gospel, which must be followed.
The other detail I can’t help but reflect on in this chapter is Nephi’s statement in verse 11:
And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.
Again, Nephi is not the only one to say this: Moroni also speaks of meeting us before the judgment-bar (Moroni 10:27). It causes me to reflect on who else we’ll meet as witnesses at that point, and on whether we’ll end up being witnesses for anyone else.
Finally, there’s Nephi’s very last words in the Book of Mormon, which encapsulate so much of the journey Nephi has been on, and his approach:
For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at thebar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must . Amen.
(2 Nephi 33:15, my emphasis)
We’ve seen throughout 1st Nephi that there is this cycle of commandments being given, and then commandments obeyed, and throughout Nephi has been consistently obedient. But it’s more than just a choice: he must obey.
That’s not to say he was denying he had agency. I remember a similar discussion I had with an acquaintance, in which I expressed that I must do some task, and they were of the opinion that I was somehow failing to appreciate or utilise my agency. But what I was trying to express, however badly, was what I think Nephi expresses here. When you know who God is, and he tells you to do something, then the question goes beyond agency. Sure, you still have it, and mortal weaknesses may cause us to fall short, but at the same time when God says jump the only possible answer is “how high?”. To outright say “no” may be possible, but it feels unthinkable.
And it’s funny: for many years – even when beginning my reading this year – I’ve often said I didn’t think I’d have liked Nephi if I’d known him. There are other personalities in the scriptures that I find myself much more naturally in sympathy with. Yet upon this year’s reading, and especially upon reading, reflecting upon and writing upon this last chapter, I feel a little differently now.
So my reading of the Book of Mormon has slowed down since I started reading it in the Deseret Alphabet, but I hadn’t realised how much further back these posts had gotten from from my personal reading, so there’s plenty of backlog.
When reading this chapter personally, I guess was in part struck by the “why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?” (v.1). There’s a lot I’ve been wondering about personally; is this “because ye ask not, neither do ye knock” (v.4)? To what extent do the words “for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be” (v.7) apply to me?
There is one verse that always sticks out when I read this chapter:
And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend who I cared about very much, who had stopped praying because they felt that God didn’t want to hear from them, that they were unworthy of God’s attention, that they didn’t want to waste God’s time, and that if the devil was working upon them than he wouldn’t be working on someone else. I could understand (perhaps better than they realised) some of the emotions that might lie behind such feelings, but on the other hand that sentiment seemed to underestimate both God’s and the devil’s resources. And they did know better than that, something I tried (and believe I succeeded) to remind them of. I know those sorts of feelings hang around, and the devil lies to prey upon such feelings, but I hope they are still praying and rejecting such lies that teach them not to pray.
But I have often wondered how this verse applies to me. I have never quite felt as my friend did, since – while I have often felt unworthy before God – I’ve never really felt I can escape him, nor really felt that I am occupying too much time of an infinite and eternal being who isn’t bound by mortal time scales. But there have been times in my life when prayer became more perfunctory and less efficacious; when it became more of a habit and less me actually trying to speak to my God.
And I think this may be covered by this verse too. If the adversary can’t actually stop us praying, I’m sure he’ll do all he can to make our prayers less effective and real. In my experience so many things can happen to do that: putting prayer off to the last minute, not making the space (mentally, spiritually or physically) to pray, treating prayer as a repetitive shopping list (we’re commanded to pray for things we need, but that’s not all prayer should be), probably a whole bunch of small things I barely notice.
I guess the good thing is that in my experience many of these things are easy to fix too. Just like – for all the emotional turmoil they were suffering – all my friend needed to do about prayer was to actually pray, I’ve found that small things can help rectify it: making time to pray, being open and honest about my feelings in my prayers, sometimes simply seeking an appropriate physical space to pray (Joseph needed the sacred grove, after all). Sometimes it can simply be following that impulse to get on my knees right now, rather than listen to the little voice saying it can wait a few minutes. With at least one message at general conference being about the importance of “worshipful prayer”, I guess the importance of this verse – and which voice we choose to listen to – remains as important today as it did thousands of years ago.
Verses 1, 4 and 5 really stood out to me today:
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way. But, behold, why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.
I guess it can be a perennial question, “what shall we do?”, in a number of contexts. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s very clear, but there’s sometimes other seasons where it’s not quite so clear what we should be doing right now. One resources, also mentioned in this chapter, are “the words of Christ” (v. 3), but there is also the privilege of personal revelation. One thing I think this verse points out is that there is almost a duty to seek such revelation: it’s not only something that we (and not just others) can receive, it’s something we should be seeking out. It is that revelation that can tell us personally what we should do.
Now that doesn’t necessarily come when we want it: God sometimes answers in his own due time for his own reasons, and sometimes we need to place ourselves in the right place – physically, emotionally, spiritually and otherwise – to obtain such revelation (much as discussed for the closely linked topic of prayer, above). But it is personal revelation, and sometimes it is only personal revelation, that can give us the guidance and directions we seek.
So I’m a bit behind on putting up posts for the Book of Mormon read through. On the other hand, no one particularly seemed to be reading them so they’re probably not missed.
I’ll probably continue with them for my own benefit though, though at a slower pace as I have a new toy!:
This is the Book of Mormon in the Deseret Alphabet, something I’ve had a passing interest in for a number of years ever since I learnt it in Jerusalem because I was bored. It was developed under the auspices of Brigham Young, principally by George Watt, in an attempt to supply an alternative phonetic alphabet for the English language. English as used with the Roman alphabet is not particularly phonetic, of course – consider the different pronounciations of ough – nor is the Roman alphabet especially well-suited to English in the first place (for instance, English has a lot more than 5 vowels). There’s been a variety of attempts to fix this, such as the Shavian alphabet or Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet. The Deseret Alphabet was one of the more serious attempts, however, with actual published works. Cost and practicality, however, meant that it was subsequently abandoned. At least for the time being!
I used to be able to read it much more fluently (partly because I was writing my journal in it) and I want to return to that fluency, but there’s an easy way to fix that: practice!
This does likely mean that reading will be going a slower pace for a while though…