Ponder upon…

I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time.

Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.

(3 Nephi 18:2-3)

I’ve been thinking of this passage lately, in connection with the first vision & so on we’ve been directed to think about for conference.

Here it’s interesting that the Nephites – after hearing the Saviour personally – had to go home, ponder and pray, not just so they would be prepared for his words the following day, but so they could gain a greater understanding of what he’d already taught them.

Similarly, it’s quite clear to me that Joseph Smith’s understanding of what he had been taught in the first vision, and his grasp of its significance, expanded in the light of later perspective. His earliest accounts focused on what it meant for him as an individual, such as the personal forgiveness of his sins (there’s a trace of this in D&C 20:5). His comprehension, and what he learned from that initial experience, expanded with time, after many more revelations, trials, and the experiences he had.

This is a pattern that can be seen elsewhere too: Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean, and the above-mentioned Nephites. Even an experience like hearing the Saviour face to face, as powerful a teaching experience as that surely was, required later reflection, pondering, prayer and surely more revelation to unfold into a full (or fuller) understanding of what that initial experience could teach them. And perhaps there’s a general principle here for us, as we think upon the first vision and prepare for General conference.

Deuteronomy again…

The interpreter has published yet another article which bases its arguments on the supposed Deuteronomists and their supposed apostasies. In one respect I give this paper credit: it acknowledges that the very scholarly opinion that argues for the existence of said Deuteronomists also depicts them as the authors of that book (as that opinion has to, as the portrayed content of the Deueronomists views is entirely reconstructed from their supposed works). Unfortunately the author seems to embrace that to the very extent that I’ve previously warned of, speaking of the “Deuteronomists’ mists of monist darkness”, as this being “the Greater Apostasy that served as the essential foundation for the later Great Apostasy”, that the rejection of Christ “would have pleased Josiah” (any comments on how strongly I word this should note the severity of the judgment this paper flings at those safely dead), and in a reply to a comment characterises the book of Deuteronomy as inaugurating a tradition that will reject Christ, and which provided the basis for Laman, Lemuel and Sherem to oppose and seek to kill the prophets.

One would hardly believe, from this argument, that Deuteronomy was the biblical book Jesus quoted more than any other than the Psalms (including in a rebuttal against the devil himself (Deuteronomy 6:13, 16, 8:3 in Matthew 4:4, 7, 10 & Luke 4:4, 8, 12). Nor that Nephi would quote Deuteronomy as scripture.

I object strongly to these arguments, as I’ve done before. I object to what appears to be significant mischaracterisation and distortion of the teachings of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history. I object what appears to be extremely esoteric and unfounded readings of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob, particularly when they make the rather astounding claim that such esoteric readings are restoring “plainness” in contrast to those “looking beyond the mark” (I would suggest this is in danger of being opposite the truth). I object to the characterisation of those who engaged in idolatrous worship as somehow defending the “plainness” of gospel, as in footnote 42, which approvingly cites Margaret Barker who quotes Jeremiah 44:15-19 as an example of those who claim that not worshipping the “queen of heaven” lead to the fall of Jerusalem. The author (and Christensen, who made the same argument) fails to note that these people are rebuked by no less than Jeremiah “because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which ye have committed”, namely their idolatry (see vv. 3, 5, 8, 23 and 25, including specifically for burning incense and making offerings “to the queen of heaven”); to follow the author’s argument, Jeremiah is now taking the “greater apostasy”‘s part (and since Lehi and Nephi accept Jeremiah as a prophet, this perspective collapses under its own contradictions).

Moreover, I object to the way this argument keeps building upon the assumptions made in prior papers and treating said assumptions as proved fact, while flat out ignoring any critiques; what in fact provoked me to try to comment on the piece was the statement that “That the Deuteronomist reform is the Greater Apostasy is an overdetermined fact”, when the very existence of the Deuteronomists is conjectural, let alone the misreading that places them in charge in post-Josiah Jerusalem. I objected to Rappleye’s earlier argument because he took claims by Christensen as absolute: this people now it turn take’s Rappleye’s claims as similarly proven fact. I’ve written a number of posts making critiques of both Christensen and Rappleye’s arguments, but these papers never at any time pause to respond to these issues, or even suggest that they’ve read any counterarguments (I’m a fairly obscure figure, but I’m not the only one to criticise this approach). I’ve even responded to the woeful reading of Jeremiah 44 multiple times, and yet it keeps being raised as evidence in a way that suggests not only have they not read any critique against their use , but they haven’t read the rest of Jeremiah 44 either. Lest you think I’m being harsh, think of the number of figures the Bible depicts as being inspired that these arguments insist are apostate, prophet-murdering, Christ deniers.

Furthermore, it seems quite apparent that at least some of the motivation behind these arguments on the part of some is an effort to justify worship of “Mother in Heaven”. Hence the author’s claim that:

Even “Latter-day Saints are still too reliant upon the assumptions, the implications, and especially the language that generations of well- intentioned but misguided theologians and Reformers alike introduced into the domain of religious thought.”93 It thus remains an open question whether members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ are culturally prepared to fully emerge from the mists of darkness, ignore the inevitable mocking that would ensue from various great and spacious buildings, and more openly and consistently speak of their Mother in Heaven as Lehi and Nephi seem to have done.

Set aside the fact that Lehi and Nephi do not “openly and consistently speak” of any Mother in Heaven, though they can hardly have done so when any mention can only “revealed” when decoded via the sort of esoteric readings engaged in here. More is the fact that the arguments are raised to push a change in worship, a practice those arguing for appear themselves to align with those Jeremiah and other prophets condemned as idolaters, and indeed what appears to be in contravention not only of ancient, but also modern scripture:

And [God] gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship.

(Doctrine & Covenants 20:19).

Do “the mists of darkness” permeate the Doctrine and Covenants now too? And who does the author depict as the “great and spacious buildings” that would object, when the world at large would applaud such a move? I imagine those in favour of these arguments would object to any denigration of their faithfulness, yet they impugn ancient inspired figures, describe a book that Jesus himself used as scripture as part of the satanically inspired mists of darkness (and thus logically should be rejected!), and implicitly suggest that those who oppose their argument are aligned with the “great and spacious building” that is “the pride of the world”, all in an attempt to push a change to worship that they favour.

In all in all it is rather dispiriting that this approach seems so favoured by the journal that aims to be faithful and to defend Church teachings. They rightly push back against those who criticise and try to de-canonise the Book of Mormon in an attempt to change the teachings of the Church, but this approach does the same thing to other parts of scripture, and does so with assumption piled on assumption and esoteric readings that go far beyond the “plainness” it purports to support. It’s not even coherent: any attempt to throw Deuteronomy under the bus is liable to take the Book of Mormon with it.

For reference’s sake, these are my previous criticisms of the modern day anti-Deuteronomists.

“Defending Deuteronomy” – My criticism of an article by Kevin Christensen

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #1” – Part 1 of my critique of Rappleye’s article, focusing particularly on uncritical use of secondary sources.

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #2: Laman and Lemuel as supposed Deuteronomists” – Part 2, criticising the argument that Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists.

“Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi” – Part 3, addressing the use of Deuteronomy by Lehi and Nephi.

I attempted to comment on the article itself (well, in response to one of the author’s replies), but it may have been eaten by the Interpreter’s auto-moderation (Edit: it did get through), so I reproduce it here, though it does overlap with some of what I have said above:

Comment:

That the Deuteronomist reform is the Greater Apostasy is an overdetermined fact.

I don’t know if it’s possible to object to this statement any more strongly. Previous papers along these lines appear to rest upon a whole set of assumptions, which in turn seem to rest on what I regard as rather fallacious interpretations of the so-called Deuteronomists and Josiah’s reforms. Later papers then seem to take these assumptions as proven. There’s seems to have been little attempt to engage or even argue against criticisms of this theory, for all of its significant implications.

Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob all condemn the views of the Jews then living in Jerusalem. The city is on the verge of total destruction, a pretty good sign that it has taken a wrong turn with Josiah’s reform.

Except that, according to both Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah (and Ezekiel), the reforms of Josiah didn’t stick. Indeed, a great error of the people following was their worship of idols, including Asherah (for instance, Jeremiah 17:2). This is just an exhibit of the problem: this approach seems to gloss over the entire Josiah/post-Josiah situation, and assume the whole era is an exhibit of the reforms, when the texts read quite differently.

Each man is given a book, Josiah receiving from Shaphan the scribe a book many scholars think was written by Hilkiah the High Priest, a book that centralizes power in the hands of king and high priest, a book that comes from man and that will be interpreted by scribes in the rabbinic religion that this reform inaugurates, a religious tradition that will reject Christ, God with God, when he comes to them 600 years later.

“[M]any scholars” also think that book is Deuteronomy, a book that Nephi will explicitly quote (and indeed, quote a Messianic prophecy from). In fairness to you, it appears you appreciate this.

Was Deuteronomy canonized incorrectly? Deuteronomy contains much truth. Hilkiah is probably not its only author if its author at all… We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated/transmitted correctly. Deuteronomy like other parts of the Bible would seem to contain a mixture of much true and some false doctrine.

On one hand I commend the embrace of the implications of this argument (Christensen and Rappleye appear to have resisted this, at least in part because they did not realise that the “Deuteronomists” were conceived as the very authors of the work). On the other, this illustrates precisely the outcome that I said would be the conclusion of this approach.

Yet Nephi accepts the book of Deuteronomy as authoritative scripture. He quotes from it, he describes the plates of brass as containing the *five* books of Moses, and furthermore the vision he describes of the loss of plain and precious things from the Bible in 1 Nephi 13 does not fit what is proposed here: Nephi is told that “many plain and precious things [are] taken away from the book” (1 Nephi 13:28) – not that false teachings would be substituted in – and that these writings “go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God” (1 Nephi 13:25): that is this process post-dates Nephi and the transmission of these writings (which include both OT and NT material) to the Gentiles.

But in chapter 13, it also provides mandates Laman, Lemuel, and Sherem—Deuteronomists all–follow as they oppose and seek to kill the prophets who preach the Gospel of Christ.

This is precisely issue I’m talking about: previous arguments become assumptions and then become “overdetermined fact[s]”. Rappleye argued that Laman and Lemuel were Deuteronomists, as you indicate in your main article, to which you clearly agree. But here it’s quite clear you regard it as almost incontrovertible. Yet Rappleye hardly proved his case (I argue against it in the 2nd part of a 3 part blog article here [the links above] ).

I expressed myself in quite strong terms here (although I believe still civilly), but I believe these are serious issues with huge implications. This article refers to “the Deuteronomists’ mists of monist darkness”, implicitly characterising the teachings of the book – a book that *the Saviour* quoted often as scripture – as part of the “temptations of the devil” said mists are interpreted as in 1 Nephi 12:17. Such an argument is already using severe terms for someone. Moreover, it seems to garb its argument as a restoration of “plainness”, when it is reading Lehi, Nephi and Jacob in a frankly esoteric way.

Edit & follow-up comment:

To his credit, the author of the article (Val Larsen) responded in the comments section of the above article; I invite anyone interested to read and consider his reply.

As I see it, there are in a sense several further issues:

1) Any data that contradicts the anti-Deuteronomistic perspective – such as accounts of Manasseh’s idolatries and those of Josiah’s successors, or the condemnation Jeremiah issued of worship of the “Queen of Heaven” (and the other idols associated with her, it shouldn’t be forgotten), or for that matter when Isaiah condemns earlier idol worship amongst the Israelites, and so on – tends to be explained as the results of the Deuteronomists tampering with scripture, altering things to justify their position. The author takes that approach in his reply. The problem with this approach is that it essentially “rigs” the argument in advance: any evidence in the Old Testament against their argument gets dismissed as tampering, anything that might be read as supportive gets accepted. The criteria for what has and what has not been tampered with becomes the degree to which a given passage suits the preexisting idea, allowing proponents to pick and choose evidence, and deny possible criteria for falsification. There’s obvious problems with this approach, not least the which is that it risks being incoherent: the argument that said “Deuteronomists” even existed rests, after all, on a reading of the very same documents.

2) Said “tampering” also relies upon generalities, especially since there is, it appears to me, still a desire to have one’s cake and eat it, to not completely ditch Deuteronomy, the DH, Jeremiah and the rest of the Old Testament. As long as it’s kept to vague generalities, such a position may be plausible. It seems less so when one becomes specific: just considering Jeremiah 44 alone, for instance, what must be taken out in order to make it read as an endorsement of “Queen of Heaven” worship. Most of the chapter must apparently be culled or dismissed as spurious, but then what does the remainder even say: those trying to justify themselves to Jeremiah are left speaking in a vacuum.

3) There’s little sense here that the Old Testament can even serve as a “standard work” here, when large parts are to be freely dismissed when they contradict a preexisting idea. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Book of Mormon not only claims to be true itself, but depicts one of its key aims as supporting the truth of the biblical writings (see 1 Nephi 13:40, Mormon 7:9, and compare with the similar statement in the Doctrine and Covenants in D&C 20:11). Furthermore, this issue gets to the heart of how we define scripture. Scripture can’t simply be writings we think are partly, or even mostly, or even completely true (this is not an argument about inerrancy): there’s plenty of writings I consider to be true but not scripture. I’ve written about this topic before, and to summarise from that post and particularly how the Book of Mormon describes scripture, scriptural status describes something about the innate qualities of the work, including that it is true, but also that it is objectively inspired (i.e. not just inspirational or true, but the result in some way of communication from God), and I’d add authoritative (i.e. that it is not just private revelation, but intended to be binding upon its audience). There is little sense, in the anti-Deuteronomistic arguments, of how this status could be regarded as being true of much of the Old Testament (especially since – and it should not be forgotten – that the biblical scholars who proposed the existence of the Deuteronomists did so to propose the authors of Deuteronomy).

4) One issue that seems to slip through the net is the depiction of the ideology of the Deuteronomists (and implicitly that of Deuteronomy & the Deuteronomistic history, since said ideology is a reconstruction from those writings). I recognise that Larsen and Rappleye rely to a fair degree of the depiction that Christensen derives from Barker. But I do not think Christensen or Barker’s depictions are accurate or fair. I also think there are problems with Barker’s research: her depiction relies upon writings that post-date the period by centuries, in some cases by over a millennium. For that matter, it’s also worth pointing out that the religious situation before Josiah’s reforms was not static or stable. Indeed, the OT depiction is that of cycles of idolatry and apostasy, the sort of depiction that should be familiar to readers of the Book of Mormon.

5) Again to his credit, Val Larsen admits that he takes another guiding principle as normative, namely what he terms “Joseph’s mature theology”, especially as it pertains to the idea of a heavenly mother. But there’s problems with such an approach: the content of Joseph Smith’s “mature theology” is debated, constructed and reconstructed as it is from sometimes differing accounts of sermons, private addresses and so on (not all of which are consistent). The extent to which these should be given priority over actual revelation and scripture is questionable, particularly when it’s not always clear what was meant (it’s certainly not the Church’s approach to doctrine today). Much is inferred from other teachings, or based on second-hand sources from followers. This is particularly true when it comes to the matter of a “heavenly mother”, where there’s little direct record of Joseph teaching explicitly about the subject, and even the second-hand mentions are little more than brief references. This certainly suggests it wasn’t the overarching priority of the restoration. Furthermore, this “mature theology” is also tied up with the issue of polygamy, with at least some of Joseph’s followers (such as Parley P. Pratt) taking this idea of “heavenly mother” in directions that modern advocates presumably do not want to follow.

The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Since the topic has come up in correspondence, and some things I’m writing (both for a book and for this blog), I happened to come across this article in my reading, and thought it was good enough that I wanted to share it: “The Omniscience of God” by Roger Terry.

I wanted to share it, however, not just for what it addresses about God’s omniscience and relationship to time (though those are very worth reading), but also for some profound points it makes at the end, some profound points that I think often get overlooked in such debates:

Thus far we have talked about God’s omniscience primarily in the sense that He sees everything and has all information present before Him. But all the knowledge in the universe would not make our Heavenly Father a perfect or even helpful God without His other attributes, such as love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, and kindness. One attribute in particular that enables Him to use His infinite knowledge to bless His children is His wisdom. Wisdom is actually an important aspect, or product, of God’s knowledge. Wisdom, we might say, is knowing how to apply knowledge correctly. Thus, because He has perfect wisdom, God always knows which choice will create the greatest eternal good for His children. His wisdom prevents Him from ever misapplying His knowledge, as we imperfect mortals often do.

President Marion G. Romney, First Counselor in the First Presidency, wrote:

‘Since knowledge is an “acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts”; and “wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts; especially in their practical” application “to life and conduct,” it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and is dependent upon knowledge.
The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to his knowledge. Speaking of God’s plan for the salvation of men, Lehi says, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). Thus, . . . God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things.’

Certainly, His wisdom is a product of His knowledge, but it is also a product of His goodness, for knowledge alone does not automatically produce wisdom. Lucifer had great knowledge, but that knowledge did not lead to wisdom. Indeed, Lucifer’s unwise choices prevented him from attaining greater knowledge. It is God’s perfect knowledge combined with His perfect goodness that makes His perfect wisdom a reality. And because God has perfect wisdom to apply His perfect knowledge, He is able to perform His work and enjoy the associated glory in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

In debates about omniscience and omnipotence, it should be remembered that while these are necessary qualities for God to do all that he promised and for us to have confidence in him, they are not all that defines or characterises God. We likewise should not forget his love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, kindness and his wisdom.

Read the whole article at The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

The Good News

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Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

I’ve come across this rather interesting and thoughtful article on Abrahamic tests by Larry E. Dahl (a retired BYU professor), which is available from the BYU Religious Studies center. Some particularly important excerpts:

Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. Let me repeat. Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. The Prophet Joseph Smith, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo, said: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.[1] That is not a particularly comforting thought, but it is one that cannot be ignored if the scriptures are taken seriously. Why must there be an Abrahamic test? And how can we all be tested like Abraham was tested? Why use Abraham as the standard? What is there about the test Abraham experienced that is universally applicable? When our test comes, will we recognize it? How can we prepare?

and:

What about us? How are we to be tested “even as Abraham”? Being asked to offer a child as a sacrifice just does not relate to our time and circumstance. But wrenching heartstrings does relate—to all times and circumstances. And there are many ways to wrench the heart in any age: being asked to choose God over other things we dearly love, even when those things are good and have been promised, and when we have worked for them, yearned for them, prayed for them, and have been obedient and patient; or being asked to persevere in righteousness and service (perhaps even Church service) in the face of terrible difficulty, uncertainty, inequities, ironies, and even contradictions; or watching helplessly as the innocent suffer from the brutal misuse of God-given agency in the hands of evil men.

 

Read the full thing at: The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

The Mercy and Justice of God

I find God’s justice and mercy fascinating, not only because he perfectly embodies such qualities, but because we as human beings apparently have such a hard time reconciling them that we are apt to build a more selective image with only one of those qualities. Thus in the 17th century, it seems many were apt to forget God’s love and mercy in favour of his wrath and hatred of sin. Today we seem apt to commit the reverse error: we emphasise God’s love and mercy, but forget his justice and righteousness. In doing so, we not only build up a false image of God, but also diminish the quality of God we do remember. His justice and mercy are linked, for his justice is connected to his love and mercy for those we have sinned against. To paraphrase something I’ve said before, to be merciful without condition to predators is to be merciless to their victims. Hence God’s mercy is conditioned upon repentance. Likewise God’s desire for us to change and repent and follow him is based in his love and his desire for our exaltation: a love that never asks us to change or repent is one that would be content to leave us stuck in mediocrity, one that would ultimately be happy to sit back and watch us be damned.

A particular quote that I feel captures both God’s justice and his mercy was expressed by Joseph Smith. However, I often find it quoted with the second half missing, in keeping with the bias of our current era. So I thought it worth quoting in full:

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.

– Joseph Smith, 18 April 1842

 

The Prayer of Faith

Last Sunday, I heard someone describe prayer as “a faithless act”.

I was quite surprised by this. Now for some context, it was quite clear that this person was operating under a misunderstanding of President Nelson’s remarks during the last General Conference, about “the difference between a prayer and a priesthood blessing”, and may have been expressing themselves intemperately. President Nelson was speaking of those who did not know that difference, and so gave priesthood blessings as if they were prayers. The individual in my hearing appeared to likewise confuse the two, but to the opposite extreme, arguing that when ministering to someone we should not offer a prayer, but instead offer a blessing, by which he appeared to mean not an actual priesthood ordinance, but giving a prayer as if it were a blessing.

This is mistaken. President Nelson was seeking to dispel any confusion between blessings and prayers, but he wasn’t arguing that the latter were unnecessary or wrong to any degree. Both have a place. In a blessing, if both the one giving the blessing and the one receive it have faith, and if the one giving it is sufficiently in tune, it is an opportunity to reveal and declare the will of God. Essential, the person giving the blessing is acting as a representative of God, speaking in his name (D&C 1:20), towards the one receiving the blessing. In a prayer, however, we are representing ourselves and any for whom we are praying for towards God. In one, there is the opportunity to declare God’s will; in the other, the opportunity to petition God in accordance with it. And both prayers and priesthood blessings are invaluable aids to us here on earth, and when ministering to others both are necessary.

It is particularly this description of prayer as “a faithless act” that I wish to briefly address, however. Now prayer can be a faithless act, if it is not genuine, and done for show or pretence. Likewise, if we pray but have no intention of acting upon any guidance God gives us, that may likewise be described as being without faith.

But genuine prayer is an inherently faithful act. The very act of praying to our Father in Heaven expresses our faith (or at least our willingness to believe) that he is there. By directing our righteous needs and desires towards him, we demonstrate faith in his power to fulfil them. By expressing gratitude, we confess his hand in all things. By asking for forgiveness, we express our faith in his goodness, in the rightness of his commandments, and show faith in the atonement of his son. By asking for direction, we demonstrate faith in his wisdom, humbly acknowledging that he knows better than we do, and show faithfulness by our willingness to act upon his commands.

I’m reminded particularly of a particular quote from the Bible Dictionary. I’ve briefly posted about the BD and other aids before, noting that these are not scripture, and in the words of a man who helped produce them “are aids and helps only”. However, if any part of the Bible Dictionary is genuinely profound, I have long believed it is the entry on prayer. To quote one paragraph:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.

I think this is a genuinely beautiful (and true) passage, that has a lot to teach about prayer, but what I especially want to pick out on this occasion is the line that prayer is the means by which our will is “brought into correspondence” with Father, and that “the object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure … blessings that God is already willing to grant”. It is fitting that in the Lord’s Prayer, the Saviour includes the phrase “thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven”, for much of the point of prayer is to surrender to his will.

And therefore, at its root, prayer is amongst the most faithful of acts, for it is an act in which we submit ourselves to his will, and where we must have sufficient faith – trust – in him to say as the Saviour did “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 27:39). And the highest expression of faith is not believing that God is there, but – believing or even knowing that he is – to trust his judgment over ours, to be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us]” (Mosiah 3:19), to say – as Christ did – “thy will be done”.

“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

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My “office”. A little drafty but it does the job.

Today, while sitting in my “office” (see above) and working on other things, I began thinking about temptation. This wasn’t for any especial reason, and this is not a confession post. But I’m as human as anyone else, and all of us face or have faced temptation, including the Saviour himself, even though he never succumbed. And I was thinking about what I have learned about those things that have helped me in repenting and those that have not.

As I was doing so, my mind began thinking about the temptations Christ suffered in the wilderness, but particularly the first:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

(Matthew 4:1-3).

It struck me, in considering this account, how this reflects the temptations we suffer. It was understandable, after fasting for such a prolonged period, that Christ was hungry. In fact it is more than understandable, but entirely justified. The human body needs food to survive, and Christ had a mortal human body, as we do. Being hungry was not a sin, but a legitimate need.

Satan’s temptation was not to make the Saviour feel hungry. His temptation was to suggest an illegitimate way to meet that need, one that involved the misuse of Christ’s power.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that this is often true for us. Many of the sins we wrestle with are often connected with some deeper issue or need, which we may not even be aware of. I’ve seen this in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of others. These may be desires for love, security, comfort or intimacy, or even simply the rudiments of survival. And it strikes me that seeking these things is not wrong. The problem is that Satan preys upon those needs, tempting us to meet unhappiness, or loneliness, or deprivation, or whatever with drugs, or sexual sin, or greed or dishonesty or all manner of things. And of course, these are not only wrong, but also cannot really meet our righteous needs. But we are often unaware of the very need at stake, and so Satan deceives us (and we often deceive ourselves) that these are the things that will somehow make us happy, often unaware of why we might find a particular temptation tempting in the first place.

Satan, who desires our misery above all other things, will always seek to pay us in false coin. And we, especially when we are unaware of what we really need, often seek solace from the wrong sources.

While I was contemplating this, I recalled a statement I’ve heard attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: “Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”. Some investigation reveals lots of sites attributing that quote to him, but without sourcing it. However, as far as I can tell they’re actually paraphrasing the following statement, which certain captures the same thought:

Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.

(Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader”, The Ensign, August 1978)

I don’t believe anyone can accuse President Kimball of seeking to excuse sin, and there’s no excuse for it here. Sin is still sin, and needs repentance. But it seems to me that so often our approach to sin is symptomatic: we simply seek to stop the symptom of our outward sins. But such an approach can be as unsuccessful as simply trying to eliminate symptoms in physical medicine. To truly treat an illness, one must treat the causes. I believe this applies individually, but is also the case for any leaders counselling someone else wrestling with some sin: it is not enough simply to urge the stopping of sin, nor enough to simply encourage an increase of devotional acts, as good as they are. All too often this may leave an individual’s needs unmet and unrecognised, and leaves true repentance – change – incomplete, and a person vulnerable to falling back into former sins.. Rather, in addition to these things, we should seek to identify the needs or deeper issues at stake. I believe doing so can help us to recognise that what Satan is offering is an imposter, something that does not and can not and will never give us what we truly want. We can seek to pursue legitimate means to meet that need, if it is possible at that time. Above all, we can learn, and seek, and experience how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power not only to bring forgiveness of sins, but to meet all our deepest and dearest needs.

Christ not only cleanses us from sin, but is the great physician, healing us on the inside if we let him. And for our repentance to be successful – and for the repentance of anyone we happen to be counselling for those who are leaders – we must seek to let him.

Link: Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”

Robert Boylan has written a very interesting post critiquing the new book by Terryl and Fiona Givens ,”The Christ Who Heals”. It’s a very lengthy article, but is well worth reading every word, particularly for its points on the Reformers (where the Givens, like a lot of LDS literature, take a very rosy view of people like Luther), misreadings of early Christian writers, the Fall (where the Givens, again like others, seem to over-correct and not take sufficient notice that LDS scripture describes it as a very real fall) and the Atonement, amongst a number of topics. I highly recommend giving it a close read:

Robert Boylan ‘Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”‘