Mosiah 26

This chapter records another stage in the dramatic changes that are happening in Nephite society at this time, as a sizeable proportion of the younger generation, who were not in a position to understand King Benjamin’s sermon from first hand experience, reject his teachings and (presumably) the associated covenant, and also reject the Church. Thus you have the definite emergence of a degree of religious pluralism at this time, some (indeed it seems virtually all who accepted King Benjamin’s teachings) joining the Church, but a significant part of the population (though still a minority, v. 5) remaining separate.

The part of this chapter that particularly stood out to me today, however, was the statement in verse 3:

And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

There’s plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of belief, and that understanding the word of God is not simply a matter of intellectual comprehension (I think, for instance of 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, but there are many more). But I think this verse is the one that most starkly connects belief with understanding, in a way that really stood out to me today.

I think on some level that continues to surprise me. For instance, I find it relatively easy to understand why people might not believe the Gospel, but find it much harder to comprehend why people might find it, or particular scriptures,  hard to understand. So much of it seems clear and simple. And when it comes to other topics, I think we generally work on the assumption that we don’t need to believe a concept to understand a concept; I’d have hardly got a masters in Islamic studies if I’d thought otherwise, for instance. Likewise, in many scientific fields there’s a variety of competing hypotheses, and again it is presumed that those participating in those fields can understand the hypotheses without believing in them all first (especially since competing theories generally can’t all be true at the same time).

And yet here it is outright stated, and heavily supported elsewhere, that the gospel and the word of God is not like this. When it comes to the gospel, belief and understanding are intimately connected; some part of the gospel that might seem easy to comprehend to us, according to this verse, may appear bewildering to someone who does not believe. And I have seen this; indeed I know several people who’s understanding of the gospel appears to have gone backwards, so that they now know less than they once did, and are baffled by what they once easily understood. And yet it still seems a strange phenomenon to me, even though on some level I know it’s true and seen it happen. How can people find such clear things confusing? Especially when they once understood them?

I guess the key thing to recognise is that our understanding of the gospel is not simply a matter of study and the workings of our own mind, but also of faith and illumination by the spirit. Things that may appear clear to someone who believes and has the Holy Ghost to assist them may not be so to someone working solely with their own unaided and unbelieving mind. As 1st Corinthians 2:14 states: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of faith and belief as not opposed to knowledge, as some occasionally make out, but as a faculty that can peer through, that can perceive otherwise unseen things and which can lead to knowledge.

Mosiah 4

There’s one running thread through this chapter that has caught my attention before, and really stood out today. It begins in verse 1 & 2:

And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.

Following King Benamin’s remarks in Mosiah 2-3, the people respond with sorrow and humility, and ‘viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth’. In that state, however, they then cry for mercy in the name of the Lord, and in verse 3 that request is granted.

I don’t have any absolute figures for any of this – it’s simply a phenomenon I’ve observed and heard – but it seems many in our current era are inclined to affirm that they are good people, that they don’t have anything particular to repent of. There’s people who run to the opposite extreme of course (and eras in which that is more common), who may suffer from what Catholic theology (and modern psychology) has termed scrupulosity. And that can be a serious problem: I remember when it dawned on me that such feelings can be a form of “sorrow of the world” as being sorry we got caught or such like, because such feelings can still trap us and thus “worketh death”, while “godly sorrow” produces change (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

But feeling that we’re without sin, that we’re good and don’t have anything to repent of can also be damning. First, such notions are simply not true: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, see also Alma 34:9), and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). But secondly, if we don’t have a consciousness of our sin, then how do we recognise that we even need the Saviour? How do we call upon the power of his atoning sacrifice if we don’t feel a need for it? How do we even appreciate what he has done for us if we don’t think it’s necessary? A consciousness of sin, while an unpleasant feeling, is the very thing that impels us to seek change and lead us – as it led King Benjamin’s people – to seek mercy through Christ. It strikes me that it is perhaps one of the first and most fundamental steps of our repentance.

Yet this chapter goes further in verse 5:

For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state

This is talking about the same experience of King Benjamin’s people, but it also describes sentiments I suspect it’d be most unlikely to be urged in your average Sunday school lesson: ‘a sense of your nothingness’ and ‘your worthless and fallen state’.

The idea of realising our ‘nothingness’ is not only found here in the scriptures: In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses remarks upon the conclusion of one visionary experience that ‘[n]ow, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed’ (Moses 1:10). This sensation, this realisation, is not the sum total of all we are supposed to feel in regards to ourselves and our relationship with God. But it is perhaps an element that receives little modern attention.

Back to Mosiah 4, and again King Benjamin goes further, describing what we should remember not just at a moment of conversion, but throughout our lives:

And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.

(Mosiah 4:11, my emphasis)

Again, this is not found only here: Alma in Alma 38:14 counsels his son Shiblon to ‘acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times’. But I suspect that at the present time such passages are often passed over quickly; they are hard passages, with hard counsel. But they clearly appear to be quite essential, with King Benjamin teaching that we should always remember God’s greatness, and in contrast our own nothingness and unworthiness if we wish to retain a remission of our sins (and we surely do).

Now I do not think that these verses are preaching a kind of self-hatred: while I do not find many scriptural passages that support the modern emphasis on self-esteem, self-hatred does not seem to be encouraged. Furthermore, we are also often counselled to seek and feel God’s love towards us. In some way, then, we are being encouraged to simultaneously realise our own nothingness and unworthiness, and thus our utter dependence upon God and his mercy, and that we do not earn any blessing from him, but at the same time feel of his love and realise that, in the words of Elder Uchtdorf, ‘compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God.’

I don’t know that I can make any great claims of knowing how to balance those realisations, but I am confident that both are necessary: we need one to avoid pride, and so that we know we need help and change and grace and who to seek it from, and we need the other to avoid despair and discouragement, and so that we know we can leave judgment in the hands of God and need not seek to punish ourselves for our own sins. With that in mind, we surely need to read such passages as the above carefully, and seek to follow them, rather than pass over them swiftly.

A couple of final, tangentially related points: this chapter goes on to detail our need to help and serve others, beginning with children (and our obligation to teach them), and then towards those seeking our assistance. I find it striking how it links our response to those who beg of us to God’s response to when we beg of him, and so how our acts of service are likewise connected to seeking to retain a remission of our sins:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

(Mosiah 4:26)

However, allowance is also made for capacity, thus those who have sufficient, but not enough to aid the beggar are addressed (v. 24), and then the general principle is also addressed (v. 27):

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

The image this conjures up for me is one of a marathon, and I believe this is a helpful image to have in mind. If someone tries to sprint a marathon, they’ll lead at first, but then their strength will ebb and they will not finish the race. Likewise, this life is a marathon, in which our means and energy are often limited, and if we are unwise, and “sprint”, we may exhaust our strength and lack the capacity to serve at a later date. We must therefore not let our zeal outweigh our wisdom, but carefully pace ourselves where appropriate to ensure that we are in a position to serve diligently up until the finishing line.

2020 edit:

Several brief notes, as I’ve already written a fair amount on this chapter about 8 months ago.

Verse 2 stands out again, this time not for how the people viewed themselves and their consciousness of their sins, but for the simplicity of their response: they called on God for mercy, asking that they might receive forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ. I’m reminded of Alma 34:17 (in which Amulek urges much the same), and wonder if – when we think about repentance – the simple process of asking God for mercy and forgiveness is so straightforward it sometimes gets overlooked. Along with that, it’s perhaps important to remember that forgiveness is the not the product of some process we can produce via checklist, but a gift we are asking for.

I was struck also by the emphasis on not just obtaining a remission of sins, but of retaining a remission of sins (vv. 11-12 and 26), and what is necessary for that. I was reminded of Alma 5:26 (and indeed much of that chapter):

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have had powerful experiences in the past, like the people of King Benjamin experienced in verse 3. But how do we feel now? Do we continue to experience such feelings (in whatever degree)? Have our lives changed, and do we live up to the desire to do good we had in those moments?

I’ve also been thinking about the list of things that King Benjamin tells his people to believe in in verses 9 and 10:

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.

There’s a number of different things we’re commanded to believe in here, presumably not only because they’re true but because whether we believe in them has an effect on our salvation:

  • God’s existence. The importance of that seems obvious
  • God created all things, both in heaven and in earth. I feel I need to ponder more to understand the salvific significance of believing this (though I believe it must be important, or it wouldn’t be on this list)..
  • Believe God has all wisdom. If we don’t believe God has all wisdom, we may be inclined to doubt his guidance, to suspect there may be something he doesn’t know, or that we know better. Believing he does is thus crucial to trusting him and his counsel. Likewise wisdom is also grounded in goodness, not just knowledge, and so to believe he has all wisdom is to believe that he has the will to help us,
  • Believe God has all power, in heaven and in earth. Interesting that like his role as creator this mentions both heaven and earth. The importance of this one appears straightforward to me: if we believe God lacks power, then we may well conclude he is unable to intervene on our behalf. But God has all power, and so has an infinite capacity to help us.
  • Believe that man does not comprehend all the things the Lord can comprehend. This appears to overlap with the point of wisdom, but I think particularly speaks to the fact that – even at best – we can only have a partial understanding of God and his plan for us. No matter how much we learn, there’s going to be things about life and the gospel that we don’t have all the answers too, or which don’t make sense to us. Thus I take believing in this as a recognition that we need to be humble, and particularly to always acknowledge and follow God’s wisdom as being superior to our own. I’m also reminded of the statement by Harold B. Lee that “it is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give us courage through faith to go on in the face of questions to which we find no answer in our present status”.
  • Believe we must repent of our sins, forsake them, humble ourselves before God, and ask him sincerely for forgiveness. This seems to cover ground I mention above, including the fact that we need to believe we all have sinned, and so all need to repent, and the importance of actually humbly asking God for forgiveness. But it also emphasises that repentance is change too: we need to believe we must forsake our sins (as opposed, one presumes, to thinking we can be forgiven but continue in them). And I think the point about believing we need to ask God for forgiveness also addresses another thing we must believe: we must believe he can and is willing to forgive us, and that when he forgives us our sins are swept away.

Of course, belief alone isn’t enough, as King Benjamin promptly points out: “and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them”. But our sincere beliefs do affect our attitudes and our actions, and it seems striking to me that these beliefs all centre around the factors that cause us to trust (or not) in God, and prompt us to repent, change and seek forgiveness.

Liberalism: the other God that failed – UnHerd

A very thought provoking article on Unherd, suggesting that belief in modern liberalism (including the myth of progress) may resemble belief in Communism more closely than some might think, and that liberalism may suffer the same eventual fate. An excerpt:

That liberal societies have existed, in some parts of the world over the past few centuries, is a fact established by empirical inquiry. That these societies embody the meaning of history is a confession of faith. However much its devotees may deny it, secular liberalism is an oxymoron.

A later generation of ex-communists confirms this conclusion. Trotskyists such as Irving Kristol and Christopher Hitchens who became neo-conservatives or hawkish liberals in the Eighties or Nineties did not relinquish their view of history as the march towards a universal system of government. They simply altered their view as to the nature of the destination.

via Liberalism: the other God that failed – UnHerd

Helaman 14

Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.

Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:

Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.

The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:

And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

(Helaman 14:2)

And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

(Helaman 14:13)

This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.

2 Nephi 33

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”.

2020 edit:

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 the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. 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.

I think at last we understand one another, Frodo Baggins.

1 Nephi 3

And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.

And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.

But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done, unto us. And we began to be exceedingly sorrowful, and my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness.

1 Nephi 3:11-14 (my emphasis)

Casting lots is portrayed as an acceptable way of determining decision and even ascertaining the divine will in the scriptures (perhaps most notably in determining Judas replacement in Acts 1:26, but it can be found from the Old Testament to the Doctrine and Covenants). So we might find it surprising here, but it isn’t really.

What it got me think of, however, is that while from our perspective it certainly seems no coincidence that the lot fell upon Laman, and that Laman’s failure (and Nephi’s with the loss of their property in vv. 22-26) are but the prelude to what happens in chapter four, from their perspective it may have been very disheartening. They’d made the attempt, and perhaps felt they’d secured divine guidance on the matter (and we’d probably concur), so why on earth had they failed? How could it have gone wrong? Thus all of them – including Nephi – “began to be exceedingly sorrowful”. It was difficult to see from their perspective that they might well have been rightly guided, but that this earlier failure might fit into God’s plan.

2020 edit: I find it interesting to read what I’ve written above, which I wrote almost 4 years ago. I came across it again for the first time several months ago, having forgotten all about it. In that space of time, I’ve had my own encounter with serious failure, which has caused me to wonder if I had done something wrong or messed something up, or misinterpreted guidance to begin with. It was a bit of a shock to come across something I’d written that entirely anticipated what was about to happen to me 18 months later. An interesting reminder, not just that “failure” can be part of the plan, necessary steps leading towards what God really wants to happen, but also that sometimes we can be seeking answers to questions, unaware that we’ve already been given, and even know, the answers we’re looking for.

Another line stood out to me in verse 5 (my emphasis):

And no, behold thy brothers murmur, saying it is a hard thing which I have required of them; but behold I have not required it of them, but it is a commandment of the Lord.

Sometimes we can struggle with things that are required of us. Sometimes that’s simply because of our weaknesses, which is simply part of the human condition, and which we must try to overcome (and seek divine help in doing so). Other times, we may not understand what is being required, and even disagree. If that requirement is coming from a human being, than that may be fair enough: they may be wrong. But the basic commandments we find in the scriptures and teachings of the Church don’t claim to just come from a human being, and Lehi really gets to the crux of the issue if we’re struggling in verse 5: is a particular commandment from God? If it is, then even if we don’t understand it, our belief – that is our trust – in him and his goodness and knowledge should impel us to follow and obey anyway. If we don’t know if something comes from him, than we can seek and God can provide confirmation of that, but even with such confirmation we may never receive understanding of why he commands any given thing of us in this life. But that doesn’t matter, if we know it comes from him and know who he is. It may be hard, and we may not understand, but we can obey anyway if we trust him.

Unbelief, and membership in the Church of Christ

I haven’t updated this blog in a fair while, as I’ve been striving to finish writing up my thesis. And the next post I was going to do was going to be a speculative post involving spiders. That’s still going to happen at some stage (and people who speak to me in real life have likely heard at least some of it). But then something else came up that has sadly caught my attention.

Namely the recent reaction to the Church’s amendments to the Handbook of Instructions concerning same-sex marriage.

I’m not really going to discuss the actual policy itself, other than the section on children is an extension of the policy applied to polygamous families, and that entering into a same sex marriage isn’t just being classed as apostasy, it is apostasy: it is, after all, a public act in opposition to the Church’s teachings, not just the result of a yielding to temptation. Further context can be found here on the actual policy itself.

It is the reaction to all this that gets my attention. It follows the reaction to several other things over the years on social media (such as the Church’s efforts to support marriage, the “Ordain Women” movement and the excommunications of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin). I have become aware – who couldn’t? – that there’s at least a portion of Church membership who stand vocally opposed to the Church’s policies, and often teachings. This has struck very close to home, as I have seen friends and continue to see friends go astray in these things. People who were once my brothers and sisters in the gospel have abandoned the Church because of these things. I am not a diplomatic man, and I hold no ecclesiastical position of any major consequence. But if there are members, ersatz members and ex-members who feel free to comment in such a way as to lead my friends astray, then I believe I at least have the right to reply.

The real problem

Now this is not so directed as those Church members who otherwise agree with the Church’s teachings but felt some concern at the announced policies. There are other, better, things that they can read which hopefully address their concerns. But my observation is that those most concerned at this, and certainly those who are most vocal, not only differ with the announced policy, but some if not all of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the family. Indeed I struggle to think of a single blog article or facebook comment I’ve seen whizzing by in the past week that was critical of handbook changes which was by someone who didn’t also – explicitly or implicitly – object to the Church’s fundamental teachings in this area in the first place. So some comments about policy vs doctrine are misguided – while the exact nature of a policy like this may well take different forms, the Church’s fundamental opposition to same-sex marriage as contrary to the Lord’s commands isn’t new. That wasn’t going to change just because US law changed.

I have been struck, for a number of years, by a line from Alma 12:

Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption
(Alma 12:32, my emphasis)

This is quite a common pattern. When I was a full-time missionary, we taught people about the law of chastity after we had taught them about the plan of salvation and eternal families. We taught about fasting and tithing after we taught about sacrifice. Many of God’s commandments may be confusing to us mortals when we’re working from our own presuppositions about the universe – but they make fundamental sense when we understand and believe in God and His plan. The Church’s teachings on the nature of the family, the law of chastity and human sexuality make perfect sense when we know that He is, that Christ is our Saviour, that He revealed Himself to prophets who recorded it in scripture, and that He has established His Church in these latter days which He continues to lead to which He has given His power and authority. Likewise the administration of priesthood ordinances is not a mere social event, but the exercise of that power and authority that requires preconditions, including faith.

Now many of those writing these various posts, comments etc have certainly been in the Church long enough to learn all this. They’ve been taught it. “Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” If they are now having trouble accepting the Church’s teachings on family and sexuality, then what is the problem?

I speak bluntly. The problem is unbelief.

Unbelief

Now they may believe something, for example, that God exists. But it is impossible to believe that God exists, that He has revealed commandments in His scriptures and to His modern prophets, and that by His power Man and Woman may be knit together for eternity, and that obedience to this covenant is the path to exaltation, to believe all of that and yet believe that somehow God and His prophets have it wrong and that violating those commandments and barring oneself from what is required to gain exaltation must be morally acceptable. Somewhere there is a lack of belief.

Some of those who’ve commented have been quite open about this too – one I happened to read claiming that the individual had been a ‘practicing Mormon’ for decades, but never a ‘believing Mormon’.

This attitude baffles me. I find it incredible, yet I do know people who hold to this – who do not believe all the teachings of the Church, but who continue to claim a “Mormon” identity. What’s more is that some of these voices increasingly campaign that this *should* be the case, that the Church should give up any ambition for its members to believe, that it’s possible to be, say an atheist or agnostic and a Mormon (I would not have believed this had I not read it myself), and that the Church should be ‘inclusive’ of those who feel ethnically ‘Mormon’, but reject (loudly) the teachings of the Church.

I shall return to the last point later. On the former, it is certainly the case that those who are experiencing doubt and unbelief have been urged (as within the last few years by Elder Uchtdorf) to remain within the Church. It’s also the case that doubt and unbelief are not always the result of sin. But some have misconstrued this into thinking unbelief is an acceptable, or even a desirable state, and that one can be “faithful” and comfortable in the Church while remaining in a state of unbelief. This is not true.

For unbelief is a sin.

I’m aware that statement may cause hackles to rise. But sometimes things must be put as plainly and bluntly as possible. There are sins of the intellect. And I am not seeking to rise up as a great accuser here, for we are all sinners. I have my sins as does any man, and all of us need to repent. I’ve even recently struggled with unbelief: not as to the existence of God or the truth of His Church or anything like that, but in believing certain promises God has extended to me. I’ve struggled with some of that, and have had to strive to believe. I certainly lay no claims to perfection. Every one of us does things that are wrong, and need to change and repent. For us to do that, of course, we need to realise where we have erred, so that we might call upon God and that He might correct us. The reason people struggling with unbelief are encouraged to remain within the Church is – as it is for the rest of us and most of our sins – the Church is the best place to do that.

And far from being content in our unbelief, it is one of those things in which we sin and in which we need to repent. Christ “upbraided” his disciples for “their unbelief” (Mark 16:14), and taught elsewhere that “he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18). We likewise learn “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and are warned to “take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). In the Book of Mormon we find Nephi mourning because of “the unbelief […] of men” (2 Nephi 32:7), and are told directly by Christ (as reported by Moroni) to “come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief” (Ether 4:13). Finally in modern revelation we see Edward Partridge being warned that “if he repent not of his sins, which are unbelief and blindness of heart, let him take heed lest he fall” (D&C 58:15) and the Church as a whole taught that “your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received— Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation” (D&C 84:54-55). While faith and belief may not come easily, we are commanded to “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and instructed to “exercise a particle of faith”, and to not cast out the word “by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:27-28). Unbelief is a sin, but with God’s grace we can choose differently, by “experimenting” on his word, by yielding to the influence of His spirit and by remembering our previous experiences.

For several years now I have been struck by how important it is to remember our spiritual experiences and those miracles we witness. While there’s some – like the aforementioned article writer – who may have never have believed, others did at some stage. And for at least some of them, including some of my friends, that belief was not just a vain hope, but founded on actual experiences. I wonder what they make or even remember of those now, and there’s some friends I wish I could just shake: “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what it was like? What you felt and saw?” How I wish I could help them remember, for it is actual experience with the Divine that answers all questions and doubts.

The exclusivity of “inclusivity”

There is one final point I wish to briefly address, namely this concept that because of one’s ancestry and upbringing in the culture, one can continue to be a “Mormon” while rejecting the practice and especially the belief, and even that they should be permitted access to the Temple and so forth in spite of public disbelief. I have to admit this argument gets me angry to some degree, although I doubt that many who advance it see the implications of it.

Converts must believe to be baptized. To unite themselves with the Church, they must have faith and practice the first principle of the Gospel. And before they are baptized, they are asked about what they believe to ensure they meet the requirements for baptism. To become a “Mormon”, they must have and exercise their faith.

What is being implicitly proposed, then, ends up being a two-tier system. Converts must have faith to become members of the Church and enjoy its spiritual blessings. But those of a particular ancestry and upbringing need no faith to accrue the same benefits. I can only imagine what the Apostle Paul would make of this argument. As for me, all I can think is to paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: “Think not to say within yourselves that we have Brigham Young, or Lorenzo Snow or whomever to be our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Brigham Young”.

“Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?”

Recent events and comments have reminded me of the following:

FOR A moment there was silence under the cedar trees and then-pad, pad, pad-it was broken. Two velvet-footed lions came bouncing into the open space, their eyes fixed upon each other, and started playing some solemn romp. Their manes looked as if they had been just dipped in the river whose noise I could hear close at hand, though the trees hid it. Not greatly liking my company, I moved away to find that river, and after passing some thick flowering bushes, I succeeded. The bushes came almost down to the brink. It was as smooth as Thames but flowed swiftly like a mountain stream: pale green where trees overhung it but so clear that I could count the pebbles at the bottom. Close beside me I saw another of the Bright People in conversation with a ghost. It was that fat ghost with the cultured voice who had addressed me in the bus, and it seemed to be wearing gaiters.

“My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you,” it was saying to the Spirit, who was naked and almost blindingly white. “I was talking to your poor father the other day and wondering where you were.”

“You didn’t bring him?” said the other.

“Well, no. He lives a long way from the bus, and, to be quite frank, he’s been getting a little eccentric lately. A little difficult. Losing his grip. He never was prepared to make any great efforts, you know. If you remember, he used to go to sleep when you and I got talking seriously! Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”

“But wasn’t I right?”

“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological. . . .”

“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?”

“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”

“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”

“Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”

“We call it Hell.”

“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”

“Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.”

“Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.”

“But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.”

“Are you serious, Dick?”

“Perfectly.”

“This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.”

“Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?”

“There are indeed, Dick. There is hidebound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed-they are not sins.”

“I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.”

“Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”

“What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came-popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

“Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?”

“Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?”

“If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like …”

“I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.”

“I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

“Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”

“You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!”

“Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?”

“Well, this is extremely interesting,” said the Episcopal Ghost. “It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime . . .”

“There is no meantime,” replied the other. “AH that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It’s all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And- I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?”

“I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,” said the Ghost.

“I am not trying to make any point,” said the Spirit. “I am telling you to repent and believe.”

“But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realize that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.”

“Very well,” said the other, as if changing his plan. “Will you believe in me?”

“In what sense?”

“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”

“Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances … I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness-and scope for the talents that God has given me-and an atmosphere of free inquiry-in short, all that one means by civilization and-er-the spiritual life.”

“No,” said the other. “I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things” … to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

“If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.”
“But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?”

“You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.”

“Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.”

“Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.” The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. “I can make nothing of that idea,” it said.

“Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

“Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

“You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.”

“If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.”

“We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”

“I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact.’ The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly . . .”

“Do you not even believe that He exists?”

“Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance-and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.”

“If the thirst of the Reason is really dead . . . ,” said the Spirit, and then stopped as though pondering. Then suddenly he said, “Can you, at least, still desire happiness?”

“Happiness, my dear Dick,” said the Ghost placidly, “happiness, as you will come to see when you are older, lies in the path of duty. Which reminds me. . . . Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! there is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip-a certain confusion of mind. That is where I can be of some use to them. There are even regrettable jealousies. … I don’t know why, but tempers seem less controlled than they used to be. Still, one mustn’t expect too much of human nature. I feel I can do a great work among them. But you’ve never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste … so much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

The Ghost nodded its head and beamed on the Spirit with a bright clerical smile-or with the best approach to it which such unsubstantial lips could manage-and then turned away humming? softly to itself “City of God, how broad and far.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce