2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.
While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:
Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.
Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.
2 Nephi 2:2-3
Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.
In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).
There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.
As mentioned above, there’s a lot in this chapter. It’s interesting how with both Jacob and Joseph that Lehi chose to speak about profound things, but covered such different topics. With Lehi’s teachings to Jacob, I think I discern a thread that then runs into the things that Jacob teaches too, that can be seen in passages such as 2 Nephi 9 and the latter part of Jacob 3.
It begins with Lehi discussing the trials and the blessings that Jacob has experienced, but particularly the witness he has received of Christ, and then moves on to teach how none of us are justified by the law (and not just speaking of the law of Moses either: “by the spiritual law” we “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever”, v. 5). Hence our universal and utter need for Christ’s grace, expressed here both powerfully and succinctly:
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
(2 Nephi 2:8)
Lehi then speaks about how Christ’s intervention makes it possible for us to receive happiness, in contrast to punishment, one being the consequence of the atonement, the other the law, and this turns him to the subject of opposites. While I don’t think this is the most misunderstood chapter of the Book of Mormon (I believe that honour goes to Alma 42), I do think the statement that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11) is often misunderstood. Most of the time I hear it quoted is in reference to the existence of trials and so on, but while it is true that trial and afflictions are an inevitable and even necessary part of this life, that’s not what this statement is talking about. Rather it is talking about the existence of philosophical opposites: happiness and punishment, wickedness and righteousness, law and sin. As Lehi states in verses 11-12:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
These opposites are necessary for there to be meaningful existence: life must have choices and those choices have consequence or else existence itself would possess no definable quality and would “have been created for a thing of naught”, or in other words, pointless. The truth of this statement can be seen even when we consider unimportant, trifling decisions: which ice cream flavour to eat would be an utterly pointless choice if all the flavours tasted the same (that is, they had the same consequence). It is the existence of these possibilities, of good and bad acts and real consequences, that make choice possible.
There’s another interesting element to the ability to choose that’s worth pointing out here too. Speaking of the fall, Lehi teaches (vv. 15-16, my emphasis):
And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.
Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.
It is not just the existence of opposites and alternatives that make choice possible, but mankind needs factors to appeal to them, to pull them in each direction. In a lot of discussions about agency, it often seems that people treat this as an innate trait of mankind, but it really isn’t. Human beings can be both “things to act” and “things to be acted upon”. Where much of our agency, speaking of our choice between good and evil, lies rests in our ability to tip the scales between the two forces pulling upon us, namely the influence of God, particularly through his Holy Spirit, and the temptations of the devil and his angels. Which is why the possibility of the Lord’s spirit not always striving with man is such a threat (variations on that statement – first appearing in Genesis 6:3, appearing in 1 Ne. 7:14; 2 Ne. 26:11; Mormon 5:16; Ether 2:15; Ether 15:19; Moroni 8:28; Moroni 9:4, and on a national scale generally portending complete annihilation). If we persist in wickedness to such a degree that the Lord’s spirit gives up on us, then only one factor is left, and we become for the most part something “to be acted upon”, save by an act of grace.
Lehi then continues his discussion of the fall, one which many people have commented on (although one where some seem to over-correct on, for the fall while necessary is still a fall). The fall is part of God’s plan for mankind: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (v. 24). And again, a profound though sometimes misunderstood statement:
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
(2 Nephi 2:25)
It should always be understood that this statement is referring to God’s ultimate aim for mankind, that we might have joy. It is not a guarantee to permanent and complete joy in this life. I’ve addressed that topic before, but verse 23 just before this verse is worth noting in this regard: Adam and Eve pre-fall had “no joy, for they knew no misery”. This is a return to that notion of opposites (for likewise they did “no good, for they knew no sin”). In this life, in order to develop the capacity to have joy, we must also have the possibility of knowing and experiencing misery.
Which leads to Lehi’s ultimate conclusion, about (fittingly) the ultimate choice we face between ultimate joy with Christ or ultimate misery with the devil:
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
(2 Nephi 2:27)
This is the most important choice, the most important opposite, that lies before us, and the one choice that cannot be taken from us save we give it up ourselves. And in this, we have those factors each side enticing us one way or the other:
And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;
And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.
(2 Nephi 2:28-29)
In essence we have both internal and external factors. The external factors are the teachings and commandments of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit on one side, and the temptations of the devil on the other. But each of us also faces an internal battle against those things inside us: “the natural man” as Mosiah 3:19 puts it, or “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” as it is so vividly put here. If this chapter helps correct some wider misapprehensions held about the fall in wider Christendom, it also does teach (for those who take it too far the other way) that the fall did bring about real consequences in terms of instincts and inclinations within all of us to stray, one which Satan will take advantage of if we let him. This seems to be a hard concept for some people to accept (indeed some don’t seem to realise that LDS scripture teaches this at all), but a necessary one not just to understand the world (including understanding that just because something is natural doesn’t make it good), but to understand ourselves. If mankind is not wholly corrupt, it is not wholly good either, nor perfectible by its own efforts. Rather, it is our individual human souls (that is the body and spirit as a unit, D&C 88:15) that are the battleground for the great war that wages between good and evil.
We can’t defeat our own evil inclinations purely by our own efforts, but fortunately and miraculously we don’t have to, and that path is laid out in this chapter. What we have the power to do is to make that ultimate choice and keep making it. And it is as we choose Christ, as we put our faith in him and “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), that his grace and power and mercies come with even greater power into our life. And it is that grace that will give us the ability to follow him, to act and not to be acted upon, and pave the way to that joy that is the point of our existence.