But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.
To God I cried with mournful voice,
I sought his gracious ear,
In the sad day when troubles rose,
And filled the night with fear.
Sad were my days, and dark my nights,
My soul refused relief;
I thought on God the just and wise,
But thoughts increased my grief.
Still I complained, and still oppressed,
My heart began to break;
My God, thy wrath forbade my rest,
And kept my eyes awake.
My overwhelming sorrows grew,
Till I could speak no more;
Then I within myself withdrew,
And called thy judgments o’er.
I called back years and ancient times
When I beheld thy face;
My spirit searched for secret crimes
That might withhold thy grace.
I called thy mercies to my mind
Which I enjoyed before;
And will the Lord no more be kind?
His face appear no more?
Will he for ever cast me off?
His promise ever fail?
Has he forgot his tender love?
Shall anger still prevail?
But I forbid this hopeless thought;
This dark, despairing frame,
Rememb’ring what thy hand hath wrought;
Thy hand is still the same.
I’ll think again of all thy ways,
And talk thy wonders o’er;
Thy wonders of recovering grace,
When flesh could hope no more.
Grace dwells with justice on the throne;
And men that love thy word
Have in thy sanctuary known
The counsels of the Lord.
My attention today fell on the following verses:
And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.
And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!
As I was reading this, it again seemed a bit of a strange dichotomy. Much of what Lehi reads in his vision is about the judgments coming upon Jerusalem and the forthcoming activity. And Lehi’s response is to rejoice (explicitly so in v.15), and among other things single out God’s mercy (twice in fact, particularly with the mention that he ‘wil[l] not suffer those who come unto [him] that they shall perish’). This seems at first glance a little odd.
Now it’s possible this reaction is to the other stuff he read that isn’t mentioned (the ‘great and marvelous things’), and we know from verse 19 that one of the things he read about is ‘the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world’. But verse 18 also emphasises that the principle subject of the ‘many marvelous things’ shown to Lehi ‘concern[ed] the destruction of Jerusalem’.
I think it’s possible there’s something else also going on here. Lehi’s original encounter with ‘a pillar of fire’ occurred because he was praying ‘in behalf of his people’ (vv.5-6). Now it’s easy to assume that ‘his people’ meant the people at Jerusalem, but I think its possible that this may be a more specific reference. Verse 4 recounts ‘many prophets’ coming to tell the people of Jerusalem, to ‘repent, or the great city of Jerusalem must be destroyed’. And we know, both from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, how such prophets such as Lehi and Jeremiah were received. Jeremiah 26:20-23 is particularly illustrative, where another prophet by the name of Urijah fled to Egypt for safety, but King Jehoiakim (Zedekiah’s brother and predecessor) sent agents after him to retrieve him, and once he was retrieved the king had Urijah killed.
Could Lehi have perhaps been praying on behalf of these prophets and those (like Lehi) who believed on them? If so, it’d make Lehi’s reaction to the forthcoming destruction – seeing it as a form of deliverance for those who were seeking to ‘come unto [him]’ (1 Nephi 1:14) – make much more sense, particularly as it’d be a direct answer to his actual question. Nor would this be the last time in the Book of Mormon that divine judgment on some be seen as providing deliverance for others, with perhaps the clearest association of these two concepts being seen in 1 Nephi 22:16-17 (and perhaps, thinking about it, it is no coincidence that concept comes up in the last chapter of this book if it’s also here in the first chapter).
The 2013 edition has changed the type-face, so that the introduction to the book of Nephi is in un-italicized text indicating it’s part of the sacred text, while chapter headings are not. It’s interesting that Nephi feels the need to spoil much of the ‘plot’ of 1 Nephi in advance, further indicating that telling a story is not his primary aim. It is interesting that Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life and Nephi’s own vision, with associated discussions, are not mentioned when they occupy a considerable portion in the centre of the book.
Several things caught my eye while reading today, a couple of which it turns out I hadn’t already commented on above!
A brief thing to note is Nephi’s use of the word abridgment and abridged in verse 17:
But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life.
Mormon famously talks of having abridged the previous records in making most of the book, and I think a lot of people assume from that that his role was more that of an editor, snipping bits out to shorten it, but otherwise leaving the words of Alma, Helaman etc untouched. Which isn’t the case, since careful reading shows that it’s Mormon narrating through most of Words of Mormon to Mormon 7, and he’s usually pretty careful when he introduces a quotation from someone else (like Alma or Helaman). I think this example by Nephi, however, shows what the Book of Mormon means by using this word: it’s quite clear that this passage is in Nephi’s words – he’s writing it – but he’s telling a shortened account of his father’s visions (and may be using his own father’s writings described in verse 16 – which we sadly don’t have a full record of – as a source for said dreams and visions).
The other thing that really popped out at me, and which has done before, comes in verse 1, possibly the most-read verse of the Book of Mormon:
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
The line that has caught my eye on more than one occasion is the line about “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days”.
I think this is striking for the balance it strikes between acknowledging trial and suffering on one part, but also confessing the Lord’s hand and his help and aid on the other. I think it’s important to realise we can acknowledge both at the same time. It sometimes seems that some feel that in order to maintain a positive perspective, one must deny when one is suffering, or feeling sad or unhappy, or so forth. The gospel can bring us peace, yes, but “not as the world giveth” (John 14:27). We are not promised permanent happiness, in the sense of an absence of any negative emotions, in this life, no matter how diligently we live the gospel: Christ himself experienced upset, grief, and deep distress (see John 11:35, Luke 19:41, Mark 14:33 and Luke 12:50), while a prophet like Jacob writes of “mourn[ing] out our days” (Jacob 7:26). “Men are, that they might have joy”, but one only learns to experience joy by also learning to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:25, 23). Now it is right to count our blessings, to look for the positive, and not to dwell or trap ourselves in negative emotions and experiences. But we don’t need to deny that we are or have experienced those things in order to do so. As I’ve written before, to deny that we’re going through bad times or feeling bad things when we are strikes me as less than honest. Which is counter-productive, because as Elder Cook has pointed out (quoting Arthur Brooks): “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are’”? Acknowledgement of our afflictions can co-exist with gratitude for divine assistance.
But I also think the dichotomy that Nephi points too goes beyond acknowledging both experiences, but also points to a relationship between those two things. As I’ve indicated in several places before, several years ago I went through a prolonged period of trial and extremely negative feelings. Yet, it’s worth point out that it was during the midst of those trials that I was blessed with some of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. These came as oases in the wilderness, brief moments which when they came blotted out how I was feeling and all I was going through, and which – even if only for a brief moment – filled my soul with peace and joy. Those moments passed, but holding onto those experiences gave me strength to endure when life as it was resumed. I believe that not only were those experiences “previews”, so to speak, of the joy we can and will experience permanently in the eternities, but also came not despite, but because of the trials I was going through. And I believe Nephi is pointing to the same truth: the favour of God came not just as a way of navigating the afflictions he was experiencing, but because of those very afflictions, that the Lord can “consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2).
I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of being fortunate, and not necessarily feeling overjoyed.
However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.
There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.
Unhappiness is not a sin
As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.
Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).
Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions
It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.
That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.
Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.
We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.
O Lord My God,
I shall praise thee in the morning
and in the evening.
I shall praise thee amongst hope
and amongst the blackest shoals of despair.
I am encompassed round about,
I am assailed on all sides,
yet I shall praise thee
for I know that thou art over all,
and orderest all things for our good.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from my afflictions and my enemies.
I know not what to do,
or where to go,
and feel beyond hope,
yet I know that thou wilt aid those without aid.
Thou art the final refuge,
and a sure redoubt,
against all the efforts of the enemy
and against all failings of the heart.
O Lord I desire to serve thee,
and greatly desire to do thy will.
Yet I stumble,
and fail thee,
and much is beyond my power.
Forgive thou my weaknesses,
and grant me strength to accomplish all that thou dost desire
and to become all that thou wouldst.
I am alone,
and my strength faileth.
My heart aches,
and I see no succor.
Yet I know that thy hand is mighty.
Help me, I pray thee.
Comfort my soul,
and ease my pains.
Make me to see thy aid
and that of thy servants,
that I might praise thee
and acknowledge all thy goodness,
and pour out thy comforting spirit upon me
and grant me thy peace.
Make me to serve thee,
and to dwell in thy rest,
and grant me thy hope
in all the blessings that thou hast promised.