Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

As I mentioned when discussing the introduction, today’s section (“The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith”) isn’t originally part of the Book of Mormon either, being an edited extract from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, which was added in later editions (presumably for additional context). I bring this up as when reading through this today, one of the principal things to come to mind actually happens to be one of the things that was edited out:

The first paragraph as given in Testimony is as follows:

“On the evening of the … twenty-first of September [1823] … I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God. …

While here is Joseph Smith-History 1:29, which these lines were taken from (with the bits edited out in bold):

In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.

I don’t think there’s any great significance in the editing decisions themselves. After all, it’s hardly like JS-H was being hidden, especially since readers are being referred to there “for a more complete account”. Whoever edited the passage was clearly trying to abbreviate a significantly longer passage so that it would fit, and so removed things that could either be regarded as not strictly necessary (“above-mentioned”, retiring to bed etc), or which were part of the back drop of the wider JS-H text (the reference to the first vision Joseph Smith had already experienced, and his praying for forgiveness for his sins which he speaks about in JS-H 1:28). However, while reading today I couldn’t help but think of his motivations for praying as he did that night.

Something similar happened with the first vision too. Joseph Smith appears to have had several motivations for praying as he did then: as recorded in JS-H, there was his confusion over the Churches, and then as several other of his accounts record (and which is alluded to in D&C 20:5) there was again a concern for personal forgiveness of sins. Of course, much as with Moroni’s visit, the first vision ended up being about so much more. In both cases, the spiritual experience that Joseph received addressed so much more than what he was asking about.

I wonder about this. I wonder if sometimes we have a tendency to reduce our model of spiritual experiences down to transactional events. That is, even if we are careful to avoid thinking of God as some sort of Santa Claus (that is, we avoid the tendency for our prayers to devolve into simply asking for things we want), we can still approach spiritual experiences in which we produce the question, we meet certain conditions for an answer, and then God provides the answer as if he were a spiritual cash machine and the initiative is entirely on our part. I wonder if we sometimes forget that God himself has agency, more so than we do, and he has his own plan (indeed a crucial part of faith is accepting his own plan over ours). As part of that, we may have questions, but he may well provide answers to questions we haven’t asked. The two experiences Joseph had here are examples of this, and I think there are other scriptural examples too of revelation not being doled out according to certain preconditions, but at divine initiative (Moses and the burning bush, the angelic visitations to Zacharias and Mary, Saul & the road to Damascus and I think many more). I think also of my own experiences, and indeed of the most powerful were those that did not simply address the questions I had, but went far beyond it and addressed questions I didn’t have.

Of course, perhaps the very fact that Joseph was on both occasions seeking divine guidance in faith, even if about personal matters, meant that he was ready to also receive divine guidance about bigger matters too, which takes me onto the other thing that came to mind while reading (and which wasn’t edited out), namely the matter of motivation:

But what was my surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as before; and added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.

Our motivations appear to be of crucial concern to both the Lord and to the adversary. But while the adversary would seek to use our motivations to manipulate us into doing evil, the Lord wants us not only to do good, but for good motives too (Moroni 7:6). What we want and how badly we want it appears to have great power and influence on our course through life, the gospel and our eternal destiny (see Alma 29:4). In Joseph’s case, his desires in relation to the plates not only has to be right, but not clouded by any desires, in order for him to receive them at all. And I think that sometimes too that can be the case for us: there may be some kind of blessing, or responsibility, or something that God would have us obtain, but which we can only obtain if our desires and motivations are right before him.

Of course, changing or purifying said motivations may not always be straightforward!

Edit: I’d originally mistakenly attributed the adding of this excerpt of JS-H to the 1981 LDS edition (which added the “Introduction”), however upon checking, the 1920 edition has a very similar extract entitled “Origin of the Book of Mormon”. So while not original to the Book of Mormon, and I’d argue very much added for context, it was added earlier than 1981. The “Brief Explanation About the Book of Mormon” also seems to date from the 1920 edition, where an earlier version appears as “Brief Analysis of the Book of Mormon”.

Enos

I’ve not added any post recently as I’ve been quite ill, and have more to come. I thought, however, upon reading Enos this morning and finding it wasn’t on my list that I’d add a few observations upon reading it today. I’m partly cheating, as the last one will simply be an excerpt from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, but that’s not simply laziness or fatigue, it’s the fact that I can’t help but think of that point when I read this chapter now. But more on that later.

I was struck, as I always am, by Enos 4:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

It’s not the praying all night and day that quite gets my attention, but rather the desire implicit in that “and my soul hungered”. I can’t take any credit for this observation (the Church film produced for Seminary makes much the same point), but the crux of Enos’ experience was how badly he wanted something, and what he was prepared to do to get it.

And that strikes me as something that’s true for all of us, particularly when it comes to matters of the Spirit. We can’t force the Spirit, but much of our experience depends on the strength of our desires. If we want to know if something is true, but only out of mild curiosity, we can’t expect the heavens to open up to us. As James says about those that waver in seeking wisdom from God: “let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7).

Why did I particularly think on this verse today? I was thinking of Ward Conference several weeks back, when the question was posed (I can’t remember if by one of the speakers outright, or by myself in my notes in response to something they said): are you closer to Christ than you were a year ago? And I don’t think I could honestly answer yes. Not that I’ve completely wandered off the reservation or anything, but closer? I’m not sure that’s true. But I think it should be, and it’s something I want to be different. In which case, how badly do I want that, and what am I prepared to do?

I likewise had my attention caught on verse 23, a verse that probably gets a lot less attention:

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

I guess I found two things interesting about this. One is the fact that what needs to be said to people, and what needs to be stressed, depends greatly on where someone is. Plenty of times people need to be reminded of the love of God. These people were in a different place, and needed to be reminded of the judgment of God. I’m sure what we need to hear varies across our life too. But I was also struck about the elements singled out here: reminding people of death, of eternity, and the judgment and power of God. Unwittingly, these are the very elements I’ve been stressing in something I’m working on (whether that is true in that work’s final form remains very much to be seen).

And now to the final point, which genuinely crossed my mind while reading once again, but which I have better described elsewhere:

However, the Book of Mormon adopts an unusual approach to time not just in how it speaks of future events, but also in how it views cause and effect. Thus Enos, seeking forgiveness of sins some four centuries before the birth of Christ according to the narrative, is told by revelation when he asks how he is forgiven:

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:8)

Thus it is through Christ that Enos is forgiven, but in a particularly retro-causal turn the answer he receives emphasises that the cause of his forgiveness lies far into the future. God himself is not subject to time, for ‘all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men’ (Alma 40:8). Because God is not subject to time, the Book of Mormon sees no logical obstacles to Lehi being able to quote from future scripture, or God informing human beings of future events:

And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming? (Alma 39:17-19)

Or as described in Jacob 4 itself:

And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? (Jacob 4:12)

It is upon this basis that the book defends its ‘pre-Christian Christianity’: on the grounds that God is able to reveal Christ, his atonement and the ‘plan of redemption’ at any time of his choosing. This includes phrases otherwise unique to the New Testament, such as Lehi’s quotation of John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8, or (for an example especially pertinent to Jacob 5) the quotation of Matthew 3:10 in Alma 5:52, a quotation attributed to what ‘the spirit saith’. The Book of Mormon’s use of ‘plain terms’ is attributed to the result of revelation from a God who is not subject to time and whose use of the ‘same words’ is described as an intentional effort:

The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, p. 264-265

I always like a bit of retrocausality. This one – that Christ’s atonement was so perfect and infinite that its effects could precede its cause, and bring forgiveness to anyone, regardless of where they were in time – is perhaps the most important.

2020 Edit:

My attention was caught by a thread picked up in the very first verse:

Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it

I was struck by reading this that Enos’ knowledge of the righteousness of his father rests on the fact that he taught him, including about the gospel.

As the same time, however, the gospel simply being taught is only one half of the picture. Enos still had to choose to respond to those teachings, and he did so in full at some distance from those teaching experiences. It was up to Enos to have that “wrestle… before God”, and no one else could do it for him, regardless of how effectively he was taught. I believe this is true of everyone who accepts the gospel; sure, not everyone does it as such a singular, all-in-one, experience as Enos does. For many people it might be multiple steps, or a path carved out over time. But the choice to respond to the message of the gospel must be taken by those receiving it. In one sense it’s comforting: for those called to teach the gospel, that’s all they’re called to do: to teach it, not to ensure that those listening accept it. But on the other hand, that’s partly because they cannot ensure that their audience responds; whether someone responds to the message of the gospel with faith and repentance is not up to the teacher, but to the listener, and no one can bind or force their choice, and indeed they may end up responding some time after receiving the message. All someone teaching the gospel can do is present the message they are called to do with faith and with the spirit, and hope that the listeners will respond. Whether it will bear fruit or not is something that may not be known for some time, and one cannot measure success in sharing the gospel by how many people immediately respond.

An example of that occurs later in the chapter, where Enos records the reactions of the Lamanites to his people’s efforts to share the gospel:

For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.

(Enos 1:14)

And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness…

(Enos 1:20)

Enos’ and his people’s efforts were without success. In the chapter immediately preceding, Jacob likewise records a similar result:

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually.

(Jacob 7:24)

I remember some years ago that the contrast with the later (“successful”) missions of the Sons of Mosiah really dawned on me. What struck me at the time – and ties in with what stuck out to me today – is that the difference between what Jacob and Enos got, and what the Sons of Mosiah got, wasn’t down to the faithfulness or diligence or obedience of those giving the message. Jacob, after all, records some of his people having so much faith that they have power over the elements! The difference wasn’t in the righteousness or diligence of those teaching; there were other factors. When the Sons of Mosiah taught, there were people prepared to hear the message. Perhaps they were prepared to do so with the likes of Abish and her father in their midst. Perhaps other things made a difference too. The difference between the two experiences wasn’t down to any difference in the diligence of the teacher, but in the willingness of the listeners to respond and repent, and perhaps too in the will of God and his timing. Only God can know and account for both those factors. By the standards of the only measuring rod available to us mortals, all we can measure is diligence and faithfulness in sharing the message, and by that account both Jacob and Enos were as “successful” as the Sons of Mosiah.

Bouncing back a bit in the chapter, I was also struck by this statement of Enos:

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

(Enos 1:5-6)

Why was Enos’ guilt “swept away”. Because he knew God could not lie, and so believed him when God told him he had been forgiven. As I’ve written before, the great statement of faith that gave the brother of Jared admittance into the presence of God was “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12, my emphasis). There’s a great power of faith in knowing that God always speaks the truth and so choosing to trust what he tells us (whatever that assurance may be about). I wonder if many of us fall short of experiencing that power. If Enos had not taken God at his word, would he have had such a wonderful feeling, or would he still have been troubled (needlessly, since he was forgiven)? Could such feelings have caused him further difficulties? Are there assurances God has given us that have yet to have their full power in our heart because we have not yet trusted them as sweepingly as Enos or the brother of Jared did?

“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

IMG_20180515_162759346.jpg

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 certainly 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.

Here we go again

Once again in my life, I find myself looking for work, and I’m not entirely sure in which direction to look. I once again face the issue of being “over-qualified”, while still trying to work out what I am actually qualified to do. I find I still don’t have a “passion for customer service” or any deep affinity with or desire to work in the likes of the recruitment industry (and as before, I’m not prepared to lie about such things).

Obviously I’m seeking to be flexible, and part of me would be happy with any paid employment that I could be confident I could perform reasonably well in. But I also find myself at present longing for something else. I want, at least at present, to leave academia behind. I want to leave theory behind, and any other writing or research which is unattached from reality. I want to get out of my own head (and anyone else’s). I want to actually do or build something real. At the same time, so many jobs out there don’t seem to actually accomplish all that much, whether that be basic retail work or the various graduate jobs at the big accountancy firms. What vital societal functions, however small, do they accomplish? What do they actually build?

I feel – and perhaps I’m romanticising it all too much – that I really miss the existence of a frontier. An opportunity to find and build something new, for whoever was willing to take the risks, pay the price and work hard. Sure, living conditions were undoubtedly pretty horrible, and the work involved likely tedious and hard (I have no illusions that, say, planting a new farmstead was either easy or especially thrilling – most work throughout human history hasn’t been). What might be accomplished might be quite small in the great scheme of things: a settlement, a village, a farm or even just a house. But it was building something real and new that hadn’t been there before, something that actually exists. While I will take whatever work I can get, part of me is filled with a restlessness desire to push back some frontier and build something new, but I cannot see where any frontier is. I don’t want to add to the pile of useless sales executives or whatever that western society is already full of. I want to explore the unknown, I want to plan cities out of nothing, I want to build mag-lev lines across Greenland, I want to build a great state out of a small city. These are perhaps foolish desires. But it’d be nice to find some work, however small and tedious, that would allow me to find something new, or build something that is real, or which makes some real contribution – however small – to the world around me.

 

Alma 29

This chapter is quite unusual in some regards. One thing I began to appreciate while working on The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible was how careful Mormon was as a narrator, so that he is usually very precise about attributing passages he is using from another source, and so there is generally very little confusion as to who an overall passage should be attributed too (at least if one’s paying attention; there’s always some who’ll speak of “Alma” talking in Alma 34 simply because it’s part of the book of Alma). But Alma 29 is a bit different: there’s no attribution given for this passage whatsoever. Normally this would lead us to think that this was written by Mormon himself, but a number of features in this chapter – references, for instance to the mercy God has shown the speaker (v. 10), references to remembering the captivity of his fathers and God establishing his Church(v. 11-13), and to the success of “my brethren”, referring to Ammon and his brother’s missionary labours – have lead people to traditionally attribute this chapter to Alma. I largely concur with this identification, for those reasons and one I’m about to cover, but I have read one interesting argument that made a case that these words should in fact be attributed to Mormon instead.

But I’m pretty sure this is Alma, and one reason rests on the following, memorable words:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

After expressing this wish, however, the author of these words goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is this desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is this desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that this desire isn’t an abstract one, if understood as Alma’s words. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

If Alma is understood to be the one speaking here, then he’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence the explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as is explained:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

What brings Miracles

As one does, I happened to come across some meme that was being shared on facebook, one clearly aimed at an LDS audience. There’s lots of them floating out there, usually with some snippet of a talk or some well-meaning sentiment. The ones I tend to notice however are the ones that, while well-meaning, fall short on the “actually right” scale. Those who know me will know my annoyance at things like the “I never said it’d be easy, I only said it’d be worth it” when Christ didn’t actually say that. However, the one I noticed today was, I believe, sufficiently wrong that it is not just a matter of me being crotchety, and worth bringing up here.

I’m not going to reproduce the image, since it’d end up being shared with this blogpost and people would get the wrong idea. However, the text stated: “Obedience brings blessings, but obedience with exactness brings miracles.”

I’m really not sure this is true.

And I think this is important because a lot of people can come to believe this: that they must be absolutely, 100% obedient, before God will intervene. “Obedience with exactness” can become a never-ending standard that only one person ever born on this earth ever met. But it isn’t true. I’ve been blessed to be a witness and a recipient of miracles on a number of occasions – and I’m not simply talking “happy coincidence” level of miracles (sometimes I think we sell such things short with low expectations, but that’s another matter) either – but I certainly haven’t been perfectly obedient. Yet I think this sort of belief can hold people, who are many times more obedient or charitable than I am, from receiving miracles that are otherwise on offer.

There are several scriptures I believe are pertinent when faced with this statement.

Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;

For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.

(D&C 46:8-9)

Spiritual gifts seem very much a sort of miracle, especially when we consider one gift is the “working of miracles” (D&C 49:21). Here in the verse above we learn that such gifts are for those who love God and keep all his commandments… “and him that seeketh so to do”, a merciful caveat. An important one too. I was fortunate while serving my mission, for example, to be blessed with many miracles. Yet I certainly cannot claim to have been 100% perfectly obedient at all times. I made mistakes, and so does anyone else. But did I want to be obedient? Yes, I certainly did, and I think that made a big difference. God takes our desires into account, not just our “results”.

However, there is one factor in the scriptures, more than any other, that is associated with the occurrence and the working of miracles. And it is not exact obedience:

For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.

Yea, and even all they who wrought miracles wrought them by faith, even those who were before Christ and also those who were after.

(Ether 12:12, 16)

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men…

(Moroni 7:37)

He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

(Galatians 3:5)

And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith.

(2 Nephi 26:13)

For I am God, and mine arm is not shortened; and I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name.

(D&C 35:8)

The fundamental precondition, aside from the will of God, for miracles is faith. Sometimes, it is true, that faith must be trust that even if God chooses not to act, that he knows best anyway. But it must also include a trust that he can and is willing to help and work miracles in the lives of his children, and that he is capable and willing to do so despite our imperfections .The Gospels contain a litany of accounts of the Saviour healing the sick and working mighty miracles, and then calling the recipients to a life of obedience. The entire premise of the Atonement is that God acted without waiting for us to reach some level of perfection: that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And so it is with his miracles. The Lord is not waiting for our perfect obedience to help us, but rather works with us according to our faith and His will, and it is through his help and miracles that we become perfect.

“…to do noble and true things”

It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things, and vindicate himself under God’s heaven as a God-made man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest day-drudge kindles into a hero. They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death, are the allurements that act on the heart of man. Kindle the inner genial life of him, you have a flame that burns up all lower considerations. Not happiness, but something higher: one sees this even in the frivolous classes, with their “point of honour” and the like. Not by flattering our appetites; no: by awakening the heroic that slumbers in every heart, can any religion gain followers.

Thomas Carlyle

Jacob 1

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.

(Jacob 1:19)

In our current age tolerance is frequently affirmed as the supreme virtue. One aspect of this I’ve seen expressed in a number of places is the belief that the only acceptable attitude to other people’s actions is one of unconditional approval, lest on be guilty of the modern sin of “judging”. Some people seem to have a genuine outrage that someone, somewhere, might disapprove of their actions, while others seem to have misunderstood the whole business of “judge not, that ye be not judged” (something I’ve covered a couple of times before).

There are some others, however, who seem to have formed the opinion that the only loving response to others is to endorse all and any of their actions. Jacob’s attitude here is a distinct contrast to this: having been ordained a priest and teacher (an important point, since in our private capacity our primary concern should always be our own sins), he did not express his concern for the people by telling them everything they were doing was okay. Instead for him it was a sacred duty to point out sin, and if he did not “their blood would come upon our garments”. Jacob knew that the only moral response was to warn people of things that would otherwise bring them eternal sorrow, and that if he did not he not only would not be acting in a loving fashion, but would be potentially be held responsible for not speaking up.

2020 edit:

I was struck by Jacob’s statement in verse 5:

For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them.

That faith was a prerequisite for their revelation comes as no surprise; what’s interesting is the role played by their “great anxiety”. It reminded me of those periods in my life when I had some really powerful spiritual experiences. I remember a year or so later, too, when I was reflecting on that in my journal, but reflecting I hadn’t quite had anything of the same magnitude at that point, and wondering why, and realising that part of that was down to the desperation I felt at the time of those experiences. My desire for guidance and reassurance from the Lord was fuelled by the significant emotional trials I was experiencing at the time, so that I didn’t just want and need such help, I was desperate for it. In short, I too was experiencing “great anxiety”, but that paved the way for great experiences that at the time served as oases for my soul. We cannot force the spirit nor the Lord’s timetable, yet sometimes the key to spiritual things is not just whether we want the right things, but how badly we want them, and what we are prepared to do to obtain them.

1 Nephi 11

And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?

And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.

1 Nephi 11:2-3

And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.

1 Nephi 11:10-11

The beginning of Nephi’s vision again has lots that could be said about it – including possibly a rather singular episode where the Holy Ghost personally turns up (the Book of Mormon usage of Spirit of the Lord – and Nephi’s reaction for that matter – suggest this may be the Holy Ghost as opposed to the pre-incarnate Christ as in Ether 3). Yet one striking question I feel is one asked by the Spirit twice of Nephi: ‘what desirest thou?’

It is Nephi’s answers to these questions that dictate the course of his vision. So much seems to hinge on what we really want, and how badly we want it. It seems to my mind a key component of receiving a testimony or revelation, which in my experience (personal and observed) does not appear to come in response to idle curiosity. We’re told that ultimately God gives us ‘according to [our] desire[s]’ (Alma 29:4), for good and for bad (‘unto salvation or unto destruction’). And so much of our course in life appears to be governed by our desires, and the extent to which we’ve been able to refine and purify them.

2020 Edit:

I could say this about virtually every chapter, but if one were seeking to pick out everything of significance, one might never actually finish. What we pick out on any given read through seems to depend almost as much on where we are rather than simply what the text says, even setting aside the way the Holy Ghost can use the text to communicate things beyond the text. Confining myself to just a couple of items, however:

Firstly, I think it significant that as part of his vision, Nephi is caught away “into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot” (v. 1). Putting aside the general association of mountains with visionary experiences & temple imagery (think Moses, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Brother of Jared etc), it’s that point about how this was a mountain that Nephi had never seen before and never set foot upon before that catches my eye. This vision, after all, seems to come as a new “peak” (pun half-intended?) to Nephi’s spiritual life, an experience which in it’s spiritual and emotional intensity dwarfs any he has had before, a spiritual “high” (I believe it’s no coincidence we use these sorts of phrases) that he hasn’t had before now.

Secondly, there’s the question posed by “the Spirit of the Lord”. It’s unclear who is meant precisely by this: if it were the Lord himself in his pre-incarnate state, as with the Brother of Jared, presumably he’d be referred to a bit differently than simply as “the Spirit”, as in vv. 2, 4, 6, 8 & 9, and it’d seem strange for “the Spirit” to voice verse 6 as his does. Which might suggest this is an exceptionally rare *visual* appearance by the Holy Ghost, which would be rather singular, although possible. I think most readers (including the likes of Talmage and George Q. Cannon) have gone with the second option, which I also lean towards, but there’s room for interpretation.

In any case, however, I find the question posed in verse 4 interesting: “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?” It’s interesting on one hand that such questions, whether involving heavenly messengers or deity himself, often seem to involve such questions, even though presumably the answers are already known. There seems to be some power in openly confessing belief in such things. The second is that on many occasions, and especially here, that belief or faith serves as a gateway for greater knowledge. I think it’s customary for us to often think of faith and knowledge to be antithetical to some degree, but when one looks at this experience and ones like it, faith seems to serve more as the gateway to knowledge, one which must be tested or confessed to be unlocked.

Thirdly, during his vision of the ministry of the Saviour, Nephi notes in verse 32:

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying (bold is my emphasis):

Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

This tallies with a line in 2 Nephi 9:5, where Jacob teaches that (again my emphasis):

Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.

It seems here to suggest that there is an aspect to the atonement of Christ we have yet to fully grasp or appreciate, that one of the axes upon which it works is that Christ voluntarily submitted himself to human authority, “to become subject unto man in the flesh” and be “judged of the world”, and that was in order “that all men might become subject to him”. There seems to be a connection, that because Christ yielded to our authority, we become answerable to his, and because Christ submitted to the world’s judgment, we in turn become rightly subject to his.

1 Nephi 6

Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world.

1 Nephi 6:5

I think it can be easy when writing anything to want people to read and to like your work, and very easy to think you are writing in vain if people don’t like it. While I am not sure one should aim to be disliked (that’s just another version of catering to the world’s tastes, after all), I think Nephi’s statement here points out that in writing – or in anything, particularly the use of our talents – it is the approval of God that we should most seek, and that is often at odds with worldly popularity and acclaim.

2020 Edit:

1 Nephi 6 is very short, and so I don’t have a huge amount to add this reading through. Much the same things leapt out at me, for while I’ve long finished what I was working on while writing the above (and er.. maybe it wasn’t particularly pleasing for some!), I’m still trying to work on several writing projects, some of which are more serious than others.

The two verses around verse 5 also stick out. First verse 4:

For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved.

On one hand I think this speaks very much both to Nephi’s aims and the aims of the Book of Mormon as a whole: it’s not written to entertain or primarily inform, but to persuade us of a course of action that has eternal consequences. On the other, perhaps we should let this filter through in our own priorities too. Not that we shouldn’t do (or write) other things (I hope not, since one thing I’m working on is a piece of fiction, and entertainment is hopefully part of that!). But we should always give serious thought to what we focus on and prioritise the most, a theme that President Oaks has touched upon frequently. What, in the end, do we want the most?

Verse 6:

Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men.

Again touching upon the same topic. It’s something I recurrently give thought to over the years, particularly considering that we renew the covenant via the Sacrament “to always remember” the Saviour. What do I end up spending most of my time thinking about, worrying about and working on? If I was to measure my mental priorities by the time I spend thinking about various topics, do the most valuable and eternal things come out on top? Or is it filled principally with other matters, many of which may not be bad, but which are simply not of eternal worth or concern?