The Testimony of Three & Eight Witnesses

Reading through both the testimony of the three and the testimony of the eight witnesses today, I was struck by the contrast between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the two sets of witnesses really experienced very different events: the three had a supernatural experience, stating that God “hath declared it unto us” and that “an angel of God” showed them the plates. The eight had a more sensory experience, with no supernatural events: they saw and handled the plates (the three only saw), and examined them physically.

Today when reading, however, it seemed to me that that contrast can be seen not just in the type of experiences the two sets of witnesses are trying to relate, but also in what they are seeking to convey from that, and even how they talk about it. So the three witnesses begin early by speaking about the experience they have had “through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Their witness is not just that the plates exist, but that “they have been translated by the gift and power of God” and that “the work is true”. They assert that they too are acting under divine authority, having been commanded by God to bear witness of their experience, and conclude their witness by speaking of faith in Christ and the final judgement, before finishing with a doxology.

In contrast, the testimony of the eight witnesses only invokes God once, at the end: “And we lie not, God bearing witness of it”, which has more the character of a legal declaration rather than the revelatory one of the eight witnesses. Otherwise their remarks are limited to what they handed and what they infer, in which they are quite restrained: the plates “have the appearance of gold”, and the plates and engravings have “the appearance of an ancient work” (my emphasis). They restrict themselves purely to what they were able to determine with their senses, to the extent that they don’t simply declare that the plates are ancient, but that they appeared to be so. It has the character of a legal testimony, in which they simply (“with words of soberness”) recount what they can observe with their eyes and hands, while the testimony of the three is a religious testimony, in which they bear record of a revelatory experience which they were commanded by God to share with the world, with consequences for their immortal soul.

Upon thinking about this, it really strikes me that both experiences are not just complimentary, but may even be necessary. It’s tempting to see the witness of the three as the more expansive, and in many respects it is, but notice that they don’t recount having actually handled the plates, nor do they give any physical description of it and its contents; only the eight do that. I think this touches on the same duality seen in the commandment that we are to learn “by study and also by faith“: we are expected both to use the capacity of our own minds, reason and other resources to find truth, and supernatural means also, and we really need both when it comes to learning about eternal things. Likewise, in our own efforts to gain a knowledge or witness of the truth of things like the Book of Mormon, I think upon my own experiences and think we may need to exert both: to use what we can learn through reason, experience and our senses, but also be able to seek the spirit and look with an eye of faith. And it is when the two work together, reason and revelation, that we are on the surest ground for seeking truth.

Alma 33

While part of the same sermon as Alma 32 and 34, Alma 33 often seems quite neglected in comparison. And while Alma 32 and 34 do have quite a few amazing things in them, this perhaps shouldn’t be the case, for if Alma 32 is where Alma encourages his audience to try an experiment by believing the word, and the process by which faith in that word can be built up, it’s in Alma 33 that he describes the content of that word. Thus this chapter probably deserves more attention than it gets, including the brief attention devoted to it in this post. Possible areas of attention include: Zenos’ and Zenock’s words (or indeed, their very existence, and Alma referring to their writings plainly as “scripture”); the way the Zenos quote addresses both questions held by Alma’s audience (namely – by mentioning all the places he prayed – where they can worship, and by reference to the Son, who they should trust in); and the type of the serpent staff in the wilderness, and how we might look upon Christ.

One thing stood out while reading it today, however, which was how Alma himself seems to condense the “word” he wishes the Zoramites to plant into one verse, which does indeed seem to condense the core of the Gospel into one sentence:

If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

(Alma 33:22)

This is the word that Alma desires they should “plant” in their hearts, and then nourish by their faith (v. 23), and presumably one we should too, and which will likewise lead us to eternal life. That we too should “cast about” our eyes, and begin to believe on the Son of God, that he came (and will come again) to redeem his people, that he has suffered and died to atone for our sins, and he rose again from the dead, which will bring to pass our resurrection, so that all of us will stand before him, to be judged. This is the very core, that Christ came down to Earth, that he is our redeemer from sin and from death, and that he is our judge and we are accountable to him. If we truly believe these things, I believe Alma to be saying, and exercise our faith in them, that is the message that will transform our lives, and indeed shape our eternal destiny. As I think upon this verse, it seems strange that such a powerful message can be condensed into such few words, and yet thinking upon it, it seems so obvious that nearly all our errors stem from forgetting one of these simple elements.

 

Alma 32

Alma 32

While this is part of a series of posts called “Reading through the Book of Mormon”, it’s probably clear that’s not quite what I’m doing at the moment. While my personal reading has taken me several times through since I started such posts, at the moment I’m kind of dotting around. This is somewhat ironic, in view of the fact (and this is perhaps directly relevant to today’s chapter) that I believe there’s a lot of advantages to reading the Book of Mormon in sequence. Unlike the order of books in the Bible, the Book of Mormon was deliberate arranged and composed in the order in which we find it. Furthermore, the present chapters and the versification we find inside it were put there in 1879 by Orson Pratt, and while the original Book of Mormon did have chapters (and – per Royal Skousen – those appear to reflect original divisions in the text), they were often much longer. While chapters and verses are very useful, they can cause us to break our reading up in ways that hinder our understanding of the text.

Alma 32-34 is a great example of this: in the original Book of Mormon this was one chapter (in fact Alma 30-35 was one chapter!), and when one looks at these three chapters they are one continuous sermon, begun by Alma in chapter 32, and then picked up by Amulek in chapter 34. But we may break it up into parts without paying sufficient attention to the rest of the unit, which would be like trying to watch a conference talk in only 5-10 minute segments, only returning to it the following day. We may be able to still learn much from doing that, but it’d be very easy to lose the main thread of the conference talk.

So it is with Alma 32-34, which is wonderfully knit together: The poor (both in possessions and in spirit) come to Alma, wondering how they can worship when cast out of their Synagogues. Alma first addresses how they can test his words and build faith in them with his simile of the word as a seed, then (in chapter 33) he returns to their question, quoting Zenos about praying in the wilderness and so on (33:4-5). This quote, however, also refers to God’s son, leading Alma to then talk of the need for Christ and for the Zoramites to plant this word in their hearts, quoting other scriptures (Zenock and Moses) for this purpose. Then Amulek gets up, clarifies the real question is “whether the word be in the Son of God” (34:5), and then after referring to Alma’s quotation of scripture then adds his own witness of the same “behold, I will testify unto you of myself”, speaking of the Atonement of Christ. He then exhorts them to exercise their faith by repenting, the first step being to pray to God and ask him for mercy, and once again addressing the initial question of “where can we worship God” by making clear that one can and should pray everywhere. It’s a wonderfully tight and powerful sermon, that one could pull lots of things from (and I hope to, when I look at Alma 33 and 34) , and incidentally a great example to missionaries on how a companionship can pass off to each and other teach together effectively.

As to Alma 32, there was one subject that loomed large in my mind, even before I actually read the chapter this time round, one which is often misunderstood.

 

Faith is not compared to a seed

Alma 32 is understandably – and rightly – referred to often, when people talk about faith and the process of gaining a knowledge of the Gospel. However, when this has happened in my hearing I have often heard people claim that Alma is comparing faith to a seed. This is not true. It is not faith that is being so compared, and I think correctly understanding Alma’s imagery can help us better understand faith, and also its relation to works, an often vexed subject.

So what is Alma comparing to a seed?

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed…

(Alma 32:28)

It is not faith that is the seed, but “the word”, namely the word of God (v. 22). That word may be received in many different ways for, as Alma states, “he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also… little children do have words given unto them many times which confound the wise and the learned”. We might receive the word of God through the words of another (a friend, a family member, a Church member, a leader, or a missionary). We might read them for ourselves in the scriptures, or elsewhere. We might receive it directly, though angels, or through the inspiration of the spirit. The word too might refer to a specific instruction on a topic.

Where does faith come in? As Alma goes on to state in verse 28:

… Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Faith then is not the seed, but allowing the seed to be planted: that is, to believe the word. In contrast to disbelieve it is to cast out the seed. And when we believe the word of God it brings a spiritual change (Alma 5:11-13).

And I think when we understand that relationship between the word and faith, we are in a better position to understand the relationship between faith and works. The subject of much controversy throughout Christendom, within the Church we usually understand well that – following James in James 2 – faith without works is dead. Sometimes, however, I see that over-corrected, with claims that faith means action, in short to effectively conflate faith and works. But the two are distinct, for if faith without works is dead, works can be dead also (D&C 22:2-3). As Mormon teaches (Moroni 7:6-7):

For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

The phrasing in verse 7 is particularly suggestive, considering the statement given in Genesis 15:6 about Abraham’s response to God’s promises:

And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

Or as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3:

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

Genuine faith leads to action, to works. But works motivated by some other reason, that are not accompanied by belief and real intent, have no saving value.

So there is a distinction between faith and works. Yet these should not be seen as being in opposition to each other; such was certainly not James’ intention when he taught that “seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:22). And it may be easier to see how the two work together when we bring “the word” into the picture, and see both faith and works as a response to God’s word. Our initial response to the word will be of belief or unbelief: if we believe, we plant that seed and it beings to “grow”. That can strengthen our faith, but as Alma goes on then to teach in verses 38-39:

But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

Once we have planted the seed – once we have exercised even “a particle of faith” – we must continue to exercise our faith, by acting upon the word of God that we claim to believe in. And so we must nourish the tree, by our acts of devotion (prayer, study of the scriptures and so forth) and by our obedience to what the word of God says. In this way, the “seed” will continue to grow, and our faith will become stronger, wrought with our works:

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.

(Alma 32:41-43)

The Prayer of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Nephi 1

star-jesus-birth-154378-tablet

Told you.

So as I mentioned, by pure happenstance I happen to have read the account of the signs of Christ’s birth on Christmas day itself. Since this is Christmas, I’ll keep it brief, but two points of observation from today’s reading:

  1. Christ is often described in scripture – especially in the gospel of John – as both “light” and “life”. Here, this is very literal: Christ’s birth is accompanied by literal light, so that there is a night with no darkness. Likewise, the appearance of the sign literally saves the lives of the believers, who were otherwise to be put to death (v. 9). Christ is also both our light and salvation for our lives, in many different senses: he shows us the way, illuminates our souls, is the source of the grace that will exalt us, and will redeem us from both physical and spiritual death..
  2. God seems to have this habit of letting timing be quite short. The passage doesn’t actually say when the assigned date for killing all the believers was in relation to when the sign appeared, but it was undoubtedly pressing in view of Nephi’s praying all day for those “who were about to be destroyed” (vv. 11-12). And it turned out that that night was the very time for the sign to appear. Likewise, the Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies were upon them before the Lord saved them. The Lord will often test our faith, but redeem us at the very last moment, and I guess what we must do is simply hold on in faith. The example of the believers here is instructive: while they worried “lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass”, “they did watch steadfastly” (vv. 7-8). While they were worried, they did not let those worries stop them from holding on and hoping for the sign. And sure enough, in the Lord’s timing, that hope was justified and all things fulfilled “according to the words of the prophets” (v. 20). Likewise we may worry about the fulfilment of God’s promises to us, and wonder how long we must wait or whether such things will ever happen. Such worries are natural, but I guess the lesson is that we must not let our worries stop us from “watch[ing] steadfastly”, and that – in the Lord’s timing – he will fulfil his promises to us.

Helaman 13

It’s been a long while since I’ve written one of these, and I feel that I’d like to do better at it. To recap, this is part of a series generated by my personal reading of the Book of Mormon, in which I happen to comment on one or two (or occasionally more) things that leapt out at me during my reading. It doesn’t aim to be an exhaustive or comprehensive examination of the chapter (the former I’d argue would likely be impossible), but simply commenting on something that struck me during my reading.

While reading Helaman 13 this morning, several points of varying importance came to mind:

  1. Firstly, I was curious about the fact that Samuel the Lamanite mentions several times (Alma 13:5, 9) that the Nephites face destruction in under “four hundred years”. Alma the younger has already mentioned the figure in Alma 45:10, although that is privately to his son Helaman. I am curious as to whether Samuel’s audience dismissed his remarks because it all sounds so far away. Of course, Samuel is also discussing more imminent events (and gives more imminent dates for those in the next chapter), but I guess many people’s natural response is to not worry about what will happen in four hundred years.
  2. One line that struck: “nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Helaman 13:6). I think this is true (and think it is being used here) both individually and collectively. But, individually and collectively, we often have a tendency to look towards different sources of salvation, whether it be the “right” political leaders, wealth, our own powers or intellect or whatever. In an ultimate sense, however, we all need to depend upon those two principles.
  3. Overall the chapter spends a lot of time talking about wealth, and it becoming “slippery”, so that the people are unable to find or keep it. I was wondering about why the focus on this, and think that part of the reason is the relationship people have with their riches here is emblematic of several serious sins. On one hand, one major sin is that the people do not remember and thank God for their material blessings, instead becoming prideful (Helaman 13:22); ingratitude may be a far more serious sin then we realise (see D&C 59, in which thanking God is specifically listed amongst the commandments given in vv. 5-13, and “confess[ing] not his hand in all things” is described as invoking God’s wrath in v. 21). On the other hand, the people trust in their riches (rather than God) and depend on them to preserve them from their poverty (Helaman 13:31-32), or to work or defend themselves (the mention of tools and weapons in particular in v. 34). The treasures becoming slippery teaches both that He who gave them can take them away, and that such material things are not dependable and to be trusted in.
  4. One to tag onto the list of “scary passages”, Helaman 13:37-38 is a particularly imposing passage:

Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.
But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.

 

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.

1 Nephi 21

Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.

And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.

1 Nephi 21:4-5

Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).

Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.

1 Nephi 12

And he said unto me: Thou rememberest the twelve apostles of the Lamb? Behold they are they who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them; for ye are of the house of Israel.

And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.

1 Nephi 12:9-10

I am struck by the description of the twelve Nephite disciples as being ‘righteous forever’. I often get disheartened by my own mistakes and errors, and that even when doing well in some areas one can then mess up things in others. The idea of not only being unambiguously righteous, but righteous forever, as a permanent fact, cannot help but be appealing. We speak of conversion (meaning sanctification, becoming a holy person) being a process, and that’s true (Nephi likewise talks of ‘the path which leads to eternal life’, 2 Nephi 31:18), but that end state seems both so desirable and yet sometimes so far away. Apparently the key is faith in Christ, by which our ‘garments’ (and to what does this actually refer? Alma 5:21-23 speaks of our ‘garments’ either being cleansed by Christ’s blood, or ‘stained with blood and all manner of filthiness’ – our ‘garments’ must be a reflection of the state of our soul) are ‘made white in his blood’. Sometimes, however, one can wonder if one really has the level of faith in Christ necessary for the power of His atonement to have that cleansing effect in one’s life. To which I guess the answer is simply faith: to trust in him, rather than any notion of personally achieving a particular ‘level’ of faith, and to trust that he has the power to save and to cleanse us despite our own inadequacies.

Edit 2020:

I find it interesting that Nephi is given some of the keys to the interpretation of Lehi’s dream, in the midst of a vision detailing the destruction of his own descendants. So first he is shown the beginning of that process of destruction (1 Nephi 12:13-15:

And it came to pass that I saw the multitudes of the earth gathered together.

And the angel said unto me: Behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren.

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren; and they were gathered together to battle.

Then suddenly the angel turns to interpreting Lehi’s dream (vv. 16-18):

And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.

And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.

And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.

And as the angel is speaking, Nephi sees the fate of his descendants (v. 19):

And while the angel spake these words, I beheld and saw that the seed of my brethren did contend against my seed, according to the word of the angel; and because of the pride of my seed, and the temptations of the devil, I beheld that the seed of my brethren did overpower the people of my seed.

It might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, but verse 19 makes the connection between the dream and what Nephi is seeing evident: these hazards that Lehi saw in a dream are not just general spiritual hazards we all face, but are the very factors that lead to the destruction of Nephi’s own people. What I can’t help but think about, however, is the effect upon Nephi. We know from 1 Nephi 15:5 that he was upset by this: “for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall”. It seems seeing this was the part of the vision that made the most immediate emotional impact upon Nephi. In the short term, at least, this revelation may have given Nephi knowledge and wisdom, but it didn’t bring him any happiness.

And maybe that’s why he seems so upset to have to interpret the dream to his brothers in 1 Nephi 15: not just because he’s upset by what he saw in the vision, but because the interpretation of the dream is tied up with very thing that’s making him upset, and he’s having to explain this to his brothers, whose descendants he knows will in the end survive and be restored. It may even have felt a little unfair: here he was, striving to be faithful, yet he learns by vision that his descendants will fall into wickedness and be destroyed, while those of his brothers – the hardhearted brothers who’ve already tried to kill him once and to whom he has to explain the dream because they hadn’t sought revelation – will in the end be blessed! It’s the sort of experience that might shake a lesser person from their faith and trust in God. Perhaps this is sometimes the reason the Lord is careful about revealing things to us. And yet Nephi will continue to faithfully follow God’s will, even as he knows that things won’t go well for his descendants

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 judgement, we in turn become rightly subject to his.