Alma 18

Ammon’s acts give him the opportunity to teach the king, and there’s lots in this chapter that could be singled out. There’s the content and overall patter of Ammon’s teaching (beginning with God, moving onto the fall, and then onto the plan of redemption and Christ), his use of (well meant) guile to “catch” the king, his humility in following the earlier instructions in serving the king (rather than waiting in the wings, so to speak, as they were delivering the arms) and his statement on how God can and does grant a portion of his power to human beings:

Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;

And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.

(Alma 18:34-35)

What caught my attention today, however, was an earlier part of the chapter, which describes some of the Lamanite traditions and and King Lamoni’s own attitude:

And now, when the king heard these words, he said unto them: Now I know that it is the Great Spirit; and he has come down at this time to preserve your lives, that I might not slay you as I did your brethren. Now this is the Great Spirit of whom our fathers have spoken.

Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit, they supposed that whatsoever they did was right; nevertheless, Lamoni began to fear exceedingly, with fear lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants;

For he had slain many of them because their brethren had scattered their flocks at the place of water; and thus, because they had had their flocks scattered they were slain.

(Alma 18:4-6)

There are two aspects of Lamanite tradition described here. Firstly, the belief in the existence of a “Great Spirit”, which was sufficiently close to the truth that Ammon was able to build on that in teaching of the existence of God, and move swiftly onward. Secondly, there is the notion that “whatsoever they did was right”. And we see here that – before Ammon has begun teaching him at all – Ammon’s acts are already causing him to break with that tradition, by causing him to fear that he’d actually done something wrong, by executing his servants.

There’s several things I think we can gather from this. Firstly, it wasn’t just Ammon’s example of power that impressed the king (though that was certainly crucial): it was how that power was deployed, defending these servants who were otherwise accounted little, and this righteous example caused the king to doubt the rightness of his earlier conduct towards their predecessors. Secondly, the king himself had already begun to consider new possibilities beyond that offered by the traditions of his ancestors, and so was prepared to hear what Ammon was going to teach before Ammon actually started. Thirdly, there’s the nature of that preparation. I’ve written before about the importance of a consciousness of sin, for if we do not think we’ve done anything wrong, we feel no need to repent and no need for a redeemer. Consider the vital part that praying for mercy, as King Lamoni does at the end of this chapter (v. 41), plays in his conversion. We are not likely to seek for mercy if we do not realise we need mercy. That realisation may – as it does for King Lamoni – inspire some fear and unpleasant feelings in the short term, and yet it will be a key that will open new vistas and joys to his view.

Mosiah 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Nephi 28

2016 notes:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against us.

2020 Edit:

This is a very powerful chapter, the culminating point that the last three chapters have been building up to. Here we have many of our modern errors, particularly in religion laid bare.

Notice, once again, the issue of denying the power of God and the existence of miracles, and a reliance on human learning instead of divine inspiration, recurs again:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men;

Behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.

(2 Nephi 28:4-6)

Verse 4 caught my attention again, as it did back in 2016. In 2016, however, my principle focus was thinking of my own study of the scriptures. When I read it this time, I was struck that a key part of the issue is that the contending priests will “teach with their learning”, and was reminded of the following passage in Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

And if it be by some other way it is not of God.

And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

If it be some other way it is not of God.

(D&C 50:16-20)

Teaching the gospel is not like teaching other subjects. There may be overlaps in terms of skills and techniques in terms of effective teaching, but it is not the case, when teaching more “secular” subjects, that being inspired by the Holy Ghost is not only expected, but mandatory. It caused me to likewise reflect on the experience of teaching the gospel, meaning both in classroom settings and in things like sacrament talks. It seems that unless we are guided by the spirit, and communicate in such a way that those we are teaching can feel the spirit, than no matter how “correct” the content of our teaching, it is not of God. We must teach so that those who are in our audiences and classes are in a position to feel the spirit. That goes for Sunday School & Priesthood and whatever classes too: no matter how correct the teaching, nor how emotionally touching, nor how good the comments, unless those in the class have had the opportunity of a spiritual experience, it is not of God. I feel we may all have some way to go on this score (I certainly feel I have a better idea of what to speak about in teacher council meetings).

The chapter then goes on to hedonism (it certainly has the modern age pegged):

Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.

(2 Nephi 28:7-8)

The first verse seems an outright hedonistic attitude. What I find interesting is the second verse (v. 8), which seems to address a more moderated approach: one that still says “nevertheless, fear God”, and even foresees suffering “a few stripes” (so it acknowledges the possibility of wrong), but only to a degree. Perhaps the most crucial words there are “a little”: it is believed God will justify “a little sin”, and he may punish “a little”, but at last all shall be saved, so fear God… “a little”. It reminds of the comment in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), where Screwtape (a demon, counselling another demon) states that “a moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing”. Nephi’s assessment of the idea is blunt: “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:9).

2 Nephi 28:11-15 is striking:

Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.

They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.

O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!

Pride, false teachers and false doctrines have caused all manner of sin and condemnation falls upon those responsible for such things: the wise, the learned and the rich. Still, repentance is possible, but God’s judgment is coming and must fall on the kingdom of the devil, and those within must either repent and be freed or perish with it (vv. 16-19).

There is then a recap of various satanic strategies. In some cases, as mentioned above, Satan will provoke rage and anger. In others he will do the opposite, lulling into complacency:

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

(2 Nephi 28:21).

Others he will lead astray by teaching that neither hell nor he exist:

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

(2 Nephi 28:22).

The verse stands out to me, because this sort of idea seems not only widespread outside the Church, but I’ve heard some within the Church hold to the same mistake (that there is not hell). I even ended up writing a post on the topic when one such member decided to claim such (and claim said opinion was what “Mormons” believe). But this is really true of everything this chapter is talking about: these are not just problems “outside”, or which categorise the situation before the restoration of the gospel, but pervasive modern ills to which Satan would have us subject too. This is likewise true of the fact, taught in verses 27-30, that those who reject some of God’s revealed words will lose “even that which they have”. We can’t pick and choose with God’s revelations and teachings: past, present nor future.

These ills all risk the same fate:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

(2 Nephi 28:23; I imagine at this point it might get difficult to teach that there is no hell).

These ills also have, at least in many cases, the same source, which I think can be linked to this penultimate verse:

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is not the first time this statement about trusting the arm of flesh has appeared in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 4), nor the first time it has appeared in scripture (see Jeremiah 17:5), but here its application is clearly visible where trusting man, making flesh our arm, is equated with “hearken[ing] unto the precepts of men”. And much of the tendencies described above perform the same substitution: God’s power, knowledge, judgment and blessings are denied, and instead there is a reliance upon human learning, capacity, riches and impulses. And indeed, that is characteristic of pride – which lies at the root of much of this – to vaunt ourselves against others, and especially against God himself.

Mosiah 3

This is a very well known and oft quoted chapter, particularly the portions relating to the prophecy of  Christ’s mortal ministry and atoning sacrifice (vv. 5-10) and the famous passage that really encapsulates the core of the Gospel:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

That really covers almost everything important: the fallenness of man, guidance through the Holy Ghost, repentance and sanctification through the Atonement of Christ and how we should be as disciples and God’s children.

Perhaps one bit of that verse that catches a little less attention is that whole bit about being ‘willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him’. I think it’s easy to read the verse, and see it as being willing to submit to everything God may ask of us and in addition what he permits may happen to us. But the word inflict is rather more active than that, in that it requires us to accept and submit to what God may do to us, even if unpleasant. An interesting article I’ve already linked to in this blog which discusses the concept of an Abrahamic Test quotes this verse in that context, noting that the scriptures teach that God both chastens us (which is correction or punishment upon those that have disobedient) and tries us, in which the refiners fire falls upon the righteous. It is interesting that a crucial part of our discipleship is the degree to which we accept both of these processes.

I don’t know whether I can say I’m grateful for any of the trials I’ve experienced, and in many respects I’m quite fortunate, so I don’t know how others may feel about that either. But I’ve certainly found with some unpleasant experiences that – often given time and opportunity to reflect – I’ve been able to perceive some of the positive results of them too. I don’t know that we’re actually being asked to be glad about unpleasant things (though perhaps with sufficient perspective we can be; thinking about it there are a couple of things I think I can now say I am appreciative for). But perhaps what this is really getting at is the core measure of our trust and loyalty towards him, the capacity to say “not my will, but thine be done”, no matter what that appears to entail for us.

Linked to this verse, but really catching my attention today, was verse 16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

It’s an interesting point in general that the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy (for instance, see v. 10-11 and 2 Nephi 9:26). But what attracted my eye today was the whole phrase about ‘in Adam, or by nature, they fall’. When we talk of the fall, we often talk of Adam and Eve, but really in a sense each of us falls as we grow up. We are born innocent before God (D&C 93:38), and we are not held responsible for the sins of our forebears (Moses 6:54). But as a consequence of the fall, human nature is opposed to God, and our natures mean that as we grow ‘sin conceive[s] in [our] hearts’ (Moses 6:55) and we yield to our unrighteous instincts (‘the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein’, 2 Nephi 2:29) and become fallen people. We each experience the fall individually; I guess in a similar manner to the way in which while Christ atoned once for sins in an infinite and eternal offering, we must experience the power of that redemption individually too.

I think it’s also important to remember this self-sabotaging nature that we all inevitably have. We can become ground down trying to perfect ourselves, or we might try to persuade ourselves that some inner tendencies can’t possibly be wrong, or why would we have them? But human nature as it is is morally flawed, and is not perfectible by our efforts alone. But there’s two crucial caveats there, which again verse 19 addresses: our current nature is not the nature God wishes for us to carry into the eternities, and we can put off that nature and become something else – a saint, that is holy – as we “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” and accept the power of Christ’s atonement into our lives. God wants us to change, and through Christ’s power we can.

2020 edit:

I’m beginning to think there’s some kind of weird joke: once again when reading there’s certain verses that leap out at me, and once again I find it’s exactly the same verses I’ve already written about. Admittedly, this seems to be particularly the case in posts like this, where the first part was written not that long ago (less than a year). Furthermore, while it’s the same verses that have stood out on this occasion, there’s somewhat different aspects.

So back to Mosiah 3:16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

What caught my attention this time was the notion that “the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins” – that is, the sins of little children. I would partly credit Elder James Rasband’s talk this past general conference for this, in which – citing this very verse – he stated that “[a] righteous judgment also required, he taught, that “the blood of Christ atoneth for” the sins of little children.” That phrase stood out to me because I’ve never heard it put as bluntly as that. Indeed I suspect there might be some who’d recoil from that phrase. But it’s quite clearly there in Mosiah 3:16, although perhaps we may pass over it all too easily by not enquiring as to who “their” refers to. But there is only one possible referent.

How do we square this with what Mormon writes in Moroni 8, which states that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” (Mormon 8:8)? Some points are worth considering.

Firstly, Mormon is speaking of the world in which the atonement of Christ is a given fact, while King Benjamin is speaking of what would have happened if the atonement had never taken place, and what the atonement does. Mormon concurs with the role of the atonement in this, as he continues in verse 8 to relay the Lord’s statement that “wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it have no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me”. It is through the Lord’s atonement that little children have become whole. Indeed, even the condition of innocence in infancy is through the atonement of Christ, as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God” (D&C 93:38, bold is my emphasis – it should also be remembered that innocent is not the same thing as good).

Secondly, we must refer back to the fall, and how pervasive and powerful it is. Without the atonement, its influence would be so powerful no human being could possibly escape it. Would that be just? No, but that’s just the point: the atonement of Christ is not just a means of mercy, but also establishes justice, as is taught by Jacob in 2 Nephi 9:26 and by Elder Rasband in his talk.

Thirdly, the principle of accountability is important to understand why the effects of the atonement vary in their application. Little children (and presumably others such as the mentally handicapped) have limited accountability. Their “sins” are not sins of their own volition, in the same way ours are, and they have limited capacity to repent: thus their sins are atoned for automatically. Those who “died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11), who did not know enough to be considered fully accountable, likewise have their sins atoned for. However, the time of such ignorance is limited:

And moreover, I say unto you, that the time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent.

(Mosiah 3:20-21)

As for those who are accountable and have a necessary level of knowledge, and so have committed sin of our own volition, then atonement for sin is conditional, “for salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and Faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:12). Thus Mormon instructs Moroni to teach “repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin” (Moroni 8:10), surely meaning in this case, those capable of choosing to sin and knowing that it is wrong.

It is perhaps not always entirely necessary to know more that what Mormon teaches in this case. And yet, perhaps it may help some to appreciate even more what Christ has done for all of us, to realise that the salvation of little children was not “free”, but was likewise brought with the blood of Christ.

The forgotten fall

As might be inferred from my statement at the beginning of this edit, the other verse which caught my attention this time around was indeed verse 19 again. In this case, it was particularly the first few clauses:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless…

Obviously there’s a pretty big “unless” there – indeed the whole heart of the gospel, the “good news”, is contained and followed by that “unless”. And yet we cannot truly appreciate that “unless”, and indeed the very choices we face on a day to day basis, unless we truly understand and keep in mind those first few clauses.

Over the last decade, I have come to the conclusion that the Fall has become somewhat of a forgotten doctrine in Christianity at large. One can see this in various discussions which hinge on claims of “God made me this way”, or in which it is assumed that what is natural must be good. Even some Latter-day Saint scholars appear to misunderstand the fall, if for different reasons: it seems some get caught up so much in understanding that the fall was a necessary part of God’s plan that they forget the negative effects of the fall (negative effects which, if anything, Latter-day scripture is even more explicit about). Likewise, in their desire to defend Adam and (especially) Eve, they appear to conflate the perspective they both enjoyed at a later date after a great revelation (Moses 5:9-11), with the far more limited perspective they would have had at the time.

The fall is the necessary counterpoint to the atonement of Christ. Without understanding the fall, we cannot understand the atonement. If we negate the importance of the fall, and its negative effects, we negate the importance of the atonement, and its positive effects. Moreover understanding the fall is crucial to understanding ourselves and the situation we face right now, in our mortal lives, and the choice that has been provided to us by Christ. Understanding the fall answers so many of the questions the modern age seems otherwise confused by.

Because of the fall, none of us is as God eventually intends us, nor is this earth. Nature I’ve already written about, if in a rather speculative tone. The facts of non-human “nature”, however, should surely establish that an awful lot of it isn’t presently good: the naturalistic fallacy (the idea what if something is “natural”, it is therefore “good”) should fall apart in the face of things like infanticide amongst lions, never mind those wasps that lay their larvae in other creatures and which eat their way out.

Likewise, amongst human beings, understanding the fall means understanding that due to the fall, we must all contend against “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” (2 Nephi 2:29), that “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2), and that as King Benjamin points out “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). Each of us has a part of us that doesn’t want to do good. It thus should not disturb us, should there be any who appear to have inherent tendencies that lead away from obedience to God’s commandments, because we all have such inherent tendencies. Such tendencies may be in areas that aren’t obsessed about or approved by our culture: we may have tendencies towards alcoholism, or kleptomania, or greed, or road-rage, or wanting to crush our enemies and see them driven before us. But whichever direction our fallen part would propel us, we all may have such a fallen part.

Now, the great and glorious and wonderful good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to give in to that part: we all have a choice. Due to the atonement of Christ, we are free to “choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein”. It’s not necessarily an easy choice, indeed it’s a choice I think we have to make over and over again until it sticks. But as Mosiah 3:19 teaches, we can “[put] off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord”. That fallen nature need not be who we eternally are, it need not be the inherent part of ourselves, but can be shed. The body can become subject to the spirit, and become sanctified so that when we stand before God we might be entirely holy. We cannot do this alone, it is true, but we do not have to: Christ purchased this choice for us, with his own life; he atones for our sins and anything in which we err; and he can give us grace and strength and power to choose his will whatever the natural man would have us do, until the glorious day when it can be kicked off entire, “that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48).

Jarom

Re-continuing this oft-paused and oft-begun series, some observations on my personal reading of Jarom.

I often get the sense that the small, single-chapter books like Jarom and Omni tend to get overlooked between the longer and more notable books of Jacob and Mosiah. Enos tends to get a bit more notice, because of the strong narrative core of Enos’ own search for spiritual succour, but Jarom and Omni are not so striking. Thus Jarom states in verse 4:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

This is a pretty profound verse by itself: those who are not stiffnecked and have faith have communion with the Holy Ghost. The implication is that, on the same grounds, we too can and ought to have communion with the Holy Spirit and have revelations. We should be experiencing revelation, and if not we may be living below our spiritual privileges. But for an example of the reading between the lines that can be done, in Omni (as I note there) one of the record keepers, Abinadom, claimed to know of no revelation than what was written. This is a striking contrast to Jarom 1:4: while in Jarom’s time there were a number who qualified for such revelation, part way through the next book the record keeper doesn’t know of anyone who is receiving such.

Another thing that really caught my eye reading this book/chapter today, in verse 2:

And as these plates are small, and as these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites, wherefore, it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.

I guess a question that sticks with me is whether Jarom was right? He was labouring under logistical limitations (he mentions here, and also at the end of the chapter in verse 14 that he was working with limited space). But he likewise seems influenced by the thought that there’s little he could write that others have not already written about, and perhaps better. He’s not in the same situation as some of those in Omni: he receives revelations and he knows of many who do, but he’s not sure about writing them for a wider audience.

This speaks to me because it’s a thought I often have, not about revelations, but about writing things in general. One reason I maintain this blog is I often feel driven to write about certain things, including gospel topics. There are several book projects I am working on because of the same feeling. But I also often wonder if its worth writing them? Have others written about the same things, but in a better way? Even if well written, will anyone read them considering the deluge of written material that’s out there? The very tagline of this blog is taken from Ecclesiastes 12:12: ‘… of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Even then: prior to the invention of printing, prior to the invention of paper, there were those who felt that in some respects there were simply too many books. I do wonder what the preacher would make of now, where one can find a positive mountain full of stuff appear every day, at least some of which probably shouldn’t.

But on the other hand, the Preacher clearly didn’t feel that nothing should be written, or Ecclesiastes itself would not exist. Indeed, when we read all of Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, we get a better understanding of what he was saying:

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

There are indeed many books, and one might weary out the flesh trying to keep up with them, but what the Preacher was counselling was to seek out the words of the wise, to be selective in that reading and pick rightly. Counsel that’s probably even more relevant today, when anyone can publish (including me), than it was back then.

But back to Jarom’s dilemma, I’m not sure I even have an inkling of an answer. I can certainly empathise with that feeling, since I’ve felt it, and I think it’s all the keener when one is talking about writing sacred things, as he most especially is. If space were limited, would he writing more risk us missing Omni 1:26? But aside from any immediate logistical issues God clearly felt that further writings after Enos was useful, since he continued to inspire prophets to write. Perhaps there is something Jarom could have shared, that perhaps he might take for granted, or feel that others wrote better, but which in his words could reach some people better than others’ words would have? Something to ponder about, I guess.

2020 edit:

I was struck again by the beginning of verse 2, in which it is noted that the plates are small and so Jarom must write but a little. He’s not the only record keeper who talks about these limitations of space – Mormon does so a lot – and today it caused me to think about how they prioritised what to include. Nephi and Jacob have both previously spoken about only including the most important matters on their small plates, and it caused me to reflect that what we read in the Book of Mormon is there because someone somewhere felt it was the most important thing they could include. Passages that may seem to make less of an impression or hold less importance for us may teach something invaluable to someone in a different life situation (even ourselves at a different date). Or the passage may require us to rethink: perhaps there’s something there we’ve missed.

There are several themes in this fairly brief chapter that build on what’s gone before and are continued thereafter: there’s the continuing conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites, how they are preserved by God and prosper, so long as they exercise faith and are obedient, and how the prophets must warn (verse 10 uses the word “threaten”) the people in very strict terms to avoid them falling into transgression and being destroyed as a result. By warning the people in these terms “they did prick their hearts with the word, continually stirring them up unto repentance” (v. 12).

Verse 11 provoked some thought:

Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. And after this manner did they teach them.

These people of course lived before the time of Christ; but they were taught to believe in him “as though he already was”. This is not the only time the Book of Mormon displays some temporal inexactitude when it comes to the coming of Christ. Abinadi, in speaking of the coming of Christ in Mosiah 16:7, uses the past tense and then openly admits it, “speaking of things to come as though they had already come”.

What verse 11 and 12 here in Jarom suggest is this is not mere looseness about the temporal location of events; keeping the coming of Christ as something past and present in mind, as real, helped the Nephites to believe and repent. Their salvation, after all, was just as dependent upon Christ’s atonement as ours is, even if that atonement was yet to happen. Perhaps things in the future seem less real, or not real yet to us (perhaps because we haven’t got to the point where we decide our own future acts). But the atonement was already real: as Enos found out, its effects could already be experienced, even if the time of the actual cause was yet to come.

We live at a similar temporal disconnect with two comings of Christ. There’s the one in the past, now some two thousand years ago, in which Christ conquered sin and death through his sufferings, death and resurrection. And there’s the one yet future, where he comes to make the world right, to complete his work and bringing about the final assessment of this test. It might be tempting when facing events that were long ago or sometime in the unknown future to lose sight of them or ignore them, to think of them as less real. But perhaps we too can best keep these events in mind by treating them in some way as if they were present. We have the ordinance of the sacrament, of course, to cast our mind back and remember the sacrifice of our Saviour, to take that past act and reflect on its present reality. And likewise we anticipate and need to prepare for the coming of Christ, which timing may be uncertain to us but is not to God. In either case, perhaps we too, like the Nephites, can realise that while we may be separated in time these events are still real, and we can still believe and trust in them.

2 Nephi 2

2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.

While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

2 Nephi 2:2-3

Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.

In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).

Minor notes:

There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.

2020 Edit:

As mentioned above, there’s a lot in this chapter. It’s interesting how with both Jacob and Joseph that Lehi chose to speak about profound things, but covered such different topics. With Lehi’s teachings to Jacob, I think I discern a thread that then runs into the things that Jacob teaches too, that can be seen in passages such as 2 Nephi 9 and the latter part of Jacob 3.

It begins with Lehi discussing the trials and the blessings that Jacob has experienced, but particularly the witness he has received of Christ, and then moves on to teach how none of us are justified by the law (and not just speaking of the law of Moses either: “by the spiritual law” we “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever”, v. 5). Hence our universal and utter need for Christ’s grace, expressed here both powerfully and succinctly:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

(2 Nephi 2:8)

Lehi then speaks about how Christ’s intervention makes it possible for us to receive happiness, in contrast to punishment, one being the consequence of the atonement, the other the law, and this turns him to the subject of opposites. While I don’t think this is the most misunderstood chapter of the Book of Mormon (I believe that honour goes to Alma 42), I do think the statement that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11) is often misunderstood. Most of the time I hear it quoted is in reference to the existence of trials and so on, but while it is true that trial and afflictions are an inevitable and even necessary part of this life, that’s not what this statement is talking about. Rather it is talking about the existence of philosophical opposites: happiness and punishment, wickedness and righteousness, law and sin. As Lehi states in verses 11-12:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

These opposites are necessary for there to be meaningful existence: life must have choices and those choices have consequence or else existence itself would possess no definable quality and would “have been created for a thing of naught”, or in other words, pointless. The truth of this statement can be seen even when we consider unimportant, trifling decisions: which ice cream flavour to eat would be an utterly pointless choice if all the flavours tasted the same (that is, they had the same consequence). It is the existence of these possibilities, of good and bad acts and real consequences, that make choice possible.

There’s another interesting element to the ability to choose that’s worth pointing out here too. Speaking of the fall, Lehi teaches (vv. 15-16, my emphasis):

And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

It is not just the existence of opposites and alternatives that make choice possible, but mankind needs factors to appeal to them, to pull them in each direction. In a lot of discussions about agency, it often seems that people treat this as an innate trait of mankind, but it really isn’t. Human beings can be both “things to act” and “things to be acted upon”. Where much of our agency, speaking of our choice between good and evil, lies rests in our ability to tip the scales between the two forces pulling upon us, namely the influence of God, particularly through his Holy Spirit, and the temptations of the devil and his angels. Which is why the possibility of the Lord’s spirit not always striving with man is such a threat (variations on that statement – first appearing in Genesis 6:3, appearing in 1 Ne. 7:14; 2 Ne. 26:11; Mormon 5:16; Ether 2:15; Ether 15:19; Moroni 8:28; Moroni 9:4, and on a national scale generally portending complete annihilation). If we persist in wickedness to such a degree that the Lord’s spirit gives up on us, then only one factor is left, and we become for the most part something “to be acted upon”, save by an act of grace.

Lehi then continues his discussion of the fall, one which many people have commented on (although one where some seem to over-correct on, for the fall while necessary is still a fall). The fall is part of God’s plan for mankind: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (v. 24). And again, a profound though sometimes misunderstood statement:

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

(2 Nephi 2:25)

It should always be understood that this statement is referring to God’s ultimate aim for mankind, that we might have joy. It is not a guarantee to permanent and complete joy in this life. I’ve addressed that topic before, but verse 23 just before this verse is worth noting in this regard: Adam and Eve pre-fall had “no joy, for they knew no misery”. This is a return to that notion of opposites (for likewise they did “no good, for they knew no sin”). In this life, in order to develop the capacity to have joy, we must also have the possibility of knowing and experiencing misery.

Which leads to Lehi’s ultimate conclusion, about (fittingly) the ultimate choice we face between ultimate joy with Christ or ultimate misery with the devil:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

This is the most important choice, the most important opposite, that lies before us, and the one choice that cannot be taken from us save we give it up ourselves. And in this, we have those factors each side enticing us one way or the other:

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.

(2 Nephi 2:28-29)

In essence we have both internal and external factors. The external factors are the teachings and commandments of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit on one side, and the temptations of the devil on the other. But each of us also faces an internal battle against those things inside us: “the natural man” as Mosiah 3:19 puts it, or “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” as it is so vividly put here. If this chapter helps correct some wider misapprehensions held about the fall in wider Christendom, it also does teach (for those who take it too far the other way) that the fall did bring about real consequences in terms of instincts and inclinations within all of us to stray, one which Satan will take advantage of if we let him. This seems to be a hard concept for some people to accept (indeed some don’t seem to realise that LDS scripture teaches this at all), but a necessary one not just to understand the world (including understanding that just because something is natural doesn’t make it good), but to understand ourselves. If mankind is not wholly corrupt, it is not wholly good either, nor perfectible by its own efforts. Rather, it is our individual human souls (that is the body and spirit as a unit, D&C 88:15) that are the battleground for the great war that wages between good and evil.

We can’t defeat our own evil inclinations purely by our own efforts, but fortunately and miraculously we don’t have to, and that path is laid out in this chapter. What we have the power to do is to make that ultimate choice and keep making it. And it is as we choose Christ, as we put our faith in him and “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), that his grace and power and mercies come with even greater power into our life. And it is that grace that will give us the ability to follow him, to act and not to be acted upon, and pave the way to that joy that is the point of our existence.

 

2 Nephi 1

And ye have murmured because he hath been plain unto you. Ye say that he hath used sharpness; ye say that he hath been angry with you; but behold, his sharpness was the sharpness of the power of the word of God, which was in him; and that which ye call anger was the truth, according to that which is in God, which he could not restrain, manifesting boldly concerning your iniquities.

And it must needs be that the power of God must be with him, even unto his commanding you that ye must obey. But behold, it was not he, but it was the Spirit of the Lord which was in him, which opened his mouth to utterance that he could not shut it.

2 Nephi 1:26-27

It’s interesting that Laman and Lemuel had apparently been claiming that Nephi had been angry with them; for those keeping count, 1 Nephi records Laman and Lemuel getting angry with Nephi some 7 times (and doubtless there were more instances than recorded) and while Nephi later does allude to feeling some similar feelings in reverse (2 Nephi 4:27), he’s not the one making semi-regular murder attempts. Projection is a very real thing, in many areas (as a rather bizarre online conversation recently demonstrated to me).

We can, of course, be both Laman and Nephi. Sometimes we have to receive the word of God in sharpness and correction, to which we should respond not with anger but with a penitent heart. And then sometimes we’re called upon by the spirit to say something, in which case we’d better be sure we’re listening to the spirit and not any anger or pride of our own.

2020 Edit:

It’s not entirely clear why 1 Nephi ends and 2 Nephi begins at this point, as verse 1 here implies that Lehi’s address here follows Nephi’s conversation with his brothers:

And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem.

In fact it’s not clear why there’s a 1st book and a 2nd book of Nephi at all, although they do differ in degree in their contents: the 1st book contains the narrative of their journey to the promised land, with all that happens along the way, while the 2nd book has very little narrative, consisting mostly of Lehi’s last address here, Jacob’s sermon in 2 Nephi 6-10, the quotation of Isaiah 2-14 in 2 Nephi 12-24, and then Nephi directly addressing the reader in speaking of the last days and the restoration of Israel, quoting Isaiah (again), and then speaking of the gospel of Christ. So perhaps the division is partly on those grounds, but then it might be seen as funny that the break seems to take place partway through the same scene. But on the other hand, perhaps it is the fact that this is Lehi’s last address that is the significant marker; the book of Mosiah likewise begins with a last address by the previous reader (King Benjamin in Mosiah 2-5), so this wouldn’t be the only example of that.

This chapter includes Lehi’s address to Nephi’s brothers (including Sam & the sons of Ishmael, v. 28), as well as a portion for Zoram in vv. 30-32. Chapter 2 is directed towards Jacob, and chapter 3 towards Joseph, and then in chapter 4 he addresses his grandchildren by Laman & Lemuel, and then the sons of Ishmael again and “all his household”, and some last words for Sam (v. 11). Just thinking about this, it’s interesting we don’t have anything that Lehi directly addressed to Nephi. Did he not say anything to him? Or did he, and Nephi has chosen not to relay it to us? It’s a point to ponder (although there’s no way to answer it at present).

Most of the comments towards the brothers, of course, are an exhortation to change their ways and a warning if they do not change. My attention was drawn, however, to the first topic he apparently raised with them (from verse 1 again): “how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem”. This isn’t really the first or only time this sort of topic is brought up in the Book of Mormon: in 1 Nephi 1 we saw Nephi’s acknowledgement of what God had done for him, and exhortations towards gratitude and our indebtedness to God are common in the rest of the book (Mosiah 2 being a good example). But I found that interesting to see that be the first thing Lehi turned to in addressing his wayward sons, suggesting that a recognition of what God has done for us is a vital early step in keeping ourselves on the straight and narrow.

And while I can’t think of much to comment on it, the centre of Lehi’s address is worth quoting for its rhetorical strength, a last appeal in the face of the one certain event we face in this life, but one which perhaps helps us to realise and awaken to those things which are truly important (2 Nephi 1:13-15):

O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.

Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.

 

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 10

And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men.

For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him.

For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round.

Therefore remember, O man, for all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgment.

1 Nephi 10:17-20

As my thoughts touch on these verses, I wonder if this is simultaneously one of the greatest blessings and greatest responsibilities of the gospel. God, the omnipotent creator of the universe, who gives life and light to all things, is willing to reveal himself to us. And while he may speak especially to chosen prophets and so on, he is willing to reveal himself by means of the Holy Ghost to “all those who diligently seek him”, no matter when or where they live. Each of us, however lowly, may be brought into supernatural communication with our creator.

At the same time, because that opportunity is available, we are accountable for whether we seek it or not. If we truly seek it ‘diligently’ (and from scripture and experience, I believe that must be a full-hearted and not a superficial effort – see James 1:6-7 and the conditions in Moroni 10:3-5), we will in time have that blessing. But if we choose not to seek it, or to seek it with sufficient diligence and faithfulness, we shall ‘be brought into judgment’.

2020 Edit:

I quote 1 Nephi 10:17-19 above, and that’s part of what always sticks out to me upon reading this chapter, because I think that’s an important part of the message of the Book of Mormon as a whole. Nephi also wants to see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost: and then we are reminded that this is the gift of God to all those who diligently seek him, both in the past as well as in the time that Christ shall appear. Nephi has confidence that if he seeks, he will find, which he does in 1 Nephi 11-14. This is really the turning point where this now becomes Nephi’s account, and not just that of his father, and so he states in verse 1 that ‘[a]nd now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry’ (my emphasis).

However, this is not just about Nephi. Just as Nephi had confidence that God could and would make things known to him by the power of the Holy Ghost, we are to have the same confidence on the same basis: that God had done so “as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come” (v. 17). We too can seek to learn and know things by the power of the Holy Ghost, and be confident that if we diligently seek him God will reveal himself to us. Many of the miracles in the Book of Mormon have counterparts in the Bible. This is particularly noticeable in 3 Nephi, where a number of events in Christ’s ministry there tie up with events in the Gospels, and are done in a way intended to draw attention to that fact. In part, this allows the Book of Mormon to act as a second witness – another testimony – of Jesus Christ, by testifying that the miracles he wrought were not confined to one narrow section of place and time, but took place elsewhere too. However, as I discuss in chapter 5 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible (so this thing now stands out to me), the implied – and at times (like here) the explicit – message of the text is that such things are not just confined to the Book of Mormon either:

Mormon thus claims not only that he has witnessed them, but that these three Nephite disciples ‘will’ be among people in future times, and ‘can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good’. Mormon moves beyond speaking of the appearance and activities of these men as a past event to predicting that they will be a part of future events and can be a part of present experience. Here Given’s concept of iterability offers an important point, that ‘the proliferation of historical
iterations … collectively become[s] the ongoing substance rather than the shadow of God’s past dealings in the universe’ (By the Hand of Mormon, p. 50). Likewise Hardy suggests that the miracles described are intended to act as a ‘concrete demonstration’ that Christ could likewise be ‘present in the lives of believers’ (Understanding the Book of Mormon, p. 198). The repetition of miraculous events like those in the Gospels may therefore be offered not only as a confirmation of those Gospel events, but also as a suggestion that such events need not be limited to any particular time and place but are paradigmatic.

Thus at the end of Book of Mormon’s narrative in 3 Nephi, this account – which features a wide range of miraculous events similar to those seen in the Gospels –concludes not only by affirming that such events took place, but also by asserting that such miracles can and are meant to continue to occur. The ‘iterability’ of such events may be there to indicate that these miracles and manifestations of Christ are not confined to the pages of the Bible, nor the Book of Mormon either, but to suggest implicitly – and in the case of appearances of the three disciples, explicitly – that such occurrences can be a reality now, in the lives of its readers.

(The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, pp. 291-293)

What’s being offered here in this chapter is not just a story of how Nephi went on to have his vision, but a paradigm of how we can have such revelatory experiences too, and that is part of the point. Nephi could have them just as much as his father did and those before him, and we can experience them just as much as Nephi did and those before us.

Also worth noting is Lehi’s quoting from the future, by quoting the words of the yet unborn (by about six centuries) John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8. I’ve written more about this (and the implications of this feat) elsewhere in this series, as well as in chapter four of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible.

I also find it interesting how Lehi speaks of the scattering (and future gathering) of Israel here. There’s heavy use of olive tree imagery (which presages the extensive allegory found in Jacob 5), but what I find interesting is the almost positive description of the scattering. That is usually depicted as a punishment due to wickedness (see, for instance, 1 Nephi 22:4-5). Yet here Nephi records Lehi as saying:

Wherefore, he said it must needs be that we should be led with one accord into the land of promise, unto the fulfilling of the word of the Lord, that we should be scattered upon all the face of the earth.

(1 Nephi 10:13)

Here, the scattering not only has a pleasant destination (‘the land of promise’), but is done to fulfil the divine word. It seems that few of God’s acts have just one motivation, and crucial events in his plan appear to address multiple things at the same time. While punishment is part of the picture for the scattering, it is not the only thing, and while the future gathering fulfils God’s promises, the scattering was also a necessary part of the plan, one which provided for the word of God to go out to all the world, to (as Jacob 5 indicates) save more than one olive tree, and as Paul suggests in Romans 11 (also filled with olive tree imagery), a means by which ‘salvation is come unto the Gentiles’ (Romans 11:11).

 

 

On the ‘spiritual’

Today I ran across an assertion I’ve seen numerous times: the claim that adopting so-called critical approaches to scripture (approaches that – for the purpose of using the scriptures religiously – require the devotee to read the scriptures in a metaphorical or allegorical fashion) leads to “greater heights of spiritual growth”. I’ve come across this assertion on a number of occasions, all expressing the idea that if we take the scriptures in a more symbolic fashion, usually in connection with the idea that we should not believe events in the Book of Mormon or Bible actually happened, then one does not lose out ‘spiritually’ but instead apparent expands in spirituality.

Yet in all this, no one stops to explain what they mean by ‘spiritual’. It’s left as a rather woolly term. And in all fairness, it tends to be used in a fairly woolly way on lots of other occasions. What do we mean when we talk about wanting to be ‘fed spiritually’ at some meeting? What are we referring to when we talk about having some ‘spiritual’ experience or impression? When we talk of our ‘spiritual’ needs, or wanting to become strong ‘spiritually’, what on earth are we talking about? When we talk of our reading of the scriptures building our personal ‘spirituality’, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

 

First things first: Spiritual does not mean allegorical

Perhaps the first place to begin is with what it is not, but where there seems to be at least some confusion. Some of this confusion can be seen in treatments of 1 Nephi 22, where Nephi (having quoted Isaiah 48-49), proceeds to answer some of his brothers’ question and provide an interpretation. Nephi’s brothers begin by asking:

What meaneth these things which ye have read? Behold, are they to be understood according to things which are spiritual, which shall come to pass according to the spirit and not the flesh?
(1 Nephi 22:1)

Now a number of commentators – critics and LDS scholars alike – have seen this as addressing the age-old debate between literal and allegorical meanings in scripture. However, while these can overlap, reading Nephi’s response reveals that the distinction here is not the same. Nephi begins by saying:

Behold they were manifest unto the prophet by the voice of the Spirit; for by the Spirit are all things made known unto the prophets, which shall come upon the children of men according to the flesh.
(1 Nephi 22:2)

Thus Nephi begins by first asserting that the contents of such prophecies – whatever their application, spiritually or temporally – was made known “by the spirit”, meaning here supernatural communication by means of the Holy Ghost. Thus Nephi’s response is to first undermine the distinction his brothers’ have set up by, by linking spiritual to the means by which scripture was given, even when its contents concern ‘the flesh’.

Nephi then states “the things which I have read are things pertaining to things both temporal and spiritual”. Nephi thus embraces both sides of this apparent divide, as he had done earlier (in 1 Nephi 15:31–32) when discussing the interpretation of his father’s revelations. But again, this is not the literal versus the allegorical, as further reading makes clear. Nephi goes on to cite the words of Isaiah 49:22, that Israel’s “children have been carried in their arms, and their daughters have been carried upon their shoulders” as something “temporal” (1 Nephi 22:6), but the interpretation offered in verse 8 is not literal: the shoulders are metaphorical for the ‘marvelous work’ the Lord is to perform amongst the Gentiles which will bless the house of Israel. Temporal does not mean literal, and spiritual does not mean allegorical.

 

‘Spirit’

If spiritual then only has an occasional overlap with the allegorical, what are we really referring to. This is really a question of what we mean by ‘spirit’. We may not have a full understanding of what that is, but one thing we learn from modern revelation is that man is spirit:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;
(Doctrine and Covenants 93:33)

We are thus composed, at the present time, of both spirit and element. Spirit is distinct from element, so that while it is not immaterial it is more “fine or pure” (D&C 131:7-8). The bit of us composed of spirit is the bit of us that preceded our mortal incarnation (Abraham 3:23), and it is the placing of this in our mortal bodies that makes us, spirit and body, “a living soul” (Abraham 5:7). These two will be separated at death, and our spirits will continue to exist after death, and then at the resurrection our spirit and element will be reunited in an immortal, incorruptible state (2 Nephi 9:13), to be judged. Thus ‘spiritual’ can often bear the meaning of eternal, compared to that which is merely mortal and temporary, as in 1 Nephi 15:31-32 and Alma 11:45. Those who are resurrected in glory are likewise referred to as having a “spiritual body”, even though it will be eternally united with element (1 Corinthians 15:44, D&C 88:27).

But we are also not the only things that are spirit. Other living things were likewise created spiritually before they were created physically (Moses 3:4-7). And there are other things which, like us in our premortal state, are spirit but do not have a body of element: those not yet resurrected are spirit (D&C 129:3); as are those who rebelled, the devil and his angels who have lost the opportunity for bodies (D&C 50:1-3). Then there is the Holy Ghost, who is a “personage of spirit” so he might “dwell in us” (D&C 130:22).

Thus there are many things which are spirit, which are very real but which we generally cannot perceive – indeed, even though the Father and the Son have glorified bodies they too can only be perceived by “spiritual eyes”, it being necessary that we and our “natural eyes” be “transfigured” (Moses 1:11). ‘Spiritual’ can refer to matters that concern our eternal fate (as we are spirit), but can also refer to our interactions with these unseen realities. And these unseen realities affect us to a greater degree than we in the modern age are likely to think. ‘Spiritually’, there is not just us, acting in complete and self-assured autonomy. Rather our ability to choose is partly dependent upon the fact that we are being “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16); not just by our own internal tendencies, but by God through the Holy Spirit on one hand, and the devil and his angels on the other.

Thus ‘spiritual’ phenomena is often referring not to something going on in our own heads, but actual contact with an unseen but very real world. It’s perhaps important to know that other spiritual phenomena exist (in the same way that the first principle of the Gospel is not faith, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ), but the ‘spiritual’ interaction that the scriptures (and presumably us) refer to most and which is certainly the most desirable is interaction with Divine power and knowledge, principally by the means of the Holy Spirit. When Moroni gives his promise as to how we can know the truth of the Book of Mormon and all things, it is because he is promising that God will reveal it to us by means of an actual entity, the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4-5). This is what Alma is referring to when he states that he knows not of himself, “not of the temporal, but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind, but of God” (Alma 36:4), for he had contact with Angels and had eternal truths “made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God” (Alma 5:46). Being strong in the spirit refers not to any innate state, but rather the communication of real power and knowledge from a Divine being:

And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
(Mosiah 18:26)

Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.
(Alma 18:34–35)

 

The Real

Thus when we talk of having ‘spiritual experiences’ or being ‘fed spiritually’, we are not talking about something that is solely an internal process. Rather what we are seeking is actual communication and contact with an external source: God through the Holy Ghost. When we talk of being “spiritually begotten”, we’re not talking about some change or resolve we’ve managed to do all by ourselves, but that “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent” has intervened and “wrought a might change in us” (Mosiah 5:2,7). When we speak of being ‘strong spiritually’, or building our own personal ‘spirituality’, we are not talking of just some innate characteristics, but being in close communion with an external source of power and righteousness, even the omnipotent and omniscient creator of Heaven and Earth.

‘Spiritual’ is not an euphemism. We are not more ‘spiritual’ because we feel our feelings are more elevated, or because we feel more ethical, or our emotions feel calm. It is not something we can produce from within the confines of our own psyche. It is not something we can generate with our intellect or with a particular mental paradigm, but only as we are brought into contact with a real and external spiritual force. If we speak of being able to ‘grow spiritually’ but do not mean real spiritual matters, we are talking of something of our own imagination. If we read the scriptural accounts of revelation and miracles metaphorically, we have robbed them of their paradigmatic power that we too can experience the same revelations and miracles. If we talk of ‘growing spiritually’ but deny the existence of actual supernatural miracles (and I have yet to come across any who insist on reading the scriptures metaphorically and symbolically who hold onto the reality of miracles), then our ‘spirituality’ “is vain” (Moroni 7:37), and we are in danger of having “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5, Joseph Smith-History 1:19, compare 2 Nephi 28:5,26, Jacob 6:8, 3 Nephi 19:6, Mormon 8:28, Moroni 10:7,33), one of the major warnings aimed at our times. This is a loss: what is an imaginary meal compared to a real steak?

I have had the real steak. I’ve been privileged to experience and witness many miraculous and wonderful things, far more than I possibly deserve (and I don’t deserve a lot). And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Spiritual things are objectively real, these unseen realities are real, and this detached and imaginary ‘spirituality’ cannot compare to the actual revelations and miracles of a very real God. And we can’t fabricate spiritual growth in our own minds; rather we are ‘spiritual’ inasmuch as we have faith, humble ourselves and repent, and so open ourselves to the spirit of the Lord. We are ‘fed spiritually’ insofar as we really see real spiritual things, as we experience real miracles, as we hear the Holy Spirit and as we experience actual power from the spirit to do things we could not do by ourselves. And we are spiritually blessed as we receive actual revelations not from our psyche, but from our actual Father in Heaven and God through the means of his Holy Spirit, even about things no man knows.