Alma 38

This is a comparatively brief chapter, containing Alma’s comparatively brief remarks to his son Shiblon between his longer remarks to Helaman and his other son Corianton. There’s an interesting structural parallel that Grant Hardy noted in Understanding the Book of Mormon between the layout of these three addresses and the three detailed accounts of Alma’s ministry to the cities of Zarahemla, Gideon and Ammonihah. Zarahemla needed work, and needed repentance; Ammonihah was in a direr state, needed even more repentance and got an even longer sermon. The sermon to Gideon in between, however, is comparatively short, perhaps in part because it turns out the people in Gideon were on the right track and merely needed encouragement. Hardy suggests that the structure of these accounts draws a parallel between these three cities and Alma’s three sons.

It’s possible to push this potential parallel to far: we don’t, after all, have any real evidence that Helaman needed to get anything specific in order (much of the instruction given to him relates to the records that will be conferred upon him), and while Corianton does need to repent, he actually does, unlike Ammonihah (and I feel quite sorry for Corianton, considering he’s best known millennia later for sins he repented of). But Shiblon – who is commended for his “steadiness and … faithfulness to God” (v. 2) and his diligent service among the Zoramites (v. 3), including experiencing “bonds” and stoning (v. 4) – definitely parallels the faithful city of Gideon.

Several parts of this chapter overlap with Alma’s instruction to Helaman, including the assurance that those who trust in God will be delivered, the statement that Alma knows these things not of himself, but because of the spirit of God, and a (far more brief) recap of Alma’s conversion experience. Others are more specific to Shiblon himself, in particular verses 10-12:

And now, as ye have begun to teach the word even so I would that ye should continue to teach; and I would that ye would be diligent and temperate in all things.

See that ye are not lifted up unto pride; yea, see that ye do not boast in your own wisdom, nor of your much strength.

Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness.

I think we get quite a particular picture here: this is a faithful and diligent man, a son who brings Alma considerable joy. Some of the instruction here is simple encouragement, to keep on the course that he has already begun. More specific dangers come not from weaknesses as such, but the danger of pride in his wisdom and “much strength” (in similar fashion, in the modern era Elder Oaks has spoken about how “our strengths can become our downfall”). Verse 12 here suggests that Shiblon is not only capable of being bold, but may over-correct into being overbearing, and so he’s counselled to rein it in a little and to “bridle all your passions”. That last phrase is a very important bit of imagery: as a friend once pointed out to me, a bridle does not kill or stop a horse, but steers it. Likewise Shiblon – and implicitly we as well – are being counselled not to kill nor suppress our passions and emotions, but to steer them.

I find verse 14 striking, as I do similar teachings in Mosiah 4:

Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.

Obviously the bad example Alma and Shiblon both personally witnessed – of the Zoramites thanking God for making them the elect and thus “better” than everyone else – would make this contrast particularly clear in their mind. Perhaps Alma mentions it again here because the temptation to forget one’s own unworthiness before God is likely to come more strongly upon those who are otherwise capable, faithful and successful in their vocations (indeed, the Zoramites were competent, courageous and hard-working, but those very virtues left them open to pride).

But as I mention in connection with Mosiah 4, I think there’s also a modern tendency to shy away from teachings about acknowledging our “unworthiness before God at all times”. I suspect part of this may be trying to over-correct from other areas. What we don’t want, of course, is for people to become convinced that they cannot approach God and cannot expect his aid. Satan often tries to use such discouraging thoughts to undermine faith keep people from praying, repenting and so on. But there is also the opposite danger, particularly for those who may feel they are doing well: to become complacent in their perceived goodness, to forget their own imperfections and need for constant mercy, and thus risk succumbing to pride. It strikes me that God would have us acknowledge our imperfection and unworthiness in our present state, but to have alongside that a confidence and faith that we can call upon him, and that he loves us and will help us in and despite that unworthy state. Rather than dwelling upon unworthiness as a feeling that depresses us and detaches us from God, it seems to me that he would have us acknowledge that as a simple fact that teaches us humility and instead impels us towards him, to seek and ask for his mercy, strength and aid.

Alma 22

We now have another “teaching the king scene” – indeed at this point it begins to look a bit like a type scene – albeit now with Aaron and the other brothers in Ammon’s place, and King Lamoni’s father, the King of kings, in the place of King Lamoni. There’s a variety of other interesting details too: the brothers seem to try the same thing Ammon did, and ask to be the king’s servants, but he’s having none of that (v. 3). Indeed, in some respects he’s a cannier and better informed individual than his son: while his son did not know what Ammon meant by “God” (Alma 18:25), the king here is more familiar with the term, being aware to some degree of what the Amalekites and having granted them permission to build their places of worship (v. 7). His wife seems more formidable than her counterpart too: while King Lamoni’s wife is quite touching in both her devotion to her husband (“to me, he doth not stink”, 19:5) and in the strength of her faith (19:9-10), the king’s wife, upon seeing him lying as if dead, first orders her servants to kill Aaron and his party. Then, when they refuse out of terror, she sends them to gather the people so she might send wave after wave of underlings after the Nephite missionaries. Fortunately is this averted when Aaron revives the king, and when the whole household is converted one presumes this attribute could become a positive strength.

One thing that did stand out to me on this occasion, however, was the king’s question in verse 6:

And also, what is this that Ammon said—If ye will repent ye shall be saved, and if ye will not repent, ye shall be cast off at the last day?

It’s understandable that the king would be confused by this statement: Lamanite tradition, as we’ve seen, held that “whatsoever they did as right” (Alma 18:5). Amalekite beliefs, which the king at least has some knowledge of, reject the need for repentance on the grounds of believing that God will save everyone, without condition. But it’s particularly interesting to me in light of the fact that the same notion caused serious offence in Alma 21. There one of Aaron’s Amalekite opponents took it as an accusation to be fiercely rebutted. Just like King Lamoni, however, the king’s heart is already prepared to hear the gospel because he’s prepared to ponder questions like this, and to believe answers, without being hedged up by offence. And this is despite the fact that just a couple of chapters ago, he was contemplating murdering his own son, and actively attempting to kill Ammon.

I like the summary of Aaron’s teachings in verse 12-14, for the way it gets to both the heart of the gospel and the biggest things that these people – between Lamanite tradition and Nehorite doctrine – and indeed anyone needs to grasp to repent, namely the fallenness of man, redemption through Christ, and the resurrection:

And it came to pass that when Aaron saw that the king would believe his words, he began from the creation of Adam, reading the scriptures unto the king—how God created man after his own image, and that God gave him commandments, and that because of transgression, man had fallen.

And Aaron did expound unto him the scriptures from the creation of Adam, laying the fall of man before him, and their carnal state and also the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world, through Christ, for all whosoever would believe on his name.

And since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth; and that he breaketh the bands of death, that the grave shall have no victory, and that the sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory; and Aaron did expound all these things unto the king.

The king’s response to this teaching, and then – upon Aaron’s prompting – his prayer are quite well known parts of this chapter, but I’ve always liked them so I’m going to quote them anyway:

And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.

But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest.

And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:

O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.

(Alma 22:15-18)

This is a wonderful passage, between the king’s desires in verse 15, the simplicity of the path Aaron outlines in verse 16, and then the humility and earnestness of the king’s prayer in verse 18. Once again, as much as this is an account that actually happened to a great king, it also addresses us: we may not be great kings, and we may not have tried to kill anyone, but all of us need God’s grace. All of us need to be born of God, need help to have “this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast”, and need his Spirit so we might be redeemed at the last day. And like the king, as we approach God in humility and sincerity, he can make himself known to each of us, and save each of us.

Alma 5

Due to the length & substantial nature of Alma 5, and the fact that the “Come Follow Me” schedule only has three chapters this week, I’ve decided to read Alma 5 this time round over the course of several days rather than all at once, and so this post will the culmination of several days reading (though again, it’s not a comprehensive or exhaustive post; it might actually be possible to write an entire book about Alma 5).

I love how Alma begins his sermon. I think it’s one of the greatest sermon introductions out there. It starts almost gently, recapping the story of the Church being organized (v. 3), and then being delivered from King Noah (v. 4), and then from the Lamanites and it being established in the land of Zarahemla (v. 5).

Then Alma begins with the first set of questions that he poses to his audience. A significant part of this sermon is built around the questions Alma aims at the listener/reader, but I find this first set often get missed when people discuss them:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?

(Alma 5:6)

It’s interesting this first set are all based around the importance of remembering, something of a recurrent theme in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. Alma’s three questions here also appear to increase in intensity: a) do you remember the captivity of your ancestors? b) do you remember God’s mercy towards them (in delivering them?)? c) do you remember that he has delivered their souls from hell?

There then comes one of those passages that is both powerful, and has such wonderful turns of phrase (especially in verse 7), as Alma builds upon this reminder on how God delivered their fathers not just from earthly oppression, but from eternal damnation:

Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.

And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.

And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

(Alma 5:7-9)

“On what conditions are they saved?”

Having reminded his audience that their forebears were saved, Alma moves to his next set of questions, asking how their forebears were saved:

And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? Yea, what grounds had they to hope for salvation? What is the cause of their being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell?

(v. 10)

He begins his answer with a set of rhetorical questions about Alma, his father:

Behold, I can tell you—did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?

(v. 11)

Here we have the pivotal role of belief: Alma believed Abinadi, and Abinadi was speaking the words of God. It sometimes seems we can underestimate the role of belief (compared to testimony, and action) in the modern Church, but Alma (the younger) puts it front and centre of Alma (the elder)’s salvation. Yet I think it’s important to realise it’s not the act of believing in and of itself that’s pivotal. One after all could believe something that isn’t true, and that has no saving value at all. Rather, it is who and what we choose to believe that is significant. I think it no coincidence that this verse emphasises those very elements: Alma chose to believe a prophet of God, and chose to believe what were the words of God.

And why is what we choose to believe important?

And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.

(v. 12)

Alma’s faith, and his belief in the word of God, was a key that allowed the power of God to change his heart (I’m reminded of John 17:17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth”). It is choosing to believe God’s word that allows the transforming power of the Gospel to convert us; to change us into a new creature (meaning a new creation). This is vital: we cannot fight our own faults through our sheer unaided willpower alone, since every one of us has a part of us that is on the other side. We have predilections and tendencies (the exact nature of which will vary from person to person, but we all have them), that seek to lead us away from God and right. But this isn’t inevitable. Our natures can become purified and cleansed, as God’s sanctifying power strengthens our desires and will to do good and helps us defeat the desire to do evil.

That this does not just apply to Alma senior alone is made plain in the very next verse:

And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.

(v. 13)

Alma heard the words of God as preached by Abinadi, believed them, and his heart was changed. He in turn preached the same word to others, who likewise believed and their hearts were changed. And in response, they humbled themselves, put their trust in God and were faithful to him, and so they were saved. I particularly like how this verse helps show the connection between our having faith in God, and showing faithfulness to God, linked but not identical concepts that are often different sides of the same coin. We can have faith (trust) in God because he is always faithfultrustworthy – in fulfilling his promises, and then we in turn show and act upon our faith in him by being faithful – that is, loyal – to him.

“Have ye spiritually be born of God?”

At this point Alma now turns his questions upon his audience, and implicitly us. I’ll be quoting a lot here since I don’t think any measure of paraphrasing will do justice to this questions.

Firstly Alma asks us whether we have experienced this change of hearts that he has been talking about:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

(v. 14)

He then moves forward without pausing to the moment of judgment:

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?

(vv. 15-16)

These are powerful questions. Have we experienced a change of heart? Do we have faith in Christ so we can look forward to that moment of judgment with hope? Or… well then Alma’s questions take a more accusing tone:

Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?

Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?

(vv. 17-18)

Alma is very good at evoking the potential horror we might experience if unprepared for the final judgment; he does the same in Alma 12:12-18. I think in part this is because he himself felt some of this fear during his own conversion experience, in which he describes feeling that “the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14, see also v. 15). These are perhaps thoughts people don’t want to dwell on, and yet the judgment is a situation we will all inevitable experience.

Alma continues with his questions, all of which are aimed at this point: the degree to which we have become truly converted, so that we have “the image of God engraven on our countenances” (Alma 5:19, and that’s an interesting thought: we speak of mankind being made in the image of God, and yet Alma is speaking of an important sense in which that image is conditional, and has to be engraven upon us) and have clean hands; and the degree to which we have fallen short, in which we have “yielded [our]selves to become subjects to the devil” (v. 20) and have “stained” our “garments” with our wickedness (v. 22-23). These are questions designed to probe our readiness to meet God, for as Alma points out:

I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.

(v. 21)

“Can ye feel so now?”

At verse 26, Alma changes the focus a little, addressing directly those who have already experienced this change of heart:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have experienced and felt and tasted of the goodness of God. We may have felt the gift of his forgiveness, experienced his grace, seen his hand extended in power. But can we do so now? Just as Alma the elder’s people were saved because they had faith, had the change of heart and then were faithful “until the end”, we too need to be faithful until the end. Thus Alma asks those who have been converted:

Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?

Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.

Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.

And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?

Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!

(vv. 27-31)

Even if we have been “born of God” in the past, if we don’t remain faithful and keep to that path we will not be found spotless. But I also find interesting the sins that are singled out here: not murder or adultery or so on (though Alma frequently mentions those too – indeed murder got mentioned in verse 23). But being insufficiently humble, being proud, being envious, and mocking others. Like all these questions, it prompts serious reflection of one’s own conduct and state.

“Soon at hand”

Much of this sermon is about the need for all to repent, to seriously prepare for the judgment of God, and about how the time or hour is “close at hand”. And indeed, I suppose that that time can arrive quicker than any of us expect, being one “accidentally stepping in front of the bus” away. But there’s also another sense in which these people are being told things are “soon at hand”, as Alma teaches in verse 50:

Yea, thus saith the Spirit: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand; yea, the Son of God cometh in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion. Yea, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, that the Spirit saith: Behold the glory of the King of all the earth; and also the King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men.

Alma is speaking here of Christ’s incarnation amongst man, which is just over 80 years away. His appearance amongst the Nephites following his resurrection – in which he will indeed come in glory and majesty, and which will be accompanied by a degree of judgment upon the wicked – is just over a century away. And indeed, that is not very far in the great scheme of things.

I was struck – not for the first time – when reading this verse today that this verse also applies to us, but speaking of Christ’s second coming, in which Christ will most certainly appear “in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion”, and which will likewise bring a defining point of judgment upon the world. We don’t know precisely when that will happen – there’s some things that have to happen first, some of which have, and others which have yet to occur – but it will at some point, and is likewise “soon at hand”, and which may be sooner than some imagine. Which underlines the relevance of the next few verses, not just for Alma and his audience, anticipating the first appearance of Christ, but also for us, anticipating the second:

And also the Spirit saith unto me, yea, crieth unto me with a mighty voice, saying: Go forth and say unto this people—Repent, for except ye repent ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of heaven.

And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.

(vv. 51-52)

The time to repent is now, whether it be in preparation for this appearance, or for an unexpected appointment that is much sooner.

Wolves

After more urging to repent, including of specific sins, and an exhortation to separate from the wicked, Alma warns of wolves:

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.

(vv. 59-60)

I’ve written about this concept at greater length here, but I mention it here because it always catches my eye. Indeed Alma appears to be warning some of his audience against being wolves (it comes right after he states “if ye speak against it, it matters not, for the word of God must be fulfilled” in verse 58), something he’d know about, for he was a wolf that became a sheep (or a shepherd). There are others who make the opposite journey. We are required, of course, to be merciful, loving, and to refrain from judgment (or from unjust judgments in those areas that we have a duty to judge). At no time, however, does that require us to leave the sheep defenceless against the wolves, to allow people to victimise or hurt others in the name of “compassion”, nor to mercilessly sacrifice the innocent upon an altar of mercy for their predators. The Good Shepherd defends his sheep, including against those who’d prey upon them.

 

On humility in the face of ignorance: Coronavirus edition

Two interesting articles on the Coronavirus issue, one in the Lancet by the epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, and then an interview with him in the American Institute of American research. He’s worked for the WHO, been chief scientist for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and been an advisor to the Swedish government during the present crisis.

It’s well reading both articles, which comment on the approach Sweden pursued avoiding a lockdown (and which the UK was pursuing until the report from Imperial University) compared to those that have. Sweden does have a higher mortality than surrounding Norway, Finland and Denmark… but less than the UK, Spain and Belgium.

There could be a variety of factors for that, of course. He points out that a lockdown can slow spread (and thus reduce pressure and give time for health care to gear up), but ultimately does not stop the spread, and suggests that “[t]here is very little we can do to prevent this spread: a lockdown might delay severe cases for a while, but once restrictions are eased, cases will reappear. I expect that when we count the number of deaths from COVID-19 in each country in 1 year from now, the figures will be similar, regardless of measures taken.”

I think that last point speaks to something that is very unappreciated in a lot of the debates around responses to the Coronavirus. We seem to assume – perhaps based on living in a fairly comfortable and controlled environment compared to most of human history – that things should be under control. We especially tend to place a lot of faith in the power of government and human agencies to control things, and when things don’t go according to “plan”, we look for someone to blame. But a lot of things – and this episode should be a reminder of that – are not under our control, or anybody’s.

The “looking for blame” approach is particularly corrosive when there’s simply so much that we don’t – and those making the decisions – didn’t know. When the Imperial report was released, the (UK) Government had the choice of sticking to previous policy (based on what other experts were saying), or reversing course and going for the lock-down. They chose the latter. In retrospect, there appears to be some flaws with the model Imperial used, and perhaps Prof. Gieseke is right. Moreover, the economic damage in itself will also carry a cost (and not just a financial one – recessions and depressions lead to death too). But there was no way for anyone to be sure, and there still isn’t.

If they’d have chosen one way, they’d have been crucified by one part of the people and media, and by choosing another way, they got blamed by a different segment. Indeed, even now you have one segment suggesting that the lockdown wasn’t brought in soon enough, and thus “the government” is to blame for deaths, while another segment is pointing to the consequences and demanding opening up happen sooner. And yet it is still the case that no one can be entirely sure of the result of either course, or indeed realise that many things may be out of human hands entirely.

In short, what I suggest is that – while taking steps we can to keep ourselves as informed as possible – we approach all these things with a degree of intellectual humility.

Mosiah 4

There’s one running thread through this chapter that has caught my attention before, and really stood out today. It begins in verse 1 & 2:

And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.

Following King Benamin’s remarks in Mosiah 2-3, the people respond with sorrow and humility, and ‘viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth’. In that state, however, they then cry for mercy in the name of the Lord, and in verse 3 that request is granted.

I don’t have any absolute figures for any of this – it’s simply a phenomenon I’ve observed and heard – but it seems many in our current era are inclined to affirm that they are good people, that they don’t have anything particular to repent of. There’s people who run to the opposite extreme of course (and eras in which that is more common), who may suffer from what Catholic theology (and modern psychology) has termed scrupulosity. And that can be a serious problem: I remember when it dawned on me that such feelings can be a form of “sorrow of the world” as being sorry we got caught or such like, because such feelings can still trap us and thus “worketh death”, while “godly sorrow” produces change (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

But feeling that we’re without sin, that we’re good and don’t have anything to repent of can also be damning. First, such notions are simply not true: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, see also Alma 34:9), and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). But secondly, if we don’t have a consciousness of our sin, then how do we recognise that we even need the Saviour? How do we call upon the power of his atoning sacrifice if we don’t feel a need for it? How do we even appreciate what he has done for us if we don’t think it’s necessary? A consciousness of sin, while an unpleasant feeling, is the very thing that impels us to seek change and lead us – as it led King Benjamin’s people – to seek mercy through Christ. It strikes me that it is perhaps one of the first and most fundamental steps of our repentance.

Yet this chapter goes further in verse 5:

For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state

This is talking about the same experience of King Benjamin’s people, but it also describes sentiments I suspect it’d be most unlikely to be urged in your average Sunday school lesson: ‘a sense of your nothingness’ and ‘your worthless and fallen state’.

The idea of realising our ‘nothingness’ is not only found here in the scriptures: In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses remarks upon the conclusion of one visionary experience that ‘[n]ow, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed’ (Moses 1:10). This sensation, this realisation, is not the sum total of all we are supposed to feel in regards to ourselves and our relationship with God. But it is perhaps an element that receives little modern attention.

Back to Mosiah 4, and again King Benjamin goes further, describing what we should remember not just at a moment of conversion, but throughout our lives:

And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.

(Mosiah 4:11, my emphasis)

Again, this is not found only here: Alma in Alma 38:14 counsels his son Shiblon to ‘acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times’. But I suspect that at the present time such passages are often passed over quickly; they are hard passages, with hard counsel. But they clearly appear to be quite essential, with King Benjamin teaching that we should always remember God’s greatness, and in contrast our own nothingness and unworthiness if we wish to retain a remission of our sins (and we surely do).

Now I do not think that these verses are preaching a kind of self-hatred: while I do not find many scriptural passages that support the modern emphasis on self-esteem, self-hatred does not seem to be encouraged. Furthermore, we are also often counselled to seek and feel God’s love towards us. In some way, then, we are being encouraged to simultaneously realise our own nothingness and unworthiness, and thus our utter dependence upon God and his mercy, and that we do not earn any blessing from him, but at the same time feel of his love and realise that, in the words of Elder Uchtdorf, ‘compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God.’

I don’t know that I can make any great claims of knowing how to balance those realisations, but I am confident that both are necessary: we need one to avoid pride, and so that we know we need help and change and grace and who to seek it from, and we need the other to avoid despair and discouragement, and so that we know we can leave judgment in the hands of God and need not seek to punish ourselves for our own sins. With that in mind, we surely need to read such passages as the above carefully, and seek to follow them, rather than pass over them swiftly.

A couple of final, tangentially related points: this chapter goes on to detail our need to help and serve others, beginning with children (and our obligation to teach them), and then towards those seeking our assistance. I find it striking how it links our response to those who beg of us to God’s response to when we beg of him, and so how our acts of service are likewise connected to seeking to retain a remission of our sins:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

(Mosiah 4:26)

However, allowance is also made for capacity, thus those who have sufficient, but not enough to aid the beggar are addressed (v. 24), and then the general principle is also addressed (v. 27):

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

The image this conjures up for me is one of a marathon, and I believe this is a helpful image to have in mind. If someone tries to sprint a marathon, they’ll lead at first, but then their strength will ebb and they will not finish the race. Likewise, this life is a marathon, in which our means and energy are often limited, and if we are unwise, and “sprint”, we may exhaust our strength and lack the capacity to serve at a later date. We must therefore not let our zeal outweigh our wisdom, but carefully pace ourselves where appropriate to ensure that we are in a position to serve diligently up until the finishing line.

2020 edit:

Several brief notes, as I’ve already written a fair amount on this chapter about 8 months ago.

Verse 2 stands out again, this time not for how the people viewed themselves and their consciousness of their sins, but for the simplicity of their response: they called on God for mercy, asking that they might receive forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ. I’m reminded of Alma 34:17 (in which Amulek urges much the same), and wonder if – when we think about repentance – the simple process of asking God for mercy and forgiveness is so straightforward it sometimes gets overlooked. Along with that, it’s perhaps important to remember that forgiveness is the not the product of some process we can produce via checklist, but a gift we are asking for.

I was struck also by the emphasis on not just obtaining a remission of sins, but of retaining a remission of sins (vv. 11-12 and 26), and what is necessary for that. I was reminded of Alma 5:26 (and indeed much of that chapter):

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have had powerful experiences in the past, like the people of King Benjamin experienced in verse 3. But how do we feel now? Do we continue to experience such feelings (in whatever degree)? Have our lives changed, and do we live up to the desire to do good we had in those moments?

I’ve also been thinking about the list of things that King Benjamin tells his people to believe in in verses 9 and 10:

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.

There’s a number of different things we’re commanded to believe in here, presumably not only because they’re true but because whether we believe in them has an effect on our salvation:

  • God’s existence. The importance of that seems obvious
  • God created all things, both in heaven and in earth. I feel I need to ponder more to understand the salvific significance of believing this (though I believe it must be important, or it wouldn’t be on this list)..
  • Believe God has all wisdom. If we don’t believe God has all wisdom, we may be inclined to doubt his guidance, to suspect there may be something he doesn’t know, or that we know better. Believing he does is thus crucial to trusting him and his counsel. Likewise wisdom is also grounded in goodness, not just knowledge, and so to believe he has all wisdom is to believe that he has the will to help us,
  • Believe God has all power, in heaven and in earth. Interesting that like his role as creator this mentions both heaven and earth. The importance of this one appears straightforward to me: if we believe God lacks power, then we may well conclude he is unable to intervene on our behalf. But God has all power, and so has an infinite capacity to help us.
  • Believe that man does not comprehend all the things the Lord can comprehend. This appears to overlap with the point of wisdom, but I think particularly speaks to the fact that – even at best – we can only have a partial understanding of God and his plan for us. No matter how much we learn, there’s going to be things about life and the gospel that we don’t have all the answers too, or which don’t make sense to us. Thus I take believing in this as a recognition that we need to be humble, and particularly to always acknowledge and follow God’s wisdom as being superior to our own. I’m also reminded of the statement by Harold B. Lee that “it is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give us courage through faith to go on in the face of questions to which we find no answer in our present status”.
  • Believe we must repent of our sins, forsake them, humble ourselves before God, and ask him sincerely for forgiveness. This seems to cover ground I mention above, including the fact that we need to believe we all have sinned, and so all need to repent, and the importance of actually humbly asking God for forgiveness. But it also emphasises that repentance is change too: we need to believe we must forsake our sins (as opposed, one presumes, to thinking we can be forgiven but continue in them). And I think the point about believing we need to ask God for forgiveness also addresses another thing we must believe: we must believe he can and is willing to forgive us, and that when he forgives us our sins are swept away.

Of course, belief alone isn’t enough, as King Benjamin promptly points out: “and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them”. But our sincere beliefs do affect our attitudes and our actions, and it seems striking to me that these beliefs all centre around the factors that cause us to trust (or not) in God, and prompt us to repent, change and seek forgiveness.

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

Jacob 7

It’s about time I finished this book!

Well, I’ve actually read Jacob 7 multiple times since beginning this “reading through” series, but I’ve never actually managed a post on it. The first pause of posts happened right after Jacob 5, something I don’t believe is a coincidence in light of the fact that I wrote about 20,000 words on that chapter for The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible. I then went back to do Jacob 6 late last year, but again never quite did the final chapter. This should never be taken as a reflection on those chapters, or Jacob 7 itself though. For one thing, there’s the warning in 1 Nephi 19:7:

For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.

Hopefully I’m not trampling Jacob under my feet, as in any case I do see much of value in it, and also believe there’s bound to be things of value that I can’t see. If I were to try and come up with an excuse, it would be that I’ve written about it elsewhere, which is true of Jacob 7 as well. That chapter factors into my consideration of Jacob’s personality here. Furthermore, there’s an excellent article by Duane Boyce, which responds to some recent readings of Jacob 7, which I happen to comment on very briefly here (better to read his article though). So while I do not waver from my opinion that the scriptures can be a boundless reservoir, I must sometimes plead human weakness in finding it difficult to see what else is there.

However, since I do believe they are a inexhaustible well, I decided to make the effort anyway, and read Jacob 7 today.

Several things stood out to me:

  1. Sherem is one of the three figures in the Book of Mormon commonly referred to as Anti-Christs, alongside Nehor (Alma 1) and Korihor (Alma 30). The text itself uses that title only for Korihor (Alma 30:6, 12), but it may be seen as a fair title since the one thing that seems to unite the teaching of these figures is their opposition to the idea of Christ, although this is inferred in the case of Nehor (Alma 21:7-8 indicates that his followers, if not Nehor himself, rejected Christ, and may reflect his teachings. Alma 1 doesn’t comment on the issue, although his teaching that all will be saved does imply less emphasis on sin and thus the need for an atonement, which may be why Book of Mormon prophets teach about that so much). They come from three very different directions though: Nehor teaches a form of universalism (linked to his teaching that Priests teach what is popular), Korihor outright rejects God in favour of materialism, while Sherem in contrast claims to be motivated by the need to keep the law of Moses and reject the blasphemy of worshipping another being (leading to suggestions – and I can’t remember who made it, but it was done a while back, that Sherem may have had Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind).
    What struck me while reading this time, however, was the description of Sherem as “learned” and having “a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4). We are accustomed to seeing those as good things, and the whole conceit of things like a debate is presumably that learning and eloquence deployed in such an environment can help lead to truth. But the example of Sherem indicates that such learning and eloquence can in fact be deployed to untrue ends (the track record of actual debates – and human responses to them – suggests likewise). Misused knowledge and artful presentation may be used to advance falsehood as much as truth. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was Jacob, speaking elsewhere, who warned that the learned may assume they are wise and reject God’s counsel, but that to be learned is good “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).
  2. Another thing to note is Jacob’s inherent humility in calling upon God’s intervention, which stands out when one compares the episode with Alma’s boldness in a similar confrontation with Korihor (Alma 30:49). I think it is indicative of Jacob’s character that he emphasises “not my will be done… And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine” (Jacob 7:14).
  3. Finally, I note again Jacob’s comments that his people were “a lonesome and a solemn people” and “did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). It makes me wonder what he spoke about with Enos that Enos refers to as “the joy of the saints” (Enos 1:3), assuming no intervening generations. That’s a subject I’ve spoken about before, as linked above, but it does really emphasise that Jacob, despite his righteousness and faithfulness, had a hard life, and that simply because we follow the gospel, we can’t expect “happily ever after”. Well, at least not in this life.

2020 Edit:

For those paying attention to my other posts, there’s this recurrent strain of argument that has, amongst other things, been pushing the idea that Laman, Lemuel, and importantly for this chapter, Sherem, were sincere and pious opponents, motivated by “Deuteronomist” ideals. There’s issues I have with this, and the broader reconstruction of supposed “Deuteronomism” and the implicit or sometimes explicit labelling of the books of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, and even in some cases the entire Old Testament as something to be regarded with suspicion.

Anyway, back to Jacob 7: as I mention above, there is a case (I think a solid one) that Sherem has Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in mind, based on Jacob 7:7, in which he publicly claims that he is acting in favour of the Law of Moses, and against what he describes as converting the law into worship “of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence”. Of course, the mere fact that he appears to be reading Deuteronomy 13 in this way doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the passage, any more than there’s anything wrong with the scriptural passages Satan attempted to misuse in his temptation of the Saviour. Hence Shakespeare’s “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.

This being the case, the question emerges as to how sincere Sherem was. It’s a question that Duane Boyce’s article linked above addresses (responding to other claims on that issue). It should be pointed out that it is entirely possible for someone to be sincere, and yet very wrong about ultimate things. I think Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, was undoubtedly sincere and operating out of a misplaced zeal.

Here I think Sherem’s last words are worth quoting:

And it came to pass that he said unto the people: Gather together on the morrow, for I shall die; wherefore, I desire to speak unto the people before I shall die.

And it came to pass that on the morrow the multitude were gathered together; and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels.

And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment.

And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.

And it came to pass that when he had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.

(Jacob 7:16-20)

I think in reading these words it’s quite easy to feel sympathy for Sherem: I did when I first read these words several decades ago. This passage gives every appearance – at a stage in which there is little to be gained from lying – of sincere penitence. But when one approaches the question of “was Sherem sincere?”, one should keep in mind that Sherem – like many of us – is a moving target. By Sherem’s own testimony here, in his earlier teachings he had “lied unto God”; while sincere here, his own account argues that he was less than completely sincere earlier.  That he may be a sincere and even sympathetic figure on his deathbed doesn’t, and shouldn’t, garb earlier words and works with a sincerity and integrity that he disclaims for himself. Yet at the same time, we need not let those earlier acts rob us of the possibility that here, at the last, he was being truthful and sincere.

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 judgment 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”.

Jacob 4

Jacob 4 is a chapter I’ve gone over a lot recently, as it plays a significant role in my thesis and revising chapter four (which covers Jacob 4-5) took some time. So I wasn’t quite sure what would catch my eye this time around, and there’s so much in this chapter I could talk about: Jacob’s foreknowledge of Christ, and how he explains this, the reason the Old Testament isn’t so clear on the topic (and it is not because of human tampering), the Book of Mormon’s approach to causality (namely that God is not bound by it), and the definition of truth. But there’s a couple of other things that caught my eye this time.

Firstly (and I’m quoting these as they appear in the 1830 edition, because in some cases the different punctuation and paragraphing helps bring things out):

Now behold, it came to pass, that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people, in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates,) and we know that the things which we write upon plates, must remain; but whatsoever things we write upon any thing save it be upon plates, must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethen, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers.

I was struck when reading this by the emphasis placed on the impermanence and perishability of records that were not recorded upon the plates. I think it’s a human tendency to imagine a lot of the things around us as permanent institutions. But most human acts, governments and cultures are so impermanent that they will not only one day fail, but will for the most part be so forgotten no one will know that they’ve been forgotten. Anything that is not rooted in something eternal will fade away and perish, and yet we put so much emphasis on those things. Likewise, it took considerable effort (part of which Jacob refers to above) as well as divine aid to preserve the words of the Book of Mormon for later millennia, yet at the time it must have seemed to some that such efforts were unnecessary. Jacob, however, was blessed with a far longer perspective.

The second bit which caught my eye is definitely partly the result of how it is formatted. I think in previously reading Jacob 4, the potential implications of the passages around it have caused me to read over verse 11 more lightly. In the 1830 edition, however, verse 11 comes at the end of a paragraph, and moreover is a continuation of a sentence from verse 10, so it is clearer to see how it is a continuation of the thought expressed there:

Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know, that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works; wherefore, beloved brethren, be reconciled unto him, through the atonement of Christ, his only begotten Son, that ye may obtain a resurrection, according to the power of the resurrection which is in Christ, and be presented as the first fruits of Christ, unto God, having faith, and obtained a good hope of glory in him, before he manifesteth himself in the flesh.

Personally, I found it a little easier to see this time how knowing that God counsels in wisdom, justice and mercy can encourage us to seek to be reconciled to him through the power of Christ (and how it did for them, even before he appeared in the flesh). Likewise, it’s interesting (and perhaps emphasises elements of his redeeming power that we are prone to miss) to see this described as “the power of the resurrection which is in Christ”. By having faith in Him and seeking reconciliation through Him, we may obtain a hope that we too may be resurrected by this power of His and presented to God in the first resurrection.

2020 edit:

It’s funny for me when I go over these chapters that I’ve made posts on before to note what I spot relative to what I’d already written. Sometimes there’s things that are apparently wholly new to me, and at other times I’ll have a couple of verses in mind that really stood out as I was reading them, and they’ll turn out – like today – to be the two verses that had really stood out to me 4 years beforehand.

This is also a chapter I’ve expended a lot of ink on elsewhere (i.e. chapter four of The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible). There I particularly look at the “stone” texts in verses 15-17 and their connection with what follows (the question of the gathering of Israel, which the allegory in Jacob 5 addresses). I also look at the question of the Nephites knowledge about Christ, in which verses 12-14 are of particular interest.

While I do quote it above, I was quite struck again by verse 10’s “seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand”. How often do we want something, ask for something, when God knows that’s not actually good for us or has something better in store? While he has commanded us to ask for the things we need we must always be alert, I guess, to what his will actually is, and to not insist on our own way but humbly seek to do whatever he’d have us do.

Verse 6 is always somewhat striking:

Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.

… that’s quite a bit of faith. Jacob – true to form – is quick to then speak of their “weakness” and speak of such miracles as an example of God’s grace and “great condescensions” (v. 7).

As mentioned, I’ve spent some time writing about verse 12 elsewhere, but I think it and verse 13 are profound:

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

Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.

Verse 12 really underlines what God can reveal to us: for these people, it was hundreds of years before the coming of Christ, but God – whose knowledge and power is not circumscribed by the limitations of time – is perfectly capable of knowing and revealing about things many years hence, as he is about things beyond even the end of the world itself. We should not limit in our minds what God is capable of communicating to us, nor what his warnings or his promises can address.

Verse 13 follows on addressing the truthfulness of prophecy – “for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not” – and then gives a beautifully simple definition of what that truth can encompass: “wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be”. Compared to a lot of the academic wrangling over the subject (and of course increasingly it’s fashionable to deny the existence of objective truth), this statement comes as something clear and refreshing. Truth is things as they really are (no matter what we might think them to be) and as they really will be.

2 Nephi 31

Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.

(2 Nephi 31:7)

I was just reading this verse today when it caused me to reflect. Nephi is speaking of Christ’s baptism, and how despite being holy and needing no remission of sins, he got baptised as a gesture of humility and as a witness that he would keep the Father’s commandments. And of course what Christ did is an example to us too, for he “showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them” (2 Nephi 31:9). I think this is not just talking about the gate of baptism, or just the immersion as it were, but the humility and witness of obedience tied in that act.

And of course, it’s tied in other acts too – the sacrament is likewise a witness that we are willing to keep the commandments and willing to take upon ourselves the name of Christ (see v.13; much of what is said about baptism in this chapter is replicated in the sacrament prayers). I guess I’d never really thought of the sacrament, properly partaken (“acting no hypocrisy and deception before God” as it were, v.13 again), as a act of humility. But it really is, I guess, if properly understood: we are showing that we desire to repent of all our sins, and keep God’s commandments (including participating in the sacrament), and eat and drink in remembrance of the body and blood of Christ who did for us what we can never do for ourselves.

2020 Edit:

Nephi here moves to a different subject, bringing an “end to my prophesying” (v. 1) and turning instead to “the doctrine of Christ”. Doctrine is used in very particular senses in the Book of Mormon (as I discuss here): when plural, it is always attached to the word false; when singular it refers (aside from the one time it is used in conjunction with false, in 2 Nephi 28:12) to the doctrine of Christ, which appears from various summaries, including in 3 Nephi 27 and also this chapter, to refer to what we might regard as the most basic elements of the gospel. And it is to this that Nephi promptly turns, including repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.

I was struck again when reading by the line in verse 13, about following Christ “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent”. The acting no hypocrisy element seems straightforward although it may be something many of us struggle with: it means avoiding any variance between how we act publicly and privately. However, this line caused me to reflect on what deception before God even means. Because obviously we cannot deceive him: he knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, he knows us better than we know ourselves. We cannot lie to God. That’s always been something I’ve been confident (and at times terrified) in.

But I guess that sometimes people might feel they can lie to God, or perhaps be tempted to act outwardly in accordance with the gospel (including participating in the ordinances) for other reasons. Perhaps the most obvious would be those I’ve read who talk about being practising but not believing – if one doesn’t believe he exists, then his opinion can hardly be the uppermost motivation. But I guess an element of this can creep in whenever any other motive other than seeking to be loyal and faithful to God creeps in: when we are obedient or participate in ordinances because we’re concerned about how other people will regard us, or fear being left out, or some other reason (even just convention or routine, as we may do with the sacrament). God, it seems, does not want us to act out of peer pressure regardless of which outward direction that drives us in. He’s concerned with the inward man. It likewise seems the case that at the end of the day, the only real opinion we should be concerned or worried about when it comes to our walk on the gospel path is God’s alone.

Verses 17-20 are very well-known (well, amongst readers of the Book of Mormon):

Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

An important realisation I had some years ago concerned this passage, when I realised the picture it painted (as do some other passages) of the journey to eternal life being exactly that: a path. I think there’s a tendency (I certainly have it; I think it may be a human one) to think of thinks in quite cut and dried terms, including when it comes to religion. Thus the big question becomes saved or damned. And due to my manifest imperfections, I would always come up with the latter answer, which was obviously quite demoralising. It was reflecting on this passage that helped me to realise that right now, at this moment, the question isn’t saved or damned: it’s “are you on the path that leads to eternal life?” If one is not on the path, one needs to enter (via the gate), or get back on it if one has strayed off. If one is on the path, then no matter where one is on the path – no matter one’s present imperfections and so on – if one is pressing forward – repenting, trying to obey God’s will and seeking his grace to overcome such imperfections – then it’s okay: the glorious day will come. God’s principal concern is not where we are on that path, but which direction we’re heading in.