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 out ‘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.

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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.

 

What

The Prayer of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

2 Nephi 12

And it shall come to pass that the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.

For the day of the Lord of Hosts soon cometh upon all nations, yea, {shall be} upon every one; yea, upon the {that is} proud and lofty, and upon every one who {that} is lifted up, and he shall be brought low.

Yea, and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they {that} are high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan;

And upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills, and upon all the nations which {that} are lifted up, and upon every people;

(2 Nephi 12:11-14//Isaiah 2:11-14, bold indicates text not found in the KJV, underlined text indicates substitutions for text in curly brackets)

Pride is a major theme of the Book of Mormon, which depicts pride as the pre-eminent source of evil. Much of the narrative of the Book of Mormon shows the dangers of pride. But the book not only warns against pride – it also warns that the time left for such pride is limited, and a reckoning is coming. It is little surprise that the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah so much, since that too warns of God’s judgment upon the proud. When one looks at the textual differences between Isaiah as quoted in the Book of Mormon and in the King James Version, however, its striking that many of the textual differences stress this impending judgment: both the imminence (“soon cometh upon all nations”) and the universal scope (“upon all the nations” and “upon every people”) of this divine wrath are emphasised above.

While there’s obviously a personal application to this, and maybe personal pride is what I and maybe others should be most concerned about, in my current sombre mood I can’t help but reflect on our culture as a whole. When I read Isaiah, and read (as I will once again in forthcoming chapters) of divine judgment coming upon rich and proud cities, I can’t help but see not ancient Babylon or Tyre, but our own cities and our own wealth. Even in the recent political commotion, when people are perhaps shocked a little out of complacency and the assumption that nothing bad can happen to us, the response seems to be one of rage and enmity. Humility is derided and mocked. Yet perhaps there’s more to be learned personally from this too: that in all these things, big and small, grand or personal, salvation will come from humble acceptance of the Lord’s will. Angry striving and proud self-assertion will not change our fate, but will only bring upon us the Lord’s judgment. And that applies to any of us, for:

O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk in the light of the Lord; yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways.

(2 Nephi 12:5//Isaiah 5, bold as above)

Yet while much of this chapter warns all of us about the Lord’s forthcoming judgments, it does also promise an age of peace. The Lord will “rebuke many nations”, but after that – and I believe this must apply to our own personal conflicts and the weapons of our pride as much as it does actual weapons – “they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks – nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2 Nephi 12:4//Isaiah 2:4).