Mosiah 27

Featuring the angelic visit to, and the conversion of, those rebellious youngsters, Alma “the younger” and the sons of Mosiah. Their campaign against the Church must have particularly challenging, considering it featured the son of the high priest of the Church in conspiracy with what were effectively royal princes and heirs of the king. That Alma senior rejoices when he finds out he son has been struck down by the power of God (v. 20) suggests their relationship had become somewhat fraught.

First things first, however. There’s a very interesting sentence in verse 1 (my emphasis):

And now it came to pass that the persecutions which were inflicted on the church by the unbelievers became so great that the church began to murmur, and complain to their leaders concerning the matter; and they did complain to Alma. And Alma laid the case before their king, Mosiah. And Mosiah consulted with his priests.

It’s just a small reference, so blink and you’ll miss it, and indeed it seems most people do; I’ve not come across any commentary on the line “[a]nd Mosiah consulted with his priests”. And it’s a really interesting line, a mention of an otherwise unmentioned group of priests associated with the king who are not so as part of the organization of the Church that Alma established.

And yet it makes sense. As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to picture the Church as this monolithic, all-encompassing organization as it has been in this dispensation, but that’s not always been the case in previous dispensations. Thus the early Christian church continued to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and as we’ve seen, many of those who’d entered into a covenant with God under King Benjamin’s urging also felt to unite with Alma and his church. I remember thinking about this when I came across this verse, because there’s some interesting possibilities here. For example, it’s mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites – up until the visit of the risen Christ – kept the law of Moses, which would include its sacrifices and offerings. And yet the principal duties of priests in the Church, as laid out for instance in Mosiah 19, don’t really cover sacrifices and offerings. Furthermore, since King Benjamin’s people kept the law, someone there must have been performing these ordinances too. My suggestion is that it is these priests who are mentioned here. It’s also possible that they continued co-exist with the Church and perform these offerings after this point, which would account for the fact that such must have been happening, but no one – not even the Church leaders that are mentioned – is ever mentioned as performing them. The existence of an otherwise unmentioned group performing these ordinances (possibly for most of the Nephite populace, in the same way that the priests at the temple in Jerusalem did for Sadducee, Pharisee and Christian alike) would explain this, and the fact that the record is silent about them entirely fits with the fact that it’s a very selective account that’s entirely silent about a lot of matters that must have existed (Nephites with XX chromosomes, for example).

Moving from the interesting to the important. The experience of Alma and the sons of Mosiah is of course dramatic: an angel appears, declaring with a voice of thunder a warning not to fight against the Church of God. It’s been compared to the conversion experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, and I think there’s a lot of a parallels, although also a few crucial differences (Paul, at least, thought he was doing God’s work). It may seem unfair – I’ve certainly been privy to discussions in this vein – that Alma and his crew would have this sort of experience, that it made it “easy” for them. However, I think there’s some things to bear in mind:

  1. Divine intervention can often appear unfair. I remember pondering this at a time I was experiencing a significant degree of poverty, but was also blessed that God inspired some people to help me. I was aware that not everyone got that, and that it wasn’t because I “deserved” it. Likewise there have been many faced with the threat of death by fire for the gospel. Some, like Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-Nego are delivered by miraculous means. Others, like Abinadi as we’ve recently read, or the people in Ammonihah as we will read, burn to death. This is obviously not due to the righteousness of the people involved, or any other factor that we can see. But God sees more than we do, indeed sees all, and so his reasons for intervening in one case, and not another, encompass far more than we can comprehend. A key challenge of this life, after all, is not that God have to justify his moral reasoning to us, but that we have enough faith in him to trust him, to trust that he knows best even if we’re not in a position to see why.
  2. While Alma and the sons of Mosiah do indeed convert at this point, there’s ample scriptural evidence, especially in the Book of Mormon, that such experiences are not sufficient. Laman and Lemuel’s progress in the wrong direction was barely slowed by an angelic visit, for instance. That Alma, Ammon and so on responded in this way and turned their entirely lives round at this point is down to them and their decisions. Furthermore, while certainly swift, Alma’s repentance does not appear to have been easy (“wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death”, v. 28), and he elsewhere talks of “fast[ing] and pray[ing] many days” to know the truth of the Gospel (Alma 5:26).
  3. Finally, and this may seem obvious but it only really stuck out to me on this reading, the point of the angelic appearance (at least for the humans involved; God knowing all things I’m sure considered every factor) was not so much to convert Alma and his party (although that appears to have been a factor, since Alma the elder had prayed that his son “be brought to a knowledge of the truth”, Mosiah 27:14), but to to stop them going about to destroy the Church in answer to “the prayers of his people”. Thus the angel declares: “And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more, that their prayers may be answered, and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off” (v. 16; interestingly this very instruction seems to have played a crucial role in Alma’s conversion according to his own account, Alma 36:9-11). The divine intervention was as much on behalf of everyone else to protect the people of the Church from Alma and the sons of Mosiah as it was to save them. That it also resulted in the latter is a happy side effect.

Finally, there’s Alma’s great statement when he rises from his stricken state. It’s a wonderful passage, beautiful and powerful, that speaks directly to the point that we all need to change, to be reborn, not just symbolically through baptism but inwardly also. Frankly I like it so much I’m just going to quote it in full:

For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

I say unto you, unless this be the case, they must be cast off; and this I know, because I was like to be cast off.

Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

I rejected my Redeemer, and denied that which had been spoken of by our fathers; but now that they may foresee that he will come, and that he remembereth every creature of his creating, he will make himself manifest unto all.

Yea, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess before him. Yea, even at the last day, when all men shall stand to be judged of him, then shall they confess that he is God; then shall they confess, who live without God in the world, that the judgment of an everlasting punishment is just upon them; and they shall quake, and tremble, and shrink beneath the glance of his all-searching eye.

(Mosiah 27:24-31)

Mosiah 24

There’s a lot of parallels between the situation of Alma and his people in this and the previous chapter, and that of the people of Limhi in the preceding chapters. They’re both kept prisoners in their own lands, both are faced with a particularly arduous trial that they are then able to bear, both faced with the task of escaping, and then both successfully elude the forces guarding them to escape to the land of Zarahemla.

However, it’s also worth noting how the situations are subtly different too: the stories act as type scenes by which small variations in the recurring pattern can convey meaning. And there’s a consistent difference in how events pan out here and how they do for the people of Limhi (I’m not the only one to have spotted this by the way – I’m pretty sure Grant Hardy makes a similar or the same observation in Understanding the Book of Mormon).

Thus take the period in which both groups are described as suffering particularly heavy burdens (upon their backs, no less). The people of Limhi, upon being increasing treated as pack animals, make three attempts to fight for their freedom (Mosiah 21:3-12). This doesn’t work, however, so that the people are humbled, and begin crying to God for deliverance, and in time – though he is “slow to hear their cry” – the hearts of their oppressors are softened and the burdens ease (21:13-15).

In contrast, Alma and the church are similarly burdened can’t even call out loud to God, as Amulon (who appears to hold a grudge towards Alma), forbids prayer and stations guards to kill any who offend (24:9-11). However, the people continue to pray in their heart, and actually have God reassure them that he will ease their burdens and will eventually deliver them, and he strengthens them so they are able to bear those burdens (24:12-15).

Similarly, as we have seen, Limhi and his people eventually escaped through Gideon’s cunning plan in which they got their guards very very drunk, and made off while the guards were incapacitated. In contrast here, however, God again communicates with the people, and then miraculously causes the guards to be comatose, letting the people escape (24:16-19). And while the army that pursued the people of Limhi got lost (and so blundered into Alma and his colony, Mosiah 22:15-16, 23:30-36), here the people are warned by revelation that their pursuers are after them, and told that God will stop them (24:23).

In each case, the difference appears to be that the events Alma and the church experienced were more overtly miraculous , more explicit demonstrations of God’s power and will. In one case the people begin crying to God, but he takes his time to respond and then softens the hearts of their enemies; in the other he reveals that he’s going to help them, and miraculously strengthens them. In one case, escape requires a cunning plan, bad navigation and lots of alcohol; in the other it is purely an act of divine intervention. Even the same event is described a bit differently: the initial flight of Alma and his people from Noah is earlier described as being due to them being “apprised of the coming of the king’s army” (Mosiah 18:34), something that could easily describe human informants. It’s only when we read the later account that we find it’s because Alma was “warned of the Lord” (23:1).

I believe the deliverance of the people of Limhi is still meant to be seen as God working on their behalf. However, due to their earlier wickedness, and the time it takes for them to humble themselves and call upon him, he is “slow to hear their cry”, his intervention is more subtle, and they are left unsure of their deliverance until it actually happens. But for the people of Alma and his church, while they face many of the same trials, their faithfulness means that God’s intervention on their behalf is more direct, and also that they are reassured through revelation along the way that God will help them and will ultimately liberate them. In both cases, God’s willingness to aid and deliver his people is shown; but for the people who had faith and who were swift to repent, that divine power manifested all the more easily and readily.

Mosiah 8

There seems to be a running subtheme of God’s unseen providence running through these chapters, as I was struck by how fortuitous it was that the party Limhi set out to find Zarahemla ended up finding something quite different:

And the king said unto him: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage.

And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel.

And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.

(Mosiah 8:7-9)

Now we can’t be sure about the details of the geography – namely how difficult or easy it was to miss Zarahemla completely and reach the former land of the Jaredites instead (it does suggest the model of a single bottleneck of a very narrow neck of land may not be strictly accurate) – but, just as in the previous chapter, we have to consider how fortunate this was. While it may be inevitable that if they kept heading in a certain direction they’d hit the Jaredite ruins eventually, the chances that they’d come across the plates of Ether seem very remote. Of course, while it’s not explicitly stated, I don’t believe we’re meant to take this as simple sheer chance: it was divine providence. And consider the consequences: the very content of the Book of Mormon is at stake here, since these plates contain the record of the Brother of Jared and the account of the fall of the Jaredites, and were the sources for Moroni’s account of the same. If these people didn’t “chance” to find them, we would not have them.

And yet, at this point, both the king who sent them out and doubtless the party involved considered the mission a failure: the hope was to find a living Zarahemla who they could call upon for assistance. Instead they found a ruin. But once again what appears to be a failure, while it may have frustrated the expectations and plans – even righteous ones – of human beings ultimately turned to good. And God likewise provided other means for delivering the people of Limhi, so that “failure” didn’t turn to their harm either.

And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.

And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.

(Mosiah 8:15-16)

In reading these words today, I couldn’t help but think about how this is the first occasion in scripture (at least the scripture we have), in which these three titles – seer, revelator and prophet – are conjoined. 1 Samuel 9:9 includes both seer and prophet, but not revelator.

Interestingly, the use of these three titles together in the Doctrine and Covenants appears a bit later in the book than one might expect, in D&C 107:92 (once again just seer and prophet occur earlier, in D&C 21:1). I find this interesting, because it suggests that it took time for concepts introduced by the Book of Mormon to seep out to the early Church, including to the very men involved in translating and taking dictation of the book! We might sometimes assume that Joseph Smith and the others would have known the book and its contents backwards, but that really doesn’t appear to be the case: they had to read and learn from it too, and just like us they continued to learn things as they read it. These may be reassuring for those who are just starting out to study the scriptures: there’s no royal road to learning their contents, but at the same time its a path that anyone can follow because we all, no matter who we are, start at much the same place.

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

(Mosiah 8:18)

While Ammon’s comments above are speaking specifically of seers, I believe this also addresses in a more general way one of the recurring themes of the Book of Mormon: God has actual power, and he can and does give this to human beings who exercise faith, and seek to serve God and his children. It’s another interesting connection with 2nd Ammon too, who to explain his deeds to King Lamoni will say:

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

(Alma 18:35)

The Book of Mormon teaches a God who is a God of power, a God who works supernatural miracles, and a God who confers that power upon human beings, “according to [our] faith and desires which are in God”.

2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plates back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

2020 edit:

This chapter (as did last chapter) includes a fair amount of Isaiah 29, although quoted without explicit markers (unlike, say 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14), but also significantly interspersed with Nephi’s own commentary and prophecy. Thus so in this case, where the chapter opens with an account of the wickedness of the nations in the last days and the forthcoming judgment to coincide with Christ’s second coming.

The chapter then moves on to talk about a forthcoming book:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.

And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

This book is the records contained on the golden plates, of which an unsealed portion is translated and published as the Book of Mormon, with the rest to appear at some future date (vv. 9-11). Apparently there’s much more in it, for “they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).

The chapter then gives an account of some words of the unsealed portion being taken to “the learned”, who is asked to read the words. The learned then requests the book, but when informed that they are sealed will state that they cannot read them (vv. 15-18). In contrast, they will be then delivered to one who is not learned, who shall simply say “I am not learned” (v. 19) and will be told:

Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

(2 Nephi 27:20)

Now on one hand this is seen as a reference to the well-known account of Martin Harris taking some characters to Charles Anthon. As recounted in the Pearl of Great Price:

Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

Charles Anthon here is the learned man, while the unlearned man who does end up reading the words is Joseph Smith.

And yet there is more going on here. This passage is not just about these two men (and the Book of Mormon, and the witnesses). There is a wider theme here distinguishing between the learning of the world, that men have set up in stead of that of God, and the inspiration that comes from God. Thus this chapter has a broader application than this one episode, which is a type of the dilemma we all face in gain a greater understanding, especially of the things of God. Do we rely on our own learning, upon the mortal intellect alone? If so than no matter how learned or knowledgeable we are, we shall find the scriptures and other revelations and sacred matters of God a “sealed book”. Or do we humble acknowledge our deficiencies, in which case we are in a position to be blessed with God’s understanding and inspiration.

This is not to say that knowledge and learning are necessarily bad, far from it: “to be learned is good”, says Jacob, “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We are supposed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I am convinced that relying on faith alone risks just as much distortion as relying on study alone would. But, as discussed here and in The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible, Book of Mormon prophets relied upon inspiration and their own revelatory experiences to understand the scriptures they read (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Revelation”), and read them with an eye of faith. They did not seek to understand them purely by their own or any other man’s intellect. One of the great sins of those preaching in the latter days is that they will, relying solely on their learning and their human wisdom, and excluding revelation and faith. Likewise, if we approach the scriptures purely from what might be termed an “academic” viewpoint, they will be sealed to us; we might learn many things about them, but we’ll miss the point (and I’ve see some very learned people do this with my own eyes and ears). “[T]he things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), and cannot be forced open by human intellect alone.

Such earthly learning in insufficient to understand the things of God. Thus he will perform his “marvelous work” with his own power, in a way that will baffle those accounted wise and learned among men (note the recurrence of the same themes discussed in 2 Nephi 26):

For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.

And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—

Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

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.

What brings Miracles

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

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

I’m really not sure this is true.

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

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

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

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

(D&C 46:8-9)

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

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

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

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

(Ether 12:12, 16)

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

(Mosiah 8:18)

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

(Moroni 7:37)

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

(Galatians 3:5)

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

(2 Nephi 26:13)

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

(D&C 35:8)

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

Fear

Within the last two years I’ve had the occasion to really examine the role of emotion in my life. I don’t like to talk of “journeys” because that tends to sound like hippyish nonsense, but events and certain long-held beliefs in my life have forced me to confront either long-buried emotions or feel whole new ones.

At the same time, right at the beginning of this process, a friend pointed out to me that the scriptural instruction is to “bridle all your passions” (Alma 38:12). While my practice for most of my life has been to attempt to suppress my emotions, to lock them up in some mental concentration camp, a bridle does not kill the horse, or even stop it most of the time: the bridle allows one to steer the horse. So too with our emotions: Christ felt every emotion we do, the difference is that he controlled them rather than being controlled by them. Emotions are part of our immortal existence (both God and pre-mortal spirits feel emotion, e.g. Moses 7:29,34; Job 38:7; Abraham 3:28), and we cannot end them. Rather we must learn to steer them, so that instead of being a weakness our feelings may become a strength.

I’ve touched on this topic before, as well as the example of the Saviour, in considering happiness and unhappiness. But I’ve been giving thought to the role of other emotions too, particularly those we regards as negative, or as having no proper place. And the one that has particularly come to mind is fear.

I doubt that few other emotions have such a bad reputation – perhaps only hate is seen as a more negative emotion. I’ve heard repeatedly the claim that we should never fear, or that faith cannot coexist with fear, or that it casts out fear. There is some scriptural support for some of this: we are taught that we should “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36) and that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) though notice the latter passage doesn’t say faith. Yet the scriptures also teach repeatedly that we should “fear God” (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 2:17 and many others). While I agree that this fear has more the air of reverence and awe than abject terror, we find that the scriptures use the same words for the “negative” and “positive” uses of the term (and this is true in Hebrew, Greek and English). Thus Joseph Smith is told “you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7); the (undesirable) fear of man cannot therefore have an entirely different semantic meaning than the (desirable) fear of God. We are also instructed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, cf. Mormon 9:27), and told that at the very moment that the Brother of Jared was so full of faith that he pierced the veil and saw the finger of the Lord that “he fell with fear” (Ether 3:19).

What can explain this apparent dichotomy? I think we should realise first that just because some, even most, fear is wrong doesn’t mean all fear must be wrong; love, after all, while seen as more positive can also mislead, be distorted or be a snare for sin.

Yet I also think there is also something more powerful at play, something that I think I caught of glimmer of in the following clip from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bruce Wayne/Batman has been imprisoned in a pit, one that no one has climbed out of except for a child. While he recovers his health, his attempts to climb out continue to fail, until the following:

It is the dialogue at 1:04 onwards that gets my attention:

Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

How often do we simply try to deny fear, or seek some sort of world security – “a rope”? Are the scriptural injunctions against fear directing us simply not to feel it? As I have discovered with a range of emotions, trying to deny or suppress our emotions is unlikely to work. Surely such instructions are about not letting our fears (other than our fear of God) control us, not allowing such fears to prevent us acting in faith. For what is the truly faithful position, the real exercise of faith? Is it to act in complete ignorance of the risks we run and the dangers we face? Is it to only act when we have put our own safety net into place? Or is it to depend upon God in the full face of fear, to act in spite of our very real and grounded fears? To know that without Him we face a certain doom, and yet place ourselves in danger because of our trust in Him?

God would have us climb all manner of pits, but it strikes me that in order for us to learn to depend upon him, he would have us climb “without the rope”. I am reminded of the frequent instruction in scripture that when proclaiming the gospel that we should “neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). I’ve repeated that verse to many people, and many of them have something to me along the lines of “well it’s easy for you, but I don’t have your talents, so I have my talk/notes written out so I have something to rely on”. They do not know that I used to be utterly incapable of any kind of public speaking, that I even froze when trying to speak in sacrament and had to be escorted down from the stand. In order to speak, I had to let go of any rope and rely solely on God’s promise and not any notes. And I am still terrified. But God would have us rely on him and not our own papers.

How often does God have us climb without any rope? Why were the Children of Israel led into a dead end, with no escape from Pharaoh except across the Red Sea? Or Elijah directed to challenge the 400 Priests of Baal alone in full view of the people? David not only faced Goliath, but he chose do so without Saul’s armour. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew God could save them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t know that he would until they were thrown in. In each case, these ancient saints faced very real, and in some cases very avoidable, terrors. They were directed so that they all faced the climb, but were left without rope. They all had to face situations where they could feel fear and know that their only hope was the power of God.

I believe that sometimes it is only in such circumstances that God’s power is manifest, even to us. It is only in such circumstances, when we feel our own fears (whether that be to our life, or our livelihood, or some more minor but very real feeling matter) but choose to act regardless, that we can truly recognise our need for God’s power. Faith, I believe, is found not in denying fear, but in feeling it – even when directed placing ourselves in its path – but choosing instead in that moment to willingly risk our fears and depend upon God. It is only when we actually fear that our faith becomes a choice, and having made that choice – even having had faith longer than is possible – we can then see impossible miracles.

On the ‘spiritual’

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

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

 

First things first: Spiritual does not mean allegorical

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Spirit’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Real

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

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

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

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (v.47)