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 15

Just a few short comments today, which seems a bit fitting for the way that this chapter comes almost as a breather after the sermon in chapters 8-13, and then the dramatic events of chapter 14.

Verse 3 caught my attention:

And also Zeezrom lay sick at Sidom, with a burning fever, which was caused by the great tribulations of his mind on account of his wickedness, for he supposed that Alma and Amulek were no more; and he supposed that they had been slain because of his iniquity. And this great sin, and his many other sins, did harrow up his mind until it did become exceedingly sore, having no deliverance; therefore he began to be scorched with a burning heat.

I was really struck by that phrase of “having no deliverance”. Without Christ and his gospel, Zeezrom, and indeed all of us, don’t have any deliverance from our sins. And here we’re not speaking necessarily of the consequences of those sins, but simply the guilt from them. The guilt had become intense enough as to torture Zeezrom, and to physically debilitate him.

Of course, thankfully there is a deliverance: in Zeezrom’s case, Alma and Amulek appeaing, and healing him in the name of Christ, and for us to, in that Christ can deliver us from the guilt of our sins too.

I like verse 16 and 17 for difference reasons:

And it came to pass that Alma and Amulek, Amulek having forsaken all his gold, and silver, and his precious things, which were in the land of Ammonihah, for the word of God, he being rejected by those who were once his friends and also by his father and his kindred;

Therefore, after Alma having established the church at Sidom, seeing a great check, yea, seeing that the people were checked as to the pride of their hearts, and began to humble themselves before God, and began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction

Verse 16 really underlines the message communicated elsewhere, especially in the gospels, as to the price one may have to pay as a disciple of Christ. There’s little Amulek didn’t have to give up (and so no surprise that Alma felt the need to help him in verse 18). But while that’s a heavy burden Amulek had to carry, it’s also one we might be called upon to carry too. The gospel calls for us to be willing to sacrifice everything if need be.

Verse 17 hasn’t really attracted my attention before but it did this time, and I’m not even quite sure why. There’s a lot there, I think, in the notion of pride being checked, and consequent humility. Likewise I think there’s something powerfully urgent in the description of the people “watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction”. These were people who didn’t simply pray for what they wanted or desired, but who recognised the desperate frailty of their existence, and the peril which they faced, and so at all times earnestly sought heaven’s protection.

Alma 10

At this point Amulek begins sharing his experiences, including the visitation of an angel to him, to the shock of the people (particularly those, one presumes, who must have known him per verse 4).

I always find verse 2 interesting, simply because it alludes to an episode that we know little about, and about which I wish we knew more:

I am Amulek; I am the son of Giddonah, who was the son of Ishmael, who was a descendant of Aminadi; and it was that same Aminadi who interpreted the writing which was upon the wall of the temple, which was written by the finger of God.

Aminadi is a descendent of Nephi (v. 3, another indication that Nephi actually had descendants, perhaps through his daughters?), so this event has clearly happened at some point since then, but when is an open matter (my suspicion would be prior to Mosiah leaving the land of Nephi, and so the temple being spoken about is the one built there by Nephi). In any case, this is an episode we have yet to learn about.

In reading today, I found the argument between Amulek and the people interesting:

And now it came to pass that the people were more angry with Amulek, and they cried out, saying: This man doth revile against our laws which are just, and our wise lawyers whom we have selected.

But Amulek stretched forth his hand, and cried the mightier unto them, saying: O ye wicked and perverse generation, why hath Satan got such great hold upon your hearts? Why will ye yield yourselves unto him that he may have power over you, to blind your eyes, that ye will not understand the words which are spoken, according to their truth?

For behold, have I testified against your law? Ye do not understand; ye say that I have spoken against your law; but I have not, but I have spoken in favor of your law, to your condemnation.

And now behold, I say unto you, that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges.

And now it came to pass that when Amulek had spoken these words the people cried out against him, saying: Now we know that this man is a child of the devil, for he hath lied unto us; for he hath spoken against our law. And now he says that he has not spoken against it.

And again, he has reviled against our lawyers, and our judges.

And it came to pass that the lawyers put it into their hearts that they should remember these things against him.

(Alma 10:24-30)

Read the verses prior to 24 and you’ll find Amulek is right: he hasn’t spoken against the law (although he’s said plenty about their lawyers, but he doesn’t deny that). And yet I’m not sure this is a simple case of disingenuousness on the part of the people (except for the lawyers – I think it is fairly obvious why they object and “put it into [the peoples’] hearts that they should remember these things against him”), compared to say the accusations against Abinadi. I get the impression that the people are genuinely incensed, and think his guilt is obvious: “now we know that this man is a child of the devil”. And yet their anger blinds them to the fact that their accusation is false, that he hasn’t said what they think he’s said, and their anger leaves them open to manipulation by the lawyers whom Amulek has accused. As indeed Amulek points out, lamenting in verse 25 that they have “yielded” themselves to Satan, “that he may have power over you, to blind your eyes, that ye will not understand the words which are spoken, according to their truth”.

I’m sure one could draw all sorts of modern political parallels (particularly at the moment!), and I’m fond of applying verse 27 (“the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges”) as widely as possible, particularly in the presence of friends who work in law. But I think it’s also a warning to all of us against rushing to judgment, especially when angry. Anger can be a powerful motivator, but can blind us, distort our judgment, and – like the people of Ammonihah – render us easily manipulable by those with malicious motives. One can see why it is prophesied that in the last days Satan shall likewise: “rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good” (2 Nephi 28:20); anger deceives, and allows the angry to be easily led.

Also sticking out to me today, as another specific example illustrating a general principle, are verses 22-23:

Yea, and I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction; yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword.

But it is by the prayers of the righteous that ye are spared; now therefore, if ye will cast out the righteous from among you then will not the Lord stay his hand; but in his fierce anger he will come out against you; then ye shall be smitten by famine, and by pestilence, and by the sword; and the time is soon at hand except ye repent.

Amulek is obviously speaking of the specific example of the righteous amongst the people of Ammonihah, but we’ll see the same thing in the Book of Mormon again (particularly just before the appearance of Christ). Even when a minority, the presence of the righteous (and their prayers, note) often acts to hold back God’s judgment. It is perhaps one of those ironies that when a people become wicked enough to drive out the righteous amongst them that they are thereby removing that hindrance, and God’s judgment can swiftly follow.

Ponder upon…

I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time.

Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.

(3 Nephi 18:2-3)

I’ve been thinking of this passage lately, in connection with the first vision & so on we’ve been directed to think about for conference.

Here it’s interesting that the Nephites – after hearing the Saviour personally – had to go home, ponder and pray, not just so they would be prepared for his words the following day, but so they could gain a greater understanding of what he’d already taught them.

Similarly, it’s quite clear to me that Joseph Smith’s understanding of what he had been taught in the first vision, and his grasp of its significance, expanded in the light of later perspective. His earliest accounts focused on what it meant for him as an individual, such as the personal forgiveness of his sins (there’s a trace of this in D&C 20:5). His comprehension, and what he learned from that initial experience, expanded with time, after many more revelations, trials, and the experiences he had.

This is a pattern that can be seen elsewhere too: Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean, and the above-mentioned Nephites. Even an experience like hearing the Saviour face to face, as powerful a teaching experience as that surely was, required later reflection, pondering, prayer and surely more revelation to unfold into a full (or fuller) understanding of what that initial experience could teach them. And perhaps there’s a general principle here for us, as we think upon the first vision and prepare for General conference.

Enos

I’ve not added any post recently as I’ve been quite ill, and have more to come. I thought, however, upon reading Enos this morning and finding it wasn’t on my list that I’d add a few observations upon reading it today. I’m partly cheating, as the last one will simply be an excerpt from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, but that’s not simply laziness or fatigue, it’s the fact that I can’t help but think of that point when I read this chapter now. But more on that later.

I was struck, as I always am, by Enos 4:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

It’s not the praying all night and day that quite gets my attention, but rather the desire implicit in that “and my soul hungered”. I can’t take any credit for this observation (the Church film produced for Seminary makes much the same point), but the crux of Enos’ experience was how badly he wanted something, and what he was prepared to do to get it.

And that strikes me as something that’s true for all of us, particularly when it comes to matters of the Spirit. We can’t force the Spirit, but much of our experience depends on the strength of our desires. If we want to know if something is true, but only out of mild curiosity, we can’t expect the heavens to open up to us. As James says about those that waver in seeking wisdom from God: “let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7).

Why did I particularly think on this verse today? I was thinking of Ward Conference several weeks back, when the question was posed (I can’t remember if by one of the speakers outright, or by myself in my notes in response to something they said): are you closer to Christ than you were a year ago? And I don’t think I could honestly answer yes. Not that I’ve completely wandered off the reservation or anything, but closer? I’m not sure that’s true. But I think it should be, and it’s something I want to be different. In which case, how badly do I want that, and what am I prepared to do?

I likewise had my attention caught on verse 23, a verse that probably gets a lot less attention:

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

I guess I found two things interesting about this. One is the fact that what needs to be said to people, and what needs to be stressed, depends greatly on where someone is. Plenty of times people need to be reminded of the love of God. These people were in a different place, and needed to be reminded of the judgment of God. I’m sure what we need to hear varies across our life too. But I was also struck about the elements singled out here: reminding people of death, of eternity, and the judgment and power of God. Unwittingly, these are the very elements I’ve been stressing in something I’m working on (whether that is true in that work’s final form remains very much to be seen).

And now to the final point, which genuinely crossed my mind while reading once again, but which I have better described elsewhere:

However, the Book of Mormon adopts an unusual approach to time not just in how it speaks of future events, but also in how it views cause and effect. Thus Enos, seeking forgiveness of sins some four centuries before the birth of Christ according to the narrative, is told by revelation when he asks how he is forgiven:

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:8)

Thus it is through Christ that Enos is forgiven, but in a particularly retro-causal turn the answer he receives emphasises that the cause of his forgiveness lies far into the future. God himself is not subject to time, for ‘all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men’ (Alma 40:8). Because God is not subject to time, the Book of Mormon sees no logical obstacles to Lehi being able to quote from future scripture, or God informing human beings of future events:

And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming? (Alma 39:17-19)

Or as described in Jacob 4 itself:

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? (Jacob 4:12)

It is upon this basis that the book defends its ‘pre-Christian Christianity’: on the grounds that God is able to reveal Christ, his atonement and the ‘plan of redemption’ at any time of his choosing. This includes phrases otherwise unique to the New Testament, such as Lehi’s quotation of John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8, or (for an example especially pertinent to Jacob 5) the quotation of Matthew 3:10 in Alma 5:52, a quotation attributed to what ‘the spirit saith’. The Book of Mormon’s use of ‘plain terms’ is attributed to the result of revelation from a God who is not subject to time and whose use of the ‘same words’ is described as an intentional effort:

The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, p. 264-265

I always like a bit of retrocausality. This one – that Christ’s atonement was so perfect and infinite that its effects could precede its cause, and bring forgiveness to anyone, regardless of where they were in time – is perhaps the most important.

2020 Edit:

My attention was caught by a thread picked up in the very first verse:

Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it

I was struck by reading this that Enos’ knowledge of the righteousness of his father rests on the fact that he taught him, including about the gospel.

As the same time, however, the gospel simply being taught is only one half of the picture. Enos still had to choose to respond to those teachings, and he did so in full at some distance from those teaching experiences. It was up to Enos to have that “wrestle… before God”, and no one else could do it for him, regardless of how effectively he was taught. I believe this is true of everyone who accepts the gospel; sure, not everyone does it as such a singular, all-in-one, experience as Enos does. For many people it might be multiple steps, or a path carved out over time. But the choice to respond to the message of the gospel must be taken by those receiving it. In one sense it’s comforting: for those called to teach the gospel, that’s all they’re called to do: to teach it, not to ensure that those listening accept it. But on the other hand, that’s partly because they cannot ensure that their audience responds; whether someone responds to the message of the gospel with faith and repentance is not up to the teacher, but to the listener, and no one can bind or force their choice, and indeed they may end up responding some time after receiving the message. All someone teaching the gospel can do is present the message they are called to do with faith and with the spirit, and hope that the listeners will respond. Whether it will bear fruit or not is something that may not be known for some time, and one cannot measure success in sharing the gospel by how many people immediately respond.

An example of that occurs later in the chapter, where Enos records the reactions of the Lamanites to his people’s efforts to share the gospel:

For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.

(Enos 1:14)

And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness…

(Enos 1:20)

Enos’ and his people’s efforts were without success. In the chapter immediately preceding, Jacob likewise records a similar result:

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually.

(Jacob 7:24)

I remember some years ago that the contrast with the later (“successful”) missions of the Sons of Mosiah really dawned on me. What struck me at the time – and ties in with what stuck out to me today – is that the difference between what Jacob and Enos got, and what the Sons of Mosiah got, wasn’t down to the faithfulness or diligence or obedience of those giving the message. Jacob, after all, records some of his people having so much faith that they have power over the elements! The difference wasn’t in the righteousness or diligence of those teaching; there were other factors. When the Sons of Mosiah taught, there were people prepared to hear the message. Perhaps they were prepared to do so with the likes of Abish and her father in their midst. Perhaps other things made a difference too. The difference between the two experiences wasn’t down to any difference in the diligence of the teacher, but in the willingness of the listeners to respond and repent, and perhaps too in the will of God and his timing. Only God can know and account for both those factors. By the standards of the only measuring rod available to us mortals, all we can measure is diligence and faithfulness in sharing the message, and by that account both Jacob and Enos were as “successful” as the Sons of Mosiah.

Bouncing back a bit in the chapter, I was also struck by this statement of Enos:

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

(Enos 1:5-6)

Why was Enos’ guilt “swept away”. Because he knew God could not lie, and so believed him when God told him he had been forgiven. As I’ve written before, the great statement of faith that gave the brother of Jared admittance into the presence of God was “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12, my emphasis). There’s a great power of faith in knowing that God always speaks the truth and so choosing to trust what he tells us (whatever that assurance may be about). I wonder if many of us fall short of experiencing that power. If Enos had not taken God at his word, would he have had such a wonderful feeling, or would he still have been troubled (needlessly, since he was forgiven)? Could such feelings have caused him further difficulties? Are there assurances God has given us that have yet to have their full power in our heart because we have not yet trusted them as sweepingly as Enos or the brother of Jared did?

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”.

2 Nephi 32

So my reading of the Book of Mormon has slowed down since I started reading it in the Deseret Alphabet, but I hadn’t realised how much further back these posts had gotten from from my personal reading, so there’s plenty of backlog.

When reading this chapter personally, I guess was in part struck by the “why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?” (v.1). There’s a lot I’ve been wondering about personally; is this “because ye ask not, neither do ye knock” (v.4)? To what extent do the words “for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be” (v.7) apply to me?

There is one verse that always sticks out when I read this chapter:

And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.

(2 Nephi 32:8)

I remember a conversation I had with a friend who I cared about very much, who had stopped praying because they felt that God didn’t want to hear from them, that they were unworthy of God’s attention, that they didn’t want to waste God’s time, and that if the devil was working upon them than he wouldn’t be working on someone else. I could understand (perhaps better than they realised) some of the emotions that might lie behind such feelings, but on the other hand that sentiment seemed to underestimate both God’s and the devil’s resources. And they did know better than that, something I tried (and believe I succeeded) to remind them of. I know those sorts of feelings hang around, and the devil lies to prey upon such feelings, but I hope they are still praying and rejecting such lies that teach them not to pray.

But I have often wondered how this verse applies to me. I have never quite felt as my friend did, since – while I have often felt unworthy before God – I’ve never really felt I can escape him, nor really felt that I am occupying too much time of an infinite and eternal being who isn’t bound by mortal time scales. But there have been times in my life when prayer became more perfunctory and less efficacious; when it became more of a habit and less me actually trying to speak to my God.

And I think this may be covered by this verse too. If the adversary can’t actually stop us praying, I’m sure he’ll do all he can to make our prayers less effective and real. In my experience so many things can happen to do that: putting prayer off to the last minute, not making the space (mentally, spiritually or physically) to pray, treating prayer as a repetitive shopping list (we’re commanded to pray for things we need, but that’s not all prayer should be), probably a whole bunch of small things I barely notice.

I guess the good thing is that in my experience many of these things are easy to fix too. Just like – for all the emotional turmoil they were suffering – all my friend needed to do about prayer was to actually pray, I’ve found that small things can help rectify it: making time to pray, being open and honest about my feelings in my prayers, sometimes simply seeking an appropriate physical space to pray (Joseph needed the sacred grove, after all). Sometimes it can simply be following that impulse to get on my knees right now, rather than listen to the little voice saying it can wait a few minutes. With at least one message at general conference being about the importance of “worshipful prayer”, I guess the importance of this verse – and which voice we choose to listen to – remains as important today as it did thousands of years ago.

2020 edit:

Verses 1, 4 and 5 really stood out to me today:

And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way. But, behold, why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?

Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.

For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

I guess it can be a perennial question, “what shall we do?”, in a number of contexts. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s very clear, but there’s sometimes other seasons where it’s not quite so clear what we should be doing right now. One resources, also mentioned in this chapter, are “the words of Christ” (v. 3), but there is also the privilege of personal revelation. One thing I think this verse points out is that there is almost a duty to seek such revelation: it’s not only something that we (and not just others) can receive, it’s something we should be seeking out. It is that revelation that can tell us personally what we should do.

Now that doesn’t necessarily come when we want it: God sometimes answers in his own due time for his own reasons, and sometimes we need to place ourselves in the right place – physically, emotionally, spiritually and otherwise – to obtain such revelation (much as discussed for the closely linked topic of prayer, above). But it is personal revelation, and sometimes it is only personal revelation, that can give us the guidance and directions we seek.

1 Nephi 7

Several parts of this chapter caught my attention today, setting aside the amusing fact that Laman and Lemuel seemed to have far fewer problems with this trip back to Jerusalem, or more seriously the considerable faith Ishmael must have had to believe these ragamuffins from the desert and to take his entire family out into the wilderness with them.

Anyhoo, two bits in particular:

Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.

1 Nephi 7:12

I feel there’s so much in just this short verse – not just the Lord’s capacity to do anything for us (though ‘according to his will’), but the crucial connection that we somehow seem to miss despite the obvious connection of the words between having faith and being faithful. We show and exercise our faith in God by being loyal to him.

But it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound.

And it came to pass that when I had said these words, behold, the bands were loosed from off my hands and feet, and I stood before my brethren, and I spake unto them again.

1 Nephi 7:17-18

Deliverance can be a funny thing. Sometimes we try to save ourselves by our own efforts, and that often fails. Sometimes God gives us the power to do things beyond our own capacity, and we then do them, much as Nephi prays for here when he asks for the strength to burst his bonds. But in this case, God didn’t actually give him what he asked for: he went one better and freed Nephi by loosing the bands himself. Sometimes God has a better deliverance for us, and sometimes He will simply deliver us by His own power.

2020 Edit:

It is amusing to think about how much less Laman and Lemuel objected to this trip compared to that to fetch the plates, so much so that the only trouble we hear off occurs on the way back. What I wonder about – and I do not have a comprehensive answer for – is why all these trips were necessary in the first place. If it were all down to a human being, one could perhaps attribute this to an element of humans suddenly realising what they needed for a long trip to establish a colony. But Lehi has operated under divine direction for each of the three trips: He & his family leaving Jerusalem initially; the brothers returning for the plates; and the brothers returning for Ishmael and his family. The Lord surely could have inspired Lehi to take the plates & Ishmael & family with them the first time. But he didn’t. There’s surely some reason for that, probably more than one. Certainly retrieving the plates proved to be both a test and an educational opportunity for Nephi. I wonder what else could be a factor?

I mentioned it in writing the original post, but Ishmael’s faith stood out to me again, although we hear little of it here except by implication, and never really hear much about him:

And it came to pass that we went up unto the house of Ishmael, and we did gain favor in the sight of Ishmael, insomuch that we did speak unto him the words of the Lord.

And it came to pass that the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father.

(1 Nephi 7:4-5)

We know that leaving Jerusalem was tough for Lehi’s family: Laman and Lemuel are never reconciled to it (as can be seen in this very chapter), Sariah expressed concerns in 1 Nephi 5, while Nephi had to seek reassurance in prayer in 1 Nephi 2. Likewise we’ll find that much of Ishmael’s family will respond similarly. So again, it’s quite striking that Ishmael and his household respond and leave, even through all they can hear is what is relayed to them second-hand by the brothers, as opposed to Lehi (the one receiving “the words of the Lord”) directly. Of course, this encapsulates the principle contained in Doctrine & Covenants 1:38:

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

We sometimes take that verse as referring to prophets and apostles as “my servants”, but reading Section 1 in full makes clear that it is more expansive than that: the Lord’s servants are all of those he’s commissioned to relay his words. For those hearing the gospel for the first time, for instance, the “voice of my servants” of this verse includes that of the missionaries teaching them. And Ishmael must have understood that it included the four brothers standing in front of him at that moment.

On the way back, of course, Laman and Lemuel and parts of Ishmael’s household decide that perhaps they don’t want to go anyway. Nephi tries to remonstrate with them, and so they decide to tie him up to leave him to die. What’s interesting here is that they had another option aside from the murder attempt or what they did do (abandon said attempt, repent, and continue on), that Nephi even points out to them in verse 15:

Now behold, I say unto you that if ye will return unto Jerusalem ye shall also perish with them. And now, if ye have choice, go up to the land, and remember the words which I speak unto you, that if ye go ye will also perish; for thus the Spirit of the Lord constraineth me that I should speak.

They reject Nephi’s words, but they could have just left then. If they’d simply left Nephi, Ishmael and the others to continue on, there’s little Nephi could have done to stop them, and they could have continue to live at Jerusalem (at least until the Babylonians flattened the place in 587-586 BC, but they didn’t believe Lehi about that). But instead they get so angry at Nephi that they switch to the murder attempt, and that seems to constrain their options down to two: 1) trying to kill him or 2) repenting of that and continuing on into the wilderness. Rejecting Nephi’s words would at first appear to leave them with more options, but instead the act of rejection and the anger involved appear to involve them with less, so that not only can’t they leave Nephi alone,  but they seem unable to take the simple option they claimed to want in the first place. So it is with us: rejecting prophetic counsel may appear to offer more freedom, at least until the Babylonian-like consequences show up. But in practice, I’ve seen people get so angry and obsessive in their apostasy that they then cannot mentally leave alone whatever they are angry at, and so they don’t end up with more agency, they end up with less.