To God I cried with mournful voice,
I sought his gracious ear,
In the sad day when troubles rose,
And filled the night with fear.
Sad were my days, and dark my nights,
My soul refused relief;
I thought on God the just and wise,
But thoughts increased my grief.
Still I complained, and still oppressed,
My heart began to break;
My God, thy wrath forbade my rest,
And kept my eyes awake.
My overwhelming sorrows grew,
Till I could speak no more;
Then I within myself withdrew,
And called thy judgments o’er.
I called back years and ancient times
When I beheld thy face;
My spirit searched for secret crimes
That might withhold thy grace.
I called thy mercies to my mind
Which I enjoyed before;
And will the Lord no more be kind?
His face appear no more?
Will he for ever cast me off?
His promise ever fail?
Has he forgot his tender love?
Shall anger still prevail?
But I forbid this hopeless thought;
This dark, despairing frame,
Rememb’ring what thy hand hath wrought;
Thy hand is still the same.
I’ll think again of all thy ways,
And talk thy wonders o’er;
Thy wonders of recovering grace,
When flesh could hope no more.
Grace dwells with justice on the throne;
And men that love thy word
Have in thy sanctuary known
The counsels of the Lord.
But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.
O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever.
This follows up from Jacob 2, where Jacob faced the dilemma that because of the need to condemn particular sins his words could not offer the comfort others needed. What I like about these verses is that, although Jacob himself cannot offer consolation, there are other sources of comfort to be had, particularly though looking to God, prayer and receiving the word of God.
It is the last that particularly has my attention at the moment. Since Stake Conference, and prompted by certain inspired remarks there – I’ve been look at the scriptures with the aim of seeking guidance on the topic of self-hatred. As I’ve mentioned when discussing the topic before, it’s not a topic that the scriptures appear to address all that explicitly. But as I’ve also mentioned before (in reference to Jacob no less) the scriptures can address issues in far less direct and more subtle ways. The scriptures are the word of God, an inexhaustible well of inspiration, which we are invited to “liken” them unto ourselves and through which we can receive personal guidance and revelation.
It has been a particularly enlightening experience looking at the scriptures through the lens of my current topic. I’ve long believed that the scriptures can offer guidance on a range of topics, and have experienced personal revelation through them, I just hadn’t thought to look at the scriptures while focusing on these emotional challenges. But I believe it is working. Of course this is also a very personal experience: what I see or need to see, may not be what other people need to see. Perhaps this is why the scriptures don’t address certain topics explicitly, and another reason why Jacob could point people to the “pleasing word of God” but not offer such comfort personally. Each of us is an individual, with our own issues and challenges, and – while there are fixed eternal truths – for our own different issues we need individual guidance to resolve them. But there is a common path by which we can receive that guidance, that through prayer and contemplation of the word of God we can each receive the individual comfort and counsel we need. But we cannot rely on others to walk that path for us: each of us personally must look towards God, pray to him and receive his “pleasing word”.
I’ve wondered whether to write this. I think Western society tends to err on the side of too much self-disclosure, and personally I’m inclined to be quite happy when people tell me they can’t tell what I’m thinking. But some recent events (not involving me) have suggested maybe the topic should be discussed, and it feels like the right thing to do. Perhaps I am selfishly seeking for people to understand me better, although I am not writing this as a cry for help (things aren’t too bad at present). Or perhaps this might help some other people: I’ve had these feelings for as long as I can remember, but it is only comparatively recently that I became aware of these issues. Others may be in the same position.
I wrestle with self-hatred. I’ve alluded to this before. It waxes and wanes, and at times can be almost dormant, although it hasn’t been the last couple of years, and it is always there deep down. When dormant, it is little more than a spike in my mind, an occasional inner voice or reflex. At its worst, however, it burns like fire in my veins, so that it is almost – or rather even – physically painful. When it gets inflamed (and a variety of things have been able to do that over the years) it can be debilitating. Even something as simple as looking in the mirror can be a difficult experience, as sometimes I want to punch the person looking back at me (seeing video footage of myself, even at the best of times, has almost triggered nervous breakdowns). At the worst of times, it includes very vivid and detailed suicidal thoughts. These thoughts are not just driven by feelings of despair, though they can be very present, but often also feelings of rage and anger towards myself. I hasten to add, however, that while there have been times in the past when these feelings have come close to overwhelming me that I have not made any attempts, and never plan on doing so. But an accurate description of this phenomenon also includes those thoughts and feelings too.
As mentioned, I’ve wrestled with these feelings of self-hatred for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t aware that that is what I was feeling for many years, even though the worst of it (including the suicidal impulse) has been a recurring experience for over two decades. I’m not sure how I never quite twigged that I hated myself earlier in life: I guess that that for some reason the outbursts of negative feeling and so on all seemed a normal reaction to who I am (and particularly any feelings of personal failure I was experiencing), even when that came out vocally as “I hate me”. Over time, however, and particularly in recent years, I have been able to gain a better understanding of what I’ve been experiencing and some of the things that fuel it. I’ve also gained a better understanding of how it in turn has affected or affects other areas of my life. Awareness really only came from working on other issues and realising something else lay behind it.
There seem to be three principle nexuses (nexii?) for the manifestation of these feelings. The first is a sense of failure. I frequently feel that I have failed God, let down people I care about, or just been a failure in general terms. Sometimes this feeling is a reaction to a specific “failure” (such as not finishing my PhD thesis yet – or the fact that I’m still a “student”), other times it is simply a more pervasive sense. I recognise that at times I have distinctly unrealistic standards here: I recall being asked once (in response to my declaration that I felt I had achieved “nothing”) who I was comparing myself to, and I half-jokingly replied that at my age Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Yet to be honest any comparisons with others tend to be on far simpler grounds of family and job, and I really often just feel that I have accomplished nothing, without any comparisons except to what I feel I could or should have done.
The second nexus is a feeling of being inherently unlovable, about which there’s a whole bunch of insecurities that I will not go into. Perhaps simply because I don’t like me, I don’t understand why anyone else would either. I often feel difficult being in the company of other people (something I can find difficult anyway because of other factors) because I feel they are only putting up with my presence out of charity or kindness, and I don’t want to burden people with my presence (perhaps it doesn’t help that I can’t read body language, though part of me fears that’d simply underline the truth). The emotion of “feeling loved” – whether by humans or by God – does not appear to come to me easily: in fact a few years ago I wondered if I could feel that at all. At that time I discovered I could, and I’ve had a handful of such experiences in my life (a couple involving people, a couple involving God). It can be hard to hold onto memories of such fleeting experiences though. Ultimately I often simply feel that no one could or sometimes even should love me, and sometimes that feeling extends to God himself. And then part of me feels weak for even wanting that love.
A third nexus which I have come to see kicks in occasionally is anger. In the last couple of years I have become aware of a great store of inner anger (and I’m aware of some of the roots of that, which I won’t go into). Over time, I seem to have established various mental banks and earthworks to lock up this anger and prevent that erupting over people as it used to do from time to time. Yet it hasn’t gone away, and it is still there. Part of me is ashamed of that, and considers it another failure. Part of me is perhaps sensitive to things like would-be fascists in our society, because I have a far greater monster locked up inside of me, who sometimes just wants to see the entire world burn. It’s partly why I can’t help but dismiss it when some other kindly people tell me I’m a good man, because I know I’m not. For the most part, however, the reaction seems to be that the anger gets reflected back into myself. I’ve mentally observed this happening as a reflex when I have gotten angry at other people: feelings of anger (because of what is stored up, vastly disproportionate to any supposed offence) deflecting off those inward mental walls and then directing themselves at the only remaining target. At other times, it simply adds extra venom to my feelings of failure or unlovableness,
Of course, with all these feelings, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a believer in the gospel of Christ. People might wonder how that can be the case: how can I claim to believe something which teaches of a loving God, yet still experience these sorts of feelings?
On one level, it is very simple. Due to the spiritual experiences I have had, I know that God is very real, I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know He revealed Himself to His prophets. They simply are true, regardless of what I feel about things.
On the other hand, it does make certain things a struggle. There have been a few occasions in my life, as mentioned, that I have felt the love of God as a supernal experience. And I try to hold onto those experiences. Sometimes I find I can remember an event so clearly I can put myself right back into it. At other times, they can feel like pale reflections, where I’m not quite sure about the emotions involved. But while I do know there is a God, and I know he is perfect, just and merciful, and know he loves all mankind, I find it a struggle to believe he loves me. I can know of it intellectually, because of what I know about him and because of memories of the experiences I’ve had, but sometimes its hard to feel it. It’s slightly easier when I simply include myself in all mankind, but when talking about any kind of love or compassion personally it gets more difficult. But on the other hand, sometimes it feels like that doesn’t matter. One should obey God because he is right, because he is perfectly good and so whatever he wills is good. And I can trust in that, and follow that, and so on one level the issue of whether God loves me or not seems almost unimportant. I should follow him anyway, and I’ve tried to.
And in certain situations, that’s kept me alive. On a few occasions the only thing keeping me from an exceptionally unwise act has been the knowledge that suicide is wrong, and my body is not mine to dispose of, and there’s covenants involved. Were I of a clearer mind at those moments, I could doubtless also reflect that if escape is any motivation, the afterlife doesn’t really provide it. Clear thinking tends to be difficult at those times though.
Yet in other things this continues to be a struggle, and one that does not appear to be likely to disappear any time soon. I know – I absolutely know – that the feelings I experience are not ones that the gospel is trying to inculcate, and that there are doubtless many inaccuracies in my feelings and how I perceive the world. I want to overcome that. Yet I’m not always sure where those inaccuracies are, and while I’ve gained a better understanding of what I feel and where some of it comes from, it has yet to allow me to dispose of these feelings. Sometimes what some people suggest doesn’t seem any more truthful (especially when explicitly justified on “don’t ask if its true, ask whether it is helpful”). I don’t find myself convinced by modern gospels of self-esteem, which likewise don’t seem to tally with the scriptures either. The scriptures themselves, however, don’t seem to explicitly address this issue all that often, which is perhaps why I’m interested in things like Jacob’s experiences. But perhaps they’re not meant to be addressed, but endured. I’ve had these feelings before, and I know I’ll feel them again, and perhaps with Christ’s help I can persevere through them yet again. I’m not entirely sure whether this is at all relevant to my situation, but I find my mind thinking of the words of Paul (who elsewhere wrote of himself as “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle”, 1 Corinthians 15:9):
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
I know the way I feel is mistaken, somewhere along the line, and I want to feel differently from the way I do. Yet I do believe in God (which is to say, I know he’s there and I trust him), and in Christ’s grace. If there is to be any solution to this, either in this life or merely persevering through it in this life, I know his grace is sufficient, and to be found in his strength, not any I can cobble up myself. Perhaps there is something yet more I can learn from my weakness, or perhaps there’s simply the humility of knowing that I depend on his strength to go on. I honestly don’t really know, but I know of God’s power, and I know there’s even times that’s been able to work through me, as flawed a vessel as I am. I’m not able to “glory in my infirmities” (Paul is a better man than I). But perhaps I can simply hold on.
When I see a lot of academic attempts at looking at the Scriptures, including a lot of recent LDS attempts, I am reminded of the difference between interesting and important. Some stuff doesn’t even reach the level of interesting, of course, but some stuff does and I like thinking about it – things like chronology and so on.
But that isn’t really the point of the scriptures, as much fun as those things can be. Likewise things like historical issues can largely fall into this area. Knowing people existed and so their testimonies are real is important of course – otherwise the additional witness of Christ as presented by those of 3 Nephi 11:15 or Moroni’s own witness in Ether 12:39 is meaningless. But the exact cultural and geographical context, and things like that isn’t the important thing. What is important is that the scriptures are the word of God, containing revelation from him, that is meant to both kindle faith and change our lives. If we read or study the scriptures and come across nothing that affects our own lives, we have wasted our time.
There’s lots of ways we can encourage that, but one I’ve been reminded of lately is captured by the statement of Brigham Young that “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so…” (DBY, 128). I feel that one thing we can do is to find ourselves in the scriptures, by studying and then learning from the examples, both good and bad, we find within. When I read the lives of these individuals, I often find myself seeing things I can learn – examples to emulate, to beware and sometimes to endure. One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is what I learn from the people in it, and how honest the book is about human predicaments. The Book of Mormon is in some ways quite different from the Old Testament, and tends to be a lot less subtle about conveying its major points, but it can also be very sophisticated, much more than is recognised, about what it is saying about the people within it.
So I turn to the example provoking this post – namely Jacob, the brother of Nephi. He is such a different person in his voice from Nephi that I’m surprised not to see more comments on it. Nephi, while he does have his burdens (see 2 Nephi 4:15-35), carries in himself in a quite bombastic, enthusiastic and determined way, to the extent that I have often joked that I don’t know I would have liked him if I had known him. Jacob however comes across as a very different individual.
Jacob, for one thing, is very sensitive to the feelings of those to whom he preaches. While Nephi, faced with his brothers comments, meets them with the truthful but blunt ‘the guilty taketh the truth to be hard’ (1 Nephi 15:2), Jacob is almost solicitous in his comment that “…behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up souls if you were pure?’ (2 Nephi 9:47). Jacob’s sensitivity extends to concern that his necessary words may hurt the feelings of those of his audience who are the victims, rather than the commissioners of sin:
…it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children… it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea the word which healeth the wounded soul. Wherefore it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained… to admonish you according your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of healing and consoling their wounds; and those who have been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2:7-10)
There is no other passage in the Book of Mormon quite like this.
However, what I find most striking about Jacob is what I see as his lack of self-assurance. Contrast his comments to Sherem with Alma’s confrontation with Korihor. Alma is typically robust: ‘This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.’ (Alma 30:49). Jacob however is keen to emphasise that the decision is not in his hands: ‘Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.’ (Jacob 7:14).
Yet perhaps the clearest expression of this comes in 2 Nephi 9, where Jacob is talking of the Final Judgement:
Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness. (2 Nephi 9:14)
Perhaps unnoticed here amid the terror of the concept of a perfect memory is that Jacob includes himself (‘we’ and ‘our’) amongst the wicked. Yet there is nothing we know that would agree with that assessment – quite the opposite when one factors not only his teachings but his revelations and encounters with angels (2 Nephi 10:3, Jacob 4:6). Yet it seems he mentally cannot bring himself to class himself amongst the righteous. When one adds his closing words, the impression is of a man that – despite his undoubted righteousness – did not always feel happy and may well have felt quite insecure about himself:
…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7:26)
All this is built to some degree on some slender threads, but it does speak to a sometimes common dilemma. Jacob’s self perception appears to have been at odds with his actual standing as an individual and with God. And for some of us that can be an issue – that however much we know of God’s will, and however much we might actually be serving at that time, we still feel deeply inadequate: unsure of our standing before God or those we care about, and all too conscious of at least some of our mortal frailties, and perhaps deeply afraid that people will finally see us the way we see ourselves, or worse that we have whole other faults we’re completely unaware of but that everyone else really is. And while God is certainly capable of piercing those feelings – and on occasion does – many of the well-meaning suggestions people have for dealing with such feelings fall short.
If my reading is right, Jacob – like others – may have struggled with such feelings all his life. Yet what his example can teach us is that despite what he may have felt, he served courageously anyway. And despite what he may have felt, we know differently, and can be sure that God feels differently, and perhaps we can hope that he now knows differently, and knows as he is known (1 Corinthians 13:12). And for those of us who do struggle with such feelings, perhaps we can remember that some of God’s noblest children may have felt the same, yet were wrong. That our self perception is flawed, that despite our inadequacies and fears we can serve, and serve well, and that in the final accounting before God may see things quite differently, and far more kindly, than we can imagine.
Edit: Embarassing mind blip removed!