Helaman 14

Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.

Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:

Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.

The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:

And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

(Helaman 14:2)

And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

(Helaman 14:13)

This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.

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1 Nephi 16

And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren.

Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.

And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish.

1 Nephi 16:37-39

It’s funny Laman takes umbrage that Nephi has said that angels have ministered to him: after all, an angel appeared to Laman and Lemuel too. While undoubtedly he rationalises this away as “cunning arts”, his recollection of that incident, and so much else of what has happened, appears damaged.

The same seems very often true for our own spiritual experiences. They can be extremely vivid and concrete when we’re having them, but our memories are imperfect and slippery things, and can make real things seem unreal from a distance. I’m sure the adversary plays on that too, as does the course we choose to take (as in Laman’s case). In part I think this is why we’re encouraged to write them down, as when we turn and reread them it can sharpen our recollection, and I likewise think it is no accident that both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon frequently exhort us to remember.

Thankfully the Lord is merciful, and even when we forget he aims to help us to remember. The problem Laman and Lemuel had is that they kept choosing to forget such experiences.

Minor Note:

Incidentally, on steel bows (which to modern ears sounds quite strange),  I found one article here talking about historical steel bows in India here, and an article about a rather interesting working example in North America with a puzzling past here.

On Sustaining the Brethren

The brief discussion here (and the linked ‘letter’) reminded me of several conversations I’ve had in the last few months, in the wake of things like the amendments to the Church handbook of instructions. In particular I’ve been asked, by a friend who has had difficulties reconciling themselves with the policy, whether given certain conditions I’d still put up my hand and sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

To which the answer would be yes. But any such question, I believe, can help us to understand what we’re truly doing.

When we’re asked to sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators, we’re not being asked if they’re nice guys. We’re not being asked whether we agree with their talks or their actions. We hypothetically might have disagreements about particular policies or issues (and hopefully we should recognise that while we do not claim infallibility for anyone, that includes ourselves!). But really, that’s not what we’re being asked about. I happen to think C.S. Lewis got an awful lot of things right, but I’m not raising my hand to sustain him as prophet, seer and revelator.

What that question is asking is whether we accept that God has called them to their positions, that they hold His authority in His Church, and that they are entitled and able to receive revelation from God to guide His Church. And that’s something we can only really come to know from God through supernatural experiences of our own.

As it happens I’ve had those experiences. I’ve felt, heard and seen marvellous things, and have continued to experience and see God’s power, including through His priesthood and His Church. I don’t say all this to boast, because I don’t really have much to boast of; I am just fortunate that God is merciful. But having had them, I need to remember them and not ignore them; having had them and the big questions answered, any other issues really just become a matter of details.

So for anyone else who is wondering whether they should sustain the brethren, I really think its important to ask the key questions: not upon what they may think or feel about any particular policy, but on whether they believe and/or know that this is the Lord’s church and that God has called those men as prophets within it. If they’re not sure at present, I’d encourage them to work from what they do know God has revealed to them and to remember what experiences they’ve had. If they’ve written them down at all, reread them. If they haven’t had those experiences yet, then they should seek for them. If they have, I’d encourage them to seek new such experiences from him, because the gospel teaches not that we should work things out for ourselves (how can we?), but that each of us as individuals may approach and get answers from He who is the source of all truth. And what we’re putting our hand up to is really what we believe and/or know He thinks.

“Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us?”

I came across the following passage today which made me think:

Therefore, as Aaron entered into one of their synagogues to preach unto the people, and as he was speaking unto them, behold there arose an Amalekite and began to contend with him, saying: What is that thou hast testified? Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us? Behold are not this people as good as thy people?
(Alma 21:5)

The interesting and the ironic thing about the challenge at the end is that the time Aaron saw an angel (and which he is doubtless describing) was when he, his brothers and Alma the Younger were intercepted by an angel as they sought “to destroy the church” (Mosiah 27:10-19). Neither Aaron nor his brothers nor Alma could be described as a good person at that time, and so the angel’s appearance had nothing to do with their personal righteousness.

But it does make me wonder what made the difference – why did an angel appear to them but not the people in this verse. Perhaps God’s knowledge of how they would react played a role? Or perhaps it was the faith and likely prayers of their fathers? And how many spiritual blessings come into our own life undeserved by any goodness on our part, but because of the faith and devotion of others, or God’s extending to us unexpected opportunities?

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.