But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.
I first made a draft of this post over six months ago. However, I ran across it much more recently and, in view of events I’ve experienced lately, its topic seems particularly appropriate.
It first came to mind when I was thinking of the prophet Mormon. This is a figure I’ve long admired in scripture, particularly for his perseverance in remaining faithful and continuing to stand for what is right, despite his peoples’ failure to repent and even while he fought to defend a people that he knew were doomed to lose and who deserved to lose. This perseverance is perhaps best captured in Moroni 9:6, where despite the atrocities that Mormon goes on to recount, he tells his son:
And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.
Now this is admirable, but as I was thinking about him, his trials and the course of his life, I realised that by certain worldly standards, Mormon would be regarded as a failure. Despite his talents as a military commander, he lost in perhaps the most complete way a general can lose: his people were annihilated. His people not only did not repent at his teaching, but they went past the point of no return and incurred divine wrath. And he spent a considerable portion of his life writing a book that few if any (perhaps only his son Moroni) read, not only in his lifetime but for many centuries afterwards.
By worldly standards it would be easy to judge him a failure. And yet now his work has been read and has influenced millions. The book he composed inaugurated the restoration of the Gospel and the dispensation of the fullness of times. His work is to be both a sign that God will fulfill his prophecies, and one of the instruments God is and will use in bringing many souls to Christ, in restoring Israel, and in preparing those who will be prepared for the second coming of our Lord and Saviour. Considering all this, can his work be judged a failure? μη γενοιτο!
His career is a demonstration that many of the values by which we measure life and success are wrong. It is, moreover, far from the only or even most important scriptural example. As Paul speaks concerning Christ and his crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:22-25):
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Crucifixion was not only an exceptionally painful execution method, but it was also considered a shameful one, for the basest of criminals. For those who expected the Messiah to appear as a conquering hero, this was indeed a stumbling block (σκανδαλον – from whence is derived the term “the scandal of the Cross”), while it appeared nonsensical to others. Yet God chose this means – this apparent defeat in worldly terms – to work the most complete and important victory of all time: the victory over sin and death. And as Paul goes on to state, this is a pattern that God intends to use again and again (1 Corinthians 1:27):
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
God shows his power by working through those that the world sees as weak and simple, and triumphs in circumstances that the world sees as failure.
I don’t know if my own personal “failure”, in regards to my viva, will quite come under same category as those above. I hope, however, my work can be of some interest, do some good, and get a fairer reading than it did at the viva (and once again readers may download my work “The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible” as a free PDF, or order the paperback from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and various Amazon Europe pages, and judge for themselves). In any case, however, one thing I have come to realise more profoundly over the last month is that many of the measures by which we judge success in this life – titles, careers, wealth and so forth – matter little to God and do not go with us into the eternities. Conversely, there are other matters which may seem trifling to us at this stage, but which have a great significance for the next life and which God measures by very different scales. And life is full of possibilities, so long as we weigh by the correct measures and prepare for eternity.
Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.
And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.
Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).
Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.
Onto the second half of this quotation, in which the focus is the restoration of Israel, and the Lord’s servants (of whom Christ is the ultimate fulfilment, but these verses can apply in part to the likes of Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith and others as well) by whom the Lord will accomplish this task. This is despite, as mentioned above, the fact that many of these figures might be perceived to be, and may have felt themselves to be, failures in this task in the eyes of contemporary witnesses. Once again, Christ is perhaps the preeminent example of how God gains victory through apparent defeat, where Christ’s condemnation and death on the cross (perceived as a shameful death) was actually the most comprehensive victory of all time, over the previously unassailable foes of sin and death.
It’s quite common within the Church, I feel, to see the Book of Mormon as a necessary stepping stone to the restoration of the Gospel, and to believe that it predicts and talks about that restoration. And it is and it does. But it is worth paying attention to the fact that the Book of Mormon’s focus is on a wider concept, that when the text speaks of a restoration it is often not just talking about the restoration of the Gospel, but the restoration of the House of Israel, of which the restoration of the Gospel is in itself but a part and necessary step. The events the Book of Mormon prophesies of go beyond what occurred in the 1820s-1840s, and extend beyond the bounds of the organised Church itself, and many of the biggest events it speaks of are yet to come (and I’m not talking about the Second Coming; the Book of Mormon’s focus is on the period before that). We may have the chance to see and participate in some of the most pivotal events in human history.
And yet, like all scripture and yet more so, Isaiah’s words do not just speak of one thing at one time. The words of reassurance in the his chapter to scattered Israel, that God has indeed not forgotten them, can apply not just to a collective but to each of us, no matter how we have stumbled (1 Nephi 21:14-16):
But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.
For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
It is for each of our sakes that Christ bears the marks that are on the palms of his hands. For each of us he bore unimaginable pain, and for each of us he died. No matter what we have done, or how far we may have wondered, he has not and will not forget us.