The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

I’ve come across this rather interesting and thoughtful article on Abrahamic tests by Larry E. Dahl (a retired BYU professor), which is available from the BYU Religious Studies center. Some particularly important excerpts:

Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. Let me repeat. Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. The Prophet Joseph Smith, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo, said: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.[1] That is not a particularly comforting thought, but it is one that cannot be ignored if the scriptures are taken seriously. Why must there be an Abrahamic test? And how can we all be tested like Abraham was tested? Why use Abraham as the standard? What is there about the test Abraham experienced that is universally applicable? When our test comes, will we recognize it? How can we prepare?

and:

What about us? How are we to be tested “even as Abraham”? Being asked to offer a child as a sacrifice just does not relate to our time and circumstance. But wrenching heartstrings does relate—to all times and circumstances. And there are many ways to wrench the heart in any age: being asked to choose God over other things we dearly love, even when those things are good and have been promised, and when we have worked for them, yearned for them, prayed for them, and have been obedient and patient; or being asked to persevere in righteousness and service (perhaps even Church service) in the face of terrible difficulty, uncertainty, inequities, ironies, and even contradictions; or watching helplessly as the innocent suffer from the brutal misuse of God-given agency in the hands of evil men.

 

Read the full thing at: The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

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My “office”. A little drafty but it does the job.

Today, while sitting in my “office” (see above) and working on other things, I began thinking about temptation. This wasn’t for any especial reason, and this is not a confession post. But I’m as human as anyone else, and all of us face or have faced temptation, including the Saviour himself, even though he never succumbed. And I was thinking about what I have learned about those things that have helped me in repenting and those that have not.

As I was doing so, my mind began thinking about the temptations Christ suffered in the wilderness, but particularly the first:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

(Matthew 4:1-3).

It struck me, in considering this account, how this reflects the temptations we suffer. It was understandable, after fasting for such a prolonged period, that Christ was hungry. In fact it is more than understandable, but entirely justified. The human body needs food to survive, and Christ had a mortal human body, as we do. Being hungry was not a sin, but a legitimate need.

Satan’s temptation was not to make the Saviour feel hungry. His temptation was to suggest an illegitimate way to meet that need, one that involved the misuse of Christ’s power.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that this is often true for us. Many of the sins we wrestle with are often connected with some deeper issue or need, which we may not even be aware of. I’ve seen this in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of others. These may be desires for love, security, comfort or intimacy, or even simply the rudiments of survival. And it strikes me that seeking these things is not wrong. The problem is that Satan preys upon those needs, tempting us to meet unhappiness, or loneliness, or deprivation, or whatever with drugs, or sexual sin, or greed or dishonesty or all manner of things. And of course, these are not only wrong, but also cannot really meet our righteous needs. But we are often unaware of the very need at stake, and so Satan deceives us (and we often deceive ourselves) that these are the things that will somehow make us happy, often unaware of why we might find a particular temptation tempting in the first place.

Satan, who desires our misery above all other things, will always seek to pay us in false coin. And we, especially when we are unaware of what we really need, often seek solace from the wrong sources.

While I was contemplating this, I recalled a statement I’ve heard attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: “Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”. Some investigation reveals lots of sites attributing that quote to him, but without sourcing it. However, as far as I can tell they’re actually paraphrasing the following statement, which certain captures the same thought:

Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.

(Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader”, The Ensign, August 1978)

I don’t believe anyone can accuse President Kimball of seeking to excuse sin, and there’s no excuse for it here. Sin is still sin, and needs repentance. But it seems to me that so often our approach to sin is symptomatic: we simply seek to stop the symptom of our outward sins. But such an approach can be as unsuccessful as simply trying to eliminate symptoms in physical medicine. To truly treat an illness, one must treat the causes. I believe this applies individually, but is also the case for any leaders counselling someone else wrestling with some sin: it is not enough simply to urge the stopping of sin, nor enough to simply encourage an increase of devotional acts, as good as they are. All too often this may leave an individual’s needs unmet and unrecognised, and leaves true repentance – change – incomplete, and a person vulnerable to falling back into former sins.. Rather, in addition to these things, we should seek to identify the needs or deeper issues at stake. I believe doing so can help us to recognise that what Satan is offering is an imposter, something that does not and can not and will never give us what we truly want. We can seek to pursue legitimate means to meet that need, if it is possible at that time. Above all, we can learn, and seek, and experience how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power not only to bring forgiveness of sins, but to meet all our deepest and dearest needs.

Christ not only cleanses us from sin, but is the great physician, healing us on the inside if we let him. And for our repentance to be successful – and for the repentance of anyone we happen to be counselling for those who are leaders – we must seek to let him.

2 Nephi 4

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

(2 Nephi 4:15)

I don’t think any commentary is necessary on this verse.

I can’t say I like the title “the Psalm of Nephi” that some people have given the latter part of this chapter (though I can’t think of any rational objections). But the chapter itself contains many passages in which my soul “delighteth” or that my heart “pondereth”:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

(2 Nephi 4:17-19)

O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

(2 Nephi 4:26-30)

2020 Edit:

This chapter covers the last of Lehi’s address to his household (principally a blessing upon the children of Laman and Lemuel that – if they and their descendants are led astray by Laman and Lemuel’s rebellions – they will in the end be blessed. There’s also this interesting blessing to Sam in verse 11:

And after he had made an end of speaking unto them, he spake unto Sam, saying: Blessed art thou, and thy seed; for thou shalt inherit the land like unto thy brother Nephi. And thy seed shall be numbered with his seed; and thou shalt be even like unto thy brother, and thy seed like unto his seed; and thou shalt be blessed in all thy days.

Now the statement that Sam’s “seed shall be numbered with [Nephi’s] seed” could simply be referring to their being counted part of the wider “Nephites”, according to the later ideological definition that Jacob appears to introduce for the first time in Jacob 1:14. But I’ve seen some people suggest this might be more specific than that, and I think they may have a point. One peculiarity is that when the different groups based on the brothers are enumerated, there’s a whole bunch: Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites and Ishmaelites. That’s the list as in Jacob 1:13, and in 4 Nephi 1:36-37 and in Mormon 1:8 too, so it’s consistent over the whole history. Notice what’s missing: there’s no “Samites”, a rather startling but consistent omission.

Now there has been some speculation that Nephi himself did not have any sons. I’ll get into that a bit when discussing 2 Nephi 5, but he never refers to or addresses any sons, and he passes the small plates onto his brother Jacob, while for a political successor “he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings”, who subsequently are “called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth”, the wording of which doesn’t seem to suggest kinship (Jacob 1:9, 11). He does appear, however, to have descendants (Mormon 1:4-5).

This has led some to suggest that perhaps Nephi’s children were all daughters, so that Nephi had no son to act as a political or religious successor. A suggestion I’ve seen that pulls on all the above then suggests that perhaps these daughters then intermarried with Sam’s sons. In which case Nephi’s and Sam’s descendants literally became one group and were counted as such, but said group appear to have adopted Nephi’s name, thus explaining the absence of any “Samites”.

There’s a brief passage that recounts Lehi’s death, and the beginnings of what will prove to be the final rift between the brothers, before we turn to the oft-labelled “Psalm of Nephi”. As I mention above, I don’t particularly like that title, although I’m not certain why and can certainly see some commonalities between it and many of the passages in the book of Psalms. It’s an interesting passage because Nephi appears to let the overall impression of his stoic optimism and unflagging obedience waver somewhat: he expresses guilt and sorrow over his sins (vv. 17-19), and refers to feelings of anger because of his enemies [enemy singular in verse 27, plural in verse 29). Nevertheless he recounts how God has supported, led, and protected him, and blessed him with angelic ministration and visions (vv. 20-25), and thus expresses resolution to “no longer droop in sin”, to not give way to temptations nor give place for anger nor to “slacken my strength because of my afflictions” (vv. 26-30). The passage then ends with his appeal to God to redeem him, to deliver him from his enemies and from sin and so on, and expresses his trust in God (vv. 31-35). He appears to be concerned with the individual struggle against weakness and sin we all face, but also with some rather specific enemies (I think undoubtedly his brothers, in view of 2 Nephi 5:1: “I, Nephi, did cry much unto the Lord my God, because of the anger of my brethren”).

One verse leading up to this “Psalm” which I quote above gets my attention again:

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

Some of these elements will be familiar in any discussion about how we can better appreciate and understand the message of the scriptures: delighting in them, and pondering them and so forth. But there’s also the emphasis he puts not just on reading them but also on writing them, which I guess isn’t something that always comes up in these discussions. Perhaps recording the scriptures in which we delight or take particular interest or ponder over should be a key part of our own practice. To some degree, it’s this sort of example that’s prompted this very exercise on my blog.

1 Nephi 12

And he said unto me: Thou rememberest the twelve apostles of the Lamb? Behold they are they who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them; for ye are of the house of Israel.

And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood.

1 Nephi 12:9-10

I am struck by the description of the twelve Nephite disciples as being ‘righteous forever’. I often get disheartened by my own mistakes and errors, and that even when doing well in some areas one can then mess up things in others. The idea of not only being unambiguously righteous, but righteous forever, as a permanent fact, cannot help but be appealing. We speak of conversion (meaning sanctification, becoming a holy person) being a process, and that’s true (Nephi likewise talks of ‘the path which leads to eternal life’, 2 Nephi 31:18), but that end state seems both so desirable and yet sometimes so far away. Apparently the key is faith in Christ, by which our ‘garments’ (and to what does this actually refer? Alma 5:21-23 speaks of our ‘garments’ either being cleansed by Christ’s blood, or ‘stained with blood and all manner of filthiness’ – our ‘garments’ must be a reflection of the state of our soul) are ‘made white in his blood’. Sometimes, however, one can wonder if one really has the level of faith in Christ necessary for the power of His atonement to have that cleansing effect in one’s life. To which I guess the answer is simply faith: to trust in him, rather than any notion of personally achieving a particular ‘level’ of faith, and to trust that he has the power to save and to cleanse us despite our own inadequacies.

Edit 2020:

I find it interesting that Nephi is given some of the keys to the interpretation of Lehi’s dream, in the midst of a vision detailing the destruction of his own descendants. So first he is shown the beginning of that process of destruction (1 Nephi 12:13-15:

And it came to pass that I saw the multitudes of the earth gathered together.

And the angel said unto me: Behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren.

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren; and they were gathered together to battle.

Then suddenly the angel turns to interpreting Lehi’s dream (vv. 16-18):

And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.

And the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.

And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and the Messiah who is the Lamb of God, of whom the Holy Ghost beareth record, from the beginning of the world until this time, and from this time henceforth and forever.

And as the angel is speaking, Nephi sees the fate of his descendants (v. 19):

And while the angel spake these words, I beheld and saw that the seed of my brethren did contend against my seed, according to the word of the angel; and because of the pride of my seed, and the temptations of the devil, I beheld that the seed of my brethren did overpower the people of my seed.

It might seem a bit of a non-sequitur, but verse 19 makes the connection between the dream and what Nephi is seeing evident: these hazards that Lehi saw in a dream are not just general spiritual hazards we all face, but are the very factors that lead to the destruction of Nephi’s own people. What I can’t help but think about, however, is the effect upon Nephi. We know from 1 Nephi 15:5 that he was upset by this: “for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall”. It seems seeing this was the part of the vision that made the most immediate emotional impact upon Nephi. In the short term, at least, this revelation may have given Nephi knowledge and wisdom, but it didn’t bring him any happiness.

And maybe that’s why he seems so upset to have to interpret the dream to his brothers in 1 Nephi 15: not just because he’s upset by what he saw in the vision, but because the interpretation of the dream is tied up with very thing that’s making him upset, and he’s having to explain this to his brothers, whose descendants he knows will in the end survive and be restored. It may even have felt a little unfair: here he was, striving to be faithful, yet he learns by vision that his descendants will fall into wickedness and be destroyed, while those of his brothers – the hardhearted brothers who’ve already tried to kill him once and to whom he has to explain the dream because they hadn’t sought revelation – will in the end be blessed! It’s the sort of experience that might shake a lesser person from their faith and trust in God. Perhaps this is sometimes the reason the Lord is careful about revealing things to us. And yet Nephi will continue to faithfully follow God’s will, even as he knows that things won’t go well for his descendants