The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Since the topic has come up in correspondence, and some things I’m writing (both for a book and for this blog), I happened to come across this article in my reading, and thought it was good enough that I wanted to share it: “The Omniscience of God” by Roger Terry.

I wanted to share it, however, not just for what it addresses about God’s omniscience and relationship to time (though those are very worth reading), but also for some profound points it makes at the end, some profound points that I think often get overlooked in such debates:

Thus far we have talked about God’s omniscience primarily in the sense that He sees everything and has all information present before Him. But all the knowledge in the universe would not make our Heavenly Father a perfect or even helpful God without His other attributes, such as love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, and kindness. One attribute in particular that enables Him to use His infinite knowledge to bless His children is His wisdom. Wisdom is actually an important aspect, or product, of God’s knowledge. Wisdom, we might say, is knowing how to apply knowledge correctly. Thus, because He has perfect wisdom, God always knows which choice will create the greatest eternal good for His children. His wisdom prevents Him from ever misapplying His knowledge, as we imperfect mortals often do.

President Marion G. Romney, First Counselor in the First Presidency, wrote:

‘Since knowledge is an “acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts”; and “wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts; especially in their practical” application “to life and conduct,” it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and is dependent upon knowledge.
The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to his knowledge. Speaking of God’s plan for the salvation of men, Lehi says, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). Thus, . . . God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things.’

Certainly, His wisdom is a product of His knowledge, but it is also a product of His goodness, for knowledge alone does not automatically produce wisdom. Lucifer had great knowledge, but that knowledge did not lead to wisdom. Indeed, Lucifer’s unwise choices prevented him from attaining greater knowledge. It is God’s perfect knowledge combined with His perfect goodness that makes His perfect wisdom a reality. And because God has perfect wisdom to apply His perfect knowledge, He is able to perform His work and enjoy the associated glory in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

In debates about omniscience and omnipotence, it should be remembered that while these are necessary qualities for God to do all that he promised and for us to have confidence in him, they are not all that defines or characterises God. We likewise should not forget his love, justice, mercy, goodness, patience, kindness and his wisdom.

Read the whole article at The Omniscience of God | Religious Studies Center

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘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’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

Jarom

Re-continuing this oft-paused and oft-begun series, some observations on my personal reading of Jarom.

I often get the sense that the small, single-chapter books like Jarom and Omni tend to get overlooked between the longer and more notable books of Jacob and Mosiah. Enos tends to get a bit more notice, because of the strong narrative core of Enos’ own search for spiritual succour, but Jarom and Omni are not so striking. Thus Jarom states in verse 4:

And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith.

This is a pretty profound verse by itself: those who are not stiffnecked and have faith have communion with the Holy Ghost. The implication is that, on the same grounds, we too can and ought to have communion with the Holy Spirit and have revelations. We should be experiencing revelation, and if not we may be living below our spiritual privileges. But for an example of the reading between the lines that can be done, in Omni (as I note there) one of the record keepers, Abinadom, claimed to know of no revelation than what was written. This is a striking contrast to Jarom 1:4: while in Jarom’s time there were a number who qualified for such revelation, part way through the next book the record keeper doesn’t know of anyone who is receiving such.

Another thing that really caught my eye reading this book/chapter today, in verse 2:

And as these plates are small, and as these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites, wherefore, it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.

I guess a question that sticks with me is whether Jarom was right? He was labouring under logistical limitations (he mentions here, and also at the end of the chapter in verse 14 that he was working with limited space). But he likewise seems influenced by the thought that there’s little he could write that others have not already written about, and perhaps better. He’s not in the same situation as some of those in Omni: he receives revelations and he knows of many who do, but he’s not sure about writing them for a wider audience.

This speaks to me because it’s a thought I often have, not about revelations, but about writing things in general. One reason I maintain this blog is I often feel driven to write about certain things, including gospel topics. There are several book projects I am working on because of the same feeling. But I also often wonder if its worth writing them? Have others written about the same things, but in a better way? Even if well written, will anyone read them considering the deluge of written material that’s out there? The very tagline of this blog is taken from Ecclesiastes 12:12: ‘… of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Even then: prior to the invention of printing, prior to the invention of paper, there were those who felt that in some respects there were simply too many books. I do wonder what the preacher would make of now, where one can find a positive mountain full of stuff appear every day, at least some of which probably shouldn’t.

But on the other hand, the Preacher clearly didn’t feel that nothing should be written, or Ecclesiastes itself would not exist. Indeed, when we read all of Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, we get a better understanding of what he was saying:

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

There are indeed many books, and one might weary out the flesh trying to keep up with them, but what the Preacher was counselling was to seek out the words of the wise, to be selective in that reading and pick rightly. Counsel that’s probably even more relevant today, when anyone can publish (including me), than it was back then.

But back to Jarom’s dilemma, I’m not sure I even have an inkling of an answer. I can certainly empathise with that feeling, since I’ve felt it, and I think it’s all the keener when one is talking about writing sacred things, as he most especially is. If space were limited, would he writing more risk us missing Omni 1:26? But aside from any immediate logistical issues God clearly felt that further writings after Enos was useful, since he continued to inspire prophets to write. Perhaps there is something Jarom could have shared, that perhaps he might take for granted, or feel that others wrote better, but which in his words could reach some people better than others’ words would have? Something to ponder about, I guess.

2020 edit:

I was struck again by the beginning of verse 2, in which it is noted that the plates are small and so Jarom must write but a little. He’s not the only record keeper who talks about these limitations of space – Mormon does so a lot – and today it caused me to think about how they prioritised what to include. Nephi and Jacob have both previously spoken about only including the most important matters on their small plates, and it caused me to reflect that what we read in the Book of Mormon is there because someone somewhere felt it was the most important thing they could include. Passages that may seem to make less of an impression or hold less importance for us may teach something invaluable to someone in a different life situation (even ourselves at a different date). Or the passage may require us to rethink: perhaps there’s something there we’ve missed.

There are several themes in this fairly brief chapter that build on what’s gone before and are continued thereafter: there’s the continuing conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites, how they are preserved by God and prosper, so long as they exercise faith and are obedient, and how the prophets must warn (verse 10 uses the word “threaten”) the people in very strict terms to avoid them falling into transgression and being destroyed as a result. By warning the people in these terms “they did prick their hearts with the word, continually stirring them up unto repentance” (v. 12).

Verse 11 provoked some thought:

Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently, exhorting with all long-suffering the people to diligence; teaching the law of Moses, and the intent for which it was given; persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was. And after this manner did they teach them.

These people of course lived before the time of Christ; but they were taught to believe in him “as though he already was”. This is not the only time the Book of Mormon displays some temporal inexactitude when it comes to the coming of Christ. Abinadi, in speaking of the coming of Christ in Mosiah 16:7, uses the past tense and then openly admits it, “speaking of things to come as though they had already come”.

What verse 11 and 12 here in Jarom suggest is this is not mere looseness about the temporal location of events; keeping the coming of Christ as something past and present in mind, as real, helped the Nephites to believe and repent. Their salvation, after all, was just as dependent upon Christ’s atonement as ours is, even if that atonement was yet to happen. Perhaps things in the future seem less real, or not real yet to us (perhaps because we haven’t got to the point where we decide our own future acts). But the atonement was already real: as Enos found out, its effects could already be experienced, even if the time of the actual cause was yet to come.

We live at a similar temporal disconnect with two comings of Christ. There’s the one in the past, now some two thousand years ago, in which Christ conquered sin and death through his sufferings, death and resurrection. And there’s the one yet future, where he comes to make the world right, to complete his work and bringing about the final assessment of this test. It might be tempting when facing events that were long ago or sometime in the unknown future to lose sight of them or ignore them, to think of them as less real. But perhaps we too can best keep these events in mind by treating them in some way as if they were present. We have the ordinance of the sacrament, of course, to cast our mind back and remember the sacrifice of our Saviour, to take that past act and reflect on its present reality. And likewise we anticipate and need to prepare for the coming of Christ, which timing may be uncertain to us but is not to God. In either case, perhaps we too, like the Nephites, can realise that while we may be separated in time these events are still real, and we can still believe and trust in them.

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?

“Patience” by Neal A. Maxwell

My attention has been drawn to an interesting talk by Neal A. Maxwell on the subject of patience, which can be found here. There’s a lot of substance to this talk, but what really caught my attention was this paragraph here:

When the veil which encloses us is no more, time will also be no more (D&C 84:100). Even now, time is clearly not our natural dimension. Thus it is that we are never really at home in time. Alternately, we find ourselves impatiently wishing to hasten the passage of time or to hold back the dawn. We can do neither, of course. Whereas the bird is at home in the air, we are clearly not at home in time—because we belong to eternity. Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here. If time were natural to us, why is it that we have so many clocks and wear wristwatches?

The Book of Mormon describes how God himself is not bound by time (Alma 40:8: “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men”), but Elder Maxwell here talks about time is ultimately not an environment we are entirely comfortable with either, which struck me as a truly profound thought. There’s much more in this talk, however, so I thoroughly recommend reading all of it. Some other snippets that caught my eye:

The patient person assumes that what others have to say is worth listening to. A patient person is not so chronically eager to put forth his or her own ideas. In true humility, we do some waiting upon others. We value them for what they say and what they have to contribute. Patience and humility are special friends.

Further, the patient person can better understand how there are circumstances when, if our hearts are set too much upon the things of this world, they must be broken—but for our sakes, and not merely as a demonstration of divine power. But it takes real patience in such circumstances to wait for the later vindication of our trust in the Lord.

Patience is always involved in the spiritual chemistry of the soul, not only when we try to turn the trials and tribulations—the carbon dioxide, as it were—into joy and growth, but also when we use it to build upon the seemingly ordinary experiences to bring about happy and spiritual outcomes.

Patience is, therefore, clearly not fatalistic, shoulder-shrugging resignation. It is the acceptance of a divine rhythm to life; it is obedience prolonged. Patience stoutly resists pulling up the daisies to see how the roots are doing. Patience is never condescending or exclusive—it is never glad when others are left out. Patience never preens itself; it prefers keeping the window of the soul open.

2 Nephi 5

And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me.

Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words.

(2 Nephi 5:5-6)

I tend to cringe a little when I hear the phrase “be in the world, but not of the world”. That’s partly because its a cliché, and clichés tend to hinder rather than help us to think about what we really need to be doing. The other reason is that it is one of those statements that people tend to take as scriptural when it isn’t (much like the whole supposed quote of “I never said it’d be easy, I only said it’d be possible”). In this particular case it is based on a scripture (John 17:14-16). But it’d be a mistake to think that the cliché encompasses every truth about our relationship with the world, and especially that there’s always some imperative to be “in” the world.

The Book of Mormon contains another theme, one we see near the beginning of the book and repeated here, and many times hence. Lehi, after being rejected by the people, was warned by God to flee into the wilderness with his family. In like fashion, Nephi too must flee those seeking his life (his own brothers in this case) with his family and any who believe in the revelations of God. There is this continual pattern of the flight into the wilderness from a wicked society.

A similar theme can be found in the passages of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon:

Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter to the end of the earth; say ye: The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.

(1 Nephi 20:20//Isaiah 48:20)

And then shall a cry go forth: Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch not that which is unclean; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord.

(3 Nephi 20:41//Isaiah 52:11)

This same idea can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants as a commandment for us, where we are repeatedly told to ‘go ye out of Babylon’, including ‘from the nations’ and ‘from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon’ (D&C 133:5, 7, 14) and instead ‘flee unto Zion’ (D&C 45:68, 133:12). There is no command here to remain in the world, but instead we are commanded to separate from it, both spiritually and at times physically. While there may be occasions in which we have responsibilities “in the world”, there is no imperative to stay there permanently, and certainly not to be complacent in doing so. Ultimately for our own sake we must leave Babylon behind and flee to Zion, for:

For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.

(D&C 64:24)

2020 Edit:

Now I do not write upon these plates all the words which they murmured against me. But it sufficeth me to say, that they did seek to take away my life.

And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me.

(2 Nephi 5:4-5)

I write about some of the significance of this pattern above and when talking about 1 Nephi 2, but reading this today I was struck by the degree of congruence between Nephi’s experience here and Lehi’s: The brothers have truly become like Lehi’s opponents in Jerusalem, and seek to take away Nephi’s like the Jerusalemites sought Lehi’s. And like Lehi, Nephi is warned in a dream to flee into the wilderness, taking with him a small party consisting principally of family. Once again they must depart, leaving hearth and home and comfort, just as we need to be prepared to let things go, and not become too attached to all the things we accrue and come across on our journey in this wilderness.

This chapter – which briefly mentions this new exodus, and then the establishing of their settlement versus the reversion to barbarism of their kinfolk (and the making of the small plates, namely this actual record!) – is the real piece of narrative in 2 Nephi. After that the book contains a mostly context-less sermon from Jacob in 2 Nephi 6-10, some editorial commentary by Nephi in 2 Nephi 11 that introduces the lengthy quotation of 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14, and then further teachings by Nephi about the future destiny of his family’s descendants, the last days, the gathering of Israel (and the Book of Mormon’s role in that), and then the gospel of Christ. He doesn’t even record that he’s passing on the plates or who he’s passing them on too (it is left to Jacob to explain that they have been passed to him at the beginning of the book of Jacob (Jacob 1:1-4).

It is likewise striking that, unlike so many Book of Mormon prophets (including Lehi as we have just seen, but also including the likes of King Benjamin, Alma the younger, Helaman son of Helaman and Mormon himself), there’s no concern or record of any instructions or spiritual council for children, indeed there’s no mention of children at all. Nor, as discussed with 2 Nephi 4, do the records appear to be passed to any children of his: the small plates are given to his brother Jacob, while the large plates appear to be in the keeping of the kings (Jarom 1:14), and the first king is “a man” appointed by Nephi, but there is no indication of kinship, let alone that of father and son (Jacob 1:9-11).

One could be forgiven for wondering if Nephi even had any children, but he does mention some earlier in one brief reference (1 Nephi 18:19), while it does appear that he has some descendants (Mormon 1:4-5, assuming the reference to the plates of Nephi refers to this Nephi and not one of the other intervening record-keepers!). There has the been the suggestion, as I commented in regards to 2 Nephi 4, that perhaps he had no sons but had daughters. This is possible. But whatever the situation, it’s clear that this does not hold his literary attention as he doesn’t write about them. We get far more about his emotional reaction to the centuries distant destruction of his people (1 Nephi 15:4-5), than he ever expresses about his children in the present. And once past 2 Nephi 5, he doesn’t write about his people either. It is as if he has been entirely captured by events far distant, his attention focused on events like the coming of Christ, the aforementioned destruction of his people, the gathering of Israel, and even the final judgment (in which he claims a role as a witness).

This mental orientation doesn’t seem entirely out of character: his emotional reaction to the vision of the destruction of his people (which caused him to feel “that mine afflictions were above all”, 1 Nephi 15:5) appears to be significantly greater than his recorded reaction to many contemporary events. But it reaches a peak here. While he clearly doesn’t abandon his duties in the present, it’s left to Jacob to tell us that by indicating  that his people loved him because of his diligence in protecting and serving them (1 Jacob 1:10). He never stops serving in the present, but – if the content of 2 Nephi is any indication – his mind and view are elsewhere, many centuries in the future, including the very time in which his own words will have their greatest influence. It seems (as Grant Hardy suggested on similar grounds in Understanding the Book of Mormon) quite a lonely and solitary existence. Nephi’s work and legacy and even feelings are tied up in a time far distant from his own, leaving him to appear almost a stranger in his own time.