To God I cried with mournful voice,
I sought his gracious ear,
In the sad day when troubles rose,
And filled the night with fear.
Sad were my days, and dark my nights,
My soul refused relief;
I thought on God the just and wise,
But thoughts increased my grief.
Still I complained, and still oppressed,
My heart began to break;
My God, thy wrath forbade my rest,
And kept my eyes awake.
My overwhelming sorrows grew,
Till I could speak no more;
Then I within myself withdrew,
And called thy judgments o’er.
I called back years and ancient times
When I beheld thy face;
My spirit searched for secret crimes
That might withhold thy grace.
I called thy mercies to my mind
Which I enjoyed before;
And will the Lord no more be kind?
His face appear no more?
Will he for ever cast me off?
His promise ever fail?
Has he forgot his tender love?
Shall anger still prevail?
But I forbid this hopeless thought;
This dark, despairing frame,
Rememb’ring what thy hand hath wrought;
Thy hand is still the same.
I’ll think again of all thy ways,
And talk thy wonders o’er;
Thy wonders of recovering grace,
When flesh could hope no more.
Grace dwells with justice on the throne;
And men that love thy word
Have in thy sanctuary known
The counsels of the Lord.
I’ve wondered whether to write this. I think Western society tends to err on the side of too much self-disclosure, and personally I’m inclined to be quite happy when people tell me they can’t tell what I’m thinking. But some recent events (not involving me) have suggested maybe the topic should be discussed, and it feels like the right thing to do. Perhaps I am selfishly seeking for people to understand me better, although I am not writing this as a cry for help (things aren’t too bad at present). Or perhaps this might help some other people: I’ve had these feelings for as long as I can remember, but it is only comparatively recently that I became aware of these issues. Others may be in the same position.
I wrestle with self-hatred. I’ve alluded to this before. It waxes and wanes, and at times can be almost dormant, although it hasn’t been the last couple of years, and it is always there deep down. When dormant, it is little more than a spike in my mind, an occasional inner voice or reflex. At its worst, however, it burns like fire in my veins, so that it is almost – or rather even – physically painful. When it gets inflamed (and a variety of things have been able to do that over the years) it can be debilitating. Even something as simple as looking in the mirror can be a difficult experience, as sometimes I want to punch the person looking back at me (seeing video footage of myself, even at the best of times, has almost triggered nervous breakdowns). At the worst of times, it includes very vivid and detailed suicidal thoughts. These thoughts are not just driven by feelings of despair, though they can be very present, but often also feelings of rage and anger towards myself. I hasten to add, however, that while there have been times in the past when these feelings have come close to overwhelming me that I have not made any attempts, and never plan on doing so. But an accurate description of this phenomenon also includes those thoughts and feelings too.
As mentioned, I’ve wrestled with these feelings of self-hatred for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t aware that that is what I was feeling for many years, even though the worst of it (including the suicidal impulse) has been a recurring experience for over two decades. I’m not sure how I never quite twigged that I hated myself earlier in life: I guess that that for some reason the outbursts of negative feeling and so on all seemed a normal reaction to who I am (and particularly any feelings of personal failure I was experiencing), even when that came out vocally as “I hate me”. Over time, however, and particularly in recent years, I have been able to gain a better understanding of what I’ve been experiencing and some of the things that fuel it. I’ve also gained a better understanding of how it in turn has affected or affects other areas of my life. Awareness really only came from working on other issues and realising something else lay behind it.
There seem to be three principle nexuses (nexii?) for the manifestation of these feelings. The first is a sense of failure. I frequently feel that I have failed God, let down people I care about, or just been a failure in general terms. Sometimes this feeling is a reaction to a specific “failure” (such as not finishing my PhD thesis yet – or the fact that I’m still a “student”), other times it is simply a more pervasive sense. I recognise that at times I have distinctly unrealistic standards here: I recall being asked once (in response to my declaration that I felt I had achieved “nothing”) who I was comparing myself to, and I half-jokingly replied that at my age Alexander the Great had conquered the known world. Yet to be honest any comparisons with others tend to be on far simpler grounds of family and job, and I really often just feel that I have accomplished nothing, without any comparisons except to what I feel I could or should have done.
The second nexus is a feeling of being inherently unlovable, about which there’s a whole bunch of insecurities that I will not go into. Perhaps simply because I don’t like me, I don’t understand why anyone else would either. I often feel difficult being in the company of other people (something I can find difficult anyway because of other factors) because I feel they are only putting up with my presence out of charity or kindness, and I don’t want to burden people with my presence (perhaps it doesn’t help that I can’t read body language, though part of me fears that’d simply underline the truth). The emotion of “feeling loved” – whether by humans or by God – does not appear to come to me easily: in fact a few years ago I wondered if I could feel that at all. At that time I discovered I could, and I’ve had a handful of such experiences in my life (a couple involving people, a couple involving God). It can be hard to hold onto memories of such fleeting experiences though. Ultimately I often simply feel that no one could or sometimes even should love me, and sometimes that feeling extends to God himself. And then part of me feels weak for even wanting that love.
A third nexus which I have come to see kicks in occasionally is anger. In the last couple of years I have become aware of a great store of inner anger (and I’m aware of some of the roots of that, which I won’t go into). Over time, I seem to have established various mental banks and earthworks to lock up this anger and prevent that erupting over people as it used to do from time to time. Yet it hasn’t gone away, and it is still there. Part of me is ashamed of that, and considers it another failure. Part of me is perhaps sensitive to things like would-be fascists in our society, because I have a far greater monster locked up inside of me, who sometimes just wants to see the entire world burn. It’s partly why I can’t help but dismiss it when some other kindly people tell me I’m a good man, because I know I’m not. For the most part, however, the reaction seems to be that the anger gets reflected back into myself. I’ve mentally observed this happening as a reflex when I have gotten angry at other people: feelings of anger (because of what is stored up, vastly disproportionate to any supposed offence) deflecting off those inward mental walls and then directing themselves at the only remaining target. At other times, it simply adds extra venom to my feelings of failure or unlovableness,
Of course, with all these feelings, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a believer in the gospel of Christ. People might wonder how that can be the case: how can I claim to believe something which teaches of a loving God, yet still experience these sorts of feelings?
On one level, it is very simple. Due to the spiritual experiences I have had, I know that God is very real, I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know He revealed Himself to His prophets. They simply are true, regardless of what I feel about things.
On the other hand, it does make certain things a struggle. There have been a few occasions in my life, as mentioned, that I have felt the love of God as a supernal experience. And I try to hold onto those experiences. Sometimes I find I can remember an event so clearly I can put myself right back into it. At other times, they can feel like pale reflections, where I’m not quite sure about the emotions involved. But while I do know there is a God, and I know he is perfect, just and merciful, and know he loves all mankind, I find it a struggle to believe he loves me. I can know of it intellectually, because of what I know about him and because of memories of the experiences I’ve had, but sometimes its hard to feel it. It’s slightly easier when I simply include myself in all mankind, but when talking about any kind of love or compassion personally it gets more difficult. But on the other hand, sometimes it feels like that doesn’t matter. One should obey God because he is right, because he is perfectly good and so whatever he wills is good. And I can trust in that, and follow that, and so on one level the issue of whether God loves me or not seems almost unimportant. I should follow him anyway, and I’ve tried to.
And in certain situations, that’s kept me alive. On a few occasions the only thing keeping me from an exceptionally unwise act has been the knowledge that suicide is wrong, and my body is not mine to dispose of, and there’s covenants involved. Were I of a clearer mind at those moments, I could doubtless also reflect that if escape is any motivation, the afterlife doesn’t really provide it. Clear thinking tends to be difficult at those times though.
Yet in other things this continues to be a struggle, and one that does not appear to be likely to disappear any time soon. I know – I absolutely know – that the feelings I experience are not ones that the gospel is trying to inculcate, and that there are doubtless many inaccuracies in my feelings and how I perceive the world. I want to overcome that. Yet I’m not always sure where those inaccuracies are, and while I’ve gained a better understanding of what I feel and where some of it comes from, it has yet to allow me to dispose of these feelings. Sometimes what some people suggest doesn’t seem any more truthful (especially when explicitly justified on “don’t ask if its true, ask whether it is helpful”). I don’t find myself convinced by modern gospels of self-esteem, which likewise don’t seem to tally with the scriptures either. The scriptures themselves, however, don’t seem to explicitly address this issue all that often, which is perhaps why I’m interested in things like Jacob’s experiences. But perhaps they’re not meant to be addressed, but endured. I’ve had these feelings before, and I know I’ll feel them again, and perhaps with Christ’s help I can persevere through them yet again. I’m not entirely sure whether this is at all relevant to my situation, but I find my mind thinking of the words of Paul (who elsewhere wrote of himself as “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle”, 1 Corinthians 15:9):
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
I know the way I feel is mistaken, somewhere along the line, and I want to feel differently from the way I do. Yet I do believe in God (which is to say, I know he’s there and I trust him), and in Christ’s grace. If there is to be any solution to this, either in this life or merely persevering through it in this life, I know his grace is sufficient, and to be found in his strength, not any I can cobble up myself. Perhaps there is something yet more I can learn from my weakness, or perhaps there’s simply the humility of knowing that I depend on his strength to go on. I honestly don’t really know, but I know of God’s power, and I know there’s even times that’s been able to work through me, as flawed a vessel as I am. I’m not able to “glory in my infirmities” (Paul is a better man than I). But perhaps I can simply hold on.
And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.
And it was told the house of David, saying: Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.
Then said the Lord unto Isaiah: Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field;
And say unto him: Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be faint-hearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.
Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying:
Let us go up against Judah and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, yea, the son of Tabeal.
Thus saith the Lord God: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.
Personally I find it really easy to worry about future events. Not the big events funnily enough: I’m not unduly worried about future cataclysms, war or the collapse of western civilisation despite the fact that I think all of that will happen. I guess that feels like it’s all in God’s hands, and indeed even a vindication of his teachings and promises.
But the little, personal, stuff I find really easy to worry about. I guess I have less of a conviction of any of that fitting into some grand divine plan, or worry I may forfeit blessings through imperfection. And many of these are areas in which I know I don’t do well, and where my imagination can conjure up outcomes and scenarios I find very concerning, even though they haven’t happened and may never happen.
So I guess I find a bit of reassurance in this passage: there was actually a genuine threat here (Judah was comparatively weaker than the Northern Kingdom, let alone it being allied to Aram-Damascus as well). Yet despite the dangers that posed, the fears were ultimately unnecessary because God was in control of events. It is God who is the ultimate antidote to such fears of the future.
2 Nephi 18
Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear all ye of far countries; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces.
Take counsel together, and it shall come to naught; speak the word, and it shall not stand; for God is with us.
For the Lord spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying:
Say ye not, A confederacy, to all to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid.
Sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.
Unfortunately the people of Judah were prone to react to future fears the way we do: to seek for security elsewhere. They sought it in alliances (hence the warning not to “associate yourselves” and “a confederacy”). For us, I guess we can end up looking for that security in wealth, power, status or even our relationships. But like the ancient Judahites, any real, eternal, security, can really only come as we draw closer to God.
The first Monday omnibus edition!:
For behold, the promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh; wherefore, as it has been shown unto me that many of our children shall perish in the flesh because of unbelief, nevertheless, God will be merciful unto many; and our children shall be restored, that they may come to that which will give them the true knowledge of their Redeemer.
For I will fulfil my promises which I have made unto the children of men, that I will do unto them while they are in the flesh—
Jacob is obviously talking here of a rather specific set of promises (namely about the restoration of Israel in “the lands of their inheritance”), but I was impressed by these verses as I read them. While many of the promises we have been given apply to the eternities, God can and sometimes does give us promises that apply to this life. It is perhaps heartening to read – with those promises in mind – that God will fulfil such promises while we “are in the flesh”, even if we must be patient for the time being.
As for 2 Nephi 11:
And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him.
And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words.
I’m not entirely sure why these verses have hung on me today. There’s lots that can be found in them, of course, such as this concept of Nephi, Isaiah and Jacob acting as three witnesses of Christ. Likewise in the concept that God will both send more witnesses and vindicate his words. But what I think most sticks out to me at this time is the power of scripture, to both convince and act as evidence for other of God’s words. It’s very easy when writing about scripture to hung up on one’s own words, but really it’s the scripture itself that has the most power.
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)
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.
And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.
Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.
And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
Just reading this today, I was struck by the fact that the Lord revealed to Nephi “from time to time” how to build a boat after he had begun making it. I’m no expert on making boats, but usually I imagine it’s wise to have both blueprints and construction techniques sorted before one begins construction. Not so in this case: The Lord showed Nephi how to do things a bit at a time, not all at once, and after Nephi had begun construction. The thought gave added emphasis to the statement that “neither did I build the ship after the manner of men”: perhaps one difference was the fact that Nephi begun it, not really knowing what the final result was going to be or how to actually get there.
Again this reminds me of the hymn Lead Kindly Light and the line “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Just as Nephi was asked to, we’re often asked to begin stuff we have no idea how to finish either, and with little idea of the final result. But God’s not going to give us the final blueprint in one go. Rather we too will have to “pray oft” so we can be shown “from time to time” how to do the next step, trusting that He has the final blueprint sorted.
1 Nephi 9 is another piece of editorial commentary by Nephi. In my thesis I briefly look at how the Book of Mormon really consists of a number of layers, with things like sermons or Lehi’s vision embedded in a narrative, but that the narrative itself is almost punctuated by the narrators such as Nephi or Mormon (who, incidently, wrote most of the Book of Mormon; a pet peeve of mine is when people quote something from the book of Alma and fail to realise it is Mormon who is speaking).
Anyhoo, what caught my eye today was the following:
Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.
But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.
Nephi was obviously commanded to make the small plates for a good reason, but that reason (the 116 missing pages) lay thousands of years in the future. Obviously that says a lot about God’s omniscience, but Nephi never knew that reason. Likewise the Lord often has us doing things for reasons that appear unfathomable. And that can be uncomfortable, especially when stuff happens that appears to make what we want or what we think the Lord wants further away.
I have to confess that while I’ve gained an appreciation for the hymn Lead Kindly Light in the last decade, I’m not at the stage where I can bring myself to say “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Because I often still find myself wanting to see the distant scene, wanting to know how everything fits in, wanting to know that I haven’t irreversibly messed up and that there is still hope. But I gather, both from scriptures like this and my own experience, that often God wants something different. What He wants is for us to obey Him, to keeping taking those single steps into the darkness, trusting in his power and that all His actions are “for a wise purpose in him”, even if we know it not.