Act of Faith-Ammon and the Struggle at Sebus

If you have grown up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there are a few select stories from the Book of Mormon that you will know. You just will. The story of Ammon and his literally disarming conflict at the waters of Sebus is one of them. This story’s adventure is so dramatic, it is easy to overlook the lesson on faith that Mormon, the main editor for the Book of Mormon, is highlighting with this story.

The Nephite missionary Ammon went with his brothers to preach to their enemies, the Lamanites. Ammon’s first assignment from the Lamanite King Lamoni was to watch the sheep with some other servants. Unbeknownst to Ammon, this task was going to be anything but an idyllic shepherding scene from a romance painting. As they are out shepherding, another group of Lamanites scatter the sheep. Ammon is quickly made aware that losing sheep was an offense punishable by death. The difference in the reaction of the servants and Ammon is so contrasting that it is almost comical.

“Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already. Now they wept because of the fear of being slain…” (Alma 17:28-29).

I have never been in a situation where I could be put to death for something I have done, so I can only imagine reacting similarly. Fear is a powerful force and it is contagious, but for some reason Ammon is not only immune to their traumatic terror, he seems to be emboldened by it. His reaction is unexpected, to say the least.

“Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words” (Alma 17:29).

Ammon goes on to rally the other servants to gather the sheep again. When the raiders return, Ammon unhesitatingly contends with them and miraculously overcomes them in a armed conflict resulting in an armful of severed arms and some casualties from a sling. This act initiates a series of events culminating in the miraculous conversion of thousands of Lamanites. Somewhere in between the action adventure and the forcefulness of the protagonist’s larger-than-life character, Mormon is trying to teach us something.

Likely concerned that the reader could get the wrong message and simply believe that Ammon innately was just a brave person or did not feel fear, Mormon includes the reaction of King Lamoni to this dramatic event. After the king hears how Ammon took on a dozen armed combatants single handedly, he concludes that Ammon is more than human. Lest readers also come to a similar conclusion, Mormon supplies Ammon’s own words to refute this, “I am a man” (Alma 18:17, 34); just a man. Mormon later offers an explanation from Ammon, “I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things” (Alma 26:12).

Faith is supposed to be the focus here, not Ammon. It is important to ask on what Ammon was basing his faith? If faith is a “hope for things which are not seen”, we should ask what were the promises Ammon was hoping would come true? Mormon inserted these promises within the narrative, so that this story could teach us about an active, revelation-based faith.

Promise one:

After Ammon and his brothers informed their father Mosiah regarding their intention to go to preach to the Lamanites, Mosiah inquired of the Lord and received this revelation:

“And the Lord said unto Mosiah: Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons out of the hands of the Lamanites” (Mosiah 28:7).

When Ammon went to confront the raiding party of Lamanites, he did so, believing that he would be delivered by the Lord. This promise is not specific enough; however, to guarantee that he would not be harmed though. This scenario could have played out very differently for Ammon. Instead, Ammon could have been brutally beaten up, almost killed, and left for dead. The servants then, might have delivered the severely injured Ammon to the king with an account of his bravery and dedication to the king’s service. The king, impressed by Ammon’s commitment and moved with pity by his plight, might have been humbled to the point of curiosity. This could have become Ammon’s opportunity to preach the word to a prepared king. Either of these scenarios might have worked as an act of faith and could have led to the miraculous conversion of the Lamanites.

Mormon, our action-adventure tour guide, does not inform the reader, what Ammon knew. Instead, Mormon reminds the reader of this first promise through a comment on what the marauders did not know (see Alma 17:35). Of course, simply the promise that he would be “deliver[ed]…out of the hands of the Lamanites” does not explain Ammon’s extreme reaction to the scattering of the flock, when “his heart was swollen within him with joy”. This response is also beyond mere enthusiastic optimism, this is the response of someone whose hopes are about to be realized. This kind of intense satisfaction might be expected from someone who has just won a gold medal in the Olympics or a lottery jackpot.

Mormon inserts more information into the narration in the form of another promise as a way to assist the reader understand Ammon’s motivation.

Promise two:

Upon entering the land of the Lamanites, the missionary party prayed and received this revelation:

“Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.” (Alma 17:11)

Due to this revelation, Ammon was looking for adversity to strike. He knew that right behind the trial would be an opportunity to accomplish his heart’s desire, salvation for his brethren the Lamanites. This was a cause he was willing to give his life for, a cause he had faith would succeed. He had promises from God. He had faith based on revelation. Mormon cleverly contrasts Ammon’s faith with the other two groups of Lamanites: the raiding party who did not know about the promises, were not afraid, but should have been; and the servants who also did not know about the promises, were afraid, but did not need to be.

If we are not constantly seeking revelation, a trial may catch us unprepared as well, and we will either fear unnecessarily or act too confidently. Like Ammon, our faith is a key for unlocking miracles, but our trials generally provide the torque necessary to turn the key. Because Ammon acted on faith, the atonement enabled him to act beyond his natural powers. This additional power is defined as “grace” in the Bible Dictionary, and it is a tender mercy accessible because of Christ’s atonement. Faith precedes the miracle, but is also a miracle itself, because both are driven by atoning power. Christ is the object of our faith and its source.

Mormon uses the story of Ammon and others to define what an active faith could be. Ammon proactively sought revelation, received promises from God, very specific promises without specific details, and he acted on them. Active faith begins with seeking first the will of God. We approach him in prayer continually to ask him to reveal his will to us. We seek out personal revelation in daily scripture study. As he reveals his will to us, and we act upon his words. His revealed will to us becomes “the substance of things hoped for” by our faith (Hebrews 11:1). His revealed direction in our lives is the promises we will have faith in; it is the context to an active faith.

Ammon’s active faith led to this act of faith, and his trust in revelation revealed a miracle. The Book of Mormon encourages us again and again to do the same.

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Active Faith

Imagine for a minute a single rain drop accelerated through the sky by gravity. At the end of its descent, envision the rain drop’s sudden impact upon a patch of earth. You can predict the change the water can make to the ground as it is absorbed. If given the right conditions, it can catalyze the miracle of life. God’s words fall upon our hearts like rain and are specially designed to make an impact (see Isaiah 55:10-11). Sometimes God’s word is a falling mist that gently caresses the ground, and sometimes it is an impaling flurry that makes the flowers kneel before him, but in every occasion his word is calculated to change us, to bring new life to the sometimes barren wastelands in our souls.

His words are the beginning of our faith (see Romans 10:17). Revelation makes our faith possible, so our faith, which often precedes the miracle, is also a miraculous gift itself. At the most fundamental level it is a “desire to believe”, which essentially is a choice to believe (Alma 32: 27). We feel his spirit, his words, and we choose to act on them or not. Our choice to follow God’s revealed word is simultaneously a trial of our faith and its primary builder. Interestingly, humans are designed by nature to overwhelmingly prefer sight over our other senses to observe reality; therefore, faith as “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) or as a “hope for things which are not seen” (Alma 32:21), is something that will be a trial for us.

Faith is also different than optimism, where you just generally expect the most favorable outcome from a situation, it is a trust in revelation. Faith should not only push us to act on past revelation, but seek continual light. The Lord wants us to seek guidance for our own specific mission assignments here on earth. Sometimes we misunderstand faith and misapply our efforts, which can lead to situations where we are under-utilizing atoning power in our lives. We can treat our faith like optimism at times, where we might live with a generic belief in God, and believe he will take care of us, but do not seek him out for specific guidance in our lives. Our only prayers might be the infrequent, but urgent prayers of the desperate. This is a passive faith, where we are acted upon, instead of acting in faith first.

Active faith begins with seeking first the will of God. We approach him in prayer continually to ask for him to reveal his will to us. We seek out personal revelation in daily scripture study. As he reveals his will to us, and we act upon his words, we will be on “[his] errand” (D&C 64:29). In this way, we seek first the kingdom of God by building it errand by errand. His revealed will to us, his living word becomes “the substance of things hoped for” by our faith (Hebrews 11:1). His revealed direction in our lives is the promises we will have faith in; it is the context to an active faith. Having a revealed context for our lives gives us perspective, a frame of reference, so that we can see the events of our lives including our trials as a part of a bigger picture or as something playing a role in a grander scheme.

Faith, although not used as a verb in English, can transform us into a verb when we act as prompted by revelation.

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The End Worth Enduring for


“Endur[ing] to the end” is the critical last leg of our overall journey to salvation (3 Nephi 15:9). When we talk about it; however, we often focus on endurance, as if white-knuckling the “rod of iron” was tantamount to enduring to the end. In actuality, understanding what the end is empowers us to “stand still” when “all things shall be in commotion” (D&C 123:17 and 88:91).

Often our present problems can find relief through simply knowing that death is not the end. Christ “[is] the…life” that made immortal life possible for us (John 14:6). Christ’s infinite atonement not only extends our individual stories passed the finality of death, but also allows us to attain to a “knowledge…of the world to come” (Jacob 4:12, see also Mosiah 5:3). Our “hope and views” of the resurrection can allow us to face trials, suffering, and especially death knowing that they only last a “small moment” and ultimately we will “find rest to [our] souls” (Alma 27:28, D&C 121:7, and Alma 37:34).

Despite a growing knowledge of the resurrection, when we are caught in one of life’s “mighty storm[s]” (Helaman 5:12), the end we tend to care about most is the end of our immediate sufferings. Trapped within the confines of our present circumstances, we are unable to see that there is “a way” prepared for us to “escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Christ “[is] the way” (John 14:6). His infinite atonement is the only way to escape the chains of the finite now to see “things as they really are, and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

Our faith and anxiety can qualify us to know what “things should happen” (Jacob 1:5); however, even knowing how something will occur does not necessarily trivialize the experience of living through it. Christ, who knew cognitively before hand what his suffering would be like was still “astonished” when his suffering began in the garden of Gethsemane [1]. Because of Christ’s astonishing sorrow we can also be astonished at how personal a figure Christ can be in the path out of our own sufferings.

Christ himself said “I am…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6, italics added for emphasis). Christ is the end worth enduring to and his grace supplies the power we need to reach him. It is our knowledge of Christ and our personal relationship with him that brings fuller purpose to our mortal pains and additional power to meet our trials. The spirit allows us such an intimacy in our relationship with Christ that we can “look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11). We can begin to glimpse him with an “eye of faith” and be “glad” (Ether 12:19; John 8:56).

Sometimes it is during suffering’s suffocating grip that we come to know Christ most intimately. His nearness can distance us from our pain, so that we can see our trials differently. At these moments, we can more easily enter into a Gethsemaneic mindset, where we are willing to accept the Lord’s will over our own. And having emptied out our wills, we will have more room for more of God’s power to do what was previously impossible. Here our sufferings can find their end in Christ, where his will can drive us to “finish[…]” our trials in a way that can also add finishing touches to us (D&C 19:19). Our submission allows the Lord to use our trials as tools to engrave his image in our countenances (see Alma 5:19). In the end, we will see him and we “shall be like him” (Moroni 7:48). He is the end we endure life’s pains to reach and the end we can become. He is worth it and so are we.

Endnotes

[1] “Later, in Gethsemane, the suffering Jesus began to be ‘sore amazed’ (Mark 14:33), or, in the Greek, ‘awestruck’ and ‘astonished.’ Imagine, Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, ‘astonished’! Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fulness, it was so much, much worse than even He with his unique intellect had ever imagined!” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit”, Ensign, May 1985) https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/04/willing-to-submit?lang=eng This idea is also hinted at in Alma 7: 11-13.

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The Spell of the Gospel: the Convergence of Poetry and Spirit in the Scriptures

When I first began to seriously read scripture, I immediately noticed the magic of its language. Certain words or passages enchanted me “unto the overpowering of [me] to read them” (Ether 12: 24). The elevated language of scripture lends a certain power to the spell of the gospel’s message. It’s abstract phrasing is the perfect medium through which the Spirit can transform mere ink on pages into the living word within our hearts. Thus, the gospel is not only good because it is the story of God, but it is good because it is well-written. Like a spell wrought upon us, it can move us and change us.

The modern mind is accustomed to information on demand and fast moving prose, like instant messaging, memes, news articles or novels; therefore, the slow, ponderous poetry in scripture may bore, annoy, and confuse us in the same way that waiting a couple of seconds for a buffering video stream does. Although not always evident and certainly not always appreciated, the precursor for revelation is often confusion. The promise “ask, and ye shall receive” presupposes a question; the person praying wants to know something they currently don’t or to know something to a higher degree of clarity or depth than they currently do (John 16:24).

Poetry is the perfect medium for creating blissful bewilderment. The oddities of its language create textual speed bumps that pause our otherwise hurried ascent through a narrative. Our pauses to ponder allow the Spirit to conjure up concepts and images in the swirling potion of our jumbled thoughts. And in this abstract stew created by poetic phrasing, multiple, even contradictory, meanings are possible as we drink deep the “inexhaustible gospel” [1]. The gospel is made inexhaustible by an infinite atonement, but it is often inexhaustibly expressed through the convergence of spirit and poetry.

Poetry can magically transport us into the abstract spiritual world of “starkness” [2], a world full of stark contrasts, where realities are not clothed in language or time. A place where “all things whatsoever God has seen proper to reveal to us” he can “[reveal] to us in the abstract” [3]. Spiritual landscapes turn our world inside out making our understandings susceptible to more epiphany-catalyzing moments. Sometimes seeing something askew can change the way we perceive the world, like Dickens’ epiphany from seeing coffee-room spelt backwards-“mooreeffoc” [4]. In this state, the spirit can deliver our favorite, time-honored passages from an existence of continual triteness into novel applications with the suddenness and force of a lightening bolt.

The power of poetry, as it is paired with the Spirit, is not limited to merely transforming our perceptions of the scriptures, so that we can pull out an inexhaustible amount of applicable principles out of thin air. But the gospel’s spell can transform us from the inside out. Our God is a “God of miracles” who “answereth by fire” our scriptural inquiries and our “bosom shall burn” with the truth (Mormon 9:15-16; 1 Kings 18:24; and D&C 9:8). The scriptures are his tool to melt our hearts with poetic tender mercies and shape us into his likeness with repeated baptisms of spiritual fire. We can witness this magical transformation again and again as we seek God through continually studying his words that can be “made flesh” as we live them (see John 1:14).

References

[1] This phrase comes from a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on 18 August 1992 by Elder Neal A. Maxwell published in “The Inexhaustible Gospel”, in The Inexhaustible Gospel: A Retrospective of Twenty-One Firesides and Devotionals Brigham Young University 1974-2004 (Intellectual Reserves, Inc., 2004), 211-225 or click here.

[2] This term is defined beautifully by James L. Kugel as “the stark world of the soul” a place of “pitch-darkness and bright, bright light”. A “moonscape” a place “altogether eerie and uncanny”. A world that “is quite overwhelming”. For more on starkness, see Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York, The Free Press, 2003), 66-67, 140-142, 156-158.

[3] The Words of Joseph Smith: The contemporary accounts of the Nauvoo discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, ed. (Kindle Edition), 112.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien described the term Mooreeffoc, which is just coffee room spelled backwards, in this manner: “Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.” In “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 146. Here is a blog that talks about this word and also uses this quote from Tolkien, http://americanchestertonsociety.blogspot.com/2006/09/mooreeffoc.html.

This could be considered part two of a series on the scriptures that began with Scriptural Landscapes, or click here.

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Voices from the Dust: Part One

When the Book of Mormon came to light in the early 1800’s, literally from out of the earth, it fulfilled poetic prophecy that it would be a voice from the dust (see Isaiah 29:4) [1]. The Book of Mormon is actually a record of many unique voices crying as one that Jesus is the Christ. As a receptacle of a legion of voices, the Book of Mormon is an intimate book.

Recently I was on a work trip. On one of my calls home, my daughter answered my wife’s cell phone, I quickly greeted her by name. She quizzically replied, “how did you know it was me?” I said simply, “I know your voice.” Our family relationships are personal and intimate. We know each other in ways no one else will know us.

When I say the Book of Mormon is an intimate book, I mean it is intimate like how we are intimate with our families. When you read it, you can clearly see that it is meant to be intimate and personal.

In the opening chapter, Nephi, the first author, in our extent Book of Mormon, tells us his name, what language he is using, how he is writing his record, when his story takes place, and why he is writing. All the major authors and editors are also personal [2]. They are aware of a future audience that in some cases they have seen in vision. They write to you and me. Hearing a personal voice is a unique situation for a reader of an ancient text. It is something that should be appreciated in the Book of Mormon.

Because each of the Book of Mormon authors and editors are so personal, they are easily discernible and individualized. In fact, in certain cases, they are so unique, their singular voices appear to scream out at us from the pages of the Book of Mormon. For example, you can quickly differentiate a new tone when you move from Nephi to his younger brother Jacob [3], who is one of my favorite authors in the Book of Mormon.

John S. Tanner has explained some of the unique qualities of Jacob’s voice. In his recorded speeches, Jacob is “intimate, vivid, vulnerable. He used words about feelings—like anxiety, grieve, and tender—more frequently than any other Book of Mormon writer. For example, half the book’s references to anxiety occur in Jacob, and over two-thirds of the references to grieve and tender (or their derivatives), as well as shame, are Jacob’s. He is the only person to have used delicate, contempt, and lonesome. Likewise, he is the only Book of Mormon author to have employed wound in reference to emotions; and he never used it, as everyone else did to describe a physical injury. Similarly, Jacob used pierce or its variants frequently (four of the ten instances in the Book of Mormon), and he used it exclusively in a spiritual sense.”[4]

Jacob is an emotive wordsmith. Consider “the concrete words in the phrase: ‘Instead of feasting upon the pleasing words of God [they] have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds’” (Jacob 2:9). Or consider, “The sobbing of their hearts ascend up to God…Many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds” (2:35)[5]. Jacob’s singular sayings are so significant they are echoed by later voices of the Book of Mormon[6]. Jacob’s willingness to be vulnerable with his feelings allows us to develop a personal connection with him.

As intimate a speaker as Jacob must have been, he is not the only Book of Mormon author who is personal with the reader. Mormon, who is often the detached editor, also has moments of personal engagement with the reader, where his singular sentimentalities whisper around the ink to us. For example in Mosiah chapter 18, as Mormon describes a critical moment in the history of the Nephite people, he mentions the name Mormon no less than 12 times. Here is verse 30 as an example:

“And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.” (Mosiah 18:30)

This seemingly excessive repetition of the name Mormon is not an error; it is an individual, personal, and even desperate attempt on Mormon’s part to reach out thousands of years to tell the reader, “I was a real person. This is the origin of my name”. Mormon who knew of the impending destruction of his own people, also knew that his record would be preserved for another people far into the future. In the same way that this sacred place called Mormon could have been so significant that a family would name their son Mormon some 500 years later (Mormon 1:5), so too can the words of the Book of Mormon affect the lives of modern readers with similar poignancy.

Not only is the Book of Mormon intimate in the way it is written, but it is intimate in how it describes Christ and his infinite atonement. In fact, the popular Mormon term “infinite atonement” is first found in the Book of Mormon, coined by the prophet-poet Jacob (2 Nephi 9:7). The Book of Mormon doesn’t just describe Christ to you, you discover Him with the authors. You are there as the first prophets in the Book of Mormon pray to God and are shown Christ and learn of His atonement.

In the opening chapter, you discover Christ with Lehi, the first Book of Mormon prophet, as “the One descending out of the midst of heaven” (1 Nephi 1: 9). Lehi sorrows as he sees in vision the future destruction of Jerusalem, but he also sees the mercy of God, Christ’s atonement. And Lehi’s “soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled” (1 Nephi 1: 15). You are a fly on the wall when Nephi, Lehi’s son, has a vision of Jesus, his birth, his ministry, his suffering, and death (see 1 Nephi 11).

Originally, Christ is referenced only as the Messiah, the anointed one in Hebrew, in the beginning of the Book of Mormon (600 years before Christ). As a reader, you are a covert witness when Jacob discovers another name for the Messiah, because he shares this moment with us. He writes “it must needs be expedient that Christ-for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name-should come among the Jews” (2 Nephi 10: 3). I remember as a youth coming upon this sacred scene for the first time and sharing this moment with Jacob. From this moment onward, the Book of Mormon authors talk of Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach of Christ, prophesy of Christ “that [their] children may know to what source they may look to for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25: 26).

Some of these moments with Christ are so personal, you feel like an intruder of sorts loudly crashing through a jungle of a narrative before coming upon a private scene. Even if we are a “mood apart” from the intimate scenes frequently painted in the Book of Mormon [7], our mood can be linked to the text by an additional personal voice. The spirit’s voice creates the farthest reaching link to the intimacy of Christ’s love portrayed in the Book of Mormon. Despite all the textual evidence that begs the reader to adopt the idea that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, it is the voice of the Spirit that orchestrates the union of the book’s individual voices to testify of its own authenticity in the heart of the reader. It is the spirit’s singularly personal voice that witnesses to each individual of all truth.

Notes:

[1] This phraseology from Isaiah 29:4 is also found in 2 Nephi 26:15; 2 Nephi 27: 13; 2 Nephi 33:10; Mormon 8:26.

[2] There is a lot of literature that talks about the voices of the Book of Mormon, but one of my favorite books about this is Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010).

[3] For an interesting comparison of Nephi and Jacob, see Marilyn Arnold, “Unlocking the Sacred Text”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8.1, 1999, p. 52 or click here.

[4] John S. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1991), p.59 or click here.

[5] Tanner, p. 59.

[6] see John Hilton III, “Jacob’s Textual Legacy”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, 22. 2 (2013), p. 52-65 or click here.

[7] The phrase “mood apart” is from a Robert Frost poem not surprisingly entitled, “A Mood Apart” in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, Edward Conner Lathem, Ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969), p. 385.

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This is a semi-academic post; it does not document the extent of what is known on this subject nor explicate ideas previously unknown. For the real scholarship work being done on the Book of Mormon, please check out the publications of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship or click here. There are many groups engaged in scholarly research on the Book of Mormon, I am just partial to this group. I also like the Interpreter, click here.

Admiration, Emulation, and Memorialization


My prized April 1997 issue of the Ensign, the official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, limply lays in my appreciative hands, time-tattered and weathered by touch. In hindsight it seems providential that by opening this magazine almost a couple decades ago, I would be opening up a new path in my life leading to a greater appreciation for and a more intense interest in the atonement of Jesus Christ. The soaring sensation of having my unvoiced questions about life, suffering, and the Savior answered by a stranger was a startling discovery that is made new again every time I pick up this old copy.
 It was the article “Enduring Well” in that 1997 Ensign that fundamentally altered my perception of the gospel and the tenor of my developing discipleship to Christ. The author, Neal A. Maxwell, has always been a stranger in the sense that I never met him, but his influence upon me, starting with this masterfully written article, has had the impact of a close friend.

Elder Maxwell, Elder is a title for a general leader in the LDS church, made me responsible for my own trials:

“Rather than simply passing through trials, we must allow trials to pass through us in ways that sanctify us.” -Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”

I can expect trials, prepare for them, and understand the purposes for them:

“So often in life a deserved blessing is quickly followed by a needed stretching. Spiritual exhilaration may be quickly followed by a vexation or temptation. Were it otherwise, extended spiritual reveries or immunities from adversity might induce in us a regrettable forgetfulness of others in deep need.”-Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”

I gained greater appreciation for Christ’s suffering through the perceptive and wisdom-concentrated phrase the “awful arithmetic of the Atonement”(Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”). On multiple occasions, the implications of this phrase have yanked the reins on my otherwise galloping thoughts and forced me to ponder in reverence the infinite suffering of the savior.

Since 1997 I have been a voracious consumer of Elder Maxwell’s writings, particularly his official sermons from the Church. Soon my admiration of his literary aptitude turned to emulation as I started a journey to find my own style with his as my training wheels. Eventually, my emulation of his language became my memorialization of his world of words that went dark upon his death in 2004.

I don’t see myself as the successor of his literary legacy; his legacy is his own. I also don’t feel like my attempts to write like Maxwell necessarily make the statement that I write as good as Maxwell; I don’t. I am just giving credit to a stranger that helped me find my voice and use it in the praise of Christ. The tag I use to highlight the posts that have benefited from Maxwell’s inspiration is “writing like Maxwell”.

This is the first part in a series of essays written to remember Elder Maxwell through narrating my journey to write like him. The posts in this series will have the tag “write like Maxwell”.

For more information about Elder Maxwell, see the biography:

Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Books, 2002).

A very comprehensive list of Elder Maxwell’s writings can be found here, at the website Radio Beloved.

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The posts on nathanwritesstuff.com are neither official publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints nor approved statements by the Maxwell family. I esteem both groups, but represent neither party in an official capacity.

Cell of Our Own Self-Esteem

Sometimes we incarcerate ourselves in the cell of our own self-esteem. We take our fears, insecurities, and sorrows and project them upon the actions and words of others including God. We read our own guilt into the silent glances of others and they appear to be judging us. We may feel that God is angry at us, when really we are angry at ourselves. We can become so defensive over our own issues that no matter the real motives behind what anyone else does or says, all we will see is offense. Like bars, these feelings prevent us from having real relationships, because we don’t see things or people “as they really are” (see Jacob 4:13), we see them as we are.

Seeing the world through the cell of our own self-esteem makes it difficult to see anything but ourselves. As we put ourselves in front of the correct focus it won’t matter how much light we have in our life, the world outside of us will blur from our developing myopia. Our own concerns are sharply in focus and overshadow everything else. In this way, it can become nearly impossible to see the sufferings or triumphs of those closest to us, because we cannot see past the bars of our own overinflated issues. We cannot be there for others, and it seems like no one is there for us. This extreme nearsightedness may also be termed as spiritual blindness, where we “walk[…] in darkness at noonday” (D&C 95:6).

Spiritual blindness is not a malady that is inflicted upon us, but something we do to ourselves; it is the equivalent of walking around with our eyes shut. This is not only foolish, but dangerous! Fortunately, it is part of Christ’s prophesied mission to “Go forth to them that sit in darkness” (1 Nephi 21:9), and he can free us from ourselves by revealing himself to us. If we allow Him into our lives, we will see His “goodness”, which should “awaken[s] [us]” to a deeper sense of the divine (Mosiah 4:5, see also Mormon 2:13).

Depending upon our circumstances, coming to know God can be an arresting, life altering, and a sudden stop on our own road to “Damascus” (see Acts 9). Sometimes repentance, our turning to him, can be as uncomfortable as the impact of a wrecking ball, a “mighty change” that can cause the walls to the cell of our own self esteem to “[fall] down” (Alma 5:14 and Joshua 6:20). It may also feel like a eucatastrophe, which J.R.R. Tolkien defined as a “sudden joyous turn”, a joy “beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” (*).

Although repentance is often portrayed in dramatic one-time occurrences in scripture, for many of us this mighty change happens, almost imperceptibly, in the “process of time” (Moses 7:4). The experience of coming to know Christ and His atonement through repentance and reconciliation is a singular experience meant to be experienced regularly. It is a personal experience of such spiritual intimacy that in the Book of Mormon it is phrased as having “tasted of His love” (Mosiah 4:11).

It probably does not need to be said, but to taste something you put it in your mouth, you touch it with your tongue. This is the poetic way of referencing how personal and intimate our relationship with God can be. It is also exactly what we do every week at the sacrament. We take the bread, a symbol of his body, and we take the water, as a symbol of his blood, and we eat and drink them in remembrance of Him. The portions are small, but enough for us to “feast upon his love…forever” (Jacob 3:2). Through the sacrament, we memorialize the day when, or perhaps more likely the process of time through which, “Christ hath made us free” from ourselves (Galatians 5:1). We can then step out of our self-esteem to love and be loved.

Endnotes

* J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 153-157.

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A Call to Arms

The scriptures are rife with war metaphors and depictions of battles, so much so that when we read “put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11, KJV), we may get overly excited. We may imagine ourselves answering a call to arms as a knight riding up, sword and armor immaculately shining, “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” ready to deal out judgment in holy battle (D&C 5:14). In our eagerness; however, we may not think thoroughly enough about the identity of the actual enemy of God.
We know that Satan is the enemy, yet our struggle against him is more focused on his influence than on a chest thumping, arms outstretched, “come at me bro” type of direct encounter. Our battle is not against “flesh and blood” either, like our neighbor, but against “spiritual wickedness in high places,” especially those mountains of pride built up in us (see Ephesians 6:12, KJV). It is the “natural man” inside us that could be the real “enemy of God” we need to fight (Mosiah 3:19, BofM).

Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable idea, one which we may “never had
supposed” (Moses 1:10, PofGP). Ironically, this uncomfortable idea was likely brought to us by the Comforter or the Holy Ghost. We have known the Comforter as the instrument of God’s “tender mercies”, but the Spirit could be called the Discomforter, because He is often prompting us to do things that are uncomfortable, like “be thou humble” (D&C 110:12).

As an integral part of the “whole” armor of God, the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17, KVJ) is often compared to “a two edged sword”. This comparison does not just emphasize the sharpness of the Spirit or its facility for slicing outward in multiple directions, but also the idea that one of those edges is to cut towards the wielder; to “prick [our own] hearts with the word” (Jarom 1:12, BofM). We may need a little snipping here and there to our pride, in order to bring us down to the right size. Otherwise, the call to arms could come, and our own armor might not fit, because we have become too “puffed up in the vain things of the world” (Alma 5:37, BofM).

We will need a spiritual diet to shed our excess pounds of pride. A diet where we “deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness” (Moroni 10:32, BofM) and “feast upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3, BofM). We must also “exercise [our] faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:17, BofM) “lay[ing] aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1, KJV), so we can “run, and not be weary” “…of well-doing” (Isaiah 40:31 and 2 Thessalonians 3:13, KJV). Our concerted efforts will enable us to go back to a time “when [we were] little in [our own] sight” (1 Samuel 15:17. KJV). Slim enough to fit in God’s armor and little enough for the Lord to “lead [us] by the hand, and give [us] answer to [our] prayers” (D&C 112:10).

As we approach the Almighty in mighty prayer, we will encounter his overwhelming and unfailing love. A love that, perhaps contrary to our expectations, we will often experience through chastisement and rebuke, for He has said, “whom I love I also chasten” (D&C 95:1). Enduring with humility the experience of repeatedly seeing our shortcomings allows God’s grace to “make weak things become strong unto [us]” (Ether 12:27, BofM). The ceaseless struggle against the worst in us builds us into a better us. Our defeat of the enemy inside us will make us a better friend to everyone. Like muscles that are broken down to become stronger, our faith is exercised and strengthened through trial. After all, we wouldn’t need an “anchor” for our faith, if we were merely meant to sail in smooth seas (see Ether 12:4, BofM).

The crucible of our sufferings reveals the integrity of our metal affording us the opportunity to refine compromises we have made against truth and recast our character. We demonstrate this newly recast character during our afflictions to set it*, to finalize “His image in [our] countenance” (Alma 5:14, BofM). Our trials, at times, will take us to our breaking point, where God’s atoning grace can multiply our last efforts to do what was previously impossible for us. We will see in His refining fire that although we are nothing before Him, we are everything to Him, and we can do anything with Him. We will see that God’s “marvelous work and a wonder” is us (Isaiah 29:13, KJV); we will see it not only because we have experienced His love for us personally, but we will also see His wonder in others. Our sufferings, when endured with faith, will create more compassion in us for the rest of humanity. We will be more suited to suit up in His armor and answer the call to extend our arms out in mercy.

The purpose of the refiner’s fire is to create in us the capacity to ignite a “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4, BofM) in the heart’s of others. We will cease to merely consume, but begin to produce “the pleasing word of God” (Jacob 2:8, BofM), so we can enrich the lives of the “poor in spirit” and feed those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:3 and 6, KJV). We can speak a symphony of sympathy for those with secret sadnesses, while the word “healeth the wounded soul” (Jacob 2:8, BofM).

In the end, vanquishing the enemy within us frees up additional space for caring about and caring for others. God’s call to arms is to arm us with His love, so we, like Him, can “[go] about doing good” (Acts 10:38, KJV).

I am grateful to my friend Katherine for her editing suggestions and my friend Jason for the epic picture, which is of him. -Nathan

Endnote

*This principle was taught to me by a home teacher based on the teachings of Elder Scott, “Faith and character are intimately related. Faith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character available to you in times of urgent need. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is intended to be used.” Elder Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign (November 2010) https://www.lds.org/ensign/2010/11/the-transforming-power-of-faith-and-character?lang=eng&_r=1.

Scripture Key:

KJV=King James Version of the Bible;
BofM=Book of Mormon;
D&C=Doctrine and Covenants; and
PofGP=Pearl of Great Price.

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The Power to Get Back Up Again

We live in a fallen world and so we encounter failure. We try to “take up the cross, and follow [Christ] (Mark 10:21), but fall again and again. Sometimes we get tired. We may feel it is too hard. We may begin to think that our failures are not mistakes, but we are, that we fail because we are failures. This is exactly what Satan would like us to think. When we recognize that we have failed in some aspect of the gospel or we have sinned, we may come in contact with two different types of sorrow: the “sorrow of the world” (2 Corinthians 7:10) also described by Mormon as the “sorrowing of the damned” (Mormon 2:13), or “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

The sorrow of the world comes from Satan, it is designed to crush us under its weight. This weight is unproductive and deliberately debilitating, because “[Satan] seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27). He wants us to feel like him, like we are damned, and there is no way out. The sorrow of the world is paralyzing, but Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33), including its sorrow, so that he could give us a different way.

Christ’s way allows us to feel hope even in the midst of our sorrows. Unlike the sorrow of the world, the weight of “Godly sorrow” is meant to be lifted, so we can become stronger and better. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and links us to the power of an “infinite atonement” (Alma 34:12), which is the power to get back up when we fall, no matter how far or often. Part of the significance of having an “infinite atonement” is to teach us about infinite forgiveness, infinite healing, and God’s infinite love, which “faileth not” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The painful process of the atonement is itself an example of the power we can have over sorrow and sin.

The account of Christ’s agonizing atonement in the garden of Gethsemane progresses through a simple sequence of actions. The narrative in the book of Matthew reads, “and he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39, italics added for emphasis). The scholar Kent Brown* has taught that the three main verbs “went”, “fell”, and “prayed” as narrated in all the synoptic gospels use the imperfect tense in the Greek original. This tense is used to describe either an action that was customary, something someone used to do, or an action that was iterative, something done repeatedly. The intended meaning here is that Jesus repeatedly went forward, fell down, and cried out for the pain to stop. This cycle was repeated over and over again as he suffered for our sins and sorrows.

The critical verb that is absent, but implied in this sequence of suffering is that he got up. Jesus fell down repeatedly, but he also got up again and again, and so can we. We will fall and fail, often and hard, but we don’t have to stay down, we can get up. We can always rise from the ashes of our mistakes through Christ’s enabling atonement.

References

*From the documentary, “The Messiah: Behold the Lamb of God”, produced by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, accessed on May 17, 2016 http://messiahjesuschrist.org/episodes/atonement. The script, also available on line, has the following commentary from Professor Kent Brown:

“So Jesus arrives with the eleven. Judas has already separated himself. They come inside the garden, somewhere on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. He leaves eight near the gate, near the entryway, and takes three with Him farther into the garden. These are Peter, James, and John, those who have been with Him from the earliest days after He began to call the Twelve.

There are two basic things to notice about this. The first is the intensity of the suffering which now descends upon Him. And he, He says to the three that He is sorrowful even unto death. The weight of our sins, our mistakes, falling on a sinless man, in such enormity, brings Him to the point at which He wishes that He could push this away. He leaves them there, He goes farther into the garden and prays. And this is the second part. Each one of the synoptic gospels repeats his actions in the imperfect tense in Greek, which is the tense of customary action: he used to do this, she used to do that. And it also has to do with iterative action, repeated action. So that we read that Jesus went forward and fell and prayed, went forward and fell and prayed, went forward and fell and prayed.

This series of repeated actions that the verbs convey to readers indicates the intensity of the suffering He’s going through. He doesn’t just pray once. He must have straightened Himself up and trying to relieve Himself in some way, went forward and prayed again. This is a scene which is compelling to me, and tells me just in the way that it’s written, that Jesus suffers deeply, unfathomably at this moment, for you and for me.”

(http://messiahjesuschrist.org/messiah-the-narrative/messiah-script-episode-5/messiah-script-episode-5-part-2)

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A Burning Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Samoan Fireknife Dancers (1)
The Samoan fire-knife dance is a symbol of strength and fiery perseverance.
It can be hard to follow the Lord. At times it is easy to become “weary in well-doing” (Galatians 6:9). The gospel, as described in scripture, is pure and simple, until you try to live it. Life seemingly transforms elegant doctrine and principles into complex conundrums and sticky situations. In short, the gospel can get messy. For example, it is easy to love your enemies, when you don’t actually have any, but as soon as a loved one betrays you, a co-worker figuratively stabs you in the back, or a crazy driver cuts you off in traffic that principle gets exponentially harder to live. With the proper amount of pressure, we can grow faint and consider a full stop in our discipleship, but, a lot like the tragic prophet Jeremiah, we can also learn how to find strength for those times when we are without.

The Lord called Jeremiah to preach to a people who would not listen to him. He “[was] in derision daily” and mocked by “every one” (Jeremiah 20:7). His harsh message of repentance brought him into conflict with the most prominent people of power in his day. At one point Jeremiah felt that he had suffered enough, he declared, “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name” (Jeremiah 20:9). He was just going to stop, until he found that he could not.

He explained “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jeremiah 20:9). Jeremiah found that he could not stop as easily as he thought. The fiery insistence of the word overpowered his failing will. This is not an example of the Lord merely forcing someone to do his will against theirs; instead, this burning fire was a power reserve Jeremiah had stored for himself.

The word did not find its way into Jeremiah’s heart by accident, he had planted it there. He wrote in a previous chapter, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jeremiah 15:16). Jeremiah’s love of the word had given him light in his darkest hour and rekindled his faith in his time of doubt.

We also can populate a similar power reserve within us, when we relish God’s individualized, simple, and sublime revelations. Our love of the word, the Lord’s revealed will to us, can qualify us for additional power to persevere when our circumstances become severe, when living the gospel gets messy, or when our hopes shatter before our eyes.

The emphasis of our own role in this process is mainly for motivational purposes, because our efforts, no matter how critical, are merely the preparation of an altar, the fire has always “fell” from heaven (see 1 KIngs 18:38). Christ brings the word to life, and with our consent he can power us like “a burning fire shut up in [our] bones” to work miracles in his name.

Thank you to my Uncle Adolf in Samoa for providing the picture of the Samoan entertainer with the fire-knife. According to my dad, one of the ways of referring to this routine in Samoan is gaifi ailao. 

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