When Facing Doom, There is Room for Opportunities

Paul prophesied that “in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1). Especially in our current pandemic experience, it feels like those perilous times are already here. At times like today, it is important to remember that with every prophecy of doom there is room for opportunity; opportunities to bring salvation to you, me, and others. While “the whole earth shall be in commotion” (D&C 45:26); and “many hearts shall fail” (D&C 45:26), we should “sanctify the Lord God in [our] hearts and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh [us] a reason of the hope that is in [us] (1 Peter 3:15). Hope is always in short supply, when fear barks out its demands. 

Sustained anxiety and fear have a powerful effect on the human psyche. The continued commotion caused by sensationalized media from news outlets and social media feeds can blind people to the truth. “[T]here are many yet on the earth…who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men…who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12). In this age, we can easily confuse truth with information and be “ever learning,” but “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Being inundated with data is not the same thing as having “[our] whole bodies [being] filled with light” (D&C 88:67). What I am suggesting today is for you and me to find our light. If we have “misplaced” it under a bushel (see Matt.5:15), then let’s get it back, and rush out into the darkness to those who feel alone on an island of isolation surrounded by a sea of fear.

One need only to crack open the scriptures to feel that heavenly light chase away the darkness. Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that “[t]he scriptures hold the keys to spiritual protection…they offer hope.”[1] Sharing this hope through the scriptures can open up the “windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) to those “walking in darkness at noon-day” (D&C 95:6). The Book of Mormon is particularly relevant to our chaotic circumstances. As pointed out by the church scholar Grant Hardy, Mormon spends most of the Book of Mormon’s space on times of conflict.[2] It is informative to note that it is in those same times of conflict in the Book of Mormon that there are so many narratives about miracles. Mormon and the other narrators in the Book of Mormon knew our day, they knew we needed to know how to find miracles within the most dysfunctional times of our lives. Somehow, the Book of Mormon creatively blends stringent didacticism and literary artistry into a piercing message of hope in the face of the tragedy of its own narrative—the entire destruction of its own people. It is a miracle in its own right that we can read this heart-rending narrative and come away healed, full of hope, and rejoicing because of the Savior. I know the Savior, because of the Book of Mormon. He is real and I love him.  

It was during the years of continuous warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites that the sons of Mosiah convert thousands of their mortal enemies to Christ. This once bloodthirsty people, have such a mighty change in their hearts that they end up burying their weapons of war as well as “the weapons of their rebellion, that they did not fight against God any more” (Alma 23:7). They make an oath never again to take up arms against another soul—an oath they never break. Their conversion was so thorough that despite all the trials that continuously materialized on their covenant path,[3] they “never did fall away” (Alma 23:6). Such is the power of a Christ taken seriously. Christ was not an abstract concept to these converts. He visited them. They were “washed bright through the blood of the Son” (Alma 24:13). They came to know personally that “[God] love[d] [their] souls” (Alma 24:14). I often use the following pleading from their king as a spiritual ruler to measure my own devotion to the Savior:

What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. (Alma 22:15)

And then this same king prays:

O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. (Alma 22:18)

When was the last time I prayed with such fervor? Am I willing to change, to give up the me of today in order to follow God? I love Alma’s question to the people of Zarahemla, “if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love…can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26). If quarantine has caused you to distance yourself not only from others, but from God, “now is the time and the day of your salvation” (Alma 34:31). “Draw near unto [him] and [he] will draw near unto you” (D&C 88: 63). We are at our closest to God when we are on our knees. We don’t even need to don a mask before we “call on his name,” he will “converse with [us]” anyway (Alma 12:30).  

It is in a population of defiant dissidents that Alma and his group of missionaries rescue a group of humble converts for Christ. For these converts, “their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word” (Alma 32:6). Our current quarantine has likewise humbled many and prepared us for the word. The word is Christ. And we have no idea how many people our words about Christ could change. His redemption is “immediate[…]” (Alma 34:31) and life altering. Although the converts from Alma’s party at this time were limited, their effect was lasting. 

In a dark prison 40 years later, a man recites their words to a cowering crowd, who asked “what shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us?” He responds:

You must repent, and cry…even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you. (Helaman 5:41) 

As a result of this dialogue and the ensuing miracles that followed, the “more part of the Lamanites were convinced” and “did lay down their weapons of war” (Helaman 5:50-51). On top of this, the Lamanites “did yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possessions” (Helaman 5:52). Church scholar Michael Perry points out that this recovery of territory was something that years of war could not bring about (compare with Helaman 4:18-19).[4] This is the power of the word, which “had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else” (Alma 31:5). Like Alma, we “should try the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5) in our own lives and share this power with others.  

As it was with them, so it is with us. Under our despairing circumstances, living in a world prophesied to be the end of days with commotion, contention, persecution, disasters, diseases, and the worst of human behavior, we can expect to see most clearly the tender mercies of the Lord. And even more, we can expect to be the instruments of his tender mercies delivered to others! Serving the Lord has never been comfortable, but sometimes God needs to discomfort us so we will bring comfort to the comfortless. We can be emboldened to “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power…with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:17). Let’s let the Lord into our lives to lead us to reach out to someone today and every day his voice comes to us. If we listen, he will call us on his errand. I know this. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Endnotes:

[1] Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Key to Spiritual Protection,” October 2013: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/the-key-to-spiritual-protection?lang=yap

[2] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 107-108.

[3] “My dear brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ invites us to take the covenant path back home to our Heavenly Parents and be with those we love. He invites us to ‘come, follow me.’” President Nelson described it this way in his talk: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/46nelson?lang=eng

[4] Michael F. Perry, “Supremacy of the Word: Alma’s Mission to the Zoramites and the Conversion of the Lamanites,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, v. 24 (2015), 135-136. 

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Love First, Love Last

As powerful as human love can be, it cannot compare with the unique love Jesus taught and exemplified. In fact, Christ’s love is so specialized the scriptures sometimes employ a different word to distinguish it from the ordinary concept. This word in the English scriptures is Charity. Unlike Charity, “which never faileth”, but “endureth forever” (Moroni 7:45, 47), worldly love is fickle, prone to fall in and out of our hearts depending on circumstances. Like ordinary love, Charity needs to be experienced to be understood. God shares his love with us, and after realizing how deeply he loves us, we might be inspired to reciprocate or even emulate His love. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  

Charity does not come naturally to the natural man. Instead it is a gift we receive through prayer. Prayer is a form of work, something we must exercise regularly; this is especially true for the reception and retention of Charity. The scriptures urge us to “pray unto the father with all the energy of heart” to be “filled with this love” (Moroni 7:48). The exercise of this type of prayer can have a cardiovascular effect, which increases the capacity of our hearts to love with more breadth and depth for longer. Receiving Charity trains us in the art of loving first. 

Although very common, measuring another’s interest in loving us as a condition to loving them is more shallow than the love we are capable of through Christ. Christ “first loved us” and his love pushes us to do the same (1 John 4:19). So before we have enough information about someone to judge whether they merit our time and effort, we can choose to love them first. We don’t have to wrap our minds around someone else’s world until we find common ground in order to love. We can push past loving people just because we can see in them things we understand and love about ourselves to loving them just because. When we pray for Charity, we can include an object, a specific person, for whom we can learn to love first. Sometimes this object we are praying to love should be ourselves.

Being “filled with Charity” is not an ability limited to loving others despite their weaknesses, but also ourselves. Sometimes we can learn to appreciate the sordid pasts of others and love them today regardless, but find ourselves loathing our own history so much that we become restlessly uncomfortable in our own skin. Christ’s love comes to us as a comfort, precisely because it comes to us through the “Comforter” (Moroni 8:26). The reception of Charity reminds us that we are not only meant to be the messenger of Christ’s love, but also a receptacle; we are meant to believe the message too. When we read that “[Christ has] loved the world, even unto the laying down of [his] life for the world” (Ether 12:33), the world is not some wholly abstract phrase here, we are the world to him. Spiritual syntax demands that his loving us first not only move us to love him in return, but also love ourselves more completely, which multiplies our ability to love, period.

When we believe Christ’s love for us, we naturally want to love like him (see John 13:34). Our role as an appreciative consumer of his love prepares us to become a distributor too as Christ’s Charity drives us to pour out our hearts in love for others; a marvelous work, from which we can grow weary. As we continue our commitment to loving others, we might fear to expend our coveted reservoir of God’s love, a reservoir carved out originally by our fervent prayers and miraculously filled by the Lord. Just like the widow of Zidon, when we faithfully use up our all for others, we will witness how God will not allow our reservoir to fail (see 1 Kings 17:8-16). Prayer, our connection to the power of loving first, will also enable this love to last, because “perfect love…endureth by diligence unto prayer” (Moroni 8:26). 

It can be overwhelming to realize the implications of an infinite love, but this weighty gift of Charity mercifully comes with a manual. The same Comforter that delivers the package of perfect love to us also is the manual for its correct application. Charity is not a mandate to become a perpetual doormat or an unflinching punching bag. The Spirit “will show unto [us] all things what [we] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5), including what we should do with this most precious gift of His love. The Holy Ghost will prompt us not only to turn the other cheek at times (see Luke 6:29), but also to “[reprove] betimes with sharpness” (D&C 121:43). This repeated spiritual process of seeking Christ’s love and wandering through paths unknown to deliver it, will one day walk us back to Him. In this way, “when he shall appear we shall be like him,” because Charity, above all other gifts, sculpts us most closely into Christ’s image (see Moroni 7:48). After all, Christ’s image needs to be seen on more than paintings and sculptures, it needs to be witnessed in our acts and on our faces as we choose to love first and love last. 

Special thanks to the editing wizardry of my friend Katherine.

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.

“The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth”: Following the Spirit

In the Gospel of John we read:

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

Here Jesus imaginatively employed the mysterious movement of the wind to elucidate the apparent elusiveness of the spirit. While we struggle to understand the Spirit’s movements—i.e., “whence it cometh, and whither it goeth”, the Spirit knows where it comes from and where it goes. Thus, ideally, we can trust the Spirit and exchange our desired destination for His.

But realistically, man is not always willing to part with his willfulness. The “natural man” is, after all, the natural “enemy of God”. He does not “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3: 19), but goes astray pursuing what he thinks is “his own way” (Isaiah 53: 6). And “his own way” it may be, at least in the beginning. But every step he takes away from the strait and narrow, is a step off the refuge of the rock of the gospel, and soon he will know what it means to be exposed to the forces of nature. For Satan’s storm will come with its “harrow[ing]…whirlwinds” and he shall “be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them” (Alma 26: 6). The natural man left to himself is just a natural disaster waiting to happen.

Man’s stripping off the armor of God for more unrestrictive movement, in the end just becomes a uniform change. Of course, the armor Satan provides is the type of chain mail that does not protect, but instead connects you to his misery, which is described as awful. And being bitter from sipping the bitter cup, the natural man wants nothing more than “to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:38). The natural man does not become an enemy of God, just because he does not yield to the spirit, but because he yields to the quintessential enemy of God, “that awful monster the devil” (2 Nephi 9:19).

Sadly, Satan’s hold on man is so widespread, that this enmity with God is considered natural. Satan, the father of lies, is the world’s greatest salesman and advertiser. Who else could take fire and brimstone and package it as prime real estate? He is not only persuasive, but pervasive to the extent that there are few places you can go to escape his noisy sales pitches and eye-catching advertisements. Truly, with the enemy combined there are loud voices everywhere saying; “lo here or lo there”. Amidst this rowdy ruckus how are we ever to hear the still small voice?

We must often leave the world and go “into the wilderness to be with God” (Matt. 4: 1, Joseph Smith Translation). Sometimes this wilderness is no further than a finger movement to turn off some type of electronic device and sit in silence. We may be surprised at the many things that only silence can say.

Then again there are many who after expending much effort towards contacting the spirit are left baffled at the spirit’s elusiveness. Even so, let us not confuse elusiveness with aloofness. For God is very concerned about us to the extent that he has “the very hairs of [our] head[s] numbered” (Matt. 10: 30). I think that sometimes we confuse the promise of “always hav[ing] his spirit to be with [us]” (Moroni 4: 3) with the Spirit always waiting upon us or with the Spirit always speaking to us.

We cannot expect the spirit to answer at our beck and call, for it is us that must always be willing to be “led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [we] should do” (1 Nephi 4: 6). And perhaps we are meant to be baffled and to feel lost at times, but this does not mean the spirit is not with us. Perhaps, we are just having a Spirit-supervised moment where we are meant to understand that “man doth not comprehend all the things, which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4: 9), and must wait for his arm to be revealed (see D&C 123: 17).

Although we should not expect constant revelation, we are expected to be constantly ready for revelation, so that when it comes we are in a position to receive it. This requires us to be worthy. We all know that “the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples” (Helaman 4: 24). So if we have been wounded by sin, we must seek out the savior to be made whole again. The flaws or missing pieces in the armor of God that allow Satan’s fiery darts to pierce us are not existent in their original design, but occur due to our lack of maintenance or misusage. Continual repentance is a big part of maintaining our armor’s integrity. This way we can heal the wounds from past sins as well as mend the chinks in our armor, so we will not succumb to the same temptations in the future. A suit of armor that is whole is required to keep our souls holy.

Although everyone has the ability to feel the spirit, not many people develop this ability into a highly trained skill, and thus become highly sensitive to the Spirit. In fact, two of our best training exercises, scripture study and prayer are often under utilized both in frequency and in intensity. These exercises require us to regularly reach past our past spiritual plateaus to new peaks of spiritual awareness. This is true particularly of prayer.

Sometimes prayer can seem like a hit or miss phenomena. If we feel something is lacking, we should work on our prayer. We need to realize that “prayer is a form of work” (Bible Dictionary, 753), it is not supposed to be done effortlessly and by rote. Furthermore, we sometimes forget the purpose of using Christ’s name in prayer. According to the Bible Dictionary, “We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ…we then ask for things it is possible for God to grant” (Bible Dictionary, 753).

Prayer is not primarily a dialogue where we offer our list of wants and wait to hear if they are accepted. It is however a spiritually submissive activity from the start, where we seek the will of the Lord well before we rattle on about this blessing or that blessing. In prayer the “Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26). According to Doctrine and Covenants 50, when we are holy, “[we] shall ask whatsoever [we] will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done. But know this, it shall be given you what you shall ask” (D&C 50: 29-30). Accordingly, our prayers are major opportunities to recognize and follow the Spirit.

But desire or will, in the end, is much more important than technique or ability. That is why the natural man falls short; he is unwilling to surrender his will to the father, because he sees it as a defeat, and it is—the defeat of the natural man that makes possible the birth of a spiritual man or woman. This defeat or surrender should happen in our prayers. Consequently, the purpose of mentioning phrases like “thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 5: 10) is for us. God’s will will be done whether we pray for it or not. But our praying for His will to be done, establishes an atmosphere during our prayer that makes it possible for us to know His will and be a part of it being done. Our prayers should be less about us telling God about our will, and more about us searching for His will and submitting ours to His.

Obviously it is okay to express ourselves to a loving Heavenly Father, but when we cry out for our will to be done, we should remember the “nevertheless” from Gethsemane. For it was not Christ’s will that was done in the garden, but Heavenly Father’s. Christ’s submission in the garden did not diminish Christ’s manliness, but rather makes him the kind of man that all mankind should follow. And when we follow his voice and his example, we are following the Spirit and are just like the wind…

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3: 8).

A lightly edited excerpt of a Sacrament meeting talk originally delivered in 2010.

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Scriptural Landscapes

I recently drove by trees in full autumn splendor, their multi-colored leaves blurring as I sped past. The organic rustling of red, orange, and yellow was a fire around me that burned but did not consume. In this moment, as in many others, Earth became heaven in my eyes. I parted the painting and glimpsed the Painter, and I felt that I should take off my shoes as Moses did (see Exodus 3:1–5). God manifests himself through nature (see Alma 30:44 and D&C 88:45-47), revealing the Earth as a landscape of his love for those with eyes to see.

Like the Earth, the scriptures have their own vivid landscapes. However, just as we can move through the Earth’s environs and remain unmoved, so can we also miss the magic of scriptural landscapes.

Our experience with scripture is influenced by our approach. We can observe it from a distance with detached analysis. Or we can inhabit the text, walking in the words and making personal connections with the people and events. Our rhythm matters: sometimes there is value in skimming through a narrative for a quick overview. Other times, it is worth stopping to pluck a word from the contextual ground, to listen to the melody the words make as they run through the stream of our consciousness, or to feel the warmth of the Spirit spread in our hearts as the flame of our understanding is lit.

When we are moved by passages of scripture, we can create landmarks that help us find our way back to these features so that we can remember sacred moments. Then, if we are ever lost in the “valley of the shadow” (Psalms 23:4), we can find a path back to the light.

Throughout our explorations, new trails will spontaneously—almost serendipitously—link to the features we have marked, allowing us to map out a labyrinth of textual trails that teach us we are not alone in the word.

Though we sometimes confuse the life we bring to the scriptures as the only life they possess, scriptures are living documents. The “still small voice” of God’s spirit breathes life into them, giving us words we can “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45), allowing us to “testify that [we] have heard [his] voice, and know [his] words” (D&C l8:36). God’s light shines through scriptural landscapes; his voice cries out in the wilderness (D&C 88:66-68) beckoning us toward him.

If the Spirit hallows our passing through scriptural landscapes, even seemingly ordinary text can burn with sanctifying power. The landmarks and trails we weave through these landscapes will eventually lead us back to the Landscaper, who waits with open arms to receive us.

This article was published in Sunstone: Mormon Experience, Scholarship, Issues, and Art, Spring 2016, 59. A thank you to my mom for the picture of Whiteface mountain in Autumn.

This could be considered to represent part one in a series on the scriptures. Part 2 of this series is The Spell of the Gospel: the Convergence of Poetry and the Spirit in the Scriptures, or click here.

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