“I Will Heal Him”: How the Small Plates Healed the Book of Mormon after the Loss of its First 116 Manuscript Pages

Gaye Strathearn and Jacob Moody’s article “Christ’s Interpretation of Isaiah 52’s ‘My Servant’ in 3 Nephi” takes us back to Christ’s prophesied post-resurrection appearance to the Nephites in the Americas. It is in this setting that they present a unique insight into Christ’s usage of Isaiah’s words to prophecy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. This review summarizes the crux of their article and submits an alternate fulfillment to the prophecies pointed out in their work regarding the Book of Mormon. Strathearn and Moody use the following language to introduce the core of their paper:

…when Christ came to the Americas, he spent a significant portion of his sermon on the second day focused on Isaiah’s teachings. He quoted a substantial portion of chapter 52, although in a rearranged order, and all of chapter 54. What is stunning about this rendition is that Jesus did not include Isaiah 53 in his sermon, even though his audience would probably have expected it. Instead he includes a chapter discussing the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It is the purpose of this paper to argue that the discussion on the Book of Mormon was not a digression from his teachings from the Isaianic texts, but rather was Jesus’ interpretation of the servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-15, which he had just quoted in 3 Nephi 20:43-45.

Stathearn and Moody explain that the servant passage in Christ’s sermon comes from a series of four Servant Songs or poems beginning in Isaiah Chapter 41 (42:1-7;49:1-6;50:4-9;52:13-53:12). They point out that historically many have interpreted this servant to refer to multiple referents, collective Israel, specific prophets both ancient and modern, or Christ. These passages are familiar to many modern Bible readers and would have been familiar to the Nephites. The uniqueness of Strathearn and Moody’s analysis lies in their discussion of how Christ innovatively removed a servant passage from its familiar Isaianic context, (Isaiah 52:13-15) poetically stitched it into His sermon on the future gathering of Israel, added a unique servant prophecy (3 Nephi 21:10), and reinterpreted the servant as a prophetic personification of the Book of Mormon.

Strathearn and Moody show how general thematic elements, specific textual cues, and even chiastic structures in Christ’s sermon focus on the Book of Mormon suggesting that the servant passages in Christ’s sermon should also be read as references to the Book of Mormon. In support of this, they explain that Christ is not using the servant theme to refer to Himself because of the future tenses He employed to explain the servant prophecy of 3 Nephi 20:43-45 (see the use of shall in verse 46). They also discount Joseph Smith as the servant by discussing how the material especially in 3 Nephi chapter 21 is more plainly a discussion of the Book of Mormon. Below are the two passages related to the prophecies of the servant in Christ’s sermon:

Behold, my servant shall deal prudently; he shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. As many were astonished at thee—his visage was so marred, more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men—so shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him, for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider. (3 Nephi 20:43-45; see also Isaiah 52:13-15)

But behold, the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him, for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil. (3 Nephi 21:10)

Strathearn and Moody discuss a possible fulfillment of these prophecies in 3 Nephi by explaining how the Book of Mormon has been marred by critics both past and present. Even Mark Twain’s infamous “chloroform in print” quote makes its way into the discussion. These critics could definitely be said to have marred the reputation of the Book of Mormon; however, there is an alternate and more specific fulfillment to be found for these prophecies signaled by the text itself. In the prophecy in 3 Nephi 21: 10, Christ declared, “I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.” Strathearn and Moody noted that this phrase also appears in Doctrine and Covenants 10:43, but this shared wording between 3 Nephi 21:10 and D&C 10:43 is more than coincidence. It is a textual link connecting a prophecy (3 Nephi 21:10) and its specific fulfillment (D&C 10:43) in the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon.

In D&C section 10, the Lord reveals to Joseph Smith the cunning plan of the devil to destroy the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. According to section 10, Satan had orchestrated the loss of the first 116 pages, which caused the loss of Joseph’s gift to translate the Book of Mormon (see D&C 10:1-2,6-7). Additionally, the Lord explained to Joseph that he had prepared the small plates thousands of years ahead of time in order to replace some of the content that would be lost due to the loss of the 116 pages.

A Wise Purpose for the Small Plates

Doctrine and Covenants sections 10 and 3 are the Lord’s words to Joseph upon the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon. Joseph had lent the manuscript pages to Martin Harris after Martin had repeatedly asked the prophet to permit him to show his family the work that he had been transcribing and funding for the last few months. One can only imagine the shame and terror Joseph Smith felt when he discovered that the first 116 manuscript pages of his translation of the Book of Mormon were lost. He probably thought that it was over, all the visions and blessings promised during the multiple angelic visitations for the last few years, the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth again, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—all gone [1]. It would have appeared that Satan’s cunning plan to stop the Book of Mormon from coming to light had succeeded. Providentially, God had foreseen this event and had made preparations to counter it thousands of years before 1828. The Lord told Joseph, “The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3: 1).

The Lord told Joseph that the loss of the 116 pages was part of a cunning plan of the adversary to trick Joseph into retranslating this first section of the book. Then Satan could have his book bandits produce an altered copy of the 116 manuscript pages to prove Joseph was a charlatan. For this reason, God revealed to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants 10 that it was “in [His] wisdom” that Joseph should not retranslate the same record from which the 116 manuscript pages came, but should translate from the plates of Nephi instead (see verses 30, 38-42). In verse 38, the Lord reassured Joseph that “an account of the things [Joseph had]  written, which [had] gone out of [his] hands, [were] engraven upon the plates of Nephi” or upon what Jacob called the “small plates” (see Jacob 1:1).

Due to the small plates the loss was not total; however, the loss of the 116 manuscript pages marred the Book of Mormon leaving a jagged rift in the first part of the record. The insertion of the small plates directly over the missing first section of the translated Book of Mormon covered this fissure like a textual bandage. The small plates healed the Lord’s servant (the Book of Mormon), which had been marred by Satan’s attack. In this way, Christ’s prophesy to the Nephite people was fulfilled wherein He said, “the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him, for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil” (3 Nephi 21:10).

Throughout the Book of Mormon, God’s wisdom becomes a textual trail marker via the phrase wise purpose. The repetition of this phrase guides the reader to discover the intent for the small plates—to allow God’s wisdom to ultimately triumph over Satan’s cunning through its use as a replacement for the the loss of the Book of Mormon’s first 116 pages. Nephite prophet-historians claimed that the decisions to create, preserve, and include the small plates in the final Nephite record was for a wise purpose, a purpose otherwise unknown to them. Remarkably, the small plates would play a defining part in showing how “[His] wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.”

1 Nephi 9 and 19

According to Jack Welch, Nephi made the first set of plates, the large plates, “after his arrival in the New World. On these plates he recorded the book of Lehi and the secular affairs of his people” [2]. After Nephi had left the land of first inheritance and moved to the land of Nephi, the Lord commanded him to make a new set of plates and begin to write a new record with a different purpose than the records he was already keeping (between 588-570 BC) [3]. Jacob called this record the small plates.  These plates were to be spiritually focused, “an account…of the ministry” of the prophets as opposed to the “account of the reign of the Kings” that was upon the other plates, or large plates (see 1 Nephi 9:3-4). This additional set of plates and the subsequent labor to engrave much of the same material already engraved on the large plates only highlights Nephi’s obedient nature. Nephi characteristically states simply “the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9: 5).

God taught Joseph some 2300 years later what this wise purpose was including the fact that the accounts written in the small plates contained “greater views upon [His] gospel”. These greater views may be connected with the commandments Nephi received when making the record. Nephi wrote that he “received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates.” Many modern readers might agree with Nephi that his small plates are precious. Truly, the spiritual teachings written by these first authors constituted some of the sweetest spiritual sermons contained in the Book of Mormon. Had these teachings only been found in the large plates, they would have been lost. Regrettably, while some interesting information like Lehi’s genealogy and a more detailed account of their wanderings in the wilderness did not make the spiritual threshold to be included on the small plates and were subsequently lost with the 116 pages, according to Kent Brown, the “material quoted or summarized from Lehi’s records contains some of the most powerful doctrine and far-reaching prophecies in the entire Book of Mormon” [4].

Alma 37

Approximately 500 years after Nephi made the small plates (approximately 73 BC), Alma spoke of the importance to preserve all the records (including the small plates) [5]. He commanded his son Helaman saying, “keep all these things sacred which I have kept, even as I have kept them; for it is a wise purpose that they are kept” (Alma 37: 2). After sharing some of what Alma believed were reasons for keeping the records, Alma admits that he does not know all the purposes for preserving the records, “it may suffice if I only say they are preserved for a wise purpose, which purpose is known unto God” (Alma 37: 12).

Speaking of the divine preservation of the plates of brass, as well as “all the plates which do contain that which is holy writ,” Alma explained that “the Lord God doth work by means to bring about His great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls” (Alma 37: 5, 7). Although only partly known to Alma, the preservation of the small plates of Nephi would play a large role in bringing about God’s purposes to save many souls.

Alma’s anxiety over keeping the records was warranted seeing how the Lamanites historically wanted to destroy the records of the Nephites, not just the Nephites themselves (see Enos 1: 13-14, 20). Consequently, by Mormon’s time the various plates were deposited in the earth (see Mormon 2: 17; 6: 6), no doubt to protect them against evil designs to steal and destroy them. From personal experience, Alma knew the importance of keeping records safe from destruction. As a missionary he was taken captive and made to witness the burning of his converts and the records these martyrs had (see Alma 14).

Despite the many threats posed against the plates, the Lord told Joseph that He had promised the Nephites that their records would go out to all people (see D&C 10: 46-52). Because of God’s wisdom and the great diligence of His servants in keeping the records safe from destruction, Mormon was able to find the small plates among all the other records and attach them to his abridgment of the large plates.

Words of Mormon

Mormon providentially found the small plates among the records entrusted to him some 400 years after Alma made his comment about preserving the records and inserted them unedited with his own abridgment on the gold plates (about 385 AD). Alma and all the other prophets had kept their obligation to keep the records sacred and complete. Mormon not only found the small plates, but found them to be “choice unto [him]” (Words of Mormon 1: 6).

God’s wisdom is seen once again in Mormon’s decision to include Nephi’s small plates in his final record. Although Mormon found pleasure in the small plates, he also states that his reasons for including the plates into his final account were ultimately beyond him. He wrote, “I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come” (Words of Mormon 1: 7).

Additionally, God’s wisdom, in general, is seen in prophecies of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and also specifically in its arrival in the hands of each individual. Mormon wrote that “[the Book of Mormon] shall come forth according to the commandment of the Lord, when [He] shall see fit, in [His] wisdom” (Mormon 5: 13). In the last exhortation of the Book of Mormon penned by Moroni, each reader passes this phrase, “when ye shall read these things (the Book of Mormon), if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them” (Moroni 10: 3), and may wonder if God had provided this individual opportunity to him or her for a wise purpose that only He knows.

One thing is clear about the Book of Mormon, its authors and its translator, all saw themselves acting out God’s will according to His wisdom. They confess that they did not know exactly why they wrote what they did, anymore than perhaps why readers thousands of years later almost coincidentally come upon verses that impact them in such poignant ways. According to the Book of Mormon, in both cases, it can be attributed to the Lord’s wisdom.

Conclusion

Strathearn and Moody identified Christ’s innovative personification of the Book of Mormon as Isaiah’s prophesied servant and identified His use of these prophecies to foretell the Book of Mormon’s future opposition. This review concurs with this identification, but argues that the specific fulfillment to these prophecies was the loss of the 116 manuscript pages. This loss damaged the Book of Mormon; fortunately, God inspired his servants to create, preserve, and pass on the small plates, so that this record could bandage the Book of Mormon.

Although these ancient prophet-authors were likely unaware of the specific reason why the small plates were so important to God’s purposes, they trusted that God was working through them for the benefit of His people. Mormon stated “the Lord knoweth all things which are to come” (Words of Mormon 1: 7). This is a fitting statement seeing how God’s foresight allowed him to inspire Nephi to make and write the small plates 2300 years before they would play their pivotal role as yet another way the Lord’s wisdom would trump the cunning of the devil [6].

Interestingly, the textual bandage of the small plates did not completely cover up the hole left by the loss of the first part of the large plates’ narrative. Ironically, the resulting ragged edges, which remain uncovered can be seen as added support to the veracity of the underlying source materials (the plates) and the theory of multiple authors and editors for the Book of Mormon [7]. Given the limited time in which Joseph Smith had to translate the Book of Mormon, John Welch argues that the textual consistency within the Book of Mormon itself support the claim that Joseph Smith was not the author [8]. Additionally, the empty allusions made by authors of the Book of Mormon to content in the missing material of the large plates creates a virtual ghost text that would have been a difficult feat for a hurried uneducated author like Joseph Smith was [9].

The link between the prophecy in 3 Nephi 21: 10 extolling the future showdown between God’s wisdom and Satan’s cunning in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the explanation of the prophecy’s fulfillment in D&C 10, and the trail of textual connections that point to the working of God’s wise purposes throughout the narrative of the Book of Mormon all support the claim that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record. Although the claim for the validity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record inspired by God is becoming more solid via faithful scholarship, the truthfulness of its message is still a matter of faith. This truth is only found in the manner God has established, that is, via revelation to the faithful prayers of the humble.

End Notes

[1] Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the prophet, related the sad account of the loss of the 116 manuscript pages in The History of Joseph Smith-by His Mother, revised by George A. Smith and Elias Smith (Utah: Covenant Communications, Inc. [2000]), 123-130. Lucy recorded that upon hearing the news regarding the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph cried out “All is lost! All is lost!” (p. 126) and she noted that “it now appeared that all which we has so fondly anticipated, and which had been the source of so much secret gratification, had in a moment fled, and fled forever” (p. 127). A fair approach to Martin Harris and his role in the transciption and publishing of the Book of Mormon, see Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, “For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14.2 (2005), 8-9. For some oringal accounts from Joseph Smith on this event, see History, circa Summer 1832, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 1 June 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-summer-1832 or History, circa 1841, fair copy, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 1 June 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-1841-fair-copy

[2] John W. Welch, “When Did Nephi Write the Small Plates?” FARMS Update in Insights (March 1999): 2.

[3] See Welch, “When Did Nephi Write the Small Plates?”, 2. According to 1 Nephi 19, it was only after Nephi had already “engraven the record of [his] father, and also [their] journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of [his] father; and also many of [his] own prophecies”, did the Lord command Nephi to make the small plates.

[4] S. Kent Brown, “Nephi’s Use of Lehi’s Record” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you may have missed before, ed. John L. Sorenseon and Melvin J. Thorpe (Utah: Deseret Book Company [1991]), 11. http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1111&index=2

[5] God’s wisdom has yet to play out fully in the realm of sacred records. The use of God’s “wisdom” is not wholly confined to the instances I have cited above, but also includes verses, which talk about records yet to be revealed. According to Nephi’s record, there was a portion of the Nephite record that was not to be translated by Joseph Smith, it was to be sealed up “until [the Lord] sh[ould] see fit in [his] own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men” (2 Nephi 27: 22; italics added for emphasis).

[6] Another example of how God’s wisdom trumped the cunning of the devil is evidenced in Satan’s attempt to frustrate God’s plan by tricking Eve into partaking of the fruit of life. In Moses 4: 6 we find that Satan “sought also to beguile Eve…he sought to destroy the world”. However,  “[Satan] knew not the mind of God” (Moses 4: 6), for the Lord had already provided a way to eliminate the effects of the fall by anointing a savior in the preexistence. For this reason, Lehi could talk to his son Jacob about the fall and testify that “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2: 24).

[7] John Tvedtnes points out that in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon the book of Mosiah lacked a preface and had no title therefore the “first part of Mormon’s abridgement of Mosiah’s record, including the colophon, was evidently on the 116 pages lost by Martin Harris.” See “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you may have missed before, ed. John L. Sorenseon and Melvin J. Thorpe (Utah: Deseret Book Company [1991]), 33. This missing first part of the book of Mosiah is part of this jagged edge not fully covered by the insertion of the small plates.

[8] According to John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, Joseph Smith had sixty-five to seventy-five days to translate the Book of Mormon, which would have given him a translation rate of seven to eight pages a day see “How Long Did It Take to Translate the Book of Mormon” accessed on 4 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=71&chapid=767. Considering all the complexity and consistency inherent in the Book of Mormon, to write it in this amount of time would have been an extremely difficult feat for an educated genius much less an uneducated farm boy. Welch points this out in his “Textual Consistency” accessed on 15 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=71&chapid=771

[9] Here are two examples of such passages: John Tvedtnes noted that Alma 3:14-17 quotes a passage from Nephi, which does not appear in the small plates and there fore “must have been on the 116 pages”. See Tvedtnes “Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon in FARMS Review, volume 3, issue 1, pages 188-230, accessed on 15 June 2013, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=3&num=1&id=71; and Amulek provides his ancestry in Alma 10:2-3 noting that Lehi was a descendent of Manasseh, which was a fact that was purposefully not mentioned in the small plates, but was recorded in the large plates (see 1 Nephi 6:1-2).

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The Earth’s Possessed

The earth’s possessed, by hordes outnumbering Legion,

Summoned by man’s enterprises reverenced like religion.

We all bow before our industrial idols, and brew them, 

They swirl about and we breathe them, spew them.  

Demonic mists now rule the day, obscure the night,

The moon turns to blood; the stars lose their light.

We roll in our wages of sin, and yet we doubt,  

We’d rue the day the lights went out. 


I found this in my old poetry notebook from college. You gotta love college angst! “I am so upset about the environment, I am going to write a poem about it!” I wonder if college-me would be disappointed at what I am doing now or not…I had such starry-eyed hopes for my life then. From the apocalyptic nature of this poem, maybe college-me would be surprised that there is an earth left.

nathanwritesstuff.com

Christ: The End Worth Enduring For

Presented at the SMPT Conference held at Brigham Young University, October 2016.

It may seem like an understatement of sorts to say, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33), when hardship is the state of man in the world. Suffering is not supposed to be the end state for us though, “men are, that they may have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Christ is the end of our sorrows, not because he removes our sorrows, but through him “[our] sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:20). It is a process. As we sample life’s buffet, we will inevitably “taste the bitter”, not just so we can learn to “prize the good”, but so we can learn to metabolize the bitter and convert into something “for [our] own good” (Moses 6:55 and D&C 122:7). In life, we are meant to do more than just endure.

“Endur[ing] to the end” is the critical last leg of our overall journey to salvation (3 Nephi 15:9); however, when we talk about it, 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). More than merely understanding the end, the scriptures insist that we can know or even view the end through revelation. It is the through revelation’s lens that we can gain perspective on the end that is death, the end of our immediate sufferings, and the end who is Christ.

The scriptures, which are revelations themselves, beget further revelation for those seeking truth. It is important to know that the scriptures are living documents. We sometimes confuse the life we bring to the words as the only life the scriptures possess; as if the only voice the scriptures have is ours when we read. In addition to the ancient authors’ voices whispering from the dust, the “still small voice” of God’s spirit breathes life into the scriptures with words we can “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45). As a result of this interaction, we “can testify that [we] have heard [His] voice, and know [His] words” (D&C 18:36). The Lord entrusts us with revelation, so we will trust his words and follow him, especially in those times when we are confused.

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. Life has a way of forcing questions on us that the scriptures seem ill-equipped to answer. Often solutions from the scriptures seem binary, where things are only right or wrong. Fortunately, revelation can convert scriptural binary, so it can be applied to solve the equations of our own suffering. The scriptures hold a power to transport us into an abstract world that can match the abstract confusion in our lives. A place where “all things whatsoever God has seen proper to reveal to us” he can “[reveal] to us in the abstract”. [1]

It is precisely through continuing personal revelation that the gospel is made “inexhaustible” [2] and we can begin to fathom such a thing as an “infinite atonement” (2 Nephi 9:7). Without the assistance of the spirit, we are easily confined to a finite world defined by the relentless rhythm of time. In his atoning act, Christ’s condescension to this world connected us to the infinite. We worship a God, before whom “past, present, and future…are continually” (D&C 130:7); therefore, God can and does “declar[e] the end from the beginning” to us (Isaiah 46:10). It is worth all the spiritual sweat we expend in understanding revelation from the scriptures and persistent prayer, if we can gain a glimpse of the sweet eternal perspective that the Lord can provide. Eternal perspectives enable us to correctly scope our current crisis.

The End that Is Death

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 post-mortal world can allow us to face trials, suffering, and especially death knowing that we don’t have to face them alone.

When a loved one departs this earth, part of our solace can come from this knowledge that death is not the end of life. Additionally, understanding that death is not the end of our relationships can help us deal with life. The scriptures teach that “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there” (D&C 130:2). This principle is one of the more regularly confirmed revelations in scripture. The spirit hallows our daily precious moments with the people we love by adding a feeling of permanence that is nearly palpable to our associations. This spiritual witness of our enduring relationships is also part of our “knowledge…of the world to come” (Jacob 4:12). Our spirit-touched eyes can see what heaven will be like as we love others right now. This love, though not always “perfect”, can still cast out some of the fear that our vessels of faith take in as we traverse the swells of life (1 John 4:18).

Revelation offers us the awareness that we are not alone, especially at those times that we most fear that we are. “Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us” [3]; they are in the spirit world here “on earth, around us” [4]. By doing genealogy we generate more than lists of names and dates, we generate eternal relationships. Our efforts in family history invite the spirit to thin the veil that separates us from the dearly departed, so that our own ancestry can be the unseen ministering angels that “speak by the power of the Holy Ghost” to us in our times of need (2 Nephi 32:3) [5]. Genealogy generates power for us to overcome our difficulties. No matter how steep the odds we face in our trials here, the arithmetic of our own ancestry is such that we can count on there being “more with us than with [any of our figurative enemy armies]“ (2 Chronicles 32:7). It is very empowering to realize that the hosts of heaven, the great angelic army of the Lord, are our ancestors. [6]

Christ has “trodden the winepress alone” so we do not have to (Isaiah 63:3). His atonement can make our relationships eternal. The relationships we create here and through the veil are our “cloud of witnesses” to God’s love for us, a love that is perfect and “casteth out all fear” (Hebrews 12:1 and Moroni 8:16).

The End of Our Sufferings

Despite a growing knowledge of the world to come, 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 spiritually see “things as they really are, and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

The Holy Ghost is a comforter, because he is a revealer. Through the spirit, our faith and anxiety can qualify us to know what “things should happen” (Jacob 1:5). Revelation can comfort us; 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 agony began in the garden of Gethsemane [7]. 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.

The Spirit’s witness of Christ is another way that the Holy Ghost fulfills his role as a comforter. The Spirit begins by confirming basic truths about Christ; that he exists and that he is the savior. Over time, the Holy Ghost personalizes Christ’s reality to us in ways that will deepen our awareness of the personal relationship we have with him. His reality can become so tangible, we will begin to feel “as though he had already come among [us]” (Mosiah 3:13, see also Jarom 1:11). This consciousness of his reality, his personal presence in our lives, gives us lasting comfort in our times of need. The numerous tender mercies we receive from God become more tender through an intimate relationship with their giver.

While speaking of theophanies, Moroni explained that the brother of Jared was one of those who “truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad” (Ether 12:19). The spirit helps us imagine the presence of God with our spiritual senses well before the day when “[we] shall see him” with our eyes (D&C 88:68). In this way, the Spirit, as the comforter, prepares us for the Second Comforter, who is Christ [8]. Coming into the presence of God is a process in which we experience his presence gradually as we learn to feel and follow the Spirit. Our sufferings are a vital part of this process.

When we are in pain, it is very easy to focus on causes instead of purposes for our trials. We can wallow in a multitude of why questions, before we begin to think about how to get through the quagmire of a particular problem. We often treat our problems like ends unto themselves, when really to the Lord our trials are a means to an end. Getting through a tribulation, though admirable, is not as important eternally as what we get out of it and who we become because of it. Life, including our sufferings, is a means to an end, and that end is for us to become like Christ. He is the end of our sufferings.

The End Who Is Christ

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 [9] 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; however, this feeling of intimacy with Christ and a certainty of his existence, though related are different concepts. The scriptures use various senses to suggest progressive levels of certitude in our awareness of Christ’s reality; we can feel his spirit, we can hear his voice, and finally we can see his face. The scriptures similarly describe different degrees of divine intimacy or nearness, but the senses are ranked differently. From a distance we can hear him “as the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and we can glimpse him with an eye of faith, but the spirit allows a closeness beyond sound or sight, where we can feel his presence, and even “[taste] of his love” (D&C 88:66 and Mosiah 4:11).

The Lord does not want us to just know that he is, he also wants proximity to us. In scripture, he insists on intimacy, “draw near unto me, and I will draw near unto you” (D&C 88:63). The idea that we can taste of his love or goodness is a symbolically shocking way to describe how close we can come to the Lord through the spirit (see Mosiah 4:11 and Alma 36:24-26). To taste something, you have to be close enough to touch it with your tongue. As a brief aside, this is exactly what we do with the emblems of Christ in the Eucharist or the Sacrament, we put them in our mouth; it is supposed to be this intimate. 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.

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). Our harrowing experiences prepare our hearts to receive the word, so that it can be planted there. Alma defines this word as Christ and his atonement, the capitalized Word, and suggests that as Christ grows in us, God may then “grant unto [us] that [our] burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son” (Alma 33:23, 22-23) [10]. Our suffering can lead us to such intimacy with the Lord that we end up becoming “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

To see the abstract for this paper, see “The End Worth Enduring for“.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Ezra T. Benson, “Life is Eternal”, Ensign, June 1971. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/06/life-is-eternal?lang=eng

[4] Gospel Principles, “Chapter 41: The Postmortal Spirit World” (2011). https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-41-the-postmortal-spirit-world?lang=eng

[5] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament”, Ensign, January 1999. https://www.lds.org/liahona/1999/01/the-aaronic-priesthood-and-the-sacrament?lang=eng

[6] This is based on the principle that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it” (D&C 130:5). Joseph F. Smith also stated that “When messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow-beings and fellow-servants.” https://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/03/i-have-a-question?lang=eng

[7] “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.

[8] The LDS Bible Dictionary defines the Second Comforter as the personal privilege of receiving the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/comforter?lang=eng&letter=c

[9] The LDS Bible Dictionary entry for Grace: “It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means.” https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/grace?lang=eng&letter=g I also like this article on Grace by John Gee http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1466&index=10

[10] I am reading Alma 33:23, where Alma says “plant this word” as a referrer to Alma 33:22 for a definition of “the word” used in the famous allegory of Alma 32, which, from this point of view, is a process of certainty and intimacy with the Savior himself.

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Presenting at the SMPT Conference October 13-15, 2016

I was invited to present a paper at the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s conference to be held at Brigham Young University 13-15 October 2016 (click here for more information). The abstract I submitted was entitled “The End Worth Enduring for” and can be found in this blog (click here). The full paper was presented on 15 October 2016 at BYU and was entitled, “Christ: the End Worth Enduring for” (click here). The Conference was sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and the Department of Philosophy, Brigham Young University.

smpt-pamphlet-cover

I received a call for submissions for the Annual SMPT Conference in my Twitter feed (@Mormon_pen). After looking at the topic for the Conference, I identified a recently posted article on my website as a suitable abstract submission. I sent it to the point of contact listed in the notice and waited.

At one point, I actually forgot about it, until I received an acceptance email. Because I had not really expected to hear back from the SMPT about my submission, I did not think that I needed to discuss the possible implications of my submission with my wife, ie. the fact that I might have to go to BYU to present a paper.

Presenting papers at out-of-state Conferences is exciting when you are in College, or it is part of your job, or you have older independent kids, but when you are not these things, it is a little worrisome. From my wife’s point of view, she would be staying at home changing diapers, doing the yard work, taking kids to soccer games, giving kids baths, cooking, and cleaning while I was gallivanting idyllically around all the exciting venues Mormondom has to offer without a care in the world. She was not thrilled at the idea, and I am not sure I am totally prepared for all the favors I will have to fulfill to make up for all the sweat and tears caused by my absence…

The other problem was that I had a month to actually write the paper. I submitted an “abstract”, which was really my full paper. It was about 500 words long, but needed to be around 3,00o words long. Easy, right? As a father and sometimes struggling sole-provider for a household, I have two jobs, which limited the amount of time I actually had to write. So…working at about 15 minutes a day on this paper left me finishing a rough draft the day before my presentation…not exactly ideal.

I found out that the SMPT Conference is a great atmosphere to express ideas and think deeply. There were quite a few kind people. I wish I would have had more time to attend other presentations and hob-nob with the other presenters on the other days…maybe in the future. Thanks SMPT!

smpt-conference-october-2016

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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.