Monthly Archives

March 2019

Self Development

Nephi’s Psalm

 



It seems to me that great rejoicing in the Atonement is often evoked by great challenges in life. And Nephi’s Psalm in 2 Nephi 4 is a great case in point.

When we consider this chapter in perspective, we see that in verse 12 Lehi died. Think about what that would have meant to Nephi. Lehi was not only his father, but also the prophet leader. He was Nephi’s mentor and guide. What a keen loss this would have been for Nephi.

Lehi died and, as you might expect, Laman and Lemuel promptly got angry along with those who followed them.

Then Nephi’s thoughts turned to the record he had been keeping. I wonder if in some ways that was a burden to him as well. After all, it was his father who taught him in language and culture and now his father was gone. His father mentored and tutored him in keeping a sacred record and now he felt the pressure to try to keep the people together, to keep the record and to do the work of God.

Sometimes the Atonement becomes more meaningful when we get desperate.

In verse 15, Nephi said, “Upon these I write the things of my soul… For my soul delighteth in the scriptures.”  And then in verse 16, “My soul delighteth in the things of the Lord.” But even as he rejoiced, he observed, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord…” (v. 17).

There is something about knowing the greatness and goodness of God that makes us more aware, more mindful, more burdened by our limitations and humanness.  So he went on in verse 17, “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of my iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth…”

Nephi gave us no clues about those sins and probably we don’t need to know. We don’t know if he was burdened that sometimes he forgot to do his chores or make his bed in the morning. We don’t know if perhaps he failed to save his best energy for prayer. We don’t know whether he had a sensitive soul that became troubled by fairly small mistakes and failings when God had blessed him so abundantly. Or perhaps Nephi was more like most of us—someone who blundered and soiled his life time and time again. Was he burdened by anger, lust, selfishness and all the other common afflictions of mortality? We don’t know. And we don’t need to know because the principles that Nephi teaches us in this great psalm are the same if our sins are of the minor variety or the larger, more common variety.

So he confessed to us, “Despite the goodness of God, my heart sorroweth, my soul grieveth because of my iniquities.” But then there was a turning point: “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (v. 19). That word trust is going to turn out to be very important in this chapter.

“My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions… he hath preserved me… He hath filled me with his love… He hath confounded mine enemies…” (vs. 20-22).

I don’t know why it took me so long to notice that the real focal point had changed from what was so wrong with Nephi to what was so right with God. That’s quite a transformation isn’t it? Nephi was no longer focused on his little known and, to him, abundant shortcomings. His focus turned to God who time and again, in spite of all his weaknesses, blessed him, looked after him, magnified him, and enlarged him.

I think Nephi’s message is: God is able to do His work even with flawed, fallen, imperfect people like us.

Let’s jump  to verse 26. “Oh then, if I have seen so great things…”

Have we seen such great things? Having seen great things, have we appreciated them?  Having witnessed God’s work in our lives and in the lives of those around us, have we been mindful of that work and grateful for it?

“O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow… why should I yield to sin…? Why should I give way to temptations…? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (vs. 26-27)

These questions are not asked in the sense of, “If I have been given such great training, then why do I behave so badly?” These questions are really very different.  The real issue Nephi seemed burdened by was: “If the Lord has been so gracious, then why do I keep myself so vulnerable to sin? Why do I allow myself to be snared by evil?”

Then came the call from his soul which said, “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy  of my soul” (v. 28).  Notice the theme of “awake and rejoice”.  Be mindful of God and His goodness.  Be mindful of His readiness to help and bless us.  And then, having done that, rejoice.

“Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation” (v. 30).

Then came that plea for divine help because Nephi wanted very much to resist any incursion of sin into his life. “O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin” (v. 31)?

Make it so that sin is ugly to me and detestable and not the least bit attractive. Make it so that sin has no draw to me, but rather it is holiness that I crave.  “May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite” (v. 32)! Isn’t that the recognition that all that we have and are is a blessing from God and due to His goodness?

“O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness” (2 Nephi 4:33)!  In other words—my holiness ultimately is a sacred gift from Thee.

Let’s conclude with verse 34.  “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh.  Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.”

So Nephi really launched into this psalm in earnest as he said, “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”  He concluded by saying five times: “trust”.  Trust God, not myself. Trust God, not any other human. It is God who must save us. And he ended by proclaiming, “He is the rock, the everlasting God”

May we follow the great example set by Nephi. May we trust in God and throw ourselves on the merits, mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah.

Self Development

Lehi’s Life Summary

 

Lehi’s Life Summary

Hugh Nibley said that there is a single verse that best encapsulates what the Atonement is all about and gives us a visual imagery for the significance of the Atonement. That verse is 2 Nephi 1:15.

This particular message is delivered just as Lehi is about to die. He captures the essence of his ministry and his life experience in a single verse.

He says, “But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell.”

I’m not sure of everything that Lehi had in mind there. My suspicion is that he may not only have been talking about the prospective hell that would be inevitable if not for the sacrifice of the Savior, but even for the hell of mortality. I think Lehi was keenly aware that life hurts us here on this earth and injures us fairly regularly. So when he says, “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from Hell”, he means the Lord redeems us not only from what lies ahead, but also from what lies behind. He rescues us from all of our past disappointments, injuries, failures and dashed hopes. He even takes away today’s pain.

Lehi continues, “I have beheld His glory”.

There is something magical about beholding His glory. When we have, it changes everything. Instead of feeling we are strangers in a strange land, we gain the understanding that we are pilgrims on a journey. While we are still far away, we are headed toward our heavenly home. So when Lehi says he has beheld His glory, he is saying, “Because I know God, I understand the meaning of life. I understand the journey. I understand me, because I understand God.”

“And I am encircled about eternally in the arms of His love.”

What amazing imagery: God reaches out and enfolds us in His arms of love! We are truly His. We are safe because we are His. Hope is possible because we are His. A joyous eternity is possible because we are His—and encircled about eternally in His arms of love.

Thus that single verse encapsulates not only Lehi’s life but the Great Plan of Happiness.

Self Development

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

We have all experienced questions from others that left us feeling confused or humiliated. Often we are left wondering how to respond to cruelty and insensitivity. I recently read an article by a multiracial woman who had experienced several painful incidents of insensitivity. For example, an adult asked her when she was a child if she was black. As a young girl she felt embarrassed and small. She didn’t know how to reply.

Later in life, a fellow student asked her why she didn’t have big lips if she was black. She tried to formulate an answer even though convinced that the question did not merit one. To the woman’s credit, she has chosen to resist anger.

Peacemaking

We have all been hurt by insensitivity or thoughtlessness. Someone at church says something that misjudges us. A group gathers and we are left out. Relatives accuse us of faults and failings. Every one of us gets injured by life.

Sometimes we have lashed back. Sometimes we have sought opportunities to balance the scale. Sometimes we have suffered in sullen silence.

I want to suggest another way of responding to thoughtlessness. When someone has treated us insensitively, maybe we can open their minds and hearts to our world. At the very least we can offer them grace. We have a rich history filled with examples of this great work of character.

In 1857, at the age of 19, Joseph F. Smith was returning from the Sandwich Islands by way of the “Southern Route” from Los Angeles to Utah. The wagon train with which Joseph F. was traveling made camp, when some “toughs rode into the camp on horseback, cursing and swearing and threatening what they would do to the Mormons.”

Joseph F. was a little distance from the camp gathering wood for the fire, but he saw that the few members of his own party had cautiously gone in the brush down the creek, out of sight. When he saw that, . . . the thought came into his mind, “Shall I run from these fellows? Why should I fear them?” With that he marched up with his arm full of wood, to the campfire where one of the ruffians, still with his pistol in his hand, shouting and cursing about the Mormons, in a low voice said to Joseph F., “Are you a Mormon?”

And the answer came straight, “yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”

At that the ruffian grasped him by the hand and said: “Well, you are the [blankety-blank] pleasantest man I ever met! Shake young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, Joseph F. Smith; p. 104).

Truly, his light shone in the darkness of hate and conflict.

Another familiar example:

One day the Prophet was visiting his parents’ home in Far West, when a group of armed militiamen came in and announced that they had come to kill him for a supposed crime. Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother, described his gift for peacemaking:

“[Joseph] looked upon them with a very pleasant smile and, stepping up to them, gave each of them his hand in a manner which convinced them that he was neither a guilty criminal nor yet a cowering hypocrite. They stopped and stared as though a spectre had crossed their path.

“Joseph sat down and entered into conversation with them and explained to them the views and feelings of the people called Mormons and what their course had been, as also the treatment which they had met with from their enemies since the first outset of the Church. He told them that malice and detraction had pursued them ever since they entered Missouri, but they were a people who had never broken the laws to his knowledge. But if they had, they stood ready to be tried by the law.

“After this, he rose and said, ‘Mother, I believe I will go home. Emma will be expecting me.’ Two of the men sprang to their feet, saying, ‘You shall not go alone, for it is not safe. We will go with you and guard you.’ Joseph thanked them, and they went with him.

“The remainder of the officers stood by the door while these were absent, and I overheard the following conversation between them:

“First Officer: ‘Did you not feel strangely when Smith took you by the hand? I never felt so in my life.’

“Second Officer: ‘I felt as though I could not move. I would not harm one hair of that man’s head for the whole world.’

“Third Officer: ‘This is the last time you will ever catch me coming to kill Joe Smith or the Mormons either.’ …

“Those men who went with my son promised to go disband the militia under them and go home, and said that if he had any use for them, they would come back and follow him anywhere.” (Lucy Mack Smith, “The History of Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet,” 1844–45 manuscript, book 15, pp. 8–10, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Generosity of Heart

Admittedly, most of us do not have the presence of mind or generosity of heart to respond to ugliness with graciousness. Yet we can develop this ability. We will become more useful to our Father as we do. Remember Jesus’ response to a lawyer determined to humiliate Him. Jesus delivered to his accuser one of the sweetest stories ever told: the Good Samaritan. He essentially invited the man to become a source of goodness rather than an agent for hurt.

I remember a tender woman in our ward who was often asked when she and her husband were going to have children. Those inquiring ward members did not realize that she was unable to have children, a fact which was deeply painful to her. She could react to their naïve inquiry by brooding. She could lash back. Or she might open the way for greater compassion and connection by saying: “My husband and I are not able to have children but we have resolved to love every child in our ward who comes within our reach.”

Conquering our Enemies

Maybe when we feel attacked, we can kindly invite the “enemy” into our experience. Instead of vilifying them because of the wounds they have inflicted, we can see them as someone who doesn’t understand our lives and struggles.

I believe that people do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. We should not confuse normal human clumsiness with maliciousness. The fact that we feel hurt does not mean that they intended to hurt us.

If someone commented on my race, I might ask if I could tell them about some of my courageous ancestors who came to this country from a distant land and faced terrible odds. If they remarked about my lips or some other physical feature, I might ask if I could share a story about a great-grandparent whom I resemble. We can turn awkwardness—and even hostility—into connection and understanding when our hearts are right.

Sometimes the insensitivity of others will catch us off guard. At times it may overwhelm our defenses. And those are the ideal times to call on Jesus, the ultimate source of all grace.

Instead of becoming enemies of our enemies, we become a friend of God. We do not allow our behavior or thoughts to be determined by the behavior of others. We turn to God in all things. In the face of insensitivity we offer grace and become blessed peacemakers.

Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annmarie Worthington for their insightful contributions to this article.

You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child. For more information about his books and programs, visit www.DrWally.org

Self Development

JESUS WARS—THEN AND NOW

Philip Jenkins, the renowned historian, has observed that Christian orthodoxy “was hammered out in a process that was painfully slow, gradual, and often bloody” (2010, p. 17). Over the centuries of the early church councils, bishops and churchmen fought to keep the doctrine pure. They feared the wrath of God if they allowed it to be tainted by false doctrine. They were quite willing to use violence to intimidate or destroy those they saw as heretics.

“Monks especially served as private militias, holy head-breakers whom charismatic bishops could turn out at will to sack pagan temples, rough up or kill opponents, and overawe rival theologians” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 28).

Over the decades and centuries, official doctrine swung wildly depending upon which faction was best armed, best connected, and most willing to be violent. “Throughout the fifth century, the outcome of church debates depended absolutely on gaining the favor of the imperial family—and especially the royal women” (p. 101).

Ramsay MacMullen, the prominent professor of Roman and Christian history, estimated that many people died in these doctrinal squabbles. “Our sources for the two and a quarter centuries following Nicaea allow a very rough count of the victims of creedal differences: not less than twenty five thousand deaths” (2006, p.56). Jenkins wryly observed that “in any theological struggle, the first thousand years are always the bitterest” (p. 234).

Who knew that theology could be so violent?

Even More Violence

Herbert J. Muller, the American historian, wrote that “the First Crusade…set off on its two-thousand mile jaunt by massacring Jews, plundering and slaughtering all the way from the Rhine to the Jordan. ‘In the temple of Solomon,’ wrote the ecstatic cleric, Raimundus de Agiles, ‘one rode in blood up to the knees and even to the horses’ bridles, by the just and marvelous Judgment of God!’” (Peters, 1977)

It is estimated that at least one million innocents were killed in the crusades. The inquisition took another 350,000 lives. Witch-hunting is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 1 million people. Apparently Christians are quite as glad to kill as any group.

It should cause us profound pain and deep reflection that the followers of Jesus have so often been willing to kill each other and those we saw as wicked. The Mountain Meadow Massacre reminds us that we LDS are not exempt.

Early American Contention

Unfortunately contention has not been limited to ancient theological squabbles or medieval conquering. Contention was apparently even a problem among the relatively righteous people visited by Jesus in the Americas. His first order of business after properly introducing Himself was to state that the members of the First Presidency of Heaven are completely united (3 Nephi 11:27). We might wonder why Jesus felt that He needed to state the obvious. Maybe His statement can teach us a vital truth. The members of the godhead are not mild personalities. They most certainly have strong opinions. Yet we never imagine the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost having a heated debate or falling into sullen silence.

Perhaps Jesus is making the point that they are united because of their perfect goodness not because of milquetoast mildness. And, as our goodness grows, each of us will be less vulnerable to contention even if we have very strong opinions.

In true human fashion, those early Americans were apparently arguing about a simple doctrine and practice, the details of baptism.

And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. (3 Nephi 11:28)

There should be no disputations among us. Rather than kill each other over doctrinal differences, Jesus is inviting us to follow heaven’s directions and to treat each other gently. Incidentally, Latter-day Saints have a glorious advantage in doctrinal deliberations. We have prophets to teach us! Think how blessed that is in contrast to the human tradition of debate, heckling, bribery, and influence-buying.

Jesus then becomes very direct:

For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11:29, emphasis added)

When we contend with each other, we are doing Satan’s work. We may think we are defending truth and goodness. (Humans always use that excuse!) But if we are stirring up contention, we are doing Satan’s work—whether we are a radio commentator, a TV superstar, a member of a gospel doctrine class, or a disappointed spouse. When we have the spirit of contention, we have alienated ourselves from God.

Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away. (3 Nephi 11:30)

Formula for Contention

Contention is the default setting for the natural man. This applies not only to large groups of people in historical time but also to all close relationships today.

There is a very orderly progression that leads to contention:

  1. We have an opinion. Check. That is almost universal among humans.
  2. We think we’re right. Humans have what psychologists call naïve realism. Each of us fails to see the ways in which our own views are limited and distorted by bias. So each of us believes that we get it right—while no one else does.
  3. Someone else has a different view. This is inevitable. Given a different set of experiences and different perceptual lenses, each of us will see things differently.
  4. We think they’re wrong. This is a small but vital step on the way to contention. Rather than trying to benefit from others’ perspectives and experiences, we simply want to straighten them out.
  5. 5. We see it as our job to correct them. Another small but vital step. I think there are three preconditions to righteous correcting: a. we have a stewardship that justifies our correction; b. we genuinely love the person we aim to correct; c. we have prepared ourselves to correct with a spirit of gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned (See D&C 121:41). When we fail to restrain our correction after falling short on these tests, we are growing the spirit of contention.
  6. We correct with a closed mind. We really don’t want the person to muddle our sensible position with irrelevant nonsense; we do not want to listen to comprehend their perspective. We simply want them to submit to our superior truth. We are impatient. We even begin to vilify the opponent. “Maybe they’re not honest. Maybe they’re evil.”
  7. We allow resistance to make us more determined and aggressive. Rather than pause to understand, we stomp on the accelerator. We become like Tom Cruise on a motorcycle.

Contention is underway! It is easy to see why contention remains so popular. It is so natural and satisfying. It also serves Satan’s purposes.

As the examples from early church councils and the Crusades illustrate, contention is most vile and indefensible when it claims a holy cause.

Local Contention

Let’s consider casualties of contention that occur close to home. In our wards we may stir contention with others because they do not do as we think they should. For example, we sometimes shame people because they do not dress modestly. We generally fail to factor into our thinking the offenders’ backgrounds, budgets, and intentions. And we may hold them accountable for creating inappropriate thoughts by the way they dress instead of holding ourselves accountable for managing our lust. Jesus does not call us to shame His children or generate conflict in His name.

Contention is also commonplace in family life. When our spouses irritate or disappoint us in some way, we rub salt into their wounds: “You’d think that you would remember that by now!”

With our children we often turn an invitation to make a righteous choice into an insulting sermon: “Why do you always . . .? Why can’t you ever . . .?”

What a tiring tradition is contention. What an offence against God and humanity.

National Contention

The current American political climate seems very contentious. Let me probe one example.

God commands us to care for the poor. There are people like me who worry a lot about this. I give a generous fast offering and worry about how to help panhandlers. I donate to funds that help people with their utility bills but get fatigue from the onslaught of solicitations from various causes. I fear that I am not doing enough.

Another principle: It is a virtual article of faith in the LDS community that government intervention should be minimized. We seem to experience every new intrusion as the final end of freedom. We talk of falling into the socialist quagmire. As inheritors of the godly gift of agency, we are properly jealous of our freedom.

Both compassion and freedom are eternal principles. Both should be honored. I fear that the more extreme spokespeople on either side of the argument tend to speak of one value at the expense of the other. This not only generates unlimited contention, it also guarantees that we will not solve our problems.

I recommend a civil dialogue. Both sides can acknowledge both truths. Both sides can learn from each other. Both sides can seek to make creative rather than destructive use of the different perspectives.

One of the key principles in dialogue is the assumption of good faith. Just because another person may be mistaken or misled does not give me the right to vilify his or her intentions. It violates the core commands of Christ when we create damning back stories for those with whom we disagree. Whatever that person’s offences, we become greater offenders (See D&C 64:8-10).

Being followers of Jesus should cause us to be less contentious in our political and personal discussions, not more so. The Jesus who commands us to love our enemies, sets a high standard for our relationships: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye have love one for another.” I suspect that this applies to our relationships with those with whom we disagree. In fact the surest evidence of our conversion may be our respect and compassion for those with whom we disagree most ardently. (Remember Pahoran’s glorious response to Moroni’s rebuke!)

When we refuse to let contention derail our discussions, we may find creative solutions. Even if we differ with others, if we honor their right to their perspective, we might learn from each other. We might gain insights on ways to peacefully advance our agendas. For example, those who believe that government involvement in caring for the poor should be minimized might choose to pay a substantial increase ($1,000? $2,500, $10,000?) in annual fast offering and humanitarian donations. This might not solve the problems of poverty in the country, but it might show the Lord that I am earnestly trying to do my part to care for the poor while defending our freedoms.

Early Christians fought each other in a misguided attempt to keep the doctrine pure. In the latter-days the scriptures instruct us that the way to uphold Christ’s doctrine is to purify ourselves of anger and argument. The ultimate cure for contention is to have our hearts changed. When there is peace in our hearts, there is sure to be kindness in our conversations. One day we may conquer every problem because of our respect for each other and our willingness to work together in Christ-like harmony. We may one day be a Zion people, of one heart and one mind.

References:

Jenkins, P. (2010). Jesus Wars: How four patriarchs, three queens, and two emperors decidedwhat Christians would believe for the next 1,500 years. New York: HarperOne.

MacMullen, R. (2006). Voting about God in early church councils. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Peters, L. J. (1977). Peter’s quotations: Ideas for our time. New York: Bantam.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful comments and additions to this article.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken ParentingDrawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child.