This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
* * * *
My typical reaction in reading this vision (or, as more often is the case, segments of the vision) and Nephi’s sermonizing and exhortations is to rejoice. This confrontation Nephi has with Laman (et al) pulls me up short, though. My typical reaction is too easy. In part—of course—because my typical perusal presents me with the fictional TV version. I’m not there, this isn’t my life, I’m not in a parent-imposed exile, suffering and watching my family suffer, and I’m not being asked by (er, demanded of) my younger brother to reinterpret the entirety of my religious understanding. Viewed in this more holistic context, it’s not terribly difficult to see why and how this conversation is “hard” for Nephi’s brothers.
Reading this vision and dialogue and then rejoicing with Nephi as I typically do has the potential to blind us to both the complexity and gravity of the vision (it’s certainly not meant to be, nor is it portrayed as a fairytale—though I know I’ve sometimes read it that way). It can also blind us to the diversity of experience in hearing the word of God. Some of my students are already (unreflectively) disposed to enjoy philosophy. Others are the opposite. Ought I to condemn or penalize my students who aren’t already disposed to enjoy the subject? As educators, we often do just that, though typically we agree that such condemnation of these students is wrong.
Now I hear a variation on Plato/Socrates: Are the commands of God good because God commands them, or does God only command good things? Are Nephi’s declarations here hard—in and of themselves hard—or is it only the bearing of them (or perhaps the bearing of them by the wicked) that is hard? It’s clear that Nephi takes the latter interpretation; it’s pretty clear that Laman and his brothers take the former.
On a related note, I have to ask: Nephi, did you know going into the conversation that it was going to be a hard one? You seem to imply as much. If so, I’m not sure what I think of your tactics (I know my mother is unimpressed). I sometimes enter into conversations with my loved family members (or sometimes with my fellow saints, or neighbors or co-workers or students) that I know will be hard, or which they will experience as hard. How ought this to impact my approach? Did knowing make a difference to Nephi, did it change his approach?
Nephi’s recommended strategy for one who experiences the things of God as hard, is to soften one’s own heart. The recommendation strikes me as a bit glib and rather un-empathetic. The quintessential characteristic of a hard heart is that the one possessing it neither wants to soften their heart, nor feels that such softening is needed (rather, it’s the external variables that need to change). As stated, Nephi’s counsel reads like a version of “You’d be a lot happier if you weren’t so unhappy.” But there’s also obviously something to this. I can agree with Laman that there’s something objectively hard about Nephi’s claims and still agree with Nephi that the solution is a softening of the hearer’s heart. Figuring out how to soften one’s heart in order to be receptive to God’s commands and revelations is critical—this is the unavoidable element of repentance. In order to repent, however, I need to see my need for repentance; or I need to see that the word I’m getting is in fact from God. I need at least that level of revelation, that portion of grace. Just as Laman did.
Which is one of the reasons why Laman and his overall reaction resonates so deeply with me. I don’t struggle with the exhortation to keep the commandments. I don’t struggle with the legitimacy of the commandments (however much I much my mortal soul might struggle with actually keeping them). Like Laman here (or so it seems to me), I feel genuinely humble and grateful for the commandments, for the life they create for me. It’s when my brother Nephi (un-humbly) declares that my keeping of the commandments isn’t nearly enough—that in addition my soul must feel and see and be a certain way, that I need to accept others’ (usually confused and inconsistent) interpretations of the commandments and revelations and doctrines—this is when tensions arise and I feel alienated. And when I do the same to others, when I play Nephi to their Laman, I’ve no doubt it has the same affect.
I am thus also grateful for the commandments and the great mediating, unifying affect they have on our lives when we approach them as a people in the way that Alma framed it to his sons, and as we see it so commonly through the Book of Mormon: Inasmuch as we keep the commandments of God, we shall prosper as a people. Commandments and the primary call for obedience to them is a mercy. Commandments are a great blessing, and if we keep them with an eye single to God, God blesses us with “commandments not a few” (D&C 59:4).
One final note on the temporal passage at the end of the chapter. All these things happened—all of them and whatever that entails which is surely far more than the dream and the conversation we have recorded here—took place in the Valley of Lemuel. They were there for sometime. Perhaps just long enough for them to minimally unify and shift their understanding so that they could undertake the physical and spiritual journey—fulfilling commandments—as directed by the heavens.