Our Come, Follow Me reading for this week is found in the Book of Mosiah; for reasons not worth getting into here, my own family is a bit farther ahead in our own family scripture reading — we finished 3 Nephi 8 earlier this evening. I have found, however, a particular value in the discrepancy this week, as it has given me ample food for thought — lessons from one era of Nephite history that, had they been heeded, might have averted a calamitous outcome in another.
Let’s dive in.
Enough to Make You Dizzy
The end of the Book of Helaman and the beginning of the Third Book of Nephi contain one of the most egregious accounts we have of a societal case of Heel-Face Revolving Door Syndrome. Watching the Nephites bounding back and forth between wickedness and righteousness sometimes feels like watching a particularly exasperating tennis match. The worst of these lurches is, of course, contained within the eight years between the defeat of the Gadianton Robbers in approximately A.D. 26 and the signs of the death of Christ around A.D. 34.
In the years that immediately followed the sign of the birth of Christ among the descendants of Lehi, the Gadianton Robbers became such a plague upon the land that those who were not a part of their secret combination (and had no desire to be murdered by them) had had to crowd together in one designated part of their lands and essentially quarantine themselves for 8-9 years for their own protection. The rise of this murderous band had not occurred in a vacuum; it had only become possible because the Nephite people, in particular, had turned a blind eye to the snowballing problem until the only viable measures they had left were drastic ones. Such a great societal upheaval gave them plenty of time to think, though, and they used it well:
Therefore they did forsake all their sins, and their abominations, and their whoredoms, and did serve God with all diligence day and night.
Mormon records the Nephites were finally able to go back to normal during the 26th year and enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity.
It lasted three years.
After everything they’d been through, the miracles and deliverance they’d witnessed, the camaraderie they had developed in a time of unprecedented hardship and unity — they still couldn’t make it any farther than the 29th year before people “began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning.” By the 30th year, we see the rebirth of the secret combinations that had so nearly been the undoing of their entire people; the corruption festered and multiplied so quickly that in that same year, their chief judge was murdered on his judgment seat and their entire government collapsed.
This is not, as is often the case, a matter of the rising generation not believing in the traditions of their fathers. Mormon himself summed it up rather succinctly: “Now they did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore they did wilfully rebel against God.”
How could this happen? How could a people turn so swiftly, like a dog to its vomit, back to the very behaviors that had so nearly destroyed them?
“Yes, Angela, and what does any of this have to do with Abinadi?”
Excellent questions, all. I’m glad you asked.
A Plea From the Past
When Abinadi was brought before the priests of King Noah to be questioned of them, the record indicates they began with a rather higher opinion of their own abilities (and a lower opinion of Abinadi’s) than was merited by the facts; it wasn’t until after he had “answered them boldly, and withstood all their questions, yea, to their astonishment” that one of them brought out the big guns and began quoting a rather lengthy passage from Isaiah.
There’s no indication whatsoever the priest quoting Isaiah misquoted him in any way. He clearly had that passage of scripture memorized; it’s probably safe to say that he, and the others, had other passages of scripture memorized as well. He had the words of these scriptures written on his mind, but Abinadi was not impressed:
And now Abinadi said unto them: Are you priests, and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desire to know of me what these things mean?
I say unto you, wo be unto you for perverting the ways of the Lord! For if ye understand these things ye have not taught them; therefore, ye have perverted the ways of the Lord.
Ye have not applied your hearts to understanding; therefore, ye have not been wise.
And again, when reviewing with them the Ten Commandments:
And now I read unto you the remainder of the commandments of God, for I perceive that they are not written in your hearts;
It is not enough to be able to quote scripture at length. After all, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” The knowledge one gains in the scriptures must be applied — it must, as Paul taught, be “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” If we instead harden our hearts to them, then the teachings of the scriptures become just as dead to us as those things upon which they are preserved.
But what about the Nephites we were talking about earlier? Didn’t they serve the Lord with “all diligence”?
Yes, they did. Until they stopped.
Elder Dale G. Renlund compared the process of a physical heart transplant to the spiritual process of a changed heart. As tempted as I was to just quote-dump the entire talk right here (it’s that good), here’s an excerpt:
Just as with heart transplant patients, however, this mighty change of our spiritual hearts is just the beginning. Repentance, baptism, and confirmation are necessary but not sufficient. Indeed, equal, if not greater, care must be taken with a spiritually changed heart than with a physically transplanted heart if we are to endure to the end. Only by doing so can we be held guiltless at the time of judgment.
Enduring to the end can be challenging because the tendency of the natural man is to reject the spiritually changed heart and allow it to harden. No wonder the Lord cautioned to “even let those who are sanctified take heed.”
We all know of individuals who had this mighty change of heart but subsequently yielded to the natural man. They became casual in their worship and devotion to God, their hearts became hardened, and they thereby jeopardized their eternal salvation.
As we see painfully often in the scriptures and in ourselves and in those around us: even having a changed, softened heart is not enough. You must carefully maintain it, or you will lose it.
“I Shall Call Him Squishy”
Many of the Nephites who lived at the time of Christ’s mortal ministry did not heed the words of Abinadi. To be fair, most of Abinadi’s contemporaries didn’t listen to him either. The notable exception here, of course, is Alma the Elder. There’s a lot we don’t know about Alma; I confess myself curious as to what exactly it was about him that he had managed to retain, while in the employ of King Noah no less, enough humility to recognize the truth when Abinadi so boldly spoke it, rather than getting offended like his colleagues. Perhaps he was new to the job; perhaps he, like his son would be after him, was reminded by the words of Abinadi of the teachings of his parents; perhaps his wife did her best to keep him tethered to goodness; perhaps people were praying for him.
I suspect I will never learn the answer to that question in this lifetime, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter to anyone who isn’t Alma the Elder. What does matter to all of us, though, is somehow his heart was soft enough on that day for the truth to make an impression upon it. What’s more, we know that he then managed to maintain that soft, impressionable heart for the rest of his life: in peace and in persecution, in calm and in calamity, in trial and in tranquility. This is important because good times and bad each have their own set of associated difficulties that can harden hearts that have been softened, whether through complacency or cynicism. Alma successfully avoided the pitfalls of both.
The same way we all can: by putting our faith and trust in Him who is mighty to save. Abinadi spoke much of the resurrection which will be ours through the Atonement of Christ:
But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ.
He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened; yea, and also a life which is endless, that there can be no more death.
It is worth noting, however, that our physical bodies are not the only things that, once dead, can be made alive again through His power: dead or dying hearts can be made alive again in Him just the same. It is not an easy process; as Neal A. Maxwell reminded us more than once, “Hearts set so much upon the things of the world may have to be broken.” But as we strive to repent, to humble ourselves, and to daily and deliberately invite the Savior into our lives, we too can be partakers of that “light that is endless, that can never be darkened.”
I don’t know about you, but in these days of upheaval, confusion, and clamor, that sounds like a mighty fine blessing to me.
- Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Book of Mormon 2020, May 4 – May 10.
- “Preserving the Heart’s Mighty Change” -Elder Dale G. Renlund, October 2009
- “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge” -Elder Richard G. Scott, October 1993
- “Repent … That I May Heal You” -Elder Neil L. Andersen, October 2009
You can follow Angela on Twitter @angelaisms.