Over a decade ago I sat in a Sunday School class discussing 2 Nephi 3. The chapter is Lehi’s farewell instruction and blessing to his youngest son, Joseph. Verses 22-24 of that chapter are problematic to many people, and this occasion was no different. One older classmember, pointing out verse 24, asked a common question, “Do we know if Joseph Smith had any Native American ancestry?”
I rescanned those verses. Sure enough, it appeared that Lehi was suggesting Joseph Smith would be his own descendant (via his youngest son, Joseph). A light popped on in my head and my hand shot up. When given the chance, I blurted out something that seemed so insanely cool, “What if this is a record of a prophet getting an interpretation wrong? It’s easy to see how he got there, he just happened to miss the mark a bit. How awesome is that?!” A silence came over the class and the original questioner mumbled that he probably just read it wrong. The discussion moved on.
We don’t bat an eye if someone says the apostles in the New Testament had weaknesses. Elder Holland in his conference address mentioned how frustrated Christ got at the behavior of his own disciples. Those weaknesses, however, do not take away from the good those disciples accomplished. Peter sinking in the water, crying out to the Lord to save him, cannot erase the fact that he had done something no other flawed, imperfect mortal had done before: he’d walked on water (if only for a few moments). His hotheaded violent outburst in the Garden of Gethsemane and his embarrassing denials of Christ don’t negate Peter’s capable leadership and the miracles he helped bring about in his lifetime. Understanding his humanity, in fact, makes Peter’s accomplishments that much more impressive.
Moroni doesn’t claim perfection, far from it:
“Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”
Because each of us is imperfect, seeing how others deal with hiccups along their paths of discipleship provide helpful insight (and commiseration) in dealing with challenges. Here are some lessons I appreciate most.
People don’t always know as much as we think they do (ourselves included).
I may be wrong about believing Lehi made a mistake in interpreting Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy (in assuming that Joseph Smith was to be a descendant of his own son, Joseph), but I still think the possibility is useful. At the time my mind immediately went to a story my dad often told. Joseph Fielding Smith had declared a few times that space travel would never occur and man wouldn’t land on the moon, since the earth was the sphere of mortals. My father, a physics undergrad in the 1960s, disagreed, but his father insisted that an apostle should never be doubted. Upon becoming President of the Church in 1970, President Smith was questioned about his previous statement by a reporter. President Smith simply declared, “Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
As members, we’re encouraged to ponder on the scriptures and doctrines. We are encouraged to think about things before we take our conclusions to the Lord. Sometimes speculation turns out to be correct, and sometimes not so much. But just because speculation might be incorrect on one occasion doesn’t discount what someone has said on other occasions. Lehi prophesied concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and that God would lead them to a promised land (both clearly accurate). Lehi gave us the Tree of Life vision and an incredible understanding of Agency, the Fall, and the Atonement. He quoted us Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy prior to his own conclusion. My opinion that he got some speculation wrong doesn’t change my view that he was a prophet and his contributions to our understanding are invaluable.
When I was younger I got the impression that the spirit of discernment gave leaders (even bishops) a veritable super power. They could peer into your soul, I thought, which is why they could judge righteousness versus unrighteousness. I knew it was impossible that bad people could be called into church positions where they could hurt people – the Holy Ghost would never allow it. But then life taught me otherwise. I realized that bishops didn’t always know, and the Holy Ghost didn’t always stop bad decisions, even in the church.
At one time I thought prophets likely had all the answers, they just didn’t reveal things because we weren’t ready for it. But it turns out that they have to learn things as well (sometimes the hard way). The story of the brother of Jared seeing the finger of the Lord always bothered my husband. He thought it was ridiculous that a prophet wouldn’t know that God looked human. What did the brother of Jared think he was talking to? But that’s the thing, revelation comes line upon line. It’s a bad assumption to believe that prophets in the past were fully aware of all doctrines understood in our day.
That’s why I love Alma talking to his son, Corianton, about his own stuggle to understand the mysteries of God. “Now, I unfold unto you a mystery; nevertheless, there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself. But I show unto you one thing which I have inquired diligently of God that I might know—that is concerning the resurrection.” Alma describes what has been revealed to him, but then he goes further into speculation. “Now, my son, I do not say that their resurrection cometh at the resurrection of Christ; but behold, I give it as my opinion, that the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven” (emphasis added). Speculation isn’t a bad thing, but it’s helpful to identify it as such so people don’t freak out if you’re wrong.
Righteousness is never guaranteed.
We often talk about the pride cycle in the Book of Mormon. We shake our heads at Laman and Lemuel with their skepticism in spite of incredible spiritual experiences. But there is usefulness in paying attention to those stories where normally righteous people had repenting of their own to do.
In the story of Nephi’s broken bow, the perilous nature of their situation is clear when even Lehi starts murmuring against God in his sorrow. Lehi humbles himself and repents after hearing the words of Nephi (and thereafter enduring additional chastening by God). The brother of Jared is similarly brought up short when he apparently neglected to pray for about four years after God had saved the Jaredites from the incident at the Tower of Babel.
Most fascinating, though, is King Mosiah’s concern about his son, Aaron, becoming wicked again. Sometime before the sons of Mosiah left on their mission to the Lamanites, Mosiah had spoken with Aaron over his role as future king. The people wanted Aaron to be the next ruler, but Aaron refused. After translating the record of the Jaredites, Mosiah was understandably concerned that Aaron might later become remorseful of that loss (as a Jaredite prince had been) and reassert his right to the throne. Aaron might bring war and contention to the people if he challenged whoever was appointed in his stead, and there could be devastating effects if Aaron, as king, returned to wickedness. Mosiah decided changing to a political system of elected officials was the most effective defense against those possibilities.
We often don’t think about the risk of the sons of Mosiah turning to wickedness, but the Book of Mormon gives additional hints of that concern. Alma the Younger was thrilled to see his friends after their 14-year mission to the Lamanites, but he was even more thrilled that they were “still his brethren in the Lord.” Even Ammon’s statements about their missionary success caused his brother, Aaron, to do a double-take. “Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.” Alma and the sons of Mosiah were very sensitive about how easy it was to fall prey to pride.
Elder Bednar talked in conference about the lifelong endeavor of retaining a remission of sin as opposed to the singular experience of gaining that remission in the first place. Mormon significantly notes that the Lamanite converts from the 14-year mission became so fully committed to the gospel that they “never did fall away.” It was remarkable because, especially when compared to the contemporary Nephites, it was the exception, not the rule.
Even with the best of intentions, things can turn bad. Really bad.
I’m horrible at missionary work, so I always find Abish’s near-disastrous attempt to share the gospel comforting. Abish, a secret long-time convert, witnessed King Lamoni, King Lamoni’s wife, Ammon, and other servants so overpowered by the Spirit that they fell to the earth. She saw a missionary opportunity. If she told others what had happened, she thought, and brought them to witness for themselves, of course they’d believe in the power of God! Unfortunately, people thought a great evil had caused all those people to fall to the earth, a guy decided to take the opportunity to kill Ammon (didn’t work), there was massive contention, and… yeah. When Abish saw how horribly things were going, she burst into tears. Luckily, the situation was salvaged when Abish awoke King Lamoni’s wife, and everything was fine in the end.
Thing is, not everything turns out fine in the end. Missionaries aren’t always successful. A person’s faith (or the faith of their father, in the case of Ammon and King Mosiah) isn’t always enough to save them from mistreatment or a painful death. The scriptures tend to emphasize the miraculous, but miracles are, by definition, rare.
A ray of hope, though, is that scriptures suggest we can be unaware of success. Abinadi couldn’t have known before suffering a painful death the effect he had on a young priest and the eventual baptism of hundreds. Alma the Elder couldn’t have known his son would recall his father’s teachings of Christ in a critical hour. We will fail at times, but even in our failures we sometimes unknowingly succeed.
Good people make mistakes.
To say that Captain Moroni was zealous is an understatement. He was not afraid to defend his religious beliefs, defend his people, defend the principle of freedom, and put to death anyone who threatened those goals. So when it looked like his own government was undermining the ability of the Nephite armies to defend their country, he took swift action. In a letter to the chief judge, Pahoran, and other government officials, Moroni angrily declared, “We know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority. We know not but what ye are also traitors to your country.” If they didn’t lend immediate aid, Moroni vowed, “I will come unto you, and if there be any among you that has a desire for freedom, yea, if there be even a spark of freedom remaining, behold I will stir up insurrections among you, even until those who have desires to usurp power and authority shall become extinct.”
Pahoran’s response is the epitome of diplomacy. He and the freemen had been driven from Zarahemla, he explained, and those in power were in league with the Lamanites. With tremendous patience, Pahoran stated, “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart. I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people.”
Captain Moroni, a man of “perfect understanding,” unfairly accused another righteous man of massive wrongdoing. The recipient of the injustice forgave him, an inspiring example of grace extended to another.
Another situation of a mistake was more innocent – something just got overlooked. When the Savior visited the Nephites, he called for the sacred records. He pointed out an omission: the fulfillment of one of Samuel’s prophecies had not been recorded. With probably a bit of chagrin, the requisite description was added. Just as in Elder Renlund’s conference account of a South African woman mistakenly getting skipped during a sacrament service, recognizing the mistake and simply asking to be forgiven isn’t always enough. A correction needed to be made.
Sometimes good people make mistakes, whether because they misunderstand a situation or are just oblivious. Regardless, sometimes it is important to rectify those errors immediately when they are brought to our attention.
 That class reaction was probably atypical. Due to the prevalence of newer converts in that ward, we often had more unorthodox interpretations of scripture brought forward. It was also not unusual to hear people talking about voices in their heads. So… everyone politely ignored my comment like any other off-the-wall remark.