Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Lord Our God Did Visit Us

No, this isn't a Christmas quote, though it could be. My scripture reading lately has been in the book of Alma in the 50-something chapters, which means lots of description of military tactics and battles and war-time politics. Sometimes it feels like the 65 B.C. edition of the War Room with Wolf Blitzer. But as a follow-up to my last post, if the blow-by-blow account of General Moroni vs. King Amalickiah was considered worth including as part of the sacred record, it is because in the Book of Mormon witness, God does somehow intervene in our day-to-day lives, even at their most mundane or profane.

This war between the Nephites and Lamanites was as much a war of ideas as it was a physical war. In Moroni's epistle to Ammoron, he insists "I would tell you somewhat concerning the justice of God, and the sword of his almighty wrath, which doth hang over you except ye repent" (54: 6). And Ammoron replies in kind,
And as concerning that God whom ye say we have rejected, behold we know not such a being; neither do ye; but if it so be that there is such a being, we know not but that he hath made us as well as you. And if it be that there is a devil and a hell, behold will he not send you there to dwell with my brother whom ye have murdered, whom ye have hinted that he hath gone to such a place? But behold these things matter not. (54: 21-22)

Moroni comes across as a bit of a hothead in this exchange. His epistle, written for the purpose of negotiating an exchange of prisoners, ends by calling Ammoron "a child of hell." Not surprisingly, "Ammoron, when he had received this epistle, was angry." Not a shining example of diplomacy, to say the least. Ammoron nonetheless coolly agrees to the exchange of prisoners. But then Moroni gets angry and calls it off after all, on the grounds that Ammoron refused to admit in his letter that his war was an unjust one.

Whatever Moroni's shortcomings as a diplomat, Ammoron was of course wrong when he claimed that Moroni and his men had no knowledge of a being such as God. The story of Helaman and the "stripling warriors" is a favorite of LDS Sacrament Meeting talks, and probably the most commonly quoted verse from this story is the "we do not doubt, our mothers knew it" verse (Alma 56:48). But to me, the far more powerful testimonial in this story is the one offered in chapter 58, when Helaman describes an increasingly grim situation. He and his soldiers are holed up in the city of Manti surrounded by a superior and growing enemy force, and with no sign of reinforcements in sight. And it is in this seemingly desperate situation that he writes:
Therefore we did pour out our souls in prayer to God, that he would strengthen us and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies.... Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him (vs. 10-11)
The "we do not doubt, our mothers knew it" kind of faith is a believing or a relying on the faith of someone else -- in this case "mothers." You could take out "our mothers," and insert "our fathers," "our older siblings," "our best friends," "our priesthood leaders," "the prophet," etc., and it still doesn't change the basic structure of the faith being described here. But the "the Lord our God did visit us" kind of faith is something else entirely. The latter kind of faith came in a moment of fear and darkness, in the midst of a desperate situation, where those receiving this kind of faith had put their lives on the line for others. It is in this situation that the Lord chose to visit his people.

Helaman still describes this as a state of "faith" (qualified, of course, with the term "great"). What results from a visit by the Lord is still faith; it still requires us to trust in the Lord's assurances. It still demands effort on our part.

It still, also, of course, is a gift of God. The text says that the Lord, in "visiting" his people "did cause us that we should hope." So faith here -- as it is in all circumstances -- is sheer divine gift.

But this is not hearsay faith. This is not believing in something just because somebody else believes it. This is not just taking somebody else's word for it. It is putting to the test and learning for oneself. And in this case, the putting to the test involved a willingness to face death and experience extreme hardship for the sake of protecting loved ones. It can involve other kinds of tests as well, though I suspect that these tests most often will involve some kind of service, some giving of oneself for others. I think that is why, for instance, there were spiritual lessons I could not learn until I was willing to become a foster dad, and to begin to live a life where my main day-to-day concern was not just my own well being, but the well-being of somebody else who depended on me. I think it's our truthfulness to these kinds of relationships that opens our lives up most profoundly to the Spirit and to "visits from the Lord."

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