God’s Demand That We Suffer – Reading Nephi – 17:17-22

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.

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I Nephi 17:17-22

Considering their security concerns, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Laman here. The Lehites have just undergone eight years of hardship before finally coming to the coast—there’s no visible way of continuing. I suspect that there were fishers and others in boats nearby, but even so, trans-oceanic passage was undoubtedly unheard of. There’s no reason for Laman and the others to even suspect that there’s land on the other side of that incomprehensible expanse of water. Mormon sci-fi authors might offer a kind of analogy. Sure, we all know about NASA and SpaceX and the like. But can we imagine our prophet declaring that he’s received revelation to build a space ship and travel to another planet? We’ve no reason to even suspect that there’s another inhabitable planet within traveling distance. I don’t care what kind of faith you have, Nephi’s idea on the face of it is loony.

In this context, it’s telling that Nephi immediately precedes his account of the attempted Laman-et-al coup with this passage about God initiating the shipbuilding. He focuses on two key themes: If you keep the commandments you prosper (and if you don’t you won’t); and once you reach the promised land, then you’ll know that I the Lord God brought you out of Jerusalem. The latter in particular is conspicuous. Again, if we take the narrative at face value, then Laman and Lemuel and the others have had multiple divine manifestations, multiple opportunities to know that it is the Lord that initiated their exodus and has sustained them during their travels. I’m tempted to launch into a counter-narrative that makes rationally plausible Laman’s witnessing angels and hearing the voice of the Lord and experiencing the various miracles, and yet disbelieve that it was in fact God commanding them to cross the ocean. Instead, I’ll simply note that this odd placement in the narrative of God’s declaration that once they’ve reached the promised land, then will they all know that God has brought them there from Jerusalem—if nothing else, it signifies that the decision to get in a boat and travel to the New World remained a controversial move in the older Nephi’s day. Whatever else is taking place, Nephi is clearly seeking political unity, which requires the trip from Bountiful to Nephi to have been inspired. This in turn signals that the Promised Land was not a land flowing with milk and honey. There are only two such flowing lands mentioned in the scriptures: Jerusalem and Bountiful.

It’s interesting that here Laman employs the epithet that Nephi is like his father. Bountiful isn’t Jerusalem, but it’s another place of permanence and prosperity where they might enjoy their possessions and be happy. This line makes it easy to read Laman as a mere hedonist (perhaps because Nephi’s intentionally portraying him that way with the words he has Laman say). I think it’s more valuable to read Laman as instead taking a position like Aristotle: happiness and flourishing require a minimum level of one’s needs being met. Grinding poverty or chronic lack of food or wandering in the wilderness for eight years without stability or even fires—none of these are conducive to living in happiness. Maybe Laman really is murmuring about his lack of luxury. But he’s surely also murmuring about their lack of basic necessities.

What’s more, I don’t think that the proper response is to challenge Laman on this front. In fact, I think he’s actually right. The gospel is hard—and not in the abstract way in which today we get online and tell our ideological foes to suck it up because the gospel is hard. Rather, the gospel is hard because it literally demands—at least at times—that we sacrifice and live at a level below what one can reasonably claim is necessary for an adequate life. Lehi and Saraiah gave up far more than just their possessions when they left Jerusalem. In addition to their health and comfort, they gave up their family unity, much of their heritage and traditions and community, any notion of stability, any local notions of what the good life was. Ezra Booth wasn’t delusional in his recognition of Mormonism’s extreme lack of polish and Zion’s lack of display of any sign of bounty or utopia. Our pioneer ancestors sacrificed far more materially than we do today, and the poor back then suffered far more than our poor today. Black members were asked to give up far more than merely holding the priesthood pre-1978 (and continue to be asked to give up more than others with whom they share the pews). Gay members are asked for far more than mere celibacy. The demands for sacrifice are not symmetric and as far as I can see there’s nothing fair about them. Failing to recognize this point—perhaps in our Nephionic zeal to defend the claim that God in fact is leading us—we can easily misrecognize the actual situation that mortality places us in, miss what our covenants demand of us, and miss the humanity of our sisters and brothers who struggle.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake to make too much of the asymmetry. Nephi’s personality and certainly his outlook were much more conducive to weathering the trials that Lehi’s family underwent—that is, it might well have been harder both psychologically and physically for Laman than it was for Nephi—but it’s romantic nonsense to think that Nephi didn’t likewise sacrifice. Just as it’s nonsense to think that men don’t likewise suffer with the asymmetric burden we place on women in the church today. Simply because one’s suffering is less than another’s is no reason to dismiss that suffering.

Just as with Nephi and Laman, some of the sacrifice and suffering we undergo occurs because God demands it of us. And frequently it occurs on account of our reaction to God’s demands.

The rhetoric of the older Nephi is often laced with bitterness, as I think it is here. I can taste the remnants of Nephi’s bitterness at the actions of Laman and Lemuel. Nephi, in addition to offering an ethic that makes our sacrifice of happiness and life worthwhile, seems also to retreat from this world and its difficulties and inevitable disappointments. I suspect that the intense conflict experienced at Bountiful—let alone the levels of conflict seen in the Promised Land following Lehi’s death—is not what the young Nephi had in mind when the angel told him back near Jerusalem that he would become a ruler and a teacher over his brethren. Nephi suffered.

Which makes me wonder: given the poignant levels of disappointment through which we’re called to wade in this life, how do we live as faithfully as Nephi while still affirming this world (and not, as he seems to have done, retreating from it)? How do we make such faith more than an ideal to strive toward? How do we obtain the goods of the covenant as well as the goods of the world in which we are and will be immersed for the duration of our lives?

We get the briefest of glimpses into Nephi’s soul here. He wasn’t impervious to his brother’s criticism. It depressed him. Exceedingly. Nephi often paints himself two dimensionally—a flat, heroic figure. But the reality of the much richer Nephi is unmistakable.

The last word of verse twenty-two is a gem. Despite our movies and paintings, this is not a scene where Nephi, working alone, confronts an unruly mob of brothers and in-laws. As we’ve already seen, and as we will see again on the ocean and again in Nephi, there are factions. Nephi—inevitably—was an us.

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