Friday, April 17, 2015

"The Spirit said...Slay him."

The first truly troubling passage in the Book of Mormon comes when Nephi, the hero of the book so far, is commanded by God to kill someone. Now, I have never killed anyone or any thing larger than a spider, but I have been present at the death of animals. Death, like birth, is a sobering and humbly powerful thing to witness, let alone do.

For several verses, Nephi rationalizes what he's about to do. He creeps into the city towards the house of Laban, pausing only to assure us that he had no idea what was about to happen. As he comes closer to Laban's house, he sees a man fallen down dead drunk. As he comes closer, he sees it is Laban and furthermore that Laban has his "exceedingly fine" sword with a hilt of PURE GOLD and a blade of precious steel (which is nearly as expensive as gold.) He's just laying there in the muck with his ultra-fancy sword strapped to him.

(I've always wondered, where were Laban's friends? Surely he got drunk WITH someone, and wasn't randomly wandering the streets. How did he come to find himself alone this night? Did his friends feel guilty the next morning, when they realized he had been killed?)

Nephi picks up the sword, admires it, and then has this thought pop into his head: kill Laban. He spends seven and a half verses arguing with the Spirit until he finally cuts off Laban's head (a job that must have been mighty messy, even with such a sword as Laban's.)

So right there off the bat, only four chapters in, Nephi shows us what it means to follow God. (No, not that you have to go killing random people.) All the chapters up to this point have mapped out increasing stakes in the game of follow-the-leader with God. But let's take a minute to look at the basic journey:

Nephi has been taught "all the learning" available to him, so he has developed intelligence and an ability to think things through. His father told him that God had talked to him, Nephi prayed about that and gained a testimony. So he knows how to determine whether or not someone is truly speaking for God. He was asked to leave all his possessions and privilege behind, so he knows about sacrifice.

In chapter four, he's tried everything he knows how to do to accomplish what God's commanded him to do and has FAILED. So he does it God's way, and ends up becoming a murderer and (later on) a liar, thief, and fugitive.

There are so many things that ought to be troubling in this story, particularly when it comes to applying the lessons to ourselves. But it isn't the only story in scripture of people being led to do morally challenging things by the Spirit of God. This is terrifying. What differentiates the Spirit from, say, schizophrenia? How can we really know if God is speaking to us, or if we're crazy or rationalizing? After all, Nephi stood quite a bit to gain from killing Laban. How did he know it wasn't just convenience talking?

It's not always easy. Having been asked to do things by the Spirit which violated my conscience at the time (though nothing illegal so far!) I don't know that I can say what it was like to look into that abyss and still know that what you were being asked to do was from God. In a way, it's a leap of faith. You can never KNOW-know. Except that when the Spirit speaks to something like that, you do know. You doubt, of course. But as you struggle with it, the Spirit persuades using time, nagging certainty, and reason.

This Abrahamic struggle, so to say, is actually a moment of perfect clarity. It's like listening to an orchestra and all you hear is noise, then suddenly you are caught in the thread of the music and it all fits in a way you couldn't possibly describe. Or when you're out hiking, huffing and puffing, then you realize you're alone, the sun is shining, and you are suddenly incredibly aware of your place in the universe. That's how it is for me, anyways. I can be struggling, wrestling, aching over some piece of doctrine or some decision that needs to be made and then suddenly, I am overcome with a sense of humility and joy, and I just know.

Once you accept that you can't really predict what God might ask you to do, it's a frightening thing. To someone who is just contemplating discipleship, it looks a great deal like throwing away your agency. And yet, it isn't. Trusting God despite not knowing how to predict what He will ask you to do IS scary. How can you know that what you feel isn't exactly like someone justifying personal desires? Or suffering from mental illness? Or when I was in a victim of crazymaking, and I didn't know who to trust, what I felt, or what to believe.

Again, I don't know how you can know. All I can do, and all you can ultimately do, is depend on personal perceptions and experience. You can take others' perspectives into account, and try not to offend, but when the sun goes down all you have is yourself. That's why I can say I know God lives, and that the Church is led by men who are led by Jesus Christ. I don't just believe it. I know it as much as I can know anything. I have no idea where that will lead in my life. But I trust God and I trust those who trust in Him.

So what is different about it to you? Have you had such an experience? Can you maybe shed some light on how to know whether or not you are truly being guided by God?


  1. I like the story about Nephi and Laban. Laban broke the law the first time he met Nephi and all his brothers. He stole their household goods and money, when they came back his men chased them into the desert with the intent of killing all of them. Laban was an evil person. He had what Nephi wanted. Nephi did not set out to kill anyone.

    I have wondered from time to time if Laban were not already dead. His clothes were not covered with blood. There was no blood talked about being in the street or in the gutter.

    It is my opinion that Nephi knew the spirit's voice. The words that told him it was better to kill Laban and take the books that would save his people, convinced him.

    I have often heard the spirit. Sometimes I did not understand it. Sometimes I have done what seemed the wrong thing. It is difficult to always know.

  2. Thank you, Yvonne. It sometimes feels impossible to know. But even when I've failed, when I've tried to respond to the Spirit's guidance, I've always been blessed in the long term.


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