Members of the LDS Church will be familiar with the story of Lehi and his family travelling through a desert wilderness for many years, with rebellious children Laman and Lemuel (who really would have preferred to have stayed in Jerusalem), and obedient Nephi. In a Sunday School class I was in a couple of years ago, the teacher began by handing out slips of paper to everyone, asking people to complete an imaginary sentence spoken by the rebellious Laman and Lemuel, “I am sick and tired of…”. I was struggling to sum up what I thought they would be sick and tired of, so in the 1 or so minute that we had I quickly wrote the following:
I am sick and tired of wandering through hot and dusty places
I miss our home – our friends; and their happy, smiling faces
My father is a lunatic. His crazy prophecies
Have utterly – completely – made my life a misery
I include this not because it is great poetry – clearly it’s not going to win any awards – but rather because I think it contrasts nicely with the words of Nephi, “Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.” (2 Nephi 4:30) (As my wife says, Nephi’s words are rather more “stylish” than my own rendition of Laman and Lemuel’s above, but hey Nephi was a prophet)
As their family journeyed through the wilderness, Laman and Lemuel saw only tribulation, and felt only resentment; while Nephi, experiencing the same tribulations, saw blessings, and tasted of the Lord’s comfort – and 1st and 2nd Nephi are his witness to us of that fact. Not everyone will necessarily feel the comfort that the Saviour offers. Sometimes the fire of our afflictions mean that it is only in hindsight that we are able to recognise the comfort and support we received; while at other times we can sometimes choose a path that makes receiving that comfort more difficult. During their wilderness sojourn, Nephi saw blessings for their wives, in that they had been strengthened to be able to provide nourishment for newborn children; in contrast Laman and Lemuel said of the same experience that their women had suffered so much that they would have been better off dying (see 1 Nephi 17:2, 20).
The study of Laman/Lemuel and Nephi is an interesting one in assessing our own discipleship. It’s important to note, I think, that Laman and Lemuel considered themselves righteous. They considered the leaders in Jerusalem righteous. We find no indication in the Book of Mormon that they objected to their father offering sacrifices or following other elements of the Law of Moses. Although grumbling all along the way, the reality is that they did go back to get the brass plates when told to, they did return for Ishmael when told to, they did help build the ship even though they didn’t want to, they got on the ship, and they arrived in the promised land. They ticked all of the boxes on their “righteous to-do list” – but they remained miserable; they never felt any degree of comfort. If we’re not careful, we can end up “doing” everything we’re supposed to do, but miss the Saviour’s comfort.
It would be an oversimplification – and indeed false – to say that we simply need to choose to be happy. As Alma explains in Mosiah 18, burdens and mourning are an intentional part of the Lord’s plan for us; and the Lord’s promise to wipe away tears from the righteous wouldn’t be meaningful if there were no tears to wipe away. But, there is a path to comfort, which we can either choose to follow, or to ignore.
In their book “Who Shall Ascend Into the Hill of the Lord”, LeGrand L Baker and Stephen D Ricks write:
“The most extensive analysis of the Hebrew word [comfort] is by Gary Anderson. Who writes, ‘This verb ‘to comfort’ (n-h-m) does not connote a simple act of emotional identification. Comfort can imply either the symbolic action of assuming the state of mourning alongside the mourner, or it can have the nuance of bringing about the cessation of mourning….’ He goes on to explain, ‘The latter usage, to bring about the cessation of mourning, is very common in prophetic oracles of deliverance. The famous exhortation of Isaiah 40:1, ‘Comfort, comfort, my people,’ comes to mind immediately. As Westermann noted, the term conveys ‘God’s intervention to help and restore.’’
“Anderson’s definition can account for the way the English translators used the word ‘comfort’ to mean the bestowal of authority or power – an empowerment – and it also adds substantial depth to…scriptures where ‘comfort’ might be read as ‘to give consolation,’ they might also be read as ‘to give power and authority, thus enabling one to transcend sorrow.’” (Who Shall Ascend Into the Hill of the Lord, pp 340-1, emphasis added)
With this definition of comfort in mind, it seems that Nephi was given power to transcend his sorrow, where Laman and Lemuel weren’t. This fits well with Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life, where Lehi saw his son Nephi partake of the fruit of the tree, which “…filled [his] soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Nephi 8:12), while Laman and Lemuel refused (see 1 Nephi 8:17-18). The whole family was in the dark and dreary wilderness (1 Nephi 8:4), experiencing burdens and mourning, but some chose to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life – the blessings of the Atonement – and received comfort and joy, while others chose not to do so.
We are not, however, given power and authority solely through choice. Within a gospel context, power and authority are given through ordinances and through righteousness. Isaiah 61 explains this process of ordinances leading to comfort in place of mourning (see Who Shall Ascend Into the Hill of the Lord, pp 336-359, for a detailed explanation of these verses in Isaiah).
It begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2). The references to the Saviour are unmistakable in these verses – He is the anointed one (Christ literally meaning anointed), who has commanded that we have broken hearts (that He will bind up) and contrite spirits. The references to proclaiming liberty to the captives and opening the prison reminds us of the Saviour’s mission in the Spirit World (see 1 Peter 3:18-20).
With this in mind, we then note that one of the things which the Saviour has been anointed to do is, “to comfort those that mourn”. It is here that verse 3 is particularly instructive, because it continues the theme of comforting those that mourn, explicitly stating what is available from the Saviour for the righteous – for those in Zion, “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)
Speaking of this verse, Baker and Ricks have written, “In ancient Israel, putting a mixture of water and the ashes of a red heifer on one’s head was a formal purification ordinance. A red heifer was sacrificed once each year and its ashes were kept to be used in an ordinance that made a person ritually clean. In Isaiah 61 it was used in preparation for other ordinances that would follow.” (Who Shall Ascend, p 343)
With this in mind, we can then see that according to Isaiah 61, the Saviour would give comfort to the righteous through giving:
- beauty for ashes – washing clean
- oil of joy – anointing
- garment of praise – ritual clothing
These are what lead to:
- trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord – Tree of Life
(As an aside, note that as we are anointed as part of this process, we can then re-read these verses in Isaiah 61 again, with the anointed one being each one of us rather than Christ, reminding us of Mosiah, where we covenant to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. As with so many scriptures – while this applies to Christ in its fullest sense, we become similitudes of Him as we pattern our lives after His, seeking to do as He would do)
All of these things – washing, anointing, clothing, and partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life – follow mourning. Lehi taught that we can have no joy if we know no misery (2 Nephi 2:11, 23), but joy doesn’t automatically follow misery. Comfort and joy will follow our misery only if we follow the path to the Tree of Life – to the blessings of the Atonement, which we receive in part through firstly receiving ordinances, and then keeping the associated covenants.
At the end of their civilization, the Nephites certainly missed the point. They were anything but happy, but “…their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin. And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die.” (Mormon 2:13-14). We contrast this with their ancestors at the time of the Saviour’s visit to them. They had certainly been through an enormous amount of suffering, but at the Temple in Bountiful, “…no one [could] conceive of the joy which filled [their] souls….” (3 Nephi 17:17)
“Blessed are they that mourn,” taught the Saviour, “for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). Mourning is an essential and repeating part of our mortal existence, but it is a blessing, because it is through mourning that, if we are faithful, we will be comforted, and ultimately be able to stand at the Tree of Life, as witnesses: witnesses of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in all its power, its beauty, and its joy so complete that words are unable to express it.