In this episode of RiseUp (that’s a bit longer than others–be patient), Nick Galieti looks at the way people use the scriptures in making decisions about social issues, about moral choices, and the importance of using the words of Prophets and Apostles in that effort. The text/transcript of the presentation is included below.
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Prophets teach the importance of keeping the commandments, and of following the example set by Jesus Christ. These same prophets teach the importance of following the spirit as our guide in doing just that. Then I read stories like the one in 1 Nephi where Nephi is commanded to kill King Laban, clearly a directive that is not in line with the commandments as he understood them. This is a challenging question that some have that is often applied in contexts that may or may not apply to the story of King Laban.
Some have sought to use this example in 1 Nephi as evidence that we should be more open to the exceptions to the Lord’s rules. Meaning, if Nephi can kill someone, then maybe the Lord is okay if I do ___________________, (fill in the blank).
This recently came up in a “conversation” (I will put conversation in air quotes), on Facebook. The question was asked, Is it wrong for a Latter-day Saint to buy someone a cup of coffee? Some were saying that there was nothing wrong with it because not drinking coffee is my covenant choice, and that may not be the case with others. While others said something along the lines that it was not something another may have chosen, while it may not be their covenant choice, our covenants don’t include promotion of or supporting practices that are contrary to the laws of God for others. In the course of the debate, the story of King Laban in 1 Nephi was used to make the point, that we should be open to God inspiring us to buy a cup of coffee for someone just as Nephi was open to the Lord inspiring him to Kill Laban.
The whole conversation made for an interesting debate to say the least. But the use of that story gave me the greatest pause. Was Nephi’s telling of that story meant to give license for us to find ways to not keep the commandments generally? There are other times where, most often referred to by others in the Old Testament, where inspired individuals have been asked to do things that seem to have some kind of cognitive dissonance attached to it, where it seems hard to make sense of the contradiction at first. Why would Abraham be asked to kill his son? Those sorts of stories are not always easy to understand, and to be honest, sometimes those things may take years to understand. Until that time comes though, we might be able to do our best to re-examine these stories and see if we can find more understanding from these stories. That way we don’t base our own life philosophies on incomplete scriptural understanding as much as possible.
So, let’s use 1 Nephi as the basis for our discussion here. First, lets read the story of Nephi and his confrontation with Laban. Nephi was given a commandment, a quest of sorts, by his prophet father, to obtain the Brass plates, the record of Lehi’s genealogy, but also the history and teachings that made up the spiritual sources for their day. After presenting their earthly possessions to Laban in exchange for the plates, after what amounts to saying “pretty please Laban” Nephi and his brother’s requests were rejected and at one point their lives were threatened leaving some of the Brothers with a sense of failure and rejection. Those brothers Laman and Lemuel even attacked their brother Nephi as some expression of their anger and frustration with their situation. This is also the same instance where an Angel comes to these brothers and admonishes them to continue in their quest, and that Laban would be delivered into their hands. This brings us to 1 Nephi chapter 4 verse 1:
When, in this conversation about the individual who wanted to be able to buy coffee for someone with some sense of approval from others, at least the people on Facebook, this story was used to encourage people to use the spirit to see if God wants us to buy coffee for someone using Nephi slaying Laban as the basis for such a decision, I asked myself, does this scripture work as justification for such an action?
1 And it came to pass that I spake unto my brethren, saying: Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?
(This is a question we could often ask ourselves when faced with tasks from the Lord that seem difficult, or that there is a lot of opposition to us accomplishing those things. For me sometimes I see missionary work this way, defending the church online, there is so much opposition, but so much that we have been encouraged to do. When I start to see the challenge more than the commandment, I can think of this question that Nephi is asking, is the Lord not mightier than all opposition, mightier than even death? I say, yes. And then I realize that I shouldn’t look so much at the challenge but more the commandment.)
2 Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.
3 Now behold ye know that this is true; and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.
(Nephi is a master at using the scriptures to give him strength and direction. The spirit had guided him, angels had guided him, but he still also drew strength from the scriptures, the story of Moses. One of the ways this is possible is that he studied them enough that they were on his mind. People that tend to play sports use a lot of sports metaphors when they teach. People who watch a lot movies will reference movie a scene or a line in a movie because these are things they are most familiar with. Nephi, was familiar with the scriptures, with the story of Moses. But he also recognizes that the miracles that happened to others can have application in his circumstances as well. In Nephi’s culture, in Jerusalem and Israelite culture, Moses was a most important figure. But here is Nephi thinking, if the Lord can deliver Moses when given a task from the Lord, then the Lord can help me as well.
This reminds me of Moroni 7 where Moroni asks the questions, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men? For he hath answered the ends of the law, and he claimeth all those who have faith in him; and they who have faith in him will cleave unto every good thing; wherefore he advocateth the cause of the children of men; and he dwelleth eternally in the heavens. And because he hath done this, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men.” Even Moroni, when compiling the record of the Book of Mormon could look back on the entire record and see that from Moses, to Nephi, and even to his own day, miracles will continue. They may not all be the parting of a sea, or the killing of an evil ruler, but they happen. Moroni puts this in a few versus later, “And Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.” Nephi knew that. If we are to understand Nephi’s next choices, we need to put ourselves in the same mindset or we won’t begin to understand the principles upon which the Lord was able to communicate with Nephi in the very hour it was needed. If Nephi didn’t trust the Lord and in his ability to “get the job done,” Nephi probably wouldn’t have “gotten the job done either.)
4 Now when I had spoken these words, they were yet wroth, and did still continue to murmur; nevertheless they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.
5 And it was by night; and I caused that they should hide themselves without the walls. And after they had hid themselves, I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.
(I don’t know what the brothers were murmuring about it they were just going to stay outside the city. Nephi had the hard job. Funny how it is sometimes the people with the least amount of work that do the most complaining.)
6 And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.
7 Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.
8 And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.
(Now, this here is where some of our conversation on Facebook diverted a bit. So pay closer attention to the principles here. Laban was not sick, Laban was not perfectly fine, he was drunk, so much so that he had basically passed out in the street. Here he was in front of Nephi, prepared by the hand of the Lord.)
9 And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.
(I have read this passage several times, but this time it made me wonder, why, of all the things that a person could do upon finding a drunk person passing out in front of him, would Nephi grab the sword and kind of admire it’s workmanship? Why record that this was a pretty impressive weapon? I still don’t have an answer, but I hope to find one in my study.)
10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
(constrained is an interesting word that I decided to look up and to see why that was the word chosen. It seems interesting because in one definition of the word constrain is talks about limiting or restricting the extent or activity of something. To another definition it is to compel or force someone toward a particular course of action. And to yet another definition it is to cause to appear unnaturally forced, typically because of embarrassment. So if I was to mix these definitions, perhaps what this is meaning is that Nephi was being focused on a singular task, he was compelled beyond what his natural inclination would have been to then kill Laban. Which is understandable, and we will talk about that more in just a second.)
11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.
(In this situation the spirit began to work not just with Nephi’s heart, because his heart was shrinking from the task, again, understandably. But the spirit also works with the mind. That is a key here, a really big key. Nephi didn’t just go with his first gut reaction, and neither did the spirit. There was reason, there was something else that Nephi needed to know in order for him to be able to make the choice correctly. That was that if he didn’t kill Laban, Laban would likely have him killed – and already tried to previously. Then the next couple verses go on to further explain how the spirit spoke to Nephi’s mind.)
12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;
13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
(How can killing someone be a good thing? Nephi has been taught for so long that killing was not just wrong, but a big no-no. Yet, here it is, the choice and the spirit giving him righteous motives. The next part is equally as important. Because after the spirit tells something to Nephi, the inspiration for Nephi continues, but Nephi then takes what the spirit taught him now, in the present, and mixed it with what he had learned and been taught from the past.)
14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.
15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.
16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.
17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.
(Some might argue that this is Nephi rationalizing. However, rationalizing tends to take place when we first decide that we want to do something, and then we find a way to justify doing it. Nephi didn’t want to do this. He had to be constrained by the spirit, the spirit and angels, had to come and give him the additional reason and strength to move forward. This story shows the wrestle that even the greatest of the prophets we find in the scriptures will encounter in their lives. Prophet’s have to make tough decisions all the time. Decisions that don’t seem to fit with the secular understanding that we hear so often in the media or from people we are around at school and work.
In our own lives we have been given commandments, standards, tasks to work towards, and the Lord will provide a way for us to accomplish them. In some of those cases the way that the Lord will accomplish those things is with our help, and our best efforts. But like Nephi we will be inspired, we will know what we are supposed to do as we trust in the Lord. Additionally, we might find that the spirit will guide us using a mix of new information, scriptural information, the teachings of prophets, but we will also be asked to use our own minds in coming to a decision. This is how agency works. God doesn’t want puppets, he wants prophets, he wants us to learn and come to make choices based on revelation. Those choices become our tutor as much as the spirit does. Then Nephi says:)
18 Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
I want to play a quote from Jeffrey R. Holland, from back when he was President of BYU. He talked about obedience, and about the challenges that we face in our daily lives using this story from 1 Nephi 3 and 4. I want to give this story from 1 Nephi more understanding before we bring it back to our original premise with the whole coffee thing. Remember, we are using this story as an example of how you can apply the scriptures in your own life with your own challenges, and especially those challenges where there seems to be so much opposition.
(Play Jeffrey R. Holland Clip – The Will of the Father in all things.)
Obedience is the first law of heaven, but in case you haven’t noticed, some of these commandments are not easy, and we frequently may seem to be in for much more than we bargained for. At least if we are truly serious about becoming a saint, I think we will find that is the case.
Let me use an example from what is often considered by foes, and even by some friends, as the most unsavory moment in the entire Book of Mormon. I choose it precisely because there is so much in it that has given offense to many. It is pretty much a bitter cup all the way around.
I speak of Nephi’s obligation to slay Laban in order to preserve a record, save a people, and ultimately lead to the restoration of the gospel in the dispensation of the fulness of times. How much is hanging in the balance as Nephi stands over the drunken and adversarial Laban I cannot say, but it is a very great deal indeed.
The only problem is that we know this, but Nephi does not. And regardless of how much is at stake, how can he do this thing? He is a good person, perhaps even a well-educated person. He has been taught from the very summit of Sinai “Thou shalt not kill.” And he has made gospel covenants.
“I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but . . . I shrunk and would that I might not slay him” (1 Nephi 4:10). We don’t know why those plates could not have been obtained some other way—perhaps accidentally left at the plate polishers one night or maybe falling out the back of Laban’s chariot on a Sabbath afternoon drive.
For that matter, why didn’t Nephi just leave this story out of the book altogether? Why didn’t he say something like, “And after much effort and anguish of spirit, I did obtain the plates of Laban and did depart into the wilderness unto the tent of my father?” At the very least he might have buried the account somewhere in the Isaiah chapters, thus guaranteeing that it would have gone undiscovered up to this very day.
But there it is, squarely in the beginning of the book—page 8—where even the most casual reader will see it and must deal with it. It is not intended that either Nephi or we be spared the struggle of this account.
I believe that story was placed in the very opening verses of a 531-page book and then told in painfully specific detail in order to focus every reader of that record on the absolutely fundamental gospel issue of obedience and submission to the communicated will of the Lord. If Nephi cannot yield to this terribly painful command, if he cannot bring himself to obey, then it is entirely probable that he can never succeed or survive in the tasks that lie just ahead.
“I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7). I confess that I wince a little when I hear that promise quoted so casually among us. Jesus knew what that kind of commitment would entail, and so now does Nephi. And so will a host of others before it is over. That vow took Christ to the cross on Calvary, and it remains at the heart of every Christian covenant. “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded.” Well, we shall see.
There we have it. A pretty good digesting of 1 Nephi 3 and 4, Nephi being told to kill Laban. What did you learn? What did the spirit tell you as we went through these relatively short passages? Remember, that like Nephi you need to be open to what the spirit tells you, and you need to take what you are feeling and correlate that, or put it together with what you already know from the scriptures and what you have heard from the Prophet’s and apostles.
So, what then of our original premise, the question of should Mormon’s buy coffee for someone? And is the story of Nephi killing Laban an accurate explanation or justification for someone doing so? What did the spirit tell you? What do you know from reading the scriptures? What have the prophet’s taught?
Well, for me, should such an opportunity arise to buy coffee for someone, my first reaction would be to say no—but that it would be best if I made that clear before going out or ordering the food, not when the check came. I actually felt like the decision to not buy them coffee could also be turned into a positive—a missionary moment where I could explain the word of wisdom and that I have made promises to God to not partake in those things, and to a certain extent I made a promise to do my part to help encourage others to live similarly. The only way this would work if done in a spirit of love and not boasting or condemnation. I would also explain that while it is their choice to buy their own coffee, it is my choice to not encourage its purchase and consumption and I hope they can respect that. I wouldn’t ask a hindu to buy me a beef steak, I wouldn’t ask a jewish person to buy me something that wasn’t kosher. I wouldn’t ask someone who isn’t politically or socially aligned with a particular company or organization to support those organizations so that I could have a free meal. So why would the person I take out to dinner want me to buy them coffee against my principles and religion?
After thinking that, I wanted to confirm what I was feeling had some Holy Spirit witness to it, so I tried to address that answer with what may have been taught on the subject from modern day prophet’s and apostles. When I listen to general conference, and I have listened to a few, or when I read magazines and books, I don’t recall ever reading a passage where a prophet or apostle endorsed buying coffee for a co-worker as a way of being a good Latter-day Saint. I have never heard someone say that being a Christian means buying things for people, let alone something that is not in line with Church teachings on the Word of Wisdom. I HAVE heard President Monson say this recently:
(Play Dare to Stand Alone Clip from October 2011)
As we go about living from day to day, it is almost inevitable that our faith will be challenged. We may at times find ourselves surrounded by others and yet standing in the minority or even standing alone concerning what is acceptable and what is not. Do we have the moral courage to stand firm for our beliefs, even if by so doing we must stand alone? It is essential that we are able to face—with courage—whatever challenges come our way.
What then of courage to live the gospel, to RiseUp to the standards that we know to be true? Well, in that same talk, President Monson gave this quote:
In Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, found in 1 Nephi 8, Lehi sees, among others, those who hold to the iron rod until they come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree of life, which we know is a representation of the love of God. And then, sadly, after they partake of the fruit, some are ashamed because of those in the “great and spacious building,” who represent the pride of the children of men, who are pointing fingers at them and scoffing at them; and they fall away into forbidden paths and are lost. What a powerful tool of the adversary is ridicule and mockery! Do we have the courage to stand strong and firm in the face of such difficult opposition?
What do you know, another key insight from 1 Nephi. After I came to my conclusion and shared my feelings with this Facebook group, I found that I was being ridiculed, even by those who profess to be members of the church. I wondered why I would be treated that way when all I was doing was sharing my testimony of keeping the commandments, of finding ways to turn challenging situations into a positive missionary experience. Then I thought to Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. The great and spacious building was filled with individuals who had left the Iron Rod some of them were even individuals who had partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life, felt mocked for doing so, and left to join that crowd. Were these the same people? Was I having my own Tree of Life/Great and Spacious Building moment? Perhaps. But I also learned a key insight that was happening, and it happened from the beginning of the post on the Facebook group and I didn’t even see it: The question itself wasn’t based on someone wanting to know right and wrong, it was to stir up conversation, stir up the hearts of men to contend with one another about an issue that can be heavily influenced by social convention that is at odds with gospel teachings.
In one respect, the whole question was designed to put grease on the Iron Rod. Sometimes we may find in our time on the internet, in discussing issues with others, that we may find ourselves not inside the walls of the city, fulfilling the Lord’s commandments, but outside the city wall murmuring at those who are trying to get the Lord’s work done. Sometimes there are those who are simply trying to make the Iron Rod something slippery and hard to hang on to.
This story in 1 Nephi with Nephi slaying Laban has application in the importance of following the spirit regardless of what we perceive as operating within the Lord’s boundaries, but it is not to be used as license for doing whatever we feel like or for following social convention as some exception to the Lord’s rule. What this story teaches me is that if you have been given a task where millions of eternal lives are based off the task at hand, and that you find yourselves physically threatened with complete justification in the defense of your life by buying someone a cup of coffee, and the spirit constrains you in that very moment that the moment was prepared for you to accomplish this great task, well, then who am I to stand in the way of such inspiration. But, when Nephi was told by the spirit that it is better that one should perish than a whole nation dwindle in unbelief, the individual that was to perish should not be Nephi, it was Laban. The thing that was to be put down was the evil opposition, not the person who was seeking to keep the commandments. Buying coffee for that individual isn’t likely to improve the position of the other person or 1000’s of others. What is more likely the case is that we will bring ourselves down in the process.
In other words, the Iron Rod is the word of God. Use it to bring you and others unto Christ, unto the Tree of Life. Don’t put something slippery on that Iron Rod that will make it hard for others, as well as yourself, to hold to that special guide. Also, be aware when others will seek to do the same thing to you. Listen to the spirit, but understand that one way to help discern the spirit is to use the scriptures and the words of the prophet’s and apostles as a second or third witness of what the Lord is wanting you to do. This may take some time, it takes study. Use your parents, your leaders, or your bishop should you need additional counsel with such things.