Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ether 3 and the Eye of Faith

On the BYU Religious Studies website I read an article “Glowing Stones In Ancient and Medieval Lore” by John A. Tvedtnes that focused exclusively on showing that it was not silly to believe a Book of Mormon account of glowing stones (a la Ether 3), because all through ancient tradition people talk about glowing stones being used for this or that—sometimes as a lie detector or sin detector (a tangible tool for the gift of discernment), sometimes as a sort of magic 8 ball (“shall I stay or fight or flee?”)—and was it unreasonable to suppose that a glowing stone should not be also used by the ancients as a simple flashlight? But this is not what I wish to focus on.

The thing I noticed was that the writer of the article spends time justifying “glowing stones can be used as flashlights”, and no time discussing the events in Ether 2 and 3 that occurred to bring this about, or the simply extraordinary way that the stones came to glow in the first place, and the even more amazing events that occurred afterward in which the main actors of the scene got so involved that the glowing stones themselves simply ceased to be of interest. If they ceased to be of interest to the people in the story, with greater things manifested and then cloaked from us in a teaser “I can’t tell you now, but you’ll get this stuff when you’re ready”, then we today should stop caring so much about the glowing rocks and start looking deeper to see what was so great that it had to be hid. What we find is at first frustrating, then shocking and distasteful, and then… immensely liberating.

As a youth I read this account about the brother of Jared’s encounter with God to get some light for his barges, and I was always highly frustrated, because it seemed like the brother of Jared got all the breaks. He got to play with some nifty glowing rocks. He got to see the Lord’s finger touch them to make them glow. He got to see the Lord’s spirit body. He got to see all kinds of nifty things that couldn’t be put in the account Moroni made for us, because of the extreme nature of their awesomeness. He got to see everybody who ever lived or ever would live. I was incredibly jealous. Why him and not me? God seemed to have arbitrary favorites.

I read this account many times over the space of years, and eventually several things struck me as odd that I hadn’t noticed before. How was it that the brother of Jared was able to get not one, but two peeks at God? First a peek at a finger, then the whole body. Why not the whole body all at once at the very first? What freaked him out so much? (The religionist may charge me with brash irreverence here—“Don’t you know how scary it is to see a being brighter than the sun? Keep out; you are too inquiring and not reverent enough!”) But I must ask again, what was so scary about seeing only a finger, yet not alarming about seeing the whole spirit body? The only thing that I can come up with is that when the brother of Jared saw the finger of God he felt somehow like a peeping Tom.

Then, another thing that struck me as odd is that God acts as if He doesn’t know what’s going on. “Arise! Why hast thou fallen?” (Ether 3:7). What are you scared of? Instead of keeping his thoughts to himself, the brother of Jared comes clean—“I saw the finger of the Lord and I feared lest he should smite me, for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood” (Ether 3:8). Why should the brother of Jared be so scared of seeing? It’s right there—he wasn’t absolutely sure the Lord had flesh and blood, but he had the faith to try and visualize it anyway. This was an unheard of piece of cheek, and the brother of Jared knew it. You don’t just barge into the presence of the Lord uninvited. Everyone knows that! When God is ready to be seen, He shows Himself.. And yet… the brother of Jared was trying to peel away the veil on his own. The brother of Jared hadn’t been invited, yet he saw. (Actually, the brother of Jared did the inviting, by seeking the Lord’s help in the first place, and I’ll come back to that issue.) This is yet another frustrating thing. How can a person just see the Lord even when the Lord isn’t showing himself?

The brother of Jared had a very unique request to make of the Lord—“touch these 16 stones with your finger and make them glow”, which he phrases in much greater humility than I have here. The Lord obliges. The brother of Jared finds himself in a very unique position. Having asked the Lord to touch the stones with his finger to make them glow, when he sees one stone light up and then another and another, he realizes that the Lord is right there, touching them with a finger, doing exactly what the brother of Jared asked Him to do. It is the Lord he adores. Can we blame him for trying to lift away a corner of the veil on his own with the eye of faith? Can we blame him for trying to use his imagination to envision what he knew to be absolutely true?

I’m sure that everyone is now hot and bothered about my use of the word “imagination” and is misunderstanding me, so I wish to clarify a few things. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is hoping for things that are not seen, but which are true. In order to have faith, you have to imagine. But not only that, you have to imagine about what is true. To do anything else is silly, like shooting a loaded gun in the air instead of at the target.

So when the brother of Jared starts using his imagination to see the Lord’s finger, his faith is not pointed at any sort of fiction—the kind that has given the word “imagination” a bad name—it is pointed at something that is really true. The Lord is there, the Lord is touching the stones and making them glow, the Lord must be using his finger, since the brother of Jared asked him to use his finger. He sees the visible effects, and he can draw conclusions from it that show him it is true that the Lord is there, touching, finger, etc. If he were to exert his imagination to see the Lord anywhere else, it would be foolish fantasy; he must envision the Lord’s finger right where the action is, because only when focused there could his imagination be rightly called “the eye of faith”.

Imagination lined up with truth is incredibly powerful, so much so that all kinds of things must have passed through his mind in a flash of insight. I asked for God to touch the stones and light them with his finger, and now I see stones being lighted. God’s finger must be there. God has a finger. If I squint, I can imagine I see the finger of God touching the stones. God is right there. I am in the presence of God. God is a consuming fire of holiness. I am nothing in comparison to him. I am a speck of dirt. What if I am doing something wrong by imagining His finger?! He would get mad and smite me! Yipe! (collapses in a heap)

He was profoundly aware of his nothingness, and feared to offend God, and at the thought that he might have offended God by daring to use his imagination to not just know the truth but see the truth too, he fell in fear, fearing that he had committed sin. His fear was not sudden reverence, because he had demonstrated reverence from beginning to end, but it was the fear of accidentally offending the Lord with his presumption of trying to peek around the veil like some kind of spiritual peeking Tom.

Now we begin to realize what a spiritual giant the brother of Jared was in using his imagination. No longer is this a story of a man who was permitted to see (implying a lack of control over whether it occurred or not), but it is a story of a man who, in the demonstration of his faith, pushed so hard toward seeing “that when God put forth his finger he could not hide it from the sight of the brother of Jared” (Ether 12:20, emphasis added). And after the brother of Jared saw the Lord’s finger, the Lord couldn’t withhold anything else from his sight, whether it was the rest of His spirit body or the mysteries of God, or the things of the cosmos. (see Ether 12:21)

Back to the story. The brother of Jared has fallen in fear. Then the astonishing result. The Lord is solicitous. Get up! Why have you fallen down? The brother of Jared admits what he saw. Instead of being angry, Lord seems very pleased, even excited. (Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve done what no one has yet been able to do—see that I will have a body!) The Lord knew the value of imagination and He wanted to see how far the brother of Jared’s went. “Sawest thou more than this?” (Ether 3:9) But this wasn’t just a probe for more information, this was also a small invitation to the brother of Jared to ask for more if he wanted it, and the brother of Jared jumped at the chance. “Nay; Lord, show thyself unto me” (Ether 3:10).

Then the Lord asks a question that I’ve always thought was rather odd until just recently. The Lord asks the brother of Jared, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?” (Ether 3:11) I thought this odd, because here seeing the Lord would be a pretty awesome sight in and of itself, but the Lord is acting like there is going to be even more coming afterward and seeing is just the beginning. And I have since realized that by thinking it so odd, I am demonstrating my own lack of faith and imagination. Silly me, thinking to be content with an account of merely seeing the Lord, when there is so much more beyond that. When the Lord appears to someone, it is not a pop-in-pop-out affair, neither is it to satisfy curiosity, but it is to communicate lots of important things that can only be done in person. By this time, the Lord knew the brother of Jared was not going to be content with just seeing Him, but he was going to keep asking questions and keep asking for more. And the Lord is just fine with that. All He wanted to make sure of was that the brother of Jared would believe Him when He told him.

The brother of Jared says something that sounds really silly, but which I have realized is actually really profound. “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12). It seems silly, because it is so fundamental, but it is so profound, because too many times we simply don’t believe it. We think that God doesn’t mean what He says about how no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God. We think He doesn’t mean what He says about a great many other things as well, like how a rich man will never enter the kingdom of God just like a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle. We try to blunt the sharp sword of the word of God to excuse ourselves from the necessity of repenting of both big sins and little ones.

The brother of Jared was way ahead of the rest of us, because he had gotten it through his noggin that the Lord always tells the truth and simply cannot lie. What a sense of security! Doubt vanished. There was no need for him to vacillate and waver and second-guess about whether the Lord meant something or was just trying to yank his chain or manipulate him. The sooner we can absorb this ourselves, the sooner we can get on with the real work—working out our own salvation or damnation, according to our obedience or rebellion. Away with disbelief forever! The Lord always tells us the truth whether we like it or not.

Once the brother of Jared says he has implicit faith in the veracity of his God, God shows Himself, and says something else that seems bizarre. “Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you” (Ether 3:13). What things did the brother of Jared know that redeemed him from the fall? He knew that God doesn’t lie. Because of this, he obeyed God’s commandments with confidence that they were the best thing to do and that it would make him happy. Through his faith, repentance, and obedience he had already put off the natural man and become a saint, able to understand spiritual things, seeking God rather than running from Him. As fallen man is carnal, sensual, and devilish, blind, weak, and doubtful so being redeemed from the fall made the brother of Jared spiritual, sensitive, and angelic, visionary, with faith tough as nails and as powerful as dynamite, and so on, which brought him naturally back into the presence of God. If we’re not there yet, we’re not as saintly as we need to be. (I know I’m not there yet; I’ve got quite a way to go, but just because I haven’t seen God yet doesn’t mean that I won’t ever see Him.)

So then the Lord introduces Himself to the brother of Jared and explains who He is. “Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters” (Ether 3:14) This is another thing that seems very strange. Doesn’t the brother of Jared already know this stuff? Apparently he needed to know exactly whom he was talking to—was it God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Ghost? It was God the Son, Jesus Christ. But why does He claim to be “the Father” as well as the Son? When we are converted, born again, and have our hearts changed He has become our Father. “In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.”

And after this, Christ starts teaching about the spiritual creation, and even though Moroni does not give us a full account of everything that went on, it is a pretty good bet that Christ went on from there to expound on the entire plan of salvation from beginning to end. He probably told of the physical creation, the fall of man, the curse of the broken law, the atonement He would make, His resurrection, and on and on, through the entire history of the world with the scattering and gathering of Israel and the restoration of the gospel and the last days and His second coming and the Millennial thousand years and the final judgment and the three degrees of glory. (Christ is always showing the big picture to the prophets. The accounts are legion.) Christ probably showed it all to him too, as an unforgettable object lesson. And then, Christ showed him all the people who ever had lived and ever would live on the earth. (see Ether 3:25)

And then, Christ had the brother of Jared write everything down and keep it secret, saying, “I will show them in mine own due time unto the children of men” (Ether 3:27). This always was very frustrating to me, because it seemed to me that we were all doomed to wait until the Lord thinks we’re ready to see it all, and that it is all dependent upon the Lord’s time frame. Now, I see it differently. I see that the Lord is keeping back the written record, not to tease us, but to invite us to approach Him like the brother of Jared did. He wants us to be inquiring and seeking and searching and asking and knocking until we ourselves approach the veil and tear it away. He doesn’t want us to passively wait; He wants us to hasten the day and increase our faith to the point that we can do all things through faith on His name, to the point that He cannot withhold anything from our sight.

Notice that by this time shining stones are the furthest thing from Christ’s mind and the mind of the brother of Jared. We don’t hear anything more about them until two more chapters have come and gone.

I have mentioned before that the brother of Jared was the one that did the inviting to the Lord. In fact, he was the driving force of the whole encounter. He asked the questions “How can I get light and air for my barges?” and the Lord gave him a half answer and let him figure out a solution to the rest. The brother of Jared comes up with a very creative solution—“Lord, touch the stones and make them glow”—and the Lord obliges. The brother of Jared sees with his imaginative eye of faith, taking it to the next step. The Lord asks the brother of Jared if he saw anything else, and he says “Nay”, and rather than stop there and say, “That’s all I need to see”, he boldly continues, “show thyself unto me” (Ether 3:10), and after making sure that he will believe, the Lord does. The brother of Jared could have pulled back at any time and said, “Great, that’s enough, I’m satisfied,” but he kept inquiring. He was a curious, searching kind of guy.

Now, the terribly disturbing thing about this story is that if the brother of Jared could lift a corner of the veil to see the Lord’s finger with the eye of faith, with imagination focused on the truth, and use that as a springboard to obtain greater and greater manifestations, then that brings a personal visitation from the Lord into the realm of possibility for the rest of us as well. This is disturbing, because it places the responsibility firmly on our own shoulders where it really belongs and teaches us that we must go from a Laman-and-Lemuel-esque “the Lord shows no such things unto us” attitude of unbelief to one of active inquiry and seeking. But this is also incredibly liberating. It opens up vast new horizons of knowledge and miracle and great endeavors. No longer need we wallow in the swamp of conventional faith and stereotypical service and mediocrity. We can be up and at work, repenting of our unbelief and doubt, calling on God for His angels to assist us with miracles, pleading for spiritual gifts and wonders and signs to follow us, seeking His face continually in the full confidence that in time our own faith will remove the veil and He will no longer be able to hide Himself from us.

This is precisely why Moroni included this account and spends so much time on it. “And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are. . . . Come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief. Come unto me, O ye house of Israel, and it shall be made manifest unto you how great things the Father hath laid up for you, from the foundation of the world; and it hath not come unto you, because of unbelief. Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you. . . .they shall be made manifest in very deed” (Ether 4:7, 13-15, 16).

The explosive potential of these verses has yet to be fully realized by the Latter-day Saints. It is nothing short of a challenge to be imaginative and inquiring and push the limits of gospel knowledge—an alarming prospect for those who are too comfortable and complacent. There are great thoughts to be “thunk”, great things to see, great things to learn, great things to do, all things that still haven’t come yet, because we are too darn close-minded. There is no time to waste on imagining silly things like how great we are or what high callings we may fill, which the scriptures call “vain imaginations”. We have to start imagining what we can do to be a powerful influence for good and serve others and share the gospel. We have to imagine these good things in such detail that carrying it out becomes a small, easy step, bringing to the physical world the reality from our imaginations.

If we are allowed to use our imaginations, who knows what truths we will learn to see in the scriptures? These insights I gained about Ether 3 came out of quite a lot of thought over years, and it was when I tried to imagine myself in the brother of Jared’s place that I started to make progress. There’s more out there that is just as mind-boggling, if not more so! This is just the beginning!

We have no idea how much we can see and sense if we exert our eye of faith and use our imagination. It is said that the Lord walks the halls of his temples and angels are present. There is no other place that we can be more confident that He and angels would be. Have you ever tried to imagine them? Have you ever strained your ears to hear an angel choir? If you haven’t, it is time to start immediately, because only stretching and straining and searching and seeking and imagining is going to get us anywhere. “For if there be no faith [and imagination] among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith [and imagination]” (Ether 12:12). If you ever suddenly see or hear or feel something while doing this, the Spirit of God will impress the reality of it firmly upon your mind, and you’ll know of its absolute sureness.

And another thing; where are the spiritual gifts? Everyone has at least one. We need to be praying for the spiritual gifts we need and do not have. Do you need the gift of healing? Do you need to speak and interpret languages? Do you need to discern the thoughts and intents of men? Do you need to prophesy? Do you need the persuading, convincing power of God? Go to, O man and pray for it!

Further, just to make sure we get the point about the importance of faith and imagination, Moroni starts listing miracles that could not have occurred unless those involved had the imagination to work for them or ask for them.

“Behold, it was the faith of Alma and Amulek that caused the prison to tumble to the earth” (Ether 12:13). Without the imagination to suppose it was possible, it could not have been done. They had so much faith in Christ’s power of deliverance, not only did they know they could be delivered from their bonds, but they knew they could be delivered from the prison too. They asked for deliverance according to their faith, and they broke their bonds, and walked out of a wrecked prison.

“Behold, it was the faith of Nephi and Lehi that wrought the change upon the Lamanites, that they were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost” (Ether 12:14). Nephi and Lehi had to imagine what could be done among the Lamanites for them to go do it, which took some serious dreaming and scheming. They had to imagine that their efforts would be effective. Ammon and the sons of Mosiah, ditto.

“And it was by faith that the three disciples obtained a promise that they should not taste of death; and they obtained not the promise until after their faith” (Ether 12:17). Before they could obtain it, they had to think of the idea and imagine it.

“And neither at any time hath any wrought miracles until after their faith; wherefore they first believed in the Son of God. And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad. And behold, we have seen in this record that one of these was the brother of Jared; for so great was his faith in God, that when God put forth his finger he could not hide it from the sight of the brother of Jared, because of his word which he had spoken unto him, which word he had obtained by faith. And after the brother of Jared had beheld the finger of the Lord, because of the promise which the brother of Jared had obtained by faith, the Lord could not withhold anything from his sight; wherefore he showed him all things, for he could no longer be kept without the veil” (Ether 12:18-21).

So we are faced with the realization that we determine how much we get to see. The things we will see and the good we can do are truly limited only by our imagination. Which means we have to get to work.


In The Doghouse said...

Such wonderful insights. I too believe these concepts to be true. Our LDS scholars are so busy trying to "prove" all things scientifically they have forgotten to simply "ask" and focus on the "weighter matters". (Now so that I don't get slammed, they do have their place, and I appreciate their insights as well. lol)

I believe that you have come to understand what true revelation is as described in Section 8. Notice how the Lord tells us that He will tell us first in our mind, and then in our heart. I have always pondered that order of things.

Our mind is a powerful thing. It has recorded many things from our past experiences that we just simply must tap into, it actually already knows all truth. "Imagination" as you term it is a powerful tool when activating the passive quality of faith. Faith is an action word, and the mind is definitely part of that action process.

I loved your insights... can't wait to read more.

Michaela Stephens said...

I agree; LDS scholarship does have its place, and I must admit that I owe this a debt of gratitude to the particular one that was the impetus for this post, because 1)The information it presented WAS interesting and 2)seeing what it DIDN'T talk about motivated me to write.