NT 13: Finding the Faith-promoting Narrative

As I read the story of the Gentile woman in Matthew 15 last week I felt tempted to approach the scriptures from a feeling of indignation. But that did not seem like a productive effort. To read the Gentile woman’s experience in Matthew 15:21–28 as solely an example of victimization is to perpetuate the historical narrative about women and reaffirm women’s victimhood––all without providing any deeper, faith-promoting insight. To only focus on one side of the story is to miss the beauty of the exchange. To only see the woman as a victim is to miss the manifestation of a strong, inspiring character.

There is so much good to learn from this story! The Gentile woman demonstrates incredible determination in pursuing a miracle from Jesus, even after the disciples have tried to get rid of her. She shows amazing faith by pursuing healing at the hands of someone with whom she had no social, cultural, or religious intercourse. Her motherhood shines as she pushes against socio-cultural norms to save her daughter’s life. Her wit excels as she accepts the appellation “dog” without reaction and turns it back to Jesus to again request the miracle within the context of His analogy. And you know how the story ends…she gets her miracle.

Though stories about women are comparatively few in the scriptures, the Gentile woman stands out to me as a story of strength and resilience. Over the years, women of faith, wit, and goodness have blessed my life in countless ways. Maybe that’s the new narrative we can write, one of women uplifting others, women carrying others’ burdens, women strengthening each other, women blessing humanity.

Can you think of time when your life has been blessed by a woman?
Can you think of opportunities in which you might be able to bless humanity?

 

NT 11: A Centurion, A Servant, and Humility

Ever since reading the story of the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 last week I have reflected on it over and over again. The centurion’s initial request for help (in person, according to Matthew’s account) precedes what struck me initially as a statement of ego: “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Matthew 8:9).

Was it really necessary for him to tell Jesus how influential and powerful he is in his sphere? Certainly Jesus understood that the centurion occupied a higher social status. But on the heels of the centurion’s self-identification “Jesus…marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:10). What about the centurion’s statement expressed such great faith?

Upon rereading the passage I couldn’t help but equally marvel at what I discovered. First, the centurion seems to have been working out his expression of faith, describing that he believes Jesus can just speak and perform a miracle because that is how the centurion operates in his own life. He recognized in Jesus something of a peer, a powerful man whose order would be immediately obeyed, just like him in his own household. The centurion understood the mechanics of directive and obedience, and therefore could believe in the application of the system to his request for help.

Second, I began to recognize in the centurion’s statement a profound humility. The centurion, in describing how he is obeyed in his household, was expressing his willingness to abase himself and become like one of his servants, ready to obey Jesus’ command, do whatever Jesus instructed in order to save his servant.

If only we would voluntarily give up status and accomplishments, the trappings of social position with which we pad our identities, and place them at the feet of the Savior, as readily as the centurion. What miracles could God work in our lives if we in faith expressed our willingness to obey God’s directions with the alacrity of the centurion’s servants?

Last year when my husband didn’t get the job we had been anticipating for six years, we had no backup plan. My husband applied to other academic jobs and began following leads from friends. As the weeks dragged on with no immediate prospects, we began praying to know what commandment we could keep more perfectly in order to qualify for our desired miracle. We focused on spiritual improvement within our family, expressing our willingness in prayer to do whatever God required of us. Within three months my husband had received and accepted an offer for an amazing job.

This lesson came full circle for me this week as another New Testament reading led me to Psalm 55: “As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. Evening, morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (v. 16-17, OT). When we can make such unequivocal statements as “the Lord shall save me” and “he shall hear my voice,” we express our firm belief that doing God’s will results in miracles. Just like the centurion we can acknowledge God’s power, cast aside illusions of personal greatness, willingly perform God’s instructions, and receive the miracles and blessings He waits to bestow.

Day 81: The wind never did cease

Ether 6

The Jaredite group received many tremendous blessings as recorded in Ether: The Lord agreed not to confound their language so that they could maintain established family and friend relationships; God led them away from Babel; God brought them to a promised land. Did you notice that God caused a great wind to blow the Jaredite barges to the promised land? The barges were out on the open sea. Even though God was in charge of the travel, the barges were still subject to the conditions of sea travel and the consequences of a “great wind” being active on the open water, including very stormy conditions. “And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters” (Ether 6:8).

“The wind never did cease.” God kept His promise to bring the Jaredites to the promised land and made it possible for the barges to arrive as quickly as possible. In fulfilling His promise and making blessings available, God also created interesting conditions for the Jaredites. I have experienced this in my own life, where I ask for a blessing that God readily promises but the path towards the fulfillment of the promise is fraught with unexpected difficulties. When we ask for a blessing, we need to be willing to accept the unasked for “consequences” of pursuing that blessing.

As we learn from the Jaredites’ experience, when God promises a blessing, He makes it happen. We can be assured that He will fulfill His promises. We also learn that we don’t need to worry too much about those unexpected “consequences” of pursuing a blessing. It strikes me that despite the constant wind and resulting storms, the barges were not impeded in their progress. The barges reached the promised land without injuries and without drownings. The people were kept safe during their entire voyage.

No matter what comes packaged with a blessing or answer to prayer, we need to stay the course and pursue the promise, knowing the God will keep us safe and follow through on all His promises.

Day 58: Remembering

Alma 62:49-50

Memory is a really important concept in the scriptures. We are meant to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, OT), to “always remember” Jesus Christ (Mormon 4-5, BoM), “and to remember his holy covenant” (Luke 1:72, NT). Remembering should impel us to action such as doing sabbath appropriate activities; fostering thoughts of Christ to influence our day-to-day choices and behavior; making choices in keeping with our covenants.

Following Captain Moroni’s successful conclusion of the war, Nephite society began again to flourish. Many people became wealthy and the society as a whole prospered. Usually this spells disaster for the Nephites “[but] notwithstanding their riches, or their strength, or their prosperity, they were not lifted up in the pride of their eyes…” (Alma 62:49). The crucial difference between pride and humility? Remembering.

The Nephites were not “slow to remember the Lord their God; but they did humble themselves exceedingly before him” (ibid.). Part of remembering God seems to include a present awareness of His existence and one’s relationship to Him. Keeping God present in our thoughts helps us keep an accurate perspective on mortality. Also, the Nephites

“did remember how great things the Lord had done for them, that he had delivered them from death, and from bonds, and from prisons, and from all manner of afflictions, and he had delivered them out of the hands of their enemies” (Alma 62:50).

By maintaining a present and active awareness of God through memory, the Nephites stayed humble, they prospered temporally, their society expanded, and they received many blessings from God.

One additional thought I’ve been mulling over is how I experience joy every time I remember something specific God has done for me. That feeling of joy improves my life in the moment but also motivates me to active gratitude through obedience and careful covenant keeping.

What experiences have you had that bring you joy in the process of remembering them? How could more intentional “remembering” make God more present in your life?

Further Reading

Henry B. Eyring, “O Remember Remember,” General Conference (Oct 2007).

Day 38: Steps into the Darkness

Alma 8-14

Having finished Alma 14 today, I see a good moment to pause and reflect on two themes exemplified in Amulek’s experience as a reactivated church member and new missionary.

1. When God asks you to do something, He doesn’t give you every detail in advance.

Amulek says he had heard the call to repent and turn back to the Lord many times (Alma 10:6). He ignored it. But when God sent the angel with the brief message to receive into his home a hungry prophet of God, he acted (Alma 10:7). The brevity of the angel’s instruction to Amulek and the scarcity of information provided really stands out to me. Amulek acted with faith to follow the angel’s instructions. He expresses his faith to Alma upon their divinely directed encounter, stating simply, “I know that thou wilt be a blessing unto me and my house” (Alma 8:20).

What stands out to me is that Amulek likely had no idea what was going to be expected of him once he took this faith-filled step into the darkness. God didn’t include advance notice that he would be asked to “go forth and prophesy unto this people” (v. 29), nor did He provide lesson plans, a warning about how the people would react, or instructions for the coming days and weeks. The only instruction provided was, “Thou shalt receive [Alma]” (Alma 8:80; Alma 10:7).

God will extend many invitations to us over our lifetimes. Let’s be like Amulek and act in faith, knowing that whatever He asks will ultimately “be a blessing unto [you] and [your] house.”

2. Doing God’s will does not guarantee that you will be kept safe or avoid unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even dangerous situations.

I used to tell myself that if God had told me in advance everything I would experience on my mission, I never would have gone. And, yes, pre-mission me had a right to feel really nervous and scared about serving a mission. But I would never trade the joy I experienced helping others repent nor the covenant friendships I forged as a missionary.

The Book of Mormon doesn’t share much about Amulek’s state of mind or feelings about becoming Alma’s mission companion except to record that he willingly took his step into the darkness and faithfully acted on God’s invitation and instructions. The people we’re asked to serve in the places we’re asked to go have their agency. They are free to act as they want and see fit. When we accept an assignment from God to go serve, doing God’s will does not guarantee that people are going to be nice, welcoming, accepting, or even polite.

Amulek learned first hand about being rejected in the harshest ways possible: he and Alma were plotted against (Alma 10:13), he was called a liar (Alma 10:28), they were “bound with strong cords” (Alma 14:4), they were unjustly accused and illegally tried on false charges (Alma 14:5), they were forced to watch people they taught be burned alive (Alma 14:8-10), they were attacked and beaten multiple times (Alma 14:14, 20, 21, 24, 25), they were imprisoned while tied up with no clothes (Alma 14:17, 22), they were starved (Alma 14:22).

Just the potential for this kind of suffering while doing God’s work is reason enough for almost anyone to refuse an assignment. But when we really believe deep in our souls that God is real, that His work is vital, that the Plan of Salvation is in effect, that the human race has the opportunity to live with God forever OR be cast off to suffer eternally, then the potential for earthly suffering on God’s errand takes on a whole new perspective. Taking the chance on potential (temporary) suffering to bring even one person to Christ has to be worth it.

God may or may not protect you while you are on His errand, He won’t interfere with anyone’s agency, you may or may not have to go to dangerous places, you may or may not be required to have many unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences; but God does guarantee blessings, He does promise that His righteous works will be fulfilled, He does promise that suffering and misery are temporary, that they will end and be replaced with peace and joy.

Elder Holland spoke to this principle years ago in October 1999 General Conference. I’ll end with his closing words:

I testify that God lives, that He is our Eternal Father, that He loves each of us with a love divine. I testify that Jesus Christ is His Only Begotten Son in the flesh and, having triumphed in this world, is an heir of eternity, a joint-heir with God, and now stands on the right hand of His Father. I testify that this is Their true Church and that They sustain us in our hour of need—and always will, even if we cannot recognize that intervention. Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come. (Holland, “An High Priest of Good Things to Come,General Conference (Oct 1999.)

Day 18: The bondage of mortality

2 Nephi 24:3

The promise for “rest” in the next life from specific conditions of mortality intrigues me, especially the conditions listed as hallmarks of the mortal experience. As I read this verse I wondered, “what is the “hard bondage” of mortality that we have been “made to serve?” Not everyone on earth has lived or will live in formal servitude but somehow mortality is defined by a type of bondage that all humans serve.

The word “made” could be interpreted literally as “God created us.” We were created to take on mortality and experience life in a physical body. In a way it’s a bondage of the spirit in a physical body, something divine and immortal tied to something mortal and dying. But other conditions of mortality create other scenarios of bondage. What about the human predilection for addiction or vices such as lying that ensnare our mortal bodies, compromise our agency and limit our freedom?

When we become attuned to the ways in which our spirits suffer from addiction, sin, interpersonal conflict, and more, God’s promise of rest in the next life becomes so much more poignant.

Day 17: Antitheses

2 Nephi 24:3

I love patterns and the scriptures are in no short supply. Some of my favorite Gospel patterns include pairings of opposites; I always find enlightenment in pondering how the Gospel resolves these antithetical equations.

Second Nephi 24:3 revolves around such a pattern. It contrasts eternity and mortality, promising rest in eternity as a salve to specific conditions of mortality. “And it shall come to pass in that day [the millennium/the day of resurrection, signaling the “start” of eternity from a human perspective] that the Lord shall give thee rest, from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve.”

“Rest” is here presented as a condition of eternity. It resolves sorrow, fear, and bondage which serve as fundamental markers of the human experience. If eternity is the antithesis to mortality, then sorrow, fear, and bondage are the conditions of mortality and antithetical experiences to eternal life. In which case, we can identify defining characteristics of eternal life as the opposites of sorrow, fear, and bondage: namely joy, fearlessness, and freedom.