Something's missing

Posted by Matthew Watkins on August 19, 2018

I’m in the middle of the saddest part of the Book of Mormon. Throughout the latter half of 3 Nephi, Christ ushers in a period of peace and national righteousness that gives us modern readers a little preview of the Millenium. Then, 3 Nephi ends, and by the end of the very next chapter, the Nephites are largely corrupt and ripe for their final destruction. No gradual decline this time– they come out in open rebellion against God, the day of grace is past, and you know this is the end of the end. Each time I read the story of their self-destruction in my studies, it feels more sad and sickening than the last. This time through, I noticed some interesting details from the war accounts from Mormon 2 that I had overlooked before.

Here’s Mormon’s description of his attempts to protect the city of Angola from the Lamanites:

And it came to pass that we did come to the city of Angola, and we did take possession of the city, and make preparations to defend ourselves against the Lamanites. And it came to pass that we did fortify the city with our might

I can’t say for certain what kind of preparations Mormon was making to the city, but I think it is a pretty safe bet that it involved the same kind of ditch, wall, and picket infrastructure that was introduced in the Lamanite wars a few hundred years before. I wonder if young Captain Mormon was putting on his historian cap and thought “it worked for Captain Moroni and saved the Nephites then. Maybe it will work now.” But no dice. Angola fell:

Notwithstanding all our fortifications the Lamanites did come upon us and did drive us out of the city.

A few verses later, Mormon runs over to defend the land of Joshua from the Lamanites. This time, he tries a new tactic:

And it came to pass that we did gather in our people as fast as it were possible, that we might get them together in one body.

Again, this strategy harkens back to a successful tactic in earlier wars. The Nephites gathered the whole nation together into one city for their war against the Gadianton robbers in the early part of 3 Nephi. Maybe Mormon thought “it worked for Lachoneus and saved the Nephites then. Maybe it will work now.” But again, it failed.

Finally, Mormon decided to repeat one last successful tactic from Captain Moroni. He got up in front of his army before battle and gave them a good, stirring pep talk:

And it came to pass that I did speak unto my people, and did urge them with great energy, that they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes.

And my words did arouse them somewhat to vigor, insomuch that they did not flee from before the Lamanites, but did stand with boldness against them.

And it came to pass that we did contend with an army of thirty thousand against an army of fifty thousand. And it came to pass that we did stand before them with such firmness that they did flee from before us.

And it came to pass that when they had fled we did pursue them with our armies, and did meet them again, and did beat them.

Finally some success! Yes, they won that battle, but it was not the decisive victory the Nephites had when Captain Moroni gave such speeches. And even this small success would be fleeting. After some particularly awful displays of depravity and sacrilege following one of their successes, Mormon resigned as captain of their armies and spent almost all the last few years of his people’s existence recording their history and chronicling their wickedness.

So what was different? How could Mormon try the same tactics as the legendary Captain Moroni, but get nowhere with them? Why did the fortifications hold for Moroni but not for Mormon? Why did gathering the people together in one body work in 3 Nephi but not now? Why was Mormon’s pep talk less effective than Captain Moroni’s?

I think that this last example is especially illustrative of the key ingredient that’s missing. Here are Captain Moroni’s words on the title of liberty:

In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.

And here are the words that Mormon used to inspire his own troops:

I did speak unto my people, and did urge them with great energy, that they would stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes.

Do you see the missing pieces? In Captain Moroni’s time, “the Nephites were inspired by a better cause.” But Mormon could not inspire his people to fight for their God, their religion, their freedom, and their peace because they had abandoned those ideals decades ago. The best that young, lonely prophet could do was urge the Nephites not to let the Lamanites take their homes and kill their families. So, defeat comes quickly, and each victory is an empty one. Mormon somberly records:

The strength of the Lord was not with us; yea, we were left to ourselves, that the Spirit of the Lord did not abide in us; therefore we had become weak like unto our brethren… And from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun.

OK, so what do we take away from this? A few days ago, Pres. Nelson made it a prophetic priority to use the full, official, revealed name of the Church when describing our religion and its members. One news article raised the question of how this would impact those who have left our faith but still refer to themselves as “Mormons.”

I personally have never met someone who left the Church but still thinks of himself or herself as a “Mormon.” Maybe it’s more common in Utah where the Church is more of a prevalent force on society. I try to imagine what that would be like to consider yourself a “Mormon” without actually being a member of the Church. My guess is such people live a lifestyle largely consistent with the standards we espouse in the Church. Maybe they don’t swear, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex outside of marriage, spend extra time with family, etc. If so, good on them. Those will lead to happier lives than the alternative.

But if there are such people who want to live like a member without actually partaking of all the blessings of membership, they are going to be sorely disappointed. They can go through the motions. They can walk the walk and talk the talk. But just like the Nephites under Mormon, they will find that the efforts of the past that used to bring miracles and blessings have little of nor impact on their lives when tried now, and for the same reason: they are missing the key ingredient. Without the hand of God guiding and directing our attempts to do our best in this life, our efforts to keep the standards are little more than “best practices” and “good ideas,” as Paul said, “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

Turning the lesson more inward, we also have to ask ourselves: in what areas of our lives are we just going through the motions? Are there spiritual battles we fight without the strength of the Lord? Are we finding that partaking of the Sacrament, Scripture study, or Temple attendance don’t have the same impact on our lives that they used to? When our leaders speak to us, do we feel the Spirit giving us the strength to overcome our trials? Or do we just feel a temporary surge following a decent pep talk?

If you don’t feel the Spirit like you used to, either you withdrew or the Spirit withdrew. And I’ll give you a clue, it wasn’t the Spirit.

This post first appeared on Power in the Book