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The modern way to improve ourselves is to set goals for ourselves. The practice is almost universal. Yet, it doesn’t seem fully scriptural to me. I think of my three favorite examples of spiritual power found in sacred writ.
Alma was a mess. Despite the teachings of his father, he had gone around trying to destroy faith and righteousness. “I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14). He had no apparent plans to change—but his father had plans for him to change. His father and the people prayed for him (Mosiah 27:14). As a result, an angel came to Alma with a very direct message: “You have the right to destroy yourself, but you don’t have the right to destroy the work of God” (paraphrase of Alma 36:11). This message pierced Alma to the core.
How did he respond? Did he set some spiritually challenging goals? Did he promise himself and the angel that he would do better? No. He threw himself on the mercy of the Redeemer: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). And that changed EVERYTHING! His misery was turned to joy. His suffering was transformed into exultation. Those must be powerful words!
We don’t know what struggles Alma may have had in making the transformation stick. We DO know that the key to his transformation was calling on the one who changes us. “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). Maybe we should use those words too.
We think of Nephi as supremely righteous and faithful. Yet, at a time of deep reflection, he felt like a spiritual failure. “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:17-19).
Wretched man. Sorroweth. Temptations and sins. Apparently, Nephi was touched by the pains of the fall. How did he turn his soul around? One phrase changed everything: “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4: 19). Nephi turned from gloomy self-contempt to heavenly jubilation. And it all depended on turning away from his own failings and turning to God.
The verses that follow are brim with gratitude to God who changes us:
My God hath been my support;
he hath led me through mine afflictions
and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.
He hath filled me with his love,
He hath confounded mine enemies,
Behold, he hath heard my cry by day,
and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the night-time.
and angels came down and ministered unto me.
And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things. (2 Nephi 4:20-25)
Nephi makes his point very forcefully. When he turned his thoughts from self-condemnation to heavenly praise, everything changed. Nephi made several additional points so that we could not consider ourselves self-made men and women.
O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?
Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies?
Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?
May the gates of hell be shut continually before me
O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me
O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!
O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies!
Wilt thou make my path straight before me!
Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever.
I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh;
therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee;
yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. (2 Nephi 4:31-35)
Nephi’s focus is abundantly clear. He depends on God. In fact, Nephi knows that depending on God is the only way to be transformed.
The third of my favorite scriptural examples is the brother of Jared. He went from a three hour “talk” with the Lord—that apparently included some chiding for failing to call upon God—to entering His presence in unprecedented ways.
And for the space of three hours did the Lord talk with the brother of Jared, and chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord. (Ether 2:14)
Think about that. The brother of Jared failed to call upon the Lord in a time of need. Maybe he called on his own resourcefulness or the ingenuity of the people. But he failed to call on the name of the Lord. Hmmm. Do we do that? Do we ever stiffen our resolve, set our determination, and rally our resources when we should call upon the Lord?
The brother of Jared was a quick learner. In Ether 3, he applies what he has been taught about prayer. I think I have discerned four parts to his prayer:
thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens (v. 2)
O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; (v. 4)
O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; (v. 2)
Cry for Mercy:
O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, (v. 3)
Plea for Divine Help:
O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires. (v. 2)
thou hast been merciful unto us. (v. 3)
Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men. (v. 5)
With this approach, the spiritual miracles began.
And when he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: 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)
It is true that the brother of Jared took initiative in designed the lighting system for the barges. We must be anxiously engaged. We might even say that we have a partnership with God. Yet it is never an equal partnership. God gives us life, agency, bodies, minds, opportunities, and then He touches us and breathes power into our doings—if we call on the name of the Lord.
What are the lessons of these three examples? We should think less about our failings and more about His ability. We should depend less on our ingenuity and more on His goodness. We should throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace to gain spiritual power. I’m sure there are many more lessons. And there are many more examples of spiritual power in the scriptures. These are simply the ones to which my soul resonates. I think the Lord is trying to teach me foundational principles:
Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore. (Moses 5:8)
We still must put one foot in front of the other as we cross the plains of mortality. But if we do not make the Lord our companion every step of the way, we will fail at spiritual development. We cannot make it to Zion.
We should call on Him in times of discouragement. We should call on Him to overcome our weakness. We should call on Him to change our hearts and fill our souls.
“O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Note: Elements of the brother of Jared’s prayer pattern are quoted from an earlier article I wrote for Meridian Magazine on prayer.