The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week. To see the previous chapter, click here.
Over the last few chapters, perhaps you have come to worry about problems you didn’t know you had. And perhaps these problems, when added to those you know all too well, add up to too much to bear. Perhaps you have realized, for example, that you are sometimes a “respecter of persons.” Or that you are susceptible to feeling yourself inferior or superior to others.
Or perhaps there are places in your life where you are struggling to forgive (that is, to repent of failing to love). Or perhaps you obsess over forgiving yourself, or you feel compelled to lay frequent demands and heavy expectations on others and feel constantly disappointed as a result. Or perhaps you feel your heart lagging behind even when you are doing good. If you feel challenged in any of these ways, you and I have much in common.
And perhaps we share as well a yearning for the “freer sky” G. K. Chesterton spoke of—a life lived outside of the tiny and tawdry theatre that has too often been our abode. Stepping out of the imprisonment of that theatre and into the light happens in the moment we stop acting and begin living—in the moment we put down our masks, take off our costumes, and love and trust others enough to begin offering them nothing more, and nothing less, than who we are. When we do this, we begin living in a “confessional” kind of way, our hearts inclined toward God and toward one another—a way of living that is the antidote to the up-ness we have been exploring. I would like to explore this antidote with you through the remainder of this book.
Earlier I mentioned that “the Psalm of Nephi” in 2 Nephi 4 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. I love it because of how Nephi exposed his weakness and his struggles to us. “O wretched man that I am!” he lamented. “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.” He wrote specifically of the difficulty he had controlling his emotions, chastising himself for giving the enemy of his soul power over him unto anger. He didn’t have to share any of this with us; after all, he was the one writing the record. But he shared it anyway. He chose to expose his challenges to us. He confessed his weaknesses to the whole world. And I love him for it.
I am inspired as well by Alma, who spoke to his sons of his own sinfulness—conversations that were private and could have been kept that way. He, too, as the author of the record, chose to confess those details to the whole world. This was a continuation of what he did immediately after his call to repentance by the angel.
The record says that he and the sons of Mosiah “traveled throughout all the land of Zarahemla, and among all the people who were under the reign of king Mosiah, zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church, confessing all their sins, and publishing all the things which they had seen.” Alma absolutely did not shrink from painting himself and his actions in the worst possible light, using the most reprehensible act known in our language as an analogy for what he had done: “Yea, and I had murdered many of his children,” he wrote, “or rather led them away unto destruction.”
He didn’t have to write that or to publicly characterize his actions that way, but he did. He didn’t have to write that “so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror,” but he did. He didn’t have to expose his sins and weaknesses to us the way he did, but he did so nonetheless. And I love him for it.
I am inspired as well by Amulek. I love how he described himself to his people: “I never have known much of the ways of the Lord,” he began, “and his mysteries and marvelous power. I said I never had known much of these things; but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power; yea, even in the preservation of the lives of this people. Nevertheless, I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart.” He didn’t have to say that about himself! He could have elected to introduce himself in many different ways—ways that might have emphasized his high standing in the community and his success in business. But he didn’t. He chose instead to elaborate his struggles in the gospel—struggles that perhaps might resemble some of our own. And I love him for it.
Amulek’s honesty reminds me of the honesty of the father who desperately wanted Jesus to heal his son. “If thou canst believe,” Jesus said to the man, “all things are possible to him that believeth.” And “straightway,” the scripture says, “the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe.” And then this humble father, perhaps pausing and bowing his head, made an admission that fills my heart with love and admiration for him. It was something he didn’t have to say—something, in fact, that he knew might keep from him the very miracle he so wanted. “Help thou mine unbelief,” he pleaded. Oh, how I love him for that! What seemed an admission of unbelief was in actual fact an expression of the deepest kind of faith. Upon this confession, Jesus cast from the boy the spirit that had torn at him since his infancy. And “Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose.”
Another favorite story is the account of the Lamanite king who took upon himself the name of “Anti-Nephi-Lehi” (and whose people were then referred to as “the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi”). I am inspired by his honest account of his own and his people’s history: “I thank my great God that he has given us a portion of his Spirit to soften our hearts,” he said, “that we have been convinced of our sins, and of the many murders which we have committed. And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.” So humble was this man that he didn’t trust his own or his people’s ability to retain the forgiveness they had received for their shedding of blood unless they buried their weapons so deep in the earth that they couldn’t retrieve them even if they wanted to.
Many theories have been shared about why the king took the rather odd name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi upon himself and, by extension, upon his people. The record does not give us a definitive reason. I would like to add an additional possibility that perhaps has not been considered before: Perhaps this name seemed suitable because it was a humble expression of who they had been—a name that would forever remind them of, and confess to others, a sinful history that they never wanted to repeat.
“We are the people who used to war against Nephi and Lehi, progenitors toward whom our hearts have been mercifully softened, and whom we now revere.” If so, their name, like the burying of their weapons of war, was “a testimony to God, and also to men,” of the past sins that they were committed to never repeat. They didn’t have to be so public about their sins. They certainly didn’t have to brand their sins upon them, as it were, through application of a name that kept those sins ever in their memories. But it seems that they did. And I love them for it.
I am inspired by the Apostle Paul for similar reasons. This great man, this missionary and Apostle for Christ, frequently wrote of his own challenges. “For I know that in me,” he wrote, “dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” He didn’t have to write that! But he did. I love him for not needing to have us think that he was perfect, or close to perfect, unreachable by the common man. Elsewhere he wrote, “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
In another letter, he said that he regarded himself not just the least of the apostles but the least of all saints! And to Timothy, he wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
What is interesting to me is that none of this confessing makes us think any less of these people. On the contrary, their openness and honesty regarding their challenges make us think more of them. They become our favorite of all people.
I have learned this lesson over many years of working with those who are struggling to come back to the Church, and from being blessed by the honest and sometimes public confessions of those who struggle with certain aspects of our faith. In a recent church meeting I attended, a faithful young sister spoke of her own struggle with aspects of her testimony. And yet there she stood, sharing that struggle with us, her own presence and humble admission an example of a most perseverant faith.
Some of the most edifying meetings I have ever attended are firesides provided by the Church’s “Addiction Mission,” where those who have struggled with various addictions in their lives tell their stories and then testify of their belief. Similarly, some of my choicest and most personally meaningful moments with the Spirit have been when individuals in Church disciplinary proceedings have honestly and contritely confessed their struggles and have simultaneously expressed their overwhelming love for the Savior and for those they have hurt in their lives, hoping that perhaps there might still be a future for them in the kingdom. The Spirit is never stronger than in the presence of such open and honest confession.
Why are such confessions so edifying and inspiring? I believe for two main reasons. Paul wrote about the first in First Timothy: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” In other words, stories such as those of Paul and Nephi, Alma and Amulek, Anti-Nephi-Lehi and the father who pleaded for help for his unbelief, and the stories of those who share their struggles with us today, are powerful and uplifting because they manifest the miracle that the Lord can work in us. But this is true only because these people first confessed their faults to us. Had they not, there would be no miracle to see. If we did not know their struggles, their stories would not inspire us and give us hope.
The second reason why confession is so inspiring is because moments of heartfelt confession are the moments of greatest meekness and lowliness of heart. To any who might wonder how the Spirit could attend those who are in the throes of sin, I would say, we all are in the throes of sin. The question for us, and the issue upon which the presence of the Spirit depends, is whether we are in the throes of repentance. I love all the humble, broken, contrite, confessing souls who have taught me that truth. Their honest contrition and heartfelt repentance have been invitations for me to walk in the direction they are resolutely traveling—toward the Lord—and to do so with a heart that is broken and contrite enough to allow him to lift me.
At a funeral I recently attended, a young woman sang the most stirring rendition of “How Great Thou Art” that I have ever heard. She had the voice of an angel. I sat basking in the spirit that she was pulling down from the heavens. And then, halfway through, touched both by the spirit of the moment and by the message she was delivering, her voice began to waver. Only a moment earlier she had been projecting sound that traveled all the way to the rear of the hall and back.
Suddenly, her words were barely escaping her lips. The brilliant instrument that was her voice began to squeak. She could squeeze out only every fifth word or so. The spirit that overcame her washed over the congregation in an instant, and her quiet words were suddenly accompanied by a symphony of sniffing. Overcome as all others were, even though I had never met the deceased, I sat stunned in the realization that the last half of her number was even more beautiful than the first. How was it that the song became better as it faltered? Because her words morphed from being merely true to being truly confessional. In this case, she allowed herself to confess her love, even though the confession made her seem like less of a singer.