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Cover image: “Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty” by Jeremy Winborg.

Today was a bust. I think we all have days like mine was today where we not only don’t get anything wonderfully above and beyond accomplished, we don’t even manage to knock out the basics. Nephi testified that he, “did liken all scriptures unto [his people], that it might be for [their] profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Today is a day when I’d be nervous to see who in the scriptures I could be likened unto. Perhaps one of the ten virgins who was unprepared, or a Laman or Lemuel murmuring rather than inquiring, or more likely someone who didn’t even make it into a story because they just didn’t do anything either praiseworthy or punishable. 

We look to the scriptures for examples of triumph and spiritual greatness. That is what Nephi was really referring to, not “pick your character,” but “hear the words of the prophets and follow the examples that they have set before us.” But when we’re having a bad day, we may wonder if the spiritual giants that come to life in the pages of our standard works just fundamentally have something we don’t. 

What is the secret to their greatness and do we have any hope of ever getting there ourselves?

There are many compelling and beautiful examples of miraculous conversion where someone who was living a deeply sinful life was visited by an angel or had a vision and was able to turn it all around in one magnificent, transformational experience. I love the story of Saul becoming Paul and often think of Alma the Younger’s words of how, after he had faced the bitterest pains and been rescued and spared from them through Christ, he felt that “there [could] be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was [his] joy.”

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who aren’t going around actively trying to destroy the Church or caught in the snares of serious sin? How do we transform? Can there be exquisite joy for those of us who are living decent, Gospel-centered lives, but sense that we are capable of much greater spiritual sensitivity and power than we currently are accessing? 

I choose to take Nephi’s advice and look to the scriptures. Let’s look at the life of Chief Captain Moroni. We all know the famous statement about him; the one that makes him both an excellent example to look to and an intimidating shadow to stand in: 

Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men (Alma 48:17).

Initially, I would read that and assume that Captain Moroni was simply blessed with innate spiritual strength, that he must have just lived a more perfect life than other men, but only a few chapters later, the scriptures show us that, even when that statement was being made about him, he was still capable of making mistakes. 

As I quickly finished the Book of Mormon, trying to follow the prophet as 2018 came to a close, the exchange between Captain Moroni and Pahoran stood out in a way it never had before. As Captain Moroni is leading his armies in battle, they are experiencing great destruction and suffering and so he calls on the government for aid. 

He writes to the Chief Judge and governor of the land, Pahoran, to send additional troops and supplies, and when he doesn’t get a response, he writes again in great sorrow and anger towards Pahoran’s neglect: 

2 For behold, I have somewhat to say unto them by the way of condemnation; for behold, ye yourselves know that ye have been appointed to gather together men, and arm them with swords, and with cimeters, and all manner of weapons of war of every kind, and send forth against the Lamanites, in whatsoever parts they should come into our land.
And now behold, I say unto you that myself, and also my men, and also Helaman and his men, have suffered exceedingly great sufferings; yea, even hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and all manner of afflictions of every kind.
But behold, were this all we had suffered we would not murmur nor complain.
But behold, great has been the slaughter among our people; yea, thousands have fallen by the sword, while it might have otherwise been if ye had rendered unto our armies sufficient strength and succor for them. Yea, great has been your neglect towards us.
And now behold, we desire to know the cause of this exceedingly great neglect; yea, we desire to know the cause of your thoughtless state.
7 Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you? Yea, while they are murdering thousands of your brethren— (Alma 60).

These are harsh words he is doling out towards Pahoran (to say the least). In no uncertain terms, he is declaring him culpable in the deaths of thousands of their countrymen. Just a few verses later he accuses Pahoran of assuming that God would take care of the righteous and that if the people are dying, it must be because of their wickedness. Captain Moroni essentially asserts that it is not the people’s wickedness, but the government’s that is the cause of their destruction. Again he says all of this is to Pahoran’s personal condemnation. 

But we learn in the very next chapter that Moroni has completely misinterpreted the situation. Pahoran writes to assure him that he does not rejoice in the suffering of Moroni’s armies and that he would’ve sent aid, but the people of Zarahemla had turned on him and driven him out of the city. Pahoran has fled to another land entirely and is no longer even in power, let alone in a position to send the aid Captain Moroni had repeatedly requested. 

Pahoran’s response to Moroni is an oft-cited example of patience and charity amidst mistreatment. He says, “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9). 

Because Pahoran chooses to see the angry letter as an example of Captain Moroni’s great heart, sometimes we accept that and stop there, pretending that this must not represent a blunder, but be a further witness of his greatness. But it’s important that we understand and recognize that he made a mistake and he understood that he did, because the secret to spiritual greatness is not flawless decision making, but how one responds when they’ve done something wrong. 

In an address given in the October 2009 General Conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen talked about repentance as a “turning”: 

Repentance is turning away from some things, such as dishonesty, pride, anger, and impure thoughts, and turning toward other things, such as kindness, unselfishness, patience, and spirituality. It is “re-turning” toward God.

And what a vivid image of Captain Moroni’s repentance that, upon receiving the response from Pahoran, he literally takes a part of his army and turns back to run to the aid of this man who he earlier believed was unwilling to give aid to him.

Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men (Alma 48:17).

Captain Moroni’s greatness—the kind of greatness that could shake the very powers of hell forever—came from living a life of regular self-reflection and repentance, not from being born already more righteous than the rest of us.

And Captain Moroni is not the only example we have of this. Joseph Smith said in Joseph Smith history verse 28: 

During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three…I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.

We don’t know exactly what kind of behavior he might be referring to, but we know that he felt (like we’ve all often felt) that he might not be living up to the standard of all he could be and what the Lord knew he could be. He was still a teenager at the time, but he was a teenager who had already been prepared for, and deemed worthy of, an interaction with the Father and the Son directly. He would grow to be the man of whom it was said: 

Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it (Doctrine and Covenants 135:3).

And yet, his greatness came from constant spiritual preparation and cherishing the opportunity for everyday repentance, not from perfect choices. 

Just prior to the first visitation of Moroni, Joseph said: “I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him” (JSH 1:29). 

Joseph Smith had sins and follies, Captain Moroni jumped to wrong conclusions, and even Nephi declared, “O wretched man that I am!” At the time that Nephi tried to revitalize and recommit and tell his soul to “no longer droop in sin”, he had already been through all of 1 Nephi and the visions and visitations of angels. He had already done many of the great things we most remember him for, but he too found that he could still have less-than-stellar days. 

Again, the secret to his greatness was not perfect conduct, it was that he knew in Whom he had trusted. All of these spiritual greats were able to accomplish the things they did because they believed the Lord enough to continually and regularly use the tools that He offers us. They knew to repent every day, and not just that one time on the road to Damascus. 

And that means we too have the tools at our disposal to shake the powers of hell. Even if at this moment, our frustrating or unspectacular days feel like they outnumber our good ones, we have the same tools as the greats.

We have access to an atonement that is lovingly and freely and fully given, as well as infinite in scope. Christ is constantly reaching out to us and it is by our daily, small steps to repent and come closer to him—and not necessarily by our one-time, miraculous transformations—that we can learn to truly be like Him and fully partake of the spiritual gifts he has waiting for us.