It was 18 BC. Nephi, the prophet, had recently returned from his mission to the land of the North, only to find that the Gadianton robbers had taken control of the government. The Nephites were in a very spiritually low place, to say the least. Nephi miraculously announced the murder of the chief judge, but it had little to no effect on the hearts of the people (signs never do, after all). The Nephites were once again ripe for destruction. War broke out, and Nephites were slaughtered in droves. Nephi asked the Lord to replace the war with a famine, and God kindly obliged. That’s where we read this verse:
And this work of destruction did also continue in the seventy and fifth year. For the earth was smitten that it was dry, and did not yield forth grain in the season of grain; and the whole earth was smitten, even among the Lamanites as well as among the Nephites, so that they were smitten that they did perish by thousands in the more wicked parts of the land.
What caught my attention in this verse was the phrase “even among the Lamanites.” As if the author found it notable or surprising that the Lamanites would suffer the same punishments that were heaped upon the Nephites. I pondered on that and came away with a few insights:
1. People do change
In the past, whenever God has punished the Nephites, He has done so by “scourging” them with a war with the Lamanites. After all, “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished.” And usually, once the war has jogged the Nephites into repentance, they fight with the arm of God and come out victorious against the wicked Lamanites. So, how could the author be surprised that God would afflict the Lamanites? That’s what he’s always done– smite the bad guys, right?
But in this case, the Lamanites were the good guys. Nephi and Lehi had gone on a mission to them only a few years back, and they were converted so powerfully that they voluntarily gave up huge swaths of their territory to the Nephites because they felt bad. They opened up trade relations with their brethren. Their faith exceeded that of the Nephites. And when the Nephites declined into wickedness, who was it that preached to the wicked Nephites? Righteous Lamanite missionaries.
I like to imagine someone from this time period going back just a few decades and telling a historical Nephite that in just a few years, the Lamanites would largely be converted to the Lord, be more righteous than the Nephites, and have to come call the Nephites to repentance. I imagine I know what that Nephite would say:
We tried to “reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually” (Jacob 7:24).
We “did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness” (Enos 1:19).
Zeniff and his people went among them and were enslaved for their troubles! Alma’s people, too! Half of the Lamanites are leftover Nephite dissenters! And when Ammon and company finally did manage to convert a few who were not corrupted by dissenters, the rest of the Lamanites tried to exterminate them and we had to fight a bloody war to protect them!
Now you’re trying to tell me that they are the missionaries, they are the prophets, and they are preaching to us because we’re the wicked ones? And just 20 years from now? No way.
That’s a pretty big pill to swallow. Especially while the Lamanites are coming down and trying to wipe you off the face of the earth every decade or two. I imagine it would be comparable to a Church member 20 years in the future traveling back in time and telling us that in his day, it’s the Middle East and North Korea that are setting the example for the rest of the world and calling the West to repentance and greater faith in Christ.
In this past Conference, Pres. Nelson shared a great example of this mighty change. He recounted the transformation of Wilbur Cox. He went from a cigar-smoking, unwelcoming, gruff, less-active antagonist of the Church to an active father, grandfather, stake president, mission president, temple president, and stake patriarch.
I served in a branch presidency a while back. It was a wonderful blessing to be able to serve in that capacity, but sometimes, it’s a little jarring to see how the sausage gets made. Every once in a while, a Wilbur Cox will come back. But it feels so rare. And while you celebrate every time a lost sheep so much as visits the fold, you know that it probably is not going to stick. You prepare to “be devastated” when the weeds and the compact earth and the sun and birds come back and kill the seed once again.
But that’s something I love about Pres. Nelson. He gives us a glimpse of the whole picture. What feels so rare a miracle to us isn’t so rare after all:
Experiences such as this with Wilbur and Leonora Cox occur every week– hopefully, every day– within this Church.
People change. God is doing His work. Usually, we get impatient and wonder why His work is taking so almost imperceptibly long. But God changed the hearts of the Lamanites. He changed the heart of Wilbur Cox. He can change the hearts of violent nations currently closed to the Gospel. And He can change the hearts of our friends and
home teaching ministering assignments.
2. Just and the unjust
The famine that the Lord sent was “targeted” to an extent. The “did perish by thousands in the more wicked parts of the land” such that “the band of Gadianton… have become extinct” without killing off the entire population. But that doesn’t mean the righteous get away scot-free. “The whole earth was smitten, even among the Lamanites as well as among the Nephites.” As Christ taught, God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain [or in this case, the lack of rain], on the just and on the unjust.”
There are certain punishments that tend to primarily follow as a result of unrighteous actions. STDs, drug-induced cancers, and inter-gang violence come to mind. But these are more the exception than the rule. More often than not, the faithful are called to experience diseases, natural disasters, wars, death, and other tragedies in much the same proportion as those who we think may deserve such consequences. That doesn’t sound very fair, of course. Why should we have to bear the stripes of others? Why should bad things happen to good people? We don’t know all the answers to these questions, but because of the Gospel, we do know how to respond. In one of my favorite Conference talks of all time, Elder Jörg Klebingat shared this advice:
Accept trials, setbacks, and “surprises” as part of your mortal experience. Remember that you are here to be proved and tested, “to see if [you] will do all things whatsoever the Lord [your] God shall command [you]” (Abraham 3:25)– and may I just add, “under all circumstances.” Millions of your brothers and sisters have been or are being thus tested, so why would you be exempt? Some trials come through your own disobedience or negligence. Other trials come because of the negligence of others or simply because this is a fallen world. When these trials come, the adversary’s minions begin broadcasting that you did something wrong, that this is a punishment, a sign that Heavenly Father does not love you. Ignore that! Instead, try to force a smile, gaze heavenward, and say, “I understand, Lord. I know what this is. A time to prove myself, isn’t it?” Then partner with Him to endure well to the end. Spiritual confidence increases when you accept that “often trials and tribulations are allowed to come into [your life] because of what [you] are doing right.”
Right now, my family is going through one such trial. My mother in law was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It has spread far and wide through her system to the point where the doctors are looking to treat only for life extension– not eradication at this point. It’s a difficult time for my family. But even though we are facing the same trials everyone else in the world faces, we’re facing it with a powerful, added advantage. We have the Gospel is Jesus Christ which puts every trial in perspective. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost, which gives us divine comfort. And we have a firm testimony of the plan of salvation, which swallows up even the sting of death.
The righteous Lamanites suffered the famine because of the Nephites’ wickedness. But I’m sure that even as they blessed their tiny morsels of food, they did so with gratitude which filled their hearts when the food did not fill their stomachs. And when they buried their dead, they did so with the hope of a glorious resurrection. They knew, as we can know, that the Atonement of Christ makes all things right in the end.
And if we let it, His Sacrifice can make all things at least better right now.
September 2019 update: I posted this a year and a half ago. I’m pleased to report that my mother in law is one tough cookie. Her hormonal chemo treatments have been working wonderfully at keeping the cancer from spreading further as far as we can tell, and her lifestyle is hardly hampered at all. We are very blessed. As far as we are aware, her prognosis hasn’t changed, but like the Lamanites, we are richly blessed even in the midst of this trial.