Signs and Spiritual Eclipses
Tomorrow, many of us in the United States are going to be privileged to get a few extra minutes of afternoon shade. The moon is going to pass above us in such a way that its path will cast a shadow in a large swath of the country and temporarily bathe the land in darkness. It's going to be pretty neat. Coincidentally, I have reached the point in my personal study of the Book of Mormon where another amazing astronomical event occurred: the night without darkness and the appearance of the new star that were to be a sign unto the Nephites of the birth of the Savior of the World. This event was preceded by angelic ministrations, many more signs and wonders in heaven, and the appearance of a new star.
And just in time, too! The Nephites were in a pretty dark place spiritually when this sign was given. They had largely rejected the Gospel and were actively plotting to kill all the believers the very night the sign was given. They needed a good wake-up call.In accordance with the prophecy of Samuel:
At the going down of the sun there was no darkness… there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, …And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word.
This monumental miracle seemed to have a monumental impact on the people:
The people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came… they began to know that the Son of God must shortly appear… they began to fear because of their iniquity and their unbelief… the more part of the people did believe, and were converted unto the Lord.
And it came to pass that Nephi went forth among the people, and also many others, baptizing unto repentance, in the which there was a great remission of sins. And thus the people began again to have peace in the land.
And there were no contentions… And thus the ninety and second year did pass away, bringing glad tidings unto the people because of the signs which did come to pass, according to the words of the prophecy of all the holy prophets.
Signs sure are great, aren't they? Just imagine how different missionary work would be if our elders and sisters could just nudge a struggling investigator in the right direction by temporarily blotting out the sun or moving a mountain. Just imagine all the people who would flock to the font! Or maybe if some archeologist would discover a city with a big sign that says "Welcome to Zarahemla." Or maybe God could just speak from heaven one more time and get everyone's attention and have them contact the missionaries. Boy wouldn't that be nice. right?
Actually, no. That would be bad. Very, very bad.
Remember that the Book of Mormon is written for our day. The Nephites, the Lamanites, the Jaredites, the wars, the peace, the pride, and the destruction were all recorded specifically for us. Though the events in the Book of Mormon occurred millennia ago, it is being repeated in our day. We are fighting the same spiritual and literal battles over the same principles and freedoms they did. And when we are not careful, we repeat the same cycle of pride, sin, apostasy, violence, and destruction that they did. In a sense, we are the Nephites.
So, with that in mind, let's look at how the Nephites typically reacted whenever God showed them a sign:
Laman and Lemuel
Laman and Lemuel heard the voice of God (both the still, small kind and the thunderous, earth-quaking kind). They even saw an angel while on their mission to get the brass plates from Laban. But apparently, they forgot multiple times that they had seen an angel (1 Nephi 17:45). And they called Nephi a liar for having claimed to have seen an angel himself and plotted to kill him (1 Nephi 16:38).
Korihor was a successful populist evangelist among the Nephites. He preached that "no man can know of anything which is to come… ye cannot know of things which ye do not see." When he asked Alma for a sign, he was struck dumb. After being struck dumb, he bore a written testimony:
I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
Sounds like a good potential missionary experience, right? Maybe now that he is converted, maybe he would go and be a force for good? No such luck. When he asked Alma to pray to God to undo his being struck dumb, Alma knew better:
If this curse should be taken from thee thou wouldst again lead away the hearts of this people.
In other words, experiencing this great curse from the words of the prophet and confessing his iniquity on the record may have temporarily changed Korihor's words, but it did not change his heart. And Alma knew that eventually, Korihor would return to his evil philosophies. Fixing the dumb in the mouth doesn't fix the dumb in the brain.
Here's one of the saddest experiences from the Book of Mormon:
Alma had given up the highest political office in the land so he could focus completely on his duty as the prophet. After being rejected wholesale at Ammonihah, he returned, found a less-active member, and went out teaching with him again. This time, he experienced some success but was again rejected by the people generally. To make the rejection worse, the population expelled the men from the city and then burned the believing new converts' wives and children alive. After forcing Alma and Amulek to watch the women and children die agonizing fiery deaths and hear their excruciating screams, the political leaders imprisoned Alma and Almulek, stripped them beat them, starved them, bit them, and mocked them. Finally, after many days of taunting and abuse, the leaders (speaking on behalf of the city generally) challenged the beleaguered prophets to show them a sign:
If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.
Finally, God's willingness to succor them any longer had dried up. Alma and Amulek stood up and burst their bands as requested. The prison walls fell, and the two gaunt missionaries walked out of the rubble unscathed. All the people witnessed this powerful display of the power of God and ran away like sheep before a pair of lions. But they didn't run home to beg God for forgiveness of their murders:
But as to the people that were in the land of Ammonihah, they yet remained a hard-hearted and a stiffnecked people; and they repented not of their sins, ascribing all the power of Alma and Amulek to the devil.
The night without darkness
1986 was the last time Halley's Comet made its appearance in the terrestrial night sky. I had not been born yet, but I've heard others tell of their experience and how they could never forget watching the comet burn through the night sky. If you are going to be in the path of the eclipse tomorrow, how long are you going to remember it? Probably the rest of your life.
I wish that once– just once– the Nephites would have allowed a miracle to change them. But unfortunately, the Nephites were eager to forget the sign of the angels, the night without darkness, and the new star. In fact, even before the major sign had been given, the Nephites were preparing themselves not to believe. Years before, Satan was already busy, inoculating them against the prophesied miracles he knew would occur:
Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken…
But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass…
And they will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand.
Sure enough, the very verse after the appearance of the new star records:
From this time forth there began to be lyings sent forth among the people, by Satan, to harden their hearts, to the intent that they might not believe in those signs and wonders which they had seen.
The wicked did not waste any time in putting out their propaganda. Most of the people did not ge for it at first. But Satan is patient and tireless, and within 4 years, he had won back the hearts of the people:
The people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen–
Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people; and thus did Satan get possession of the hearts of the people again, insomuch that he did blind their eyes and lead them away to believe that the doctrine of Christ was a foolish and a vain thing.
And it came to pass that the people began to wax strong in wickedness and abominations; and they did not believe that there should be any more signs or wonders given; and Satan did go about, leading away the hearts of the people, tempting them and causing them that they should do great wickedness in the land.
I still can't believe it. Every single person all saw the sign. Most of them fell to the earth in astonishment at the sign. They even rewrote their calendars based on the sign! But before the Christ child had even entered into kindergarten, the Nephite people as a whole had entirely forgotten, ignored, or explained away the most miraculous and widely witnessed event that had occurred in their entire history to that point.
Strong signs are weak sauce
It is tempting to think that the Gospel would have more success if only there was tangible proof of it. But ultimately that's not true. The Scriptures show time and time again that physical evidence does absolutely nothing to convert people; it just forces them to get more and more extreme in their denial of the truth and makes them even more accountable before God. Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
A manifestation of an angel, or even of the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.
What a thought! One can have a personal visitation of an angel or even Christ Himself and yet not experience any lasting change. A testimony we gain with our physical senses is not a testimony at all. In fact, even those who do start down the Gospel path because of a "proof" like this still gain their testimony the way all of us do. Remember Alma the Younger? I think it is safe to say he didn't have a testimony before he was "touched by an angel" (he was actively fighting against the Church, after all). But when he related his experience gaining his testimony to the members of the Church and rhetorically asked them "how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?" he answered:
Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me… according to the spirit of prophecy which is in me, which is also by the manifestation of the Spirit of God.
No mention of an angel. No mention of the fact that his dad was the prophet. No mention of his possible experience being miraculously delivered out of the hands of the people of Amulon as a child. He gained his unshakable witness of the Gospel the same way you and I and everyone else must gain a testimony– through study, prayer, and fasting. "Faith cometh not by signs."
The purpose of signs
So why does God give signs at all? The purpose of a sign is not to create new faith, but to confirm existing faith. When the wicked unbelievers of the Nephites made "a great uproar" (as detractors always do) about their theory that the time prophesied was past, the believers felt the natural, nagging sense of doubt that accompanies all persons of faith:
The people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass.
But notwithstanding their concerns and their questions, they did not give up on their hope and their faith:
But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain.
Signs are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, some of the Nephites had faith– faith so strong that it overcame their doubts and persevered even under threat of death. This faith prepared them. When the sign came, their faith transformed into knowledge following the formula given by Alma:
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know… your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
They received the sign gladly and grew in their witness of the Gospel and saw with greater sight.
On the other hand, the unbelievers were not prepared for the sign. They were astonished, fell to the ground, and feared. Though they were converted, their conversion lasted only a few years at most. Their spiritual eyes were burned. They were impressed by the light of the sign, but ultimately more blind than before.
It is good to want signs. But we must never make them a condition of our belief. We must never seek them. And we must prepare our faith so that we are ready to receive them because as the last days roll on and the Second Coming of the Lord draws ever nearer, there will be more and more of them. If we are not prepared, they will burn our spiritual eyes.
Speaking of which, make sure you have some good eclipse glasses tomorrow so you don't burn your physical eyes, too.