The easy way and the hard way
This may come as a surprise to many of you, but sometimes my children don't listen.
Take bedtime, for instance. At the end of the day, my 4-year-old son and I both know how things are going to end. If my son cooperates when it's "that time," his bedtime will be preceded by playtime, two bedtime stories, and a lullaby. If he throws a tantrum, he will simply be placed in his bed with nothing more than a kiss and a parental pleading for improved behavior the next day. Whether my son chooses to cooperate or not, the end result is the same: he will be in his bed and sleeping. But how pleasant that process will be is up to him. It's his choice– we can do it the easy way or the hard way.
Our Heavenly Father offers us that same choice every day of our lives. At the end of our existence, we will have learned the lessons He wants to teach us. Every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess. And in the end, virtually all His children will inherit a kingdom of some glory. The question we get to decide is how pleasant we want that process to be. We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.
I can tell my son exactly how things are going to go down tonight depending on his behavior. He has many bedtimes under his belt to look back on that speak to the clear difference between the easy way and the hard way. The problem is, real life is not as cut and dry as bedtime. Rarely can you compare the path someone chose to an alternate reality of what they might have chosen. You can speculate about what might have been, but you can rarely observe it or make an apples-to-apples comparison.
However, the reading this past week in Come Follow Me is one of those rare times.
We all know the story: a group of Nephites separated from the rest of the Nephites to go try and live among the Lamanites. At first, they did OK, but over a few decades, they slipped into apostasy and hedonism under the wicked King Noah. God sent the prophet Abinadi to threaten them of destruction and plead for them to repent. He saw little to no success and died a martyr's death. The one convert we know of was Alma, one of the king's wicked priests. Alma began preaching in private and gained a following of about 450 people (a little bigger than your average ward). Eventually, the king caught a whiff of this, and the Lord warned Alma to take his followers and flee.
So at this point, we have a really interesting situation. We have a group of people who until this point were in the same situation as the rest of the people of Noah. They were raised in similar households, lived the same political situation, lived among the same Lamanite lands, and had the same history. If you were doing a clinical study, you might say that you had a good control group with almost no variables different between the groups skewing the results. The only difference between the two groups (aside from size) was that the group who separated with Alma had chosen to repent and follow the Lord.
We also know that (spoiler alert) both groups end up leaving Lamanite lands and rejoining the rest of the Nephites in Zarahemla a few years later and that both groups are righteous when this happens; like my bedtime analogy, both groups have the same eventual result. One got there the "easy way" while the other opted for the "hard way." Let's recap what each group experienced.
The hard way
Shortly after the people of Alma separated from the main group, the people erupted in a near civil war. Dissatisfaction with King Noah had reached a tipping point. Gideon (one of my favorite Book of Mormon heroes) actually got into a duel with King Noah, chased him to the top of a tower, and almost killed him. But they could see a Lamanite army approaching the land, so Gideon granted Noah his life so he could lead the people. But they stood no chance. The Lamanite army was unstoppable. The king ordered everyone to run for their lives and led the retreat. But they weren't fast enough. As the Lamanites advanced on their rear, the king ordered all the men to leave their wives and children to speed up the march. Some followed the king; others remained with their families to die together.
The men who followed Noah, stung by their consciences, turned on their king and killed him in the same manner he had killed Abinadi. King Noah's priests escaped their grasp, and the men returned home to save their families or die trying. The men who had remained with their families, completely out of options, ordered a last-ditch effort to pacify the Lamanites by sending their defenseless wives and daughters to the front lines to try and pacify the Lamanite soldiers. Fortunately, it worked. The men who killed Noah returned to find that the invasion had ceased for the time being, and at the cost of many Nephite lives.
The Nephites appointed the more righteous son of King Noah, Limhi, to lead them. But his power was limited– the Nephites were now living under Lamanite occupation. The Lamanites imposed heavy burdens– they mandated a 50% income and property tax and enforced their rules under threat of death. They posted their armies around the entire land to prevent the people of Limhi from escaping and fed the guards off the labors of the Nephites. The Lamanites had effectively turned the Nephites' homes and lands into a prison camp.
But their problems were just beginning. The Lamanite army showed up to destroy them again in an unprovoked attack. The Nephites fought their hearts out and assuaged them right before the Lamanites would have driven them to extinction. More time passed in bondage, slaving in the fields for their Lamanite taskmasters. The Lamanites were ordered not to kill the Nephites after the last unprovoked attack, so the Lamanites merely beat them from time to time. Bristling under the injustice, the Nephites tried on three different occasions to drive the Lamanites from their lands. Each time, their army was beaten back. Many men had died in the 5 recent Lamanite conflicts, leaving families starving. Limhi implemented a social welfare system to help the widows and the fatherless, but with a 50% tax and all the likely property damage to fields and farms, hunger was constant. To make things worse, the priests of King Noah were sneaking in during the night and stealing what little food and possessions they had left.
Realizing they could not free themselves from this servitude, the people remembered the Nephites in Zarahemla their parents and grandparents had left. Would they be willing to save them after these long 80 years of separation? Secretly, Limhi sent an expedition north to try and find Zarahemla and enlist their help. They were desperate; they would even offer to be slaves to the Nephites in exchange for just getting out from under Lamanite control. However, that search party returned with sad news: they went looking for the great city, but they found only ruins. Zarahemla, they reported, had been destroyed while they were away.
With that, their last spark of hope had gone out. As far as they could tell, they were the only Nephites left on earth. Sure, maybe Alma's people were out in the forests somewhere, but no one had heard from them, and besides, what are 450 men, women, and children, going to do against the Lamanite armies?
The people of Limhi sank into despair and finally cried to the Lord. The Lord softened the hearts of the Lamanites; the beatings slowed down and the burdens lightened a bit. The food shortage became less severe over time. But their cries to the Lord went largely unanswered. He had warned them that when they chose the hard way, He would be "slow to hear their cries" and so He was. There was no word, no comfort, no promise from heaven. The despair continued, and they continued crying to Him for a long time.
Finally, they were ready. Ammon (not the arm-chopping Ammon) showed up and told them he knew the way to the (not destroyed) land of Zarahemla. The people rejoiced. There was hope again. By this time, they had all repented and turned to the Lord.
They wanted to be baptized like Alma's people, but Ammon was unable to perform this ordinance for them. He offered them hope of deliverance from their Lamanite bondage but he could not deliver them from their spiritual bondage.
At last, the people hatched a plan to make a break for it. They inebriated a few Lamanite guards and snuck out the back way. In the morning, the Lamanites mounted an army to go bring them back or destroy them; the Nephites ran for their lives straight for Zarahemla.
They had finally made it to Zarahemla, but it had cost them dearly. According to the chapter headings, the people of Limhi spent about 25 years in bondage to the Lamanites.
The easy way
So what were Alma's people doing during this quarter-century of death, destruction, slavery, hunger, and despair?
Shortly before King Noah sent his guards to exterminate Alma and his followers, the Lord warned Alma to get his people out of Dodge. They left in the night, and the Lord strengthened them in their journey. After a short journey, they arrived at "a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water." They named the land Helam and got to work building a city and farming. They thought about making Alma their king, but he refused and so they went the egalitarian utopia route. They settled into their idyllic little town and had lots of kids. They were so blessed in their abundance that Mormon decided that writing "they prospered exceedingly" just once wouldn't cut it so he wrote it twice. They lived there happily throughout all the wars, destruction, death, and famine of their neighbors.
Remember the Lamanite army who had chased Limhi's people as they ran for their lives to Zarahemla at the end? Well, they got lost chasing Limhi's people and ended up at Alma's land of Helam. The people of Alma saw them coming and were rightly worried. Alma spoke to them and they "hushed their fears." Confident and peaceful now, they asked the Lord softened the Lamanites' hearts. And He did. As far as we can tell, no one died, the Nephites didn't have to send daughters out to the front lines to charm them or anything like that– the Lord just softened the hearts of the bloodthirsty Lamanite army right then and there.
That didn't get the people of Alma completely off the hook, though. Now Helam was under Lamanite occupation; just like the people of Limhi before them, they were now slaves to the Lamanites. No mentions of beatings or hunger, but slaves nonetheless. So the people prayed, at first out loud, and then in their hearts, about the burden their bore. The Lord heard their cries right away. He "came to them" and "visited them in their afflictions." He comforted them and promised eventual deliverance. But in the meantime, He both strengthened their backs and lightened their burdens so that they could not feel them. Even in this woeful circumstance, the companionship of the Lord allowed them to feel cheerful and patient.
Their test passed, the Lord soon spoke to them again and announced that He would deliver them the very next day and, if I'm reading this right, personally escort them to safety. They did not have to hatch a scheme or make a risky mad dash in the middle of the night. They got time to prepare all night, and in the morning, the Lamanites just didn't wake up. The people of Alma calmly, joyfully walked away from the land of Helam. After a day's hike, they pitched their tents and gave thanks to God.
I'll add a little side note here. The Nephites were only one day's journey (with children) from where they started. Weren't they worried about the Lamanites waking up and chasing them down? No. They knew that the Lord would protect them, and they didn't want a single day to pass by without stopping to give thanks, even though they weren't figuratively (or literally) out of the woods quite yet.
In response to this display of gratitude, the Lord spoke again and told them they need to get moving because the Lamanites were chasing them. But they would not need to run to Zarahemla– He would stop them in the valley where they had paused to thank God, so they would have a clear path to travel at their leisure to the land of Zarahemla. Mormon records, "great were their rejoicings."
All in all, according to chapter headings, Alma's people probably spent less than a year in bondage to the Lamanites.
Which way will it be?
The stark contrast between the experiences of Limhi's people and Alma's people continues to astound me. Both groups started as the same wicked subjects of King Noah. Both ended up righteous and safe in the land of Zarahemla within about a year of each other. But because of their different choices, the paths they took were completely different.
While Limhi's people fought the Lamanites in 5 different battles, the people of Alma enjoyed decades of peace. While Limhi's people starved from lack of food from enemy taxation and destruction and theft, Alma's people prospered in a beautiful, "pleasant" land. While Limhi's people were oppressed, Alma's people enjoyed brotherhood and equality. While the Limhi's people desperately cried for God to hear them, Alma's people never stopped hearing His word. While Limhi's people hungered for priesthood authority and baptism, Alma blessed and baptized the believers in the land of Helam. Limhi's people worked hard to escape slavery after 25 years; Alma's people were miraculously delivered after only a few months.
The same blessings that were extended to Alma's people were offered to all of the people of Noah. But they chose to do it the hard way. They could have enjoyed peace and prosperity and rapid deliverance from a short time of bondage. But instead "they did prolong the time" of their bondage and lost the opportunity to receive the Gospel for them and their families for decades.
Like the people of Noah, we have the choice to do things the easy way or the hard way. It sounds like an easy choice on paper, doesn't it? It doesn't feel like it can really be that black and white, right? But it is. And prophets have to tell us, numskulls, this repeatedly: "Choose the easy way. Choose not to put yourself through unnecessary pain!" Like Father Lehi counseling his sons to please choose not to die:
Men are free according to the flesh… free to choose liberty and eternal life… or to choose captivity and death, and now, my sons, I would that ye should… choose eternal life… and not choose eternal death.
And when that warning goes unheeded, you get the words of the prophets, like Jacob and a later Nephi, asking their wicked brothers and sisters, "why do you want to die?"
I know we like to complicate the Gospel. We like to see shades of gray in everything. We like to think each choice is complicated. But when it comes to the question of whether to obey God, the answer to which choice will make us happier is simple and dramatic. We will always be happier as we choose to follow God. Notice I didn't say "we will eventually be happier" if we choose to follow God. Scoffers like to paint the religious as if we're turning down the pleasures of life because we think there is a greater pleasure we'll receive in heaven after this life is over. Unfortunately, I've even heard that kind of sentiment expressed by members of the Church, as if the commandments are something to be endured– an unpleasant but ultimately worthwhile decision like pinching pennies or dieting.
Well, no wonder people look at all the rules and commandments and duties of the Gospel and want nothing to do with that! Fortunately, King Benjamin cleared up that false notion of discipleship:
[God] doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you… Consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things.
Elder Klebingat rebuked that philosophy in even more direct words:
Living the gospel in this manner is no fun, nor is it very healthy. Above all, it is completely unnecessary!
Joy is our purpose in this life. Commandments are not safety restraints that keep you from wandering at the expense of fun– they are the secrets of Godliness and happiness. We don't obey and wait for our future reward in heaven; we enjoy our immediate reward of a slice of heaven today. We enjoy the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.