Summary: In the twelfth chapter of Helaman Mormon observes how unsteady the heart of man is in following the Lord and keeping his commandments, and then gives a commentary on why this is. This condition was not only true of his people, but was the same for the Israelites, and is just as true for us today. This article examines the words of the prophet Mormon as he explains why man behaves this way and how we can overcome this natural tendency.
In the twelfth chapter of Helaman we read a commentary by Mormon concerning the events of Nephite history that he has just related in the previous few chapters. In those chapters we read how the Gaddianton robbers had taken control of the government and the people themselves had become completely wicked. Although Helaman diligently tried to preach repentance to his people in an effort to bring them back to God, they would not listen to his message but instead “there was but little alteration in the affairs of the people, save it were the people began to be more hardened in iniquity, and do more and more of that which was contrary to the commandments of God” (Helaman 16:12).
Knowing the destruction that would come upon his people if they didn’t repent, and wanting to help save them from this fate, Helaman went to the Lord in prayer saying, “O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn to thee” (Helaman 11:4).
The Lord granted Helaman’s request and the famine did have the desired effect, as the people of Nephi repented of their sins and drove out the wicked from among them. And once they had done this they “began to prosper again in the land and began to build up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land” (Helaman 11:20).
For a little over two years there was peace in the land, but then there began to be arguments within the church over points of doctrine and less than a year later people began leaving the church in anger. But they weren’t content to go off and start their own religious organization. Instead, they returned to their old ways of robbing, stealing, plundering, and committing murder.
Within a year after that, the number of these robbers grew so large that when the righteous Nephites tried to get rid of them by military force, they couldn’t do it, and worse yet, within four more years the entire Nephite nation was once again back to living as they had done before the famine.
In reading the history of his people, Mormon was moved to write, “And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men… Yea, and we may see at the very time when [God] doth bless his people… then is the time that they do harden their hearts and forget the Lord their God” (Helaman 12:1,2)
The question we need to ponder is: Why did the Nephites forget the Lord their God so quickly? What caused them to go from being a righteous people to being a wicked people in such a short period of time, especially after experiencing firsthand how God had blessed them so abundantly?
We see this same cycle in the Old Testament happening over and over again as the Israelites went through periods of being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to serving the gods of the Ammorites, Philistines, and the Egyptians.
Under the direction of Moses God led his people out of slavery and escorted them safely through the Red Sea, protecting them from the Pharaoh’s wrath with a miraculous show of divine power. At Mount Sinai, “Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel saw the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9,10) and witnessed firsthand the power and majesty of God, and yet despite all of this, they crafted the image of an animal, adorning it with all the gold they possessed, and worshipped it at the very moment when God was delivering his law to Moses.
As the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, God provided them with miracle after miracle as he fed them mana from heaven, gave them water from a rock, and provided a way for them to be saved from poisonous snakes. He even helped them defeat other nations who attacked them. Yet it wasn’t long after they entered into the land God had promised them that they began to worship false gods. And this cycle of falling away from God, and then after being chastised by the hand of the Lord and coming back to worshipping him, only to have them returned to their pagan ways within a short period of time. This pattern repeated itself many times for the next thousand years.
But this has not always been the case. There were times in Nephite history when the people didn’t fall away from their convictions. For example, the Nephites who lived at the time of King Benjamin were a righteous people, but when their king preached to them about the coming of Jesus Christ and called upon them to repent and take upon themselves the name of Christ, they not only gladly did that but remained faithful to that promise for the rest of their life. It was their children who, later in life, didn’t believe the things their parents had taught them.
The Lamanites who had been converted by Ammon and the sons of Mosiah likewise remained faithful to their beliefs, even to the point where they wouldn’t take up arms to defend themselves when a Lamanite army attacked the Nephite nation and Captain Moroni was desperately calling for volunteers to help protect their liberties, lands, wives, and children
Even today, we see this same situation in the church. There are those who remain strong and faithful in their commitment to God no matter what happens to them, and we see others who appear to be committed to Christ’s restored gospel who one day fall away from activity and no longer want to live the commandments they once pledge to keep.
So the real question is: What makes some people stay strong in the faith under any and all circumstances, and what makes other people lose their faith in God? After reading the history of his people, as a prophet, Mormon provides his answer to this question in chapter 12 of Helaman.
Beginning in verse 5 he writes, “how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths!… they do not desire that the Lord their God, should rule and reign over them… they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.”
In the beginning of this chapter Mormon lists the many things that God had done for the Nephites, writing that God did “prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people” (verse 1).
Yet despite all of this, the people forgot that these blessings came from God. Instead, they imagined that such prosperity and peace came about as a result of their own labors or good fortune. Therefore, they imagined that they could ignore God and his commandments without it having any effect upon their living conditions. This is the reason why they were slow to remember the Lord their God.
But this wasn’t their only problem. Mormon wrote that they would not “give ear unto [God’s] counsels” or “walk in wisdom’s path.” We often think of the commandments as a list of dos and don’ts that God gives for the purpose of restricting or confining our behavior, but in reality, they are wise counsel on how to live a happy and productive life. For example, imagine what kind of society we would have if we didn’t believe in “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not kill”? The consequences of ignoring “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” can be disastrous, and the consequences of not following the counsel to “honor thy father and mother” is to have a home filled with turmoil, arguing, unhappiness.
However, it is the tendency of man to think that he knows what is best for him and therefore he sets at naught the counsel of God. For example, some view the commandment to pay tithing as giving away ten percent of their hard earn money that they need to provide for the necessities and wants of their family. Therefore, they pay their tithing only when they have extra money to spend but feel no sense of obligation to pay it when it is not convenient.
The same is true of keeping the word of wisdom. Since drinking coffee or small amounts of alcohol is socially acceptable, and extremely common place, there are some who question why it’s so wrong to partake of such beverage? Because of this kind of attitude, people such as these are easily swayed by every new scientific study that comes out either showing the dangers of drinking coffee or alcohol, or showing the health benefits of consuming such liquids.
Instead of people like this viewing the commandments as being wise counsel from an all-knowing and loving God “for the welfare and happiness of his people,” they use their own limited knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as the yardstick by which they govern their life and the decisions they make.
But there is a deeper root cause to this problem. In verse 6 Mormon explains, “they do not desire that the Lord their God, should rule and reign over them… they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.”
The real reason why any of us fail to keep the commandments of God is because we are not willing to let God rule and reign over us as totally and completely as we should. In a kingdom, whenever the king issues an order or makes a decree, his subjects have no choice but to do as they are instructed. But in the kingdom of God, even though our Father in heaven is the ultimate king, the angels do his every bidding, not because they have to or are forced to, but because they want to.
When the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them to pray he taught them to say, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Luke 11:1-2). Perhaps we might understand his words better if we rendered them a little differently. In that case, Jesus could just as well have said, “Our Father in heaven, thou who art holy and whose very name is to be reverenced, we pray that your heavenly kingdom will come and be established here on earth, where what you want will be done here just like it is done in heaven.”
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the doctrine of agency or free will is considered so sacred that it is said that not even God will take it away from us. And because of our exalted understanding of agency, we tend to think that we are responsible for making our own decisions in life. In other words, we feel it is our God-given right to think for ourselves and not let others do our thinking for us (see 2 Nephi 2:26)
This is especially true in America where the freedom to do as we want in pursuit of our dreams is part of our natural way of thinking. Therefore, the idea of being subservient to someone else, whether it is a president, king, an emperor, or master, is almost abhorrent to us. As such, we instinctively recoil at the thought of being anyone’s servant.
Yet that is what God expects when it comes to our commitment to him. He wants us to not only do whatever he asks of us, the way he asks us to do it, but he wants us to do it with a cheerful attitude rather than with a complaining heart. However, unlike an earthly king, God will not force us to serve him. What he wants is for us to use our agency to make a conscious choice to serve him because we want to and not because we have to.
But man tends to rebel against anyone telling him what to do. Instead, we want to be the master of our own lives and the captain of our own destiny, with God occasionally giving us advice when we ask him for it. For many people, God is thought of as the rich, old uncle you go to when you need help, or money, and he gives you what you want out of the goodness of his generous heart just for the asking.
With this kind of attitude, we become the rulers of our own life and sit in judgement of God. When he gives a command, we evaluate it and decide if it is something we should follow because it seems good to us, or if it’s something we should ignore or disregard because it doesn’t seem right or doesn’t make sense to us according to our superior way of thinking, or we’re just not interested in doing it.
All of us do this to one degree or another, however, this is not the attitude of a servant. They just accept as fact that the master knows more than them and they carry out his orders without questioning. And this is the same attitude that defines a true disciple of Christ. They’ve come to fully understand and appreciate that he not only knows what is best for us but that he has our best interests at heart. All of his commandments are specifically designed to teach and help us to become as perfect and holy as he is so that someday we can be worthy and capable of possessing all the power, glory, and dominion he has. Yet, despite this fact, men tend to “set at naught [God’s] counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.”
If we were to embark on a journey through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, any wise traveler would hire an experienced guide o escort them and show them the safest route to travel. In the same way, life itself is full of dangers, especially with hidden traps set by Satan to ensnare us or to lead us into paths that will bring us misery and heartache, and that will take us away from the path that leads to an eternal life with God.
For each of us, this is our first experience with living in mortality and, as such, we are blindly living from one moment to another, unable to see the future or the dangers around us. On the other hand, God knows what it takes for us to safely make it through life, and he is more than willing to provide a guide to show us the way. When men set at naught the counsels of God and refuse to let him direct their path, they leave themselves vulnerable to all sorts of troubles, misery, and sorrow.
Then, beginning in verse 7 Mormon gives us this added insight when he exclaims, “O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God.”
Man tends to have an exalted opinion of himself and his abilities, but Mormon teaches that even the dust of the earth obeys God’s commands without hesitation. In that sense, we aren’t even as faithful to God as the dirt we walk on is. The Lord has revealed that “the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation and transgresseth not the law” (D&C 88:25). Yet the same cannot be said of man. Even though he is a child of God and has the potential to become like God, we not only transgress the law through ignorance and weakness, but most often we transgress it knowingly and willingly.
Moses came to understand the depth of his nothingness in a very real and personal way. From the time he was an infant, he had grown up in the courts of Pharaoh, who was the most powerful ruler in all the world at that time. As an adoptive son of Pharaoh, Moses was used to wielding great power and influence over people and having some ability to shape future events. His father was looked upon as a god, which made Moses the son of a god, and everywhere he went, people bowed down to him, and his every word was considered as law.
Yet just standing in the presence of God, Moses felt a power that was more magnificent, more powerful, and more terrible than anything he had ever experienced. All God did was talk to him and yet when the conversation was over, Moses laid on the ground “for the space of many hours before [he] did again receive his natural strength like unto a man; and he said to himself: Now, for this cause, I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10).
The more we come to know how weak and inferior we are in strength, ability, knowledge and spiritually in comparison to God, how truly dependent we are on him for everything we have, how much God loves us, cares for us, and seeks to bless us, and the glory that awaits those who are willing to become perfect by following the Father’s plan, the more we will want to gladly and voluntarily choose to submit our will to his in all areas of our life, and be less willing to remain the sovereign ruler over ourselves. The more we come to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Master, doing his will as it is done in heaven, without question, reservation, or hesitation, the stronger our faith in God will be and the closer we’ll become to being like Christ.