"Because of Faith and Great Anxiety"

Jacob and the Challenges of Mental Health

Jared M. Halverson

Jared M. Halverson, "'Because of Faith and Great Anxiety': Jacob and the Challenges of Mental Health," in Jacob: Faith and Great Anxiety, ed. Avram R. Shannon and George A. Pierce (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 273-308.

Jared M. Halverson is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

The word anxiety (or anxious) never appears in the King James Version of the Bible, though the emotion finds expression in words like fear, heaviness, sorrow, and carefulness.[1] The Doctrine and Covenants speaks positively of being “anxiously engaged” and waiting with “anxious expectation” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27; 121:27), while in the Pearl of Great Price Joseph Smith speaks negatively of “all [the] anxieties” he experienced during his boyhood search for truth (Joseph Smith–History 1:14).[2]

In the Book of Mormon the word is used nine times and appears in both positive and negative forms, the positive version (something more akin to “eagerness”) describing the Nephites’ “exceedingly anxious” desire for a more democratic form of government (see Mosiah 29:38) or the bloodthirsty “anxiety” of the Gadianton robbers to attack their Nephite foes (see 3 Nephi 3:3). Of the seven more negative appearances of the word (anxiety as “an anguished uncertainty or troubling fear”), father Lehi gives us one: “the anxiety of [his] soul” over the disobedience of some of his children (2 Nephi 1:16); Mormon records a second: “the great anxiety” of Limhi’s people to know the cause of the destruction of the Jaredites (Mosiah 28:12); and Alma provides a third: feeling “great anxiety even unto pain” concerning the spiritual welfare of his people (Alma 13:27). The other four—over half of anxiety’s negative appearances in the Book of Mormon—come from the pen of a single writer: Lehi’s fifth-born son, Jacob.

Scriptural instances aside, in our day the word anxiety tends to be a negative term, one that brings clinical connotations and implies psychological diagnoses.[3] President Dallin H. Oaks addressed this issue in a 2019 speech at BYU–Hawaii, and he raised the issue again when speaking at BYU’s main campus the following year, noting in both contexts the “alarming increases in the amount of anxiety diagnoses among young Americans.”[4] One month later, an article appeared in the Journal of Psychiatric Research confirming what personal experience and anecdotal evidence had been suggesting for years: that increases in anxiety had become “statistically significant” over the previous decade, with “the increase [being] significantly more rapid among those ages 18–25 years than any other age group.”[5] Within that demographic, the percentage of those reporting anxiety almost doubled between 2008 and 2018 (7.97 percent to 14.66 percent), but significant increases were also found among other age groups, with nearly half of those reporting anxiety in 2018 suffering so intensely that they chose to seek professional help.[6]

More broadly, President Oaks’s remarks about anxiety are but two of many echoes of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s landmark address at the October 2013 General Conference, which made headlines as the first time an Apostle had specifically addressed the issue of mental health in a general conference setting.[7] Though focused primarily on clinical depression, Elder Holland spoke openly and empathetically to “those who suffer from [any] form of mental illness or emotional disorder,”[8] and the response to his talk was dramatic: people across the globe felt that their wrestles had been acknowledged, validated, and, to a degree, destigmatized.[9] By 2016, a new “Mental Health” section was added to the Church’s website,[10] and articles began appearing in Church magazines addressing everything from perfectionism and scrupulosity to bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation.

Even years after this initial attention, one Church member commented on Elder Holland’s message, “There were and still are a lot of people who need to know that the leaders of the church have dealt with these real life problems.”[11] It is here that this study hopes to contribute. It will focus on mental, emotional, and spiritual issues related to anxiety, and it will do so by exploring the life and teachings of Jacob, an ancient “leader of the church” who dealt with this “real life problem” across the small plates of Nephi.

As already noted, no one in scripture mentions “anxiety” more often than Jacob, and few scriptural figures can match the depth and range of emotion that permeates his words. Allowing Jacob to speak from the dust, those who suffer from anxiety or other forms of mental illness can find counsel as well as compassion from his words. Jacob can thus become a companion in what Paul called “the fellowship of . . . sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Moreover, both those who struggle with anxiety and those who are anxious to support them can learn from Jacob that combining “faith and great anxiety” (Jacob 1:5) allows for a deeper discipleship than either attribute can offer on its own.

To prove this paradox, we will explore three aspects of anxiety that Jacob knew intimately and intensely: anxiety born of adversity, anxiety due to responsibility, and anxiety over one’s standing before God. In modern terms, we might refer to these three areas as trauma, pastoral perfectionism, and scrupulosity, all of which Jacob would have understood conceptually, even if he would have used different words.

Anxiety and Emotion in the Writings of Jacob

Before engaging with Jacob directly, it is worth clarifying that a major difference exists between the emotion of anxiety and anxiety disorders. As one licensed clinical social worker affirmed to a Latter-day Saint audience, the first is “a normal human emotion” that “serves us well” as “part of our emotional alarm system.” The second is “persistent, overwhelming, uncontrollable anxiety that impedes normal functioning,” a malfunctioning alarm that, through no fault of its operator, sounds incessantly or inexplicably and can seldom be silenced.[12] This clinically diagnosed second version, as Elder Holland affirmed, is not something to be faced through faith alone,[13] nor is it a diagnosis we should carelessly affix to Jacob simply because he admits to anxiety more than others. The paucity of the record and the dangers of inadequately informed psychohistory preclude that possibility, as does the reality that the “variability, historicity, and linguistic nature of emotion” makes it dangerous to assume that emotions are “trans-situational and atemporal,” as professor of psychology Richard Williams wisely observed.[14] In short, Jacob’s anxiety may not have looked and felt exactly like the bundle of emotions the term implies to readers today, much less when that term is raised to a clinically diagnosable degree.

We must therefore not presume to diagnose Jacob with a generalized anxiety disorder or other form of mental illness, though being subject to the mortal condition he would not have been immune to such possibilities. In other words, we should avoid jumping to conclusions, but we should also remove the aura of invincibility from scriptural figures and destigmatize mental illness by acknowledging its presence even among the prophets, as Elder Holland courageously did.[15] Though Jacob is not available to sit for an official psychological evaluation, his words can be mined for clues as to his emotional makeup, and his life can be examined for observable signs of the types of trauma that typically induce anxiety.[16] Just as importantly, the principles that helped Jacob navigate feelings of anxiety can be included among the coping skills used to deal with more significant anxiety disorders or with other manifestations of mental illness, large or small. Thus we can profitably turn to Jacob for help with any number of mental and emotional maladies, especially since much of what he experienced would have been diagnostically significant had mental health professionals existed in his time.

Turning to the text, anxiety is easily identified in Jacob’s writings. In relatively few pages he admits repeatedly to feeling this deep and unsettling emotion. Twice he confesses to “great” anxiety (2 Nephi 6:3; Jacob 1:5); once he says that his anxiety is something that “weigh[s him] down” (Jacob 2:3); and at one point he even speaks of his “over anxiety” and his fear that it might cause him to “stumble” in his calling (Jacob 4:18). Admittedly, as with Lehi before and Alma after, each time that Jacob mentions anxiety it appears in a pastoral context, the kind of emotion that good shepherds feel whenever they think about their sheep being exposed to danger. But Jacob had reason to wrestle with other anxieties as well, the types that often invite anxiety’s close companion, depression. The Book of Mormon describes Jacob at various moments in his life being “grieved” (1 Nephi 18:19; see also Jacob 2:6, 7) and experiencing “sorrow” (2 Nephi 2:1), and his life is characterized with precisely the types of experiences that bring about such emotional distress.

Just as significantly, Jacob grew up in a family that was emotionally expressive. Lehi exemplifies this trait in the first impression he gives us: we see him praying “with all his heart” for his people, “quak[ing] and trembl[ing] exceedingly” over what he sees in vision, and being so “overcome with the Spirit” that he practically faints upon his bed (1 Nephi 1:5–7). Later, having read and seen what God had revealed to him, we read that Lehi’s “soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled” (1 Nephi 1:15). Lehi expressed this deep and abiding sense of joy frequently and unreservedly (see 1 Nephi 3:8; 5:1, 7, 9; 8:12; 16:32). At the opposite extreme, Lehi was also expressive of his sorrows and fears, especially as they concerned the spiritual well-being of his family (see 1 Nephi 8:4, 36; 16:20, 25, 27). In his final benedictions, Lehi hoped for “joy” and “gladness” and sought to avoid “grief and sorrow” (2 Nephi 1:21), pronouncing blessings that were given not only according to “the Spirit of the Lord which was in him” but also, more emotionally, “according to the feelings of his heart” (2 Nephi 4:12).

Compared to Lehi, Nephi is slightly more stoic, expressing no emotion over the loss of his family’s riches, the breaking of his bow, or the absence of food in the wilderness. Even his wrestling over the slaying of Laban seems to be more intellectual and pragmatic than emotional. While Lehi exhorts his sons with “feeling” and “tender[ness]” (1 Nephi 8:37), Nephi exhorts his brothers “with all the energies of [his] soul,” “with all the faculty which [he] possessed,” and “with all diligence” (1 Nephi 15:25; 16:4), which certainly assumes emotion but seems to be based more in duty than in either pastoral anxiety or brotherly love. He acknowledges to the angel that the love of God is “the most desirable above all things” (a moral assessment) but has to be reminded that it is also “the most joyous to the soul” (an emotional one; 1 Nephi 11:22–23). Nephi’s deepest emotions surface only in his poignant and intensely personal psalm (see 2 Nephi 4:15–35).[17] Otherwise, most of Nephi’s emotional indicators are painful (words like sorrow, grief, and even anguish) and are focused on the wickedness of others (see 1 Nephi 2:18; 7:8; 15:4–5; 17:19, 47; 2 Nephi 26:7, 10, 11; 32:7, 8; 33:3). His soul does “delight” over many righteous things, but overall, Nephi’s feelings seem to be rooted in dutiful obedience more than deep emotion.

Even when measured against the emotionalism of his immediate family, Jacob’s language emphasizes the emotions with a frequency and intensity that is unique among Book of Mormon writers. Speaking of the women and children of his people, he lamented over their difficult circumstances but saved his deepest pathos for the “feelings” they experienced as a result, feelings that were “exceedingly tender . . . and delicate” (Jacob 2:7). He repeatedly drew the attention of his more hardhearted hearers to the emotions of those they were hurting, noting their “sorrow” and “mourning,” which resulted in “cries” and heartfelt “sobbings” (Jacob 2:31–32, 35). Other than Lehi, who raised his children “with all the feeling of a tender parent” (1 Nephi 8:37), Jacob is the only Book of Mormon writer to use the words tender and tenderness in an emotional sense, doing so three times in a single discourse (see Jacob 2:7, 33, 35). He may even have been drawn to Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree for emotional, and not solely theological, reasons: Zenos notes that “the Lord of the vineyard wept” over his vineyard (Jacob 5:41), and eight times he repeats the Lord’s sorrowful lament, “it grieveth me” (Jacob 5:7, 11, 13, 32, 46, 47, 51, 66).

Longing for more positive emotions, Jacob spoke of the “pleasing word of God” that “healeth the wounded soul” (Jacob 2:8) and expressed his own deep regret—“it burdeneth my soul”—that he had to “enlarge the wounds” of his hearers when “consoling and healing” them was ever his preference (v. 9). In fact, Jacob is the only Book of Mormon writer who refers to “wounds” in an emotional sense, using the word seven times to describe wounded souls (v. 8), wounded minds (v. 9), and wounded hearts (v. 35). Even more graphically, he spoke of emotional “daggers” that “pierce[d]” the innocent and undeserving (v. 9), and he mourned over hearts that were “grieved,” hearts that were “broken,” and hearts that had “died” (Jacob 3:10; 2:35). If Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” of the Bible, his near contemporary Jacob is the Book of Mormon’s equivalent.

As emotion has historically been gendered female,[18] Jacob’s self-presentation is symbolically feminine or at least comparatively young, especially when juxtaposed with the solid masculinities of a stick-swinging, hostage-tying Laman or a sword-bearing, arrow-shooting, ship-building Nephi. Jacob the child is defenseless and dependent upon his mother, Sariah (see 1 Nephi 18:19); Jacob the youth is vulnerable and tied to his brother, Nephi, with whom he was promised to “dwell safely” (2 Nephi 2:3); and Jacob the adult is anxious and emotional, with his leadership unfolding in the spiritual, not the political, realm. In confronting the Nephite men, he sides with the women and children; in preferring “consoling and healing” over “pierc[ing]” with “daggers” (Jacob 2:9), he gravitates towards traits that are typically gendered female; and when he describes the feelings of these women and children as being “exceedingly tender” and “delicate” (v. 7), in a sense Jacob is describing himself. Of course, he is also describing Jesus, the “tender plant” and “man of sorrows” whose familiarity with emotional and physical vulnerability (see words such as “griefs,” “sorrows,” “stricken,” “smitten” [Isaiah 53:2–4]) renders him, in the words of one scholar, an “unmanly man” who breaks down prevailing assumptions of impassive, invulnerable manhood.[19]

Anxiety Born of Adversity

But what of the sources of Jacob’s anxiety? The first we will label trauma, the trials that leave a lasting mark upon the mind. Without evidence of such suffering, it would be tempting to reduce Jacob’s charged language to mere emotionalism for rhetorical effect, but this would be separating the message from the man. In Jacob’s case, his language grew out of his life, grounding his emotion in a lived experience that justifies any anxieties that might follow. Consider his concluding reflection in Jacob 7, for example. Rhetorically, he speaks collectively for his people (his pronouns are all first-person plural), but experientially, his words are painfully autobiographical: “I conclude this record . . . by saying that the time passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (v. 26). This is a far cry from Nephi’s exuberant declaration, “we lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27), which incidentally is mentioned only one verse after Jacob’s priestly ordination, lest we think he was absent during this period of joy.

The life preceding those parting words deserves such a sad and sentimental reflection. As previously mentioned, Jacob lived millennia before psychology came into its own, but had mental health professionals existed at the time, they would have found Jacob’s words and experiences psychologically significant. Today therapists, social workers, and other mental health providers often use a diagnostic tool referred to as the ACEs Quiz, which measures the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have occurred in a person’s life during the formative years preceding adulthood. The greater the number of adverse experiences, the higher the likelihood an individual will experience mental and physical health challenges later in life. In short, it is a predictor of trauma—what we in this chapter are calling “anxiety born of adversity.” Drawing on common sources of trauma in the modern world, the ACEs quiz totals a child’s exposure to physical, verbal, or sexual abuse (their own or another family member’s), physical or emotional neglect, the separation or divorce of one’s parents, and instances of mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration among family members.[20] Obviously not all of these are applicable in an ancient context, but most of them have ancient analogues, many of which Jacob personally experienced.

When we examine the questions themselves, we can see this pattern. Has an adult in your household ever acted in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt? Consider Laman and Lemuel’s attempts on the lives of Lehi and Nephi. Did your family often lack closeness or struggle with conflict? Consider the fratricidal wars between Nephites and Lamanites. Did your parents often struggle to meet your physical needs? Consider their years of deprivation in the wilderness. Did you lose a parent at an early age? Consider his being a miracle child of aged parents, closer in age to nephews and nieces that wouldn’t long enjoy the company of their grandparents. Jacob’s answer to each of these questions would have been a painful, heart-wrenching “Yes,” making anxiety born of adversity a logical result.

Consider the types of trauma a young Jacob would have experienced repeatedly at the beginning of his life. When a dying Lehi gives Jacob his benedictory blessing, he refers to him as “[his] firstborn in the days of [his] tribulation in the wilderness” (2 Nephi 2:1), foregrounding Jacob’s identity as a son of suffering and sorrow. Too young to have experienced the family’s prosperity in Jerusalem, yet too old to have only known life in a newfound land of promise, Jacob was literally a child of the wilderness: a liminal figure with no recognizable birthplace, a “stranger in a strange land” raised on the Lehite equivalent of manna from heaven and water from the rock. The parallels to the Exodus narrative are unmistakable, making Jacob the “Gershom” to Lehi’s Moses (see Exodus 2:22), though Jacob is instead given a name that bespeaks blessedness and birthright and a continuation of the covenant. Then again, the name Jacob would also have suggested “following at the heel” of elder brothers, some of whom would have seen him, like his next-oldest brother Nephi, as a “supplanter” that would rob them of the birthright (see Genesis 25:26; 27:36; compare 1 Nephi 16:37–38; 18:10; 2 Nephi 1:25–29). Though young enough to have likely been ignored by Laman and Lemuel, this boy born of desert sand and open sky would still have been old enough to see the anger they aimed at his father and brother, making him no stranger to the calloused infidelity and violent incivility that the family thought they had left behind in Jerusalem.

Indeed, reminding Jacob of what was all too obvious to them both, Lehi recalled, “And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren” (2 Nephi 2:2), and those brethren were hardly the only source of his suffering, as their eight-year trek was defined by “murmur[ings],” “sufferings,” “afflictions,” and “sorrow” (1 Nephi 16:20). When a younger brother, Joseph, was born some time later, Lehi called that time “the days of [his] greatest sorrow,” meaning Jacob was alive to share in those sorrows (2 Nephi 3:1). Even the uncomplaining Nephi described that period as time spent “wad[ing] through much affliction” (1 Nephi 17:1), years when nursing mothers (including Jacob’s aged mother, Sariah) were able to nurse only through divine intervention (see 1 Nephi 17:2). Under such trying circumstances, perhaps Laman and Lemuel can be excused for suggesting that “it would have been better that [their women] had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions” (1 Nephi 17:20). If better dead, then better still to have never been born, perhaps leaving a suffering Jacob to wonder, Job-like, “Why died I not from the womb?” (Job 3:11)

To this point we have only discussed what occurred in the Old-World wilderness as Lehi’s family traveled, but tribulation followed them into the promised land. Once the family was ready to hazard their lives in an untried boat on an unknown sea, the first few days on the ocean were followed by a storm that threatened the lives of everyone onboard. So intense that even hard-hearted Laman and Lemuel were “frightened exceedingly” (1 Nephi 18:13), the storm would have been even more traumatic for children too small to protect themselves or fully comprehend what was occurring. In only the second mention of Jacob (and Joseph) in the text, Nephi records that “Jacob and Joseph also, being young, having need of much nourishment, were grieved because of the afflictions of their mother” (v. 19). Was this the grief of a hungry infant whose mother was too seasick and scared to give milk? Or was it the grief of a frightened child whose parents were too terrified and traumatized to provide needed comfort? No older than six or seven at most (and likely much younger), Jacob would have had no way to cope with the “much harshness” he witnessed one brother suffer at the hands of two others (v. 11), the “great and terrible tempest” that had everyone convinced that “they must perish” (vv. 13, 15), or the “grief and much sorrow” of their aged parents. In the midst of all this, a “watery grave” threatened to envelop them all (v. 18).

Once Laman and Lemuel relented and Nephi was freed, the storm abated, but while the waves and wind were calmed, the life of Jacob remained tempestuous. In subsequent years he suffered the loss of his parents, the ongoing animosity between his brothers, and eventually the schism of his family, which to that point constituted the only social world he had ever known. He was most likely still young at the time of separation,[21] and for him, dividing into “Nephites” and “Lamanites” was nothing short of a battle of brother against brother. Nephi “knew [the Lamanites’] hatred towards [him] and [his] children and those who were called [his] people” (2 Nephi 5:14), and Jacob would have been deeply conscious of that enmity as well. When Nephi saw in vision the wars that would eventually spell the destruction of his seed at the hand of his brothers’ descendants, he “was overcome because of [his] afflictions, for [he] considered that [his] afflictions were great above all” (1 Nephi 15:4–5). How could Jacob have felt any less devastated when watching the hostilities begin? Within forty years of the family’s flight from Jerusalem, they “had already had wars and contentions with [their] brethren” (2 Nephi 5:34), meaning that by his mid-thirties, Jacob was caught in a Cain-and-Abel-like nightmare.

Placing Jacob at the edge of existence, with his own survival at risk, is not being overdramatic. Readers are only twenty-five words into the Book of Mormon when they are confronted with Nephi’s acknowledgement of the “many afflictions” this first family faced (1 Nephi 1:1), afflictions that included material loss, physical suffering, familial conflict, and displacement that was not merely geographic but social (cut off from the house of Israel), spiritual (uprooted from the promised land), and therefore deeply psychological. Each of these upheavals would have naturally caused mental distress, a psycho-social-spiritual homelessness that easily became emotional hopelessness, intensified by the conflicts that were forcing ruptures within Jacob’s own family. There is no hyperbole in Deidre Nicole Green’s observation that “from the first mention of him to his own closing words, Jacob’s life seems overshadowed by a palpable sense of vulnerability, as well as adversity and melancholy.”[22]

Yet—and here we see one of Jacob’s likely coping mechanisms—the more valiant members of Jacob’s family countered the negative emotions that would have naturally arisen with more positive emotions that could only come through faith in God. Lehi began to “rejoice” in his new “land of promise” long before he ever set foot there (1 Nephi 5:5). Sariah went from “mourn[ing]” to feeling “exceedingly glad,” due to her willingness to believe her husband’s testimony and her faith to accept his early words of “comfort” until she was fully “comforted” by the safe return of her sons (vv. 1–7). Nephi, whose “heart sorrow[ed]” and whose “soul griev[ed]” to the point of momentary self-loathing (“O wretched man that I am!”), banished those emotions with the realization, “I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:17, 19). His faith in a God who had proven his “support,” “condescension,” and “love” was enough to keep Nephi from allowing his “heart [to] weep” or his “strength [to] slacken, because of [his] afflictions” (see 2 Nephi 4:15–26). It kept him from “linger[ing] in the valley of sorrow” when circumstances unavoidably dragged him there (v. 26), and it inspired him to lift himself with words of repeated affirmation: “Rejoice, O my heart, . . . Rejoice, O my heart, . . . yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation” (vv. 28, 30). This same Nephi, who had mentioned “many afflictions” in the Book of Mormon’s first verse, had also spoken of being “highly favored of the Lord” in the same breath (1 Nephi 1:1), rejecting the false assumption that the presence of adversity signaled the absence of God.

Significantly, Jacob would learn this same side-by-side recognition of affliction and divine favor from his father at the end of Lehi’s life. In the opening lines of his benedictory blessing, Lehi tells Jacob, “And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow” (2 Nephi 2:1)—including, as the ACEs Quiz suggests, the types of trauma that are most likely to produce longstanding mental and emotional distress. Here Lehi is neither restating the obvious nor dwelling on past pains; rather, he is acknowledging his son’s trauma in order to validate it. From a parental or pastoral standpoint, this is a key aspect of helping sufferers work through their trauma—honoring their pain so they can process it. But more than validate, Lehi dignifies and even sanctifies Jacob’s suffering by placing it within a divine perspective. Yes, Jacob’s childhood was filled with suffering and sorrow; “nevertheless,” Lehi continues, “thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (v. 2). As we have seen, Jacob had many afflictions to consecrate, but in Lehi’s framing (as in Nephi’s at the beginning of the book), that meant a greater opportunity to recognize the greatness of the God that saw him through those trials. In Jacob’s case, as in Lehi’s or Nephi’s, the negative served to accentuate and even allow for the positive, an aspect of the “opposition in all things” that Lehi would teach Jacob a few verses later (v. 11). Seen in this way, Jacob’s affliction and his gain—his brokenness and his blessedness—not only work together, but specifically “work together for [Jacob’s] good” (see Romans 8:28).

Later in his ministry, Jacob would confirm this connection between the sufferings of mortality and the sustaining hand of God, likely drawing upon his personal trauma to help others navigate their own. In Jacob 2–3, he goes from condemning the pride, greed, and immorality of some of the men of his people to addressing their wives and children, who were traumatized as a result. Having already validated their sufferings and sorrows—both what they experienced and how they felt about those experiences—and having done so using the type of emotional language that empathy is most able to provide, Jacob then shifts his attention from perpetrator to victim. Addressing the victims repeatedly as the “pure in heart,” which affirms their noncomplicity in their trials, he promises consolation to the innocent and ultimate justice to the guilty, both coming from an Advocate foreordained to “plead [their] cause.” Furthermore, Jacob reminds these victims that there remains within them the power to ensure that their brokenness, like his, would ultimately result in blessedness. In some of the most powerful counsel that can be given to those suffering from mental and emotional distress, Jacob urges, “Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith. . . . Lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever” (Jacob 3:1–2).

Given Jacob’s own history of trauma, his emotional makeup, and his susceptibility to feelings of anxiety, his repeated emphasis on mental strength and emotional fortitude is powerful and personal. In addition to faith and prayer, it was “firmness of mind” that he recommended to these innocent sufferers, and to those whose husbands and fathers had sinned against the law of love, it was an eternal feast of divine love that Jacob promised, provided that their “minds [were] firm.” Twice repeated, mental firmness—no matter how hard to attain or hard to maintain—was to be their constant goal, as it should be for anyone whose mind slips unintentionally into depressive or anxious states. Earlier in his discourse Jacob had expressed concern for “delicate minds” (Jacob 2:9) and this delicateness, as he would have known from personal experience, was not a weakness but rather a fragility born of heightened sensitivity, which itself was both a blessing and a curse. More importantly, as he had learned from his father, emotional sensitivity was a consecratable strength that could ultimately result in spiritual gain. Jacob was seeing that gain in that very moment as he spoke to his people: his earlier sufferings, by then deeply consecrated by the Lord, had given him the needed empathy to magnify his pastoral calling. Then again, in Jacob’s case, his calling was itself another source of anxiety with which he must learn to cope.

Anxiety Due to Responsibility

Beyond the emotional trauma incident to a life of suffering and sorrow, a second source of anxiety for Jacob was the weight of responsibility he felt as a priest ordained to represent the Lord and serve his people—weight being the operative term, since Jacob referred on two separate occasions to the pastoral “burdens” (Jacob 2:23) that “burdene[d his] soul” (v. 9). On the one hand, this weight was fitting, since the Old Testament uses the word burden frequently to describe the prophetic mantle or the weight of spiritual responsibility resting on the shoulders of priests.[23] On the other hand, this weight was ironic, since in the first instance, Jacob suffered afflictions that the Lord could “consecrate” for his gain, while in this second instance, it was Jacob’s “consecrat[ion]” as a priest and teacher that caused him additional mental distress. At a stressful moment in the Exodus, Moses had noted that “the burden of all this people” had left him feeling “afflicted” (Numbers 11:11), and Jacob felt something similar. In fact, most people in positions of authority, whether professional, ecclesiastical, or parental, have experienced similar feelings of “heaviness” regarding the responsibilities they bear. If taken to extremes, the depth of one’s personal inadequacies and the height of one’s perfectionistic expectations can create a gap that fills one with crippling fear—anxiety that one’s best efforts are never enough.

Jacob’s anxiety over his priestly responsibilities—what we are calling pastoral perfectionism—is manifest in both his deeds and his discourses, and we will examine each in turn. In terms of his service, this is the same Jacob who recorded the longest chapter in the entire Book of Mormon (transcribing Zenos’s allegory in Jacob 5), only moments after complaining about the scarcity of space on the plates and “the difficulty of engraving” upon them (Jacob 4:1). This is the same Jacob who was assigned by Nephi to speak about two verses of Isaiah (Isaiah 49:22–23) and ended up expounding on forty-one verses instead (Isaiah 49:22–52:2). What could have been a two-and-a-half-minute talk thus turned into a major exposition that spanned five Book of Mormon chapters (2 Nephi 6–10) and took Jacob two days to deliver.

This was the same Jacob who “exhorted [his people] with all diligence” (2 Nephi 6:3), “labored diligently among [his] people, that [he] might persuade them to come unto Christ” (Jacob 1:7), was known to be “diligent in the office of [his] calling” (Jacob 2:3), “ministered much” and “labor[ed] diligently” to preserve his words for posterity (Jacob 4:1, 3), and rejoiced in the blessings promised to those “who have labored diligently in [the Lord’s] vineyard” (Jacob 6:3). It was the same Jacob whose personality led him to “take it upon [himself] to fulfil the commandment of [his] brother Nephi” (Jacob 1:8), proof that he was not only obedient but eagerly proactive. And it was the same Jacob that “first obtained [his] errand from the Lord” (v. 17) and then proceeded to perform that errand assiduously, or, as Jacob repeatedly admitted, anxiously. In a telling and well-known passage, Jacob fulfills his most difficult priestly duty (delivering a scathing denunciation of sin) by first explaining, “We [referring to himself and his brother Joseph] did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day” (v. 19). Jacob’s language feels as heavy as the weighty responsibilities he bore.

At one level, Jacob is simply accepting accountability for his priestly responsibilities. His near contemporary Ezekiel warned that if divinely appointed watchmen did not sound the warning voice, the blood of those they might have saved had they done their duty would be “require[d] at the watchman’s hand” (Ezekiel 33:6). In this context, Jacob’s words are a near approximation of Ezekiel’s statement: “If thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it . . . , thou hast delivered thy soul” (v. 9). In fact, Jacob had already dramatically enacted those words near the close of his first major discourse, declaring, “Behold, I take off my garments, and I shake them before you; I pray the God of my salvation that he view me with his all-searching eye; wherefore, ye shall know at the last day, when all men shall be judged of their works, that the God of Israel did witness that I shook your iniquities from my soul, and that I stand with brightness before him, and am rid of your blood” (2 Nephi 9:44).

Taking upon himself the blood and sins of his people was, of course, the religious role of an Old Testament–period priest (see, for example, Exodus 28; Leviticus 8; Hebrews 5:1–4), and Jacob was striving to fulfill it. Though the Book of Mormon is largely silent as to what occurred at the Nephite temple, its patterning after the temple of Solomon is explicit, and its construction and Jacob’s priestly consecration are mentioned in the same chapter (see 2 Nephi 5:16, 26), suggesting that part of Jacob’s responsibility was to transfer the sins of the people onto the head of a sacrificial animal that would then be offered to the Lord (see Exodus 29:10–21; Leviticus 1, 3, 4, 8, 16). Thus Jacob would have been no stranger to having another’s blood on his garments, to answering the sins of one upon the head of another, or to standing before God bearing the guilt of his people. This helps explain the pronouns Jacob chooses when describing the fate of the unrepentant, where he includes himself among the wicked rather than the righteous: “Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness” (2 Nephi 9:14; emphasis added). Such relational and self-deprecating first-person plural pronouns show Jacob’s deep humility. However, when coupled with the substitutionary nature of ritual sacrifice inherent in his priestly calling, his admissions of anxiety suggest he may have been bearing these burdens in an unhealthy way.

Think again of the worries Jacob expressed about his people’s “blood . . . com[ing] upon [his] garments” (Jacob 1:19), and of his shaking those garments before God’s “all-searching eye” (2 Nephi 9:44). At times Jacob seems almost haunted by that “eye” (other than Alma the Younger [see Mosiah 27:31], he is the only Book of Mormon writer to speak of it), and it looks and looms over all that he says in his second major discourse (Jacob 2–3). Here his words are infused with anxiety over the emotional heaviness of his task. Consider his statements in Jacob 2: “It grieveth my soul and causeth me to shrink with shame before the presence of my Maker, that I must testify unto you concerning the wickedness of your hearts”; “it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech”; “it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes”; and “the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes” (vv. 6, 7, 9, 23). As he had said earlier, his sensitive “soul abhorr[ed] sin” and he therefore preferred to “speak . . . of holiness” (2 Nephi 9:49). He would never have chosen to “harrow up [his hearers’] souls if [their] minds were pure” (v. 47), but because the people were “not holy, and [they] look[ed] upon [Jacob] as a teacher,” he knew that it was “expedient that [he] teach [them] the consequences of sin” (v. 48), regardless of the anxiety it caused him.

Consequently, Jacob soldiered on, telling his people (and likely encouraging himself), “Notwithstanding the greatness of the task, I must do according to the strict commands of God, and tell you concerning your wickedness and abominations, . . . under the glance of the piercing eye of the Almighty God” (Jacob 2:10; emphasis added). In his earlier discourse, before the people had begun to “labor in sin” (v. 5), Jacob had spoken of God’s “all-searching eye” (2 Nephi 9:44) in a preemptive warning against the consequences of sin. But now, as his people began to “wax in iniquity” (Jacob 2:23), he speaks of God’s “piercing eye,” repeating, “O that he would show you that he can pierce you, and with one glance of his eye he can smite you to the dust!” (v. 15). In this second instance, God’s glancing, piercing, smiting eye is clearly upon the people, but in the earlier verse, that same piercing eye is upon Jacob, and its weight seems to be crushing. His warnings in 2 Nephi 9 had not been permanently heeded, which may have left Jacob worrying that his earlier efforts had been insufficient and perhaps unacceptable before God. Had he shaken his garments prematurely? Continuing his condemnation of the wicked Nephite men, he warned that if they did not repent, they might “bring [their] children unto destruction,” in which case their children’s sins would be “heaped upon [their] heads at the last day” (Jacob 3:10). For his part, the weight of sin brought on by unmet expectations was a “heap” that Jacob was anxious to avoid.

The weight of pastoral accountability helps explain the emotionally charged language Jacob employed in his sermons. On all four occasions that Jacob explicitly admits to feeling “anxiety,” it is within the context of his responsibilities as priest and teacher, and in all but one of those instances, the admission serves to introduce one of his three major discourses. The first appears in 2 Nephi 6:3, which introduces Jacob’s discourse in chapters 6–10 on the gathering of Israel, final judgment, and the resurrection and atonement of Christ. The second appears in Jacob 2:3, which introduces Jacob’s discourse in Jacob 2–3 condemning the pride, greed, and immorality of his people. The third appears in Jacob 4:18, which introduces Jacob’s recitation in chapter 5 of Zenos’s Allegory of the Olive Tree. In each case, Jacob takes the stand struggling under an anxious load, which he proceeds to pour out upon the people in language dripping with deep emotion.

Note the similarities between the introductions in these discourses, the first two of which show obvious parallels when placed side by side:

2 Nephi 6:2–3Jacob 2:2–3

Behold, my beloved brethren,

I, Jacob, having been called of God, and

ordained after the manner of his holy order,

and having been consecrated by my brother . . .

I have spoken unto you exceedingly many things.

Nevertheless, I speak unto you again;


for I am desirous for the welfare of your souls.

Yea, mine anxiety is great for you; and

ye yourselves know that it ever has been.

Now, my beloved brethren,

I, Jacob, according to the responsibility

which I am under to God, to magnify

mine office with soberness, and that I

might rid my garments of your sins,

I come up into the temple this day that I

might declare unto you the word of God.

And ye yourselves know that I have

hitherto been diligent in the office of my

calling; but I this day am weighed down

with much more desire and anxiety for 

the welfare of your souls than I have

hitherto been.

Each common element is emotionally significant. First, in all three cases, Jacob addresses his audience as “my beloved brethren” (2 Nephi 6:2; Jacob 2:2; 4:18), a personal connection to his hearers that he feels deeply. Being so distant in age from his brothers, having had far less time to enjoy the physical and emotional presence of his aged parents, and being closer in age to what was by then likely a multitude of nieces and nephews, Jacob felt great tenderness and love toward those he was addressing. No one uses the phrase “my beloved brethren” more often than he, and circumstances suggest he truly meant it.[24]

Concern for his “beloved brethren” also grows out of the circumstances of each discourse. Though the record fails to provide an immediate historical context for these sermons (the chapter headings offer only vague multiyear windows since the internal history is spotty), in the first, Nephi had assigned Jacob to speak unto his people at some point after the Nephites’ separation from the Lamanites, or, as Jacob would have seen it, after the dissolution of his own immediate family. The second discourse follows the death of Jacob’s brother Nephi (another emotional trigger), and in it Jacob addresses the breakdown of Nephite family life, holding up loving Lamanite families as an example instead. In the third discourse he is wondering about “beloved brethren” further removed, trying to reconcile the Jews’ first-century rejection of Jesus (and perhaps that of his people) with their promised return to the fold. Each rhetorical setting lends itself to Jacob’s word choice; he cared for his “beloved brethren” enough to address them.

After expressing his love (his first emotional ingredient), Jacob’s second step, at least in the first two discourses, was to emphasize his pastoral responsibilities, the weight of which added additional emotional gravity. In the first discourse he affirmed that he had been “called of God, . . . ordained after the manner of his holy order, and . . . consecrated by [his] brother Nephi” (2 Nephi 6:2); in the second, he dwells upon “the responsibility which [he was] under to God,” the need to “magnify [his] office with soberness,” his desire to “rid [his] garments of [their] sins,” and his history of being “diligent in the office of [his] calling” (Jacob 2:2–3)—each phrase adding weight to Jacob’s load. This explains Jacob’s third emotional admission: that this combination of heartfelt love and profound sense of duty toward his people left him (as both his first and second discourses attest) feeling “desirous for the welfare of [their] souls” (2 Nephi 6:3; see also Jacob 2:3).

Had Jacob been able to stop at this level of love and duty, he would have remained within the healthier confines of his calling. His sense of responsibility toward God, coupled with his love for the people he was serving, filled him with a deep desire that his words might be consecrated for the spiritual gain of his people. This is truly commendable. But in all three cases, these deep desires were causing Jacob undue distress. In the first he says, “Mine anxiety is great for you, and ye yourselves know that it ever has been” (2 Nephi 6:3; emphasis added)—a baseline state in which Jacob’s heightened anxiety was noticeable to others. In the second: “I this day am weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of your souls than I have hitherto been” (Jacob 2:3; emphasis added)—an increase in tension that was burdening him almost unbearably. No wonder he admits in the third instance of suffering from “over anxiety,” an emotion so intense that he fears that he might “stumble” in his service and be “shaken from [his] firmness in the Spirit” (Jacob 4:18). This was a spiritual instability that not even Sherem’s attacks on Jacob’s faith could achieve (see Jacob 7:5). In fact, Jacob’s concern over his own “firmness in the Spirit” confirms his earlier urging of “firmness of mind” (Jacob 3:2). His mental, emotional, and spiritual fortitude was something Jacob had to consciously conserve.

“Great” anxiety, “more” anxiety, and finally “over” anxiety—a crescendo of concern that was threatening to crush him. This is a faithfulness on the verge of fastidiousness, a motivation somewhere near the border between zeal and overzealousness, or to borrow a more recently prevalent phrase, the place where our service to others becomes a toxic perfectionism unsatisfied with self. Though Jacob seems not to have crossed that line (at least not consciously), his final admission about stumbling and being shaken reveals how close to it he had come. Diligence is good; “all diligence” (2 Nephi 6:3; Jacob 1:19) is unsustainable. Feeling the weight of one’s responsibilities is good; feeling “weighed down” by them (Jacob 2:3) is unbearable. Careful concern is good; “over anxiety” (Jacob 4:18) is unendurable.

Recognizing the anxieties that threatened to overwhelm him, it is easier to understand the emotionally charged language that permeates Jacob’s three discourses, including words that are themselves anxiety inducing. We’ve wrestled already with the visceral language in Jacob 2—wounds and daggers and bleeding, broken hearts—but similar words characterize his other writings. Jacob is the Book of Mormon’s first and most frequent employer of such phrases as “endless torment” (2 Nephi 9:19, 26; Jacob 6:10) and “fire and brimstone” (2 Nephi 9:16, 19, 26; Jacob 3:11; 6:10). Beyond merely discussing death and hell, he portrays them as an “awful monster” (2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26) that only God is able to conquer. He expresses dread over “the awfulness in transgressing against that Holy God” and “the awfulness of yielding to the enticings of that cunning one” (2 Nephi 9:39) and decries the “awful . . . state” of the wicked, whose “awful reality” would be to forever fall prey to “awful fear,” “awful guilt,” and “awful misery” (2 Nephi 9:27, 46, 47). Later sermons remain haunted by sin’s “awful consequences” and the “awful guilt” and “awful dread and fear” that would grip the wicked (Jacob 3:12; 6:9, 13). Jacob’s rhetoric prefigures what his son Enos would later describe as being necessary to reach the hardhearted: “harsh” language that “stirr[ed] them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord” (Enos 1:23). As both father and son saw it, “nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction” (v. 23).

Then again—and here we see another coping mechanism—Jacob’s overarching goal was always that his people might “rejoice, and lift up [their] heads forever, because of the blessings which the Lord God [would] bestow upon [their] children” (2 Nephi 9:3). Thus his emotive language is also marked with more positive sentiments, which would have helped alleviate his people’s anxiety as well as his own. For example, he dwelt at length on “the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel” (v. 1; see also 2 Nephi 6:12–13, 17; 10:7; 15), reminding his hearers (and himself) that they would someday be “restored to the true church and fold of God” and be “gathered home to the lands of their inheritance” (2 Nephi 9:2). He bore eloquent witness of the “power of resurrection” and the “infinite atonement” (vv. 6, 7) and rejoiced exultantly over the attributes of God that guaranteed those gifts. Jacob knew that the Savior would come to suffer “the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children” (v. 21), including the traumas suffered by Jacob and the people he loved. Though Jacob pronounced strong denunciations, he dwelt less on the awful “woes” than on God’s glorious “O’s” (see vv. 8, 10, 13, 17, 19, 20). As he concluded his first discourse, “Behold how great the covenants of the Lord, and how great his condescensions unto the children of men; and because of his greatness, and his grace and mercy, he has promised unto us that our seed shall not utterly be destroyed, according to the flesh, but that he would preserve them; and in future generations they shall become a righteous branch unto the house of Israel” (v. 53). For one such as Jacob, who keenly felt the pain of being a branch broken off and who spent his life trying to restore that branch to righteousness, these would have been comforting promises indeed.

By focusing on the Lord’s promises and power, Jacob’s anxiety would have decreased as pastoral perfectionism gave way to faith in a perfect Pastor. This is beautifully shown by Jacob’s words in 2 Nephi 10, as he finally ends the discourse that began chapters earlier. Returning to the Isaiah passage that Nephi originally assigned him (Isaiah 49:22–23; see 2 Nephi 6:6–7), Jacob reiterates its promise and concludes, “Wherefore, the promises of the Lord are great unto the Gentiles, for he hath spoken it, and who can dispute?” (2 Nephi 10:9). God’s word could be trusted, and in that Jacob centered his hope. A few verses later he says in words of reassurance, “And now, my beloved brethren, seeing that our merciful God has given us so great knowledge concerning these things, let us remember him, and lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off; nevertheless, we have been driven out of the land of our inheritance; but we have been led to a better land.” In words meant for himself as much as they are meant for the Nephites, Jacob affirms, “And now behold, the Lord remembereth all them who have been broken off, wherefore he remembereth us also. Therefore, cheer up your hearts” (vv. 20, 22–23).

Even the content of Jacob’s assigned passage was itself a call to cheerfulness. In family-focused imagery that in Jacob’s voice seems almost autobiographical, the passage speaks of sons and daughters being brought in loving arms and carried on broad shoulders, of kings and queens presented not as ruling sovereigns but as “nursing fathers” and “nursing mothers,” a tender parallelism that allows men to be as nurturing as women.[25] The passage permitted Jacob to address a family—his own—that had just experienced the second of two scatterings, the first being their flight from Jerusalem and the second being their separation from their brethren. Though he had never lived in Israel, Jacob includes himself in that community, lamenting that “those who were at Jerusalem, from whence we came, have been slain and carried away captive” (2 Nephi 6:8). By implication, however, this implies inclusion in their promised restoration as well, when they would “be gathered together again to the lands of their inheritance” (v. 11). Of this Jacob felt certain, believing that “the Lord God [would] fulfil his covenants which he [had] made unto his children” (v. 12), including those made with his own immediate family. Whether they were scattered by the Assyrians, taken captive into Babylon, or brought to an entirely new land of promise, Jacob knew that “the Mighty God [would] deliver his covenant people” (v. 17).

Furthermore, as Jacob continued quoting Isaiah far beyond Nephi’s original assignment, he was able, through Isaiah’s words, to give vent to the feelings of a frightened child abandoned by divorcing parents and the feelings of a lonely father who returns home to find no one to answer his call (see 2 Nephi 7:1–2; Isaiah 50:1–2). He was able to look back to Abraham and Sarah (2 Nephi 8:2), ancestral parents whose wilderness wanderings and advanced-age child-rearing must have reminded him of his own parents. He could remind his fellow sufferers that “the Lord [would] comfort Zion,” and promise them “comfort,” “joy,” and “gladness” (v. 3) as well: better days when “sorrow and mourning [would] flee away” (v. 11). Jacob spoke of those who had “feared continually every day” (he knew how that felt), but who trusted in a God that had promised, “I am he; yea, I am he that comforteth you” (vv. 12–13). Anxious Jacob found comfort in scripture, which he knew could be “likened” to himself (see 2 Nephi 6:5).

A final coping mechanism to assuage Jacob’s anxiety appears in Nephi’s passing of the plates. Jacob received the small plates when he was roughly fifty years of age, and with the plates, he also received a “commandment” concerning how they were to be preserved and passed down to posterity (Jacob 1:1). The burden Jacob must have felt would have been far heavier than the weight of gold alone, and Nephi, perhaps intuiting his brother’s concerns, seems to have been more focused on making this burden manageable than on adding more pressure to what Jacob must already have been feeling. Instead of demanding diligence (never a problem for Jacob), Nephi essentially told him not to run faster than he had strength. Jacob was to write upon the plates, but was expected to include only “a few of the things which [he] considered to be most precious” (v. 2; emphasis added), a merciful limitation directed at someone whose anxiety had already been manifest in his diligence in speaking “concerning all things which are written, from the creation of the world” (2 Nephi 6:3; emphasis added).

Drawing boundaries to keep service within reasonable limits does seem fitting for one who recorded the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon and turned a two-verse thought into a five-chapter discourse, as already mentioned. Thus Nephi’s directions to Jacob go beyond the space constraints of the plates or Nephi’s earlier decision to reserve room for “the things of God” (1 Nephi 6:3). In Jacob’s case, Nephi was even more selective, and he probably needed to be for his brother’s sake. Jacob was not expected to become an expert historian; others would keep “the history of [Nephi’s] people” on the large plates (Jacob 1:3), leaving Jacob to simply “touch” upon the history “lightly” (v. 2)—just enough to provide a rough storyline out of which his real message could emerge. Even that message would not need to be as lengthy as Nephi’s or Lehi’s, the two writers to whom Jacob naturally would have compared himself. He needed only to record that preaching “which was sacred” and that revelation “which was great,” only “the heads” of his prophecies. He could thus be selective instead of comprehensive, “touch[ing] upon” spiritual highlights “as much as it were possible” (Jacob 1:4) but not needing to feel anxious about recording anything more. Considering how diligently (and anxiously!) Jacob fulfilled his other duties, Nephi was wise to imply that “magnify[ing one’s] office”—a phrase used by Jacob and Jacob alone (Jacob 1:19; 2:2)—had more meanings than one. At times magnification involves making something larger; but frequently what is most needed is to give concentrated focus to something manageable or even small.

Anxiety over Our Standing before God

Considering how anxious Jacob felt when crying repentance to his people, and how emotional his language became when condemning sin, a third and final source of anxiety seems almost inevitable for this wondrously sensitive soul: concern over his own imperfections. When discussing in the previous section Jacob’s priestly participation in the rituals of atonement, it was hard not to wonder if he might have taken the transference of sins more literally than intended. The Book of Mormon preserves nothing suggesting any imperfections on the part of Jacob—not even a Nephi-like “O wretched man that I am” (2 Nephi 4:17)—but it is likely that anxious Jacob turned his own “all-searching eye” upon himself, fearing that God’s “all-piercing eye” was already doing the same. The characteristic for which the Book of Mormon does provide evidence is not Jacob’s sinfulness but rather his sensitivity to sin, a trait best shown in Lehi’s benedictory blessings to his sons.

In keeping with the distinctive spiritual and emotional makeup of each of his children, Lehi was careful to match admonitions with dispositions, varying them by audience in both content and tone. To Laman and Lemuel and their posterity, Lehi emphasized, in true Deuteronomic fashion, the blessings of obedience and the dangers of disobedience (see 2 Nephi 1:20; 4:3–4, 9). Boldly he reminded them of “their rebellions” and credited “the mercies of God in sparing their lives” (2 Nephi 1:2), strongly warning them of “the judgments of him that is just” that await the unrepentant (v. 10). To children whose apathy and intractability had long caused him to “fear exceedingly” (1 Nephi 8:4), Lehi’s tone was one of urgency and anxious expectancy, intensifying a family-focused jeremiad not unlike those that he and others had earlier raised in Jerusalem.

Anxiety, Lehi confessed, was one of the driving emotions behind his paternal intensity. As he openly admitted, instilling a spirit of strict obedience in his eldest but least conscientious sons had been “the anxiety of [his] soul from the beginning” (2 Nephi 1:16), and he knew that his time of direct influence was ending. Urgency-infused anxiety accounts for the worry behind the “words of [this] trembling parent” (v. 14) and for the other emotions that colored his final words. “My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow from time to time,” Lehi admitted, tinging his anxiety with a shade of depression, “for I have feared, lest for the hardness of your hearts the Lord your God should come out in the fulness of his wrath upon you” (v. 17). “I exceedingly fear and tremble because of you,” he later added, perhaps worried that because of their lack of fidelity to God and solidarity with family, he might “be brought down with grief and sorrow to the grave” (vv. 21, 25).

Exercising faith in God’s “infinite goodness” (2 Nephi 1:10), choosing to honor the agency of others, and maintaining healthy interpersonal boundaries were three of the coping skills Lehi employed when considering the actions and attitudes of his wayward children. First, he remembered “how merciful the Lord had been” to both him and his children thus far in their journey (v. 3); he held on to what “the Lord God ha[d] covenanted with [him]” and with his children (v. 5); and he looked prophetically to the future “according to the workings of the Spirit which [was] in [him]” (v. 6). At the same time (the second coping skill), he recognized that his children’s choices—and the consequences of those choices—were not his but theirs, so with faith in the Savior he could say, submissively, “His will be done; for his ways are righteousness forever” (v. 19). Moreover (the third coping skill), throughout his life he did all within his power to influence his children in righteousness, but he also saw his salvation as separate from theirs and refused to take the blame for choices that were beyond his control. Independent of their righteousness or lack thereof, Lehi knew that “the Lord [had] redeemed [his] soul from hell,” which allowed him to say with joyful resignation, “I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (v. 15).[26]

These would have been helpful coping skills for Jacob to develop in his own ministry, but what Lehi gave Jacob most directly was reassurance tailored to the needs of an anxious soul. In recent years the term scrupulosity has become more well-known. It is a form of religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that leaves sufferers metaphorically washing their hands as often as those suffering from germaphobia do literally.[27] Unlike the pastoral perfectionism discussed in the previous section, this is a toxic perfectionism focused not on one’s service but on one’s sins (real or imagined), and tragically, it leaves people feeling guilty even when temptation is resisted, not to mention hopeless whenever it is not. Jacob seems a likely candidate to suffer from some degree of scrupulosity, though as said at the beginning, it is not our place to officially diagnose. Still, Lehi may have seen warning signs and counseled Jacob accordingly.

For example, compared to the anguished admonition he gave to Laman and Lemuel, there is no such anxiety in Lehi’s message to Jacob, likely because Jacob had more than enough anxiety of his own. In Jacob’s case, it was not hardness of heart that worried Lehi, but uneasiness of mind, which could potentially push away the comforting spirit of the Lord as effectively as the stubbornness of Jacob’s two oldest brothers had. In speaking with Jacob, therefore, Lehi traded the strict justice and clear consequentiality of the Deuteronomist for a reassuring relationality rooted in the condescension of Christ. In words he would never have said to Laman and Lemuel, Lehi testified to Jacob, “I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer” (2 Nephi 2:3). As far as Lehi was concerned, Jacob’s redemption was not in question, and this promise—essentially an assurance that Jacob’s calling and election was sure—was based not on Jacob’s righteousness, as unfailing as it always seemed to be, but rather on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, a shift in responsibility that ideally would have brought relief from anxiety.

Of course, Lehi was not preaching what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap and easy grace,”[28] which is why he taught it individually to Jacob, not indiscriminately to all his children.[29] Promising salvation in a way that seems unconditional (and that appears to be based on Christ’s righteousness alone) no doubt would have emboldened Laman and Lemuel to presume upon the Savior’s grace. But to careful and conscientious Jacob, it would have been a helpful correction that his personality would have kept from becoming a harmful overcorrection. Therefore, to an anxious Jacob, not to an apathetic Laman or Lemuel, Lehi taught that “salvation is free” (2 Nephi 2:4). Yes, humanity is fallen, but “the way is prepared from the fall of man” to overcome that fallen state (v. 4). In fact, the purpose of that Fall was that “men might be, and men are, that they might have joy” (v. 25), not crippling anxiety over mistakes made along the way. Joy in Christ’s redemption, not overanxiety over humanity’s fall, should therefore be Jacob’s underlying attitude. Of course obedience was essential, and for this reason “the law [was] given unto men,” but “by the law no flesh is justified,” which means a focus on legalism alone would leave everyone feeling “miserable forever” (v. 5). “Wherefore,” Lehi reassures Jacob, “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth” (v. 6).

Lehi’s emphasis here is best brought out by imagining the alternative, the way Nephi does near the end of his ministry. With Jacob Lehi “talk[ed] of Christ, [he] rejoice[d] in Christ, [he] preach[ed] of Christ, [he] prophes[ied] of Christ, and [he wrote] according to [his] prophecies, that [his] children”—perhaps Jacob more than any other—would “know to what source they [might] look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). As Lehi said to Jacob directly, that source was “the righteousness of [his] Redeemer” (2 Nephi 2:3), as opposed to what Nephi referred to as “the deadness of the law” (see 2 Nephi 25:25, 27). Yes, Jacob should strive to keep the law, but he could keep it faithfully instead of fastidiously, calmly instead of compulsively, submissively instead of obsessively. To borrow a later phrase, he could remain “anxiously engaged” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27) without becoming overanxious about that engagement.

Put most simply, to ease his son’s anxieties, Lehi focused Jacob on Jesus Christ, saying, “There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). It is through these actions and attributes, which only the Savior possesses to perfection, that Jesus can “answer the ends of the law,” and he does so “unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (v. 7). Thus a measure of sorrow—what Paul calls “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10)—is a healthy response to one’s own weakness, but the heart should be broken, not obliterated; the spirit should be contrite, not contemptuous of itself. To the degree that Jacob’s anxiety included a measure of brokenness and contrition, Lehi is acknowledging the good that proper anxiety can do (can we place “godly anxiety” alongside “godly sorrow”?), carving out space for Jacob’s anxiety but confining that space to healthy proportions.

By the time Jacob was old enough to preach his own sermons, he had internalized his father’s final words, and his first recorded discourse largely interprets Isaiah (Nephi’s contribution) through a decidedly Christian lens (Lehi’s contribution). It is for this reason that 2 Nephi 9–10 borrows so heavily from 2 Nephi 2 in its explanation of 2 Nephi 6–8. In short, Jacob learned well from his father, and he later repeated much of what he was taught. Lehi had warned him of the devil, who wanted all to be “miserable like unto himself” (2 Nephi 2:27), and unsurprisingly, emotional Jacob remembered that message on misery and repeated it to his people (see 2 Nephi 9:9). He also remembered what his father said about “the resurrection” and “the atonement” (2 Nephi 2:8, 10) and taught his people the same truths (see 2 Nephi 9:6–7). Lehi assured Jacob (and his brothers) that he was free to “choose liberty and eternal life” or “choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27), and Jacob did likewise for the Nephites (see 2 Nephi 10:23). Lehi taught Jacob that “salvation [was] free” (2 Nephi 2:4), and Jacob, quoting Isaiah, invited his brethren to “come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (2 Nephi 9:50; see Isaiah 55:1). Lastly, Lehi taught that Jacob would be saved “because of the righteousness of [his] Redeemer” (2 Nephi 2:3), and Jacob taught the people that “it [was] only in and through the grace of God that [they could be] saved” (2 Nephi 10:24).

By focusing on the Savior’s grace, Lehi simplified Jacob’s expectations as a disciple of Christ, just as Nephi would simplify Jacob’s task as a recordkeeper. Jacob could thus simplify discipleship for his people (and for himself). Rather than fixate on every jot and tittle, the law in its simplest form was to follow the Lawgiver. Rather than looking down at the path, one needed to look up at the path’s destination, and one’s heart would rise with one’s gaze. In Jacob’s formulation of this liberating principle: yes, “the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him” (2 Nephi 9:41; emphasis added), so come unto Christ! Instead of becoming paralyzed by overanxiety, one needed to find the faith to knock, for “whoso knocketh, to him [would the Lord] open” (v. 42). Through Christ, unfounded fears could be banished, for “the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there” (v. 41)—no servant lacking in perfect compassion, no substitute devoid of Christ’s infinite love. With the love of God reassuring him, Jacob would not have to “shrink with awful fear” over the thought of “remember[ing his] awful guilt in perfectness” (v. 46). Instead, he could relabel the day of judgment “that glorious day when justice [would] be administered unto the righteous” (v. 46) and speak not of anxiously standing with “shame and awful guilt before the bar of God” but rather of confidently approaching God’s “pleasing bar” (Jacob 6:9, 13). By the time Jacob’s struggling son Enos came into his own, he could easily recall “the words which [he] had often heard [his] father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints” (Enos 1:3; emphasis added). For Jacob, the “joy of the saints” had crowded out the anxiety he had struggled with before.

Conclusion: “Because of Faith and Great Anxiety”

We have dwelt at length on three of the four instances in which Jacob admitted his anxiety. In each case, anxiety was a cause of concern, for it threatened to overwhelm him. But as Jacob learned from Lehi, Nephi, Isaiah, and the Lord, faith could combat his anxieties. More importantly, faith could interact with anxiety in an even more meaningful way. In the instance we have yet to study, anxiety is not faith’s conquest but faith’s companion, forming a mutually beneficial pair of attributes that allow each one to refine and complement its counterpart. In this case anxiety appears in its positive form: a careful concern that guards itself against overzealousness and refuses to panic. In the prologue of his brief book, and in a fascinating juxtaposition, Jacob states, “For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them” (Jacob 1:5). His phrasing makes it unclear whether he is speaking here of things that would happen in the future based on the choices his people were then making (prophetic foretelling), or of things which his people needed to experience in the present in order to make those choices correctly (prophetic forthtelling), but either way, it was the Spirit that had manifested those realities, and these spiritual manifestations had come in response to a combination of characteristics that defined Jacob to the core. In his soul and in his service, Jacob was a man that coupled “faith and great anxiety.”

In the two verses that follow Jacob’s fascinating phrase, we see both attributes in action. Jacob’s faith brought him “many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy” (Jacob 1:6), but it was due to his anxiety that he “labored diligently among [his] people” (v. 7). Without faith he was unlikely to receive these spiritual impressions, but without anxiety he was less likely to act on them. In a later passage Jacob speaks of having faith so strong as to become “unshaken” (Jacob 4:6) but adds, leaving room for a healthy anxiety, that “the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things” (v. 7). In this framing, it is faith that makes us powerful and anxiety that keeps us humble. Faith taps into divinity; anxiety reminds us of our humanity.

Throughout our study, we have seen Jacob’s anxiety as a negative, and so do we tend to think of this troubling emotion today. But as Jacob would likely admit, this is only the case when it appears at an unhealthy extreme. If allowed to discourage us in our adversities, if permitted to paralyze us in our callings, or if left to condemn us unceasingly in our sins, then anxiety is our enemy. But if kept in check, or better said, if combined and counterbalanced with faith in Christ, then anxiety provides a needed spur to what might otherwise devolve into a lazy complacency, an easy indifference, or even worse, a fatalism masquerading as faith. In short, proper anxiety propels essential work, for as James might have said, “faith without [anxiety] is dead” (see James 2:26).

In the three areas we have studied here—anxiety born of adversity, anxiety due to responsibility, and anxiety over our standing before God—we can balance those anxieties with various facets of faith: faith in the Lord’s purposes, which give meaning to our suffering; faith in the Lord’s promises, which ensure the accomplishment of his work; and faith in the Lord’s plan, which saves us from our sins. In this way, we endure adversities with hope, we fulfill responsibilities with charity, and we repent of sin with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Powerful in their potential, these cardinal Christian virtues—faith, hope, and charity—roar into action when anxiety provides a spark.

As with any paradox, in the interplay of “faith and great anxiety,” balance is key, and the placement of the fulcrum must be situation specific. Thus the Spirit is required to “manifest unto us” which direction along the spectrum we must move in any given moment. Too much anxiety, and we demand perfection of our circumstances, our service, and ourselves. But too little anxiety, and we do nothing to improve our circumstances, offer our service, or purify ourselves. Neither toxic perfectionism nor laissez-faire determinism is the answer, but a “Goldilocks zone” defined by “just enough” faith to trust that God is at work, and “just enough” anxiety to keep us working alongside him. This Goldilocks zone is exemplified in Mary’s piety combined with Martha’s pragmatism (see Luke 10:38–42), and in Moses’s raised hands combined with Joshua’s raised sword (see Exodus 17:8–13). It is found in “tak[ing] no thought beforehand” (Mark 13:11) and carefully “count[ing] the cost” (Luke 14:28), both of which Jesus recommended. Admittedly, maintaining the proper balance is difficult, requiring the “firmness of mind” (Jacob 3:1) that Jacob urged for others and no doubt sought for himself. But balance is attainable if we trust in God and continue trying—that is, if we strive, with Jacob, to develop in their proper proportions both “faith and great anxiety.”


[1] In the Old Testament, see Joshua 22:24; Proverbs 12:25; Jeremiah 49:23; Ezekiel 4:16; 12:18, 19. In each of these instances, the Hebrew word being translated is דְּאָגָה (deagah), which suggests an anxious care. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates the word as “anxiety” each time (except Joshua 22:24, which translates the word as “concern”). Deagah comes from the root word דָּאַג (daag), which means “to be anxious or concerned.” This root word appears seven times in the Hebrew Bible (1 Samuel 9:5; 10:2; Psalm 38:18; Isaiah 57:11; Jeremiah 17:8; 38:19; 42:16), which the NASB translates as “anxious,” “full of anxiety,” “dread,” “in fear,” and “worried,” but which the KJV translates as “take thought,” “sorroweth,” “sorry,” “afraid,” and “careful.” In the New Testament, a related word is the Greek word μεριμνάω (merimnao), which means “to be anxious or worried” (in the negative sense) or “to be careful and concerned” (in the positive sense). For examples of the negative, see Matthew 6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34; 10:19; Luke 10:41; 12:11, 22, 25, 26; and Philippians 4:6. In most of these cases, the KJV renders the word as “taking thought” or being “careful,” but the Greek suggests an unhealthy anxiety against which the writer is warning.

[2] In the lengthy footnote at the end of Joseph Smith–History, Oliver Cowdery speaks positively of “the anxiously looked for message.” In Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, which illustrates how the term would have been understood in Joseph Smith’s day (and thus within Restoration scripture), anxiety is defined as “concern or solicitude respecting some event, future or uncertain, which disturbs the mind, and keeps it in a state of painful uneasiness. It expresses more than uneasiness or disturbance, and even more than trouble or solicitude. It usually springs from fear or serious apprehension of evil, and involves a suspense respecting an event, and often, a perplexity of mind, to know how to shape our conduct.” A second definition speaks in more clinical terms: “In medical language, uneasiness; unceasing restlessness in sickness.” Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), s.v. “anxiety,” https://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/anxiety.

[3] The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology (hereafter APA Dictionary) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune. The body often mobilizes itself to meet the perceived threat: Muscles become tense, breathing is faster, and the heart beats more rapidly. Anxiety may be distinguished from fear both conceptually and physiologically, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.” American Psychological Association Dictionary Online, s.v. “anxiety,” https://dictionary.apa.org/anxiety.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Anxiety in Stressful Times” (BYU–Hawaii devotional address, June 11, 2019), https://speeches.byuh.edu/devotional/anxiety-in-stressful-times; see also Oaks, “Racism and Other Challenges” (Brigham Young University devotional address, October 27, 2020), https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks/racism-other-challenges.

[5] Renee D. Goodwin, Andrea H. Weinberger, June H. Kim, Melody Wu, and Sandro Galea, “Trends in Anxiety among Adults in the United States, 2008–2018: Rapid Increases Among Young Adults,” Journal of Psychiatric Research 130 (November 2020): 443.

[6] Goodwin, Weinberger, Kim, Wu, and Galea, “Trends in Anxiety,” 441–46.

[7] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” Ensign or Liahona, November 2013, 40–42.

[8] Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” 40.

[9] In the summer of 2016, the Church released an 11-minute video on Elder Holland’s Facebook page that included portions of his 2013 General Conference message and included the testimonies of many others who have struggled with mental illness. According to one report at the time, the video posted on a Monday, and by the next evening it had already been viewed over one million times. See Natalie Crofts, “‘Hang on and Hope,’ Elder Holland Says in Viral Video about Depression,” KSL News, June 21, 2016, https://www.ksl.com/article/40314922/hang-on-and-hope-elder-holland-says-in-viral-video-about-depression.

[10] Originally found at mentalhealth.lds.org, this section of the website can now be accessed at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/get-help/mental-health.

[11] Tina Kargis, January 24, 2019, comment on Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” Facebook video, June 20, 2016.

[12] Lyle J. Burrup, “Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders,” Ensign, March 2017, 54, 56.

[13] See Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” 40.

[14] Richard N. Williams, “Review of Mauro Properzi, Mormonism and the Emotions: An Analysis of LDS Scriptural Texts,” BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2018): 180.

[15] See Holland, “Like a Broken Vessel,” 40.

[16] As Deidre Nicole Green has written, “As we seek to understand Jacob and his ministry, it is important to remember that all we know about Jacob is what comes from the text. We can read closely for clues, yet certain knowledge about his biographical, emotional, psychological, and personal spiritual realities remain interior matters that ultimately elude us.” Green, Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2020), 8.

[17] On Nephi’s deeply emotional psalm, see Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 55–57.

[18] See E. Ashby Plant, Janet Shibley Hyde, Dacher Keltner, and Patricia G. Devine, “The Gender Stereotyping of Emotions,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24 (2000): 81–92.

[19] See Brittany E. Wilson, Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke–Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[20] See, for example, “What ACEs/PCEs do you have?,” ACES Too High: Adverse Childhood Experiences, accessed June 16, 2023, https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/; and “Take the ACEs Quiz,” American Society for the Positive Care of Children, accessed June 16, 2023, https://americanspcc.org/take-the-aces-quiz/.

[21] Nephi speaks of his “family,” the “family” of Zoram, and the “family” of Sam, but there is no mention of a “family” for “Jacob and Joseph, [his] younger brethren” (2 Nephi 5:6).

[22] Green, Jacob, 9.

[23] Numbers 4 is a prime example of this, as it defines some of the responsibilities of the Levites using the word burden nine times (see vv. 15, 19, 24, 27, 31, 32, 47, and 49. The term is sometimes used to describe physical burdens but includes spiritual “burdens” as well. See Numbers 11:11, 17; Deuteronomy 1:12; Isaiah 13:1; 15:1; 17:1; 19:1; 21:1, 11, 13; 22:1; 23:1; Ezekiel 12:10; Nahum 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1; Zechariah 9:1; 12:1; Malachi 1:1.

[24] For many examples of this usage, see 2 Nephi 6:2; 9:1, 3, 39, 40, 41, 44, 45, 52; 10:1, 18, 20, 24; Jacob 2:2; 4:2, 3, 11, 12, 17, 18; 6:5, 11.

[25] It was the King James translators that provided these “fathers” with the same adjective (nursing) as the “mothers.” Other translations (the New International Version and English Standard Version, for example), speak of “foster fathers” and “nursing mothers,” since the Hebrew uses two different terms (אֹֽמְנַ֗יִךְ and מֵינִ֣יקֹתַ֔יִךְ, respectively). Still, the sense of intimate care and loving support applies to both men and women here.

[26] Earlier, during their return from Jerusalem with Ishmael’s family, Nephi had taken a similar approach. When Laman and Lemuel (and several of Ishmael’s children) began to rebel against him, Nephi appealed to the better angels of their nature, expressed his own faith in God and in their future, and gave them a forceful admonition which showed them the consequences of their decision, but ultimately promised to honor their agency (see 1 Nephi 7:6–15). The prophet Samuel’s response to Israel’s unwise desire to have a king illustrates all of these principles as well (see 1 Samuel 8:5–9).

[27] The APA Dictionary defines scrupulosity as “overconscientiousness with respect to matters of right and wrong, often manifested as an obsession with moral or religious issues (e.g., preoccupation that one may commit a sin and go to hell) that results in compulsive moral or religious observance and that is highly distressing.” American Psychological Association Dictionary Online, s.v. “scrupulosity,” https://dictionary.apa.org/scrupulosity.

[28] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 70.

[29] This statement needs to be qualified because of a certain lack of clarity within the text. 2 Nephi 2 begins with Lehi clearly addressing Jacob alone (see v. 1); however, by verse 14, Lehi is addressing his “sons” (see vv. 14, 28, 30). It is unclear when Lehi makes this rhetorical shift, but it cannot be any earlier than verse 12, since in verse 11 Lehi is still addressing his “firstborn in the wilderness.” Furthermore, Lehi’s pronouns of address are all second-person singular (you, thou, and thy; see vv. 1–4) until verse 13, when he begins using the second-person plural pronouns ye (see also v. 28), you all, and your (v. 30), showing that he is likely referring in those verses to all of his sons. Notably, Lehi begins this shift with the phrase, “And if ye shall say there is no law” (v. 13), a thought experiment that Laman and Lemuel would likely have entertained but that would have been abhorrent to Jacob.