Kari Joseph Olsen, “Patterns of Obedience,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 89–98.
Patterns of Obedience
Kari Joseph Olsen
I have often been impressed by the principle of obedience demonstrated by Nephi. He solemnly declared his unwavering commitment to follow the commandments of the Lord: “For thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey” (2 Nephi 33:15). This declaration can be resonated in each of our lives as we experience and grow in different stages of obedience.
I see three different times when the obedience of Nephi was tested in the story of obtaining the plates of brass. Through each experience, he demonstrated a more committed obedience to the Lord. He grew in the following stages:
· The First Attempt: Bystander (Supportive Obedience)
· The Second Attempt: Advocate (Participatory Obedience)
· The Third Attempt: Disciple (Solitary Faith-Obedience)
By noting what Nephi experienced in these three stages, we can connect the events of our lives to levels of obedience. In so doing, our obedience can be developed and perfected into faith-obedience in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The First Attempt: Bystander (Supportive Obedience)
As Nephi and his brothers set off to Jerusalem to obtain the plates of brass, they “did consult one with another” (1 Nephi 3:10). I imagine them having a brainstorming session on how to obtain the plates from Laban. What did they discuss? What were the pressing issues on their minds? What were their concerns as they approached Jerusalem? What types of strategies and plans were suggested? As they discussed, consulted, and contemplated ideas, perhaps no idea came forth as a surefire plan, as an obvious solution to their problem. Multiple plans and approaches were probably suggested and drawn up to handle what Laman and Lemuel thought to be “a hard thing” required of them (1 Nephi 3:5).
The plan that came forth initially was to cast lots for someone to go to Laban and simply request the plates. “And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house” (1 Nephi 3:11). What was the scene like as Laman and Laban talked? Was this the first time Laman and Laban had ever spoken, or did they know each other? Because Lehi was a prophet at the time and Laban had care of plates, I presume that Laman and Laban were acquaintances. What was their conversation like as Laman requested the plates?
In all that might have been said, it is clear that Laman expressed a desire to receive the plates from Laban. Laban then became angry and thrust Laman out of his house with criminal accusations. Laman returned to his brethren “and told the things which Laban had done” (1 Nephi 3:14). Upon hearing Laman’s disappointing news, the sons of Lehi “began to be exceedingly sorrowful” and were about to return to the wilderness (1 Nephi 3:14).
Through this first attempt to obtain the plates, Nephi showed supportive obedience; he was a bystander. I refer to Nephi as a bystander at this stage because he and his other brothers stayed back as Laman went alone. Assuredly, he participated as they counseled on how to obtain the plates. However, Nephi’s role was most likely one of a younger brother following his older brothers. Laman seems to have been the leader, and, fittingly, the lots selected him to be the brave soul to first go and obtain the plates. Nephi was obedient in discussion and support, yet at this stage he was not willing to step forward and actively engage in obtaining the plates.
I think of times in my life when I, like Nephi, have participated in discussions on difficult matters. I have participated in numerous group work projects in school. A large portion of the work is usually done as a group, yet individual assignments are also given to accelerate the completion of the project. Undoubtedly, one of the individual assignments is always harder than the others. I find myself supporting the completion of the project, but being filled with hesitation and resistance to the idea of accepting the more difficult assignments. Why do such emotions and feelings come? I have confidence in my abilities, and I am a proactive person. Why would I hesitate and resist difficult assignments?
A simple answer is that someone has to do the difficult assignment in the group, and if I can get away with doing an easier, but still important assignment, then my life will be easier. I am still supportive of the group accomplishing the project, but I sheepishly look for ways to make my life easier.
Increased accountability comes with being the person who has to act. Therefore obedience is easier when you are not the one selected to go and do. That selection requires a new level of commitment to step forward and act. At times, I feel more at ease to be part of the discussion, but not necessarily the instigator of the plan of action. I am an obedient bystander. My support of the objective could not be more genuine, but a sigh of relief does come in not having to act and do.
This level of supportive obedience is good and may be the best or the only way to show obedience at times; however, Nephi’s reaction to Laman’s disappointing news points towards a new level of obedience.
The Second Attempt: Advocate (Participatory Obedience)
Nephi courageously turned to his brothers and said, “As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us. Wherefore, let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; therefore let us go down to the land of our father’s inheritance, for behold he left gold and silver, and all manner of riches. And all this he hath done because of the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 3:15–16).
In Nephi’s pep talk to his brothers, several key points stand out that give insight into the second level of obedience: participatory obedience. When Nephi says, “Let us be faithful,” he is saying that they, as a group, need to be obedient unto the Lord. It is an invitation as much as it is a statement of what is going to happen. Nephi is saying, “Join with me and we will find a way.” The idea that we can accomplish the task at hand is central to what Nephi is saying. He is teaching that great strength and power comes as people join forces and unitedly tackle a difficult task.
Nephi is suggesting that they as a group can accomplish what Laman was not able to do by himself. For Nephi, this is a new level of commitment. Nephi will no longer stand by as a support while another person goes to obtain the plates. Nephi will now participate.
This type of obedience brings an excitement in being personally involved, yet also some trepidation in the raised level of responsibility. Nevertheless, one of the great benefits of participatory obedience is that you are not alone. Nephi will be acting with his brothers. They, as a group, will be responsible. Thus, Nephi will have additional individual responsibility, but the group will still carry most of the weight.
Nephi even suggests another idea of how they can obtain the plates: they can exchange their father’s silver, gold, and riches for the plates. Perhaps the idea of using the inheritance and riches had been suggested before in their discussion as they approached Jerusalem. Speculation upon this matter is all that is possible. If it had been suggested in previous discussions, then Nephi was advocating that other options be tried. Nephi was not willing to quit just because option A had failed.
If the idea had not been suggested, then perhaps we begin to see the tutorial hand of Lord in the situation. When Nephi looked back at this experience of obtaining the plates, I believe that he undoubtedly observed that giving up even all the gold, silver, and riches of his father was worth the untold riches of the scriptures. What a marvelous lesson to learn amidst such trying circumstances! (see 1 Nephi 5:21).
Nephi had already shown his testimony of the scriptures and knowledge thereof as he tried to persuade his brothers to join with him in obtaining the plates. He specifically explained the purpose of obtaining the plates. Nephi said, “And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records, that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers; and also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God, since the world began, even down unto this present time” (1 Nephi 3:19–20; emphasis added).
Clearly, Nephi had the personal conviction that the plates must be obtained not only for their sake but also for that of their posterity. Nephi again used the language of “we.” He tried to inspire his brothers to join with him after the disappointment of Laman’s first attempt. The plates are important to all of them; therefore, they should all go after them.
It was through this manner of language that Nephi persuaded his brothers to be faithful. Nephi’s own account relates what happened next:
And it came to pass that after this manner of language did I persuade my brethren, that they might be faithful in keeping the commandments of God.
And it came to pass that we went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things.
And after we had gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things.
And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property. (1 Nephi 3:21–25)
I am sure this was not the result that Nephi had envisioned. They had again tried to obtain the plates, but were promptly rejected. Nephi poignantly wrote, “we were obliged to leave behind our property” (1 Nephi 3:26). Not only did they lose their riches, but they almost lost their lives.
Think of Nephi. He had put forth so much effort to obtain the plates on this second attempt. He had preached to and persuaded his brothers to join with him. Surely, Nephi had some feelings of confidence before they were suddenly thrust out of Laban’s presence with Laban’s servants trying to slay them. How did Nephi feel at this point? Did Nephi still have the same conviction towards being obedient in obtaining the plates?
Nephi suffered great affliction for the unsuccessful attempt. His brothers, who had joined with him at the start, now placed full responsibility on Nephi, as the idea was his. The group responsibility fell apart. Nephi wrote about this tender and painful time, “And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me, and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers, and they did smite us even with a rod” (1 Nephi 3:28). Nephi must have already been suffering in his soul because of the failed attempt. Now, to make things worse, his own brothers spoke ill of him and physically beat him.
Fortunately, an angel of the Lord came to Nephi’s defense and rebuked Laman and Lemuel for harming their brother. Then the angel directly commanded Laman and Lemuel to go with Nephi to Jerusalem again.
While the angel’s appearance seems to have prevented further physical affliction for Nephi, he was now to stand alone. Laman and Lemuel would not fully join in, as “they were yet wroth, and did still continue to murmur” (1 Nephi 4:4). They showed little or no trust in the command as they viewed the worldly austere of Laban’s power. Laman and Lemuel murmured, “How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?” (1 Nephi 3:31).
I have asked myself at this point while reading Nephi’s account: when I experience failure, what makes me try again? What would drive me to persist and persevere despite troublesome times? These questions are tough to answer sometimes. Yet in finding answers to these questions, I have experienced the power of the Spirit.
While on a mission to Romania, my companion and I were assigned to open a new area. Opening a new area is challenging. I found that it takes several weeks, sometimes months, of missionaries working in an area for it to warm up to the preaching of the gospel.
My companion and I received severe persecution as we opened our new area. We were kicked out of several apartment blocks. At one point, we knocked at around 250 apartments and talked to 103 people without having a single missionary discussion. We were doing all we could. We took turns playing the role of Nephi in motivating the other to continue. What kept us going?
Simply put, we trusted in the guiding hand of the Lord. We both knew that the Lord would provide a way even if the present only brought more persecution and rejection. Eventually, we found a spiritually sensitive lady who let us in. She was the only investigator we taught in the area for over six months. Yet she was baptized and even became the branch Relief Society president.
If my companion had not motivated me to be obedient, we may have never met her. If I had not motivated my companion to be obedient, we may have never met her. Participatory obedience, as an advocate, is good at times. It can motivate people to be obedient when they otherwise may not have been. What happens when there is no one to give a pep talk or to motivate others to obedience?
This is where Nephi stood. He knew the importance of the plates; he knew they must be obtained. Nephi could no longer be a bystander or an advocate. If Nephi was to fulfill the command of the Lord to obtain the plates, he would have to do so alone. The challenge of so doing shows the conversion process towards discipleship.
The Third Attempt: Disciple (Solitary Faith-Obedience)
Nephi persuaded his brothers to at least follow him, despite their wrath and murmurings. He even continued to speak in the “we” form, saying, “Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?” (1 Nephi 4:1).
Nephi had great confidence in the Lord’s abilities. Nephi referenced miracles that had happened as he testified to his brothers that they could still accomplish the task at hand. He even asked his brothers, “Wherefore can ye doubt?” (1 Nephi 4:3).
Yet Nephi would be alone on this mission as his brothers would wait outside the city walls. This third attempt would not have happened without Nephi. He was the driving force and was the only one who truly acted in obtaining the plates. His obedience to the Lord’s command had progressed to a higher level of solitary faith-obedience.
Upon leaving his brothers outside the city walls, Nephi crept into the city and made his way to the house of Laban. At this critical point, Nephi still did not know how he was going to obtain the plates. Nevertheless, he was going, he was acting, he was doing.
Faith is a principle of action founded in Jesus Christ that moves people to action despite not having full evidence of things to come. So it was with Nephi’s situation. He hoped for spiritual guidance and a witness of what he was to do. He did not know the details of the imminent future, yet he acted with an assurance that the Lord would provide the way.
We often do not know the details of our future. We often hope for clear spiritual promptings about what to do. The promise of the Lord is that those spiritual promptings will come in the process of time. In the meantime, we must act as we are led by the Spirit. Is there something to be learned from Nephi’s experience about that process of being led by the Spirit?
Nephi said of his situation as he approached Laban’s house, “And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. Nevertheless I went forth” (1 Nephi 4:6–7). Perhaps the lesson is found in the going forth. Nephi knew the importance of being obedient; he had displayed this many times over. Nephi was living his life in such a way that the Spirit was with him. He was being led by the Spirit. Yet being led by the Spirit does not mean that we know exactly what will happen.
How can we act if we do not know what will come of our actions? That is where faith comes in. Nephi acted with faith-obedience in that he was sensitive to the Spirit while acting according to correct principles. Through the use of agency, Nephi made a decision knowing that the Lord would not lead him down a mistaken path.
At times, the Spirit will prompt us towards one action or another. The exercise of agency, the action, is necessary in order to find answers or spiritual witnesses. The confirming witness of a tough decision comes after the trial of faith. The uncertainties will become clear. The doubts will disappear. And we will then be able to reflect as Nephi did and say that we were led by the Spirit, even though we did not know the destination or outcome of our actions.
As Nephi acted, he received spiritual promptings that were beyond what he would have imagined. The Spirit constrained Nephi to do something he had never done before (see 1 Nephi 4:10). Nephi hesitated to act and even wrestled with the Spirit. Nevertheless, Nephi recognized the Lord was providing the means to accomplish what had been commanded. “Therefore,” Nephi said, “I did obey the voice of the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:18).
As Nephi obeyed, he was blessed with spiritual gifts and capacities beyond his own. He successfully obtained the much sought after plates. Nephi’s account of the story concludes, “And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban, and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father” (1 Nephi 4:38).
Nephi’s exemplary courage to trust in the Lord is a valuable lesson in how solitary faith-obedience develops discipleship. Nephi was committed to being obedient. It required much of him—even acting by himself without the support of others. It required that he trust not in the arm of flesh, but in the Spirit of the Lord. Nephi acted without knowing the details of the future. In so doing, he was blessed with answers to his prayers, with capacities beyond his own, and with the desires of his heart. Nephi is truly an example of what being a disciple of Christ is all about.
Nephi’s willingness to follow the Lord’s commands provided the necessary trust to go forth even with the uncertainty of future events. Nephi declared his motto of faith-obedience as follows: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).
Even when Nephi did not know by what means the commands of the Lord would come to pass, he trusted that his obedience would secure the fulfillment of the commands. The development of Nephi’s resilient obedience came through tests and trials at an early stage of his life. Nephi grew in different stages towards a more committed and determined obedience that enabled him to bring to pass many mighty miracles in the hands of the Lord. My hope is that we can follow Nephi’s example in our lives as we progress through different stages of obedience towards becoming disciples of Christ.