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26 January 2014

7 Lessons From the Bad Guys

Lately, whenever I read the scriptures, it seems like I'm noticing things I can learn from the Bad Guys. Here are a few of those observations.

1. Bad Guys are irritated by talking about good stuff, they get upset if you tell them to change their ways, but they get really irate -even murderous- when someone talks about the Lord.

I first noticed this with King Noah. If you look at Mosiah chapter 12, it starts off telling how Abinadai comes and tells the people about the sins they've committed and the disasters they can be anticipating. They're upset, and they arrest him. Then you have several chapters of the interchange between Abinadai and the priests. This is good reading, both doctrinally, and also in terms of just watching the interaction. They ask him, in effect, "If you're here to tell us about the gospel, the good news, why is it that you're so unpleasant to listen to? The scriptures tell us the messengers' feet are 'beautiful upon the mountains.' What's your problem?" And Abinadai answers their question. And he teaches the doctrines of Christ beautifully. But the Lesson From the Bad Guys moment is in chapter 17, and it's interesting. Abinadai isn't sentenced to death for talking smack about King Noah; he's going to burn because he told them about Christ.

"For thou has said that God himself should come down among the children of men; and now, for this cause, thou shalt be put to death..." (Mosiah 17:8)

It was the same thing for Lehi in Jerusalem.

"And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations..." (1 Nephi 1:19)

Telling them about the things they were doing wrong made them mad. They didn't like it and they said mean things to Lehi. But it wasn't until he started to talk about the Lord that they got murderous.

"...and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world. And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him, yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away." (1 Nephi 1:19-20)

The Bad Guys dislike hearing about the stuff they're doing wrong, but they really get upset when they hear about the Lord.

2. In the scriptures there are many examples of Bad Guys who are members of the Lord's true Church.

Laman and Lemuel are assured that the people at Jerusalem are righteous because they keep the Law of Moses, but both Laman and Lemuel and the Jews in Jerusalem are would-be murders. Laban liked to spend his evenings with the Elders of the Jews, and had charge of the sacred records on the brass plates. In the story of Abanidai that we looked at just now, we often call them "King Noah's Evil Priests," but miss the point that these guys were the anointed, set apart, scripture-quoting priesthood leaders of their day. The Sanhedrin was the ruling council of the Church in the Lord's time. In our day, Thomas B. Marsh was the senior apostle, and he still fell. It is good to have confidence in our leaders... as long as they deserve it. I'm certainly not going to follow someone who is advocating things out of step with Scripture, and I don't care what their calling is. We are assured that the prophet will never be allowed to lead us astray (D&C 1:37-38) but that assurance clearly doesn't apply to others serving in the church. The Lord's comments to the Centurion make this explicit: simply being a member is no guarantee of salvation, and also that not being a member is no bar to having great faith. This means that I need to think critically, and question the actions as well as the underlying assumptions and motivations. Much of the time, this isn't a problem. But occasionally it is. I need to be alert. I need to have the Holy Ghost to warn me. I need to know the scriptures. They are called "the standard works" because they are the standard we measure against. Complacency has no place in the Lord's church.

3. Bad Guys focus on, even get hung up on, the outward. The minute details. They are quick to fuss over someone who isn't "measuring up."

The Pharisees were so persistent in this one that we have a word for it - pharisaical. The Lord had a lot to say about the Pharisees in Matthew 23, but I want to look at just one thing for which He raked them over the coals.

"But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad the phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments..." (Matt. 23: 5)

Under the Law of Moses the people were commanded to wear certain verses on their hands and their foreheads. They'd put them in boxes called phylacteries, and bind them on for prayers each week (See Deut. 6:2-9). The fringes, or borders, are interesting too. They were supposed to wear fringes on the edges of their clothing to remind them of the covenant. (See Num. 15:37-41). In both cases, the Jews were specifically commanded to teach their children, and the phylacteries and fringes were a reminder - the outward symbol of an inward commitment. In Deuteronomy we read that the verses that they were supposed to tie to their bodies were to already be written in their hearts. It seems to me that those fringes would be a great way to remember. I don't know about you, but I'd probably fiddle with them. And you can be sure that babies would find them irresistible! And they'd move. Brush up against you. The reminder of the covenant should have been constant, and used correctly could have been a great way to keep the people on the Strait and Narrow.

The Pharisees liked to be sure that people could see they were wearing them, so they got bigger boxes. They made their fringes wider. More observance is more righteous, right? It was all about what people saw, but as Christ pointed out to the people, it was just for show. They got hung up on the observance, but they missed the whole point.

That happens today too. People get hung up on white shirts. They treat men as if their Priesthood is somehow invalidated by the color of their shirt, the beard on his face, or the absence of a suit coat. The women do it too. I've seen people say, it all seriousness, that if you come to church with wet hair, or wearing denim, that it means you don't have a testimony. I've heard first hand accounts of situations where church leaders stand up and say that not wearing nylons is a sign of rebellion and apostasy. Because that's dressing "inappropriately." Getting hung up on clothing, and on making sure that the outward signs of other people are "appropriately" observed got the Pharisees in a heap of trouble. It looks different in our day, but it still happens. Here's a hint: modesty isn't about clothing. The gospel may, or may not, change our outward appearance. It may, or may not, make a huge impact on the things that other people see - or that we see in others. That's OK. It was never about outward appearances. It has always been about the heart. The inward desire. Like the large and well-cared for monument in the cemetery, the Pharisees had beautiful exteriors. The Lord's message, however, was clear: He wasn't nearly so concerned with the exterior. He wants us to pay the most attention to the interior; to the heart. And he wanted us to be concerned, not with our neighbors' hearts, but with our own. That is the message of the mote and beam, and the thing He was teaching when He talked about casting the first stone. But it can be so terribly difficult to put into practice.

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
1 Peter 3:3-4

4. Bad Guys don't ask The Lord.

When Lehi tells his family about his vision of the Tree of Life, it creates some discussion among his sons. Laman and Lemuel ended up asking Nephi some questions, and wanted Nephi to explain what the dream had been about. Nephi appears to have just come from his own experience with that dream, and he first reminds his brothers that they ought to be taking their questions to the Lord. Nephi agreed, the topic at hand was difficult, and he hopes they'll ask God for help understanding. They don't want to do that, and they've got a good excuse: it won't work.

And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.  -1 Nephi 15:9

I think Laman and Lemuel are fascinating for a couple reasons, and this conversation is one of them. They are the quintessential scriptural Bad Guys, but here they are trying to understand a vision. And their excuse for not inquiring is iron-clad: He doesn't tell me that kind of stuff. I can relate. I have often found it difficult to ask. I've heard it preached over the pulpit how the "economy of heaven" is such that the Lord won't send an angel when a home teacher will suffice, and we shouldn't expect a vision when the scriptures could do the job. Made sense to me at the time, and because of that teaching, for a long time there were things I didn't ask. Nephi, however, didn't buy it. He is unimpressed with that line of reasoning. He tells his brothers:

How is it that ye do not keep the commandments of the Lord? How is it that ye will perish, because of the hardness of your hearts? Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.  -1 Nephi 15:10-11

It's not that answers to important answers were unavailable to Laman and Lemuel. The problem is, they didn't ask. And that, "I don't get that kind of answers, so I'm not even going to bother asking" attitude is terribly easy to adopt, and horribly self-defeating. What is really interesting here is, Nephi's response looks to me like he thinks that the failure to ask is, itself, breaking a commandment. We are commanded to ask. To approach heaven in faith. And, we are given reassurance after reassurance that, when His children ask Him sincere questions, God answers them. He is, after all, no respecter of persons.

5. Shortcuts aren't just a bad idea, they're catastrophic.

The Tower of Babel was a shortcut. The people wanted to get to heaven, but they wanted to skip the difficult process of developing faith and virtue. They did not want to submit their will to the Lord's through obedience. The result was catastrophic. Consider, for a moment, the impact of sudden, absolute inability to communicate with your family,  loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. Consider, also, what the effect on trade would be, and how that would impact people's livelihoods and quality of life.

The Old Testament offers another example of the disaster of a shortcut in Saul's sacrifice. Early in his reign, Saul was fighting the Philistines, and it wasn't going well. They regrouped in Gilgal, and Samuel the Prophet was supposed to come and offer sacrifice, but he was late. They waited a whole week, but he still hadn't come. The army was deserting, the enemy was gathering, the prophet still hadn't arrived, and Saul felt he needed to do something. So he offered the sacrifice, in spite of his lack of authority to do so. No sooner had he finished it, than Samuel arrives, and Saul discovers he is in trouble. Because of his shortcut, Saul's family is rejected from the kingship of Israel. Samuel tells him,

"Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee."

This wasn't enough to teach Saul about shortcuts though. Only 2 chapters later he's taking liberties with the sacrifice again, and this time, it costs him his kingdom; David is anointed. Saul - and the kingdom with him - must suffer through the effects of his shortcuts as he struggles through the rest of his reign and the madness that consumes him as he contemplates David, not Jonathon, on the throne after him. Saul, though he began as a "man after the Lord's own heart," ends up a crazed would-be murderer, and it appears to me that shortcuts play a huge part in the transformation. The take-home lesson from both these stories is that there are no shortcuts in the Gospel, and any attempt to find one is probably going to end in disaster.

6. Bad guys aren't satisfied with a little power, they crave total power.

Amalickiah is the one that taught me this. His story is pretty interesting. When the Nephites established the Judges, though they became a free people, they didn't do away with power, nobility, and social hierarchy. It's human nature to compare one person to the next, and it takes more than a change of government to do change human nature. I'm reading between the lines a little, but it looks like Amalickiah was an influential man. Probably a judge, though not the chief judge. (See Alma 46:4-5) And, among the lower judges, he appears to have been a man of some influence, because when they decided to agitate for a return to monarchy, these lower judges made him their leader. And, these people had enough folks listening to them that they seem to have been surprised when the vote didn't come out in their favor. So Amalickiah was, at the beginning of the story, a man of considerable influence in the Nephite nation. But it wasn't enough. He wanted to be king.

So when they lose the vote, they're upset, and they get out their weapons, the plan being simple: If they can't rule with the vote of the people, they're rule without it. Only they lose the battle just like they lost the vote, and almost everybody except Amalickiah is captured and put in jail. Amalickiah gets away. But he hasn't given up on being a king, so he schemes, marries, and murders his way onto the Lamanite throne (see Alma 47). And this is where it gets really interesting. Throughout the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are consistently a larger group than the Nephites. So Amalickiah has more power than what he'd originally set his sights on, and still it's not enough. His new nation isn't having anything to do with going to war (they'd just lost, badly), so he sets out on a propaganda campaign to convince his people that they need to fight. And it works. He sets out to take over the Nephites, so he can be King of Everything. In the end, it costs him his life. But right until the last, he's unsatisfied with the power he's got. Somebody is outside of his control, and that's not OK.

When I consider that the Book of Mormon was written for our day, this story becomes more than a little unsettling. Especially when I realize that, from the perspective of the ordinary Lamanite, Amalickiah's ascent to the throne would have appeared completely legitimate. He observed the forms, he had witnesses. Everything was in order. The deaths he arranged were, to the public's perception, not his doing at all. But his thirst for power was such that, from his first day in office, his policies were not in the best interest of the nation he ruled.

This pattern isn't only in politics, you can see it in interpersonal relationships as well. The abusive date or spouse can't enjoy being the center of their partner's life, they have to control all outside relationships, and if they can't do that will try to sabotage, discredit, or forbid that which they cannot dictate. The bully at school, the micromanaging boss, they're all doing pretty much the same thing, to a greater or lesser degree. But it's especially worrisome in government, because of the implications for freedom and for Agency.

7. Being a Bad Guy doesn't need to be the end of the story.

Saul of Tarsus was a Bad Guy. He was not only stirring up persecution, he was participating in murder (see Acts 9). The path of repentance was not easy, but it was possible. And once complete, he was able to go on to develop incredible faith and become a huge blessing to the Lord's kingdom on earth. His previous life did not bar him from service to the Lord; the Lord's grace was and still is all sufficient. Even for the Bad Guys.

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