Why God Gave Us the Scriptures: Cheerleading from a Higher Plane Versus Reaching Down to Rescue Those on a Lower Plane
By Ken K. Gourdin
The Scriptures were written by those who want to rescue us, not just by those who want to cheer us on while we try (futilely!) to rescue ourselves
Alas, consistent with the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, I tend to “see through a glass, darkly” rather than seeing “face to face” much more than I would care to admit (see 1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). Like the man whose son out of whom Christ cast the dumb spirit, often, I can only say, “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV). Like Nephi, too often, I feel that I can only say, “Oh, wretched man that I am” (2 Nephi 4:17), and “When I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.” (2 Nephi 4:19).
Perhaps these folks were simply too hard on themselves, and their “bad” isn’t as bad as we might be led to believe. Perhaps, even at their worst, they still were better than any of us are (even on our best days). But, while perhaps I’m just being simple-minded, I think that if these folks were that much unlike us, there wouldn’t be much point in including them—and their struggles, along with their laments about those struggles—in the scriptures.
Nephi told us that he “likened all scripture” unto himself and his family, “that it might be for [their] profit and learning” (see 1 Nephi 19:23). In LDS Seminary as a youth, I was taught that the reason why Nephi did that was to encourage us to do the same. But there wouldn’t be much point in us trying to liken the scriptures—and the people who wrote them, along with their trials and struggles—unto us if these people (and those trials and struggles) were all that different from our own.
If the people in the scriptures and their struggles were all that different from mine, I would have to wonder why Nephi’s admonition doesn’t read something more like this: “Sure, do the best you can to liken the stories I’ve put in this book—along with the lessons I learned from them—to you. I’m uncommonly righteous and obedient, and I live on a different (higher) plane than you. When I talk about struggling, it’s only because I’m briefly, fleetingly, on the rarest of occasions tempted to do something wrong. It’s not because I have any real struggles with actual sin. Still, maybe what I’ve put in here will help you. Good luck! You’re going to need it on that lower plane!”
But someone cheerleading me on from a higher plane isn’t going to do me (or most of us, for that matter) much good. Nephi didn’t just write about the temptations he suffered; he also wrote about his sins. (I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t think any less of Nephi just because he repented!) No, I’m not suggesting that anyone in the scriptures—or that a righteous teacher or leader—should wallow in sin and despair himself in an attempt to rescue others from those things. But if he’s going to try to lift others from a lower plane to a higher one, he’s going to have to at least reach down to where the people he hopes to lift up are.
Like dear Sister Eliza R. Snow, I, too, often feel as though I have “wandered from a more exalted sphere,” and as though I’m “a stranger here” in mortality. (See Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  no. 292). Sometimes I forget that I’m a spiritual being who is on this Earth to have a mortal experience, rather than a mortal being who’s here to have occasional, rare spiritual experiences. Like Nephi, my heart often groans because of my flesh. Like Paul, I often “see through a glass, darkly.”
Yes, Paul wrote of being “troubled on every side,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “cast down.” But he also wrote that even though he was troubled, he was “not distressed”; even though he was perplexed, he was “not in despair”; even though he was persecuted, he was “not forsaken”; and even though he was cast down, he was “not destroyed” (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, KJV). Yes, Nephi’s heart groaned because of his sins, but he also wrote, “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support” (see 2 Nephi 4:19-20). To the man out of whose son He cast the dumb spirit, the Savior offered this encouragement: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”
Just like Paul in the New Testament and Nephi in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants was written by imperfect people about imperfect people. It was written by people to whom we owe a great debt for their role in the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be sure—but people who were imperfect, nonetheless. Here’s what the Lord says in Section 1 about part of the reason why the Doctrine & Covenants was written:
25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
Yes, in the oft-sung words of W.W. Phelps, “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer!” (See Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  no. 27). He was (and is) a great man. But he wasn’t perfect: he erred; he needed wisdom; he sinned; he needed chastening; and he needed to be humbled. Perhaps even Joseph, great as he is, wasn’t all that much different from you and me. (Incidentally, this doesn’t leave those who claim that the Church of Jesus Christ wants to hide its history much of a leg to stand on: if the Lord wants the warts to be known, there’s not much point in trying to hide them.)
I find encouragement elsewhere in the Doctrine & Covenants, as well. Section 20 contains the text of the Sacrament prayers (and of the associated covenants I make every week when I partake of it). The Sacrament prayers don’t talk of what we imperfect mortals will do (since always a dangerous undertaking for fallible mortals to make such promises, so often very easily broken, anyway). Instead, they talk of being willing to take Christ’s name upon us; being willing to keep His commandments; and being willing to always remember him.
Nor are Sections 1 and 20, respectively, the only places where such encouragement may be found. The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood contained in Doctrine & Covenants Section 84 is a weighty obligation, not to be entered into lightly. Indeed, it’s perhaps one of the weightiest obligations in all of scripture. Maybe one might be forgiven for wondering who but the rarest of souls might be able to bear up under such an obligation. But when I was interviewed to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, my Stake President at the time pointed out an important phrase in verse 41: “But whoso breaketh this covenant after he hath received it, and altogether turneth therefrom, shall not have forgiveness of sins in this world nor in the world to come” (emphasis mine). I’m far from perfect, but I’ve never “altogether turned” from any of my covenants, including the Oath I took and the Covenant I made when I received the Priesthood.
Elsewhere in the Doctrine & Covenants, in Section 46, we’re told that both those who are obedient as well as those who earnestly strive to be obedient are blessed (emphasis mine):
8 Wherefore, beware lest ye are deceived; and that ye may not be deceived aseek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;
9 For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.
Consistent with these citations from the Doctrine & Covenants, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminds us that we’ll be judged, not solely based on what we do, but also on the basis of what we desire—no matter how much our actions might fall short of those righteous desires. He said:
God judges us not only for our acts, but also for the desires of our hearts. He has said so again and again. This is a challenging reality, but it is not surprising. Agency and accountability are eternal principles. We exercise our free agency not only by what we do, but also by what we decide, or will, or desire. Restrictions on freedom can deprive us of the power to do, but no one can deprive us of the power to will or desire. Accountability must therefore reach and attach consequences to the desires of our hearts.
This principle applies both in a negative way—making us guilty of sin for evil thoughts and desires—and in a positive way—promising us blessings for righteous desires.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (June 1986), “The Desires of Our Hearts,” Ensign, accessed on line at http://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/06/the-desires-of-our-hearts?lang=eng on December 31, 2012.
I’m grateful that the Lord saw fit to offer His encouragement by including examples of people who weren’t perfect (who were, in fact, far from it) in the Scriptures. They repented; they changed; they grew. I can, too. I’m grateful that their stories exist, not simply to cheerlead me from a lower plane to a higher one, but as their way of actually reaching down to help me up.