(I'm not going to focus on 2 Nephi 3, but there is good information about this prophecy regarding Joseph Smith in the April 1989 Ensign, "I Have a Question" feature, available at this link.)
THE PSALM OF NEPHI
In the middle of recording the story of his family and their journeying, Nephi offered an explanation about his record—that if we wanted more detail about the historical parts, they could be found in his other plates; these plates were for writing “the things of [his] soul” (2 Ne. 4:14-15). The things of his soul were a delight in the scriptures and the things of the Lord. This is what took up the focus of his thoughts continually, he wrote.
But then he surprised by launching into a lament about his inadequacies.
“Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins…” (2 Ne. 4:17-19)
Wait a minute! This is Nephi talking here, right? The ultra Good Guy of the Book of Mormon? In what way could he be “wretched?” What great sins and weaknesses could he possibly be writing about? He always honored his dad as the patriarch, he got the brass plates against all odds, he interpreted revelations for his brothers, he built a ship aided directly by God, he had the power of God course through him so strongly that it sent an electrical shock through his brothers, angels came to his defense, he saw visions.
Remember, he said that
If we skip ahead to 2 Ne. 4:26-27, Nephi itemizes the problems.
Well, Nephi had good reason to be depressed! In fact, wasn’t it a sign of his righteousness, and the love he had for his family that he found himself inconsolable about the waywardness of his brothers? He was the birthright brother—a type of parent, really—and isn’t it a sign of a good parent to be deeply depressed about children who reject the gospel and choose paths that the parent knows will lead to misery?
Nephi also had good reason to be angry! These brothers caused no end of trouble, they led their children astray, they disrespected their parents, they threatened to kill Nephi, they couldn’t even seem to be changed by the voice of the Lord thundering from heaven, or the personal appearance of an angel. Wouldn’t anger against them be righteous indignation?
But the effect of this weakness and this sin on Nephi renders him less able to do God’s will. The depression and anger make him physically ill (his flesh wastes away), sap his energy (his strength slackens), and destroy his peace.
Yet with such huge challenges, how could Nephi have avoided these problems? What did he do wrong along the way? After expounding upon the greatness of God, he tells us. Look for it here:
“…nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support…He hath filled me with his love…He hath confounded mine enemies…Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime…angels came down and ministered unto me. And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away…and mine eyes have beheld great things… [Pay attention; here comes the reason:]
“O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?” (2 Ne. 4:19-26)
The Lord in his condescension has offered to his children the matchless, merciful gift of the Atonement. Nephi saw his depression and anger as proof that his faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ was not fully functional in his daily life. He gave himself (and us, because we are like this, too) a pep talk before carrying on with his record:
“Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul. Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions. Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.” (2 Ne. 4:28-30)
Nephi realized that, regardless of the circumstances around him, he had control over his own happiness. If he increased his faith in the Lord, he would know that things would work out okay in the end because “the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men [had visited them] in so much mercy.” Faith in the Atonement will conquer any sorrow of life.
GIVING UP HAPPINESS
Let’s leave Nephi for a moment and talk about Laman and Lemuel. We have to feel sorry for Laman and Lemuel. They seem to fit the saying, “If you can’t be a shining example, at least serve as a horrible warning.” One of the purposes of their lives seemed to be to show us how not to be. And yet, we know that our period of probation extends beyond this life and so does theirs; temple work attests to this truth. Now that they are in the Spirit World, Laman and Lemuel could very likely have finally understood and accepted the gospel, particularly bearing in mind that the sealing power would have been in effect for their righteous parents. And yet they still have to suffer the consequence of their ill choices by being the bad guys in myriads of Sunday School and Primary lessons. Hopefully they are glad to have us learn from them, even though it is in a negative way.
“Not all problems are overcome and not all needed relationships are fixed in mortality. The work of salvation goes on beyond the veil of death, and we should not be too apprehensive about incompleteness within the limits of mortality.” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, October 1995 General Conference)
“Now, sometimes there are those that are lost. We have the promise of the prophets that they are not lost permanently, that if they are sealed in the temple ordinances and if the covenants are kept, in due time, after all the correction that’s necessary to be given, that they will not be lost.” (President Boyd K. Packer, Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Feb. 9, 2008)
Don’t you think Laman and Lemuel ought to be on our list of people we want to meet when we get to the other side, because it’s going to be so great to see how they have changed? But the Laman and Lemuel we have to read about in the Book of Mormon are the undeveloped ones who hadn’t accepted the gospel yet, and who hadn’t accepted responsibility for their own happiness. So, my apologies to Laman and Lemuel as we use them, once again, as a “horrible warning.”
Laman and Lemuel had blamed all their problems on Nephi and Lehi. So when Lehi died (2 Ne. 4:12) and Nephi left with his people (2 Ne. 5:5), all their problems should have been solved. There was nobody to boss them around. They didn’t have to do family scripture study anymore, they didn’t have to listen to General Conference, they didn’t have to pay tithing to build temples they didn’t want. There would be no more crazy ship-building, wilderness-wandering, Isaiah-reciting, or anything else they hated. They should have been free to be happy, right?
Wrong. Throughout all the rest of the Book of Mormon, we still see them and their descendants blaming their misery on Nephi. Their grudge defined their lives and even their civilization. They had decided they were “picked on” and they tenaciously stuck to that attitude, no matter how circumstances changed around them. They gave up all control of their own happiness.
One of the great truths of this earthly existence is that, by giving us agency, the Lord gave us the ability to choose happiness.
“Happiness has its roots in obedience to the teachings of the Lord and in faith in his capacity to fulfill His promises. It can be enjoyed in an environment of poverty or wealth, sickness or health, scarcity or abundance, serenity or challenge. Happiness can and should be the general background in which life is lived.” So wrote Elder Richard G. Scott. Well, easy for him to say, right? He’s an apostle. He’s got it made.
But Elder Scott has endured trials like the rest of us (or worse), which could have taken away his happiness. When Elder Scott and his wife were young, they were hit with a double-disaster that would have buckled anyone’s knees. A baby girl they were expecting died just before birth, and six weeks later, their two-year-old son died during heart surgery. Two children gone in two months! But the Atonement of Jesus Christ made it possible for them to regain happiness.
“I cannot [understand the Lord’s] power, his majesty, his perfections,” he said. “But I do understand something of his love, his compassion, his mercy. There is no burden he cannot lift. There is no heart he cannot purify and fill with joy. There is no life he cannot cleanse and restore when one is obedient to his teachings.” (Ensign, November 1988, p. 77)
Pieter Vlam was a member of the Church who was also an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy in 1939. When World War II began, he was called to serve as second counselor to the mission president. His job was to help get the missionaries safely out of Germany. While doing this, he was arrested by Nazi officers and put in a prison camp for the duration of the war. He could have chosen to shake his fist at heaven, or to fill his soul with hatred for the soldiers, but he chose something better. He had been on a mission when he entered the prison camp, and he stayed on that mission. Many prisoners came to Pieter and wanted to talk to him about the Church. Meetings were forbidden in the prison camp, however, so every day Pieter would take two people at a time and walk all around the camp, for miles and miles in circles, while he taught them the gospel. He taught almost a thousand men about the Restoration. Lives were changed, and people joined the church because Pieter chose to spread joy instead of misery. (Robert C. Freeman, Dennis A. Wright, Saints at War, p. 203-205)
Bryan Burningham was 13 years old when a gun accidentally fired in his North Logan, Utah home, shooting him in the face. He lost his mouth, his teeth, in fact his entire jaw, his nose, his cheekbones, his eye sockets. He has endured over 65 surgeries to rebuild something that could work as a face. Yet, in that moment when he nearly died, his mother said, “He felt this peace come over him, and he felt this love surround him, and it changed his life. And he went from a kid who was pretty moody and negative, to this positive boy without a face.” Because Bryan consistently chose joy and love, he became very popular at school. He even won a basketball game for Sky View High School when in the last few seconds of a close game, his prosthetic nose was knocked off, all the players on both teams gasped and stopped playing, and he picked up the ball and sunk the winning shot. He served a mission, graduated from Utah State University and married in the Logan Temple. “Life is so wonderful!” is his mantra. “I mean, there are a million things that happen every day…You take the good from it. Just enjoy life!” (Photo at Huntsman prosthetics site; stories on KSL TV and Fox News a partial transcript of one here, various articles in the Herald Journal, a short video of news stories on YouTube.)
Elder Scott wrote, “Challenge, when faced within the framework of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in recognition of the beauties around us, is a path upward to help us grow and earn peace with happiness.” (Richard G. Scott, Finding Peace, Happiness, and Joy, p. 167)
Nephi appears to have followed his own counsel and “given place no more for the enemy of his soul.” Being warned of the Lord of a plot to kill him, he and his family and all that were followers of Christ left Laman and Lemuel. They also left their homes, their crops, their “Promised Land,” all of their hard work behind for the Lamanites. They moved out into the wilderness again and they built another Promised Land. They kept the Law of Moses, they had the plates of brass as their scriptures, the Liahona as their guide, the sword of Laban after which they fashioned a military defense. Their new Promised Land provided them with timber, iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, and silver. They used these things to build a temple, like Solomon’s temple but not so fancy, Nephi wrote.
And they lived, as Nephi said, “after the manner of happiness.”
We also can live after the manner of happiness, regardless of our circumstances, if we can choose to be hopeful and not discouraged, to trust in the Lord and his mercy both for us and for those we care about, and to forgive offenses even if the perpetrators are not repentant. If we lose one “Promised Land,” we can build another, always keeping the scriptures and revelation as our guides. This is the way to peace.
“No formula can prescribe how every individual can be assured of continual peace with happiness and joy in this mortal life,” wrote Elder Scott, “[But] I am a witness that with patience, some long-suffering, and the help of the Lord, coupled with obedience to His commandments, those blessings can be enjoyed most of the time.” (Scott, p. 4-5)