[Alternate titles: God Is a Master Novelist, Part Six; Nephi Was a Failure, Too]
One of the remarkable things about The Book of Mormon is that it is a huge compendium of stories. Stories that feature individual characters with individual voices who make unique marks on their society. Stories that foreshadow the ultimate fate of their civilization, microcosms that mirror the thousand-year arc their people are constantly moving along, ending with the devastation of an entire nation. Stories that are full of moments that we truly can, as Nephi urges us to, liken to ourselves and our own lives. That we can, and so frequently and thoroughly, is evidence of their reality. These are real people dealing with real problems and real events. The stuff of genuine literature.
This is remarkable because of one fact we don’t often consider when weighing the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith was not a storyteller. He did not have a tendency to write fiction. He did not share tales of his own creation around the campfire. Apart from the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith never composed a story again after The Book of Mormon was published.
So what’s a perfect try/fail cycle doing at the beginning of The Book of Mormon?
For those who don’t know, the try/fail cycle is a narrative mechanic used by an author to generate suspense and tension. If a main character gets exactly what they want without earning it, there’s no story. The point of almost every story is that a hero overcomes opposition, whether that’s genuine evil in the form of a mighty villain or simply his or her inner demons and weaknesses.
This idea is, of course, also at the heart of the Plan of Salvation. Lucifer wanted to give us celestial glory without testing us, which of course would not be celestial glory at all. Likewise, a protagonist who achieves his goals without being tested, without growing and enduring the refiner’s fire, is not a real protagonist. He’s just a lucky guy. And as I said, that’s no story at all because it teaches us absolutely nothing.
The stories of The Book of Mormon all teach something. Every single incident is included (to the exclusion of hundreds of others, as Mormon tells us) in this abridgment for that purpose. So why wouldn’t God use narrative mechanics in orchestrating His prophets’ life stories?
Because Joseph Smith was not the author here. God was. God is.
The first major story sequence of The Book of Mormon is Nephi retrieving the brass plates from Laban. This story illustrates the try/fail cycle perfectly.
Lehi has had a vision in which the Lord commands his children to return to Jerusalem and obtain the spiritual and genealogical records of their ancestors which had been engraved on brass plates. The first bit of opposition is the daunting journey this would take to achieve; experts estimate they were about 200 miles away from Jerusalem at the time. That’s 200 miles of walking. Nephi, in his record, is immediately willing to obey. (That’s where we get the famous speech of 1 Nephi 3:7.) Meanwhile, Laman and Lemuel murmur, and they represent another barrier to this mission’s success. But at this point, they do agree to go.
(I’ll bet Nephi had to endure a lot of complaining over those 200 miles. Heck, I’m pretty sure we’d all complain to one degree or another—which teaches us that sometimes our own attitude is the opposition we need to overcome.)
After casting lots, Laman even agrees to be the one to confront Laban about the plates. Here we find the first true failure: Laban is angry at the very request, and calls Laman a robber, and threatens to slay him. Laman has to hightail it out of there for his life. Failure #1.
At this, many of us would probably deem it impossible to get the plates. We tried, and we failed. And with our limited, mortal eyes we can see no way of getting around the obstacles. Nephi’s brethren certainly felt that way, being “exceedingly sorrowful…and about to return unto [their] father in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 3:14).
But Nephi, hero that he is, refuses to retreat, and entreats his brothers to perk up, grow a little more faith, remember that this wasn’t just some dream their father had, but a commandment of the Lord, and the Lord will help them as long as they keep trying. Nephi also takes this moment to remind them that it’s more than mere blind obedience: they need the brass plates for the sake of posterity, so their children and all future generations will be able to remember their fathers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Without the brass plates, without this crucial mission, knowledge of their language and their spiritual heritage would be lost forever.
Catching this vision reminds Laman and Lemuel of the significance of their mission and they agree to try again.
The idea Nephi gets next is to go back to their old residence and gather up all their gold and silver and precious things to offer to Laban as a trade for the brass plates. I have a feeling this idea came directly from the Lord, because it proves to be far more a test of Lehi’s sons than a successful tactic. It is a test of consecration: will they give away all their temporal wealth in exchange for spiritual wealth? (See D&C 6:7 and Alma 22:18.)
They do. We don’t even hear about Laman and Lemuel murmuring about it. But of course, this doesn’t work either. Laban wants the gold, and sends his guards to kill our heroes. They get away with their lives, but not their precious things, and definitely not the brass plates. Failure #2.
But though they prove their willingness to consecrate, this failure destroys Laman and Lemuel’s confidence in the Lord, and they beat Nephi and Sam “with a rod”—until an angel comes and sets them straight. The angel also promises them success if they try one more time.
Even after this, though, Laman and Lemuel murmur, and “were yet wroth” (1 Nephi 4:4). “Nevertheless,” Nephi explains, “they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.” They show a modicum of faith, and Nephi decides it’s time to step in himself. So he goes solo, into the night—“not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do.” In this last try, he relies entirely on the Lord, with no idea or plan of his own. He becomes a character in a story written by God.
So this time, it works. Success.
So what’s the lesson here? It’s twofold: first, the reminder that even prophets and spiritual heroes fail. Second, that they only succeeded because they tried, tried, and tried again. The great men and women of scripture and history and literature have ALL endured failure, and thus they have all emulated the try/fail cycle—lived in a story written by the hand of God Himself.
God is a master novelist, my friends. He is a literary master. He knows what He is doing in letting you fail from time to time. Trust Him and trust His timing. And so do not be afraid of failure. Either God is testing you or you are learning, growing. And in the end, if you pass, if you grow, and if you let him, the Lord will take over and finish the story for you.
So whatever you’re failing at, keep trying. Just keep trying. And like Nephi, like the sons of Mosiah (see Alma 26:27), you will find success.