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A Psychologist's Insights into 5 Book of Mormon Prophets

My training as a clinical psychologist has forever changed how I see the world and even how I read scripture. I can’t help but wonder about the personal lives of the people in the Book of Mormon. What was it like growing up with Nephi for a younger brother? What was Alma involved in that led him so far astray? How unbearable was it for Moroni to watch as all the people he loved died? Would the Book of Mormon sound different if it was written from the Lamanites’ perspective instead of the Nephites’?

The prophets in the Book of Mormon come alive to me as I consider each of their family dynamics, unique personalities, and how their life experiences provided them insight on specific aspects of the gospel. Of course, my “analysis” would be far more compelling (and accurate) if I could have a few sessions with Captain Moroni on my therapy couch, ask him to complete a couple personality inventories, and observe his interactions outside of a war context, but there are some interesting things I’ve learned by studying what we do know about his life and the lives of others in the Book of Mormon.

Nephi: We need to do a better job of showing love to everyone.

When I was young, I was the Nephi in my family. I would read my scriptures and listen to my parents, and I prepared my whole life for serving a mission. Nephi was my hero!

Now as I read Nephi’s account from an adult perspective, my focus often shifts to his older brothers, Laman and Lemuel. I wonder how much of their difficulty embracing the gospel came from their reaction to their younger brother’s direct, at times sharp, teaching style. Often Laman and Lemuel’s aggressive outbursts follow one of Nephi’s stern rebukes.

It is clear that Nephi loved his family. In his own words he shares that “I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I cry unto my God in faith, and I know that he will hear my cry” (2 Nephi 33:3, emphasis added). I can feel Nephi’s deep commitment and love for his family members. But as a psychologist, I wonder if he shared these feelings openly with his brothers or if he kept them to himself. Would Laman and Lemuel have been more receptive if they could have felt the love Nephi had for them that was behind every rebuke?

It is often difficult for us to show “an increase of love” when it feels like a family member’s eternal salvation is at stake, but easy to nag or constantly try to talk them back onto the gospel path. If someone we know is struggling with the Church and its teachings, it is important for us to do our best to make sure and show that any concern we share with them is motivated by love for them. While I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Nephi and his brothers’ interactions, I sometimes wonder if things might have been different if they had expressed more love to each other.

Jacob: We need to find joy in living the gospel.

I gravitate toward individuals who love living the gospel. Jacob embodies the Christlike attributes we are all striving for. It’s no mistake that the prophetic line in the Book of Mormon continues through his posterity (Enos, Jarom, and so on). Jacob was likely an attentive father and devoted husband. His dedicated service in his family and calling likely touched the lives of countless people around him.

I believe we would all benefit from having a “Jacob” in our families. His writings reveal a wonderful blend of gospel teaching and warmth. When speaking of his family, Jacob shares that he is “weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of your souls” (Jacob 2:3, emphasis added). Over and over he refers to his people as “my brethren.” In Jacob 2:17 he teaches his people empathy, “think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (emphasis added).

Jacob’s love for others allows him to directly confront several egregious practices his people were engaged in. Jacob pleads, “wherefore, my brethren, hear me,” (Jacob 2:27, emphasis added) and that “the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes” (Jacob 2:23 emphasis added). He is not pointing fingers at those around him, he is taking upon himself the sorrow of their actions. Jacob effectively calls his people to repentance because of the relationship he has with them.

The other quality I admire about Jacob is his genuine desire for his posterity and future generations of the church to find joy in the gospel and love for their ancestors. In Jacob 4:3 he states, “Now in this thing we do rejoice; and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning their first parents” (emphasis added).

King Bejamin:We need to be converted to the gospel, not its leaders.

Some of the sweetest passages of scripture in my opinion come from King Benjamin. So powerful were his words that all of his people “cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts” (Mosiah 5:2).

I’m moved every time I read that all of King Benjamin’s people made a lifelong covenant to follow Christ. However, I’m haunted by a five word phrase found just a chapter later: “There was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ” (Mosiah 6:2, emphasis added).

In Mosiah 26:1-4 we learn the fate of these children. They “could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ. And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened. And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God” (emphasis added).

This is heartbreaking to me. Why would the conversion and covenant of King Benjamin’s people not translate to their children? The easy answer is that each of us must gain our own testimony. That’s true, but I wonder if something else was also at play. I’m sure that all of you have heard stories of individuals joining the Church after being taught by charismatic missionaries. Initially, these individuals are on fire, but they seem to fizzle out after the missionaries leave. I wonder how many of King Benjamin’s people were converted to him as a person instead of his message of the gospel, and if that affected the testimonies of their children.

There is danger when our testimonies rise and fall with Church leaders. Many times I hear stories about how a particular bishop helped an individual through a difficult time in their lives, thereby strengthening their faith, and then in the next breath, how a different bishop was unhelpful, and shook their testimony.

I love Elder Holland’s passion for the gospel and willingness to address mental health issues many of us experience. But my testimony does not depend on Elder Holland and his conference addresses. I know it’s important for me, and all of us, to gain our own witness of the words of the prophets and the doctrines they teach, and not become converted to their personalities or teaching styles. And our children need to know this, too. I believe it is important to have ongoing conversations with our children about our personal spiritual experiences and challenges we have living the gospel, validating the words of the prophets with our own personal experiences and testimonies, leaving room for our children’s own testimonies to develop and grow.

Alma: We need to recognize the Atonement isn’t just for healing sin.

Is there a more complex prophet in all the Book of Mormon than Alma? In many ways, his life parallels Paul’s from the New Testament. Both spent their early years seeking to destroy the Church, but much like Paul, an angel of the Lord appeared to Alma, eventually leading to his miraculous conversion. What I find most remarkable about Alma is his intimate knowledge of the Atonement healing us from physical affliction and suffering in addition to sin. I know he experienced using the Atonement to be forgiven of his sins, but I have often wondered what personal experiences he must have had that helped him understand the physical affliction aspect of the Atonement. Perhaps this knowledge actually came years later, after his change of heart.

In Alma 3:22, a single line reveals an important event in the life of Alma the Younger, “Now Alma himself being afflicted with a wound did not go up to battle at this time against the Lamanites,” (emphasis added).

After this battle, we read in several places that Alma had to “rest himself from the labors which he had performed” (Alma 8:1) or “tarried many days with Amulek before he began to preach unto the people” (Alma 8:27). From this we learn that Alma was physically afflicted in battle, but because of his strong foundation and testimony in the Atonement, he understood that he could turn to the Savior and learned precious truths about how all-encompassing the Atonement really is: “[Christ] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7: 11-12, emphasis added).

Like Alma, this is something we can also come to know and understand and use for ourselves. Elder Bruce Hafen wrote an incredible book, The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences, on how the Savior helps us heal from the pains we experience in this life. I’ve learned that most of us do not fully understand how the Atonement can help us when we are suffering. Often we only think about the Atonement when we need to repent, but the Savior wants to heal all of our wounds, even those that come by no fault of our own.

Moroni: We are never alone.

Moroni is without question my favorite ancient prophet. He was charged with completing the sacred gold plates, ensuring their safety for 1,400 years, and then mentoring the young prophet Joseph Smith as he translated them. Yet, I feel sadness when I read Moroni’s words.

For one, his writings signal the end of the Book of Mormon (who wants their favorite book to end?). Second, reading about the destruction of the Nephites through Moroni’s eyes is harrowing. Moroni dedicated his life to serving his people. He watched as everyone he knew and loved, died. As you scan through the following verses, imagine yourself in Moroni’s place:

“Behold I, Moroni, do finish the record of my father, Mormon . . . And my father also was killed by [the Lamanites], and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. But behold, they are gone, and I fulfil the commandment of my father. And whether they will slay me, I know not. Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not” (Mormon 8:1-4, emphasis added).

The sense of loss, grief, despair, and loneliness would be crippling for any of us. Yet somehow Moroni is able to carry on for another 20 years as he abridges the Jaredite writings and adds his own account to the conclusion of the Book of Mormon. Every time I read these verses, I want to be by his side. I want to comfort him. Thank him. Reassure him that his work will change the lives of millions. I want to tell him that the Book of Mormon has changed mine.

Of course, Moroni knew all of this. In Mormon 8:35, he addresses us in our day, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Mormon 8:35, emphasis added). Maybe Moroni was not alone after all.

Moroni’s experience reminds me that I am not alone. Even when I feel lost or lonely, like Moroni, I can have the companionship of my Savior, no matter how overwhelming my situation may feel.

The prophets in the Book of Mormon walked this earth. They are very real to me. They are our brethren and sisters in the gospel. I hope you enjoyed reading the insights of a psychologist who loves the Book of Mormon. Now, go and honor these inspiring prophets by reading and sharing the Book of Mormon!

Lead image from Book of Mormon Central

9781680470284Cameron Staley’s love for the Book of Mormon and background as a clinical psychologist led him to write the remarkable untold story of the Lamanites, which is meant for our day, in his novel In the Hands of the Gadiantons, available at deseretbook.com. You can read the first chapter of In the Hands of the Gadiantons on Cameron’s blog: inthehandsofthegadiantons.wordpress.com/.