Some Thoughts on the Psalm of Nephi

In Sunday School this week, we’re studying the Psalm of Nephi (2 Nephi 4:17-35).

I LOVE the Psalm of Nephi. It’s one of my favorite passages in the Book of Mormon. It reminds me of how trustworthy and merciful God is, and how frail I am without Him.  But I haven’t always felt this way.  For a time, it was a baffling bit of scripture.  I struggled to fit it into a worldview that left little room for mistakes.

After all, it begins with Nephi’s gut-wrenching exclamation:

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 easily beset me.  And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.

Of course, that I could understand.  As someone who is deeply flawed, I have often experienced moments of sorrow for my fleshly tendencies toward unkindness, pride, lust, anger, judgment, and greed.

But what to do with Nephi’s bald admission of sin?  Because I believed that transgression made one unworthy of God’s acceptance and grace, I struggled with the idea of a sinful Nephi.  So I fixated on his expressions of self-castigation instead.  This is how godly people feel about their sins, about THEMSELVES, I reasoned.

You see, I believed that The Point was Nephi’s righteousness (for I believed that righteousness was The Point of the gospel generally).  Nephi was so righteous, I thought, that what were surely tiny sins made him feel terrible.  That’s why he was so sensitive to the spirit!  That’s why he was able to experience such divine manifestations!  When I feel that badly about my tiny sins, then I’ll know I’ve finally “arrived” as a righteous person!

I missed the point of this hymn of praise:

Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions;…he hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.

Now when I read the Psalm of Nephi, a new picture emerges.

I see a covenant man who struggles, as we all struggle, against the flesh.  I see someone who is vulnerable and honest about his imperfections.  I see a believer who is committed to the Lord, but weak.

Yet it is this very weakness that keeps him kneeling at the throne of Christ, a beggar, as we all are.

O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!…Wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!  Wilt thou make my path straight before me!

Wilt thou, wilt thou, wilt thou, he cries.

And that is what makes Nephi strong.

As Mormons, I think sometimes we want our religious heroes to be superhuman specimens of righteousness.  But they aren’t — have never pretended to be.  If there is one thing that emerges as you study the scriptures and read church history, it’s that our religious heroes are a lot like us: broken and weak.

The heroic part is the beauty and triumph God brings about anyway.  God is the real Hero of this story.

I hope that when we go to church on Sunday, we don’t try to hide or excuse away Nephi’s sin, to say it wasn’t really “that bad.” All he did was get angry at his enemies — but look how badly they treated him! All he did was feel weak under the pressure of his trials — but look how hard his trials were! He’s justified in the sin he hates so much. He’s still “righteous!” He’s still “worthy!”

Yes, he is righteous and worthy, but it’s Christ’s righteousness and worthiness that makes him so (“I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness”). Here Nephi is reminding us that even those of us who have chosen to walk with God, have dedicated our lives to Him and have even made enormous sacrifices to do so, need Him desperately.  How beautiful that even after a lifetime of service and spectacular manifestations from heaven, Nephi is STILL struggling, STILL weak, STILL sinful, STILL angry.

STILL asking for, and receiving, his measure of grace.

This psalm can belong to all of us — not as a sentiment for when we finally “arrive,” but as a song we can all lift up to our Father in Heaven.  Today.  As we are.

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.

About Katie L

A doubter by nature, a believer by grace.

Posted on February 10, 2012, in Mormonism, Personal, Thoughts on God and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. And, yes, I know that’s a picture of David, not Nephi — but I could only find hunter Nephi pictures instead of psalmist Nephi pictures…so, well, I fudged it a little. Let’s pretend Nephi played a harp. 😉

  2. Katie — As always, excellent.

    You make much the same point as did a counselor in my stake presidency a few days ago when I went in for a temple recommend interview. I’ve long struggled with the final question (“Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house … ?”), and I told him so when asked.

    His response: He again asked me the first two questions (Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost? Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?) and told me that none of us are worthy on our own, that only Jesus can truly be said to be worthy. But as we trust in Jesus, he said, and as we repent when we fail to do so, Jesus is worthy in our place. We can say we’re worthy because Jesus is worthy.

    You’ve inspired me to read that psalm again. Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Eric! I completely agree with you and your stake presidency member. 🙂

  4. I’ve been thinking about the Psalm of Nephi this week. I actually used to focus on the O, wretched man that I am part as well. Mostly I’d just use it to say if Nephi says that, what hope is there for me? Pretty silly of me. As I read it the other day, I came away thinking that Nephi had something that I am struggling with. Balance. He understood the human part of him and he understood the relationship of the human to the divine. He understood Christ’s grace and because he understood, he was able to recognize himself as a sinner and as a supplicant at the Savior’s feet at the same time. It is through Christ we are saved. Only through Him. It actually brings such comfort to have that concept in perspective. And it is glorious.

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