Note: This is the second part of a series about the “Journey of the Soul” that each of us must take here in mortality. You can read the first here. This series is based on the article “A Journey of the Soul” by Wendy Ulrich which uses Nephi’s journey from Jerusalem as a metaphor for our own spiritual lives.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine leaving my home, my property, my city, my culture, my entire civilization because of the visions of my father. But that’s exactly what Nephi did. The historical record of Nephi’s experience before the departure is pretty sparse. I can imagine his going to school, having friends, starting a profession. He would have been attending church and learning from teachers.
Then his father has a vision and starts preaching that the entire city is about to be destroyed. He is speaking against the leaders of the church, against the political leadership, against the King. The people of Jerusalem believe that they are God’s entitled people. Lehi’s exhortations to repentance really put a kink in their lifestyle. The old man is out of touch. Belief in the Lord of Israel is old fashioned. These new gods aren’t as demanding and, after all, wouldn’t God want his people to be happy? How could He be so cruel in asking them to live their lives in slavery to the Law of Moses?
Nephi’s account of his family’s departure is surprisingly objective, even distant. He uses the third person and gives no indication of his experience
“And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness. And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him. And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness.” 1 Nephi 2:2-4
Thus begins Nephi’s journey away from Jerusalem, a city steeped in the “traditions of the fathers” as the scriptures call those habits of unrighteousness that pass from one generation to the next unless someone makes the deliberate choice to dismantle them. Usually my own spiritual journeys have begun less dramatically. The crises that push me to abandon familiar paths and question the traditions behind past choices have more often taken the form of a threat to my soul life-to my growth and potential as a human being. When the defenses I have learned have outlived their usefulness-when they can no longer protect me from my enemies of fear and depression and anger and guilt-it is time to leave the pseudo-security of a familiar order and depart into the wilderness.
What must it have been like for Nephi to change an entire lifestyle and abandon all that was familiar? . . . In the face of crisis, how often I, like Laman and Lemuel, cling to the familiar even while I profess to leave it, blaming others for my losses, longing for escape from the rigors of the journey and a return to familiar comforts. But when change is called for, we have only two choices: we can hold on to our illusions of Jerusalem’s invulnerability and go down with her to the destruction and captivity of the soul, or we can leave the city, sometimes to wander for years in desert wastelands and vast uncharted waters, following the unlikely direction of a still, small voice.
I never like this part. Dream images of burning houses and vicious tornados mark the beginnings of my journeys, reminding me that change always entails destroying the familiar in order to create the future. My old defenses may well have been God’s protective gifts to me in childhood, but when they have become simply weak and ineffective walls, restricting my agency without protecting me at all, it is time to take them down. Nevertheless, it is a hard thing to watch Jerusalem burn, even if it is only in the visions of the night.
Do you think Nephi had plans for his future? Did he have dreams of making a name for himself? Did he want to excel in his profession? Did he see himself raising a family in a nice suburb of Jerusalem? Was there a particular young woman he had feelings for? Did he envision a life of devoted service to God complete with temple worship? All of these things were going to be impossible now. But God had something else in mind for Nephi. I wonder if he even had the capacity to imagine what he would become. A prophet of God, a seer, King of his people, a father to generations of righteous posterity, rich in a bountiful new land. Could he have gained that vision if he had remained trapped within the web of illusions of Jerusalem?
Perhaps Nephi understood the principle that C.S. Lewis was trying to convey when he wrote:
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.”
What blessings might God have in store for you, that you might not even be able to imagine from where you are now? What might He be able to show you only after you’ve left the familiar and comforting “real life” you’ve been living thus far? What beliefs or behaviors could Jerusalem represent in your life?
I know that six years ago, I was unable to comprehend the degree of joy, the depth of peace, or the abundance of love I currently experience. My priorities were all out of line. I was pursuing happiness in a career that would have brought me money, success, maybe even fame. I believed my happiness was dependent on having all my dreams come true. The more happiness eluded me, the harder I pursued it.
Maybe I am more like Mulek in some regards. Mulek was the son of the King. He stayed in Jerusalem until the last possible moment. Only upon seeing his city being destroyed by the Babylonians did he realize that Lehi was right. Like Mulek, I was afraid of leaving. Only when the pain of leaving–of changing–was exceeded by the danger of staying, did he act.
God didn’t-perhaps couldn’t-just offer me the promised land on the other side of door number two. Like Nephi, I wandered for a time in the wilderness with nothing to cling to except the sliver of hope that God really was mindful of me, that He loved me, and that His power just might be sufficient to save one so rebellious and proud as I.
Dr. Ulrich’s words echo my own reaction to God’s call to leave Jerusalem:
In my role as a healer, I appreciate that when clients first come to me in response to that prophetic voice crying that Jerusalem is doomed, they want most to hear that the prophets lie-that repentance and change are not necessary. They ask, in essence, why the old defenses do not work any more and how to kill the prophets with their disturbing cries. They insist, “Change someone else, change the rules of life itself, but don’t change me.” That failing, their plea may become “Change me then, but don’t let it hurt.” They are right to be afraid; healing change shakes the very assumptions under our feet, brings down our walls, knocks out the lights.
Once we accept the call to depart from the illusion of our “real life” into the unknown of God’s care, how do we prepare for the destruction or our walls, the breaking of our harden hearts, the unraveling of the illusions that were so convincing, we never thought to doubt them? Like the reopening of a festering wound, pain is a necessary prelude to healing. Exposing the vulnerable, raw, and delicate flesh to the light and air makes possible the application of a miraculous Balm, available even today straight from Gilead.
Our Savior stands ready to bind up our wounds and ultimately to heal every pain inflicted in the course of the Journey. As Job recorded: “For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.” I could not have endured the extensive destruction and subsequent construction in my life without Christ’s grace and strength.
The next portion of Nephi’s journey is familiar to any primary child, and in that familiarity, I have often overlooked some deep connections in my own life. Part three will look at Nephi’s return for the Plates of Brass, and I hope you’ll rejoin me then. In the meantime, it may be helpful to answer the questions I’ve posed here and in part 1. I’d also encourage you to consider sharing your responses, insights, and personal examples in the comments. I know that I learn most deeply through sharing and exchanging perspectives.