Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Heart Groaneth

Because of its poetic form, verses 16-35 of Second Nephi chapter 4 are often referred to as "the psalm of Nephi."1 Nephi's psalm is an individual lament about Nephi's own status as an ever-repenting sinner.  It is important to note that this lament is not one of self-pity.  The purpose of Nephi's words is not to declare "Wo is me, for I am a sinner and will always be a sinner."  His attitude is one of solemn introspection coupled with a commitment to trust in the Lord.  This type of lamentation is similar to the seven penitential psalms found in the Old Testament (see Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 69, 102, 130).2
 2 Ne 4:17 ... O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
 18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
 19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.
In the past, I have heard people speculate about what Nephi's sins might have been that so easily beset him and made his heart groan.  I don't believe that such an exercise is profitable for us; if the details of his sins were important, he would have shared them. I have also heard Nephi's psalm cited to make a person feel better about his own sinful condition: "Even Nephi was a sinner, and he was a prophet."  While I don't think that such an insight is wrong, it is only a starting point to understanding a much deeper truth that lies in these verses.

Nephi's lamentation for his sins is a wonderful example of what it is like to have godly sorrow.3 He is genuinely distressed that his actions have not been in harmony with God's will.  His heart groans because he knows that there is a disparity between his choices and the light and truth that he has received.  Alma the Younger described this type of sorrow to his wayward son:
 Alma 39:7  ... I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good.
 8 But behold, ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they will stand as a testimony against you at the last day.

 Alma 42:29 ... Let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.  
 30 O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.

The sorrow that we feel for our sins is actually good, as long as it leads us to true repentance. When Nephi says "nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted," he is acknowledging that he is not strong enough to overcome sin on his own.  He has decided to trust the Lord, and let the Lord help him overcome sin.
2 Ne 4:34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
 When Nephi talks about not putting his trust in "the arm of flesh", I believe that he is talking about not trusting himself.  He understood that anyone who thinks that they are strong enough to overcome their sins without the help of the Lord is cursed, or doomed to fail.  This includes not only the forgiveness of sins that comes through the Atonement, but just as importantly the enabling power4 that allows us to purge the impurities from our character and become perfect.

True repentance is not easy, and it is not care-free.  True repentance requires that we pass through the furnace of affliction.  It requires that our sins trouble us and bring us down to the dust in humility. Spencer W. Kimball has said "If a person hasn't suffered, he hasn't repented. . . . He has got to go through a change in his system whereby he suffers and then forgiveness is a possibility."5 To one man who thought that he had already repented, President Kimball asked the following questions:6
    Do you wish to be forgiven? Could you accept excommunication for the sin if deemed necessary? Why do you feel you should not be excommunicated? If you were, would you become bitter at the Church and its officers? Would you cease your activities in the Church? Would you work your way back to baptism and restoration of former blessings even through years?
    What have you done to prove your repentance? How much did you pray before the sin? How much during? How much since your admission of it? How much did you study the scriptures before your trouble? How much since? Are you attending meetings? paying tithing?
    Have you told your wife or parents? Have you confessed your total sins? Are you humble now? Is it the result of "being forced to be humble"?
    Have you wrestled with your problems as did Enos? Has your soul hungered for your soul's sake? Did you "cry unto him" a day-long prayer and into the night and raise your voice high that it reached the heavens, as did Enos?
    How much have you fasted? How much suffering have you endured? Is your guilt "swept away"?
True repentance is possible, but it can come only through Christ after all that we can do.7 Justifying ourselves in our sins, and convincing ourselves that all is well8 can never bring the joy and peace that come from being truly cleansed of our sins. Only when we allow our souls to be harrowed up by our sins can our joy become as exquisite as our pain.9

1. Book of Mormon Study Guide, pg. 39
2. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 6, Iss. 2, pp. 26-42
3. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
4. Moroni 10:32-33
5. Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pg. 99
6. The Miracle of Forgiveness, pg. 161
7. 2 Nephi 25:23
8. 2 Nephi 28:21
9. Alma 36:21


  1. Sorry that it has been so long since the last post. I expect to start posting again at least weekly now, so keep checking back for more posts!

  2. I hadn't really considered that "the arm of flesh" is directly referring
    to ourselves. I have mostly thought of it as not trusting in those
    around us, and letting them influence us more than the Lord. Is this
    out more at the end of the verse with "or maketh flesh his arm"? I like
    the reference in Mormon 3:9 "they began to boast in their own
    strength". It really seems to come down to a matter of pride.

  3. Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell.

  4. I'm sorry! I had good intentions, really I did.


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