Lesson 28: “O God, Where Art Thou?” #DandC2017

Doctrine & Covenants 121, 122

In preparation for this lesson I enjoyed reading Justin Bray’s Revelations in Context essay, “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail.” Especially useful are the links to images of the letter the sections are drawn from, thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers Project folks. People love seeing the documents.

I began this lesson with B.H. Roberts’s eloquent description of Liberty Jail as the temple-prison.

These revelations “made Liberty jail, for a time, a center of instruction. The eyes of the saints were turned to it as the place whence would come encouragement, counsel—the word of the Lord. It was more temple than prison, so long as the Prophet was there. It was a place of meditation and prayer. … Joseph Smith sought God in this rude prison, and found him

(B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church1:526).

Discussion questions included things like: what does this suggest about how or where revelation can be received? 

THE PROBLEM OF ENEMIES

Section 121 is especially powerful because Joseph Smith demonstrates such a wide range of emotions, including anger. Before getting to the section itself, I had the class read the peculiar statement of Jesus in Matthew 5:43:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

Discussion questions included things like: where might his listeners have heard it said to hate their enemies? What does it mean to hate an enemy? Committing or wishing harm on them, etc.?

I introduced the class to the genre of imprecatory psalms. From Wikipedia:

Imprecatory psalms are those which invoke judgment, calamity, or curses upon one’s enemies…Imprecatory Bible passages have presented a variety of interpretive and ethical issues for [readers]…Some Biblical scholars agree that their intent is to purposely alarm, and that [they were used for] purposes of self catharsis, and to lead group catharsis during temple worship…This probably helped provide [a feeling of] security to the Psalms’s principal audience, the Israelites, who were a minority within their larger Mesopotamian world.

Scholars also widely agree that imprecatory passages are never imprecatory in total, but are contextualized within messages of hope or promised mercy and blessing…The intent [could also be] to provoke group or national repentance from evil acts and turn the hearers toward God.

Liturgical reforms by the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council led to the removal of some of the imprecatory psalms from the Divine Office, or the more problematic passages edited for liturgical use.

A perfect example of an imprecatory psalm is Psalm 69 (KJV) (NRSV), which we read as a class. This sets up an interpretive context for section 121.

Next we read section 121 verses 1-5, psalm-like in their voice and construction, right down to Joseph’s request for vengeance:

where-art-thou

O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them? O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us. Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs.

[Image from JSPP]

Discussion questions here included things like: How did Joseph apparently feel about God at this time? Does anyone have an experience to share where they felt either abandoned by or even angry at God? What do you make of the fact hat scripture exhibits these emotions toward God? How do you feel about Joseph requesting the Lord’s anger to be kindled, asking for vengeance? 

I took the opportunity here to mention that following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Latter-day Saints employed imprecatory prayers in the temple, asking for justice upon those who killed the prophets. The earlier discussion helped contextualize this uncomfortable element of church history.

Bridge the discussion back to Jesus’s instruction in Matthew 5 where he said we’ve heard it said to hate our enemies. Matthew 5:43-48 invite us to a higher law, to bless those who curse us. Jesus exemplified this in Luke 23:33-34.

THE PROBLEM OF ABUSE

The scriptures exhibit instances of anger and wishes for vengeance. Here I borrowed from the excellent Mormon Women Project post for this lesson, Elizabeth Ostler’s “The Rest of Their Story.” (Intro’d with a trigger warning.) Ostler provides more historical context about the injustices and violence faced by early Latter-day Saints. We concluded this discussion with the Church’s Gospel Topic description of abuse:

Abuse is the treatment of others or self in a way that causes injury or offense. It harms the mind and the spirit and often injures the body as well. It can cause confusion, doubt, mistrust, and fear. It is a violation of the laws of society and is in total opposition to the teachings of the Savior. The Lord condemns abusive behavior in any form—physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. Abusive behavior may lead to Church discipline…Victims of abuse should be assured that they are not to blame for the harmful behavior of others. They do not need to feel guilt. If they have been a victim of rape or other sexual abuse, whether they have been abused by an acquaintance, a stranger, or even a family member, victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin.

LDS.org Gospel Topics: Abuse

WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN

There are a number of explanations for suffering in the scriptures. Some examples include:

In the mid-1970s the Teton Dam in Idaho burst, killing 11 people and causing $400 million dollars in property damage. Elder Boyd K. Packer accompanied President Spencer W. Kimball on a visit to Idaho to speak to Later-day Saints in the areas affected by the destruction. When he heard someone ask, “What did we do wrong to deserve such a disaster?” Elder Packer responded, “The answer is probably ‘nothing.’ If you attach tragedy or suffering or disaster to sin only, how do you explain the suffering of Christ? Fine people, living worthily, can be subject to disasters such as you have faced here. The difference will be in how you face it.”

Or, as Truman G. Madsen summed it up, “It happened to you because the dam broke.” 

[Sources cited by Walker Wright, “Neither Shall There Be Any More Pain’: Trials and Their Purpose,” Times & Seasons blog, March 13, 2017.]

QUESTIONS FOR CLOSING DISCUSSION

*How can we tell which suffering the result of which cause? [The class here suggested it is better to focus more on alleviating the suffering, protecting the vulnerable, rather than focusing on judgment, etc. For instance, when a child is abused it is tempting to wish harm on a perpetrator, etc. These feelings don’t accord with Matthew 5, nor do they necessarily help stop abuse, etc.]

*What are some examples of ways people have provided comfort for you during a difficult trial? [The class talked about how important it is to not try to rush people through their pain, to tell them that things will be well in the end, to say trials are wonderful opportunities for growth while the person is in the midst of suffering, etc.]

Comments

  1. Jenny G. says:

    This is thought provoking, and also practical and useful in a concrete way. Thanks for this post.

  2. nice article

  3. Anger is something we feel as part of being human. It’s a reasonable reaction towards injustice. I think we (including prophets) _should_ be angry sometimes. The important parts are: what are we angry about? What will we use that anger to fuel?

    Your lesson made me wonder: what should we be praying imprecations psalms against today? (Racism comes to mind). And, God isn’t going to magically destroy our enemies just because we prayed. Going from the assumption that prayer is about us, and moving us towards God, what would They have us do because of our anger? Obviously, repentance and forgiveness is a part of the answer, but what else?

    Much to ponder on, thanks Blair.

  4. *imprecatory psalms (didn’t notice the autocorrect)

  5. I agree that we are going to be angry sometimes. And sometimes even angry at God. (It seems to me that if Joseph Smith isn’t angry at God in that passage, he’s certainly frustrated.) But yes, what do we do about it?

    It seems to me that part of the answer is compassion and understanding for our enemies, which doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, of course! I want to say that’s what D&C 122 is heading towards, among other things.

    I really liked this post. I especially liked the implication of the last question that we’re the ones who are God’s hands in so many cases, in terms of offering comfort (and it ties nicely to God telling JS that his friends haven’t deserted him).

  6. Hi Blair,
    I like the thoughts you present. I taught this same lesson yesterday, as well. I included the topic of the sources of trials, and then I brought the discussion around to responses and ways to work through trials. The discussion included both strategies to faithfully approach short-term trials and life-long trials. It was really interesting to read the entire letter from which sections 121, 122, 123 derive from. It’s found in a BYU Studies article by John Welch. Good job!

  7. BHodges says:

    thunker, I like your idea of breaking things up according to short-term, long-term.

  8. I follow you on Facebook Blair and it was fun to see your name on this lesson. I prefer the case the Givens made on why bad things happen in “The God Who Weeps” because I have a hard time believing in a God who would cause trials rather than let them happen. Every time I share their more merciful perspective in church I know I’m glossing over scriptures that clearly say otherwise and cherry picking the ones that fit my own views. I guess one of my biggest take aways from this post is your style of teaching. You were able to acknowledge multiple perspectives found in the scriptures without making sirens go off in my head. Keeping the Boyd K Packer quote too. Thanks. Looking forward to reading more lessons.