In a surpassingly sacred story from this week's Book of Mormon readings, some 300 Lamanites gather for the execution of two missionaries brothers, and are instead born again. First the story. Then some thoughts.
Nephi and Lehi, the sons of Helaman, are imprisoned and held captive for many days without food. I wonder whether the many days of captivity were designed as a form of torture, or whether it might have been to weaken them. The record says they were taken by "an army" and cast into prison. Why an army? They were just two men.
But these are not ordinary men. They are overflowing with faith. They have just come from preaching to the Lamanites in Zarahemla, with the result that 8,000 of their erstwhile enemies repented, were baptized and reversed their traditions.
It has now been about 60 years since Ammon, filled with the power of God, took down an entire mob while defending the flocks of King Lamoni, since an enemy tried to attack him while he was incapacitated in a trance and the enemy fell down dead, since a Lamanite queen sent her servants to raise an army against Aaron and brethren because the servants didn't dare try to apprehend them alone. I wonder how many of those stories had survived and spread in Lamanite culture. Nephite soldiers were formidable, but Nephite holy men? Perhaps those were feared to be invincible.
Now, after these two holy men should be weak with hunger, having been "many days" without food, a force of 300 men are sent "into the prison to take them, that they might slay them." Three hundred men against two starving prisoners. Seems like the Lamanites were being extra cautious.
And even with a force of 300, they can't do it. Nephi and Lehi don't offer any resistance. They just stand in a pillar of fire, and the Lamanites fall back and turn away in fear.
Nephi's and Lehi's reaction to this is telling. Their hearts take courage. To me, that sounds like they didn't expect miraculous deliverance. They were prepared to die. And now, instead of gloating against the captors who have treated them so cruelly, they call out, "Fear not, for behold, it is God that has shown unto you this marvelous thing."
I feel like, if I had spent the last many days deprived of food and dreading my execution, my first emotional reaction to the pillar of fire between me and my enemies might have been gloating vindication. I'd remember Ammonihah, where Alma's and Amulek's captors had all been killed when the prison came down around them. I'd be inclined to expect the same to happen to here.
Not Nephi and Lehi. Their instant reaction is to reassure their captors that God is their friend. (I'm inclined to think they've been doing a great deal of spiritual work in preparation for this moment. Since they were being starved, maybe they took the opportunity to fast and pray. And apparently, not only for themselves, but for their captors too). Immediately, the earth begins to shake and the walls of the prison to tremble, as they did in Ammonihah. The multitude of Lamanites and Nephite dissenters are paralyzed with fear and overshadowed by a cloud of darkness. They hear a mild but piercing voice from above the darkness saying, "Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings." The voice comes again. And again, only this time, it tells them marvellous things that cannot be uttered. But they can't give space to the marvellous message. However piercing the voice, it doesn't claim them. They are consumed with terror, powerless even to run away, and unable to open themselves to the peace that God is offering them.
This is a remarkable demonstration of the limits God honors in His manifestations. Here, in a wondrous outpouring of light and truth, He invites them to turn to Him. But He does not interfere with their agency. He does not overpower the internal walls they've built against Him, walls that their Adversary is actively reinforcing with darkness and terror.
It seems like their situation is hopeless until one of them, Aminadab, manages to turn and look at the brothers, whose faces shine through the darkness. That light gives him hope, inspires him to cry out to his fellows to turn and look. They are given power to move their heads. When they see the light on Nephi's and Lehi's faces, they also find strength enough to speak and ask what they can do to be delivered.
Aminadab tells them to repent and to pray for faith in Christ. They start praying and the darkness disperses, to be replaced with a pillar of fire around each of them. They are "baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost" (Ether 12:23). They speak marvellous things, hear the voice of the Father testifying of Christ and whispering peace, and they are ministered to by angels.
One of the things that strikes me in this story is that, although God's power was present in abundance, although the earth trembled at His voice, and although everyone in the multitude heard it and their hearts were pierced by it, the cloud of darkness that enveloped them could not be dispersed until they, themselves, had faith. They had to exercise their agency to turn and look, to repent, and to pray for the faith they didn't have. Then it came pouring in and Satan's power over them was dissolved. But until they had faith, even a pillar of fire and the voice of God couldn't disperse the darkness that overshadowed them.
Another thing that strikes me is that, as soon as they had faith, they received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost. Like Cornelius, they weren't baptized by water yet. They hadn't received the laying on of hands. But the Lord was able to work a mighty change on them and they were filled with extraordinary spiritual power without first receiving the ordinance.
So, what's the difference between being baptized by the Holy Ghost, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost?
I believe that baptism by the Holy Ghost depends upon faith in Jesus Christ and upon God's wisdom. It doesn't depend upon an ordinance. Our Father in Heaven, who knows all things and who works with unfathomable wisdom for the redemption of His children, has the power to pour out the Holy Ghost without measure upon anyone who has a repentant heart and sufficient faith in Jesus Christ. He even has power to give us faith if we ask for it. In deference to our agency, He has bound Himself not to work miracles in the absence of faith. But that is the only lock on that door, and God is able to open it wide at His discretion and pour out spiritual gifts into our lives.
The gift of the Holy Ghost must be something else. I don't think it can be a promise of more profound manifestations of the Spirit because it's hard to get more profound than what happened in Helaman 5 or what happened to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, long before he was baptized or received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
I believe that instead, the gift of the Holy Ghost is a key that opens the door to the companionship of the Spirit from our side. It means we have the right to always have the Spirit with us. In greater or lesser abundance, but always there.
What does this mean to me? It means that I don't need to feel threatened by the spiritual rebirths, insights and outpourings experienced by faithful followers of Jesus Christ who have not been baptized or received the laying on of hands by proper authority. I don't need to dismiss or denigrate those experiences on the presumption that they haven't come through the proper channels. The proper channel for the power of the Holy Ghost is faith. And I don't need to think that I'm entitled to greater light than someone who hasn't received the gift of the Holy Ghost. The promise is not greater light. It's constant light, so long as we're honouring our covenants.
There are some special cases that I'm still struggling to understand. A common characteristic of mental illness is a reduced capacity to feel the Spirit. I don't think that means the Spirit isn't there. I think He is, guiding and protecting us, but not perceived. I've seen that in the life of someone dear to me who struggles with depression and has felt cut off from heaven for years. I've seen him ache over how he's not receiving direction at the same time that he followed an impression to drop in on an elderly neighbour and found her bleeding on the floor, unable to get up. He was an answer to her prayers. I've seen him be a blessing again and again in other's lives. He carries the Spirit. Unfortunately, he can't perceive it.
There was an extended period in my own life when I couldn't feel the companionship of the Holy Ghost. I felt abandoned, surrounded by darkness and unworthy, although I was seeking the Lord and keeping my repentance up to date. It was the most difficult trial of my life. And, looking back, it was one of the sources of my most meaningful growth. It helped me get anchored and I'm deeply grateful for it, but have wondered how to reconcile the experience with my understanding of what it means to have the gift of the Holy Ghost. But right before that experience, I had prayed and asked God to try me. Maybe that changed the rules. And maybe I, too, was still enjoying the Spirit's companionship but just unable to perceive it.
What I do know is that our Father in Heaven delights to give us spiritual gifts. We can unlock the door to receiving them by faith in Jesus Christ. And we can gain the faith we lack by praying for it. Sometimes, those prayers have to persist for a time through darkness and fear. But God is faithful. He wants us close. The blessing will come.