In the year 2 BC, the signs of the times began to appear among the people of Nephi, son of Helaman. We don't know what they were exactly. We do know that they'd been recently prophesied as evidence that the Messiah was about to be born, "to the intent that [the people] might believe" (Helaman 16:5). Yet, far from being converted, the greater part of them took offence at these fulfillments of prophecy. Why? And how does their experience relate to ours as the signs of our times appear in preparation for the Second Coming?
While there are a number of arguments made by the disbelievers reasoning away the signs, their motive wasn't really based in logic. It was fear. They were afraid of being exploited. They argued, "they [the Christians] will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand, which will keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them...all the days of our lives." (Helaman 16:24). Afraid of being manipulated and used, they rejected the great plan of happiness and followed the promptings of their actual Adversary, who stirred them up to iniquity, suspicion and contention. His game plan was to turn them into hardened cynics, imprisoned within the walls they'd built around their psyches so that they couldn't be touched and healed by the truth.
It's tragic because their fear of being exploited led them away from the doctrines that would have freed them, and into situations where they were bound to be used and wounded. All of which increased their fear of being exploited. If only they had been able to see that the gospel is good news, that the doctrine of Christ is the doctrine of perfect and universal love, that the Savior wanted to give them ultimate safety and unassailable liberty! But despite signs and wonders, "Satan did get great hold upon the hearts of the people upon all the face of the land" (Helaman 16:23).
It occurs to me that one of the reasons for his success was that he was working on both sides of this equation. His first target would have been people who were in a position to do the greatest damage. So he would entice leaders within the Church to exercise unrighteous dominion. He didn't need to overthrow many of them. Just enough to serve as proof that these leaders couldn't be trusted. Then, he would agitate among those who were most vulnerable, inflaming their fears of exploitation, encouraging them to generalize about all leaders, launching a movement of disenchantment with the Church in general.
It happened then. It happens now. And once again, the signs of the times are unfolding before us and being dismissed as proving nothing. The fires, the tempests and tsunamis are all easy to chalk up to climate change. Wars and rumors of wars only increase the general upheaval and can often be attributed to religious intolerance. And the prejudices and other failings of church members and leaders who've acted contrary to the teachings of the gospel are seized upon as proof that the church is out to dominate and exploit.
That's why I need to immerse myself in the scriptures, study true doctrine, heed the counsel of living prophets -- so that I know by my own experience that they are prophets indeed -- and anchor my faith in Jesus Christ. The voices that dismiss prophesied upheavals as mere coincidence will get louder, as will the accusations against the Church. But the gospel is true and good and the more I integrate it into my life, the more I like who I'm becoming, the more peace I feel, the less fear, and the more likely I can minister to people close to me in a manner that might reach their hearts.
I no longer believe that Nephi's intent in prophesying the signs of his times was to convince the unbelievers. I think it was to strengthen the believers. The day was speedily approaching when the general consensus in society would be that the time for the fulfillment of Samuel's prophecy was past. They would be mocked for their faith and then threatened with execution if they didn't discard it. They needed all the strength they could get.
I don't know what lies ahead for us in the way of persecution, but I do know that we have Zion to build and prophecies to fulfill. Nephi, son of Lehi, saw our day and Satan gathering his forces to make war upon the saints. But he also "beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb...and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory" (1 Nephi 14:14).
The signs are for us. They're an invitation to repent, to rise up to our privileges, to anchor ourselves in Jesus Christ. As we do so, we have nothing to fear.