The fascinating story of the conversion of King Lamoni in the Book of Mormon explains a lot about our culture today.
To summarize, Ammon, the oldest son of the king of the Nephites, experiences and witnesses dramatic conversions, being born again with a new understanding of what life is really all about. Filled with the love of God and hopeful that the Lamanites, a group of people who separated themselves from the Nephites hundreds of years ago by trying to kill Nephi, might experience the same kind of conversion, head into the land of the Lamanites, following the Spirit of God. There, Ammon volunteers to be nothing more than a common servant to King Lamoni, one of several rulers among the Lamanites. He shows remarkable loyalty and devotion to the king, as well as seemingly infinite power through Christ, and wins an opportunity to teach King Lamoni the gospel.
He lays out the gospel by first explaining what and who God is, what the heavens and earth are, and God’s relation to it as Creator. He then continues by relaying the history of mankind, including the history of the Nephites and the Lamanites, carefully emphasizing all the troubles that their ancestors experienced and even the trouble that they brought on themselves. Then he explains the Plan of Redemption, which is God’s plan to save us from ourselves, and how the only thing we need to do is to ask for mercy from God and follow his Spirit to win eternal life.
This knowledge is obviously all new to the king, and so, after he prays to God for the first time, begging for mercy, he is overcome and reborn as a new individual, along with several members of his household. Thus begins the missionary work among the Lamanites, where many thousands come to understand God, receive his mercy, and begin a new life, laying aside their old grudges and embracing both Lamanites and Nephites as brothers.
In this experience, we learn several things. First among them is that our own ignorance is to blame for our separation from God. This ignorance can be of our own will and choice, but it is usually the fault of our ancestors, who failed to teach us the most important things. Regardless, just as (true) knowledge of God is eternal life, one and the same, ignorance of God is eternal damnation, one and the same.
King Lamoni’s beliefs about God were first that he was a Great Spirit. The second misconception was that it didn’t matter what you did, you were justified. The third misconception was an idea that slipped into his head at the beginning, that perhaps the Great Spirit did care what you did, and that he would punish you in this life for your bad behavior, even if you don’t know what that bad behavior is. These ideas all seem contradictory, but it is the exact philosophy we live under in popular culture.
The Great Spirit is called many things. In Star Wars, it is called “The Force.” In Kung-Fu movies, it is called Qi or Ki or Chi, the life energy that flows through all of us. We might also call it Karma or luck or any number of things. The important thing is that it doesn’t care about you. Either it doesn’t care what you do with it or it does care and rains down justice with nary a thought or care. We find the former ideas in philosophies that tell us that we should do whatever we think is best, with no regard to morality except the moral compass inside each of us, and even then, sometimes we have to bend the rules to get what we really want. We find the latter philosophy in the “School of Hard Knocks.” If you don’t know how something works scientifically, it doesn’t matter: It will either bless you or curse you regardless of what you think you are doing, and it doesn’t care. Call this Murphy’s Law. Call it Reality. Call it what you will, whatever you’ve come up with is hardly different than anything the Romans or Ancient Greeks came up with. You’re just using different names for the same things.
Is it hard to see why this philosophy is harmful to everyone involved? Where is there any teaching of kindness or compassion? Where is it required that we love and serve one another? No, this philosophy teaches us to treat the world and the people around us like animals, or rather, like machines to exploit.
Ammon was facing impossible odds when he took upon himself the task to educate King Lamoni. Or rather, it seemed God, working through Ammon, had taken an impossible bet putting Ammon in this situation that no mortal man can see a resolution to. However, God has a few secrets of his own, and among them are those that will erase the ignorance of King Lamoni and our modern culture. First, by making Ammon a servant, he taught King Lamoni something about who God really is. When the king told his servants that he thought Ammon, whom he assumed to be the Great Spirit, was here to punish him for his bad deeds, they reassured him that whatever Ammon was, he was a friend to the king. Ammon emphasized by word and deed that whatever King Lamoni asked him to do he would do, with the limitation that the action be right. This is the exact same promise God gives us in scripture. One, he is on our side, and not our enemy or adversary. Two, that whatever we ask God, as long as it is right, he will do it.
Once the king recognized these two facts about Ammon’s nature, he began a journey to understanding God’s nature. If someone who is your friend and who will do anything you want (that is right) makes an entire universe, complete with earth and heaven, you have to wonder, at least a little, what he is thinking. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we teach that the earth and the heavens are here for a purpose: our eternal salvation. Indeed, we teach that God’s entire purpose is our eternal life and exaltation, to allow us to grow to become like him, so that we can live with him in perfect unity for all time, and enjoy the limitless happiness only he knows how to unlock.
Now, looking around at the universe around us, at the people God placed us with, it is apparent that something must’ve gone horribly wrong. We see all kinds of evil things. We see horrible things that happen, horrible things we do. We look at our own history, and we should be shocked at who we really are. It seems there is no limit to the evil that we can create for ourselves. Ammon’s close friend Alma experienced a face-to-face interview with God in this state. He described the experience as so horrible that he wished he could be erased from existence, never having been born. This is the reality of reality: It is horrible. Anyway you look at it, there is nothing good about it. Our ultimate end is death. The only description we can apply to ourselves is evil. I mean, if a person does one evil thing and a hundred good things, that still makes him an evil-doer. There is no hope for us in this situation. Why would God, who wants to be our servant and who will do anything we want that is right put us in this situation? What is the point?
The point is revealed in the critical element always missing from ignorance. The bit of knowledge that King Lamoni didn’t have was that there is a way prepared for all of us to become like God, despite our circumstances. That way is commonly referred to as the Gospel, meaning “Good word”. That word is Christ, Savior, Redeemer, the Hope of All Mankind.
To understand, first, Christ bought us by paying for our sins. All we have to do is accept that fact.
Second, Christ is our link to God. Except when we face God through Christ, we can have all memory of our sins wiped away, so we need not fear as Alma did in his experience. Indeed, he isn’t just covering our sins, he has the power to change our very nature to be like God’s. (However, he won’t do that fully in this life, for an important reason.)
Third, Christ laid forward a simple plan we can all actually follow. The plan is summarized by the words “faith”, “repentance” and “obedience”. “Faith” is the “Fidelis” in the Marine Corps “Semper Fidelis”. Christ is like a Marine who we can trust with our very lives. When we trust Christ, we are turning over all of our worries and sins and cares and letting him shoulder the burden. In exchange, we behave differently. We let him change us. We welcome the changes he wants to bring. This is the process of repentance. We acknowledge and confess our sins, we stop sinning, and we try to do right. If we sin again, we repent again. Repentance is the getting up part of falling down. As long as we get up more times than we fall, we will be standing. As we repent, and we will all be repenting for the rest of our lives, we promise to obey God’s Law and the gospel Christ gave us. Will we do it perfectly? Of course not. But we never had any hope in our own obedience anyway. We move forward with faith, trusting that as we try to do what’s right, as we align ourselves with God’s will, then things will go according to his plan.
The Gospel teaches us to pray to God. It teaches us to read history and ponder on God’s interactions with mankind. It encourages us to hope out of despair. It encourages us to see things as they really are, rather than hide the truth of things from ourselves for fear of their awful consequences. It teaches us to forgive and accept forgiveness. It teaches us to love and serve each other, to strive to build a peaceful society where every member, rich or poor, smart or dumb, can all enjoy the blessings of sociality among friends.
Somewhere along the line, we have let this simple gospel escape us. We rely too much or too little on our own intellects, on the arguments of others. We let other voices crowd out the whisperings of the Spirit, the Still Small Voice Christ promised to send us after he left this world. Just when we think we’ve stumbled on to a good philosophy, we discover it has some fatal flaws that either prevent us from behaving more fully according to it, or receiving the promised blessings. However, as Ammon demonstrated, and as King Lamoni experienced, the simple gospel is powerful to save and change hearts. It is enough for today’s world, just like it was enough for King Lamoni.
As a postlude to the story, King Lamoni’s people received God into their hearts. Their love for their fellowman was so great that they would rather die than lift a hand to stop someone trying to kill them. They formed a society of equals based on gospel principles. When the Nephites were in trouble, they opened their hearts and helped, feeding and sheltering the homeless and dispossessed. When the Lamanites were in trouble, they did the same, giving land and jobs to thousands of former warriors. They renamed themselves “Anti-Nephi Lehies”, probably a reference to the father of both Laman and Nephi, Lehi. They focused on the fact that they were descendants of the great patriarch and seer Lehi, a call to both Nephites and Lamanites to reconcile their differences and remember the family that should have been.