Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

BoM Lesson 10: 2 Nephi 26-30

Posted by Robert C. on March 4, 2008

For this week’s lesson I’m going to focus on two themes, both of which can be found in 2 Nephi 26:20: the tension between economic thinking and a more grace-based, divine way of thinking, and relying on our own understanding vs. coming to an understanding of God’s precepts.

But first some links that might be helpful from around the web:

* Lesson manual from lds.org

* Wiki commentray on one page

* Jim F.’s notes from T&S, 4 years ago

* ldsgospeldoctine.net links

Now for 2 Nephi 26:20:

And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.

“Churches,” “getting gain,” and “the face of the poor”

First, I think Jim F.’s comment on the term church in this verse is worth quoting (see the link to his lesson notes above, this quote is in relation to this verse, 2 Nephi 26:20):

Though in the nineteenth century the word “church” meant pretty much what it means today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (an historical dictionary) it seems originally to have meant “that which has to do with a lord.” So we can understand a church to be more than a religious institution; in principle, any organization that has a lord can be called a church. What is a lord? How does it differ from a boss? From a parent? Perhaps the broader meaning of the word “church” can help us understand the many churches which have been built up as a description of our culture as a whole rather than as a description of only its religious life.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should strip the term church of all its religious or at least moral connotations, but I do think it’s worth thinking carefully about the spillovers from our secular to religious lives, and vice versa. Ever since I first began studying economics as an undergrad, I’ve found it tempting to think about everything in economic terms. With our time, for example, we face difficult decisions and tradeoffs on a regular basis—-time is, after all, one of our scarcest and most precious resources. Economizing out time, in many situations, can be very helpful. It didn’t take me long to figure out, however, that this economic outlook on time, and life more generally, can have disastrous effects in many situations. For example, looking at my watch and keeping track of the time I spent on a date or going on team-ups with the missionaries, consistently seemed to have a spoiling effect on these experiences. Now that I’m married and have kids, it’s even more apparent that keeping track of these kinds of tradeoffs regarding time, energy and money is a recipe for disaster.

A loving mindset, it seems, is precisely the opposite of an economic mindset. Perhaps this is why Nephi takes up the theme of charity alongside the theme of priestcraft in 2 Nephi 26:29-30:

He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion. Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity, which charity is love. And except they should have charity they were nothing.

I think there is good reason to consider priestcraft in this verse, like the term church, as including actions that are not explicitly religious, but as any action that has self-interested motivations at root, seeking to “get gain” rather than seeking the welfare of others. I think avoiding this kind of economizing, getting-gain attitude is an extremely challenging task, especially in our capitalist, consumer-based culture. It seems that there is a kind of unavoidable cognitive dissonance inherent in any effort to be Christian, charitable, and hence uneconomic in our ever-increasingly market-obsessed culture. This dissonance, in fact, has recently captured the imagination of many sociologists and philosophers—see, for example, some books I’m trying to work through here, here or here. One of the interesting findings of these sociologists—and, in a more abstract sense, the philosophers (e.g., Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, John Milbank, etc.)—is that gift exchange, in contrast to pure economic transactions, leads to a kind of communal solidarity, something not achieved in more economically-based communities. Good examples of non-economic relations can be found in our relations within families, at church, and amongst our friends. This is not to say that we can’t establish this kind of relationship in business relations—in fact, Arthur C. Brooks has found that those who take a more generous, giving attitude toward others, quite generally, tend to be more economically prosperous (a dangerous finding to report, because then we run a greater risk of giving for selfish reasons rather than out of more pure motives!). But I think it does take a conscious effort to avoid letting an economic mindset infiltrate our relations with family, friends, and neighbors.

Coming back to the scriptures in this lesson, this contrast—between a charitable, free-gift-of-salvation mindset vs. a getting-gain mindset of false churches—can be found all over the place. Here’s a small sampling: 2 Nephi 26:10 warns us against “sell[ing] [our]selves for naught” in an effort to “reward” our “pride and foolishness”; in 2 Nephi 26:25, God offers an economic-free vision: “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price’” (quoting Isaiah 55:1; cf. 2 Nephi 9:50); “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:31, my emphasis). If we are to be counted among the “laborers of Zion,” it seems we must find a way to extricate ourselves from a getting-gain mindset that is so deeply engrained in our culture so that we recognize the free gift of salvation that God offers us: “Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men” (2 Nephi 26:27).

Notice, also, how a “getting gain” attitude leads to “grind[ing] upon the face of the poor” (from 2 Nephi 26:20, a variant of “grind the faces of the poor” in Isaiah 3:15 and 2 Nephi 13:15). Furthermore, notice how “labor[ing] for money” is discussed immediately prior to a discussion of several sins that should be avoided in 2 Nephi 26:32-33: lying, stealing, taking the Lord’s name in vain, envying, having malice, contending one with another, and committing whoredoms. Each of these sins can be thought, it seems, as stemming directly from a desire for getting gain (except for taking the Lord’s name in vain—I’m not sure how that fits in…).

“Their own wisdom and their own learning”

The phrase “their own wisdom and their own learning” introduces another recurring theme in this lesson. For example, the phrase “precepts of men” occurs in 2 Nephi 27:25; 28:5, 14, 26, 30-31 with the same general meaning, a kind of learning that is not faithful to God. But the following question immediately presents itself: how can we “preach up unto [our]selves” something that is not our own wisdom or learning? In what sense can we say we’ve learned something if we haven’t made this learning “our own”?

On the one hand, there are pretty obvious instances of worldly notions that contradict gospel teachings. But if we only consider these obvious cases, I think we are letting ourselves off the hook too easily. What is more challenging, I think, is to radically question our own understanding of things, to read the scriptures in a way that doesn’t simply amount to looking for things to reinforce the beliefs and understanding that we already have, to not “teach with [our] learning and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance,” but to to be open and receptive to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of viewing the world.

In 2 Nephi 28:30 we read, “blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” Notice how God gives, and then when what is given is received, more is given. To think about this passage in economic terms, to let the thoughts in the previous section spill over into this one, it seems we will always be one step behind, or, as King Benjamin puts it, “eternally indebted” to our heavenly Father (Mosiah 2:34). To come to an understanding that is not our own, we must give up our attempts to become autonomously-thinking agents, economically free from our intellectual indebtedness to God; rather, to truly learn, we have to consider ourselves fools, always ready to radically reconsider everything we thought we knew, ready to consider anything (“easy to be entreated” as Alma 7:23 and Helaman 7:7 puts it) that the Spirit might suggest to our minds….

Another way to think about “our own learning” is in light of the preceding phrase in 2 Nephi 26:20 on miracles: spoken of the churches “lifeted up in the pride of their eyes, Nephi says “they put down the power and miracles of God.” This is another warning that seems difficult for us to avoid in our modern, scientific culture where so much emphasis is placed on understanding how everything works, taking the mystery out of everything, thinking—in a word—technologically. I mean, do we really believe in miracles, “such as healing the sick, rasising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases” (Mosiah 3:5)? Although I’m not saying that it was ever easy to believe in these sorts of miracles, I do think there are peculiar challenges to believing in miracles in our current culture—and I think that only by clearly recognizing this tension can we hope to overcome it. In fact, I think there’s a tendency to interpret passages such as this as a condemnation of secular learning—philosophy, in particular, seems to get a bad rap, in my experience. But I think this is precisely the wrong way to approach the dangers being spelled out for us: rather than trying to avoid such “precepts of men,” I think the better approach is to recognize, even study, the precepts of men and come to a better understanding of how our own ways of understanding the world are influenced by such understanding. If we are not well-informed about what the precepts of men are, then I think the danger is that we will be unwittingly influenced by such precepts—at least that’s my experience.

Well, as always, I don’t really have time to give any of these topics the attention they deserve or wrap up the loose ends I’ve tried to generate—but, after all, my time is simply too scarce to devote more of it to this lesson write-up! But I do hope that some of these thoughts are not simply the same old, same old, that they might help shake up some of our own thinking in order to facilitate a better understanding of God’s precepts, less contaminated by our own wisdom and understanding.

10 Responses to “BoM Lesson 10: 2 Nephi 26-30”

  1. joespencer said

    Marvelous work here, Robert. I’m only sorry it’s taken me this long to get to it!

  2. NathanG said

    Great thoughts. I particularly like your thoughts regarding miracles and technology. Two thoughts about this (particularly healing the sick).

    I personally found that as I went through medical school and learned more of our technology, I was less inclined to turn to priesthood blessings, but relegated it to a last option available, or we’ll give you a blessing if everything else fails. Then I read D&C 42 part of which is below

    43 And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food, and that not by the hand of an enemy.
    44 And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live they shall live unto me.

    Later it says that those who have faith to be healed will be healed if they are not appointed unto death (v 48). My thoughts seemed to be in the “have not faith” category. I was a little worried about what my knowledge of the technology was doing to my faith. Towards the end of school and early in residency I had the opportunity to give several blessings, and that actually helped to put more importance to healing the sick. Looking back on it, I think another point is it wasn’t that I was in the “have not faith” category, but the “have not faith to be healed” category. And for me, that’s not even comlpetely accurate because I wasn’t in the position to be healed, but to heal. I don’t think section 42 is a condemnation of those who have not faith to be healed, and I think this is because it is a gift of the Spirit and all do not have the same gifts. We can seek all gifts, but I don’t think there is condemnation in not attaining this gift.

    The other experience I had came from my mission when our mission physician came to treat one my companions. At the end of his visit he shared his thoughts that in spite all that we know in medicine, it is still God directing things. Sometimes what we have works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but this doctor saw God’s hand in the technology, even if the individual doctor administering to the sick didn’t see God’s influence. I agree we should learn the “precepts of man,” but in part because much of it (or maybe part of it) may be in complete harmony with God.

  3. Kim M. said

    Your question about taking the Lord’s name in vain intrigued me. What follows are the presumptious precepts of an 18-year-old. ^_^

    Why would you ever invoke a name for gain? There are some pretty obvious scenarios: trying to get into a good graduate program, you invoke the names of professionals in your field, giving letters of recommendation. When you use a line of credit, you invoke the name of the bank.

    This ties in to the discussion of miracles: true followers of Christ invoke His name to perform miracles. Could taking the Lord’s name in vain be an unconscious attempt to gain authority? Those who take the Lord’s name in vain even today are manifesting their ability to call on the name of God (albeit sinfully)!

  4. Ryan H. said

    Some brief thoughts on how evoking a name can be perceived as personal gain.

    Names (and naming itself) are symbols of power. Names may seem harmless, but consider the slave trade in the Americas. Typically, the first thing a slave owner did was change the name of the individual: an act of supreme power and authority. To change the name of an individual is to strip them of all dignity, respect, and identity. It is to suggest: “You are an animal. I own you.” Or think of how during Segregation many whites (dominant social class) referred to African-Americans as “Negro” or “boy”, unwilling to give them the respect that comes with a proper name. It was a failure to recognize the dignity of another individual. In that way, such individuals set themselves above African-Americans as psychological and spiritual beings. In effect, to deny the name of an individual is to refute their existence. It is an act of dominance and power. How does this relate to the gospel? “I AM THAT I AM”: God as the “self-existent one” who is above all names, all creatures, the supreme authority. When we take his name in vain, we disrespect his existence, which is to disrespect his position as God. We do nothing short of what Lucifer did in the premordial existence: attempting to assume the leadership of heaven. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!…For thou has said in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High.” (2 Nephi 24: 12-14) Lucifer was entirely motivated by self-interest.

    To take the name of God in vain is to deny God any relevance in the cosmos, it is to claim his authority by suggesting we are above respecting him as an individual.

  5. Kim M. said

    Yes. Ditto, Ryan.

  6. […] BoM Lesson 10: 2 Nephi 26-30 […]

  7. cherylem said

    Your link to Jim’s lesson is one lesson off. Can you fix?


  8. Jonathan said


  9. kentm said

    The idea of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” seems to relate, at least in part, to claiming (priesthood) authority where none exists. There are certainly instances of evangelists wearing gold Rolex watches who ask for contributions in the Lord’s name, only to consume the wealth in personal ways. In our own culture, just this past week the First Presidency distributed a letter warning the membership to avoid becoming victims of fraudulent schemes – some of which are perpetrated by people claiming some kind of marginal church connection or authority. It is not hard to see how one could take the Lord’s name in vain for personal gain.

  10. […] I’ve mentioned before—in the Sunday school posts for 1 Nephi 12-14 (lesson 4) and 2 Nephi 26-30 (lesson 10)—how I’m inclined to think about this in terms of a continuum (following John Milbank): […]

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