I grew up with the Book of Mormon. Forty Latter-day Saint families lived in our small community nestled under the Teton Peaks. In the basement of the little stone chapel on the hill above our log home, I learned Book of Mormon stories in my Primary classes. We recited the Book of Mormon scripture theme every week at MIA. I read the entire Book of Mormon for the first time in seminary. I vividly remember walking home from Book of Mormon classes during my undergraduate years at Brigham Young University, quickened by a heightening of the senses that I came to identify as the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Several factors contributed to a decline in my knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Book of Mormon during subsequent years. I married, and as our family grew, my Church callings were often in Cub Scouts and Primary. I tried to compensate for removal from adult gospel discussion by participating in a small study group. We took turns leading a discussion on the subject of our choice. This group and a short-lived Book of Mormon reading group formed by the wives in our neighborhood eventually succumbed to demands of Church, family, and community work, as well as a Ph.D. program I was completing slowly but steadily. Although I still used scriptures to support points in talks and lessons, the Book of Mormon was not a regular part of my life, and I listened wistfully to those who expressed love for the scriptures and were able to feel the Spirit through them. At intervals I made renewed efforts to read and study, but when few dividends resulted, I gave up.
The strongest deterrent to my enjoyment of the Book of Mormon arose at the death of my oldest son. Brian was a strong-willed, brilliant, creative, affectionate boy whose interests and temperament were different enough from those around him to make it difficult for him to be accepted. Age sixteen was a turning point in his young life. He seemed to reject most of the values we held dear. He stopped attending church, his grades dropped, and his appearance changed as he found new friends. He was angry much of the time, and there was a great deal of conflict in our home. We knew he was drinking alcoholic beverages, and we suspected he was using other drugs as well, but when confronted, he always convinced us he was not involved. Much later, we learned that he had been using both alcohol and other drugs.
Sessions with a family therapist helped us make it though two difficult years, but our family was in turmoil, and I was frightened, bewildered, and confused as my efforts to help Brian appeared futile. Shortly after graduating from high school, he moved out of our home rather than conform to the rules of the household and endure the continuing conflict. He had no job and no plans for further education, and he spent his time with people of questionable character.
A month after Brian’s eighteenth birthday, the police called me at work to say that he was dead. After drinking late into the night with friends, he had taken some sleeping pills and had finally gone to bed at about 5:00 A.M. Early the next afternoon, the people he was staying with had tried to wake him and had found him dead.
I had always hoped that time and experience would soften Brian’s heart and help him return to productive and happy living. I had always kept a prayer in my heart that his father and I—or the bishop, or someone, anyone—would be inspired to know how to help him. There was much about Brian to love—our last words to each other were “I love you”—and I felt that his goodness would eventually quiet the rebellion in his soul.
Never had I thought that he would not have the chance to turn his life around.
Now it was all over here, and the phrase “everlastingly too late” (Hel. 13:38) pulsed through my brain again and again. Gone was the son with whom I had been closely connected for eighteen years, the child who had led us into each new stage of our life cycle, the one who had carried our hopes for the future. Our separation from him was extremely painful for me, as if a million invisible bonds between us had been severed and each one throbbed with pain.
Equal to the suffering of separation was the weight of guilt I bore. I continually berated myself for failing to prevent Brian’s death. Why had I not been more honest with our counselor about our family problems so we could get at the root of them and defuse Brian’s anger? Why had I not found a more skillful therapist? Why had I not recognized signs of depression in Brian? Why had I let him talk me out of admitting him to the adolescent unit of the hospital for treatment? How could I have failed so badly in teaching him to avoid destructive substances and companions? How could I have failed to love him enough to protect him from feelings of rejection and low self-esteem? Why had we not had home evening every week, family prayer every day and night, read the scriptures more times together? The list went on and on.
In my guilt and grief, I sought comfort from God. My need to understand life and death, justice and mercy, was desperate. My prayers were anguished, and my worship at church and at the temple was exceedingly sorrowful. I felt that I had failed in a monumental way in the most important task of my life and that God had abandoned me at the time of my greatest need. I directed much of my energy to reaching God, seeking comfort and understanding. I wanted to know what Brian’s death meant to my relationship with God, my son, and my fellow human beings.
Scripture study was one of the means through which I sought solace and insight. I often turned to the Book of Mormon—both because of President Ezra Taft Benson’s emphasis and because my professional work as a research associate at BYU focused on missionaries’ use of the Book of Mormon. Rather than finding solace, however, I found judgment and condemnation. I needed a forgiving Father who loved me regardless of my failure and who responded to my pleas for healing and mercy. Although I tried to focus on the numerous passages that portray God in this way, my guilt would not allow me to transcend the condemnatory messages with which they were interspersed. I read, for example, that he who “remaineth and dieth in his sins … receiveth … an everlasting punishment” (Mosiah 2:33) which “doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire” (Mosiah 2:38). My mind filled with pictures of Brian suffering eternally, and my own contribution to that suffering seemed unforgivable. In spite of the pain it caused me, I continued reading the Book of Mormon regularly, hoping to receive revelation.
If God had his arm around me during this period, and I believe he did, it was manifest most plainly through the kindness of my friends and neighbors. They listened to me sort through my confused feelings, held me as I wept, gave me blessings, and showered me with food, cards, gifts, and love.
Meanwhile my work brought me into contact with the Book of Mormon in a way that I had not experienced before. Our task as researchers was to develop and evaluate ways for missionaries to help investigators have a spiritual moment with the Book of Mormon. As we conceived it, the plan required missionaries to stop every few verses to express their feelings and personal experiences. They were to follow these expressions with questions to encourage investigators to consider and articulate their own feelings regarding the passages.
We traveled to several locations in the United States where trainers demonstrated these skills and coached the missionaries as they learned. I played the role of investigator while missionaries practiced the new skills, and I accompanied them to their teaching appointments where they tried their skills with real investigators.
All who were involved in the project heard and shared many touching experiences. We found ourselves reading the Book of Mormon in a new way—one that opened our hearts to its teachings. We reflected on experiences that helped us relate personally to the events in the Book of Mormon. For example, we imagined how it would have felt to touch Christ’s wounded hands, to kiss his feet as Nephi did, to have our minds and bodies healed by Him.
I had read the Book of Mormon many times for its doctrinal and historical content, but now I was reading it in a manner that allowed it to speak to me in a very personal way. As time passed, studying the Book of Mormon became pleasurable to me rather than painful.
It was not a sudden development, however. Once, in the early months of the project—about two years after Brian’s death—we were reading aloud from Mosiah chapter 4. The chapter tells us that King Benjamin’s powerful words brought the Nephites to a realization of their need for a Savior. When they cried for mercy, the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they experienced great joy and peace of conscience because their sins were forgiven. Rather than bringing joy and peace to me, however, King Benjamin’s words reduced me to “less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:2) and engulfed me in guilt and sorrow. I had to leave the room in order to pull myself together.
Several months later, I sat on the edge of my bed reading 3 Nephi. When I reached chapter 22, it was as if I were reading it for the first time. The resurrected Christ was quoting Isaiah as he said to the Nephites, “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud.” (3 Ne. 22:1.) When I read these words, it was as though the Lord was speaking to me: though I am a mother of six children, I am in a sense barren, because the fruit of my womb has been taken from me.
“Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth.” (3 Ne. 22:4.) In my youth—or, more correctly, in my inexperience—I was indeed ashamed and reproached, in my eyes if not in the eyes of others. It seemed impossible that the sorrow, guilt, and shame could ever be forgotten.
“For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.” (3 Ne. 22:6–7.) Truly, I was grieved in spirit and forsaken, or so it seemed. Yet at this moment the Lord spoke to my heart, spoke of gathering me with great mercy.
“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. … O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.” (3 Ne. 22:8, 11–12.) In his great love and mercy, the Lord is preparing a beautiful place, one of his many mansions, for me.
Even in this lovely place with my shame and sorrow forgotten, how could I find joy knowing that my beloved son is suffering? As if the Lord were reading my mind, the words of the Savior continued: “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children. In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee. … This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” (3 Ne. 22:13–14, 17.)
All of my children will be taught of the Lord—and great shall be their peace. Brian will be taught of the Lord, and great shall be his peace. I need not be oppressed by fear and terror! Perhaps these blessings will not be realized until a much later time, or perhaps they have already occurred. But they will be a reality because the Lord has promised it. Truly the Lord, who has descended below all things, knows how to comfort us.
For a moment, sitting on my bed, I felt that I was one of his righteous servants, worthy of his love, his mercy, and his blessings. Overcome by emotion, I lay on my bed and wept. At last God had spoken to me in an intimate way through his scriptures.
The fifth anniversary of Brian’s death has just passed. I still have times when I am brought down by sorrow, loneliness, and guilt, but not as frequently as in the past. I often turn to 3 Nephi 22 to remind myself of God’s goodness to me and my family. Many other passages teach me of his love, and I am usually able to interpret in a hopeful way the verses that speak of condemnation. I believe that he always has his arms extended to gather us “with great mercies,” although his respect for our agency requires that he wait until we are ready to turn to him. Time’s healing influence, the precious experiences I had while working on the Book of Mormon project, and particularly the personal insight I received as I read 3 Nephi 22 have made the Book of Mormon a valuable part of my life once more. [3 Ne. 22]