Setting for King Benjamin’s Speech
It was nearing the end of King Benjamin’s life when he called his people together in a great assembly to bestow upon them his final blessing. Early in his reign King Benjamin had routed the Lamanites out of the land, and for years the people had lived in peace. Pilgrims gathered with their families from great distances, “bringing the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:2). They had much for which to be grateful. They had been delivered from their enemies, they had a just ruler, and most important, they had been taught to keep the commandments of God. They pitched their tents with the door toward the temple. King Benjamin had a tower especially built that all might hear.
In the Old World , in ancient new-year celebrations like this one, the king was proclaimed as a god of the earth. In noble contrast, King Benjamin’s estimation of himself sets the tone for all that follows: “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind;” (Mosiah 2:10,11).
You would also expect at a gathering of a victorious nation like this, that the people would be lauded and congratulated. They live in triumph and prosperity. Their enemies have fallen aside before their strength. Surely this would be the time for King Benjamin to stir up their patriotic fervor, build the people’s esteem, cry victory and Nephite power. Instead, as Hugh Nibley says, Benjamin “studiously throws cold water over every spark of national pride.”(1) Instead, he bids them to be awakened “to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state” (Mosiah 4:5) He reminds them that if they should serve God with their whole souls, “yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).
His theme, repeated in many phrases and many ways, is the great debt they owe the Lord. If they keep his commandments, they are immediately blessed, so why should they boast? The very dust from which they are created, the very air they breathe is his. “It belongeth to him who created you” (Mosiah 2:25). This is no time for them to be puffed up in their own importance. Should they have any temptation that direction, King Benjamin stops it cold.
In this modern era when we are so carefully taught to build the self-esteem of our children and each other, we must wonder what purpose King Benjamin has in this message. Is he trying to crush his people with his words?
Far from it. It is only in seeing clearly their “nothingness” that they can begin to understand their need for the atonement. Those who falsely believe they are self-sufficient or who think they can be made whole simply by their own good efforts miss the heart of it all. None is good but God. It is not just some other group of people-the truly wicked and despicable who need God’s grace. All are in desperate need of it. As Nibley says, “Only those who are aware of their lost and fallen state can take the mission of the Savior seriously, and before one can embrace it in terms of the eternities it must be grasped on the level of common, everyday reality…For behold, are we not all beggars?…The essence of Benjamin’s preaching is to purge the people, if possible, of their flattering self-image as good guys.”(2)
Until we comprehend how much we personally need the Savior’s atonement, it is difficult to fully appreciate what he has done for us. Life is not a do-it-yourself adventure, and neither is exaltation. Our good works are the smallest part of what will bring us back to God. It is the Savior who supplies by far the most. King Benjamin, as a dying message, wanted his people to enjoy the profound gift of the atonement by first understanding their need.
Two Cheers for Excellence
Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the First Quorum of Seventy said that he was “not very enthusiastic about lectures and books on ‘success’ and ‘excellence’ among the Latter-day Saints.”(3) This is not to say that he doesn’t support excellence, but his thoughts led to a deeper place-the same place King Benjamin was talking about.
He said, ” feel an ever-deepening uneasiness about our uncritical accepting the assumptions of the Yankee ethic of success which can be so competitive, self-centered, and superficial. That is why I have only two cheers for excellence. I have reservations not because I believe it justifiable for us to exert less than our finest efforts; rather, I fear that without a wise perspective, an unqualified commitment to ‘goals’ and ‘excellence’ can distort our understanding of certain long-term principles about life and its larger purposes-even if we do put forth great effort.
“Consider some examples: I recently talked with a young woman who had unselfishly worked hard at being a good wife and mother through several difficult years of marriage. But now the marriage was breaking down. Her husband had developed emotional problems that seriously threatened the spiritual (and at times even the physical) survival of the woman and her children. Surrounded by many questions, she asked the one that haunted her most: ‘How could this have happened when I have tried so hard to do everything the Church has taught me to do?’
“Then I talked to a man who had recently joined the Church and found shortly after his conversion taht he had a terminal illness. He too had done everything within his power to live as he should, making many sacrifices because of his whole-hearted acceptance of the gospel. With his newly found hopes for life now cut so bluntly short, he could not make sense of it. He wondered aloud, ‘What have I done wrong?’…
“To these people, the high-sounding goal of excellence is not so much a source of motivation as it is a source of frustration and discouragement. They have worked as hard as their circumstances allowed, but the rewards they thought they were supposed to accompany great effort somehow eluded them. Not only were they confused about not being rewarded; their failure to achieve had produced feelings of total personal failure.
“At a more general level, from the time we are school children, we grow up with grading curves of one kind or another. Because curves by definition have very few real “winners,” most people develop a sense of basic inferiority. Most of us aren’t among the top 10 percent of anything. Our disappointments range from being the last chosen in a sandlot game to seeing our income range officially designated as ‘lower middle class’ to seeing somebody else always chosen as Mother of the Year….
“I cannot help wondering what we are doing to each other in the Church these days, as we subtly but continually reinforce in one another the assumption that tangible and visible ‘rewards’ and ‘success’ are promised those who do what is right or even those who work their hardest.
Where does that assumption come from? It certainly is not taught by the gospel. On the contrary, the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that the lone and dreary world of mortality is soaked through with adversity and trouble-not to torture us, but to teach us.
“The gospel promises rewards, but ‘not as the world giveth give I unto you’ (John 14:27). Rather, ‘He who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come’ (D&C 59:23). By contrast, those whose vision is limited to this world measure their success only by being ‘seen of men.’ Of such, the Savior said, ‘They have their reward’ (Matthew 6:5).
“Despite these plain teachings, the assumptions of contemporary America ‘s success ethic are deeply and powerfully ingrained among many members of the Church…
“I am addressing primarily a need for perspective. I do not mean to diminish the value of serious commitments to personal achievement and responsibility…But the striving must be to find out God and to accept fully the experiences he knows will enlarge our souls. The trouble with modern pursuits of excellence is that they can become a striving to please other people, or at least to impress them or to seek their approval for accomplishments having positive value. But other people are not finally our judge, and making too much of either the affirmative or the adverse judgments of others can actually undermine our relationship with God and our development of sound values.
“There are many ways in which our natural desire for the approval and praise of other people can distort our perspective. For example, today’s society gives great prominence to financial success and public visibility. However, as stated by Elder Boyd K. Packer, ‘It is the misapprehension of most people that if you are good, really good at what you do, you will eventually be both widely known and well-compensated…The world seems to work on that premise. The premise is false. It is not true. The Lord taught otherwise. You need not be either rich or hold high position to be completely successful and truly happy…We want our children and their children to know that the choice of life is not between fame and obscurity, not is the choice between wealth and poverty. The choice is between good and evil. That is a very different matter indeed.’
“Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the Church, once expressed the same attitude in these words: ‘True greatness consists in doing well the things God has ordained as the common lot of mankind.’…
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God’ (Romans 8:28). If we do all within our power to love God, the doctrines of mercy and Atonement allow him to ensure that all the circumstances of our lives will eventually ‘work together’ for our best good.
“This proposition is different from the Pollyanna-like assumption that because we are children of God all things will work out for the best. More is required of us than that. For the requirement is to love God-to love him with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. That is no trivial task. For, ‘He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me’ (John 14:21). It is a devotion that asks for all our hearts. ‘Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake?’ (John 13:38). Joseph Smith described this same attitude in terms of the principle of sacrifice: One who offers ‘in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life,’ is in a position to know when his life choices are pleasing to God.
Significantly, this single-minded devotion is within our control. It does not depend upon our talents, our heritage, our looks, or our intelligence. And the completeness of our love cannot be judged by others-they are likely to know very little about it. For this is a love too private, too intimate and sacred to be seen of men, much less judged by them. There is only one judge, and on the fairness of his judgment we can surely rely. For ‘the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there’ (2 Nephi 9:41)
“If we love God in this sense, even though we are not perfect and even though we may not be thought of as successful or excellent by others, the promise is that-while not without our effort, not always quickly, and not always as we might predict-all things will work together for our good.
“Through the miracle of the Atonement and through the grace and power of the Savior, this means that-if our repentance is complete-he will compensate for our failures, our sins, and our mistakes. It further means that he will perfect us-make us truly excellent-beyond our power to perfect ourselves.
“All things working together for our good is very different from all things working together for our apparent success or excellence as measured by the standards of this world. Because his making us perfect enough to enjoy eternal life is our ultimate goal, we may need all things to work ‘for our good’ in such a way that there are growing pains, tests, afflictions, and the purification by fire. ‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten’ (Revelation 3:19). This need for discipline may bring us experiences others would not judge to be big success stories. We may have encounters that are harsh, painful, and beyond our ability (let alone the ability of other people) to understand.
“To develop a sufficiently independent relationship with God requires that the private world in which we dwell of communion with him transcend the other ‘worlds’ we inhabit-the world of work, community life, friends, family, and even relationships in the Church. As we gain experience in that private and personal world, we will become less dependent upon the approval of others for our sense of personal worth. As that happens, we will come to understand what Hugh Nibley meant when he said:
“‘I have always been furiously active in the Church, but I have…never held an office or rank in anything: I have undertaken many assignments given me by the leaders of the Church, and much of the work has been anonymous. No rank, no recognition, no anything. While I have been commended for such things, they were never the things which I considered most important-that was entirely a little understanding between me and my Heavenly Father, which I have thoroughly enjoyed, though no one else knows anything about it.'”(4)
The Conviction of King Benjamin
What Elder Hafen explains, King Benjamin knew. He was a king, the height of worldly success, yet what mattered to him was his testimony of Christ. His people were victorious, but unprofitable servants. Ironically, this knowledge of their nothingness did not make them miserable, but full of celebration and rejoicing. “For the Lord hath heard thy prayers, and hath judged of thy righteousness, and hath sent me to declare unto thee that thou mayest rejoice; and that thou mayest declare unto thy people, that they may also be filled with joy” (Mosiah 3:4).
Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986) pp. 484-485,
3. Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989) p. 91
4. Ibid. pp. 91-104
5. Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986) pp. 484-485.