One the more striking passages from the BoM is the natural man pericope in Mosiah 3. Perhaps I shall have more to say on the central idea of the natural man, later. In the meantime, I wish to focus on the correctives to this fallen state. Three things are recommended:
- yield to the Holy Spirit
- put off the natural man and become a saint
- become as a child, willing to submit to all things
It is this third prescriptive statement that interests me here. The idea of a male “submitting” has some interesting connotations, although the natural father-son relationship seems to be foremost. This idea is not limited to the BoM, in fact, it seems to allude, or perhaps adumbrate, an interesting little argument in Hebrews. But to get started, here’s the natural man verse with the third qualification highlighted (Mos 3:19):
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticing of the Holy Spirit, and puts off the natural man and becomes a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becomes as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord sees fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
Most of us grew up so steeped in the LDS tradition of God as a loving father that we are actually numb to the implications except that we expect that God will give us what we need. However, God was not always known as a father-figure to individual believers, and so the author the Hebrews wishes to show his readers that such a relationship has consequences…
The passage opens in Heb 12:5 with a quotation from Proverbs. This is significant because it sets the tone and limits the implications of the passage (Heb 12:5-6):
And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children– “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
So what follows is an exhortation, addressed to those who are struggling with how to respond to difficult or trying circumstances. It is NOT an attempt to deal with what we call “the problem of evil,” that is, it is not suggesting that all the bad things that happen to us are intended by God to test or teach us. Some people experience some really, really ugly things. Really ugly. Far beyond what a loving father would demand a child endure. Proverbial sayings such as this do not address these grievous events. Instead the point is more limited: readers are encouraged to consider the possibility that God has a pedagogical purpose in some of the things that happen to us.
What is this purpose? Hm. Well, although is impossible to see in a translation, in Greek this entire passage is littered with words from the root paid- , which comes into English in words such as pedagogy or pedagogue. So although the NRSV translates these words with “discipline,” I have shifted it to “instruction” (Heb 12:7-8):
Endure trials for the sake of instruction. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not instruct? If you do not have that instruction in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children
Here, God is pictured as the pater, with the civic and familial duty to instruction his children. That is, God requires of himself that he “fit” his children for their future state, and in Hebrews that means that he is creating men and women who are to be citizens of the heavenly city. His paternal activities are wider than simply discipline: he holds himself responsible to teach, to require practice, to test to see if the learning is fruitful, and to administer reproof and discipline where it is needed.
Now this sound rigorous, no? But note the second part! This status is an honorable one, that is, it establishes us as bona fide members of the household of God. We accept the instruction; we enjoy the privileges! To 21st century Americans, that doesn’t sound like much since there is little stigma associated with bastardry (fortunately), no more slavery (fortunately) and we attach little value to citizenship. Not so, however, in the 1st century–the idea of belonging to a great household was a powerful image.
Next, the author of Hebrews makes an argument from lesser to greater. Since we all have parents, and we submitted to them, how should we respond to God’s pedagogical fatherhood?
Moreover, we had human parents to instruct us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they instructed us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he instructs us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.
The point is not that parents are bad, but that they are necessarily limited. However, one aspect of the good fortune of a Christian is that he or she has a parent who NOT is similarly limited. Thus, we may with full confidence entrust ourselves to God!
The passage in Hebrews ends as it began, with an exhortation to remain strong and endure whatever challenges are presented by life (Heb 12:11-13):
Now, instruction always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
The imagery is athletic; to straighten drooping limbs is to exert ones’ self precisely when otherwise too tired to continue. And to make straight paths for your feet may mean to concentrate on getting to the end of the course to be run. But the best thing to my mind is the phrase “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” To submit to God’s instruction is to be trained to live peacefully among the righteous. Happy thought, that!
So now, how does the natural man pericope re-contextualize the idea of submission to God? First, it removes all of the imagery that requires a reader to appreciate 1st century family relationships or the cultural fascination with athletic prowess, leaving only what is recognizable to anyone who grew up within a reasonably functional family. Beyond that, it seems to indicate that the natural man rejects the Fatherhood of God at precisely the point at which God is working to make him or her something besides the natural man. And so it makes sense that natural [men] will never succeed—because they have placed themselves outside the bounds of the household of God, where they might otherwise have endured relatively minor and honorable discomforts in return for a share in God’s holiness.