They arrived promptly at 5pm and left at 6pm sharp (apparently one-hour meals that end right at 6pm are the rule in this mission — clearly the French are not involved). I learned they were both from northern Utah (Bountiful and Ogden) and had started their missions together (they’d been companions in the MTC). They seemed so young! I couldn’t help imagining how I must have come across when I was a missionary, or feeling just how much I’ve grown/changed/(regressed?) since then. A lot happens in 11 years.
It was a great visit. I hometeach some of the less active folks that they’ve been working with, so we talked about those families’ needs and challenges. Turns out they have encountered a fair number of West African and Filipino immigrants here in Virginia (just as I did in Brussels), so we could share food adventures and cultural experiences. And then, of course, they gave their spiritual message before leaving.
The message, which I’ll paraphrase here, juxtaposed the stories of Nephi’s getting the brass plates from Laban (1 Nepi 4) and Naaman’s being cured of leprosy by Elisha (2 Kings 5).
Nephi was a young kid who led a relatively privileged, and righteous life until his family was commanded to flee Jerusalem. When his father asked him to return to get some religious records from local strongman Laban, Nephi went in faith believing that God would prepare a way for him to accomplish the task. He was right — God did prepare a way — but it required that Nephi kill Laban. Faced with such a violent task, our faithful hero, who only a few verses earlier had declared “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” now said in his heart, “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.” But then the Spirit returned and helped Nephi understand the reason for the deed. Nephi overcame his doubts and proceeded as prompted, thereby securing for his posterity the writings of the prophets.
Naaman, in contrast to Nephi, was an experienced and enormously successful captain in the Syrian army. He was a “great man”, “honorable” and a “mighty man of valor.” He was also a leper. Although Naaman was not of the house of Israel, he responded in faith when one of the Isrealite women whom his army had captured suggested that the prophet Elisha could cure Naaman’s leprosy. Naaman rode to Elisha with horses and chariot (as famous warrior’s do) and was met by a messenger who instructed him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman’s response? Anger and disappointment. The soldier had expected the prophet to come and “strike his hand” over the leprosy, calling down the powers of heaven to cure the disease. Instead, Elisha had sent only a servant with a task so simple it felt like a slight. But then Naaman’s servants approached and asked why, if Naaman had been prepared to “do some great thing” at Elisha’s bidding, he would not consider just doing this little thing. The question humbled Naaman; he bathed and was cured.
Imagine, the Elders invited, what would have happened if Nephi and Naaman had switched places. Nephi would willingly have run to the river; surely Naaman wouldn’t have thought twice about killing Laban. But that’s not how the stories go. Each man was given a task that was difficult for him — against his nature even — requiring an increase of faith and humility to overcome doubts and pride. Each needed to learn (and did learn) a lesson that he would not have learned had he been given the challenge faced by the other.
And so for us: We each face challenges that are particular to our own circumstances. There’s no value in looking across to the other guy and wondering why he finds his challenges so difficult, nor in wishing we had his challenges instead of our own. The value comes in learning what our challenges teach us about faith, God’s plan for us, and what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Be grateful, said the Elders, for the challenges you have. Use them to build righteousness and wisdom.
Indeed, I thought. I’m not sure “grateful” is the word I’d use to describe how I feel about some of the challenges I’ve had. But I do appreciate the perspective that this comparison of Nephi’s and Naaman’s stories provides. And I am grateful for the way two young missionaries who have never met me before can share a message that speaks to my heart and invites the Spirit to confirm its truth.