The scriptures are rife with stories of strange episodes where our hero comes face to face with a very difficult decision. Do they follow the letter of the law or the spirit? We find times when these horribly conflict and I cannot help but ponder not only how these people found the strength to follow the Lord, but why the Lord would ask it of His servants in the first place.
Consider Abraham. Murder was forbidden, and yet he found himself commanded to sacrifice his own child. What emotions must have rushed through him, conflicting one another? What of Jacob, who lied and cheated in order to all but steal his brother's birthright? He knew he was to be the next in line, that God wanted him to be the next prophet, but he had to do things he blatantly hated in order to make it so. What of Jesus Himself? He healed on the Sabbath, He claimed the right to clean out the temple, and called Himself the Son of God.
But there is another story that intrigues me. Let's look in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4, for those who have a copy. Enter Nephi - a teenage boy from Jerusalem who has devoted his life to the fervent and devoted service of God. He glories in doing the right thing. His father is apprised that the Babylonians are going to destroy the city and he is commanded to take his family and flee. There is just one problem. They don't have a copy of the scriptures. A relative has a copy of the scriptures but he is a bad tempered fellow with no love of God but a great love of violence and money. Nephi tries to ask for the book and this relative, Laban by name, rejects him. Nephi tries to buy the book. Laban insults him, runs him off, steals his money, threatens to kill him and still won't give him the scriptures. Nephi's brothers are about to give up and they beat him with a rod to take some of the piety out of him. Still Nephi returns to Jerusalem alone, praying to God for help and not knowing what he will do before he does it.
He meets a man, dead drunk, in the darkened streets. He recognizes the man as Laban and the Spirit constrains Nephi to kill him. Nephi shrinks at first but the Spirit insists, telling him "It is better that one man should perish than a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." This is war. All things considered, Nephi takes the man's sword and slashes off his head, wears his clothes, gets the book, bullies a servant and then brings him along to join his brothers and parents in the wilderness.
This is a man who delighted in doing the right thing, who was taught that lying, killing, theft and cheating was wrong. And yet in the space of a few hours God required all of these things from his likely trembling but always willing, adolescent hands. Nephi continues in the strength of the Lord to become a great leader, even a king, among his people and a prophet before our Master. I cannot imagine that God in any way condemned his actions, but imagine the wrestle afterward within his own heart. Even with heaven cheering him on, I cannot help but think that it took some deep prayer to be able to forgive himself, to convince himself that his hands were clean, and really gain a testimony that he had done rightly.
My own experience with God and life has made me consider the story of Nephi with new eyes. Our purpose here is to progress and grow, and when a person already has a passion for being morally strong, his next test might be to follow the Lord, even when it might seem or feel contrary to the standard commandments from childhood. Are we here to follow the book or to follow the Lord? It seems counterintuitive, but those who reach such a pitch are truly the super stars of the spiritual world, and I cannot help but think that God brings us to that point, asks us to jump off that cliff, that precipice over gaping hell, that we might more fully cling to him, become ever more wary of our actions and our egos and in order to give us, finally, our own ethereal wings to fly.