19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.
Nephi taught that “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23) He did not say that we are saved by grace and by all that we can do. We are saved by grace, pure and simple. So what is the role of our own efforts in our salvation? Nephi’s psalm (2 Nephi 4:15-35) provides a vivid illustration of how this works in real life.
Nephi held himself to a high standard of excellence and was devastated by his failures: “I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.” The fact that God had blessed him many times in the past did not make him complacent. In fact, it seems to have made him more frustrated with himself: “If I have seen so great things…why should I give way to temptations that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?” He looks like an Olympic athlete or a world-class musician–constantly striving for perfection, pushing himself ever harder, not allowing himself to rest because of his quest for excellence, concerned about every detail. The process looks excruciating.
But there is more to the story: “O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul?” he asks. “Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?” As painful as the process may be, Nephi knows he is not alone in his struggles. Through the grace of God, he can receive power to overcome every weakness and to become the person he wants to be. “I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss.”
Notice how lofty his understanding of grace is. He doesn’t say, “Wilt thou admit me to heaven in spite of my sins?” His understanding of redemption is bigger than that. He is asking God to change him into a person who doesn’t sin any more. He wants to actually overcome his sins, not just have them overlooked. And he believes that, through the grace of God, that outcome is achievable.
Even with God’s grace, that is hard and frustrating work. Nephi is like a baby chick, struggling to extract itself from its shell. Could God simply remove the shell? Of course He could, but only at the expense of the strength Nephi is developing through the effort. Through the grace of God, he will be successful, but he accesses that grace by continually striving be what God wants him to become.
I’m grateful to Nephi for showing us how the process of redemption works in real life. It is painful. Our hearts groan because of our sins, and we desperately wish we were better than we are. But we need not wonder if we will be successful in the end. We know in whom we trust. Through the grace of God, we can achieve the ultimate goal of salvation in the kingdom of God.