17 Now my father, Lehi, had said many things unto them, and also unto the sons of Ishmael; but, behold, they did breathe out much threatenings against anyone that should speak for me; and my parents being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, they were brought down, yea, even upon their sick-beds.
18 Because of their grief and much sorrow, and the iniquity of my brethren, they were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God; yea, their grey hairs were about to be brought down to lie low in the dust; yea, even they were near to be cast with sorrow into a watery grave.
19 And Jacob and Joseph also, being young, having need of much nourishment, were grieved because of the afflictions of their mother; and also my wife with her tears and prayers, and also my children, did not soften the hearts of my brethren that they would loose me.
20 And there was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts; wherefore, when they saw that they were about to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea they repented of the thing which they had done, insomuch that they loosed me.
(1 Nephi 18:17-20)
Since the purpose of life is for us to progress and become more like God, repentance is a critical component of our mortal experience. As illustrated in the passage above, God will warn us in many different ways when we need to repent.
As Nephi’s family traveled across the ocean on the ship they had built, his older brothers, Laman and Lemuel, together with the sons of Ishmael, began to behave inappropriately. When Nephi tried to correct their behavior, they were angry with him and tied him up. Notice in the passage above how many opportunities they were given to repent of their abusive behavior:
- Their father spoke with them. If they had obeyed the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12), they might have listened to his counsel and resolved the situation before it got worse. Instead, they threatened him and their mother.
- Their younger brothers, Jacob and Joseph, were troubled by the situation. If Laman and Lemuel had felt empathy for their younger brothers, they might have been motivated to repent.
- Nephi’s wife and children were personally affected by the violence committed against their husband and father. Nephi’s statement that their “tears and prayers” didn’t soften Laman’s or Lemuel’s heart suggests to me that she pleaded with them even after they threatened anyone who spoke on his behalf. In any event, it seems clear that Laman and Lemuel were aware of those tears and prayers, and that they intentionally ignored them.
- There was “a great and terrible tempest” which became progressively worse over three days (1 Nephi 18:13-15). When the storm got so bad that Laman and Lemuel began to fear for their lives, their hearts were finally softened. They repented and set Nephi free.
What was the purpose of the storm? Like the other warnings, it was intended to influence Laman’s and Lemuel’s behavior. As soon as they repented and set Nephi free, “the winds did cease, and the storm did cease, and there was a great calm” (1 Nephi 18:21). No retribution here, just a motivation to repent.
Howard W. Hunter explained that the bad things that happen to us serve the purpose of helping us grow and progress:
Yes, we all have difficult moments individually and collectively, but even in the most severe of times, anciently or modern, those problems and prophecies were never intended to do anything but bless the righteous and help those who are less righteous move toward repentance. God loves us and the scriptures tell us he “gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” [John 3:16–17] (“Hope: An Anchor to the Souls of Men,” BYU Devotional Address, 7 Feb 1993).
Today, I will pay attention to the warnings around me that I need to repent. When I receive those warnings, whatever form they might take, I will act on them, recognizing that they come from a loving Heavenly Father who has my best interests at heart and who is trying to help me change and become more like Him.