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19 Behold, he was spoken of by Moses; yea, and behold a type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.
20 But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them.
A lot of us are very familiar with this story. The children of Israel were complaining, God sent fiery serpents to bite them (or at least, that’s how the Old Testament was translated), and they repented and asked for help. Moses was directed to make a serpent, place it on a poll, and the children of Israel would be healed if they looked at it.
We know, from the story, that there were people who looked and were healed and there were people who wouldn’t look and were not healed. The part of the story that is less familiar to me was that there were actually three categories of people and not just two. Let’s talk just a little bit about each group and their modern counterparts, and you can try to see which group you think you fit into.
Many did look and live
There were many Israelites who were healed when they looked at the serpent Moses had made. It was simple much like a lot of the things we do today, taking the sacrament, daily scripture study, daily prayer. Things do not always seem simple; the world is growing darker and more complicated. The power of the adversary is growing, and it makes it hard to sleep at night when I worry about my kids.
However the solutions remain simple. Even if the poison of the snake morphs, even if it gets more dangerous, even if more venom is expelled with every bite, the solutions to these problems have not changed. Pornography has grown wildly rampant, but the solutions remain the same. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize our own pride, but as we continue to read the scriptures, the Spirit will teach us. The sophistry of the world is ever more convincing and yet, when we do these simple, small things, it brings the Spirit into our lives. The Spirit can penetrate any amount of darkness that’s crept in as long as we keep at it. Overcoming the world is a process that happens by small and simple things.
So hardened that they would not look
Okay so what I really want to know is how on earth they didn’t believe when they had already seen so much? How did they explain it away when people were coming back healed? How do you get to a point where you’re so hardened that these experiences mean nothing to you? It’s about becoming.
How do we become something? It’s done by our choices. To make matters even harder, it can’t just be our actions; it has to be done with heart. I’ve said this in previous videos, but doing things with the right heart is so crucial. “If I have not charity, I am nothing.” Why are you nothing without charity? Because it doesn’t change you. If you serve someone without charity, YOU don’t change. You don’t become better.
This is intimidating. We have to obey all the commandments and serve and do it with the right heart. There are a couple of comforting things we can hold to. If you keep the commandment and keep performing the service, your heart will likely find its way to the right place. Get started, don’t focus on negative thoughts, and you’ll get there. The second comforting thing you can hold to is what I mentioned earlier. The solutions are simple. Even as Satan becomes craftier at fashioning his temptations into looking like our own thoughts, the solutions will always remain simple.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to dig myself into a hole without realizing it. I blame my circumstances on those around me, but as I continue reading my scriptures and praying and taking the sacrament, eventually the Spirit gets its message across and I realize that I’m the one who needs to change. It’s a process, right? We’re always headed in one direction or another, but if we follow the simple solutions that God has provided, we can rest assured that we will be constantly drawn back to Christ.
Few understood the meaning of those things
This is the third and final group that I never noticed until now. There were people who were healed but didn’t understand the meaning behind it all. They didn’t see Christ behind their actions and healing. Now, did it still change them? Yes. These people were still healed, but that particular experience didn’t change them as much as it could have. It said that their hearts were still hard, just not as hard as those who never looked at all.
If we’re being totally honest, it’s actually not three groups of people. It’s a spectrum that we are constantly jumping around on. Sometimes we look at the serpents we’ve been given by our prophets and we see Christ. Sometimes we look, but we’re not really looking; this happens in prayer all the time, right? And then sometimes, we look away for so long that we spiritually die just like the Israelites who refused to look. That statement opens up a myriad of new symbolic meanings because Christ can resurrect us; we can be reborn. The faith of those around us can bring us back to life just like the faith of Lazarus’s sisters brought Lazarus back.
There are so many nuances in this story that can broaden even further into other stories, If you pull nothing else from this story, let it be this. Every day we have the choice of whether we’re going to look at the serpent at all and whether we’re going to see Christ behind it. The implications of this are beautiful. No matter how much venom has come and no matter how the venom has morphed or become more deadly, the anti-venom will always remain the same and it will ALWAYS overpower the venom. Every time. We are going to fail miserably some days, or many days in a row, but we’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for an upwards trajectory. If we keep on the upward trajectory, we’re going to eventually get there no matter how many setbacks we encounter.
Hold to the simple solutions, and see Christ behind them. Feel Him near you when you read and pray and take the sacrament as often as you can remember, and you’re going to be fine.
If you’re feeling like all of this is too much, if you’re worn down and tired and don’t feel like you can take another step up, remember that Christ was the one who gave the Israelites the power to look. They had to choose to look, but who gave them their eyes? Who gave them their bodies that helped them walk to go see the serpent? Not only is Christ willing to bless us for doing the right thing, He’s willing to give us the power to do so if we ask for it. He wants us to ask for it.