As is well documented on this blog, gospel lessons can come from anywhere. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes not so much. Sometimes, while watching a Netflix series about awkward nerds saving the world from the threats of an unknown realm called the Upside Down and its real life monster versions of Dungeons and Dragons bad guys, we can notice character similarities to the Old Testament progression of the Kings of Israel, …or is that just me?
Well, Stranger Things have happened (in best Dad joke voice).
Everyone loves a good story. They help us connect to each other through the shared experience. The key to good storytelling is to base the conflict on the real struggles of everyday life. This is how we really identify with the characters, and internalize the story. In today’s society, our stories are told not only through books, but movies, and tv shows. Some are good, and some are not so good.
If we can relate to the struggle, or see similarities in our own lived experiences, we are drawn to it, connect to it, and have a vested interest in the resolution. These stories detail how our heroes defy the odds, fight through the turmoil, and overcome the conflict. We all find inspiration, courage and even hope in these stories. Somehow, we want to incorporate our favorite character’s ability to overcome into our own personal struggles. That is what makes us love the stories and the characters within them.
I’m not saying that we often find ourselves caught in a battle with Vecna, the powerful psychokinetic Wizard trying to grow his power to take over the world through thought control. But, we are all caught in a constant back and forth between right and wrong, and good and evil. Sometimes this battle occurs more overtly with our relationship challenges with one another. Sometimes the struggle is internal within the boundaries of our own heart and mind.
This ancient struggle between right and wrong that occurs inside each of us happens in a very specific way. This battle is over which of our human character traits will be in the driver’s seat in control of our everyday actions. Will we overcome our natural selves, and choose to have honesty, integrity and love control us? Or will be falter, and revert back into our base, natural inclination for selfishness, greed, and passive lethargy?
This particular struggle has been at play inside the human heart for a very, very long time.
This is, of course, where the ancient stories of Saul, David, and Solomon, combine with the slightly more contemporary, albeit entirely fictional, Lucas Sinclair to teach us about this character control struggle.
First, because Lucas does not currently have a book in the Old Testament, we should all get up to speed on his story. He is one of the characters on the Netflix series, Stranger Things. He plays one of several nerdy boys who spend their time playing Dungeons and Dragons in the basement. This series takes place in the 1980’s, so it obviously precedes video games. We find him in seasons 1-3 utilizing his, and his friends’ nerdy D&D skills and knowledge to fight off attacks from Demogorgans, the Shadow Monster, a.k.a. the Mind Flayer, and some Russians who have taken over the local mall. Through their collective efforts, and Eleven’s amazing mind power, victory was secured.
Season 4 is different. Lucas has now “grown up” and is part of the school’s basketball team. He is not a star, far from it actually. He’s a benchwarmer. He is also desperate for approval and acceptance into the cool kids popular crowd. He sees the basketball team as his ticket out of nerddom, and into the cool circles he only dreamed of before.
Through a wild series of events, Lucas finds himself in the very unlikely scenario where he is forced to choose between his basketball team’s championship game, or his friends Dungeons and Dragons championship match. They are held at the same exact time. Lucas chooses basketball, which is devastating to his friends.
Somehow, Lucas manages to not only play in the basketball game, but he makes the game winning shot at the buzzer, instantly rocketing him up the popularity ladder into stardom.
This scene is one of cinematic mastery. Tense music backdrops both the scenes of Lucas’s final shot, and the final roll in the Dungeons and Dragons challenge match. His basketball heroics are painstakingly highlighted through slow motion focus, concurrently and perfectly congruent to the highlights of the nerd’s game. Slow motion scenes cut back and forth as the highlights simultaneously peak in crescendoed victory in both diametrically opposed games of skill.
With that newfound stardom, however, Lucas is forced to abandon his longtime friends in order to join the cool basketball kids, and soon finds himself actively fighting against these friends in the story.
He is torn between where he has been, where he is, and where he wants to be. Ultimately, Lucas’ true character shines through, and he overcomes the temptation and superficial allure of popularity and fame, and he rejoins his longtime friends in their collective fight against their enemy. He chose to let the right character drive his actions. What a story.
Not all stories have such a happy ending. And especially the stories we will talk about today. But we can learn from negative experiences just as easily as we can from positive ones. From our list above, there are three other examples to learn from. This time, lets look at the three successive kings of Israel in the Old Testament.
Saul, David, and Soloman were all kings of Israel. All of them started their lives, and reigns, in much the same way. They were all chosen because they possessed the character needed to be a righteous king. They were humble, full of faith and relied on the God of Israel. Lets take a peek at each one…
Saul was chosen as the first King of Israel. He was described as, “a choice young man, …and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he…”. He was chosen by God who, “gave him another heart…and the Spirit of God came upon him…” (1 Samuel 10:9,10).
So far, so good.
The prophet Samuel, who anointed Saul to be King, when prophesying of the blessings of obedience, did leave him and the people of Israel some advice. Maybe we could call it foreshadowing?
Samuel warned, “Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king.” (1 Samuel 12:25)
So, what happened to Saul? How did this ancient story play out? How did the internal battle for control of his actions end up? Would he rejoice in ultimate victory and celestial bliss?
Well, If we fast forward just a few chapters, we get this…
“…and there was a javelin in Saul’s, hand. And Saul cast the javelin, for he said, I will smite David even to the wall with it.” (1 Samuel 18:10,11)
Hmm. That’s not good. Sounds like an Old Testament version of pin the tail on the donkey. Saul degenerated From humble, goodly, faithful beginnings to attempted murder. How did he get there?
Let’s look at two examples that may shed light on the slow methodical nature of Saul’s fall. Neither one may seem all that big of a deal, but together, and likely among a host of other small decisions, it proved enough to change his heart and mind. This change of heart then was enough to alter his actions. These actions then led to a person unrecognizable to his younger self. How did he let the wrong internal Saul take control?
First, let’s glance into the experience he had while waiting for the prophet Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice to the Lord before a battle that was looming. Samuel had instructed Saul, the leader of the army, to wait, and that he would come at a specific time to offer a sacrifice in the army’s behalf.
When Samuel was late, Saul took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice for Samuel. Saul was king, not prophet. He was not authorized to offer sacrifice. By now, he was likely used to being obeyed, and having events revolve around him, and his timeline. He likely would have been pressured by those around him to do it himself. He was a king after all. He was the one that should dictate when and how things should be done.
How far off was his thought process? He just wanted to make sure the Lord was on his side, didn’t he? But, he had overstepped. He had relied less on faith, and trust in God’s prophet, and more on the arm of flesh, or the perceived reality and pressure of the moment.
When confronted by Samuel, Saul explained why he had proceeded on his own, “because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice” (1 Samuel 15:24). He was worried about what other people would think of him. Sounds like a modern problem as well.
Saul had lost his blessing. Later the scriptures elaborate, “But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit [which was not of] the Lord troubled him”. (1 Samuel 16:14)
This absence of the spirit of the Lord in Saul’s heart left it to be filled with opposing sentiments. Anger, greed, and jealousy took its place. This doesn’t usually happen overnight, it takes multiple, small, and consistent choices, changes, and allowances to let the natural man to take over. But, once we invite it in, the floodgates open.
Fast forward a little bit. Now Saul, and his newly named successor, David, are returning from battling the Philistines. Saul overheard the women in his city saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him…”
Now Saul was really jealous. He couldn’t stand to be disrespected. He was offended that David got more credit than he did. He wanted to be the most revered, the most adored, the biggest and the best. He wanted to be perceived as the most powerful. He now allowed the full natural man, the jealous man, the greedy man to drive his actions. His next act was throwing a javelin at David. The wrong Saul was driving the actions. The internal battle was lost. He spent the rest of his life trying to destroy David. Small, seemingly insignificant choices eventually led to a complete change in character.
The aforementioned David is our next example. He was the perfect poster child for early potential. The same Samuel the Prophet who had called and anointed Saul, had called and anointed David to be the next King, after Saul and his line proved unworthy.
We know, of course, of his early days when he used the power of faith in God to slay the Giant Goliath with a sling and stones.
Throughout David’s life he proved again and again to be a capable warrior and King. He became king of all Israel, united its kingdoms under a single banner, and moved the capital to Jerusalem. He even made plans to move the Tabernacle and the ark of the covenant there and wanted to build a permanent temple. David recognized all along who had given him success.
“And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways. and the Lord was with him.”(1 Samuel 18:14), and was “a man after the [Lord’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14)
Until he wasn’t. He slipped and allowed personal gratification with Bathsheba, and the subsequent aftermath with Uriah to ruin it all.
He had allowed a single moment, or a series of lead-up moments, to derail his ultimate potential. What a king he could have been. But, he chose to open himself up to be driven, and influenced by the natural inclination towards selfishness, and instant gratification. Good David lost the internal battle of will to Bad David. And, If it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us. It takes constant, continuous, cognizant, and relentless hard work to fend off temptation, pride, and the natural man. These choices happen every single day. They seem small, but are meaningful.
Although the promise of his exaltation was lost (Doctrine and Covenants 132:39), David did try and reconcile with God for the rest of his life. He continued to worship the God of Israel, and charged his son Solomon to keep the Lord’s commandments when he passed on his throne. “And keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgements, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest…” (1 Kings 2:3)
As David’s son, Soloman also learned from an early age to worship and love God. After he was named king, he remained humble, and relied on the special gifts God had blessed him with. “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as at the sand this is on the sea shore.” (1 Kings 4:29)
Not only was Solomon the smartest guy in the world, he was one of the kindest. He, and Israel were blessed immensely. He built a temple and dedicated it to the Lord. He had not one, but two visions where he saw the Lord in dreams.
In his dedicatory prayer for the newly constructed temple, he admonished his people to, “…know that the Lord is God, and that there is none else. Let you heart therefore be perfect with the Lord our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as at this day.” (1 Kings 8:60,61).
However, Solomon didn’t take his own advise. only a few chapters later, we read, “But king Solomon loved many strange (foreign) women…of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love…And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart… For it came to pass, that when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods:.. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord…” (1 Kings 11:1-6)
He even built high places unto these other gods, and sacrificed unto them. Yikes. I guess he went all in.
To us in 2022, this may seem like an easy thing to avoid. We may think, “well, at least I’m not building a temple to some weird gods named Ashteroth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech. I’m in good shape.”
But, if we look into what those gods represented at that time, and how they were worshipped, it’s not so different from what is “worshipped” today in ever increasing numbers.
Overall, Solomon had allowed himself to be compromised. He had allowed himself to stray too far from the doctrine of God. He spent more and more time concentrating, and validating the beliefs of others than he did feeding his own faith. This allowed the truth to dwindle in his own heart, and fed the natural man and his indulgence.
In time, Solomon’s commitment to truth wavered. Subsequently, the blessings that came because of his commitment to the truth, were taken away. He lost the blessings because he lost sight of the source of the blessings. What a shame.
So what can we learn from these stories? What is the takeaway? How can we be more like the young versions of Saul, David, Solomon, and even Lucas?
The one glaring principle that is taught in flashing neon lights in these stories is one we read in the Doctrine and Covenants…
“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39)
So how do we avoid the fates of Saul, David, and Solomon?
We can recognize that we are in a battle. We are fighting everyday for control over our heart and actions. We can recognize that every little decision we make can have lasting, far reaching influence on our own future, or even the future of our family. We can recognize that if we really want to reach our full potential, we have to limit that base, natural man that wants us to succumb to our lesser characteristics.
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19)
We can recognize that we can never relax into a state of comfortable complacency, no matter how strong we are today. We can recognize that fidelity to God and his Gospel strengthens us, and develops the character traits that provide protection against rage and ruin, and provides infinite potential for the world to come.
We can decide now to reject the worldly thoughts, ideas, and temptations that will surely come to us with ever increasing frequency and power. We can look for the modern iterations of the false gods that plagued ancient Israel.
We can recognize that without God, or his blessings, we are nothing. Without God, our intelligence and understanding are limited, our strength is temporary, and our happiness is fleeting.
We can recognize the source of every single blessing we enjoy. We can recognize our own weaknesses and predispositions and actively seek to fortify them. We can decide, and choose which characteristics we will allow to inform, and guide our actions.
We can recognize that we have the power of choice, and we “are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. … I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto this great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit” (2 Nephi 2:27,28)
I hope we all take the time to watch our step, and focus on each small decision we make every day so that we can fight off the natural man, and his pernicious, poisonous pitfalls.