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If Not

By Melissa Young

I’m an avid resolution maker in January, but it always seems to be April before I gather the energy to face my flaws. Something about the earlier sunrise makes it easier to get up and read or walk. Something about the plants pushing through heavy soil and blossoms weathering snow makes me want to struggle to become more. To stretch, grow.

I’m finding my thoughts this spring directed toward my efforts as a mother. Maybe it’s all of the new life emerging—flowers, chicks, babies. Maybe it was the talks at Conference or some of the posts here at Segullah. Maybe it’s Mother’s Day looming on the horizon. Whatever the reasons, I’ve been thinking about mothering, and it’s the mothers of the army of Helaman that keep coming to my mind.

I don’t think a Mother’s Day ever passes without some reference to these women. Over the years, I have felt perplexed, irritated, intrigued, and even maddened by the short verses that imply so much. For me, these mothers have melded into one lofty ideal that often intimidates me more than it inspires. The story leaves me feeling my lack of faith. “We do not doubt our mothers knew it,” is the record of the sons. It’s a frighteningly clear phrase–one I’m not sure my children would echo.

I can’t say that I know many things in a spiritual sense. When it comes to matters of faith, I often find myself in the “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief” camp. I know that God is real, that He loves us, that His plan is for our ultimate happiness. My unbelief lies in whether or not what I want will align with His will. I stumble at how to teach my children about God’s infinite capacity for miracles while at the same time cautioning that He may not use that power if we ask. Wanting something is not the same as having faith, and I’ve tried to learn how to put my faith in God rather than in the outcome of events. “But if not” is the phrase that resonates in my soul.

The audacity of these mothers promising their sons that” if they did not doubt, God would deliver them” blows me away.

Years ago I used to think of their faith as childlike. We are told to be as little children, and maybe these women had achieved that. Perhaps they trusted God with an absolute innocence that guaranteed the safety of their sons.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if that interpretation gives them too little credit. These were people who had thrown off the culture and traditions of their fathers, and by so doing had engendered a special hatred against themselves. Over a thousand of their brethren had been killed rather than taking up arms in their own defense. The women knew this, and had perhaps seen it. Innocence was not the most likely outcome of these events.

I think about the anguish of these parents as they considered sending their young sons to battle. Having their children assume this burden on their behalf must have run contrary to every parental feeling. I think of the desperation with which these mothers must have prayed for the safety of their sons, knowing that their enemies particularly hated them.

I’m thinking now that these mothers must have received an answer. The Spirit must have witnessed to them that their sons would live, because it is only through the Spirit that we can truly know anything. This promise of deliverance could not have been realized because of blind trust or even their intense desire for the safety of their sons. They may not have known everything, but they knew their sons would be delivered, and while the young men were not spared from wounds or pain, the promise did erase the “but if not.”

There will be times that I doubt, that I question or don’t know. There will be many “if nots” in my life. But I hope that I can live in such a way that when it matters, I will know. I hope that through the Spirit, I will be able to promise a spring of grace for my children even with the snow flying.

About Melissa Young

(Emerita) is a native of Utah and lives in Cache Valley, Utah, with her husband and three of her four children in their emptying nest. She has an MA in TESOL from Brigham Young University and currently volunteers with the English Learning Center.

12 thoughts on “If Not”

  1. beautifully expressed, Melissa.

    As a mother of five sons, I've often wondered about that story. I'm not sure if the mothers knew that their sons would live through the battle; they only knew and taught their children that they would ultimately be delivered through Jesus Christ. It's much like sending our sons on missions– we truly don't know if they will 'be safe' (and don't all of our hearts break a little when we hear of the death of a missionary?)– but we do know that true safety lies in our testimony of Christ.

    p.s. I like Spring resolutions too!

  2. Michelle, we are kindred spirits in the "but if not" camp.

    It may be true that the promised deliverance was more eternal in nature. That's certainly what I'm more comfortable teaching my children. But I really wonder now (and even want) the mothers of that army to have had a special witness, with miracles as the result.

    Of course I will pray with my whole heart for the safety of my children and I fully expect the "but if not" phrase to be in effect. It's the same as praying "Thy will be done." But this story gives me the hope to pray for a certain outcome.

    I remember reading a story about a WWII soldier who had terrible survivor's guilt. He prayed and prayed to know why he was spared when so many of his friends were not. The answer finally came, "It was because of the prayers of your mother." I don't know that his mother knew he would be safe, but she prayed and prayed that he would.

    Sometimes I think that I am so far into the "but if not" mentality that I don't have the courage to ask God for blessings. I'm trying to get better at that.

  3. Oh I hope I'd kindred spirits with you!

    I'm obsessed with the "But If Not" concept. I'm convinced that it is that kind of faith that will get us through the tumult of the events leading to the second coming.

    My favorite "But If Not" story comes from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1939 (stop me if you've heard this story): 350,000 British soldiers were stranded on the beaches of France with Hitler's Panzer force less than a day away. British headquarters radioed that they would attempt a rescue operation and received a 3 word reply from the men at beach lacking munitions and food– "But if not."

    Historians have never been able to explain why Hitler became distracted, indecisive when he was so close to victory. With the invasion at the tip of his fingers, Adolf chose to wait a few days. This delay gave the British just enough time to call for every fishing boat, every trawler and cargo barge and skiff to slip across the channel under the veil of fog and rescue the entire British army. BUT IF NOT.

  4. I came into this world as a strong-willed, opinionated, and mostly agenda-driven individual. Life experience has tutored me (as life experience is wont to do), and I am slowly learning to give up my will to God's. It's definitely a work in progress, but I try hard…And it is the "but if not" scenario that saves me. I have to constantly remind myself to say "but if not" and to remember (and believe) that whatever follows is and will be the best outcome for all concerned.

    My heart knows full well that the Lord's plan for me (and for those I love) is better than any plan I might have, but my head still argues, sometimes. I have to keep the "but if not" mentality alive and kicking in order to stay humble.

    Having said that, I think it's quite possible that the mothers of the sons of Helaman did have a very specific promise from the Lord revealed to them. They were certainly worthy of such a manifestation. And I believe the Lord is as merciful as our propensity to be slow learners allows. (Note: I suspect that the mothers of Helaman, if they were ever slow learners, were at this point adroit ones.)


  5. I really love this idea, because I too have wondered how THESE mothers had so much faith that they could promise their sons such miracles. I (who sometimes have faith abundantly and sometimes don't) would not dare to promise such a thing to my son going off to battle. But it's likely that Heavenly Father knew that this story would be one we would need in the future in the Book of Mormon, and prepared those strong mothers' hearts to testify of this to their sons.

    I love this!

    I also love Michelle's But if Not story. And Sue's idea that the Lord is merciful to slow learners.

  6. Thank you for this post. I've thought a lot about the "But If Not" concept.

    One day as I was reading The Book of Mormon I read again 1 Nephi 11:17, where Nephi states: "I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." The "nevertheless" struck me along with the phrase "but if not".

    I came to understand that in my own life no matter what happens (or doesn't happen) I know God loves me. Though it is hard to have the faith when times get tough, I know it is so very important. I rely on the fact that no matter what, He is still guiding me and watching over me.

    Also, one of my favorite General Conference talks is: "But If Not" by Dennis E. Simmons. http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,49-1-439-25,00.html

    Thanks again.

  7. That "but if not" can be daunting. I have a child who has problems staying dry overnight. This child has asked me why that still happens despite many prayers for it to stop. It's a minor thing in the eternal scheme of things, but to this child, it's major. I admire anyone who can help a young child understand that God still loves us and notices us, even when we have the "but if not" situation. I would love to meet these mothers of stripling warriors, pick their brains a little.

  8. Also: at least some of them had personally seen Ammon delivered from death, and surely they would have learned the reason behind it: Mosiah only let his sons go after Heavenly Father assured him of their continued safety. It seems to me that it becomes much easier to ask for particular blessings when we have seen how they work close at hand.

  9. I read of the warriors last night and thought of your post Melissa. For me, the mothers knew that the Lord "would deliver them". Sure, none of them even got hurt in the first battle, but I tend to believe the Mums weren't talking about becoming veterans of war, they were talking of being "delivered" from life's challenges and death's sting. I wonder how many of the striplings went forth into the next battle thinking they were invincible (after all, the first fight went overwhelmingly in their favour!) and were hugely surprised at bleeding, and physical damage. I reckon that the second battle would have set many to thinking, and strengthened their belief, and made "but if not" a definite consideration. The main point to that then being, that they continued doing what they knew to be right.

    Excellent thought provoking, thank you!

  10. I'm grooving on your between-the-lines analysis. Here's taking it one step further (which direction, remains to be seen…)

    I've thought for a long time that most of these faithful mothers were probably single moms, if it was their husbands who lay down before their attackers.

    New thought for today: if the Ammonites were largely a society of mothers and children, that might make their sons the sole hope for carrying their names as a separate people into the next generation (in the apparently male-dominated BoM society). Thus, it could be daunting to contemplate sending an entire generation of young men off to ward. Perhaps those mothers were depending on the promise to the people as a whole that, if they were faithful, God would not let them be destroyed.

    Which doesn't necessarily mean that individuals would always be spared, so the idea that the revelation was personal to these moms also resonates.

    And while we're here…I wonder how many of the seasoned veterans of war (who often get unfavorably compared to the striplings) laid down their own lives in those battles to keep the sons of Helaman safe and make sure the mothers' promise was fulfilled.



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