Joseph Smith says in Lectures on Faith that in order to have faith in God unto salvation, three ideas must be present in our minds:
1) The idea that God exists.
2) That the course we are living is in line with God’s will.
3) A correct understanding of His attributes and characteristics. Namely, omnipotence, omniscience, love, justice, mercy, he changes not, he cannot lie, no respecter of persons, etc.
For the purpose of this post I am going to assume numbers 1 and 2. The third one is a bit more intriguing to me because it seems to require a great deal of knowledge. JS goes on to explain exactly why we need to understand and believe that God has each characteristic.
I would like to posit that the attribute of Mercy might just be the most important one for us to understand, as it pertains to our life and salvation. Here’s why: none of the others motivate me to repent of my sins. Even his love doesn’t motivate me unless there is something in it for me (as cynical as that sounds, could we honestly say that we’d repent if there was no hope of us being forgiven?)
In this light, my study of the Book of Mormon has changed. First of all, I now see that one of the major underlying causes of sin is not understanding God’s characteristics (1 Ne. 2:12, 1 Ne. 3:31, Alma 9:5, and countless others). Conversely, understanding his attributes and characteristics will lead us to keep his commandments, repent, and on to salvation.
If God’s mercy were his most important message, then shouldn’t it be plastered all throughout the BOM? Yes. Yes it should. And is it ever. The word mercy (or any of it’s many forms) appears some 150 or so times in the BOM. All the other attributes combined might equal this. Of course the numbers only indicate a larger message.
First chapter of the Book of Mormon: 1 Ne. 1:20 Nephi prefaces the BOM by saying that, “…I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.” So he is setting the stage, he is beginning this great book by telling us that he is going to show us the Lord’s mercy.
Last chapter of the Book of Mormon: Moroni 10:3 This is a very familiar scripture, especially to those who served missions trying to convince investigators to read and pray about the BOM. There is some interesting wording here, however, that is easy to miss, especially in the context of wanting someone to read the BOM and pray about it. It says, “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts” (emphasis added). He is admonishing us to ponder “it” in our hearts, “how merciful the Lord has been”. All of those instances of mercy that we read about in the BOM, ponder them, and ask if the Lord is truly that merciful.
So Nephi begins by saying that the book is going to be full of instances of the Lord’s mercy. Moroni ends it by admonishing us to look through the whole book at all those instances and ask if that truly was the case. So what are some of those instances? I’ll select a couple among the copious examples.
1 Ne. 8:8 After many hours in darkness, what is it Lehi prays for? “…mercy…according to the multitude of his tender mercies.”
Alma 32:22 Immediately after Alma gives his definition of faith, what does he implore us to do with that faith? To “remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name.”
That same chapter is about faith and the parable of the seed. The next chapter, verse 23 he desires we plant “this word” in our hearts. What word? Verses 4-13 Zenos teaches that the Lord is merciful, and specifically in vs. 11, 13 the “Lord is merciful because of [God’s] Son” THAT is the word that Alma wants us to plant in our hearts.
I have a hard time believing that there is a more important message in the Book of Mormon: that the Lord is merciful and he is willing to forgive us if we would repent. THAT is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.