"Knowest thou the condescension of God?" (1 Nephi 11:16) We miss the significance of the question posed to Nephi if we think that "to condescend" means to patronize, or to act in a smugly superior way.
As documented in Noah Webster's great 1828 American dictionary, Joseph Smith's contemporaries understood "condescension" to mean "Voluntary descent from rank, dignity or just claims; relinquishment of strict right; submission to inferiors in granting requests or performing acts which strict justice does not require."
This perfectly captures the remarkable central claim of Christianity, that God himself — moved by love for his very often unlovely and ungrateful creatures — chose to live among mortals in hopes of redeeming us by his grace. "Mild he lays his glory by," sings the Christmas carol, in a line far too easily passed over.
Nephi's prophetic successors understood this before Christ's birth:
"For behold," declared King Benjamin in roughly 124 B.C., "the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases.
"And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.
"And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people."
Why? Because, remarkably, he loves us.
"And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him" (Mosiah 3:5-7, 9).
"Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person," wrote the apostle Paul, "though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:7-8, NIV). "Herein is love," says 1 John 4:10, "not that we loved God, but that he loved us."
The world's most important acts and events rarely make the newspapers. Its most truly interesting people seldom appear on magazine covers. "Out of small things proceedeth that which is great" (Doctrine and Covenants 64:33). Jesus' birth to an obscure young woman in a minor village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire was entirely fitting. The Lord seems to prefer doing things that way.
If God were to reveal himself fully and openly, the revelation would overwhelm us and destroy our freedom. In his "Philosophical Fragments," the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard uses a parable about a king and a maiden to make this point: How can the king reveal his love to a maiden of humble parentage — given the huge disparity of rank, status and wealth between them — without coercing and crushing her? "Not to reveal oneself is the death of love, to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved." The only real choice open to the king is to court his beloved indirectly, by descending to her station, by taking on the character of a servant. But it's no mere costume change. In order to be a convincing servant, he must really act as one.
The Savior wants us to freely choose to love him, not because he's powerful or terrifying but because we come to know him as lovable. And we have abundant reason to do that. "We love him," testified one of the ancient apostles who knew him intimately, "because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). As the Silesian folk hymn says,
Fair is the sunshine,
Fairer the moonlight
And all the stars in heav'n above;
Jesus shines brighter,
Jesus shines purer
And brings to all the world his love.
Fair are the meadows,
Fairer the woodlands,
Robed in the flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer,
Jesus is purer.
He makes the sorrowing spirit sing.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.
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