Asking the Humility Question: Is It I?

Sometimes a series of events come together to make me understand something afresh. That happened to me over the last several weeks.

A while back, for whatever reason, I recalled a lesson taught by a colleague of mine at Brigham Young University in the '70s and early '80s. Arthur Henry King taught students to read text closely. Shakespeare was his specialty and he applied similar techniques to reading scripture. Before I had heard of Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative, I'd heard Arthur read scripture with careful attention to story line and word use.

Hearing Arthur give his reading of the story of David and Nathan, the prophet, in 2 Samuel 12 was formative for me: Nathan comes to David, who has raped Bathsheba and ordered her husband Uriah's death to cover that rape up. He tells David a story about a rich man who takes the beloved lamb of another and has it slaughtered for his feast. Angered by that injustice, David declares that the rich man will pay four-fold restitution and be executed. Then Nathan responds, "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12:7).

The story itself is powerful, but Arthur helped me to see that the claim it makes applies to me as I read scripture: I am the person who has sinned. I am in need of repentance. The stories I read are not about someone else, not about "the world." They are about me.

Shortly after that I sat in a Sunday School lesson on Isaiah. I heard us read and discuss verses like Isaiah 1:4:

Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.

 As the Sunday School manual suggested, the teacher led our discussion as a discussion of "the world in the last days." But as I read those verses in context, they were not about the world surrounding Israel at the time of Isaiah. They were about ancient Israel itself. If we were to read them as did those who first heard them, we would read them as descriptions of ourselves more often than of others.

For all intents and purposes, we asked, "How have those other people forsaken the Lord?" rather than "Have we?" or "How have we?" I found the lesson disturbing because we had used it to reinforce our complaints about the world and to congratulate ourselves on our righteousness. But I also took silent part in that reinforcement and self-congratulation.

Last Sunday morning I attended the rebroadcast of the Saturday Priesthood Session of LDS General Conference. Seven o'clock p.m. in Utah is two o'clock a.m. here in London, an hour not conducive to careful attention, so we hear it by rebroadcast.

In that meeting Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a talk that he titled "Lord, Is it I?" Elder Uchtdorf retold a story from the Last Supper:

It was our beloved Savior's final night in mortality, the evening before He would offer Himself a ransom for all mankind. As He broke bread with His disciples, He said something that must have filled their hearts with great alarm and deep sadness. "One of you shall betray me," He told them.

The disciples didn't question the truth of what He said. Nor did they look around, point to someone else, and ask, "Is it him?"

Instead, "they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?" (Matt. 26:21-22).

Using that story Elder Uchtdorf concluded, "We must put aside our pride, see beyond our vanity, and in humility ask, 'Lord, is it I?'" Perhaps the Lord is trying to say something to me.

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