The Dwindles

Mycobacterium tuberculosis
Electron microscope image of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (source)

Once in I while I find myself struck by a word that I encounter in the scriptures. Since I’m quite prone to perusing tangents, this usually prompts me to do a scriptural word search. That happened to me recently with the word dwindle. The English dictionary defines dwindle as to diminish gradually in size, amount or strength. Scriptural references to the word dwindle are almost exclusive to the Book of Mormon; virtually every usage of dwindle and its cognates refer to dwindling in unbelief.

Perhaps the reason dwindle resonated with me is that fact that I see a version of it all the time as a doctor. The dwindles is a moniker that is commonly used in medicine to describe a person that has a gradual decline in health over time, leaving them progressively weakened and ever closer to death. It’s hard to reduce it into a checklist of symptoms and signs. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t forget what it looks like. Although nothing in medicine (or life) is a certainty, it’s generally a bad sign when you see someone with the dwindles.

In the scriptures the dwindles describes a spiritual affliction rather than a physical one. Though my profession regularly gives me occasion to see a physical version  of the dwindles, I can also recognize that the spiritual version of the dwindles is very common.  The latter varies from periodic doubting to shaken faith to full-blown de-conversion. I thought it therefore worthwhile to see what the Book of Mormon had to say about dwindling.

Although Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life is generally viewed as a grand allegory about the struggles of mortality, it also indirectly describes spiritual dwindles. In his vision Lehi describes “numberless concourses of people” trying to reach the tree of life. But, as they were enveloped by the mists of darkness they “did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost”(1 Nephi 8:21-23). Once lost, they “felt their way” to the great and spacious building, and in a very public way, joined with the masses in pointing their fingers in mockery at the believers. I know the vision was just a metaphor, but it sounds pretty descriptive of the here and now.

As the story of the Book of Mormon unfolds, we are confronted with example on example of people that once believed who then “dwindled in unbelief”. And, though the other scriptures don’t specifically use dwindle to describe this ailment, we see the concept depicted through all scripture. Consider how many times the Children of Israel abandoned Jehovah for the gods of the Canaanites? How often did the chastening of the Lord come in the form of a raiding army from a nearby kingdom? Re-read the Acts of the Apostles (Ananias and SapphiraPeter and Simon the Sorcerer) or the epistles of Paul (Demas, Diotrephes, Hymenaeus and Alexander) for New Testament examples.  As you move forward to more modern scriptures like the Doctrine and Covenants you won’t find yourself lacking for more sad examples. I shudder to think of how many prominent members of the Church in this dispensation have called it quits and walked away from the Church and faith they once held dear.

Nucci,_Avanzino_-_Petrus'_Auseinandersetzung_mit_Simon_Magus_-_1620
Peter’s conflict with Simon Magus. By Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Simon Magus is the Latin name for Simon the Sorcerer , dressed in dressed in black and described in Acts 8:9-24

One of the most important questions about spiritual dwindles is: what causes it? I will state from the outset that there are likely to be many causes. But the Book of Mormon speaks most directly about one preventable cause:

“your seed . . . shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity” (3 Nephi 21:5, emphasis mine)

because of their iniquity the church did dwindle in unbelief” ( 4 Nephi 1:38, emphasis mine)

“And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation” (4 Nephi 1:38, emphasis mine)

“And the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because that they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they should trust.” (Mormon 9:20, emphasis mine)

I could easily go on with more examples, but it belabors the point. Suffice it to say that the Book of Mormon suggests that there is a very high correlation between iniquity and spiritual dwindles. This correlation seems to go beyond association, but rather implies causation. Iniquity is the root problem in almost all  examples of dwindling in the Book of Mormon.

Now is is very important to note that iniquity is not the ONLY cause of dwindling in unbelief (so please put down your pitchforks and torches). To make such an assumption is to over-simply a very complex syndrome. Remember that, while smoking cigarettes is a major cause of lung cancer, there are people that have never smoked who still get lung cancer. So it is with spiritual dwindles and iniquity: some people are afflicted who have always remained worthy. And, while iniquity is not the only pathogen causing this syndrome, it has to be listed as a major risk factor.

A second important observation about spiritual dwindles is also worth making. Though there may be multiple causative pathogens, spiritual dwindles afflicts a very specific population. It primarily afflicts believers. You can’t dwindle in unbelief if you didn’t believe to some degree in the first place.

In medicine knowing what causes a syndrome and who is at risk for developing it goes a long way towards helping us diagnose and treat it. The plethora of scriptural examples of people dwindling in unbelief suggests that the Church has been trying to understand this problem from the beginning. Though the examples I cite above are usually cases which turn out badly, I could as easily list many examples where there is complete recovery. All these scriptural citations–both positive and negative–could be considered an accumulation of case reports with descriptions of signs, symptoms, remedies and outcomes. Unfortunately, they demonstrate that mortals seem to be inherently susceptible to spiritual dwindles. It therefore seems unlikely that we will ever be able to develop a foolproof vaccine that  completely eradicates it.

The Church’s longstanding battle with the scourge of spiritual dwindles continues today. We all should be aware of the vigorous attempts to retain and reclaim those that dwindle.* I believe we’re better at handling it today that we were even ten years ago. These persistent attempts reiterate that there is yet hope for us to reclaim those that dwindle. As long as there is still some degree of belief, there is something to work with. We must also remember that not every case of spiritual dwindles is spiritually fatal. In truth, we are probably all afflicted by this disease at some point in our life. Finally, rest assured that it is possible to build immunity. To do so requires that we regularly fan and fuel the fame of belief–even though it sometimes is nothing but a spark. As we do, I am confident that we can cause the fire of faith can burn brightly once more.

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*Elder Uchtdorf’s October 2013 Conference talk (Come, Join With Us) addressed the complexities of this issue.

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