While this is part of a series of posts called “Reading through the Book of Mormon”, it’s probably clear that’s not quite what I’m doing at the moment. While my personal reading has taken me several times through since I started such posts, at the moment I’m kind of dotting around. This is somewhat ironic, in view of the fact (and this is perhaps directly relevant to today’s chapter) that I believe there’s a lot of advantages to reading the Book of Mormon in sequence. Unlike the order of books in the Bible, the Book of Mormon was deliberate arranged and composed in the order in which we find it. Furthermore, the present chapters and the versification we find inside it were put there in 1879 by Orson Pratt, and while the original Book of Mormon did have chapters (and – per Royal Skousen – those appear to reflect original divisions in the text), they were often much longer. While chapters and verses are very useful, they can cause us to break our reading up in ways that hinder our understanding of the text.
Alma 32-34 is a great example of this: in the original Book of Mormon this was one chapter (in fact Alma 30-35 was one chapter!), and when one looks at these three chapters they are one continuous sermon, begun by Alma in chapter 32, and then picked up by Amulek in chapter 34. But we may break it up into parts without paying sufficient attention to the rest of the unit, which would be like trying to watch a conference talk in only 5-10 minute segments, only returning to it the following day. We may be able to still learn much from doing that, but it’d be very easy to lose the main thread of the conference talk.
So it is with Alma 32-34, which is wonderfully knit together: The poor (both in possessions and in spirit) come to Alma, wondering how they can worship when cast out of their Synagogues. Alma first addresses how they can test his words and build faith in them with his simile of the word as a seed, then (in chapter 33) he returns to their question, quoting Zenos about praying in the wilderness and so on (33:4-5). This quote, however, also refers to God’s son, leading Alma to then talk of the need for Christ and for the Zoramites to plant this word in their hearts, quoting other scriptures (Zenock and Moses) for this purpose. Then Amulek gets up, clarifies the real question is “whether the word be in the Son of God” (34:5), and then after referring to Alma’s quotation of scripture then adds his own witness of the same “behold, I will testify unto you of myself”, speaking of the Atonement of Christ. He then exhorts them to exercise their faith by repenting, the first step being to pray to God and ask him for mercy, and once again addressing the initial question of “where can we worship God” by making clear that one can and should pray everywhere. It’s a wonderfully tight and powerful sermon, that one could pull lots of things from (and I hope to, when I look at Alma 33 and 34) , and incidentally a great example to missionaries on how a companionship can pass off to each and other teach together effectively.
As to Alma 32, there was one subject that loomed large in my mind, even before I actually read the chapter this time round, one which is often misunderstood.
Faith is not compared to a seed
Alma 32 is understandably – and rightly – referred to often, when people talk about faith and the process of gaining a knowledge of the Gospel. However, when this has happened in my hearing I have often heard people claim that Alma is comparing faith to a seed. This is not true. It is not faith that is being so compared, and I think correctly understanding Alma’s imagery can help us better understand faith, and also its relation to works, an often vexed subject.
So what is Alma comparing to a seed?
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed…
It is not faith that is the seed, but “the word”, namely the word of God (v. 22). That word may be received in many different ways for, as Alma states, “he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also… little children do have words given unto them many times which confound the wise and the learned”. We might receive the word of God through the words of another (a friend, a family member, a Church member, a leader, or a missionary). We might read them for ourselves in the scriptures, or elsewhere. We might receive it directly, though angels, or through the inspiration of the spirit. The word too might refer to a specific instruction on a topic.
Where does faith come in? As Alma goes on to state in verse 28:
… Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
Faith then is not the seed, but allowing the seed to be planted: that is, to believe the word. In contrast to disbelieve it is to cast out the seed. And when we believe the word of God it brings a spiritual change (Alma 5:11-13).
And I think when we understand that relationship between the word and faith, we are in a better position to understand the relationship between faith and works. The subject of much controversy throughout Christendom, within the Church we usually understand well that – following James in James 2 – faith without works is dead. Sometimes, however, I see that over-corrected, with claims that faith means action, in short to effectively conflate faith and works. But the two are distinct, for if faith without works is dead, works can be dead also (D&C 22:2-3). As Mormon teaches (Moroni 7:6-7):
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
The phrasing in verse 7 is particularly suggestive, considering the statement given in Genesis 15:6 about Abraham’s response to God’s promises:
And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
Or as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3:
For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
Genuine faith leads to action, to works. But works motivated by some other reason, that are not accompanied by belief and real intent, have no saving value.
So there is a distinction between faith and works. Yet these should not be seen as being in opposition to each other; such was certainly not James’ intention when he taught that “seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:22). And it may be easier to see how the two work together when we bring “the word” into the picture, and see both faith and works as a response to God’s word. Our initial response to the word will be of belief or unbelief: if we believe, we plant that seed and it beings to “grow”. That can strengthen our faith, but as Alma goes on then to teach in verses 38-39:
But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
Once we have planted the seed – once we have exercised even “a particle of faith” – we must continue to exercise our faith, by acting upon the word of God that we claim to believe in. And so we must nourish the tree, by our acts of devotion (prayer, study of the scriptures and so forth) and by our obedience to what the word of God says. In this way, the “seed” will continue to grow, and our faith will become stronger, wrought with our works:
But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.