Alma 2

It’s war (well, the first one)!

It’s interesting that there’s a number of things which come to a head here: there’s been the change from a monarchy to the system of judges, there’s been the development of  Church as institutionally separate from the apparatus of the state, and other religious factions – the order of Nehor – have developed as well. Now we have a figure, Amlici, who follows the order of Nehor, whose followers seek to make king (re-instituting monarchy), and who would use that power to destroy the Church (vv. 1-4). Considering that the chief judge, Alma, was himself seeking to destroy the church before his conversion (and incidentally, his election), it might have been a curious situation for him to reflect him. Things being just a bit different, Alma the younger could easily have been the one to occupy Amlici’s role.

I find that interesting to think about: while it seems clear that events this chapter are driven by reactions to wider social changes (both in the political and religious sphere, and the Lamanite invasion is unlikely to be spur of the moment), what part individuals play in such events is down very much to that individual. And individual choices made earlier (Alma’s to repent, for instance), can also have a great influence on those big events that otherwise seem too big for us to deal with.

On a personal note, I also simply just like the scene in which – after the Amlicites and Lamanites ambush the Nephite army while it’s crossing the river Sidon – Alma fights Amlici and then Lamanite king’s guards, clearing the bank for his army to cross. Perhaps I’m easily pleased by superficial things, but I find that sort of thing awesome. But it’s also another demonstration that as much as big events can be driven by factors bigger than any person, and may be unavoidable, that one man in the right place can still make a difference:

And behold, as they were crossing the river Sidon, the Lamanites and the Amlicites, being as numerous almost, as it were, as the sands of the sea, came upon them to destroy them.

Nevertheless, the Nephites being strengthened by the hand of the Lord, having prayed mightily to him that he would deliver them out of the hands of their enemies, therefore the Lord did hear their cries, and did strengthen them, and the Lamanites and the Amlicites did fall before them.

And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another.

And it came to pass that Alma, being a man of God, being exercised with much faith, cried, saying: O Lord, have mercy and spare my life, that I may be an instrument in thy hands to save and preserve this people.

Now when Alma had said these words he contended again with Amlici; and he was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword.

And he also contended with the king of the Lamanites; but the king of the Lamanites fled back from before Alma and sent his guards to contend with Alma.

But Alma, with his guards, contended with the guards of the king of the Lamanites until he slew and drove them back.

And thus he cleared the ground, or rather the bank, which was on the west of the river Sidon, throwing the bodies of the Lamanites who had been slain into the waters of Sidon, that thereby his people might have room to cross and contend with the Lamanites and the Amlicites on the west side of the river Sidon.

(Alma 2:27-34)

Shiz versus Coriantumr

A major, but often ignored, theme of the Book of Mormon is the collapse of societies and civilizations. The book concludes by recounting the destruction of both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. As I’ve written before, I believe there’s a lot in those accounts that is relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. There are important differences between the two accounts, however. With the Nephites, they were destroyed by an external adversary, due to their pride, wickedness, and failure to repent despite the mercy the Lord had previously extended to them. While one could see the Nephite-Lamanite divide as a case of polarization, the Lamanites were ultimately spared. In the Jaredite case, however, the conflict was internal, and both sides destroyed themselves in an act of civilizational suicide.

It is perhaps particularly applicable to the social and political climate in which we find ourselves today, that the Jaredites never stopped in their conflict to wonder whether they had any other options. After another period of prolonged conflict, their choices devolve into two: Shiz or Coriantumr. Doubtless there were Jaredites who were exclaiming that everyone must choose, and that it was a binary choice. It was certainly the case that many Jaredites chose their side because of their terror of the other:

And there went a fear of Shiz throughout all the land; yea, a cry went forth throughout the land—Who can stand before the army of Shiz? Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!

And it came to pass that the people began to flock together in armies, throughout all the face of the land.

And they were divided; and a part of them fled to the army of Shiz, and a part of them fled to the army of Coriantumr.

(Ether 14:18-20)

After all, do you want Shiz/Coriantumr to win? If you don’t choose Coriantumr/Shiz, then all you’re doing is helping Shiz/Coriantumr! At least, many say such things today, and it’s entirely possible that at least some Jaredites said something similar.

Now sometimes there are only a few available choices, and one must try to choose the better one in difficult circumstances. But sometimes, neither choice is correct. Witness Nazism vs Communism on the Eastern front, where two genocidal and evil ideologies faced off, and some choices could be based on but little than “who doesn’t want to kill us right now?” In some cases, there are no good choices. But what would certainly be incorrect in such circumstances is to conclude that, because the other is evil, the other must be good and be embraced. This is a perennial temptation through the ages, a pattern in which we are tempted to accept the evil in one thing merely because it is opposed to another evil thing. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

The Jaredites became so consumed with their hatred for the other side, they never considered that they didn’t have to choose a side, and that by choosing a side, they would end up destroying both sides. But that was the result of their decisions, even over the heads of their leaders. In perhaps the most interesting part of the account (and one I’ve discussed before), we learn that Coriantumr, though he had rejected repentance earlier, had begun to regret that when faced with the destruction that was happening, and went as far as offering to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). Shiz demands Coriantumr’s life as well. It’s possible that Coriantumr rejected that, but any response of his is not recorded. Instead we read (Ether 15:6):

And it came to pass that the people repented not of their iniquity; and the people of Coriantumr were stirred up to anger against the people of Shiz; and the people of Shiz were stirred up to anger against the people of Coriantumr; wherefore, the people of Shiz did give battle unto the people of Coriantumr.

The resumption of hostilities – the final resumption that will conclude in the death of every combatant save Coriantumr – is thus ascribed not to Coriantumr’s reply, or even Shiz’s bloodthirstiness, but to the anger of “the people” of both sides. The people of Coriantumr himself were prepared to keep killing and dying in his cause, even if he himself was prepared to concede at least his position to spare the people.

The only other individual, save Coriantumr, who survived was Ether, who did not pick either side. Yet it was Ether’s legacy – his writings – that continued, which survived the destruction of his whole civilisation and which were preserved for future civilisations to come. It was Ether who ultimately made the most difference, and did the most good, by not choosing either side, but by choosing something higher.

We live in an age in which political and cultural rivals and opponents are increasingly regarded as evil and are called enemies, in an age in which we are increasingly told we must pick a side, and in which increasing numbers are embracing extremism out of fear and hatred of others. This is a familiar account, and one that may well have a similar result. The leap towards violence seems so much smaller once one is dealing with enemies rather than mere opponents you might disagree with. Yet whatever the wider society does, we do not need to embrace evil to fight evil. We can reject such a binary choice. We can choose differently. We can choose higher.

Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

2 Nephi 2

2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.

While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

2 Nephi 2:2-3

Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.

In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).

Minor notes:

There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.

2020 Edit:

As mentioned above, there’s a lot in this chapter. It’s interesting how with both Jacob and Joseph that Lehi chose to speak about profound things, but covered such different topics. With Lehi’s teachings to Jacob, I think I discern a thread that then runs into the things that Jacob teaches too, that can be seen in passages such as 2 Nephi 9 and the latter part of Jacob 3.

It begins with Lehi discussing the trials and the blessings that Jacob has experienced, but particularly the witness he has received of Christ, and then moves on to teach how none of us are justified by the law (and not just speaking of the law of Moses either: “by the spiritual law” we “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever”, v. 5). Hence our universal and utter need for Christ’s grace, expressed here both powerfully and succinctly:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

(2 Nephi 2:8)

Lehi then speaks about how Christ’s intervention makes it possible for us to receive happiness, in contrast to punishment, one being the consequence of the atonement, the other the law, and this turns him to the subject of opposites. While I don’t think this is the most misunderstood chapter of the Book of Mormon (I believe that honour goes to Alma 42), I do think the statement that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11) is often misunderstood. Most of the time I hear it quoted is in reference to the existence of trials and so on, but while it is true that trial and afflictions are an inevitable and even necessary part of this life, that’s not what this statement is talking about. Rather it is talking about the existence of philosophical opposites: happiness and punishment, wickedness and righteousness, law and sin. As Lehi states in verses 11-12:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

These opposites are necessary for there to be meaningful existence: life must have choices and those choices have consequence or else existence itself would possess no definable quality and would “have been created for a thing of naught”, or in other words, pointless. The truth of this statement can be seen even when we consider unimportant, trifling decisions: which ice cream flavour to eat would be an utterly pointless choice if all the flavours tasted the same (that is, they had the same consequence). It is the existence of these possibilities, of good and bad acts and real consequences, that make choice possible.

There’s another interesting element to the ability to choose that’s worth pointing out here too. Speaking of the fall, Lehi teaches (vv. 15-16, my emphasis):

And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

It is not just the existence of opposites and alternatives that make choice possible, but mankind needs factors to appeal to them, to pull them in each direction. In a lot of discussions about agency, it often seems that people treat this as an innate trait of mankind, but it really isn’t. Human beings can be both “things to act” and “things to be acted upon”. Where much of our agency, speaking of our choice between good and evil, lies rests in our ability to tip the scales between the two forces pulling upon us, namely the influence of God, particularly through his Holy Spirit, and the temptations of the devil and his angels. Which is why the possibility of the Lord’s spirit not always striving with man is such a threat (variations on that statement – first appearing in Genesis 6:3, appearing in 1 Ne. 7:14; 2 Ne. 26:11; Mormon 5:16; Ether 2:15; Ether 15:19; Moroni 8:28; Moroni 9:4, and on a national scale generally portending complete annihilation). If we persist in wickedness to such a degree that the Lord’s spirit gives up on us, then only one factor is left, and we become for the most part something “to be acted upon”, save by an act of grace.

Lehi then continues his discussion of the fall, one which many people have commented on (although one where some seem to over-correct on, for the fall while necessary is still a fall). The fall is part of God’s plan for mankind: “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (v. 24). And again, a profound though sometimes misunderstood statement:

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

(2 Nephi 2:25)

It should always be understood that this statement is referring to God’s ultimate aim for mankind, that we might have joy. It is not a guarantee to permanent and complete joy in this life. I’ve addressed that topic before, but verse 23 just before this verse is worth noting in this regard: Adam and Eve pre-fall had “no joy, for they knew no misery”. This is a return to that notion of opposites (for likewise they did “no good, for they knew no sin”). In this life, in order to develop the capacity to have joy, we must also have the possibility of knowing and experiencing misery.

Which leads to Lehi’s ultimate conclusion, about (fittingly) the ultimate choice we face between ultimate joy with Christ or ultimate misery with the devil:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

(2 Nephi 2:27)

This is the most important choice, the most important opposite, that lies before us, and the one choice that cannot be taken from us save we give it up ourselves. And in this, we have those factors each side enticing us one way or the other:

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.

(2 Nephi 2:28-29)

In essence we have both internal and external factors. The external factors are the teachings and commandments of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit on one side, and the temptations of the devil on the other. But each of us also faces an internal battle against those things inside us: “the natural man” as Mosiah 3:19 puts it, or “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” as it is so vividly put here. If this chapter helps correct some wider misapprehensions held about the fall in wider Christendom, it also does teach (for those who take it too far the other way) that the fall did bring about real consequences in terms of instincts and inclinations within all of us to stray, one which Satan will take advantage of if we let him. This seems to be a hard concept for some people to accept (indeed some don’t seem to realise that LDS scripture teaches this at all), but a necessary one not just to understand the world (including understanding that just because something is natural doesn’t make it good), but to understand ourselves. If mankind is not wholly corrupt, it is not wholly good either, nor perfectible by its own efforts. Rather, it is our individual human souls (that is the body and spirit as a unit, D&C 88:15) that are the battleground for the great war that wages between good and evil.

We can’t defeat our own evil inclinations purely by our own efforts, but fortunately and miraculously we don’t have to, and that path is laid out in this chapter. What we have the power to do is to make that ultimate choice and keep making it. And it is as we choose Christ, as we put our faith in him and “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), that his grace and power and mercies come with even greater power into our life. And it is that grace that will give us the ability to follow him, to act and not to be acted upon, and pave the way to that joy that is the point of our existence.

 

1 Nephi 18

And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.

And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.

1 Nephi 18:1-3

Just reading this today, I was struck by the fact that the Lord revealed to Nephi “from time to time” how to build a boat after he had begun making it. I’m no expert on making boats, but usually I imagine it’s wise to have both blueprints and construction techniques sorted before one begins construction. Not so in this case: The Lord showed Nephi how to do things a bit at a time, not all at once, and after Nephi had begun construction. The thought gave added emphasis to the statement that “neither did I build the ship after the manner of men”: perhaps one difference was the fact that Nephi begun it, not really knowing what the final result was going to be or how to actually get there.

Again this reminds me of the hymn Lead Kindly Light and the line “I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me”. Just as Nephi was asked to, we’re often asked to begin stuff we have no idea how to finish either, and with little idea of the final result. But God’s not going to give us the final blueprint in one go. Rather we too will have to “pray oft” so we can be shown “from time to time” how to do the next step, trusting that He has the final blueprint sorted.

2020 Edit:

Much of this chapter, of course, is occupied by the account of the party’s voyage by sea, and in particular the point at which Laman, Lemuel and Company forget God  are are “lifted up unto exceeding rudeness” (v.9). Nephi rebukes them, and in response they tie him up, ignoring the entreaties of their father (and in doing so bringing him and Sariah close to death’s door through grief), Nephi’s wife, and Nephi’s children (vv. 10-11, 17-19). The only thing, we’re told, that “could soften their hearts” was the “power of God”, displayed through the Liahona ceasing to work and a storm that drives them back for four days and threatens to sink the ship (vv. 12-15, 20). Only after they repent and release Nephi, and he prays, does that threat ebb and they resume their journey (vv. 21-22).

What catches my eye, however, is that the description of the first leg of the journey also has them “driven”, except rather than backwards it is “forth before the wind to the promised land” (vv. 8-9). So they are “driven” forwards and then backwards. Driven has the connotation of force, particularly in the Book of Mormon where, out of the 109 times (including “drove” etc) it’s used, most seem to be in reference to the action of armies scattering people (the other incidences include things like Lehi being driven from Jerusalem, and animals being driven before predators and twice by herdsman; interestingly the word is used much more often in the Book of Mormon than it is in the other Standard Works). That force is obvious with the storm that drove them back, but it seems to me to imply that God’s power was likewise deployed (if in a less threatening fashion) to push them there too. In which case they had no way of controlling how fast they were progressing towards the promised land. What the people on the ship had control of was the direction they steered in (implied by the fact that they needed the Liahona to know where to steer, vv. 12-13), and their conduct along the way. And when their conduct failed to measure up they also lost the ability to steer.

It strikes me that this too is a type of our own journey through this life. We often have less control than we’d like over things that may speed us towards the next trials, blessings or responsibilities God has in store for us. We may progress swiftly at some times, and far slower than we’d like at others. Many events are in God’s timing. But what we do have control of is our own conduct, and the ability – so long as we’re trying to do what’s right – to receive God’s guidance and steer a course accordingly. And if we do so then, in God’s own due time, we will reach a far better land of promise.