Alma 36 is a very poetic (indeed the whole thing is one giant chiasmus) account from Alma the younger himself of his conversion. It’s also a very powerful, and powerfully written, chapter; any paucity of comments by me today should not be taken as a reflection on the chapter itself, which is very worth reading.
Alma begins (and ends, in chiastic fashion) his account by talking of God delivering the Israelites and his own forefathers, and the importance of remembering them. There’s a point in verse 3 in particular that stood out to me today (my emphasis):
And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.
Note what it doesn’t say: it does not say that those who put their trust will be spared trials and troubles and afflictions. Rather Alma states that those who put their trust in God will be supported in their trials and so forth. The very last phrase should not be forgotten either: “and shall be lifted up at the last day”. This is speaking of salvation and resurrection, of course, but I think also speaks to the promise that God will deliver us from our trials, troubles and afflictions. It just might not be immediately. God will deliver us in his time, and in the meantime will support us through those periods. Good examples of that pattern can in fact be seen in those very episodes Alma speaks of remembering; for instance, the deliverance of his own father and his people involved a period in which they were strengthened to bear their burdens in their captivity, and then a miraculous deliverance from captivity.
A question came to mind as I read Alma’s own account of the angelic visit that lead to his conversion:
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.
But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.
And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.
And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.
And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.
(Alma 36:6-11, my emphasis)
It’s verse 11 that particularly raised the question. Alma recounts that when he heard the statement that “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God”, he was so affected by it that he fell and didn’t hear the rest of the words of the angel. So the question is why did the angel keep speaking?
Perhaps the answer to this is that they “were heard by my brethren” (namely the sons of Mosiah). Perhaps those words were really aimed at them. Considering how they changed their lives around at this point too, perhaps they were the target of this angelic ministry as much as Alma was.
As I’ve mentioned before with Alma, he’s very good at conjuring the potential horror of judgment and damnation, perhaps in part because he’s already felt that experience, and it’s here in this chapter we really see it:
But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.
Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.
And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
It is this experience, however, that causes him to remember his own father’s teachings, and which leave him desperate enough to call for help:
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
And as a result he experiences the power of the gospel, as he feels the joy of forgiveness and deliverance:
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.
Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
It’s worth reflecting that it is not the angel that converted him. The angel simply allowed him to realise his own sins. It is that consciousness of sin that cause him to turn to Christ, and that turn to Christ led him to be spiritually reborn and feel the joy of the gospel.