Alma 14

They chose… poorly.

Some don’t: some of the people of Ammonihah repent at Alma the Younger and Amulek’s teaching. Then there’s Zeezrom who – fuelled by guilt for his role in shaping the public mind – now testifies on behalf of Alma and Amulek, and is cast out and driven out along with other believers by stoning for his troubles.

But the rest of the people choose to reject their preaching, and do so in a way that proves their culpability. They arrest Alma and Amulek, the people stand as false witnesses against them, and then:

And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

(Alma 9:8)

Even if they had a legitimate grievance against Alma and Amulek, what right had they to take out their “hurt feelings” by murdering those who simply happened to believe their words? Or not even that: some of those burnt here are simply the wives and children of those they drove out for believing; those they burnt may not even believe themselves. It is simply guilt by association, and an act that entirely vindicates the judgment God is about to bring upon them.

It’s interesting that they burn the holy scriptures too, as if by destroying them they can remove the threat posed by those words. By while they may destroy the physical copies, you cannot burn the word of God, only be burned by it.

Understandably, Alma and Amulek – who are forced to witness this – are moved by this:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9-11)

It’s worth contemplating that it’s possible Amulek is seeing members of his own family burn before him. We know he has a large family: he speaks of “my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).* But while later it is mentioned that he was rejected “by his father and his kindred” (Alma 15:16), there is no mention of his “women” and childen. 

There’s also a bit of wordplay going in this chapter. The Greek word from which we derive the term martyr (and hence martyrdom) is μάρτυρ (martur), which literally means witness. It’s present association with dying for the faith came from the fact that, for many early Christians, bearing witness of the faith and dying became synonymous. In this passage we likewise see the very term used (“place of martyrdom”), and then notice how the word “witness” is repeated in the verses following. I write more about that here.

Of course here the focus is on what Alma and Amulek are witnesses, which is not so much of the faith (though they – and the martyrs – have surely done that), but of the crimes of the unrepentant people of Ammonihah, who by this act demonstrate that they deserve every piece of judgment coming their way. Verse 11 is particularly interesting here: God could intervene. He has done so on other occasions when people were threatened with burning (such as Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3). As I’ve mentioned before, it might be confusing, even troubling, as to why God intervenes in some cases but not others. Divine providence in the immediate sense can be unpredictable: God is working according to a plan that we cannot see in its entirety, and the challenge is that we must trust him that – whether he intervenes, or not – that his choice will in the end be right. As indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego did, for while they knew God could save him, they didn’t know if he would, but they trusted that whatever he willed would be right and pledged to serve him anyway (“But if not“, Daniel 3:18).

What we do know, however, is that mortal life is one of deferred judgment. In order to give us freedom to act, the freedom to either repent or to hang ourselves, God does not immediately judge us for what we do. Alma in fact has just been teaching the people of Ammonihah this, of how this life is “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). As Peter states:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

(2 Peter 3:9)

What this means is that in the present, the “right now”, that this life is often unjust. To give us this freedom, one way or the other, means that we live in a world in which the wicked can act against the righteous, as they do so murderously here, without immediate intervention. That can be hard for many people. Of course, Christ himself has personally experienced this injustice at the hands of men; he knows what if feels like.

But this present state of injustice is not fated to continue: while God’s judgments are deferred, they are not to be denied. God himself will impose justice sooner or later, which involves both making things right for those who are hurt, and bringing judgment down upon those who have incriminated themselves. Thus this life fulfils its purpose as an arena in which by our own choice we rise or sink, not in worldly stature, but to either rise towards goodness and godliness and virtue, or to sink into evil and depravity. The people of Ammonihah have been allowed to make their choice: those they hurt will in the end be blessed, and lose nothing, while the guilty have been left with no excuse and will lose everything.

Not that they recognise the full depth of their error just yet:

Now it came to pass that when the bodies of those who had been cast into the fire were consumed, and also the records which were cast in with them, the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?

(Alma 14:14)

I suppose they think that was terribly clever.

Now this judge was after the order and faith of Nehor, who slew Gideon.

(Alma 14:16)

I find this interesting and significant. The Nehorite belief, after all, is that:

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

(Alma 1:4)

That can sound good and positive to many people; indeed I know it does because I’ve heard several members of the Church say so (and even think there’s not much wrong with that statement) in recent discussions. And yet there’s a glaring omission, that of repentance. The Nehorite salvation is one that excludes the need for any repentance, and any need to meet a higher standard.

Now I’m sure there were those who adhered to the Nehorite creed who did not approach the level of the people of Ammonihah. And yet I think there is a connection, between that belief and the acts we see here. A world in which everyone is already “saved”, in which none of us need to reform or change, is a world in which no bad tendency need to be fought, no habit need to be curbed, and no effort made to prepare for heaven (defeating the very purpose of mortality that Alma has spoken about). A world in which people do not repent, do not seek to be better, is not a world of people destined for heaven. It is hell. And we see here the hellish conclusion of Nehorite belief, where the notion of moral disapproval and calls to repentance inspire murderous rage.

Judgment, of course, is coming for the people of Ammonihah, and in their case that judgment is not deferred for too long. Indeed for their leaders it comes far sooner than they can expect:

And it came to pass after they had thus suffered for many days, (and it was on the twelfth day, in the tenth month, in the tenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) that the chief judge over the land of Ammonihah and many of their teachers and their lawyers went in unto the prison where Alma and Amulek were bound with cords.

And the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.

And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last; and when the last had spoken unto them the power of God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet.

(Alma 14:23-25)

I think that fact that God intercedes at this point, after the leaders collectively make the challenge that if Alma and Amulek will deliver themselves, they’ll believe the people will be destroyed, is a significant reflection of how Alma and Amulek’s mission has become one of providing grounds for incrimination.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.

While from our perspective, as readers, this comes soon, I’m sure that’s not how it felt to Alma and (maybe especially) Amulek. It’s not clear how long they spent imprisoned (verse 22 simply says “many days”). Alma made his way to Ammonihah early in the 10th year, but then spent some time with Amulek and his household. But since it is now almost halfway through the 10th month, I think months is a reasonable guess.

It is interesting that these leaders begin to flee the moment the cords are broken, before any other displays of divine power, “for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. This suggests their final, unanimous, challenge was true; and now Alma and Amulek have been delivered from their bands, and now the people recognise they will be destroyed. I wonder if they recognise in these moments – perhaps they begin to sense it in full – precisely how far they’ve gone wrong, if they realise the pit that is opening beneath them, and how much they truly deserve it.

And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith which was in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands; and the prison had fallen to the earth, and every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain; and they straightway came forth into the city.

Now the people having heard a great noise came running together by multitudes to know the cause of it; and when they saw Alma and Amulek coming forth out of the prison, and the walls thereof had fallen to the earth, they were struck with great fear, and fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they did flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.

(Alma 14:27-29)

Thus ends the first stage of the judgment of Ammonihah.

 

* Incidentally, Amulek may be one of the few polygamous individuals in the Book of Mormon. While it’s possible “my women” may refer to other female members of the household, it seems a very strong term to describe servants or even other female kinsfolk, while Hebrew uses the same word for “wife” and “woman” (אִשָּׁ֣ה), and the Book of Mormon likewise uses “women” as a synonym for “wives” in 1 Nephi 17:1-2 & 20.

Alma 5

Due to the length & substantial nature of Alma 5, and the fact that the “Come Follow Me” schedule only has three chapters this week, I’ve decided to read Alma 5 this time round over the course of several days rather than all at once, and so this post will the culmination of several days reading (though again, it’s not a comprehensive or exhaustive post; it might actually be possible to write an entire book about Alma 5).

I love how Alma begins his sermon. I think it’s one of the greatest sermon introductions out there. It starts almost gently, recapping the story of the Church being organized (v. 3), and then being delivered from King Noah (v. 4), and then from the Lamanites and it being established in the land of Zarahemla (v. 5).

Then Alma begins with the first set of questions that he poses to his audience. A significant part of this sermon is built around the questions Alma aims at the listener/reader, but I find this first set often get missed when people discuss them:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?

(Alma 5:6)

It’s interesting this first set are all based around the importance of remembering, something of a recurrent theme in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. Alma’s three questions here also appear to increase in intensity: a) do you remember the captivity of your ancestors? b) do you remember God’s mercy towards them (in delivering them?)? c) do you remember that he has delivered their souls from hell?

There then comes one of those passages that is both powerful, and has such wonderful turns of phrase (especially in verse 7), as Alma builds upon this reminder on how God delivered their fathers not just from earthly oppression, but from eternal damnation:

Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.

And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.

And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

(Alma 5:7-9)

“On what conditions are they saved?”

Having reminded his audience that their forebears were saved, Alma moves to his next set of questions, asking how their forebears were saved:

And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? Yea, what grounds had they to hope for salvation? What is the cause of their being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell?

(v. 10)

He begins his answer with a set of rhetorical questions about Alma, his father:

Behold, I can tell you—did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?

(v. 11)

Here we have the pivotal role of belief: Alma believed Abinadi, and Abinadi was speaking the words of God. It sometimes seems we can underestimate the role of belief (compared to testimony, and action) in the modern Church, but Alma (the younger) puts it front and centre of Alma (the elder)’s salvation. Yet I think it’s important to realise it’s not the act of believing in and of itself that’s pivotal. One after all could believe something that isn’t true, and that has no saving value at all. Rather, it is who and what we choose to believe that is significant. I think it no coincidence that this verse emphasises those very elements: Alma chose to believe a prophet of God, and chose to believe what were the words of God.

And why is what we choose to believe important?

And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.

(v. 12)

Alma’s faith, and his belief in the word of God, was a key that allowed the power of God to change his heart (I’m reminded of John 17:17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth”). It is choosing to believe God’s word that allows the transforming power of the Gospel to convert us; to change us into a new creature (meaning a new creation). This is vital: we cannot fight our own faults through our sheer unaided willpower alone, since every one of us has a part of us that is on the other side. We have predilections and tendencies (the exact nature of which will vary from person to person, but we all have them), that seek to lead us away from God and right. But this isn’t inevitable. Our natures can become purified and cleansed, as God’s sanctifying power strengthens our desires and will to do good and helps us defeat the desire to do evil.

That this does not just apply to Alma senior alone is made plain in the very next verse:

And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.

(v. 13)

Alma heard the words of God as preached by Abinadi, believed them, and his heart was changed. He in turn preached the same word to others, who likewise believed and their hearts were changed. And in response, they humbled themselves, put their trust in God and were faithful to him, and so they were saved. I particularly like how this verse helps show the connection between our having faith in God, and showing faithfulness to God, linked but not identical concepts that are often different sides of the same coin. We can have faith (trust) in God because he is always faithfultrustworthy – in fulfilling his promises, and then we in turn show and act upon our faith in him by being faithful – that is, loyal – to him.

“Have ye spiritually be born of God?”

At this point Alma now turns his questions upon his audience, and implicitly us. I’ll be quoting a lot here since I don’t think any measure of paraphrasing will do justice to this questions.

Firstly Alma asks us whether we have experienced this change of hearts that he has been talking about:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

(v. 14)

He then moves forward without pausing to the moment of judgment:

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?

(vv. 15-16)

These are powerful questions. Have we experienced a change of heart? Do we have faith in Christ so we can look forward to that moment of judgment with hope? Or… well then Alma’s questions take a more accusing tone:

Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?

Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?

(vv. 17-18)

Alma is very good at evoking the potential horror we might experience if unprepared for the final judgment; he does the same in Alma 12:12-18. I think in part this is because he himself felt some of this fear during his own conversion experience, in which he describes feeling that “the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14, see also v. 15). These are perhaps thoughts people don’t want to dwell on, and yet the judgment is a situation we will all inevitable experience.

Alma continues with his questions, all of which are aimed at this point: the degree to which we have become truly converted, so that we have “the image of God engraven on our countenances” (Alma 5:19, and that’s an interesting thought: we speak of mankind being made in the image of God, and yet Alma is speaking of an important sense in which that image is conditional, and has to be engraven upon us) and have clean hands; and the degree to which we have fallen short, in which we have “yielded [our]selves to become subjects to the devil” (v. 20) and have “stained” our “garments” with our wickedness (v. 22-23). These are questions designed to probe our readiness to meet God, for as Alma points out:

I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.

(v. 21)

“Can ye feel so now?”

At verse 26, Alma changes the focus a little, addressing directly those who have already experienced this change of heart:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have experienced and felt and tasted of the goodness of God. We may have felt the gift of his forgiveness, experienced his grace, seen his hand extended in power. But can we do so now? Just as Alma the elder’s people were saved because they had faith, had the change of heart and then were faithful “until the end”, we too need to be faithful until the end. Thus Alma asks those who have been converted:

Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?

Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.

Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.

And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?

Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!

(vv. 27-31)

Even if we have been “born of God” in the past, if we don’t remain faithful and keep to that path we will not be found spotless. But I also find interesting the sins that are singled out here: not murder or adultery or so on (though Alma frequently mentions those too – indeed murder got mentioned in verse 23). But being insufficiently humble, being proud, being envious, and mocking others. Like all these questions, it prompts serious reflection of one’s own conduct and state.

“Soon at hand”

Much of this sermon is about the need for all to repent, to seriously prepare for the judgment of God, and about how the time or hour is “close at hand”. And indeed, I suppose that that time can arrive quicker than any of us expect, being one “accidentally stepping in front of the bus” away. But there’s also another sense in which these people are being told things are “soon at hand”, as Alma teaches in verse 50:

Yea, thus saith the Spirit: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand; yea, the Son of God cometh in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion. Yea, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, that the Spirit saith: Behold the glory of the King of all the earth; and also the King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men.

Alma is speaking here of Christ’s incarnation amongst man, which is just over 80 years away. His appearance amongst the Nephites following his resurrection – in which he will indeed come in glory and majesty, and which will be accompanied by a degree of judgment upon the wicked – is just over a century away. And indeed, that is not very far in the great scheme of things.

I was struck – not for the first time – when reading this verse today that this verse also applies to us, but speaking of Christ’s second coming, in which Christ will most certainly appear “in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion”, and which will likewise bring a defining point of judgment upon the world. We don’t know precisely when that will happen – there’s some things that have to happen first, some of which have, and others which have yet to occur – but it will at some point, and is likewise “soon at hand”, and which may be sooner than some imagine. Which underlines the relevance of the next few verses, not just for Alma and his audience, anticipating the first appearance of Christ, but also for us, anticipating the second:

And also the Spirit saith unto me, yea, crieth unto me with a mighty voice, saying: Go forth and say unto this people—Repent, for except ye repent ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of heaven.

And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.

(vv. 51-52)

The time to repent is now, whether it be in preparation for this appearance, or for an unexpected appointment that is much sooner.

Wolves

After more urging to repent, including of specific sins, and an exhortation to separate from the wicked, Alma warns of wolves:

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.

(vv. 59-60)

I’ve written about this concept at greater length here, but I mention it here because it always catches my eye. Indeed Alma appears to be warning some of his audience against being wolves (it comes right after he states “if ye speak against it, it matters not, for the word of God must be fulfilled” in verse 58), something he’d know about, for he was a wolf that became a sheep (or a shepherd). There are others who make the opposite journey. We are required, of course, to be merciful, loving, and to refrain from judgment (or from unjust judgments in those areas that we have a duty to judge). At no time, however, does that require us to leave the sheep defenceless against the wolves, to allow people to victimise or hurt others in the name of “compassion”, nor to mercilessly sacrifice the innocent upon an altar of mercy for their predators. The Good Shepherd defends his sheep, including against those who’d prey upon them.

 

Mosiah 26

This chapter records another stage in the dramatic changes that are happening in Nephite society at this time, as a sizeable proportion of the younger generation, who were not in a position to understand King Benjamin’s sermon from first hand experience, reject his teachings and (presumably) the associated covenant, and also reject the Church. Thus you have the definite emergence of a degree of religious pluralism at this time, some (indeed it seems virtually all who accepted King Benjamin’s teachings) joining the Church, but a significant part of the population (though still a minority, v. 5) remaining separate.

The part of this chapter that particularly stood out to me today, however, was the statement in verse 3:

And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

There’s plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of belief, and that understanding the word of God is not simply a matter of intellectual comprehension (I think, for instance of 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, but there are many more). But I think this verse is the one that most starkly connects belief with understanding, in a way that really stood out to me today.

I think on some level that continues to surprise me. For instance, I find it relatively easy to understand why people might not believe the Gospel, but find it much harder to comprehend why people might find it, or particular scriptures,  hard to understand. So much of it seems clear and simple. And when it comes to other topics, I think we generally work on the assumption that we don’t need to believe a concept to understand a concept; I’d have hardly got a masters in Islamic studies if I’d thought otherwise, for instance. Likewise, in many scientific fields there’s a variety of competing hypotheses, and again it is presumed that those participating in those fields can understand the hypotheses without believing in them all first (especially since competing theories generally can’t all be true at the same time).

And yet here it is outright stated, and heavily supported elsewhere, that the gospel and the word of God is not like this. When it comes to the gospel, belief and understanding are intimately connected; some part of the gospel that might seem easy to comprehend to us, according to this verse, may appear bewildering to someone who does not believe. And I have seen this; indeed I know several people who’s understanding of the gospel appears to have gone backwards, so that they now know less than they once did, and are baffled by what they once easily understood. And yet it still seems a strange phenomenon to me, even though on some level I know it’s true and seen it happen. How can people find such clear things confusing? Especially when they once understood them?

I guess the key thing to recognise is that our understanding of the gospel is not simply a matter of study and the workings of our own mind, but also of faith and illumination by the spirit. Things that may appear clear to someone who believes and has the Holy Ghost to assist them may not be so to someone working solely with their own unaided and unbelieving mind. As 1st Corinthians 2:14 states: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of faith and belief as not opposed to knowledge, as some occasionally make out, but as a faculty that can peer through, that can perceive otherwise unseen things and which can lead to knowledge.

Mosiah 8

There seems to be a running subtheme of God’s unseen providence running through these chapters, as I was struck by how fortuitous it was that the party Limhi set out to find Zarahemla ended up finding something quite different:

And the king said unto him: Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage.

And they were lost in the wilderness for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel.

And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold.

(Mosiah 8:7-9)

Now we can’t be sure about the details of the geography – namely how difficult or easy it was to miss Zarahemla completely and reach the former land of the Jaredites instead (it does suggest the model of a single bottleneck of a very narrow neck of land may not be strictly accurate) – but, just as in the previous chapter, we have to consider how fortunate this was. While it may be inevitable that if they kept heading in a certain direction they’d hit the Jaredite ruins eventually, the chances that they’d come across the plates of Ether seem very remote. Of course, while it’s not explicitly stated, I don’t believe we’re meant to take this as simple sheer chance: it was divine providence. And consider the consequences: the very content of the Book of Mormon is at stake here, since these plates contain the record of the Brother of Jared and the account of the fall of the Jaredites, and were the sources for Moroni’s account of the same. If these people didn’t “chance” to find them, we would not have them.

And yet, at this point, both the king who sent them out and doubtless the party involved considered the mission a failure: the hope was to find a living Zarahemla who they could call upon for assistance. Instead they found a ruin. But once again what appears to be a failure, while it may have frustrated the expectations and plans – even righteous ones – of human beings ultimately turned to good. And God likewise provided other means for delivering the people of Limhi, so that “failure” didn’t turn to their harm either.

And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.

And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.

(Mosiah 8:15-16)

In reading these words today, I couldn’t help but think about how this is the first occasion in scripture (at least the scripture we have), in which these three titles – seer, revelator and prophet – are conjoined. 1 Samuel 9:9 includes both seer and prophet, but not revelator.

Interestingly, the use of these three titles together in the Doctrine and Covenants appears a bit later in the book than one might expect, in D&C 107:92 (once again just seer and prophet occur earlier, in D&C 21:1). I find this interesting, because it suggests that it took time for concepts introduced by the Book of Mormon to seep out to the early Church, including to the very men involved in translating and taking dictation of the book! We might sometimes assume that Joseph Smith and the others would have known the book and its contents backwards, but that really doesn’t appear to be the case: they had to read and learn from it too, and just like us they continued to learn things as they read it. These may be reassuring for those who are just starting out to study the scriptures: there’s no royal road to learning their contents, but at the same time its a path that anyone can follow because we all, no matter who we are, start at much the same place.

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

(Mosiah 8:18)

While Ammon’s comments above are speaking specifically of seers, I believe this also addresses in a more general way one of the recurring themes of the Book of Mormon: God has actual power, and he can and does give this to human beings who exercise faith, and seek to serve God and his children. It’s another interesting connection with 2nd Ammon too, who to explain his deeds to King Lamoni will say:

And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.

(Alma 18:35)

The Book of Mormon teaches a God who is a God of power, a God who works supernatural miracles, and a God who confers that power upon human beings, “according to [our] faith and desires which are in God”.

Easter Saturday

A few years ago, during a particularly challenging and emotionally turbulent period of my life, I found myself at Easter thinking about the disciples, and how they must have felt on Friday night and then the Saturday following the crucifixion. I wrote:

I find myself thinking about how a small group must have felt on a friday evening almost two thousand years ago. The scriptures are almost silent about that Friday evening and the Saturday. We know the events of earlier, but that group didn’t understand them yet, and so wouldn’t have understood that the suffering they had witnessed would lead to good. And the victory of the Sunday Morning was both so far away and unimagined. What did they feel, I wonder, at this point when despair must have been at its greatest? How did Simon Peter feel, believing perhaps that he’d never have the chance to make right his denial of his master, that he irrevocably lost? What did they do on that Saturday in that moment of grief and uttermost sorrow? And could they have remotely imagined that in the space of a couple of days this would be turned all upside down, and their mourning turned to joy?

The New Testament is indeed mostly quiet about this Saturday (with only the appeal for guards for the tomb by the Chief Priests and Pharisees in Matthew 27:62-66 perhaps falling on it). Compared to the events of the Friday, and those that were to come on the Sunday, perhaps it doesn’t matter much in terms of Christ’s work (at least on Earth – in the world of spirits he was quite busy!). But I think it does matter from a human perspective. That sense of crushing disappointment, of abandonment, of grief, of hopes unfulfilled and dashed; these are feelings we can understand (as my own despair of the time helped me to), because they are feelings that – at least in some stages in our life – in some way we tend to tangle with as well.

There is a bit more scriptural material to work with for this time in the New World, where the Nephites had a voice speak to them from the heavens, with Christ declaring himself and announcing why his judgments had fallen upon their cities (3 Nephi 9:1-10:7). However, as to the condition the people were in during this period, we have this passage in 3 Nephi 8:20-25:

And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;
And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;
And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.
And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.
And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla.
And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared, and not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah. And thus were the howlings of the people great and terrible.

The disciples in Jerusalem were in emotional darkness; the people here were in literal darkness, thick clouding darkness that prevented any spark or fire. But they too wrestled with grief, with regret, and with despair. Could there be any hope? Could light ever come again?

Following the voice from the heavens, all they can do is mourn again (3 Nephi 10:8):

And now it came to pass that after the people had heard these words, behold, they began to weep and howl again because of the loss of their kindred and friends.

Yet in just the next two verses (vv. 9-10):

And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away. And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away.
And the earth did cleave together again, that it stood; and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer.

What perhaps most struck me when I first thought about this was that, as bad as the disciples must surely have been feeling, in but a few short hours their grief would be turned to joy, the source of their sadness turned into one of jubilation. We the readers know this: we may have read or heard the story before, we can turn the page and look ahead. But they had no way of knowing or imagining this. As Mary Magdalene was weeping and pleading with the gardener to tell her where the body of her Lord had been moved (John 20:15), could she have at all expected to get the answer she was about to get in the next few seconds? One which must surely have upturned and overturned all that she had felt (the Gospel does not record her emotional reaction, but we can imagine it; certainly the Saviour then had to urgently tell her not to touch him, vv. 16-17). Deliverance, euphoria, relief, all close at hand, but unimaginable in the moment of despair.

Of the Easter period we remember Good Friday and the Easter Morning: the moments of great sacrifice, and the moments of joy, catharsis and blessing, but for those who passed through it, Saturday must have loomed large. And in our own life, we have our times of sacrifice, and our times of deliverance, but we may spend a good while in the Easter Saturdays of our life, where darkness surrounds us, hope has fled, and deliverance impossible. We are not like the readers of the Gospels; we cannot turn the page and look ahead and see the morning to come. Yet perhaps the message of Easter Saturday we can take into such times is that deliverance will come. It may not come the very next day (as it did for the disciples), and it may well come in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate (as did, in fact, happen for the disciples), but it will come. For those of us in the Easter Saturdays of life, Easter Morn will come, and if we hold on until that dawn – whether it be the very next day or at the time of the final judgment itself – our mourning will be turned to joy, and our lamentations into praise and thanksgiving.

2 Nephi 22

And in that day thou shalt say: O Lord, I will praise thee; though thou wast angry with me thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.

(2 Nephi 22:1//Isaiah 12:1)

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to worry about messing things up. It’s comforting to know that – while we may well do things that displease the Lord – He is merciful and forgiving, and always prepared to receive and comfort us if we repent.

2020 Edit:

This chapter – the quotation of Isaiah 12 – is very short, as Isaiah 12 is, an artefact of imposing the Isaiah chapter divisions upon the lengthy quotation in 1879. As such, I can pretty much quote it in full, and I’m going to:

And in that day thou shalt say: O Lord, I will praise thee; though thou wast angry with me thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid; for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also has become my salvation.

Therefore, with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.

And in that day shall ye say: Praise the Lord, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people, make mention that his name is exalted.

Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things; this is known in all the earth.

Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.

(2 Nephi 22//Isaiah 12)

Why quote this in full (other than because I can)? Because this chapter really serves as a conclusion, a summary and even a punctuation to many of the preceding chapters, which have laid out both forthcoming judgments to come upon Israel for her wickedness, but also the future deliverance, found above all else in the figure of Christ, the Holy One of Israel, who will restore and redeem Zion. And true to the way that Isaiah can, and should, be read as having multiple fulfilments, as being filled with types and antitypes, it can apply to each of us individually too (as I did in my original post). I suspect Nephi did too; the whole statement that “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid” is reminiscent of his own words in 2 Nephi 4:19 that “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted”. Likewise this chapter is echoed in his declaration in the same passage that:

Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

(2 Nephi 4:30)

The Lord is praiseworthy; despite our individual and collective rebellions and weaknesses, he is merciful, and has provided for our salvation and our joy. In him we can trust, and not be afraid. And trust is the crucial thing: trust is what separates true and living faith from simple belief. The devils believe God exists, and tremble (James 2:19), for they did not trust him and rebelled against him. Likewise we might believe about him (that he exists), but not in him (that we trust him, and place our confidence in him). But we need to have that confidence and trust in him to follow him, to take us through what may seem some very strange roads and through the valley of the shadow of death itself. If we let go at that point, out of fear and doubt in his judgment, we will be lost. But if we hold on, trusting in his guidance, trusting that whatever trials we may go through, and indeed submitting to all things he sees fit to inflict upon us, then he will bring us safely through to the other side. For he is our strength and our song: he, and he alone, has the capacity and full will to save us, and will if we trust him enough to let him.

The Testimony of Three & Eight Witnesses

Reading through both the testimony of the three and the testimony of the eight witnesses today, I was struck by the contrast between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the two sets of witnesses really experienced very different events: the three had a supernatural experience, stating that God “hath declared it unto us” and that “an angel of God” showed them the plates. The eight had a more sensory experience, with no supernatural events: they saw and handled the plates (the three only saw), and examined them physically.

Today when reading, however, it seemed to me that that contrast can be seen not just in the type of experiences the two sets of witnesses are trying to relate, but also in what they are seeking to convey from that, and even how they talk about it. So the three witnesses begin early by speaking about the experience they have had “through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Their witness is not just that the plates exist, but that “they have been translated by the gift and power of God” and that “the work is true”. They assert that they too are acting under divine authority, having been commanded by God to bear witness of their experience, and conclude their witness by speaking of faith in Christ and the final judgment, before finishing with a doxology.

In contrast, the testimony of the eight witnesses only invokes God once, at the end: “And we lie not, God bearing witness of it”, which has more the character of a legal declaration rather than the revelatory one of the eight witnesses. Otherwise their remarks are limited to what they handed and what they infer, in which they are quite restrained: the plates “have the appearance of gold”, and the plates and engravings have “the appearance of an ancient work” (my emphasis). They restrict themselves purely to what they were able to determine with their senses, to the extent that they don’t simply declare that the plates are ancient, but that they appeared to be so. It has the character of a legal testimony, in which they simply (“with words of soberness”) recount what they can observe with their eyes and hands, while the testimony of the three is a religious testimony, in which they bear record of a revelatory experience which they were commanded by God to share with the world, with consequences for their immortal soul.

Upon thinking about this, it really strikes me that both experiences are not just complimentary, but may even be necessary. It’s tempting to see the witness of the three as the more expansive, and in many respects it is, but notice that they don’t recount having actually handled the plates, nor do they give any physical description of it and its contents; only the eight do that. I think this touches on the same duality seen in the commandment that we are to learn “by study and also by faith“: we are expected both to use the capacity of our own minds, reason and other resources to find truth, and supernatural means also, and we really need both when it comes to learning about eternal things. Likewise, in our own efforts to gain a knowledge or witness of the truth of things like the Book of Mormon, I think upon my own experiences and think we may need to exert both: to use what we can learn through reason, experience and our senses, but also be able to seek the spirit and look with an eye of faith. And it is when the two work together, reason and revelation, that we are on the surest ground for seeking truth.

Enos

I’ve not added any post recently as I’ve been quite ill, and have more to come. I thought, however, upon reading Enos this morning and finding it wasn’t on my list that I’d add a few observations upon reading it today. I’m partly cheating, as the last one will simply be an excerpt from The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, but that’s not simply laziness or fatigue, it’s the fact that I can’t help but think of that point when I read this chapter now. But more on that later.

I was struck, as I always am, by Enos 4:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

It’s not the praying all night and day that quite gets my attention, but rather the desire implicit in that “and my soul hungered”. I can’t take any credit for this observation (the Church film produced for Seminary makes much the same point), but the crux of Enos’ experience was how badly he wanted something, and what he was prepared to do to get it.

And that strikes me as something that’s true for all of us, particularly when it comes to matters of the Spirit. We can’t force the Spirit, but much of our experience depends on the strength of our desires. If we want to know if something is true, but only out of mild curiosity, we can’t expect the heavens to open up to us. As James says about those that waver in seeking wisdom from God: “let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:7).

Why did I particularly think on this verse today? I was thinking of Ward Conference several weeks back, when the question was posed (I can’t remember if by one of the speakers outright, or by myself in my notes in response to something they said): are you closer to Christ than you were a year ago? And I don’t think I could honestly answer yes. Not that I’ve completely wandered off the reservation or anything, but closer? I’m not sure that’s true. But I think it should be, and it’s something I want to be different. In which case, how badly do I want that, and what am I prepared to do?

I likewise had my attention caught on verse 23, a verse that probably gets a lot less attention:

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things—stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

I guess I found two things interesting about this. One is the fact that what needs to be said to people, and what needs to be stressed, depends greatly on where someone is. Plenty of times people need to be reminded of the love of God. These people were in a different place, and needed to be reminded of the judgment of God. I’m sure what we need to hear varies across our life too. But I was also struck about the elements singled out here: reminding people of death, of eternity, and the judgment and power of God. Unwittingly, these are the very elements I’ve been stressing in something I’m working on (whether that is true in that work’s final form remains very much to be seen).

And now to the final point, which genuinely crossed my mind while reading once again, but which I have better described elsewhere:

However, the Book of Mormon adopts an unusual approach to time not just in how it speaks of future events, but also in how it views cause and effect. Thus Enos, seeking forgiveness of sins some four centuries before the birth of Christ according to the narrative, is told by revelation when he asks how he is forgiven:

And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:8)

Thus it is through Christ that Enos is forgiven, but in a particularly retro-causal turn the answer he receives emphasises that the cause of his forgiveness lies far into the future. God himself is not subject to time, for ‘all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men’ (Alma 40:8). Because God is not subject to time, the Book of Mormon sees no logical obstacles to Lehi being able to quote from future scripture, or God informing human beings of future events:

And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming? (Alma 39:17-19)

Or as described in Jacob 4 itself:

And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? (Jacob 4:12)

It is upon this basis that the book defends its ‘pre-Christian Christianity’: on the grounds that God is able to reveal Christ, his atonement and the ‘plan of redemption’ at any time of his choosing. This includes phrases otherwise unique to the New Testament, such as Lehi’s quotation of John the Baptist in 1 Nephi 10:8, or (for an example especially pertinent to Jacob 5) the quotation of Matthew 3:10 in Alma 5:52, a quotation attributed to what ‘the spirit saith’. The Book of Mormon’s use of ‘plain terms’ is attributed to the result of revelation from a God who is not subject to time and whose use of the ‘same words’ is described as an intentional effort:

The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, p. 264-265

I always like a bit of retrocausality. This one – that Christ’s atonement was so perfect and infinite that its effects could precede its cause, and bring forgiveness to anyone, regardless of where they were in time – is perhaps the most important.

2020 Edit:

My attention was caught by a thread picked up in the very first verse:

Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it

I was struck by reading this that Enos’ knowledge of the righteousness of his father rests on the fact that he taught him, including about the gospel.

As the same time, however, the gospel simply being taught is only one half of the picture. Enos still had to choose to respond to those teachings, and he did so in full at some distance from those teaching experiences. It was up to Enos to have that “wrestle… before God”, and no one else could do it for him, regardless of how effectively he was taught. I believe this is true of everyone who accepts the gospel; sure, not everyone does it as such a singular, all-in-one, experience as Enos does. For many people it might be multiple steps, or a path carved out over time. But the choice to respond to the message of the gospel must be taken by those receiving it. In one sense it’s comforting: for those called to teach the gospel, that’s all they’re called to do: to teach it, not to ensure that those listening accept it. But on the other hand, that’s partly because they cannot ensure that their audience responds; whether someone responds to the message of the gospel with faith and repentance is not up to the teacher, but to the listener, and no one can bind or force their choice, and indeed they may end up responding some time after receiving the message. All someone teaching the gospel can do is present the message they are called to do with faith and with the spirit, and hope that the listeners will respond. Whether it will bear fruit or not is something that may not be known for some time, and one cannot measure success in sharing the gospel by how many people immediately respond.

An example of that occurs later in the chapter, where Enos records the reactions of the Lamanites to his people’s efforts to share the gospel:

For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers.

(Enos 1:14)

And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness…

(Enos 1:20)

Enos’ and his people’s efforts were without success. In the chapter immediately preceding, Jacob likewise records a similar result:

And it came to pass that many means were devised to reclaim and restore the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth; but it all was vain, for they delighted in wars and bloodshed, and they had an eternal hatred against us, their brethren. And they sought by the power of their arms to destroy us continually.

(Jacob 7:24)

I remember some years ago that the contrast with the later (“successful”) missions of the Sons of Mosiah really dawned on me. What struck me at the time – and ties in with what stuck out to me today – is that the difference between what Jacob and Enos got, and what the Sons of Mosiah got, wasn’t down to the faithfulness or diligence or obedience of those giving the message. Jacob, after all, records some of his people having so much faith that they have power over the elements! The difference wasn’t in the righteousness or diligence of those teaching; there were other factors. When the Sons of Mosiah taught, there were people prepared to hear the message. Perhaps they were prepared to do so with the likes of Abish and her father in their midst. Perhaps other things made a difference too. The difference between the two experiences wasn’t down to any difference in the diligence of the teacher, but in the willingness of the listeners to respond and repent, and perhaps too in the will of God and his timing. Only God can know and account for both those factors. By the standards of the only measuring rod available to us mortals, all we can measure is diligence and faithfulness in sharing the message, and by that account both Jacob and Enos were as “successful” as the Sons of Mosiah.

Bouncing back a bit in the chapter, I was also struck by this statement of Enos:

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

(Enos 1:5-6)

Why was Enos’ guilt “swept away”. Because he knew God could not lie, and so believed him when God told him he had been forgiven. As I’ve written before, the great statement of faith that gave the brother of Jared admittance into the presence of God was “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:12, my emphasis). There’s a great power of faith in knowing that God always speaks the truth and so choosing to trust what he tells us (whatever that assurance may be about). I wonder if many of us fall short of experiencing that power. If Enos had not taken God at his word, would he have had such a wonderful feeling, or would he still have been troubled (needlessly, since he was forgiven)? Could such feelings have caused him further difficulties? Are there assurances God has given us that have yet to have their full power in our heart because we have not yet trusted them as sweepingly as Enos or the brother of Jared did?

Alma 33

While part of the same sermon as Alma 32 and 34, Alma 33 often seems quite neglected in comparison. And while Alma 32 and 34 do have quite a few amazing things in them, this perhaps shouldn’t be the case, for if Alma 32 is where Alma encourages his audience to try an experiment by believing the word, and the process by which faith in that word can be built up, it’s in Alma 33 that he describes the content of that word. Thus this chapter probably deserves more attention than it gets, including the brief attention devoted to it in this post. Possible areas of attention include: Zenos’ and Zenock’s words (or indeed, their very existence, and Alma referring to their writings plainly as “scripture”); the way the Zenos quote addresses both questions held by Alma’s audience (namely – by mentioning all the places he prayed – where they can worship, and by reference to the Son, who they should trust in); and the type of the serpent staff in the wilderness, and how we might look upon Christ.

One thing stood out while reading it today, however, which was how Alma himself seems to condense the “word” he wishes the Zoramites to plant into one verse, which does indeed seem to condense the core of the Gospel into one sentence:

If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

(Alma 33:22)

This is the word that Alma desires they should “plant” in their hearts, and then nourish by their faith (v. 23), and presumably one we should too, and which will likewise lead us to eternal life. That we too should “cast about” our eyes, and begin to believe on the Son of God, that he came (and will come again) to redeem his people, that he has suffered and died to atone for our sins, and he rose again from the dead, which will bring to pass our resurrection, so that all of us will stand before him, to be judged. This is the very core, that Christ came down to Earth, that he is our redeemer from sin and from death, and that he is our judge and we are accountable to him. If we truly believe these things, I believe Alma to be saying, and exercise our faith in them, that is the message that will transform our lives, and indeed shape our eternal destiny. As I think upon this verse, it seems strange that such a powerful message can be condensed into such few words, and yet thinking upon it, it seems so obvious that nearly all our errors stem from forgetting one of these simple elements.

2020 Edit:

Once again – by no means most of the time, but enough to be noticeable – my reading has once again caught upon things that I’ve already written about. However, in this case it’s the verse immediately preceding which particularly struck me, verse 21:

O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish?

I like this verse for how it emphasises how accessible the power of the gospel is: after all, it’s not like we’re the motive force behind it, Christ is. In some cases we simply have to look for help in the right direction, and in some cases we struggle because we don’t know where to look or – for various reasons – are hesitant to do so. But we can look, and that aid and hearling are there to be seen.

 

Alma 32

Alma 32

Alma begins teaching the Zoramites, and we find here a phenomenon that I’ve seen myself:

And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel—

Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.

(Alma 32:2-3)

Alma and his fellow labourers begin to find success amongst those Zoramites who are poor, and consequently – doubtless due to Zoramite beliefs on elitism and ‘the elect’ – have been cast out of their places of worship, places they in fact helped build (v. 5).

I think it is no coincidence that it is these people that are particularly receptive to Alma’s message. While the gospel is to be offered to all, and there are some out there who, in Alma’s words, “would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might” (v. 25), from observation people who are in a comfortable position do not often realise why they might need the gospel, and so are less inclined to listen. Conversely, it is those for whom life is not going well who are most prepared to listen, because they realise they need something, even if they don’t know what it is yet. This isn’t a straight case of poor vs rich, either. Notice that it’s not just poverty these Zoramites are experiencing, but also ostracism and being barred from their synagogues, and it is this last that seems to most trouble and animate them. Likewise, while those who are materially prosperous may be more likely to feel comfortable, they too can experience crises that cause them to realise they need something else, something more. Many of those I taught on a mission – not all, but many – had experienced something that had caused them to feel their life was lacking something, and that they should begin to seek for it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the question these people ask – what should they do when they have no place to worship – as we read this chapter and the next two. As I’ve mentioned before, the present chapters and the versification we find inside the Book of Mormon 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 continued in 33, 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. This is a question that may well be especially relevant to many of us at this time, where we – albeit for different reasons – are likewise “cast out” of our “synagogues” and are unable to gather for worship due to “social distancing”. This question of worship runs like a thread through Alma and Amulek’s response, as they also tie it in to their teaching of Christ and the gospel.

 

Thus in this chapter, Alma first addresses how they can test his words and build faith in them with his simile of the word as a seed, and really gets to what the heart of worship is, which is not something that only occurs in a certain place at a certain time:

Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

(Alma 32:10-11)

Rather the heart of worship is our own personal faith and spiritual connection with God, something that must occur in every individual heart.

The following chapters will build upon this: in chapter 33 Alma will again address 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 incidentally a great example to missionaries on how a companionship can pass off to each and other teach together effectively.

There is one thing in Alma 32, however, 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…

(Alma 32:28)

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, or to resist the spirit of the Lord, 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.

(Alma 32:41)

Incidentally, I love how the tree of life imagery is used in this chapter. We’ve seen it used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision, where it was at the end of a dangerous and hazardous journey. But here, tying once more into the question the poor Zoramites have asked him, Alma portrays the tree of life as something that grows within us, as we experience the workings of the spirit in response to us planting the word. If we do not resist the spirit, cast the word out by unbelief, or neglect “the tree” through complacency or lack of diligence, then the tree and its fruit grows inside us:

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.

(Alma 32:42-43)

Faith and knowledge

I also like how faith and knowledge are depicted in this chapter. In our modern society, faith is often described as antithetical to knowledge. Yet Alma shows how the two interrelate.

It is true that faith and knowledge are not the same thing:

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

(Alma 32:21).

But they are not disconnected. Rather faith and belief are the beginning, and part of an ongoing process, of an experiment:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

(Alma 32:26-27)

Try this, Alma counsels. Try this, and see what happens. If this is true, something will happen:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. 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.

(Alma 32:28)

This is a very delicate experiment, one that might easily be stopped by our own interference, stopping it through unbelief or through resisting the Spirit (and the latter I’ve definitely seen). But if we pursue the experiment on a true seed, we will feel something.

Now this doesn’t mean we have yet arrived at knowledge. But it can give us confidence enough to continue to pursue this course:

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

(Alma 32:29-30)

Eventually, we may have tested the word to a degree that we can claim to some degree of knowledge:

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

(Alma 32:33-36)

We can thus reach some knowledge, but that’s not the end of the story: we may have attained “perfect” knowledge – that is, we know a specific thing is true – in a given area. But there is more to learn, more to gain a knowledge of. But faith here is not the enemy of knowledge, nor a competitor, but part of a process and means by which we attain knowledge. Faith leads to knowledge, and knowledge in one area encourages us to exercise more faith in other areas. And this is a process that is real. This spiritual phenomenon is tangible, we can “taste this light”; an entirely deliberate mix of senses, I believe, for in my own experience our spiritual senses do not seem to precisely match or map onto our physical senses. And yet while non-physical, such sensations are real and “discernible”, if we pursue this path.

A final note

There’s one more thing that really stood out to me in my reading in 2020:

I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

(Alma 32:12, my emphasis)

I was really struck by Alma’s line that “it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues”. After all, for these people this was a serious trial and burden, one that concerned them more than their actual poverty and the other ostracism they had received from the other Zoramites. And yet Alma is right, in the sense that that crisis brought them to a point in which they sought the gospel, and so that crisis was ultimately, from an eternal perspective, a blessing, though I’m sure it didn’t feel like it at the time. And it caused me to reflect that it may be that some of those things we have or will experience in our lives that seem the most bothersome, or that come to us as a considerable trial or even source of torment, may likewise ultimately prove to be a source of blessings. That one day we may look back – possibly long after this life is over – and look at those events and see that ultimately, they were “well” for us.