Alma 34

So today my personal reading got around to the third and final part of this sermon, where Amulek picks up from where Alma left off. As I was doing so, there was already one subject that loomed large in my mind, but there are several other points that emerged, so I plan to cover these in order of reading. So without futher ado…

All are fallen and are lost

The absolute necessity of the Atonement of Christ, and our need to accept it, is something the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches. It’s something that not everyone appears to understand, however. I’ve heard a number of people, include those within the Church, conclude that they don’t need to change, because they’re “a good person”. But this is not true: all are fallen, and all are lost. This is not to say that the nature of our sins all reaches the same degree, of course. Most people aren’t Hitler, or anything of that sort. But “not Hitler” is not good enough, and while that may be easy to grasp neither is most people’s definition of a “good person”.

We might class ourselves as such as we mean well most of the time, but meaning well is very different from working righteousness, nor does meaning well erase our moments of weakness, selfishness, cruelty and malice. It is a common temptation to think that if we mostly mean well and don’t harm people most of the time, God “will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8), but little could be further from the truth. All of us, by our natural attainments, fall far short of the standard of holiness by which it will even be bearable to be in the presence of God (Mormon 9:3-5), let alone to be exalted. And so we need the help of a greater power, even a divine and infinite and eternal power, not just to be forgiven of all those things we do wrong (or did not do right), but also to have our characters transformed and purified. We all need to change, and none of us can accomplish that change by ourselves. We need the Atonement of Christ.

An infinite and eternal sacrifice

And so we turn to the topic that had been on my mind. This has largely been brought up as I’ve heard people claim that the Atonement was “personal” and “for each of us”. In its most extreme variant, I’ve heard the claim that it involved praying personally for everyone by name, a claim which simultaneous makes the Atonement too small (as we shall see), and yet underestimates how long praying for everyone by name would take. Assuming a rough estimate of 25 billion people live or ever have lived on Earth, for example, one would still be at the task!

What has become clear in many of these cases is that those making these claims see the Atonement of Christ as occurring in discrete lots: that is, that Christ suffered a bit for me, then a bit for you, and so on through the whole Human family. There’s problems with such teachings, but by far the biggest is that they aren’t true.

Turning to Amulek in 34:10:

For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

It should be noted that Christ was both an infinite and eternal sacrifice, because he wasn’t just human, he was divine. This refers to more than simply the circumstances of his birth too: it’s not simply that he was the only begotten of the Father in a genetic sense, but also because prior to birth he was divine. As the Book of Mormon puts it on the title page, “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. For him to give up his life was to make more than a mortal offering, but to offer the life of a God.

Continuing on with verses 11 and 12:

Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

This is the crucial bit, because what Amulek is teaching is that the way at least some think the Atonement works doesn’t work. If the Atonement consisted of the transfer of a discrete portion of suffering, someone could atone for the sins of the another, but they can’t. And as his own reference to their own law makes clear, it would not be just: their just law will not be satisfied simply with a death, but rather with that of the guilty.  The simple transferral of a set amount of suffering, even if done 25 billion times, while unimaginable vast to human beings, is still finite, and would not work. The only solution is an infinite atonement, with an infinite sacrifice.

Why does this matter? For one thing, I think it is important to try, even if we fail, to appreciate the full magnitude of what Christ did, and what only Christ could do, for us. For another, the idea that the Atonement consists of Christ transferring to himself discrete and personalised packets of suffering may even lead people to reject the atonement. I have known of some who felt that they don’t want Christ to experience their bit of pain, either out of a misinformed belief that they didn’t want to “add” that burden to him, or some sort of belief that they can take their own punishment. But it doesn’t work like that. Christ has already atoned for the sins of the world, and did so in such a way that it is impossible to add or reduce the burden he took upon himself. And in doing so, he was doing something that none of us could possibly have done, not even for one person. And his superlative and infinite power can save any one of us, if we accept the gift he has already provided in gratitude.

Work out your salvation with fear before God

There’s many other things in this chapter which deserve attention, but there’s one final passage which stood out to me today:

And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

(Alma 34:37)

This is not an unique sentiment in the scriptures (compare Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27), nor is it the first time I’ve discussed fear (including potential positive aspects). But I was struck by it again, perhaps because I’ve seen a fair few adverts for an event recently, in which many of the performers and speakers seem to speak as if participation in the gospel should bring one continuous joy. Well it will… eventually. But not yet.

There’s a balance in these things. On one hand we should not be in a state of insecurity, where we feel unable to trust in God’s promises, or be oppressed by feelings of perfectionism as if everything depended upon us and any failings were irretrievable mistakes. We are saved by grace, we are instructed to “look unto me in every thought: doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and encouraged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). At the same time we must avoid complacency, a state of “carnal security” in which we think “all is well in Zion” (2 Nephi 28:21), and indeed work out our salvation before God with fear and trembling. In similar fashion, Christ does offer us peace (John 14:27), and offers us a “fulness of joy” in the world to come (D&C 93:33). But Adam and Eve, in their innocent state, knew “no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Nephi 2:23), and the promise to those who are joint-heirs with Christ is that “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). We’re not guaranteed unbroken happiness in this life, no matter we live our life. The path of following Christ cannot be reduced just to one dimension, either joy nor suffering. In the course of this life, we will likely experience both, at different times and different places, as indeed 2 Nephi 2 points out that we need to. And indeed, our future joys, especially that fulness of joy may well be linked to sufferings in this life, as Peter points out:

But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

(1 Peter 4:13)

In essence, we should always remember what Christ himself teaches:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

(John 16:33)

Trump will not save you

I’m still trying to finish my thesis, but outside events do catch my attention from time to time. The US election is obvious a big one. This is a topic I’ve written about at length from time to time. I really do feel that – at least for those on the political right (the Left will have their own trials) – Trumpism is a test of character: one I fear that many have failed. But I am proud and have been rather gratified that many Latter-day Saints have proved resistant to Trump’s charms, such as they are. I would thus be really glad for Utah to vote for a third party, if it only has symbolic immediate consequence (I happen to believe the long-term consequences would be even more important).

However, there are obviously some members who feel differently. That may be for a variety of reasons, some of which I can sympathise with even if I believe it is mistaken. Other arguments I find less sympathetic, such as the arguments found here. I happened to respond to some snippets of that in the comments of another blog, but since I took the time thought I share my response here too, in case anyone else was wondering:


The Truth About Evan McMullin

Rather amusingly, the article swiftly admits they don’t actually know much about Evan McMullin’s career (though they find it surprising that CIA work might be considered “secret”. So what follows is mostly built on the boiler-plate anti-establishment ramblings of an “establishment” conspiracy, where “establishment” includes any rich people not named Donald J. Trump. None of it is based on verifiable facts about one Evan McMullin.

There is a powerful and established section of the Republican leadership (elected officials, party members, big donors) who do not support the values of grassroots conservative Republicans.

And Donald Trump does?

But How? Enter the Mormon Suckers. I am proud to be a Mormon so it pains me to say what I am about say. When the GOP Establishment Never Trumpers and their Clinton allies went looking for a 3rd party spoiler they needed someone with a constituency of sheeple who would follow him regardless of the obvious logical outcome (President Hillary)

“Suckers” and “sheeple”, eh? Good to see the author thinks well of their fellow saints. They then go on to talk about a “weak-minded demographic”. Hmmm…

The Mormon demographic is overwhelmingly pro-life, pro-family, anti-communist, and protective of the Constitution they believe was divinely inspired. So how do you get these folks to throw an election to Hillary Clinton, someone whom most of them revile? It’s a complex but straightforward sociological scheme. In addition to being hardworking, God fearing, Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball loving Americans, Mormons are also some of the biggest suckers in the nation.

Or maybe it’s because you (the author and fellow-travellers) nominated an adulterous, authoritarian, proto-Fascistic sex offender!?

Utah leads the nation in financial fraud schemes.

Considering Trump university, this really starts to look like its projecting. If you’re afraid of fraud, don’t vote for the fraudster!

What follows is a hypothetical extrapolation of the results of a Hillary President – one that revolves around the worst case scenario I might add. For some reason there’s no similar weighing up of the consequences of a Trump presidency, where the Alt-Right run rampant, the 1st Amendment is similarly gutted, and Trump starts a nuclear war at 3am because Xi Jinping said something less than complimentary about him on Twitter.

It’s also rather hilarious that they speak of Hillary’s spending bankrupting the nation, when Trump’s also proposing increased spending… and he’s the one with the track record of going bankrupt.

Read Dennis Prager’s excellent article ‘In Defense of Pro-Trump Christians,’ and then join the millions of other Christians who will be voting Trump to save our country from the terrible alternative.

Many of those Christians (and Dennis Prager) have sold their principles for a mess of pottage. What happened to “character matters”? What happened to principles above that of national aggrandisement? What happened to seeking for one’s nation to be good, and not merely great? Trump won’t save anyone. It verges on blasphemous and idolatrous to look to him as a Saviour. And Prager’s statement that “We hold that defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the Left is also a principle. And that it is the greater principle” literally violates the first commandment.

You need to encourage the less likely voters to go the polls and you need to keep them from the conman.

Please Mormons don’t get suckered into the Con of the Century

This is grimly amusing, considering their claim McMullin is a conman is a baseless slur, while Trump is actually a defendant in a current court case involving fraud!

And sadly, I’ve seen that hypocrisy all too often. To my mind, if there’s one big reason to never vote or support Trump, it’s because almost every one of his supporters seems to lose their moral compass swiftly thereafter.


 

The above was only a brief response to an argument that I’ve sadly seen all too often, though not from LDS sources. Unfortunately, this argument – that any and every principle should be sacrificed so long as Hillary Clinton is defeated is wrong. Were I American, I would not desire Hillary Clinton as President. I’d oppose many of her policies, and be concerned at her tendency for evasion, unaccountability and dishonesty. But she’s not Hitler! But even if the document concerned was absolutely right about the dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency, to suggest that defeating her is the highest principle presupposes that the highest good is national survival, and our greatest concern the political conditions within it.

Scripture says differently:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

(Exodus 20:3)

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

(Matthew 10:28)

Even religious liberty – while valuable and something we should strive to protect – is not the most valuable principle. The Church through the ages has survived and even thrived under persecution, however unpleasant it may be to experience. Apostasies happen not because of persecution, but because the people go after strange gods, in this case gods of national pride, anger and political power.

To vote for Trump would be to choose a wicked man. That would be bad enough (“When the wicked rule the people mourn”, D&C 98:9), but it also involves surrendering higher principles. To select a man who openly and pathologically lies (look up the whole “John Barron” case) is to abandon the standard of honesty. To choose a predator who not only boasts of adultery, but has boasted of sexual assault is to make any defence of the family sheer hypocrisy. To choose a man who has pledged to order torture and retaliatory killings (that is, war crimes): to follow a course that we particularly as Latter-day Saints should be aware was followed by the Nephites and Jaredites of old, for which they were utterly destroyed.

I believe one can already see some of the moral consequences of the Trump campaign clearly. There’s the sudden increase – in just five years – of Evangelical acceptance of immorality in political leaders. There’s the mainstreaming of the fascistic and racist ideals of the so-called “Alt-Right”. There’s what some of the vocal opponents to Trump are already experiencing at the hands of his supporters. I believe to support him runs serious risks to one’s sense of integrity and morality. We know it does not profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his soul, but to gain Trump?

I also believe, however, that there can be lasting consequences for passing the Trumpian test. LDS resistance to Trump has attracted media attention in both the US and in the UK, and doubtless elsewhere too. I believe the idea that there is something in the Church that has helped people see with moral clarity will attract the honest in heart. Resisting Trump is not only the right thing to do, but it may well attract some to the message of the restored gospel, a message that will be of far longer-lasting importance than the fate of any nation.

Arise, Riders of Théoden

After a while the king led his men away somewhat eastward, to come between the fires of the siege and the outer fields. Still they were unchallenged, and still Théoden gave no signal. At last he halted once again. The City was now nearer. A smell of burning was in the air and a very shadow of death. The horses were uneasy. But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age. Merry himself felt as if a great weight of horror and doubt had settled on him. His heart beat slowly. Time seemed poised in uncertainty. They were too late! Too late was worse than never! Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills.

Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.

But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.

At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

J.R.R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’, The Return of the King)

It also seemed a trifle linked to my musings on fear here.

Fear

Within the last two years I’ve had the occasion to really examine the role of emotion in my life. I don’t like to talk of “journeys” because that tends to sound like hippyish nonsense, but events and certain long-held beliefs in my life have forced me to confront either long-buried emotions or feel whole new ones.

At the same time, right at the beginning of this process, a friend pointed out to me that the scriptural instruction is to “bridle all your passions” (Alma 38:12). While my practice for most of my life has been to attempt to suppress my emotions, to lock them up in some mental concentration camp, a bridle does not kill the horse, or even stop it most of the time: the bridle allows one to steer the horse. So too with our emotions: Christ felt every emotion we do, the difference is that he controlled them rather than being controlled by them. Emotions are part of our immortal existence (both God and pre-mortal spirits feel emotion, e.g. Moses 7:29,34; Job 38:7; Abraham 3:28), and we cannot end them. Rather we must learn to steer them, so that instead of being a weakness our feelings may become a strength.

I’ve touched on this topic before, as well as the example of the Saviour, in considering happiness and unhappiness. But I’ve been giving thought to the role of other emotions too, particularly those we regards as negative, or as having no proper place. And the one that has particularly come to mind is fear.

I doubt that few other emotions have such a bad reputation – perhaps only hate is seen as a more negative emotion. I’ve heard repeatedly the claim that we should never fear, or that faith cannot coexist with fear, or that it casts out fear. There is some scriptural support for some of this: we are taught that we should “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36) and that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18) though notice the latter passage doesn’t say faith. Yet the scriptures also teach repeatedly that we should “fear God” (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:13, 1 Peter 2:17 and many others). While I agree that this fear has more the air of reverence and awe than abject terror, we find that the scriptures use the same words for the “negative” and “positive” uses of the term (and this is true in Hebrew, Greek and English). Thus Joseph Smith is told “you should not have feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7); the (undesirable) fear of man cannot therefore have an entirely different semantic meaning than the (desirable) fear of God. We are also instructed to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, cf. Mormon 9:27), and told that at the very moment that the Brother of Jared was so full of faith that he pierced the veil and saw the finger of the Lord that “he fell with fear” (Ether 3:19).

What can explain this apparent dichotomy? I think we should realise first that just because some, even most, fear is wrong doesn’t mean all fear must be wrong; love, after all, while seen as more positive can also mislead, be distorted or be a snare for sin.

Yet I also think there is also something more powerful at play, something that I think I caught of glimmer of in the following clip from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bruce Wayne/Batman has been imprisoned in a pit, one that no one has climbed out of except for a child. While he recovers his health, his attempts to climb out continue to fail, until the following:

It is the dialogue at 1:04 onwards that gets my attention:

Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.

How often do we simply try to deny fear, or seek some sort of world security – “a rope”? Are the scriptural injunctions against fear directing us simply not to feel it? As I have discovered with a range of emotions, trying to deny or suppress our emotions is unlikely to work. Surely such instructions are about not letting our fears (other than our fear of God) control us, not allowing such fears to prevent us acting in faith. For what is the truly faithful position, the real exercise of faith? Is it to act in complete ignorance of the risks we run and the dangers we face? Is it to only act when we have put our own safety net into place? Or is it to depend upon God in the full face of fear, to act in spite of our very real and grounded fears? To know that without Him we face a certain doom, and yet place ourselves in danger because of our trust in Him?

God would have us climb all manner of pits, but it strikes me that in order for us to learn to depend upon him, he would have us climb “without the rope”. I am reminded of the frequent instruction in scripture that when proclaiming the gospel that we should “neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). I’ve repeated that verse to many people, and many of them have something to me along the lines of “well it’s easy for you, but I don’t have your talents, so I have my talk/notes written out so I have something to rely on”. They do not know that I used to be utterly incapable of any kind of public speaking, that I even froze when trying to speak in sacrament and had to be escorted down from the stand. In order to speak, I had to let go of any rope and rely solely on God’s promise and not any notes. And I am still terrified. But God would have us rely on him and not our own papers.

How often does God have us climb without any rope? Why were the Children of Israel led into a dead end, with no escape from Pharaoh except across the Red Sea? Or Elijah directed to challenge the 400 Priests of Baal alone in full view of the people? David not only faced Goliath, but he chose do so without Saul’s armour. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego knew God could save them from the fiery furnace, but they didn’t know that he would until they were thrown in. In each case, these ancient saints faced very real, and in some cases very avoidable, terrors. They were directed so that they all faced the climb, but were left without rope. They all had to face situations where they could feel fear and know that their only hope was the power of God.

I believe that sometimes it is only in such circumstances that God’s power is manifest, even to us. It is only in such circumstances, when we feel our own fears (whether that be to our life, or our livelihood, or some more minor but very real feeling matter) but choose to act regardless, that we can truly recognise our need for God’s power. Faith, I believe, is found not in denying fear, but in feeling it – even when directed placing ourselves in its path – but choosing instead in that moment to willingly risk our fears and depend upon God. It is only when we actually fear that our faith becomes a choice, and having made that choice – even having had faith longer than is possible – we can then see impossible miracles.