Alma 36

Alma 36 is a very poetic (indeed the whole thing is one giant chiasmus) account from Alma the younger himself of his conversion. It’s also a very powerful, and powerfully written, chapter; any paucity of comments by me today should not be taken as a reflection on the chapter itself, which is very worth reading.

Alma begins (and ends, in chiastic fashion) his account by talking of God delivering the Israelites and his own forefathers, and the importance of remembering them. There’s a point in verse 3 in particular that stood out to me today (my emphasis):

And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

Note what it doesn’t say: it does not say that those who put their trust will be spared trials and troubles and afflictions. Rather Alma states that those who put their trust in God will be supported in their trials and so forth. The very last phrase should not be forgotten either: “and shall be lifted up at the last day”. This is speaking of salvation and resurrection, of course, but I think also speaks to the promise that God will deliver us from our trials, troubles and afflictions. It just might not be immediately. God will deliver us in his time, and in the meantime will support us through those periods. Good examples of that pattern can in fact be seen in those very episodes Alma speaks of remembering; for instance, the deliverance of his own father and his people involved a period in which they were strengthened to bear their burdens in their captivity, and then a miraculous deliverance from captivity.

A question came to mind as I read Alma’s own account of the angelic visit that lead to his conversion:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.

And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.

And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.

And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.

And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.

(Alma 36:6-11, my emphasis)

It’s verse 11 that particularly raised the question. Alma recounts that when he heard the statement that “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God”, he was so affected by it that he fell and didn’t hear the rest of the words of the angel. So the question is why did the angel keep speaking?

Perhaps the answer to this is that they “were heard by my brethren” (namely the sons of Mosiah). Perhaps those words were really aimed at them. Considering how they changed their lives around at this point too, perhaps they were the target of this angelic ministry as much as Alma was.

As I’ve mentioned before with Alma, he’s very good at conjuring the potential horror of judgment and damnation, perhaps in part because he’s already felt that experience, and it’s here in this chapter we really see it:

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.

And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

(Alma 36:12-16)

It is this experience, however, that causes him to remember his own father’s teachings, and which leave him desperate enough to call for help:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

(Alma 36:17-18)

And as a result he experiences the power of the gospel, as he feels the joy of forgiveness and deliverance:

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.

Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

(Alma 36:19-22)

It’s worth reflecting that it is not the angel that converted him. The angel simply allowed him to realise his own sins. It is that consciousness of sin that cause him to turn to Christ, and that turn to Christ led him to be spiritually reborn and feel the joy of the gospel.

Alma 15

Just a few short comments today, which seems a bit fitting for the way that this chapter comes almost as a breather after the sermon in chapters 8-13, and then the dramatic events of chapter 14.

Verse 3 caught my attention:

And also Zeezrom lay sick at Sidom, with a burning fever, which was caused by the great tribulations of his mind on account of his wickedness, for he supposed that Alma and Amulek were no more; and he supposed that they had been slain because of his iniquity. And this great sin, and his many other sins, did harrow up his mind until it did become exceedingly sore, having no deliverance; therefore he began to be scorched with a burning heat.

I was really struck by that phrase of “having no deliverance”. Without Christ and his gospel, Zeezrom, and indeed all of us, don’t have any deliverance from our sins. And here we’re not speaking necessarily of the consequences of those sins, but simply the guilt from them. The guilt had become intense enough as to torture Zeezrom, and to physically debilitate him.

Of course, thankfully there is a deliverance: in Zeezrom’s case, Alma and Amulek appeaing, and healing him in the name of Christ, and for us to, in that Christ can deliver us from the guilt of our sins too.

I like verse 16 and 17 for difference reasons:

And it came to pass that Alma and Amulek, Amulek having forsaken all his gold, and silver, and his precious things, which were in the land of Ammonihah, for the word of God, he being rejected by those who were once his friends and also by his father and his kindred;

Therefore, after Alma having established the church at Sidom, seeing a great check, yea, seeing that the people were checked as to the pride of their hearts, and began to humble themselves before God, and began to assemble themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction

Verse 16 really underlines the message communicated elsewhere, especially in the gospels, as to the price one may have to pay as a disciple of Christ. There’s little Amulek didn’t have to give up (and so no surprise that Alma felt the need to help him in verse 18). But while that’s a heavy burden Amulek had to carry, it’s also one we might be called upon to carry too. The gospel calls for us to be willing to sacrifice everything if need be.

Verse 17 hasn’t really attracted my attention before but it did this time, and I’m not even quite sure why. There’s a lot there, I think, in the notion of pride being checked, and consequent humility. Likewise I think there’s something powerfully urgent in the description of the people “watching and praying continually, that they might be delivered from Satan, and from death, and from destruction”. These were people who didn’t simply pray for what they wanted or desired, but who recognised the desperate frailty of their existence, and the peril which they faced, and so at all times earnestly sought heaven’s protection.

Mosiah 4

There’s one running thread through this chapter that has caught my attention before, and really stood out today. It begins in verse 1 & 2:

And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.

Following King Benamin’s remarks in Mosiah 2-3, the people respond with sorrow and humility, and ‘viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth’. In that state, however, they then cry for mercy in the name of the Lord, and in verse 3 that request is granted.

I don’t have any absolute figures for any of this – it’s simply a phenomenon I’ve observed and heard – but it seems many in our current era are inclined to affirm that they are good people, that they don’t have anything particular to repent of. There’s people who run to the opposite extreme of course (and eras in which that is more common), who may suffer from what Catholic theology (and modern psychology) has termed scrupulosity. And that can be a serious problem: I remember when it dawned on me that such feelings can be a form of “sorrow of the world” as being sorry we got caught or such like, because such feelings can still trap us and thus “worketh death”, while “godly sorrow” produces change (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

But feeling that we’re without sin, that we’re good and don’t have anything to repent of can also be damning. First, such notions are simply not true: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, see also Alma 34:9), and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). But secondly, if we don’t have a consciousness of our sin, then how do we recognise that we even need the Saviour? How do we call upon the power of his atoning sacrifice if we don’t feel a need for it? How do we even appreciate what he has done for us if we don’t think it’s necessary? A consciousness of sin, while an unpleasant feeling, is the very thing that impels us to seek change and lead us – as it led King Benjamin’s people – to seek mercy through Christ. It strikes me that it is perhaps one of the first and most fundamental steps of our repentance.

Yet this chapter goes further in verse 5:

For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state

This is talking about the same experience of King Benjamin’s people, but it also describes sentiments I suspect it’d be most unlikely to be urged in your average Sunday school lesson: ‘a sense of your nothingness’ and ‘your worthless and fallen state’.

The idea of realising our ‘nothingness’ is not only found here in the scriptures: In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses remarks upon the conclusion of one visionary experience that ‘[n]ow, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed’ (Moses 1:10). This sensation, this realisation, is not the sum total of all we are supposed to feel in regards to ourselves and our relationship with God. But it is perhaps an element that receives little modern attention.

Back to Mosiah 4, and again King Benjamin goes further, describing what we should remember not just at a moment of conversion, but throughout our lives:

And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.

(Mosiah 4:11, my emphasis)

Again, this is not found only here: Alma in Alma 38:14 counsels his son Shiblon to ‘acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times’. But I suspect that at the present time such passages are often passed over quickly; they are hard passages, with hard counsel. But they clearly appear to be quite essential, with King Benjamin teaching that we should always remember God’s greatness, and in contrast our own nothingness and unworthiness if we wish to retain a remission of our sins (and we surely do).

Now I do not think that these verses are preaching a kind of self-hatred: while I do not find many scriptural passages that support the modern emphasis on self-esteem, self-hatred does not seem to be encouraged. Furthermore, we are also often counselled to seek and feel God’s love towards us. In some way, then, we are being encouraged to simultaneously realise our own nothingness and unworthiness, and thus our utter dependence upon God and his mercy, and that we do not earn any blessing from him, but at the same time feel of his love and realise that, in the words of Elder Uchtdorf, ‘compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God.’

I don’t know that I can make any great claims of knowing how to balance those realisations, but I am confident that both are necessary: we need one to avoid pride, and so that we know we need help and change and grace and who to seek it from, and we need the other to avoid despair and discouragement, and so that we know we can leave judgment in the hands of God and need not seek to punish ourselves for our own sins. With that in mind, we surely need to read such passages as the above carefully, and seek to follow them, rather than pass over them swiftly.

A couple of final, tangentially related points: this chapter goes on to detail our need to help and serve others, beginning with children (and our obligation to teach them), and then towards those seeking our assistance. I find it striking how it links our response to those who beg of us to God’s response to when we beg of him, and so how our acts of service are likewise connected to seeking to retain a remission of our sins:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

(Mosiah 4:26)

However, allowance is also made for capacity, thus those who have sufficient, but not enough to aid the beggar are addressed (v. 24), and then the general principle is also addressed (v. 27):

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

The image this conjures up for me is one of a marathon, and I believe this is a helpful image to have in mind. If someone tries to sprint a marathon, they’ll lead at first, but then their strength will ebb and they will not finish the race. Likewise, this life is a marathon, in which our means and energy are often limited, and if we are unwise, and “sprint”, we may exhaust our strength and lack the capacity to serve at a later date. We must therefore not let our zeal outweigh our wisdom, but carefully pace ourselves where appropriate to ensure that we are in a position to serve diligently up until the finishing line.

2020 edit:

Several brief notes, as I’ve already written a fair amount on this chapter about 8 months ago.

Verse 2 stands out again, this time not for how the people viewed themselves and their consciousness of their sins, but for the simplicity of their response: they called on God for mercy, asking that they might receive forgiveness through the atoning blood of Christ. I’m reminded of Alma 34:17 (in which Amulek urges much the same), and wonder if – when we think about repentance – the simple process of asking God for mercy and forgiveness is so straightforward it sometimes gets overlooked. Along with that, it’s perhaps important to remember that forgiveness is the not the product of some process we can produce via checklist, but a gift we are asking for.

I was struck also by the emphasis on not just obtaining a remission of sins, but of retaining a remission of sins (vv. 11-12 and 26), and what is necessary for that. I was reminded of Alma 5:26 (and indeed much of that chapter):

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 had powerful experiences in the past, like the people of King Benjamin experienced in verse 3. But how do we feel now? Do we continue to experience such feelings (in whatever degree)? Have our lives changed, and do we live up to the desire to do good we had in those moments?

I’ve also been thinking about the list of things that King Benjamin tells his people to believe in in verses 9 and 10:

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.

And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.

There’s a number of different things we’re commanded to believe in here, presumably not only because they’re true but because whether we believe in them has an effect on our salvation:

  • God’s existence. The importance of that seems obvious
  • God created all things, both in heaven and in earth. I feel I need to ponder more to understand the salvific significance of believing this (though I believe it must be important, or it wouldn’t be on this list)..
  • Believe God has all wisdom. If we don’t believe God has all wisdom, we may be inclined to doubt his guidance, to suspect there may be something he doesn’t know, or that we know better. Believing he does is thus crucial to trusting him and his counsel. Likewise wisdom is also grounded in goodness, not just knowledge, and so to believe he has all wisdom is to believe that he has the will to help us,
  • Believe God has all power, in heaven and in earth. Interesting that like his role as creator this mentions both heaven and earth. The importance of this one appears straightforward to me: if we believe God lacks power, then we may well conclude he is unable to intervene on our behalf. But God has all power, and so has an infinite capacity to help us.
  • Believe that man does not comprehend all the things the Lord can comprehend. This appears to overlap with the point of wisdom, but I think particularly speaks to the fact that – even at best – we can only have a partial understanding of God and his plan for us. No matter how much we learn, there’s going to be things about life and the gospel that we don’t have all the answers too, or which don’t make sense to us. Thus I take believing in this as a recognition that we need to be humble, and particularly to always acknowledge and follow God’s wisdom as being superior to our own. I’m also reminded of the statement by Harold B. Lee that “it is not the function of religion to answer all the questions about God’s moral government of the universe, but to give us courage through faith to go on in the face of questions to which we find no answer in our present status”.
  • Believe we must repent of our sins, forsake them, humble ourselves before God, and ask him sincerely for forgiveness. This seems to cover ground I mention above, including the fact that we need to believe we all have sinned, and so all need to repent, and the importance of actually humbly asking God for forgiveness. But it also emphasises that repentance is change too: we need to believe we must forsake our sins (as opposed, one presumes, to thinking we can be forgiven but continue in them). And I think the point about believing we need to ask God for forgiveness also addresses another thing we must believe: we must believe he can and is willing to forgive us, and that when he forgives us our sins are swept away.

Of course, belief alone isn’t enough, as King Benjamin promptly points out: “and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them”. But our sincere beliefs do affect our attitudes and our actions, and it seems striking to me that these beliefs all centre around the factors that cause us to trust (or not) in God, and prompt us to repent, change and seek forgiveness.