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)

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The Mercy and Justice of God

I find God’s justice and mercy fascinating, not only because he perfectly embodies such qualities, but because we as human beings apparently have such a hard time reconciling them that we are apt to build a more selective image with only one of those qualities. Thus in the 17th century, it seems many were apt to forget God’s love and mercy in favour of his wrath and hatred of sin. Today we seem apt to commit the reverse error: we emphasise God’s love and mercy, but forget his justice and righteousness. In doing so, we not only build up a false image of God, but also diminish the quality of God we do remember. His justice and mercy are linked, for his justice is connected to his love and mercy for those we have sinned against. To paraphrase something I’ve said before, to be merciful without condition to predators is to be merciless to their victims. Hence God’s mercy is conditioned upon repentance. Likewise God’s desire for us to change and repent and follow him is based in his love and his desire for our exaltation: a love that never asks us to change or repent is one that would be content to leave us stuck in mediocrity, one that would ultimately be happy to sit back and watch us be damned.

A particular quote that I feel captures both God’s justice and his mercy was expressed by Joseph Smith. However, I often find it quoted with the second half missing, in keeping with the bias of our current era. So I thought it worth quoting in full:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

– Joseph Smith, 18 April 1842

 

“Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”

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My “office”. A little drafty but it does the job.

Today, while sitting in my “office” (see above) and working on other things, I began thinking about temptation. This wasn’t for any especial reason, and this is not a confession post. But I’m as human as anyone else, and all of us face or have faced temptation, including the Saviour himself, even though he never succumbed. And I was thinking about what I have learned about those things that have helped me in repenting and those that have not.

As I was doing so, my mind began thinking about the temptations Christ suffered in the wilderness, but particularly the first:

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

(Matthew 4:1-3).

It struck me, in considering this account, how this reflects the temptations we suffer. It was understandable, after fasting for such a prolonged period, that Christ was hungry. In fact it is more than understandable, but entirely justified. The human body needs food to survive, and Christ had a mortal human body, as we do. Being hungry was not a sin, but a legitimate need.

Satan’s temptation was not to make the Saviour feel hungry. His temptation was to suggest an illegitimate way to meet that need, one that involved the misuse of Christ’s power.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that this is often true for us. Many of the sins we wrestle with are often connected with some deeper issue or need, which we may not even be aware of. I’ve seen this in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of others. These may be desires for love, security, comfort or intimacy, or even simply the rudiments of survival. And it strikes me that seeking these things is not wrong. The problem is that Satan preys upon those needs, tempting us to meet unhappiness, or loneliness, or deprivation, or whatever with drugs, or sexual sin, or greed or dishonesty or all manner of things. And of course, these are not only wrong, but also cannot really meet our righteous needs. But we are often unaware of the very need at stake, and so Satan deceives us (and we often deceive ourselves) that these are the things that will somehow make us happy, often unaware of why we might find a particular temptation tempting in the first place.

Satan, who desires our misery above all other things, will always seek to pay us in false coin. And we, especially when we are unaware of what we really need, often seek solace from the wrong sources.

While I was contemplating this, I recalled a statement I’ve heard attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: “Sin is the result of deep and unmet needs”. Some investigation reveals lots of sites attributing that quote to him, but without sourcing it. However, as far as I can tell they’re actually paraphrasing the following statement, which certain captures the same thought:

Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner.

(Spencer W. Kimball, “Jesus: The Perfect Leader”, The Ensign, August 1978)

I don’t believe anyone can accuse President Kimball of seeking to excuse sin, and there’s no excuse for it here. Sin is still sin, and needs repentance. But it seems to me that so often our approach to sin is symptomatic: we simply seek to stop the symptom of our outward sins. But such an approach can be as unsuccessful as simply trying to eliminate symptoms in physical medicine. To truly treat an illness, one must treat the causes. I believe this applies individually, but is also the case for any leaders counselling someone else wrestling with some sin: it is not enough simply to urge the stopping of sin, nor enough to simply encourage an increase of devotional acts, as good as they are. All too often this may leave an individual’s needs unmet and unrecognised, and leaves true repentance – change – incomplete, and a person vulnerable to falling back into former sins.. Rather, in addition to these things, we should seek to identify the needs or deeper issues at stake. I believe doing so can help us to recognise that what Satan is offering is an imposter, something that does not and can not and will never give us what we truly want. We can seek to pursue legitimate means to meet that need, if it is possible at that time. Above all, we can learn, and seek, and experience how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power not only to bring forgiveness of sins, but to meet all our deepest and dearest needs.

Christ not only cleanses us from sin, but is the great physician, healing us on the inside if we let him. And for our repentance to be successful – and for the repentance of anyone we happen to be counselling for those who are leaders – we must seek to let him.

Helaman 13

It’s been a long while since I’ve written one of these, and I feel that I’d like to do better at it. To recap, this is part of a series generated by my personal reading of the Book of Mormon, in which I happen to comment on one or two (or occasionally more) things that leapt out at me during my reading. It doesn’t aim to be an exhaustive or comprehensive examination of the chapter (the former I’d argue would likely be impossible), but simply commenting on something that struck me during my reading.

While reading Helaman 13 this morning, several points of varying importance came to mind:

  1. Firstly, I was curious about the fact that Samuel the Lamanite mentions several times (Alma 13:5, 9) that the Nephites face destruction in under “four hundred years”. Alma the younger has already mentioned the figure in Alma 45:10, although that is privately to his son Helaman. I am curious as to whether Samuel’s audience dismissed his remarks because it all sounds so far away. Of course, Samuel is also discussing more imminent events (and gives more imminent dates for those in the next chapter), but I guess many people’s natural response is to not worry about what will happen in four hundred years.
  2. One line that struck: “nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Helaman 13:6). I think this is true (and think it is being used here) both individually and collectively. But, individually and collectively, we often have a tendency to look towards different sources of salvation, whether it be the “right” political leaders, wealth, our own powers or intellect or whatever. In an ultimate sense, however, we all need to depend upon those two principles.
  3. Overall the chapter spends a lot of time talking about wealth, and it becoming “slippery”, so that the people are unable to find or keep it. I was wondering about why the focus on this, and think that part of the reason is the relationship people have with their riches here is emblematic of several serious sins. On one hand, one major sin is that the people do not remember and thank God for their material blessings, instead becoming prideful (Helaman 13:22); ingratitude may be a far more serious sin then we realise (see D&C 59, in which thanking God is specifically listed amongst the commandments given in vv. 5-13, and “confess[ing] not his hand in all things” is described as invoking God’s wrath in v. 21). On the other hand, the people trust in their riches (rather than God) and depend on them to preserve them from their poverty (Helaman 13:31-32), or to work or defend themselves (the mention of tools and weapons in particular in v. 34). The treasures becoming slippery teaches both that He who gave them can take them away, and that such material things are not dependable and to be trusted in.
  4. One to tag onto the list of “scary passages”, Helaman 13:37-38 is a particularly imposing passage:

Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.
But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.

 

Alma 29

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

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

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

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

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

(Alma 29:3)

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

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

(Alma 29:4–5)

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

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

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

(Alma 29:1–2)

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

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

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

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

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

(Alma 36:6–7)

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

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

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

(Alma 29:6–8)

2 Nephi 30

And now behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you; for I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish; and because of the words which have been spoken ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed.

For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel.

(2 Nephi 30:1-2)

I’ve mentioned before that a key theme of the Book of Mormon – including 2 Nephi 25-30 – is the restoration of Israel and conversely judgment upon the Gentiles who have oppressed them. Yet these verses help correct any misapprehension we may have of that: Israel will be restored, collectively. On an individual scale, however, it is personal repentance and faith that make the difference. We will not be saved based on who our ancestors were, nor on what our nationality is, nor on nominal membership of the Church; we cannot be complacent and think everything is okay because we belong to the “right” group. We are all going to be held accountable, for God is just. Likewise He mercifully extends his salvation to all, on the same conditions.

2 Nephi 4

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

(2 Nephi 4:15)

I don’t think any commentary is necessary on this verse.

I can’t say I like the title “the Psalm of Nephi” that some people have given the latter part of this chapter (though I can’t think of any rational objections). But the chapter itself contains many passages in which my soul “delighteth” or that my heart “pondereth”:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

(2 Nephi 4:17-19)

O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
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 4:26-30)