Alma 39

I feel a bit sorry for Corianton. I would not want my own sins broadcast to the world, and yet Corianton’s have been recorded for people millennia hence, and – despite the fact that he repented of these things – he’s perhaps best known by people millennia after he died for those very sins. Perhaps he agreed to this at some stage (even posthumously), but it seems lie quite a burden.

Alma’s address to Corianton is spread over several chapters, beginning here in 39 and continuing to 42. The later chapters address specific doctrinal questions and concerns Corianton has (that may have affected his conduct), but this chapter deals directly with his behaviour itself.

Verse 5 is particularly famous:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

This has generally been read as a denunciation of sexual sin. But while this is definitely part of Corianton’s problems, it has been suggested that – in view of the ambiguity of “these things” – that that is not quite what verse 5 is speaking about. If we examine the preceding verses 3 & 4, we read:

And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

There’s several elements here that could be included in “these things”. There’s indeed the part where he went chasing after “the harlot Isabel” (so much so that he crossed over to the edges of Lamanite territory, something that really stood out this time; perhaps an indication of how such sins can lead us into dangerous territory – metaphorical or in this case quite literal – that we’d otherwise never have intended to go). But there’s also Corianton’s forsaking the ministry as well.

The following verses build on both components. Thus Corianton is instructed to “go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things” (v. 9) and to “suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots” (v. 11). However, there is also another factor that clearly concerns Alma:

Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

(Alma 39:11)

Alongside being told not to be lead away by “those wicked harlots”, Corianton is warned not “to be led away away by any vain or foolish thing”. And why? Because of the great harm his sins inflicted upon the Zoramites: “for when they saw your conduct, they would not believe in my words”.

Thus it has been suggested that the particularly sharp denunciations in verse 5 and verse 7 may not aimed at just sexual sins per se, but at what might be termed spiritual murder. We might hesitate at that; it is clear from the quoted verses that such sins are significant, and a major part of Corianton’s problems. But it is also clear that they are aggravated and are more severe in Corianton’s case because of their effects on those around him. Thus the spirit reveals to Alma:

And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities;

(Alma 39:12)

This warning may strike quite close to home for Alma; whatever the extent of his sins prior to his conversion, there’s no positive indication that sexual sins were a significant factor. But we know leading people astray was; indeed, in his recounting of his conversion experience to Helaman just several chapters ago he confesses “I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14), precisely the very thing the Lord is warning him his children may do (albeit, in Corianton’s case, by different means). Hence his urgency in encouraging Corianton to change his course.

One thing I was struck by reading this time around, however, were several steps that preceded Corianton’s more infamous missteps, mentioned right at the beginning of the chapter:

For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.

(Alma 39:2)

Here we learn that Corianton did not pay as much heed to Alma’s words as Shiblon did, and boasted in his strength and wisdom. When reading this time around I couldn’t help but think that these things – examples of pride and a belief that he already knew enough – left him vulnerable to the later temptations embodied by Isabel and others. That if he had paid more attention to Alma’s instructions, and been more humble, he would have been better protected against later temptations, whatever form they took. Just as Alma taught Helaman that God works through “small and simple things” (Alma 37:6-7), these small and simple things could have had a great effect on Corianton’s own later decisions.

 

 

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.

Mosiah 3

This is a very well known and oft quoted chapter, particularly the portions relating to the prophecy of  Christ’s mortal ministry and atoning sacrifice (vv. 5-10) and the famous passage that really encapsulates the core of the Gospel:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

That really covers almost everything important: the fallenness of man, guidance through the Holy Ghost, repentance and sanctification through the Atonement of Christ and how we should be as disciples and God’s children.

Perhaps one bit of that verse that catches a little less attention is that whole bit about being ‘willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him’. I think it’s easy to read the verse, and see it as being willing to submit to everything God may ask of us and in addition what he permits may happen to us. But the word inflict is rather more active than that, in that it requires us to accept and submit to what God may do to us, even if unpleasant. An interesting article I’ve already linked to in this blog which discusses the concept of an Abrahamic Test quotes this verse in that context, noting that the scriptures teach that God both chastens us (which is correction or punishment upon those that have disobedient) and tries us, in which the refiners fire falls upon the righteous. It is interesting that a crucial part of our discipleship is the degree to which we accept both of these processes.

I don’t know whether I can say I’m grateful for any of the trials I’ve experienced, and in many respects I’m quite fortunate, so I don’t know how others may feel about that either. But I’ve certainly found with some unpleasant experiences that – often given time and opportunity to reflect – I’ve been able to perceive some of the positive results of them too. I don’t know that we’re actually being asked to be glad about unpleasant things (though perhaps with sufficient perspective we can be; thinking about it there are a couple of things I think I can now say I am appreciative for). But perhaps what this is really getting at is the core measure of our trust and loyalty towards him, the capacity to say “not my will, but thine be done”, no matter what that appears to entail for us.

Linked to this verse, but really catching my attention today, was verse 16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

It’s an interesting point in general that the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy (for instance, see v. 10-11 and 2 Nephi 9:26). But what attracted my eye today was the whole phrase about ‘in Adam, or by nature, they fall’. When we talk of the fall, we often talk of Adam and Eve, but really in a sense each of us falls as we grow up. We are born innocent before God (D&C 93:38), and we are not held responsible for the sins of our forebears (Moses 6:54). But as a consequence of the fall, human nature is opposed to God, and our natures mean that as we grow ‘sin conceive[s] in [our] hearts’ (Moses 6:55) and we yield to our unrighteous instincts (‘the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein’, 2 Nephi 2:29) and become fallen people. We each experience the fall individually; I guess in a similar manner to the way in which while Christ atoned once for sins in an infinite and eternal offering, we must experience the power of that redemption individually too.

I think it’s also important to remember this self-sabotaging nature that we all inevitably have. We can become ground down trying to perfect ourselves, or we might try to persuade ourselves that some inner tendencies can’t possibly be wrong, or why would we have them? But human nature as it is is morally flawed, and is not perfectible by our efforts alone. But there’s two crucial caveats there, which again verse 19 addresses: our current nature is not the nature God wishes for us to carry into the eternities, and we can put off that nature and become something else – a saint, that is holy – as we “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” and accept the power of Christ’s atonement into our lives. God wants us to change, and through Christ’s power we can.

2020 edit:

I’m beginning to think there’s some kind of weird joke: once again when reading there’s certain verses that leap out at me, and once again I find it’s exactly the same verses I’ve already written about. Admittedly, this seems to be particularly the case in posts like this, where the first part was written not that long ago (less than a year). Furthermore, while it’s the same verses that have stood out on this occasion, there’s somewhat different aspects.

So back to Mosiah 3:16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

What caught my attention this time was the notion that “the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins” – that is, the sins of little children. I would partly credit Elder James Rasband’s talk this past general conference for this, in which – citing this very verse – he stated that “[a] righteous judgment also required, he taught, that “the blood of Christ atoneth for” the sins of little children.” That phrase stood out to me because I’ve never heard it put as bluntly as that. Indeed I suspect there might be some who’d recoil from that phrase. But it’s quite clearly there in Mosiah 3:16, although perhaps we may pass over it all too easily by not enquiring as to who “their” refers to. But there is only one possible referent.

How do we square this with what Mormon writes in Moroni 8, which states that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” (Mormon 8:8)? Some points are worth considering.

Firstly, Mormon is speaking of the world in which the atonement of Christ is a given fact, while King Benjamin is speaking of what would have happened if the atonement had never taken place, and what the atonement does. Mormon concurs with the role of the atonement in this, as he continues in verse 8 to relay the Lord’s statement that “wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it have no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me”. It is through the Lord’s atonement that little children have become whole. Indeed, even the condition of innocence in infancy is through the atonement of Christ, as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God” (D&C 93:38, bold is my emphasis – it should also be remembered that innocent is not the same thing as good).

Secondly, we must refer back to the fall, and how pervasive and powerful it is. Without the atonement, its influence would be so powerful no human being could possibly escape it. Would that be just? No, but that’s just the point: the atonement of Christ is not just a means of mercy, but also establishes justice, as is taught by Jacob in 2 Nephi 9:26 and by Elder Rasband in his talk.

Thirdly, the principle of accountability is important to understand why the effects of the atonement vary in their application. Little children (and presumably others such as the mentally handicapped) have limited accountability. Their “sins” are not sins of their own volition, in the same way ours are, and they have limited capacity to repent: thus their sins are atoned for automatically. Those who “died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11), who did not know enough to be considered fully accountable, likewise have their sins atoned for. However, the time of such ignorance is limited:

And moreover, I say unto you, that the time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent.

(Mosiah 3:20-21)

As for those who are accountable and have a necessary level of knowledge, and so have committed sin of our own volition, then atonement for sin is conditional, “for salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and Faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:12). Thus Mormon instructs Moroni to teach “repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin” (Moroni 8:10), surely meaning in this case, those capable of choosing to sin and knowing that it is wrong.

It is perhaps not always entirely necessary to know more that what Mormon teaches in this case. And yet, perhaps it may help some to appreciate even more what Christ has done for all of us, to realise that the salvation of little children was not “free”, but was likewise brought with the blood of Christ.

The forgotten fall

As might be inferred from my statement at the beginning of this edit, the other verse which caught my attention this time around was indeed verse 19 again. In this case, it was particularly the first few clauses:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless…

Obviously there’s a pretty big “unless” there – indeed the whole heart of the gospel, the “good news”, is contained and followed by that “unless”. And yet we cannot truly appreciate that “unless”, and indeed the very choices we face on a day to day basis, unless we truly understand and keep in mind those first few clauses.

Over the last decade, I have come to the conclusion that the Fall has become somewhat of a forgotten doctrine in Christianity at large. One can see this in various discussions which hinge on claims of “God made me this way”, or in which it is assumed that what is natural must be good. Even some Latter-day Saint scholars appear to misunderstand the fall, if for different reasons: it seems some get caught up so much in understanding that the fall was a necessary part of God’s plan that they forget the negative effects of the fall (negative effects which, if anything, Latter-day scripture is even more explicit about). Likewise, in their desire to defend Adam and (especially) Eve, they appear to conflate the perspective they both enjoyed at a later date after a great revelation (Moses 5:9-11), with the far more limited perspective they would have had at the time.

The fall is the necessary counterpoint to the atonement of Christ. Without understanding the fall, we cannot understand the atonement. If we negate the importance of the fall, and its negative effects, we negate the importance of the atonement, and its positive effects. Moreover understanding the fall is crucial to understanding ourselves and the situation we face right now, in our mortal lives, and the choice that has been provided to us by Christ. Understanding the fall answers so many of the questions the modern age seems otherwise confused by.

Because of the fall, none of us is as God eventually intends us, nor is this earth. Nature I’ve already written about, if in a rather speculative tone. The facts of non-human “nature”, however, should surely establish that an awful lot of it isn’t presently good: the naturalistic fallacy (the idea what if something is “natural”, it is therefore “good”) should fall apart in the face of things like infanticide amongst lions, never mind those wasps that lay their larvae in other creatures and which eat their way out.

Likewise, amongst human beings, understanding the fall means understanding that due to the fall, we must all contend against “the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein” (2 Nephi 2:29), that “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2), and that as King Benjamin points out “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). Each of us has a part of us that doesn’t want to do good. It thus should not disturb us, should there be any who appear to have inherent tendencies that lead away from obedience to God’s commandments, because we all have such inherent tendencies. Such tendencies may be in areas that aren’t obsessed about or approved by our culture: we may have tendencies towards alcoholism, or kleptomania, or greed, or road-rage, or wanting to crush our enemies and see them driven before us. But whichever direction our fallen part would propel us, we all may have such a fallen part.

Now, the great and glorious and wonderful good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to give in to that part: we all have a choice. Due to the atonement of Christ, we are free to “choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein”. It’s not necessarily an easy choice, indeed it’s a choice I think we have to make over and over again until it sticks. But as Mosiah 3:19 teaches, we can “[put] off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord”. That fallen nature need not be who we eternally are, it need not be the inherent part of ourselves, but can be shed. The body can become subject to the spirit, and become sanctified so that when we stand before God we might be entirely holy. We cannot do this alone, it is true, but we do not have to: Christ purchased this choice for us, with his own life; he atones for our sins and anything in which we err; and he can give us grace and strength and power to choose his will whatever the natural man would have us do, until the glorious day when it can be kicked off entire, “that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48).

The Good News

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Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

“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 certainly 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 14

Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.

Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:

Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.

The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:

And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

(Helaman 14:2)

And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

(Helaman 14:13)

This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.

“For if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain”

I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

(Galatians 2:21)

I find this an interesting verse to mull over. Sometimes it seems our reaction to sin and bad habits is to try and conquer them purely through our own efforts or mortal means. But this isn’t possible. What is true of addictions is really true of all our sins: we, as natural men (and women) cannot overcome them by our own efforts (indeed, in this light addictions are simply the adversary getting smarter about how he preys upon our fallen natures), no matter how hard we try.

But Christ did not die in vain. Freedom from sin, from addiction, from bad habit is possible, but only through his power. Through him, we can be cleansed from all wickedness and have the power to put off our fallen natures to which we are otherwise prone:

Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.

(Alma 7:14)

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

(Mosiah 3:19)

Jacob 3

But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.

O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever.

(Jacob 3:1-2)

This follows up from Jacob 2, where Jacob faced the dilemma that because of the need to condemn particular sins his words could not offer the comfort others needed. What I like about these verses is that, although Jacob himself cannot offer consolation, there are other sources of comfort to be had, particularly though looking to God, prayer and receiving the word of God, which I believe includes both personal revelation and receiving the scriptures (and of course the latter should often include a degree of the former).

There are some topics, of course, that the scriptures don’t appear to address all that explicitly. But as I’ve also mentioned before (in reference to Jacob no less) the scriptures can address issues in far less direct and more subtle ways. The scriptures are the word of God, an inexhaustible well of inspiration, which we are invited to “liken” them unto ourselves and through which we can receive personal guidance and revelation.

Studying the scriptures in such a way is of course a very personal experience: what one sees or needs to see, may not be what other people need to see. Perhaps this is why the scriptures don’t address certain topics explicitly, and another reason why Jacob could point people to the “pleasing word of God” but not offer such comfort personally. Each of us is an individual, with our own issues and challenges, and – while there are fixed eternal truths – for our own different issues we need individual guidance to resolve them. But there is a common path by which we can receive that guidance, that through prayer and contemplation of the word of God we can each receive the individual comfort and counsel we need. But we cannot rely on others to walk that path for us: each of us personally must look towards God, pray to him and receive his “pleasing word”.

2020 edit:

This chapter really concludes Jacob’s sermon to his people. If chapter two was the first half, addressing the two specific areas of concern, in this second half Jacob first turns (as above) to those in his audience who may have been hurt by such sins (and by his necessary words about them), and then switches back to warning against sin and urging repentance and reformation on the part of his wider audience.

Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?

(Jacob 3:7)

I find it interesting that Lamanite family life is so commended here (in contrast to the Nephite situation), and indeed seems always to have been comparatively healthy, when one looks at episodes like the stealing of the daughters of the Lamanites (Mosiah 20), or in the Sons of Mosiah’s mission to the Lamanites, and the role various wives and daughters (generally an unrepresented group in the Book of Mormon) played in that narrative. This rather healthy family life is not without divine reward, too: “because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people” (Jacob 3:6), despite other sins and unbelief which they inherited, so to speak, from their forefathers.

Wherefore, ye shall remember your children, how that ye have grieved their hearts because of the example that ye have set before them; and also, remember that ye may, because of your filthiness, bring your children unto destruction, and their sins be heaped upon your heads at the last day.

Jacob 3:10 here introduces an interesting corollary to this idea. If the Lamanites could end up the way they are because of the decisions of their ancestors, it follows this may not be a one-off: the Nephites, and for that matter any of us, could act in ways that bring disastrous consequences upon following generations, with little choice on their part. And I think one can see this, when one looks at the generational consequences that can accompany things like abuse, addiction, family break-up, or apostasy. It’s this phenomenon that I believe is reflected in scriptural statements such as those in Exodus 20:5 about the “the iniquity of the fathers” being ‘visited’ “upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”. This doesn’t mean that those successive generations have been abandoned by God or left without hope: after all, neither were (or were to be) later generations of the Lamanites. But it does mean that our actions, including our sins, can have wider consequences than just ourselves and those we directly sin against.

Jacob 2

And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.

Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds.

Jacob 2:8-9

Jacob speaks in such a distinctive, individual fashion, unlike any other voice in the Book of Mormon (something I’ve mentioned before). This is an example of that. But I believe the phenomenon he’s talking about here more universal. The word of God can comfort and console, or it can chastise and correct. Which seems fitting: God speaks according to what we need and can understand (D&C 1:24-28), and sometimes that means correction and other times consolation. The dilemma Jacob faces here – and I guess this must be true at other times (Elder Oaks has certainly mentioned the concept in reference to General Conference) – is that his audience includes both groups. In this particular case, Jacob can’t help but be distressed that he is unable to offer the words of comfort that some need, because the need to correct others has to (at least in this case) take precedence. Sometimes we’re discomforted because we need to be. Sometimes, however, we’re just part of the same audience, and certain remarks may not be aimed at us.

2020 edit:

Somewhat in line with the observations above, there’s also the very last verse, where once again we see Jacob’s personality really emerge, in his concern for the emotional impact, both of the sins of those he is addressing upon those they have let down, and of the words of God he is speaking upon those very same people in his audience:

Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.

I was struck that Jacob has two issues to deal with once: problems of wealth & pride, and problems of sexual immortality (manifested in this case particularly in illegitimate polygamy). The Come Follow Me manual happens to mention that these two broad problems affect our own era, but that’s also not the first time they coincide. I guess what I really thought of reflecting on these conditions is the issue discussed in Helaman 12: that when people are protected and prosperous, they forget God and turn against his teachings. Jacob speaks (in Jacob 2:13) about how these people have been blessed with prosperity, and sure enough these ills follow. There seems to be something about comfort and security, and particularly material prosperity – which keeps at bay the trials of hunger, thirst and the need for shelter and their attendant worries – which seems a particularly fertile ground for us to lose our way. It is as if when we are in a position to relax about matters of physical life and death, we have a tendency to relax about other things too, to our detriment.

I was also struck by a slight difference between Jacob’s instructions re: seeking wealth and those in regards to morality & polygamy. While he’s acting under direct divine instructions for both (vv. 11-12), his teachings about wealth and pride (vv. 12-21) don’t, for whatever reason, involve direct quotations from deity: he simply teaches the principles. Yet when he turns to his second subject, he then does start quoting deity, with the first “thus saith the Lord” in verse 23 (and others following rapidly), and much of 23-33 being given as a direct prophetic commandment from God. I’m not entirely sure if there’s any significance in this change, and if so what it might be (although verse 22 indicates it is the more serious matter, and it does in part hinge on specific commandments given to Lehi and his children), but thought it was interesting to observe nonetheless.