Alma 7

Alma 7 is Alma’s sermon to the people of Gideon, who he hopes (and is vindicated in that hope) don’t quite have the same problems as the people of Zarahemla. This chapter has attracted quite a bit of attention over the last few decades, particularly for the concept taught in Alma 7:11-12:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

This is the notion that Christ also took upon himself our pains and sufferings, and not just our sins. I actually sometimes find it amusing and/or frustrating that people will still teach this as some brand new thing, as some shocking revelation, when people have been talking about this concept for a couple of decades (at least) by now, but it’s still important. However, it’s also worth pointing out what this scripture teaches compared to what people think it teaches. I get the impression – from having heard a number of people speak about it – that people believe that this is speaking of some sort of vicarious suffering (particularly in the Garden of Gethsemane). Yet it doesn’t mention the garden at all (indeed, it’s not mentioned often in the Book of Mormon), and verse 11 follows on from verse 10 which is speaking of Christ’s birth (stating that Mary shall “bring forth a son, yea, even the son of God”). That is, the point from which Christ shall “go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind”, which fulfils the prophetic promise that “he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people”, is his birth. And indeed, if we look at King Benjamin’s lists of Christ’s experiences (“temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue…”, Mosiah 3:7), we can see they encompass earlier experiences in his life (the temptations in the wilderness for instance), as well as the sufferings in the Garden (“blood cometh from every pore”) and on the cross (Mosiah 3:9). Christ didn’t just share in our sufferings in some mystical way: he experienced the bad that life has to suffer the same way we did, by actually physically going through them. Likewise he took upon himself mortal infirmities in the same way we do, by actually living with them.

Why is this important? I think there’s a few reasons (including how we look at his mortal life), but particularly because of something that’s taught in verse 12 and verse 13 (my emphasis):

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

In one sense Christ did not need to experience the same sufferings to know about them: “the Spirit knoweth all things”. But what these verses bring out is that there is sometimes a distinction in different forms of knowing. Here it is between knowing according to the spirit, and knowing according to the flesh. The spirit knows all things, but because Christ personally experienced these things, he knows them, and what they feel like, according to the flesh. That knowing means he can have perfect empathy for us, and can help us, because he too knows by experience what that feels like. This is not the only reason he suffered “according to the flesh” (as verse 13 makes clear, it’s also that “he might take upon him the sins of his people”), but is an important part of it.

A more minor issue, but verse 10 sometimes attracts some attention. Speaking of Christ’s birth, Alma teaches:

And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

This sometimes attracts critics, who claim this is an error because, as everyone knows, Christ was born in Bethlehem. Which is a trifle silly, because of course that “everyone” would have included anyone that claim as a potential 19th century author too. However, more to the point it should be noted that Alma speaks of “Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers”. Book of Mormon geographical terminology is in fact very consistent: the authors always refer to cities, and then the lands around those cities by the same name (so there’s the cities of Zarahemla, Nephi, Gideon, Bountiful etc, and the lands that surround them). Bethlehem is of course very very close to Jerusalem; the picture of me on this blog’s banner was actually taken while I was on the southern edge of Jerusalem looking at Bethlehem (I was unaware a camera was in the vicinity, or I would have hidden). By Book of Mormon terminology, Bethlehem is indeed in the land of Jerusalem,

However, it’s also worth pointing out (and indeed I make more of this in my speculation on the subject) that the New Testament does include a group of people who clearly know of Christ’s birth, and who even receive revelations from God, but who – not having access to Micah 5:2 – aren’t quite sure where Christ is going to be born and so end up stumbling around Jerusalem in their attempts to look.

 

 

Mosiah 1

As always, these posts are not, and do not claim to be, exhaustive overviews of the chapters in question, but simply a reflection of what I happen to pick up or think upon as I am personally reading them. Sometimes that ends up being quite a bit, like last time, and sometimes its quite brief, like today. That’s not a reflection on the chapter itself, simply of what impinged on me during my reading.

As it happens, it was actually the very first verse that made the most impact on me today:

And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people who belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days.

This life often isn’t easy, and it isn’t meant to be easy. While the gospel ultimately offers happiness, we’re not promised continual happiness in this world. We need at times to experience misery (2 Nephi 2:23), to truly follow Christ and be glorified with him we also need to suffer with him (Romans 8:17), and then there’s simply the trials attendant to living in a fallen world surrounded by other people who have agency too. This life is often unfair, as Christ himself – who received a death sentence due to false witnesses and a corrupt court – could tell us.

Yet while it is important to bear these things in mind, and not have false expectations that living the gospel should bring ease, I believe it’s also important not to go the other way. This life often isn’t one of unremitting trial. Lehi and family experienced trials crossing the wilderness and the great deep, but found sanctuary at Bountiful in between. King Benjamin here has had to deal with foreign invasion and internal sedition, and the peace that followed came at the cost of great effort on his part and the part of the prophets (Words of Mormon 16-18), but he did get to experience peace. Those moments do come, the oases of life do exist, even if sometimes they can feel so remote and hard to come by.

2020 edit:

I was struck by verses 11-12:

And moreover, I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I do because they have been a diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord.

And I give unto them a name that never shall be blotted out, except it be through transgression.

Names are funny things. On one side, it might be argued that names are relatively unimportant: they do not change the actual nature of a thing (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;” and all that). On the other hand, others have held the act of naming to be very significant indeed. Thus in teachings attributed to Confucius, the act of naming is regarded as supremely important in maintaining order, with proper naming needing to correspond to reality:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect

(Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, trns. James Legge)

I think it’s fair to say that both perspectives have a degree of truth to them: the name of something, in and of itself, doesn’t change the nature of a thing. On the other hand, the act of naming can have a very significant effect: giving something its proper name can be a vital act of truth telling, and conversely accepting a false name or label for something can be a form of lying (as can be seen in several modern examples).

We may think our culture does not place much importance on names, but even here there are powerful exceptions. We may be reluctant to accept treatment from someone who gained the name “doctor” in illegitimate ways, for instance. When we call someone a “Judas” or a “Quisling”, we are laying a powerful charge by imputing the attributes of well-known traitors. Some current political movements, as linked to above, insist on certain names for things in their attempt to shape reality.

Likewise, naming is a significant act within the scriptures. There are multiple examples, but one might merely begin with God himself naming things in creation, culminating with Adam, Adam naming the animals, or examples like the renaming of the patriarchs Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel. Scriptural names are often not just names but also titles, describing the very thing or person at stake. As seen in the examples of Abraham and Israel, new names can reflect new or intended attributes, a change that has already happened or a change or promise that will come to pass.

King Benjamin here obviously intends to give a rather specific name to his people; those who’ve read the Book of Mormon before will know what that name is, and I’ll cover that when we get to it. But this is rather significant for us, especially as we end up taking the same name upon us. I think once again there can be two elements to this, as can be seen in King Benjamin’s act: firstly there’s the element of proper naming. The name must reflect in some way the underlying reality, or it will not work. Thus the people have had to be diligent in keeping the commandments of God to be given this name (v. 11), and if they transgress, the name can be “blotted out” (v. 12).

However, there’s also a degree to which the naming is aspirational: to give a new name when it belongs to someone else (as the name King Benjamin plans on, and the name we take upon ourselves, does) is to seek to clothe the named with the attributes of the name. It is to seek to place the one named in a course in which all the attributes and characteristics that go with that name may be acquired and thus belong in truth to the one named. Thus – one day, far from now – we hope that we will have become like the One to whom that name becomes, and share in his virtue and his nature.

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)

2020 Edit:

My original post here is fairly substantial, so I don’t want to dilute it too much. There’s simply a few verses that caught my eye while reading today.

First up is verse 2, one of those verses I think I have often passed over, but which today seemed to have fresh insight:

My brethren, I think that it is impossible that ye should be ignorant of the things which have been spoken concerning the coming of Christ, who is taught by us to be the Son of God; yea, I know that these things were taught unto you bountifully before your dissension from among us.

Reason I mention it is that I have just discovered that there seem to be certain parts of my mind – particularly those to do with lessons learned from emotional reflection and so on – that seem to wake up later than the rest of me. So certain things can seem very fresh and raw in the morning, but then I feel better as what I had learned and processed about such things on previous days comes back to me as the day goes on. Not that I’d forgotten such things, but it seems like I’m only aware of them first thing in the morning, and it takes time for the emotional power of such lessons and reflections to have a renewed effect, and that this is a daily, cyclical thing. The human psyche seems very odd at times.

Anyway, the connection with this verse is that sometimes, we’ve actually already been taught the answer or solution to a question or problem we have, and this can apply in spiritual things too. Sometimes we already have it, but don’t realise it. The Zoramites had been taught “bountifully” about Christ before their dissension, and so already had the answers to their dilemma, but needed to be reminded of those answers by Alma and Amulek. And sometimes the same is true about us.

Verses 32-34 are simply favourites of mine, and I think important verses for reminding us that time is pressing, that we cannot afford to be complacent, that we cannot count on some future period to change our course:

For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.

And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.

Connected with this, in a more hopeful vein, is the end of verse 31: “if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you” (my emphasis).

Finally my attention was drawn by the last two verses, 40-41:

And now my beloved brethren, I would exhort you to have patience, and that ye bear with all manner of afflictions; that ye do not revile against those who do cast you out because of your exceeding poverty, lest ye become sinners like unto them;

But that ye have patience, and bear with those afflictions, with a firm hope that ye shall one day rest from all your afflictions.

These people had been persecuted after all; because of their poverty they had been deemed not be part of “the elect”, and had been cast out and barred from the places of worship they had helped build. They have been wronged. And they will be wronged more in the future. And yet they are instructed not to revile against those who have done so, but to “have patience, and bear with those afflictions, with a firm hope that ye shall one day rest from all your afflictions”. This strikes me as an important lesson.