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 out ‘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.

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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)