Alma 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Alma 36:6-11, my emphasis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Alma 36:12-16)

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

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

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

(Alma 36:17-18)

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

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

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

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

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

(Alma 36:19-22)

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

Alma 15

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

Verse 3 caught my attention:

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

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

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

I like verse 16 and 17 for difference reasons:

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

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

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

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

Alma 14

They chose… poorly.

Some don’t: some of the people of Ammonihah repent at Alma the Younger and Amulek’s teaching. Then there’s Zeezrom who – fuelled by guilt for his role in shaping the public mind – now testifies on behalf of Alma and Amulek, and is cast out and driven out along with other believers by stoning for his troubles.

But the rest of the people choose to reject their preaching, and do so in a way that proves their culpability. They arrest Alma and Amulek, the people stand as false witnesses against them, and then:

And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

(Alma 9:8)

Even if they had a legitimate grievance against Alma and Amulek, what right had they to take out their “hurt feelings” by murdering those who simply happened to believe their words? Or not even that: some of those burnt here are simply the wives and children of those they drove out for believing; those they burnt may not even believe themselves. It is simply guilt by association, and an act that entirely vindicates the judgment God is about to bring upon them.

It’s interesting that they burn the holy scriptures too, as if by destroying them they can remove the threat posed by those words. By while they may destroy the physical copies, you cannot burn the word of God, only be burned by it.

Understandably, Alma and Amulek – who are forced to witness this – are moved by this:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9-11)

It’s worth contemplating that it’s possible Amulek is seeing members of his own family burn before him. We know he has a large family: he speaks of “my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).* But while later it is mentioned that he was rejected “by his father and his kindred” (Alma 15:16), there is no mention of his “women” and childen. 

There’s also a bit of wordplay going in this chapter. The Greek word from which we derive the term martyr (and hence martyrdom) is μάρτυρ (martur), which literally means witness. It’s present association with dying for the faith came from the fact that, for many early Christians, bearing witness of the faith and dying became synonymous. In this passage we likewise see the very term used (“place of martyrdom”), and then notice how the word “witness” is repeated in the verses following. I write more about that here.

Of course here the focus is on what Alma and Amulek are witnesses, which is not so much of the faith (though they – and the martyrs – have surely done that), but of the crimes of the unrepentant people of Ammonihah, who by this act demonstrate that they deserve every piece of judgment coming their way. Verse 11 is particularly interesting here: God could intervene. He has done so on other occasions when people were threatened with burning (such as Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3). As I’ve mentioned before, it might be confusing, even troubling, as to why God intervenes in some cases but not others. Divine providence in the immediate sense can be unpredictable: God is working according to a plan that we cannot see in its entirety, and the challenge is that we must trust him that – whether he intervenes, or not – that his choice will in the end be right. As indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego did, for while they knew God could save him, they didn’t know if he would, but they trusted that whatever he willed would be right and pledged to serve him anyway (“But if not“, Daniel 3:18).

What we do know, however, is that mortal life is one of deferred judgment. In order to give us freedom to act, the freedom to either repent or to hang ourselves, God does not immediately judge us for what we do. Alma in fact has just been teaching the people of Ammonihah this, of how this life is “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). As Peter states:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

(2 Peter 3:9)

What this means is that in the present, the “right now”, that this life is often unjust. To give us this freedom, one way or the other, means that we live in a world in which the wicked can act against the righteous, as they do so murderously here, without immediate intervention. That can be hard for many people. Of course, Christ himself has personally experienced this injustice at the hands of men; he knows what if feels like.

But this present state of injustice is not fated to continue: while God’s judgments are deferred, they are not to be denied. God himself will impose justice sooner or later, which involves both making things right for those who are hurt, and bringing judgment down upon those who have incriminated themselves. Thus this life fulfils its purpose as an arena in which by our own choice we rise or sink, not in worldly stature, but to either rise towards goodness and godliness and virtue, or to sink into evil and depravity. The people of Ammonihah have been allowed to make their choice: those they hurt will in the end be blessed, and lose nothing, while the guilty have been left with no excuse and will lose everything.

Not that they recognise the full depth of their error just yet:

Now it came to pass that when the bodies of those who had been cast into the fire were consumed, and also the records which were cast in with them, the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?

(Alma 14:14)

I suppose they think that was terribly clever.

Now this judge was after the order and faith of Nehor, who slew Gideon.

(Alma 14:16)

I find this interesting and significant. The Nehorite belief, after all, is that:

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

(Alma 1:4)

That can sound good and positive to many people; indeed I know it does because I’ve heard several members of the Church say so (and even think there’s not much wrong with that statement) in recent discussions. And yet there’s a glaring omission, that of repentance. The Nehorite salvation is one that excludes the need for any repentance, and any need to meet a higher standard.

Now I’m sure there were those who adhered to the Nehorite creed who did not approach the level of the people of Ammonihah. And yet I think there is a connection, between that belief and the acts we see here. A world in which everyone is already “saved”, in which none of us need to reform or change, is a world in which no bad tendency need to be fought, no habit need to be curbed, and no effort made to prepare for heaven (defeating the very purpose of mortality that Alma has spoken about). A world in which people do not repent, do not seek to be better, is not a world of people destined for heaven. It is hell. And we see here the hellish conclusion of Nehorite belief, where the notion of moral disapproval and calls to repentance inspire murderous rage.

Judgment, of course, is coming for the people of Ammonihah, and in their case that judgment is not deferred for too long. Indeed for their leaders it comes far sooner than they can expect:

And it came to pass after they had thus suffered for many days, (and it was on the twelfth day, in the tenth month, in the tenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) that the chief judge over the land of Ammonihah and many of their teachers and their lawyers went in unto the prison where Alma and Amulek were bound with cords.

And the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.

And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last; and when the last had spoken unto them the power of God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet.

(Alma 14:23-25)

I think that fact that God intercedes at this point, after the leaders collectively make the challenge that if Alma and Amulek will deliver themselves, they’ll believe the people will be destroyed, is a significant reflection of how Alma and Amulek’s mission has become one of providing grounds for incrimination.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.

While from our perspective, as readers, this comes soon, I’m sure that’s not how it felt to Alma and (maybe especially) Amulek. It’s not clear how long they spent imprisoned (verse 22 simply says “many days”). Alma made his way to Ammonihah early in the 10th year, but then spent some time with Amulek and his household. But since it is now almost halfway through the 10th month, I think months is a reasonable guess.

It is interesting that these leaders begin to flee the moment the cords are broken, before any other displays of divine power, “for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. This suggests their final, unanimous, challenge was true; and now Alma and Amulek have been delivered from their bands, and now the people recognise they will be destroyed. I wonder if they recognise in these moments – perhaps they begin to sense it in full – precisely how far they’ve gone wrong, if they realise the pit that is opening beneath them, and how much they truly deserve it.

And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith which was in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands; and the prison had fallen to the earth, and every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain; and they straightway came forth into the city.

Now the people having heard a great noise came running together by multitudes to know the cause of it; and when they saw Alma and Amulek coming forth out of the prison, and the walls thereof had fallen to the earth, they were struck with great fear, and fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they did flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.

(Alma 14:27-29)

Thus ends the first stage of the judgment of Ammonihah.

 

* Incidentally, Amulek may be one of the few polygamous individuals in the Book of Mormon. While it’s possible “my women” may refer to other female members of the household, it seems a very strong term to describe servants or even other female kinsfolk, while Hebrew uses the same word for “wife” and “woman” (אִשָּׁ֣ה), and the Book of Mormon likewise uses “women” as a synonym for “wives” in 1 Nephi 17:1-2 & 20.

Alma 1

And so on to the book of Alma. The first chapter details the attempts of one Nehor to spread his false teachings (namely a version of universalism – the belief that everyone will be saved, and so consequently, that no one needs to repent – and of priestcraft: the idea that priests and teachers should be “popular” and be financially supported by the people), and his consequent trial and execution after he murders Gideon. His career is thus short-lived, although his teachings will have far greater staying power.

What stood out to me upon reading this book, however, emerged from the book heading (remember that – unlike the chapter headings, which are mere aids and not part of the text – most of the book headings are part of the scriptural text):

The account of Alma, who was the son of Alma, the first and chief judge over the people of Nephi, and also the high priest over the Church. An account of the reign of the judges, and the wars and contentions among the people. And also an account of a war between the Nephites and the Lamanites, according to the record of Alma, the first and chief judge.

(Heading to Alma, my emphasis)

As I read the header today, the repeated mentions of war really stood out to me. The book of Alma is notorious for spending quite a bit of space and time describing the wars that take place at this time, and I understand that some find the resulting “war chapters” hard to read or less interesting (I actually quite like them, but there you go), or even at odds with what they expect scripture to speak about. Funnily enough, these won’t be the most destructive conflicts in the Book of Mormon (that easily belongs to those in the books of Mormon & Ether), but the accounts in Alma are far more detailed, covering deployments, fortifications, equipment, strategies, logistics, propaganda, moral conduct in war and leading commanders and so on. And while the wars haven’t begun yet (don’t worry, one will start in chapter two!), the header warns us it will be a prominent topic.

Of course, that raises the question of why. I’m not the only one to make suggestions along these lines, but there’s several reasons I can think of (there may be yet more none of us has thought of yet!):

1) The war chapters can be read symbolically. There’s a variety of episodes in these chapters that readers over the years have read in a symbolic fashion as applying to us, even if we’re not involved in a physical war. Thus episodes like the stripling warriors, or Captain Moroni’s fortification efforts, or Amalickiah poisoning “by degrees”, have been read almost allegorically as either approaches we apply spiritually or warnings against possible dangers. I think much of this may be deliberate: the note at the beginning of Amalickiah’s plot amongst the Lamanites that he was “a very subtle man” (Alma 47:4) strikes me as a deliberate echo of Genesis 3:1. making Amalickiah a type of the serpent, and thus of Satan, much as other scriptural figures are types of Christ.

Why would war be a particularly good setting for such symbolism? I think perhaps because of the particular threat that wars represent. There’s a number of things that can present a collective existential threat to human beings aside from war: earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorite impacts, famine, floods, and disease of course. But only in the case of war is there an active mind guiding the actions of the enemy that wishes to do harm. But this is the best analogy for the situation we face spiritually: on a spiritual level we all face an existential threat – one that wishes to do harm to our very souls – and moreover one that is not simply a random act of nature, but which is guided by cunning, indeed “subtle” minds who wish to make us eternally miserable. Indeed, this conflict, even before it was extended to Earth, has already been called a war. This threat, of course, is principally spiritual, not physical, and so must many of our defences be. Yet just as victory in physical war requires courage, determination, vigilance and and all-out effort, so will victory in this spiritual war we all face.

2) War is an extreme situation. The true test of our commitment to any principal, including the gospel, is not when the situation is easy, but when it is hard. War is an extreme situation, compared to the every day lives most of us have been living, and so it is a crucible in which we see people’s determination to hold to and live the gospel be really tested, a refiner’s fire in which some “become hardened”, and in which others “humble themselves before God” (Alma 62:41). Many of us may not face war in our every day lives, but we will face situations which are far more challenging than our typical lives, points in which we get tested in extremis. Knowing that some have managed to live the gospel in similarly challenging times, and seeing how they did it, can be instructive.

3) We may face war one day ourselves. Much of the Western world has had a comparatively easy life for the last few decades: we have lived in unimaginable prosperity compared to most of our predecessors, while the threat of war has been remote. Oh, war has taken place, but largely at a remove from our own lands: it has affected many abroad, and also many servicemen who’ve gone to serve in those conflicts, but aside from acts of terrorism has largely left our own lives untouched.

Both history and the Book of Mormon would teach us not to assume this will always be the case. It’s funny that we speak during the present coronavirus pandemic of things “getting back to normal”, but while the lockdown is weird (and probably unsustainable in view of human nature), our lives beforehand weren’t “normal” compared to most of human history. They may never quite come back in that way. We face an economic crisis first; war is a frequent companion. Even if things recover swiftly at this stage (and perhaps they might), we cannot assume the comparatively idyllic period we have experienced will always remain the case. At some stage, war will affect people in our own lands. It is a human phenomenon, and as scripture is given by God to addresses all the challenges we humans face, I expect war to feature within.

And war does bring its own specific challenges. I think it no coincidence, for example, that the Book of Mormon – particularly in Alma – talks about moral conduct in warfare, for instance. War brings unique moral challenges, and a situation in which one could very easily lose their way. There is more in these chapters that I am sure those faced with such a situation can and will find value in. So if perhaps we’re amongst those who don’t find these chapters especially relevant right now, perhaps we should count ourselves fortunate. We should not assume that this will always be the case.

 

 

Mosiah 24

There’s a lot of parallels between the situation of Alma and his people in this and the previous chapter, and that of the people of Limhi in the preceding chapters. They’re both kept prisoners in their own lands, both are faced with a particularly arduous trial that they are then able to bear, both faced with the task of escaping, and then both successfully elude the forces guarding them to escape to the land of Zarahemla.

However, it’s also worth noting how the situations are subtly different too: the stories act as type scenes by which small variations in the recurring pattern can convey meaning. And there’s a consistent difference in how events pan out here and how they do for the people of Limhi (I’m not the only one to have spotted this by the way – I’m pretty sure Grant Hardy makes a similar or the same observation in Understanding the Book of Mormon).

Thus take the period in which both groups are described as suffering particularly heavy burdens (upon their backs, no less). The people of Limhi, upon being increasing treated as pack animals, make three attempts to fight for their freedom (Mosiah 21:3-12). This doesn’t work, however, so that the people are humbled, and begin crying to God for deliverance, and in time – though he is “slow to hear their cry” – the hearts of their oppressors are softened and the burdens ease (21:13-15).

In contrast, Alma and the church are similarly burdened can’t even call out loud to God, as Amulon (who appears to hold a grudge towards Alma), forbids prayer and stations guards to kill any who offend (24:9-11). However, the people continue to pray in their heart, and actually have God reassure them that he will ease their burdens and will eventually deliver them, and he strengthens them so they are able to bear those burdens (24:12-15).

Similarly, as we have seen, Limhi and his people eventually escaped through Gideon’s cunning plan in which they got their guards very very drunk, and made off while the guards were incapacitated. In contrast here, however, God again communicates with the people, and then miraculously causes the guards to be comatose, letting the people escape (24:16-19). And while the army that pursued the people of Limhi got lost (and so blundered into Alma and his colony, Mosiah 22:15-16, 23:30-36), here the people are warned by revelation that their pursuers are after them, and told that God will stop them (24:23).

In each case, the difference appears to be that the events Alma and the church experienced were more overtly miraculous , more explicit demonstrations of God’s power and will. In one case the people begin crying to God, but he takes his time to respond and then softens the hearts of their enemies; in the other he reveals that he’s going to help them, and miraculously strengthens them. In one case, escape requires a cunning plan, bad navigation and lots of alcohol; in the other it is purely an act of divine intervention. Even the same event is described a bit differently: the initial flight of Alma and his people from Noah is earlier described as being due to them being “apprised of the coming of the king’s army” (Mosiah 18:34), something that could easily describe human informants. It’s only when we read the later account that we find it’s because Alma was “warned of the Lord” (23:1).

I believe the deliverance of the people of Limhi is still meant to be seen as God working on their behalf. However, due to their earlier wickedness, and the time it takes for them to humble themselves and call upon him, he is “slow to hear their cry”, his intervention is more subtle, and they are left unsure of their deliverance until it actually happens. But for the people of Alma and his church, while they face many of the same trials, their faithfulness means that God’s intervention on their behalf is more direct, and also that they are reassured through revelation along the way that God will help them and will ultimately liberate them. In both cases, God’s willingness to aid and deliver his people is shown; but for the people who had faith and who were swift to repent, that divine power manifested all the more easily and readily.

Mosiah 23

We now leap back once again to cover the story of Alma and his congregation, after they fled Noah’s armies.

Several things really stood out to me this chapter. The first is in verse 7, which is Alma’s response when his people seek to choose him as their king:

But he said unto them: Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king.

I suspect such lines are sometimes read as relating purely to monarchy (as opposed to a republic). Of course – as I touch upon in “The daughters of the Lamanites and the daughters of Shiloh” – the political systems don’t seem as straightforward as we’d imagine with those titles. The Nephite kings appear to be chosen by a combination of hereditary right and election… and so do the Nephite judges. Indeed there seems very little difference between how they are chosen, and the distinction is on other grounds. Certainly there’s any number of presidents of nominal republics today that I suspect the Book of Mormon authors would describe as kings.

But what seemed most pertinent when reading this today was how all encompassing those middle words are: “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another”. This seems to go far beyond politics, because it’s not just in politics that we seem to pay all too much attention to position and prestige. In all our personal and social relations – and even within the Church – I think we can sometimes pay too much attention to status and titles, and find ourselves treating people differently when we shouldn’t as a result. I don’t know what the solution to that is: my thought is that these chapters, and indeed much of the Book of Mormon, suggest that this is a perennial tendency amongst human beings that we must wrestle with in every generation.

On a somewhat adjacent note I was also struck by the line in verse 13: “trust no man to be a king over you”. Which again I take to mean anyone who would exert the powers of a king over us, whatever the title might be (and this too may be something that is applicable in personal, and not just political spheres).

The second thing to really catch my thoughts reading today, however, is encompassed by verse 21:

Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.

These were the people that had repented at Alma’s teaching, unlike the people of Limhi. The people of Limhi had suffered, as prophesied by Abinadi, because of their failure to repent. And yet Alma and the Church, as we find in this chapter and the next, are not spared trial either; indeed, they end up facing very similar problems to those of Limhi and his people. Being righteous did not mean they did not have affliction; conversely such trials did not mean they were wicked. Such experiences – ultimately attributed to God in this verse – came not as a punishment, but as a test.

However, while God may have placed such adversity in their path, he also took responsibility for delivering them from it:

Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people.

For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.

And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings.

(Mosiah 23:22-24)

2 Nephi 18

Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear all ye of far countries; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces.

Take counsel together, and it shall come to naught; speak the word, and it shall not stand; for God is with us.

For the Lord spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying:

Say ye not, A confederacy, to all to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid.

Sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.

(2 Nephi 18:9-13//Isaiah 8:9-13)

Unfortunately the people of Judah were prone to react to future fears the way we do: to seek for security elsewhere. They sought it in alliances (hence the warning not to “associate yourselves” and “a confederacy”). For us, I guess we can end up looking for that security in wealth, power, status or even our relationships. But like the ancient Judahites, any real, eternal, security, can really only come as we draw closer to God.

2020 edit:

Oddly enough, it was pretty much exactly the same passage, and the same point, that came to my mind as I read this chapter today.

Lest I just repeat myself, however, there was another verse that also caught my attention:

And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling, and for a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

(2 Nephi 18:14//Isaiah 8:14)

This verse, along with a couple of others with similar stone themes, has been applied to the Savious in the Gospels, in 1 Peter 2, and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (in Jacob 4; interestingly while Jacob 4 associates the same three verses – Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22 – as 1 Peter 2 does, they quote different portions of some of those verses. More on that in chapter four of The BoM & the Bible). In many of those it’s applied to the Saviour’s relationship with Israel, namely that he’ll be rejected, but will ultimately become a sanctuary to them.

Yet a thought that’s been running though my head recently is that this verse likewise has a wider application. The Lord frequently permits parts of the gospel to become “a stone of stumbling” or “rock of offense” to us: aspects we don’t understand at first, things that may go against our own views at the time, or we just find difficult. And I’ve found that in many cases there are answers to these difficulties, indeed that with such answers things previously perceived as difficulties may turn to be things that strengthen one’s testimony. But such answers only tend to arrive after one has already persevered through them. I am forced to conclude that while the Lord wants us to succeed and wants us to exercise faith, he doesn’t make it easy for us. This life, after all, is a test.

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).

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.

Alma 32

Alma 32

Alma begins teaching the Zoramites, and we find here a phenomenon that I’ve seen myself:

And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel—

Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.

(Alma 32:2-3)

Alma and his fellow labourers begin to find success amongst those Zoramites who are poor, and consequently – doubtless due to Zoramite beliefs on elitism and ‘the elect’ – have been cast out of their places of worship, places they in fact helped build (v. 5).

I think it is no coincidence that it is these people that are particularly receptive to Alma’s message. While the gospel is to be offered to all, and there are some out there who, in Alma’s words, “would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might” (v. 25), from observation people who are in a comfortable position do not often realise why they might need the gospel, and so are less inclined to listen. Conversely, it is those for whom life is not going well who are most prepared to listen, because they realise they need something, even if they don’t know what it is yet. This isn’t a straight case of poor vs rich, either. Notice that it’s not just poverty these Zoramites are experiencing, but also ostracism and being barred from their synagogues, and it is this last that seems to most trouble and animate them. Likewise, while those who are materially prosperous may be more likely to feel comfortable, they too can experience crises that cause them to realise they need something else, something more. Many of those I taught on a mission – not all, but many – had experienced something that had caused them to feel their life was lacking something, and that they should begin to seek for it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the question these people ask – what should they do when they have no place to worship – as we read this chapter and the next two. As I’ve mentioned before, the present chapters and the versification we find inside the Book of Mormon were put there in 1879 by Orson Pratt, and while the original Book of Mormon did have chapters (and – per Royal Skousen – those appear to reflect original divisions in the text), they were often much longer. While chapters and verses are very useful, they can cause us to break our reading up in ways that hinder our understanding of the text.

Alma 32-34 is a great example of this: in the original Book of Mormon this was one chapter (in fact Alma 30-35 was one chapter!), and when one looks at these three chapters they are one continuous sermon, begun by Alma in chapter 32 and continued in 33, and then picked up by Amulek in chapter 34. But we may break it up into parts without paying sufficient attention to the rest of the unit, which would be like trying to watch a conference talk in only 5-10 minute segments, only returning to it the following day. We may be able to still learn much from doing that, but it’d be very easy to lose the main thread of the conference talk.

So it is with Alma 32-34, which is wonderfully knit together: The poor (both in possessions and in spirit) come to Alma, wondering how they can worship when cast out of their Synagogues. This is a question that may well be especially relevant to many of us at this time, where we – albeit for different reasons – are likewise “cast out” of our “synagogues” and are unable to gather for worship due to “social distancing”. This question of worship runs like a thread through Alma and Amulek’s response, as they also tie it in to their teaching of Christ and the gospel.

 

Thus in this chapter, Alma first addresses how they can test his words and build faith in them with his simile of the word as a seed, and really gets to what the heart of worship is, which is not something that only occurs in a certain place at a certain time:

Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

(Alma 32:10-11)

Rather the heart of worship is our own personal faith and spiritual connection with God, something that must occur in every individual heart.

The following chapters will build upon this: in chapter 33 Alma will again address their question, quoting Zenos about praying in the wilderness and so on (33:4-5). This quote, however, also refers to God’s son, leading Alma to then talk of the need for Christ and for the Zoramites to plant this word in their hearts, quoting other scriptures (Zenock and Moses) for this purpose. Then Amulek gets up, clarifies the real question is “whether the word be in the Son of God” (34:5), and then after referring to Alma’s quotation of scripture then adds his own witness of the same “behold, I will testify unto you of myself”, speaking of the Atonement of Christ. He then exhorts them to exercise their faith by repenting, the first step being to pray to God and ask him for mercy, and once again addressing the initial question of “where can we worship God” by making clear that one can and should pray everywhere. It’s a wonderfully tight and powerful sermon, that one could pull lots of things from, and incidentally a great example to missionaries on how a companionship can pass off to each and other teach together effectively.

There is one thing in Alma 32, however, which is often misunderstood.

Faith is not compared to a seed

Alma 32 is understandably – and rightly – referred to often, when people talk about faith and the process of gaining a knowledge of the Gospel. However, when this has happened in my hearing I have often heard people claim that Alma is comparing faith to a seed. This is not true. It is not faith that is being so compared, and I think correctly understanding Alma’s imagery can help us better understand faith, and also its relation to works, an often vexed subject.

So what is Alma comparing to a seed?

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed…

(Alma 32:28)

It is not faith that is the seed, but “the word”, namely the word of God (v. 22). That word may be received in many different ways for, as Alma states, “he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also… little children do have words given unto them many times which confound the wise and the learned”. We might receive the word of God through the words of another (a friend, a family member, a Church member, a leader, or a missionary). We might read them for ourselves in the scriptures, or elsewhere. We might receive it directly, though angels, or through the inspiration of the spirit. The word too might refer to a specific instruction on a topic.

Where does faith come in? As Alma goes on to state in verse 28:

… Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Faith then is not the seed, but allowing the seed to be planted: that is, to believe the word. In contrast to disbelieve it, or to resist the spirit of the Lord, is to cast out the seed. And when we believe the word of God it brings a spiritual change (Alma 5:11-13).

And I think when we understand that relationship between the word and faith, we are in a better position to understand the relationship between faith and works. The subject of much controversy throughout Christendom, within the Church we usually understand well that – following James in James 2 – faith without works is dead. Sometimes, however, I see that over-corrected, with claims that faith means action, in short to effectively conflate faith and works. But the two are distinct, for if faith without works is dead, works can be dead also (D&C 22:2-3). As Mormon teaches (Moroni 7:6-7):

For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

The phrasing in verse 7 is particularly suggestive, considering the statement given in Genesis 15:6 about Abraham’s response to God’s promises:

And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

Or as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3:

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

Genuine faith leads to action, to works. But works motivated by some other reason, that are not accompanied by belief and real intent, have no saving value.

So there is a distinction between faith and works. Yet these should not be seen as being in opposition to each other; such was certainly not James’ intention when he taught that “seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:22). And it may be easier to see how the two work together when we bring “the word” into the picture, and see both faith and works as a response to God’s word. Our initial response to the word will be of belief or unbelief: if we believe, we plant that seed and it beings to “grow”. That can strengthen our faith, but as Alma goes on then to teach in verses 38-39:

But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.

Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

Once we have planted the seed – once we have exercised even “a particle of faith” – we must continue to exercise our faith, by acting upon the word of God that we claim to believe in. And so we must nourish the tree, by our acts of devotion (prayer, study of the scriptures and so forth) and by our obedience to what the word of God says. In this way, the “seed” will continue to grow, and our faith will become stronger, wrought with our works:

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.

(Alma 32:41)

Incidentally, I love how the tree of life imagery is used in this chapter. We’ve seen it used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision, where it was at the end of a dangerous and hazardous journey. But here, tying once more into the question the poor Zoramites have asked him, Alma portrays the tree of life as something that grows within us, as we experience the workings of the spirit in response to us planting the word. If we do not resist the spirit, cast the word out by unbelief, or neglect “the tree” through complacency or lack of diligence, then the tree and its fruit grows inside us:

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.

(Alma 32:42-43)

Faith and knowledge

I also like how faith and knowledge are depicted in this chapter. In our modern society, faith is often described as antithetical to knowledge. Yet Alma shows how the two interrelate.

It is true that faith and knowledge are not the same thing:

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

(Alma 32:21).

But they are not disconnected. Rather faith and belief are the beginning, and part of an ongoing process, of an experiment:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

(Alma 32:26-27)

Try this, Alma counsels. Try this, and see what happens. If this is true, something will happen:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

(Alma 32:28)

This is a very delicate experiment, one that might easily be stopped by our own interference, stopping it through unbelief or through resisting the Spirit (and the latter I’ve definitely seen). But if we pursue the experiment on a true seed, we will feel something.

Now this doesn’t mean we have yet arrived at knowledge. But it can give us confidence enough to continue to pursue this course:

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

(Alma 32:29-30)

Eventually, we may have tested the word to a degree that we can claim to some degree of knowledge:

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

(Alma 32:33-36)

We can thus reach some knowledge, but that’s not the end of the story: we may have attained “perfect” knowledge – that is, we know a specific thing is true – in a given area. But there is more to learn, more to gain a knowledge of. But faith here is not the enemy of knowledge, nor a competitor, but part of a process and means by which we attain knowledge. Faith leads to knowledge, and knowledge in one area encourages us to exercise more faith in other areas. And this is a process that is real. This spiritual phenomenon is tangible, we can “taste this light”; an entirely deliberate mix of senses, I believe, for in my own experience our spiritual senses do not seem to precisely match or map onto our physical senses. And yet while non-physical, such sensations are real and “discernible”, if we pursue this path.

A final note

There’s one more thing that really stood out to me in my reading in 2020:

I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

(Alma 32:12, my emphasis)

I was really struck by Alma’s line that “it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues”. After all, for these people this was a serious trial and burden, one that concerned them more than their actual poverty and the other ostracism they had received from the other Zoramites. And yet Alma is right, in the sense that that crisis brought them to a point in which they sought the gospel, and so that crisis was ultimately, from an eternal perspective, a blessing, though I’m sure it didn’t feel like it at the time. And it caused me to reflect that it may be that some of those things we have or will experience in our lives that seem the most bothersome, or that come to us as a considerable trial or even source of torment, may likewise ultimately prove to be a source of blessings. That one day we may look back – possibly long after this life is over – and look at those events and see that ultimately, they were “well” for us.