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
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
; therefore they were as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.
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
God save it be in your synagogues only?
And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only
in a week?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.