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)

Advertisements

Failure

I first made a draft of this post over six months ago. However, I ran across it much more recently and, in view of events I’ve experienced lately, its topic seems particularly appropriate.

It first came to mind when I was thinking of the prophet Mormon. This is a figure I’ve long admired in scripture, particularly for his perseverance in remaining faithful and continuing to stand for what is right, despite his peoples’ failure to repent and even while he fought to defend a people that he knew were doomed to lose and who deserved to lose. This perseverance is perhaps best captured in Moroni 9:6, where despite the atrocities that Mormon goes on to recount, he tells his son:

And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.

Now this is admirable, but as I was thinking about him, his trials and the course of his life, I realised that by certain worldly standards, Mormon would be regarded as a failure. Despite his talents as a military commander, he lost in perhaps the most complete way a general can lose: his people were annihilated. His people not only did not repent at his teaching, but they went past the point of no return and incurred divine wrath. And he spent a considerable portion of his life writing a book that few if any (perhaps only his son Moroni) read, not only in his lifetime but for many centuries afterwards.

By worldly standards it would be easy to judge him a failure. And yet now his work has been read and has influenced millions. The book he composed inaugurated the restoration of the Gospel and the dispensation of the fullness of times. His work is to be both a sign that God will fulfill his prophecies, and one of the instruments God is and will use in bringing many souls to Christ, in restoring Israel, and in preparing those who will be prepared for the second coming of our Lord and Saviour. Considering all this, can his work be judged a failure? μη γενοιτο!

His career is a demonstration that many of the values by which we measure life and success are wrong. It is, moreover, far from the only or even most important scriptural example. As Paul speaks concerning Christ and his crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:22-25):

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

​Crucifixion was not only an exceptionally painful execution method, but it was also considered a shameful one, for the basest of criminals. For those who expected the Messiah to appear as a conquering hero, this was indeed a stumbling block (σκανδαλον – from whence is derived the term “the scandal of the Cross”), while it appeared nonsensical to others. Yet God chose this means – this apparent defeat in worldly terms – to work the most complete and important victory of all time: the victory over sin and death. And as Paul goes on to state, this is a pattern that God intends to use again and again (1 Corinthians 1:27):

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

God shows his power by working through those that the world sees as weak and simple, and triumphs in circumstances that the world sees as failure.

I don’t know if my own personal “failure”, in regards to my viva, will quite come under same category as those above. I hope, however, my work can be of some interest, do some good, and get a fairer reading than it did at the viva (and once again readers may download my work “The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible” as a free PDF, or order the paperback from Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com and various Amazon Europe pages, and judge for themselves). In any case, however, one thing I have come to realise more profoundly over the last month is that many of the measures by which we judge success in this life – titles, careers, wealth and so forth – matter little to God and do not go with us into the eternities. Conversely, there are other matters which may seem trifling to us at this stage, but which have a great significance for the next life and which God measures by very different scales. And life is full of possibilities, so long as we weigh by the correct measures and prepare for eternity.

 

2 Nephi 3

A couple of items for this chapter:

And now I speak unto you, Joseph, my last-born. Thou wast born in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee.

2 Nephi 3:1

I’m impressed by Lehi’s statement that Joseph was born during “the days of my greatest sorrow”. Because when was that? At which point in the journey? Is he referring to a specific episode, or the wilderness as a whole (he doesn’t say it to Jacob). It doesn’t say, and it may even refer to an incident that isn’t recorded. Lehi clearly considered that the lowest point in his life, and we don’t from the record even know what he was referring to. As painful as it undoubtedly was for him, the record the Lord has preserved for us doesn’t define Lehi by it. At the same time, how many other people do we come into contact with who are shaped by episodes we are entirely unaware of?

Because otherwise I’m in danger of talking about nothing but affliction, I quote this verse too:

Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:12

This verse could practically be a mission statement: of this blog, of anything that I might hope to achieve with my thesis, with other stuff (those missionaries I commit to read the Old Testament). Because I love the Book of Mormon. I also love the Bible. I firmly believe that both are the greatest possible aid (save the Spirit) to understanding the other, and one can only obtain their full benefits by reading both. It will only be as we – individuals, church members, whoever – read, believe and apply both together that we will secure the blessings promised here.

Finally:

And out of weakness he shall be made strong, in that day when my work shall commence among all my people, unto the restoring thee, O house of Israel, saith the Lord.

2 Nephi 3:13

This is a theme found throughout scripture (I’m thinking of Ether 12:23-27 and 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 in particular): that God can make use of weakness, will use us despite (and sometimes even because) of our weakness, and that His grace is sufficient for us. One can often despair because of one’s failings. God’s grace, however, is sufficient for all and “is made perfect in weakness”.

1 Nephi 14

And it shall come to pass, that if the Gentiles shall hearken unto the Lamb of God in that day that he shall manifest himself unto them in word, and also in power, in very deed, unto the taking away of their stumbling blocks

1 Nephi 14:1

In the context of Nephi’s vision, this is particularly talking of the stumbling of the Gentiles due to the loss of the ‘plain and precious things’, and the potential rectifying of that if they repent when God begins his ‘great and a marvelous work’. But reading it today it also feels like there is a general principle here (also elaborated on in Ether 12). We all have ‘stumbling blocks’: our weaknesses, mortal imperfections, frailties of the flesh and things we’re just not good at. And those can be frustrating, particularly when they appear to hinder us from achieving what we want, or even from doing what God wants us to do. But such stumbling blocks can and will be taken away, if we ‘hearken unto the Lamb of God’, through a manifestation of His words, His power and His acts.

For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or on the other—either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction, both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the devil, of which I have spoken.

1 Nephi 14:7

Ultimately – and particularly in the present age – we are faced with two choices only. The Lamb of God’s ‘marvelous work’ will serve to sort us one way or the other. We should not be surprised if opposition to that which is good increases at the present time, even as the kingdom of God itself grows. There will be a growing divide, a sifting, and so we shouldn’t expect everyone to be convinced towards righteousness. What counts is which direction we go.

“All is not lost”

MY son, patience and humility in adversities are more pleasing to Me, than much comfort and devotion when things go well.
Why are thou so grieved for every little matter spoken against thee?
Although it had been much more, thou oughtest not to have been moved.
But now let it pass; it is not the first that hath nor is it any thing new; neither shall it be the last, if thou live long.
Thou art courageous enough, so long as nothing adverse befalleth thee.
Thou canst give good counsel also, and canst strengthen others with thy words; but when any tribulation suddenly comes to thy door, thou failest in counsel and in strength.
Observe then thy great frailty, of which thou too often hast experience in small occurrences.
It is nothwithstanding intended for thy good, when these and such like trials happen to thee.

2. Put it out of thy heart the best thou canst, and if tribulation have touched thee, yet let it not cast thee down, nor long perplex thee.
Bear it at least patiently, if thou canst not joyfully. Although thou be unwilling to hear it, and conceivest indignation thereat, yet restrain thyself, and suffer no inordinate word to pass out of thy mouth, whereby Christ’s little ones may be offended.
The storm which is now raised shall quickly be appeased, and inward grief shall be sweetened by the return of Grace.
I yet live, saith the Lord, and am ready to help thee, and to give thee more than ordinary consolation, if thou put thy trust in Me, and call devoutly upon Me.

3. Be more patient of soul, and gird thyself to greater endurance.
All is not lost, although thou do feel thyself very often afflicted or grievously tempted.
Thou art a man, and not God; thou art flesh, not an Angel.
How canst thou look to continue alway in the same state of virtue, when an Angel in Heaven hath fallen, as also the first man in Paradise?
I am He who lift up the mourners to safety and soundness, and those that know their own weakness I advance to My own Divine [Nature].

4. O LORD, blessed be Thy Word, more sweet unto my mouth than honey and the honeycomb.
What should I do in these so great tribulations and straits, unless Thou didst comfort me with Thy holy discourses?
What matter is it, how much or what I suffer, so as I may at length attain to the port of salvation?
Grant me a good end, grant me a happy passage out of this world.
Be mindful of me, O my God, and direct me in the right way of Thy kingdom. Amen.

– Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter LVII: “That a Man should not be too much Dejected, even when he falleth into some Defects”