I was originally going to publish this post over a week ago, but then things in the world around us began to change dramatically with the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and conversations that have been spreading across the world. I cannot remember a time in my life when people I love and respect were more divided. While there is not enough room in this post for me to explain how I feel, I feel impressed to share some of my feelings as a prelude to these chapters of study in the Book of Mormon.
In 1998, a few months before receiving my mission call, I was still torn on whether to serve a mission. Most of my friends were already serving and I felt the positive peer pressure from them, and I knew in my heart that if I served it would help my Dad come closer to the church as well. These were strong reasons to serve, but I was also a first-year college student, having a great time and being independent for the first time. In addition, I had the natural fear of leaving home and doing something I might not be very good at. It wasn’t an easy decision to make.
I will never forget a night, when a friend of mine and I were having fun over the weekend and for some reason we decided to read a chapter from the Book of Mormon. The chapter we read was Alma 5. If you are unfamiliar with Alma 5, it is a chapter where Alma asks a series of penetrating and difficult questions to church members about their relationship with Christ, with the church, and their fellow human beings. The poignant questions that Alma asked those who should be disciples of Christ, or in this case the me, were hard-hitting and made me feel uncomfortable with my relationship with Christ. It made me want to change. It made me want to serve the Lord on a mission. It changed my life.
What does this have to do with racial tensions, and the current world situation? For me it represents the first time in my life where I actually looked into my heart and saw things that were wrong and that needed to be corrected. To that point in my life, I was a good kid and did most of the things that I was taught, but my worldview was still that of a selfish teenager, looking only at how things affected me. Reading Alma 5 set me on a path of decades of self-evaluation and repentance. While a missionary, my heart changed even more on all kinds of things from income inequality and racial inequality to how I viewed LGBTQ people in the world.
I am now a 40-year-old man and a parent. It is important for me to say that I am privileged, I have incredible parents who sacrificed things to give me the best life possible. I am white, I have been moderately successful in business, I can never remember a time where I wondered where my next meal would come from, I have never lived in any kind of fear for my life. I have many family members who are Hispanic and African-American, and I love them completely and I think they know that. However, I can never understand their experiences fully.
The world is so tribal right now and it hurts my heart to see. We all just flock to the echo chambers of friends and social media. In these places, we hear only words that reinforce what we think and can even create an enemy out of everyone else. It is creating division that is at odds with Christ’s plan for our world. Those echo chambers are so much easier and avoid the challenges of reality. In this world of instantaneous communication and tribalism, we do not want to, or even know where to look for information that could make us better. It is so much easier to interact with those who will share and prove our preconceived talking points.
Alma is faced with a similar situation at the outset of these chapters. Many people that were once believers in Christ, have joined a philosophy that appeals to and justifies whatever the individual believes. The situation created a significant division among the people in their ethnicity, wealth, and status. Alma’s words do not attack their philosophy and ideas, but instead asks them questions about their hearts and souls. He challenges them to look inside and asks them to humble themselves and repent and come closer to Christ.
Many of us do not want to admit to racial bias, or systemic racism because it will make us feel guilty or somehow less if we do. Many of us do not want to admit we are not following the Savior and loving others the way we should because it makes us recognize things in our past or present that are uncomfortable or awkward. In our world of tribal convenience, we don’t have to face those feelings. Why feel guilt, or pressure to change? Why feel uncomfortable or awkward? People say, “Just be yourself and do you!!” Why not just find a place where we fit in and ignore anything that might cause us discomfort?
Alma hits those ideas head on. He challenges us, he challenges our hearts, our faith, our actions, and our assumptions that we are righteous. Right now, many of us need to be challenged. Challenges are meant to be difficult, but they are meant to produce repentance and the joy of redemption and change. I can testify, unequivocally, that my life is more full of joy because I have been challenged, corrected, and humbled in my life. I have been forced to reckon with my personal flaws, my biases, and my bad actions. When we live a life of privilege, the words of Alma can be the only true way to humble us and bring us to where others are: Needing Help. Like King Benjamin said, “Are we not all beggars?”
A friend of mine pointed out the simple nature of Jesus’ commands to us: Love God and Love Your Neighbor. A life of repentance and change is how we show God we love Him, and the consequence of that love is that we increase our ability to love and relate with our diverse brother and sisters in this world. We want to help them and lift them up. We separate their plight from anything to do with our own. We just want to help because we realize we need help too. I believe that in order to truly find Christ, we must work as a community to lift each other in every way we can: financially, educationally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I ask each of you to read Alma 5 in its entirety if you can and below I have recapped the questions, but I pray that you can find in your hearts that humility to change and then the joy of feeling the “Song of Redeeming Love” that comes when we change and help others.
CHAPTERS FOR STUDY WEEK 22-24 – Alma 5-16
– Becoming something greater requires asking ourselves hard questions. Hard questions lead us to change and to ask help from Christ.
– The Atonement is more than just redemption from sin and from death, it is the comfort and peace of knowing that Christ has felt and suffered all so that he can uniquely help us in our hour of need.
– Even those who have fought against the Lord can be saved. Humility and repentance can change the hearts of anyone.
History and Context:
– Faith Hope and Charity are mentioned in most scriptures individually but also as a set. I believe, and have mentioned in other posts, that when they are mentioned as a set, they are meant to show a pattern. A pattern of action with deity. Alma shows this in his teaching and preaching. The pattern is simple, and it is the guide for getting closer to the Lord:
- Hear the word of God (scriptures or prophets) and Believe – Faith
- Act upon faith and make changes which helps us feel God’s Love – Hope
- After feeling God’s love, we have an immediate desire to help and love others – Charity
- Feeling that desire we take actions to make their lives better – Faith (repeats process)
– Some of the descriptive words and phrases in Alma’s preaching are similar to phrases that Joseph Smith would have been familiar with in his revivalist environment, and while some use this to say Joseph made the book up, for me it just confirms the process of revelation is always through a conduit and the conduit is going to use their own language and experience to translate the message. This is true for all other scriptures and so it makes sense for it to be true for this sacred record.
– Alma makes the point that Jesus will be born “at Jerusalem” and some have used this as a flaw in the book, but from a few important points it validates the Book of Mormon’s legitimacy. One of the biggest claims of critics is that Joseph used the Bible and other books as the source material, and Joseph was familiar enough with the Bible to know Jesus was born in Bethlehem. However, from the point of view of the people in the Book of Mormon, they were from the area around Jerusalem and it was a name the people would be familiar with, and just like I live in Highland, but use Salt Lake City as a marker for where I live to people outside of Utah since they would be more familiar with it, Alma uses at Jerusalem as familiar marker for the people in describing the location. This is how people speak and shows a much more legitimate interaction and a more complicated world and interaction than just Joseph making up a story and using the Bible as a source material.
– Amulek is a good man who had been prepared to help Alma in Ammonihah because of a dream. He becomes a powerful second voice in Alma’s preaching.
– Zeezrom is title type of name, likely meaning someone after an ezrom (unit of money) and so his name is actually a description of his profession. Someone who wants to make money. He is a primary antagonist of Alma and Amulek. After he is proved wrong by Alma and Amulek he is converted and healed by them.
– Antionah is also a title, with antion being the highest monetary unit, and with him being the chief ruler, this is likely how they named important people. Naming being tied to imprtant symbols for leaders is an ancient way of naming.
– Zoram is the leader of the army of the Nephites and he and his sons (Lehi and Aha) follow Alma’s guidance to defend their lands from attack, but Ammonihah is destroyed as Alma predicted.
– Synagogues – In the Book of Mormon were introduced to three types of sacred places. Temples, Sanctuaries, and Synagogues. The date in which synagogues (places to gather and discuss God) were actually instituted is unclear historically, but there is a general agreement that it was a result of the reforms of Josiah which influenced much of Lehi’s life. They were smaller places for groups of people to meet and hear the word of God. Temples have an obvious historical precedent. It is likely that sanctuaries were sacred places in nature that were reserved for peaceful and reflective interactions, and many times were spots of spiritual experiences from ancestors. Mormon particularly would have been educated by the plates and so the words he used to describe things were going to come from his understanding of the Old World and his people. It is unlikely that temples, synagogues, and sanctuaries of the New World were exactly like the Old World in structure and function, but very likely in purpose.
– Timeline – 84 BC – 78 BC.
Alma’s Challenge to the People of Zarahemla
Alma begins his ministry in Zarahemla, where he knows the people and has seen first-hand their division and pride. He hits them with question after question about their lives. He makes it clear that the judgment of God is a personal matter and that each person must ask themselves personal questions about their bigotry, pride, greed, and lack of compassion. The people of Zarahemla are from all different backgrounds and histories and they are ripe for division. Alma seeks to heal their division by speaking to the hearts of the individuals to humble themselves and be like Christ. This message is true for our day.
Alma Preaching in Gideon and Melek
After Alma’s preaching in Zarahemla he goes to some of the towns outside of Zarahemla, where the people are free from the plagues of Zarahemla which he specifically calls out as the plagues of Unbelief, Pride, Riches, and Idol Worshiping (other gods or priorities). He then gives us this marvelous counterpoint to the plagues and the basis for which we should build our lives:
“And now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive. And see that ye have faith, hope, and charity, and then ye will always abound in good works. And may the Lord bless you…that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…in the kingdom of heaven”Alma 7:23-25
After attempting to preach his message in Ammonihah, Alma is rejected and chased out of town. He is discouraged but feels prompted to return and upon his return finds a man, named Amulek, who has also been prepared (many years in the making) to help Alma. This partnership proves to be an important point in Book of Mormon history as they are responsible for the changing fates of many people.
Ammonihah, is in many ways, worse than Zarhemla as the people ahve completely rejected the gospel that was taught by Alma the Elder. They have followed the order of Nehors and the God of the Individual. These people mirror in many ways our society at large. In addition, the government was corrupted by a legal system built on bribes, greed, and money for power. These attorneys also had an information advantage on all the people as they were the educated people. This allowed their power to be unchecked and limitless.
Alma and Amulek begin their debate with a powerful lawyer named Zeezrom. The words of Alma and Amulek are geared toward testifying to the power of choice, redemption, and resurrection. They show the need for a Christ. Zeezrom is convinced, along with many others, but the leaders of the people are only getting angrier. This leads a more powerful group of lawyers to arrest Alma and Amulek and to punish, by death, those who have believed their words. Zeezrom flees the city and believes Alma and Amulek are dead with all those other people because of his teachings.
Amulek is desperate to save the people from their deaths, but Alma is constrained to bide their time. While they are in prison, it becomes almost unbearable and so Alma prays for help from above and the prison is destroyed, and they are able to emerge. They go to the village of Sidom where Zeezrom lays sick from his guilt. They revive him and he is converted along with many others in the village.
After returning to Zarahemla, the Lamanite neighbors attack Ammonihah, but before the Nephite army is able to drive them back, they destroy the entire city and those who followed the order of Nehors were left to rot in a place called the Desolation of Nehors. This is an interesting summation from Mormon, who is definitely intent on us seeing the potential immediate consequences of rejecting God and embracing Greed, Pride, and the philosophy of the God of Self. There is no question that other villages and people have rejected God and were not destroyed like this, however, Mormon purposefully chose this instance in history to convince us of the evils of those philosophies. While I couldn’t agree more with his point that those ideas will bring the destruction of communities, it is often not so abrupt and complete. However, I have seen it destroy families and communities in ways that are just as long lasting. Reading these chapters, especially Alma 5 (discussing next) hammers home the contrast between the philosophy of the gospel with the philosophy of Nehor (Worshiping the God of Self) and why we need to be vigilant in which philosophy is motivating our own actions and beliefs.
Key Moment or Scripture: Alma 5 Summary
Reading Alma 5 is something we should all do on occasion. It really hits me hard when I read it. There isn’t a more poignant way to see for yourself where you might need to make changes to feel connected with Christ again. Coming to Christ is not a one-time endeavor, it is a lifetime of pride cycles. I hope you will spend the time to read the chapter, but if not read these questions and ask yourself these questions. The one that really sticks out to me is “If you have experienced a change of heart, and if you have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can you feel so now?”
Ultimately you can sum the questioning up into a few major questions:
Can you see that the world is awful without Christ’s redemption and mercy and love?
Do people see Christ when they see you?
If not, are you willing to humble yourselves and come unto Christ and try to change?
Or are you willing to reject Christ and list yourself into the cause of the devil and bring down those who do have faith and those who need faith?
- Remember Questions:
- Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the difficulties that you and your ancestors have faced?
- Have you remembered God’s mercy and patience with them and you?
- Have you remembered that because of Him, you and they are saved from hell?
- Doctrinal Questions:
- Was Abinadi [any prophet] a prophet and do they not speak the words of God?
- Isn’t believing the words of prophets the beginning of faith in God?
- Do you suppose that testimony and faith come from any other means besides the Holy Spirit that comes through prayer, fasting, and acting in faith?
- Rhetorical Questions:
- What grounds does anyone have to hope for salvation, when they are sinners and constantly make mistakes?
- Does God find a way to loose the chains of hell and guilt from us anyway?
- Can you think to be lifted up and saved if you yield yourselves to the devil?
- How can someone committed to rejecting Christ expect to sit down with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob in the heavens?
- Is there anyone who can say they are stripped of Pride, Envy, that they don’t mock others, or make their lives harder?
- If you are not the fold of Christ, then what fold are you?
- Personal Questions:
- Have you been spiritually Born of God?
- Have you received His image in your countenance?
- Have you experienced the mighty change of heart?
- Do you exercise faith in the redemption of Christ?
- Do you look forward with an eye of faith to see your final judgment? What do you see?
- Can you look up to God with a pure heart and clean hands?
- Can you look up to God with his image engraven in your countenance?
- How will you feel in front of God and Christ with your garments stained with all manner of filthiness?
- What will those things say about you? That you are guilty and that you rejected Christ?
- If you have experienced the Change of Heart in the past, and have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, can you feel so now?
- Have you kept yourself blameless before God?
- If you died right now would you say you have been sufficiently humble?
- Have your garments been washed through the blood of Christ?
- Final Questions:
- Will you persist in your pride, in wearing costly apparel, setting your hearts upon riches?
- Will you persist in assuming you are better than others?
- Will you persist in mocking the humble and faithful?
- Will you persist in turning your back to the poor, to the needy, and withholding substance from them?
- Should not the shepherd protect the flock from wolves who wish to destroy the flock?
- Will you come unto Christ in humility and repent and follow the good shepherd?
Alma is such an important person in the Book of Mormon. He was like Paul in many ways, but more importantly he is like all of us in many ways. We have all rebelled, failed, rejected, and disregarded things our parents and the church has taught. However, his story teaches a key point about life: We can all change, we can all be redeemed, and we can help others feel the joy that comes from redemption. Redemption and that joy is not found in the comfort of our own certainty and habits. It is found in recognizing we all have huge changes that can bring us closer to Christ and then humbling ourselves enough to ask for Christ’s help. When we do that, we become different and feel things that we cannot when we think we have no reason to change.
- Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon by Brant Gardner
- The Book of Mormon as History by Brant Gardner
- Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy
- The Book of Mormon Made Harder by James Faulconer