Alma 36 Alma's counsel to his son Helaman
Alma 36 is the beginning of a powerful section in the Book of Mormon. Like Lehi had done 500 years earlier, Alma gathers his sons that he might give unto them every one his charge, separately (Alma 35:16). Accordingly, the next seven chapters deal with his advice and commandments to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton. Helaman as the oldest was entrusted with the records; Shiblon was so righteous that Alma had relatively little in the way of advice for him; and Corianton gets an earful. For four chapters Alma counsels and instructs this third son on the evil of his ways. The main focus is that the sinner will not escape punishment in the resurrection. In these seven chapters, many priceless gems of doctrinal insight are given. We should be thankful to Alma for his diligence in teaching his sons. We should follow his example of fatherhood in teaching our own. And we should make these writings a regular course of study.
Heber J. Grant
"The Book of Mormon has a very warm place in my heart because of one of its chapters (Alma 36).
"I had a wayward brother who took no interest whatever in the Church until he was between thirty-five and forty years of age. I received a letter from him, telling me that on account of [financial failures, he intended] to kill himself.
"He went out into the woods intending to kill himself; but he got to thinking what a cowardly, dastardly act it would be for him to leave his wife and children destitute. So, instead of killing himself, he knelt down and prayed: 'O God, if there is a God.'
"He got up weeping for joy, and he wrote me that he had become convinced of two things: that there is a God, and that there is a devil, one leading to life and the other to death. He sealed his letter, and then the influence came over him: 'You have now ruined your brother (Heber had given him large sums of money which he lost), and now you are trying to make amends by telling him you have commenced to pray.'
"He threw the letter into his trunk. He wrote me letters every day for about a week, all landing in his trunk, but finally he mailed one.
"He struggled with the influence: 'Your brother, when he gets that letter, will write and tell you to be baptized, and if you do so you will be a hypocrite.'
"After lying awake all one night, he went at five o'clock in the morning and got the letter. But he finally sent me another. When I got it, instead of writing him as the adversary impressed him that I would, I wrote him: 'Some day you will know the gospel is true. Don't think I want you to be baptized, if you feel that you would be a hypocrite.'
"I went out and bought him a Book of Mormon, went into my office, shut the door, and told the Lord I wanted to open the book to the chapter that would do a wayward and careless brother of mine the most good; and this is the chapter to which I opened [the thirty-sixth chapter of Alma]. Anyone who knows the contents of the book will admit that he cannot find another chapter comparable with the thirty-sixth chapter of Alma, nor more appropriate for sending to a wayward boy.
"...I love that chapter. Why? Because, when that wayward brother of mine read it, he wrote: 'Heber, I do not know the gospel is true, but I pledge the Lord, if He ever gives me, as He gave Alma of old, a knowledge of the divinity of the gospel, that I will labor as Alma of old labored, to bring souls to a knowledge of the truth.' And, thank the Lord, he obtained the knowledge, and thank the Lord also, he has kept his pledge." (Gospel Standards, p. 323-5)
Alma 36:2 I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering the captivity of our fathers
Alma's careful remembrance of the captivity of the Nephites goes far beyond being a good student of history. Alma was specifically instructed to remember the great way in which the Lord preserved his father's small band of saints and the people of Limhi. The angel who had appeared to Alma to correct him from his evil ways emphatically stated, remember how great things he has done for them (thy fathers); for they were in bondage, and he has delivered them. And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more (Mosiah 27:16).
This charge from the angel had served Alma well and should do the same for Helaman. In fact, every student of the gospel should remember the mercy of the Lord to those who have been in captivity. One of the most quoted events in religious history is the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. The message of these many captivities is clear. If the people will trust in the Lord, he will deliver them from their afflictions and visit them in their trials. He will be the power by which they are freed from bondage, both physically and spiritually.
Alma 36:3 whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions
This comforting doctrine has been demonstrated in the lives of millions of the faithful. It is a concept which is a main theme of the Old Testament-as the children of Israel had difficulty remembering to trust in the Lord and not the arm of flesh. Solomon wisely stated, Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths (Prov 3:5-6).
Heber J. Grant
"Let me say in passing that Alma knew, no better than I know, that those who put their trust in God shall be supported in all manner of afflictions and trials; because I have passed through trials and tribulations and have been supported by Him. I was able to sit by the deathbed of my last living son, for whom I had great expectations, and see him die without my shedding a tear; and there was a most peaceful feeling in my heart when he passed away. So I know, as Alma of old knew, that those who trust in God shall be supported in their tribulation." (Gospel Standards, compiled by G. Homer Durham, p. 324)
Jeffrey R. Holland
(From the Church News, Oct. 9, 1993)
"In words of one syllable, we need to turn to God. We need to reaffirm our faith and we need to reassert our hope. Where necessary we need to repent, and certainly we need to pray. It is the absence of spiritual fidelity that has led us to the moral disarray in the twilight of the Twentieth Century. We have sown the wind of religious skepticism and we are reaping the whirlwind of existential despair."
"My testimony today is of the angels and ministers of grace who will always defend us if . . . we 'take care of . . . sacred things,' we 'look to God and live.' (Alma 38:47.)"
He related how Alma entreated Helaman to put his trust in God, testifying that God had supported him [Alma] in trials, troubles and afflictions of every kind, and had delivered him. (Alma 36:27.) Elder Holland testified that the Lord "will deliver all the rest of us, too . . . if we will but 'take care of sacred things,' if we will 'look to God and live.' "
A hush fell over the Tabernacle congregation as Elder Holland spoke of the faith and insight of Katie Lewis, a 4-year-old neighbor. Katie's older brother is battling leukemia. Katie's parents fasted and prayed, and repeatedly went to the temple. As her mother returned home one day from the temple, weary and worried, Katie handed her a crumpled sheaf of papers. The child said, "They are the scriptures, and do you know what they say?...They say 'Trust Jesus.' "
Elder Holland related that the mother said she felt near-tangible arms of peace encircle her weary soul and a divine stillness calm her troubled heart.
"In a world of discouragement, sorrow and over much sin, in times when fear and despair seem to prevail, when humanity is feverish with no worldly physicians in sight, I too say, 'Trust Jesus,' " Elder Holland said. "Let Him still the tempest and ride upon the storm. Believe that He can lift mankind from its bed of affliction, in time and in eternity."
"There are many things that seem to us trials and difficulties, that perplex, annoy, and harass our spirits; yet these very things, as one justly observed, are blessings in disguise, so many helps to us to develop our weaknesses and infirmities, and lead us to put our trust in God, and rely upon Him to give us a knowledge of ourselves, of our neighbors, and of the work of God; they have a tendency to develop principles of worth to our minds, and thus they serve as schoolmasters, helps, and instructors, and are to us as many blessings in disguise. In fact all things that we have to do with in the world, whether they are adversity or prosperity, whether they relate to ourselves or to others, if rightly appreciated and understood, may teach us a lesson that will be to our joy, probably not only in time, but in all eternity." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p. 366)
"One night a man had a dream.
He was walking along the beach with the Lord
and across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
In each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand;
one made by him, and the other by the Lord.
"When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life
there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the worst times in his life.
"This bothered him very much,
so he asked the Lord about it.
'Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you'd walk with me all the way.
But I've noticed that during times of trouble,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why you left me when I needed you the most.'
"The Lord answered, 'My precious child, I love you,
and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial, when you see only one set of footprints
that's when I was carrying you.'" --M.R. Powers.
Alma 36:6 God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way
Wouldn't it be great if every enemy of the Church was visited by an angel of the Lord and commanded to repent? Many of the rebellious have required a sign of the Lord. They argue that they will not believe unless an angel appears unto them to tell them what to do. Yet, the persecutors have been rebuked by an angel in only two instances, that of Alma and Saul of Tarsus. The similarities are striking but there are also differences. Alma and his brethren should have known better. They were in a state of rebellion against parents, church, and God. On the other hand, Paul thought he was doing the Lord's work. Always a zealot, he was trying to purge Judaism of the new threat brought on by the followers of Jesus. Yet, in both instances, the visitation causes a great change in the hearts of the persecutors. In a miraculous way, they became great missionaries for the Lord.
What does this tell us about such divine interventions? The Lord doesn't send an angel to rebuke every rebellious soul because many of these would still not repent even if they saw an angel. The witness of the Holy Ghost is more powerful than the visitation of an angel. Heber J. Grant taught, "Many men say: 'If I could only see an angel, if I could only hear an angel proclaim something, that would cause me to be faithful all the days of my life!' It had no effect upon these men that were not serving the Lord, and it would have no effect today." (Conference Reports, Apr. 1924, p. 159) An example of this is seen in the life of Lyman Johnson.
"Lyman Johnson...reportedly apostatized after having seen an angel...'I remember hearing President Snow say on more than one occasion,' recalled Mathias Cowley, 'how determined Lyman E. Johnson was to see an angel from the Lord. He plead [sic] with and teased the Lord to send an angel to him until he saw an angel; but President Snow said the trouble with him was that he saw an angel one day and saw the devil the next day, and finally the devil got away with him.'26" (FARMS, vol. 2, no. 2-Fall 1993, p. 171)
"Brigham Young said, 'Pray that you never see an angel.' He was talking historically. Almost everybody who saw an angel left the Church. They came back, but they had these terrible problems. It gave them inflated egos, etc. They thought they were somebody special. They were, but they couldn't take it. It would be very dangerous if we were exposed to the other world to any degree. Only people that are very humble can do that. Not us, we can't do that. We are not that humble." (The Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Lecture 41, p.193)
"...the Lord never did nor never will send an angel to anybody merely to gratify the desire of the individual to see an angel. If the Lord sends an angel to anyone, He sends him to perform a work that cannot be performed only by the administration of an angel. I said to him that those were my views. The Lord had sent angels to men from the creation of the world, at different times, but always with a message or with something to perform that could not be performed without." (Collected Discourses 1886-1898, ed. by Brian Stuy, vol. 5, Wilford Woodruff, Oct. 19, 1896)
"If the purpose of miracles is to convert, then Jesus wasted his miracles all on believers...To impress people with miracles is one thing; to give them a testimony of the gospel another. As the experience of the Apostles showed, if people will not accept the gospel by the word without miracles, they will not accept it with miracles: 'If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead' (Luke 16:31)." (The World and the Prophets, p. 140-1)
Alma 36:9-11 If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God
This phrase, as rendered, does not make sense. Yet, it is repeated in verse 11 with little variation, If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God. A close examination of these phrases doesn't clear up the inconsistency. To paraphrase this statement, the angel seems to be saying, "If you want to die, stop persecuting the church." But is this what the angel really said?
The Mosiah version of the story sheds some light on this awkward phrase. In that version, the words of the angel are rendered, seek to destroy the church no more...and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off (Mosiah 27:16, emphasis added). Now, the meaning is clear. To paraphrase again, "even if you would rather be destroyed by the power of God, you are commanded to stop persecuting the church."
Alma was frightened by these words. His mind caught hold upon the concept of his own destruction. Alma understood that the angel was powerful enough to kill him for his disobedience, although the angel's words did not really threaten him directly. Nevertheless, he knew that he must repent or be destroyed, and the immortality of youth now seemed threatened. His response was the natural instinct of self-preservation, I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed (v. 11).
Alma 36:12-16 I was racked with eternal torment
Rarely do the scriptures give a more poignant description of the pains of the damned soul than is found in these verses. The language tries to convey a pain that is incomprehensible except to those who have experienced it. Alma says, I was racked with eternal torment...racked with all my sins...tormented with the pains of hell...the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror...that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body...I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins.
Alma was suffering the pains of eternal torment. Of this torment the Lord has explained, Eternal punishment is God's punishment (DC 19:11). The emotional, physical, and spiritual pain comes from the knowledge that one has rebelled against a just God. As Moroni reminds us:
Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?
Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.
For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of god, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you (Mormon 9:3-5).
This is why Alma explained that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. That sense of horror will be felt by all those who have rebelled against the Lord and broken his commandments. The irony is that all this pain and suffering is completely and entirely avoidable. All of it can be avoided with the simple plan of faith, repentance, and baptism. The other option for the wicked is to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment-And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows...Nevertheless, I, the Lord, show it by vision unto many, but straightway shut it up again; Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation (DC 76:44-48).
Alma tasted only a portion of that pain spoken of. The scriptures are clear that no one fully understands unless they have experienced it. Thus, those who have seen this torment in vision still don't know the height, the depth, and the misery thereof. The early missionaries in England were shown what it would be like for the damned souls of hell when they witnessed a brief vision of the evil spirits which had joined forces to destroy the work. Heber C. Kimball gives a brief but vivid description of what he saw:
"We could distinctly see the evil spirits, who foamed and gnashed their teeth at us. We gazed upon them about an hour and a half (by Willard [Richards's] watch)...We saw the devils coming in legions, with their leaders, who came within a few feet of us. They came towards us like armies rushing to battle. They appeared to be men of full stature, possessing every form and feature of men in the flesh, who were angry and desperate; and I shall never forget the vindictive malignity depicted on their countenances as they looked me in the eye; and any attempt to paint the scene which then presented itself, or portray their malice and enmity, would be vain.
"I perspired exceedingly, my clothes becoming as wet as if I had been taken out of the river. I felt excessive pain, and was in the greatest distress for some time. I cannot even look back on the scene without feelings of horror; yet by it I learned the power of the adversary, his enmity against the servants of God and got some understanding of the invisible world. We distinctly heard those spirits talk and express their wrath and hellish designs against us. However, the Lord delivered us from them, and blessed us exceedingly that day." (Heroes of the Restoration, p. 64-5)
Alma 36:14 I had murdered many of his children
"In recounting his sinful past to his son Helaman, Alma said that he had 'murdered' many people, and then he adds, 'or rather led them away unto destruction.' (Alma 36:14.) As Alma mentions later to his son Corianton, the murder of a human physical body is a grave sin. However, an even more serious sin is to murder the spiritual life of a person or, in other words, to purposely lead one away from the saving principles of the gospel. Concerning such people Alma says: ' ... whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness.' (Alma 39:6.)" (Daniel Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, p. 218)
Alma 36:17 I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy...of one Jesus Christ
The catalyst for change in Alma's darkest hour was the memory of his father's teachings. Much like the prodigal son who thought of his father as he suffered and would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat (Lu 15:16), Alma's thoughts turned to his father's teachings of Christ. This was the single thing which brought about the mighty change that Alma so dearly needed. The same thing happened to the prophet Enos. He tells of the wrestle which [he] had before God...and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart (Enos 1:2-3, italics added).
The lesson to be learned, then, is that there is hope for the many parents who struggle with their wayward children. They try to teach correct principles but the teachings, sometimes, seem to fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, when wayward children hit rock-bottom, they will naturally think of their parents. They will realize that they need the help of a power greater than themselves. If they have been taught of the Savior and eternal principles, their minds will turn to the Lord. Like the prodigal son, they will finally understand the importance of their parents' diligent efforts and the Savior's atoning sacrifice.
One Sister wrote about how her experience was similar to that of Enos and Alma:
"About five years ago, I was in a state of rebellion. Even though my parents had done their best in raising me, I was lost in a desolate world. My angry words wrenched to the very core of their beings, and with aching hearts they cried unto the Lord for me.
"Somewhere, somehow, a light turned on for me, and all the words that my mother and father had taught me flooded into my mind. I realized that I was ruining not only my life, but also my eternal progression. How could I have been so blind?
"Now that I am older and serving a mission, I have an even greater understanding and appreciation for the words of my parents. Those words have sunk deep into my heart.
"To those parents who have children lost in the world, please do not give up hope. Someday they will remember your words. They will then be humble and ready to receive the gospel. Until then, just love them as you have always loved them. - Sister P. Phillips, Ellicott City, Md." (Church News, Apr. 20, 1996, "Living by the Scriptures")
Alma 36:19 when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more
Spencer W. Kimball
"Now anguish was turned to joy, pain to calm, darkness to light. Only now could Alma have peace. He emphasized to his son Shiblon the sole source of that peace... And never, until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul. (Al. 38:8.)" (Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 366)
Alma 36:20-21 my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
"'There could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains....On the other hand there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.' Perfect parallelism. And incidentally, when he says, 'O Jesus,' (v. 18) any Moslem or Jew would say, 'Well, why not call on God directly? Why call on Jesus?' Well, that's the point of the whole thing. It was God he had offended. The last person in the world he wants to meet is God. He has offended God. What he wants is a kind person who will feel with him and know what he is going through. And, of course, that's the Lord, that's Christ. He descended below all things. He suffered all these things, so he knows. Alma appeals to the one he can appeal to. He's scared; he doesn't want to go to God. I'd sooner be extinct than have to face him [he feels]. But there is Jesus; he will get me out. He is the Savior-he knows. So he appeals to him, and then his work is really beginning." (Teachings of the Book of Mormon, lecture 56, p. 458)
Alma 36:23 I had been born of God
"Thus Alma describes his rise from his descent through the pain of change to being filled with the Holy Ghost, born again, and consumed by the desire to rescue others...Still, the transformation is not easy. He and the sons of Mosiah had been the 'very vilest of sinners.' (Mosiah 28:4.) Their spiritual rebirth, though miraculously rapid, was not handed without price to them.
"The normal process of gradual repentance, remorse, and change was dramatically condensed - but so also was the pain. The record says, 'They suffered much anguish of soul because of their iniquities, suffering much and fearing that they should be cast off forever.' (Mosiah 28:4.) But how remarkable the change from trying to destroy the souls of men to that acutely sensitive condition of being unable to 'bear that any human soul should perish' (Mosiah 28:3-4)." (M. Catherine Thomas, Church News, 7/26/96)
The process of being born again has been a subject of much discussion. The examples used in the scriptures are dramatic and should not be extrapolated to every member's experience:
"Alma's story is preserved in the scriptures because it is unusual and powerful. For virtually everyone in Alma's day and ours, the process of being born again is quiet and unobtrusive, yet all conversion experiences ought to contain certain elements in common. 'We must be cautious,' President Ezra Taft Benson has warned, 'as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life.' ("A Mighty Change of Heart," Ensign, October 1989, p. 5.)" (McConkie and Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, vol. 3, p. 268)
Alma 36:24 from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing
Marion G. Romney
"The experience of each individual who is really born again is similar to this experience of Alma and the sons of Mosiah, although it may not be so dramatic...No person whose soul is illuminated by the burning Spirit of God can in this world of sin and dense darkness remain passive. He is driven by an irresistible urge to fit himself to be an active agent of God in furthering righteousness and in freeing the lives and minds of men from the bondage of sin." Conference Report, Oct. 1941, p. 89)
Alma 36:26 tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen
Like the temple, the Book of Mormon has many layers of meaning. On the surface, Alma appears to be talking about being born again. Yet, when taken as a whole, this chapter indicates that Alma had his calling and election made sure. He admits to having seen God (v. 22). It is not improbable that Alma's description of seeing eye to eye is the same as Moses description of his interaction with the Lord, And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend (Ex 33:11). The meaning of Alma's solemn statement, the knowledge which I have is of God, seems to indicate more than impressions from the Holy Spirit. Later, Alma declares, I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory (v. 28).
Let's examine how closely these concepts correlate with Joseph Smith's teachings on the doctrine of the calling and election, "After a person has faith in Christ...then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and living by every word of God, and the Lord will soon say unto him, Son, thou shalt be exalted....when any man obtains this last Comforter, he will have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time, and even He will manifest the Father unto him, and they will take up their abode with him, and the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him, and the Lord will teach him face to face, and he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 149-50, italics added) Alma had received the promise of eternal life, he had spoken with the Lord face to face, and he had received knowledge directly of God. This is the blessing which he had tasted. Remarkably, this privilege was not given just to the main prophet, as Alma said, many...have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen.