Self-help books abound suggesting how we can change. We are told how to be more confident, more loving, less angry, less frightened. We are given points on assertiveness training or raising our children. Such books often are appealing to us because we want to make things better. We would like to find the technique that would facilitate change and improvement. Most of us feel a sense that something, somehow is not quite what it could be in our lives. However, as Alma begins his labors “bearing down in pure testimony” to the Nephites, he sounds a theme that is central to understanding the real source of change in our lives. No change is real and authentic unless it is the transformation of the inner man. This change is a spiritual process, not just a behavioral one. The world seeks to change people from the outside with a new program, a new coercion, a new law. The Lord works from the inside, changing the human soul; then all else changes.
Growth starts at the core of our being; it is not just a new set of actions we can don like a new set of clothes. That is why God is central to the process. He is working not just to make us look better but to be better.
In chapter 5, Alma asks the people a series of searching and beautiful questions, yet many of them are variations on the theme sounded in 5:14. “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” Alma was asking these questions from the depth of his own experience. He knew firsthand the power of the transformation he was asking. He had been moved from being a wicked man whose intent was to use his fluency and power to destroy the Church of God to become a mighty prophet who could give up position and worldly authority without looking back to preach the word of God. What a mighty change was this.
To be spiritually born of God means the old, complaining, resentful, defensive, self-absorbed person has been shed. In fact that person, the natural man, has died inside with our permission, and a new person has been born whose eye is singled to the glory of God. What Alma was asking was not outward conformity to law, the superficial patina of spirituality, but a change in their very natures, altering the state of their hearts, their way of perceiving themselves and the universe. This was not to be achieved in a single moment with a simple acceptance of Christ. Rather it was a process. The natural man is overcome not just by gritting one’s teeth and trying hard for self-improvement but ultimately by being transformed through the power of the Holy Ghost.
If the natural man grabs for things, believing he must fend for himself, one born of the Spirit trusts in the Lord with all his heart. If the natural man sees others as competitors, one born of the Spirit sees others as brothers and sisters. If the natural man feels he must create a good impression, never admitting error, one born again knows he must grow line upon line. Alma said, “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, can ye feel so now?” ( Alma 5:26)
A Mighty Change of Heart
The sins that we commit are not just isolated events like so many beads that have been scattered on the floor and need to be picked up one at a time. Rather they are the expression of our unfinished hearts and souls. Our resentfulness or defensiveness, our need to best others or draw attention to ourselves, our inability to get our minds off ourselves-these unfortunate attributes that we struggle against-are conditions of our hearts. Our sinfulness is the product of our inner being, not just some bad response to the circumstance of the moment. We do not change until our heart is healed. How is this accomplished?
Alma, speaking of his father’s great repentance when he left the courts of king Noah, gives us a clue. He said, “according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart” ( Alma 5:12). In other words, if we would be transformed, we must yield ourselves to the working of the atonement in our lives. Growth toward living with God again is not a do-it-yourself experience. As worthwhile as it might seem, we cannot on our own simply decide to be more loving or kind or faithful. Instead, we have to plead with the Lord to help us understand what we are and what we think that keeps us from authentically acting in that way. We have to ask him to let the atonement not only heal us, but empower us to understand things differently. We have to let the Spirit work upon us not just until we do differently, but until we are different.
Seeking for a mighty change of heart is the quest of the humble. As long as most of our efforts are dedicated to convincing ourselves and others that we are a finished, competent, completed product where we are, we cannot be upon the most important work of our lives. If we use our energies to justify ourselves or our negative emotions, we maintain the very walls that keep the Spirit from working upon us. A mighty change of heart implies a yielding to the Lord and an openness for his tutorials. It is the only way of true progress.
Let us make no mistake about what God is asking. He is asking to redo us. C.S. Lewis compares the process to the remodeling of house. If you were a cottage, you might, in fact be satisfied with your little self, and you might assume that if you let the Lord in, he would be about a slight remodeling job-adding a new paint job here, a little wall paper there. Nothing too painful or jolting-just enough to make you feel a little better. What a surprise you have in store because God starts tearing out walls, throwing up a staircase there, expanding the rooms here, exposing the faulty wiring, the leaky plumbing. It is a process that is more than you expected. Sometimes it hurts abominably, and you want to cry out to leave well enough alone. You are satisfied with being what you are. But He was always about a mighty change. He did not want you to be a cottage, but a palace with expansive rooms where the light poured in, a place where he could dwell.
He wants you to be born again. There is a mighty gulf between what he is and what you are. To be with him and like him is to be willing to cross that gulf, and the only way to do it is in the encircling arms of his love which is the atonement. The atonement not only offers forgiveness for our sins, it also offers the lenses to see them clearly, and the arm to lean upon to be strengthened beyond them-from the inside out.