Like all of us, Alma wanted to be more and to do more. His desire was noble, but he discovered that his approach was flawed. His effort to achieve balance is universal in its application.
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With little doubt, Alma was one of the greatest missionaries in history. But he desired more. “O that I were an angel and could have the wish of mine heart,” he yearned.[i] And what was his righteous wish? To trumpet the gospel message to the far reaches of the earth and shake the nations with the cry of repentance. Could there be a more noble desire?
Alma’s wish became grander. “Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.”[ii]
We know how he felt. Many of us burn with testimony but feel earthbound as we seek a more exalted way to serve God and His children.
Alma is overflowing with desire when abruptly, he recognizes an error in his approach and quickly begins to backpedal. “But behold, I am a man.” Is he saying that he detects a hint of the natural man in his apparently righteous wish? Evidently so, because he starts to search for balance and seems chagrined at what he discovers.
He has sinned in his wish, he confesses. “I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.”[iii]
How could this be? Evidently, Alma’s wish had been germinating within him for a long time. Had his zeal for the work of God become an obsession? Was something awry in his righteous desire? Now Alma begins a rapid retreat toward repentance. “I ought not to harrow up in my desires.”[iv] To harrow is to drive the blade of a plow deep in the earth and expose things that have been buried and out of sight. Alma used the same word when he described the agony that he experienced when he suffered for his sins. “My soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.”[v]
How could the honorable desire to bring souls to Christ be categorized alongside the suffering associated with murdering the souls of the children of Christ?
I knew a good man-a very good man–who tried to live in such a way that he could be called as the bishop of his ward. He was apparently worthy in every way, but the call never came. Discouraged, he began to slip away from the Church until he withdrew altogether. Over the years, he had watched other men of “less ability” receive the call and serve in the position that he wanted so much.
Finally, resigned to his fate, he determined that the system was rigged and he could never break into “the good ol’ boys club.” Never mind that “we believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority.”[vi] Politics are politics! With that decision, he eliminated Jesus as the Governor of His Church and downgraded the Church itself to the level of any other sect that elects its leaders according to education or popularity. What was once this man’s righteous desire was now envy, aspiration and coveting.
Alma understood that coveting is a snare from which few can escape, but Alma knew what to do. I believe that he had become so sensitive to the workings of the Spirit that he knew when he had crossed the line. The desire to bless people is a good thing, but when we dwell on a good desire too much, it can wander into the territory of obsession and coveting and become a sin.
Alma also knew a great deal about the dangers of sin. He knew that sin often starts as a little thing, even an innocent wish to become a better person or a sincere desire to do more good things. He also knew that Satan is capable of ruining anything that was once good. The devil enters our lives under the radar and quietly tempts us to fixate on our desire until we covet it.
C.S. Lewis describes the dilemma of an apprentice devil named Wormwood. Despite his best efforts, he could not find an entry point to tempt and bring down a righteous man. Screwtape, the master devil, listened intently then suggested a strategy to exploit the man’s defining quality. Flatter the righteous man by telling him that he is righteous! If Satan can get us to think about anything too much, even good things, he can lead into pride, envy, coveting and a host of other sins.
Alma understood that wishing for something too much can be risky business. “I know that [God] granteth unto men according to their desires, whether it be unto death or unto life…whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.”[vii] Be careful what you ask for because you might get it!
Even the best of men cannot accurately see the long-term ramifications of dwelling on a good or a bad desire, therefore we should humbly appeal to God, who does have the capability of seeing future results and can help us make good judgments. But in petitioning God, we must not stoop to counsel Him and thus misuse the privilege of prayer. God most certainly hears us, and He will try to guide us toward an answer that is best for us, but if we insist on having things our way, He might grant us our desires and leave us to suffer the consequences.
Discerning when desire crosses the line and becomes coveting is an act of spiritual maturity that is dependent upon gifts of the Spirit. In mortality, our spirit and body are in a constant tug of war. On the one hand, the spirit is an old, mature, celestial, powerful being that has immense capability and potential; on the other hand, the body is young, inexperienced, telestial and woefully impotent.
Moreover, the body is highly susceptible to suggestion and stimulation of the senses. It is, and always will be, an enemy to God[viii] because it constantly tends toward the things of the flesh rather than the things of the Spirit. Although our spirit knows better, our body often wins out by allowing the good desires of the spirit to deteriorate into envying and coveting.
No wonder, then, that the Lord warned Martin Harris, “Thou shalt not covet thine own property.”[ix] Is it possible to covet something that you already own? Evidently. If you want something too much, you might step into the territory of the enemy.
Thus, the Lord counseled, “Let them repent of all their sins, and of all their covetous desires, before me…for what is property unto me?” Can any good thing, our property included, be worth our constant obsession? The Lord cautioned that we must not “covet the drop, and neglect the more weighty matters.”[x]
Easier said than done. The righteous man wants to comply but he often mourns because of the flesh. “O wretched man that I am!” lamented Nephi. “Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins that do so easily best me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.”[xi]
There is something inside us that whispers that we should be able to stand a little taller and be able to accomplish more. We sense that we are innately powerful, and yet we stumble. We intuit that we know so much, and yet we are ignorant. We detect that somehow we are incredibly good, and yet we sin so easily. Satan plays on our yearning to be who we really are. He mercilessly reminds us of our shortcomings or inflates our sense of recognition that our inborn essence is that of celestial material. If we listen to him, coveting and pride are automatic. Thus the “have-nots” gaze up at the “haves” with envy, and the “haves” look down on the “have nots” and glory in their exalted station.
“Thou shalt not covet,” Jehovah commanded Israel.[xii] This was the last law given in the Ten Commandments. In our day, the Lord repeated the injunction: “I command thee that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. . . . I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely.”[xiii]
Joseph Smith expanded on the subject of this last law: “God cursed the children of Israel because they would not receive the last law from Moses. . . . The Israelites prayed that God would speak to Moses and not to them; in consequence of which he cursed them with a carnal law.”
The Prophet then went on to apparently connect the law prohibiting covetousness with obtaining the fullness of the priesthood: “Abraham gave a tenth part of all his spoils and then received a blessing under the hands of Melchizedek even the last law or a fulness of the law or priesthood which constituted him a king and priest after the order of Melchizedek or an endless life.”[xiv]
Whether or not the Prophet intended a dual meaning here is not known, but the noticeable connection is sobering. A review of history substantiates that the Israelites rejected the last law-Thou shalt not covet-and simultaneously rejected the last law “or a fulness of the law” of the priesthood, which would have made them kings and priests after the order of Melchizedek, which same order would have blessed them with eternal life:
“Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fullness of his glory. Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also.”[xv]
We simply cannot break this last law-Thou shalt not covet-and expect to receive the fullness of the priesthood along with its attendant blessings.
Jesus addressed the perils of coveting when he cautioned against giving alms with the wrong intention. An “alm” is an act of righteous devotion.[xvi] When we allow our acts of righteousness to become acts of self-promotion, our alms lose power and deliver transient, self-serving rewards. The once good thing has gone bad.
But an alm that is done in secret and held privately between God and us carries enormous weight, and paradoxically, God will reward us “openly.” That is, He will bless us in open view so that we become a light, a living testimony of blessings of living the gospel. Of this open reward, Malachi said, “All nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land (people), saith the Lord of hosts.”[xvii]
Gratefully, Alma shows us how to regroup and get things back in proper balance. He recognizes that good and evil are continually present in the mortal state and that we must learn to choose correctly. If we come to know good and decline to choose it, but rather allow our righteous desires to migrate toward sin, we will receive accordingly. Thus Alma checks himself by recommitting to that which the Lord has allotted him. “Now seeing that I know these things,” said Alma, “why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?…. I know that which the Lord hath commanded me, and I glory in it.”[xviii]
He could have said, “I’m going to blossom where I’m planted. I’m going to learn to be satisfied with what the Lord has given me. I will not stop striving to improve and doing the best with what I’ve got, but I won’t allow my desires to be and do better transition into envying and coveting for that which I don’t have or that might not manifest.”
Now Alma is back on track. Boldly, he begins to list his blessings past and present. Gratitude is the great antidote for the poison of coveting. Gratitude becomes more potent when it is coupled with humility, submission and developing a willingness to be contentedly still with the certainty that God stands at the helm and is steering your ship.[xix] By being grateful for what we do have, we are empowered to let go of expectation, pride, aspiration, feelings of entitlement, self-aggrandizement or self-loathing.
With renewed perspective, Alma exults, “God hath called me with a holy calling, to preach the word unto this people, and hath given me much success, in which my joy is full.”[xx] For now, preaching to “this people” is enough.
Alma yearned to be an angel and have the trump of God to cry repentance to the ends of the earth. For a short season, Alma’s righteous desire wandered off-center, but quickly he discerned his error, made a course correction and got back on track. We are forever grateful that he did, for indeed Alma received the wish of his heart. He is now an angel, and his testimony in the Book of Mormon trumpets the gospel message to the ends of the earth as with the voice of thunder.
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MaryannNovember 16, 2013
Wow! I had never really contemplated this scripture in this way and it is very enlightening and appropriate for me. I have often been so frustrated that my husband and I cannot serve a mission at this time, and also frustrated with the Lord for not opening the way for us. I can see now that I need to trust him and accept the work He has given me to do in the here and now.
Viki BeanNovember 12, 2013
I like to think that Alma's desire is fulfilled every time another copy of his testimony is received by someone new, as missionaries carry the Book of Mormon to the far corners of the earth.