The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
To see the previous chapter, click here.
Alma and his brethren had been cast out of the Zoramites’ synagogues because they were preaching against the doctrine of up. Another group was cast out as wellnot because they disagreed with the doctrine, but because they found themselves on the losing end of it. These despised of the Zoramites were kept from their worship services because of “the coarseness of their apparel” and their “exceeding poverty.” “They have cast us out,” they complained to Alma, “and we have no place to worship our God. . . . What shall we do?” they pleaded.
Perhaps, like the poor Zoramites that Alma was speaking to, you have felt down. I certainly know what that feels like. On my first day in junior high school, for example, a young lady kicked me as I walked past her in the hall. I had never seen her before, and I had done nothing to provoke her (except, perhaps, breathe!). Already filled with anxiety in my new and intimidating surroundings, between classes I stayed nervously on the lookout for her. I wasn’t vigilant enough, however, and she kicked me again the next day, this time hurling an insult while she did it. “Monkey ears!” she yelled. I felt as if everyone else in the hall was instantly looking at me, and I felt a withering embarrassment. I began looking at my reflection in windows and mirrors. I began seeing myself as she did.
A week or so into the school year, I noticed this same girl ahead of me on the street when I was walking home. From that day forward, I took a much longer route home. I also slowed my morning school preparations and began asking my mother to drive me to school. My blessed mother drove me to school every day for the rest of the year. I marvel and am so grateful that she never got after me for being so slow even though it put her out every morning. My shame had wired my mouth shut. How could I tell her or anyone else what was really going on? As a seventh-grade boy, and one who fancied himself an athletic kid who had things together, how could I confess to being so debilitatingly afraid? And of a girl at that!
Maybe, like the secret I carried as a seventh-grade boy, you have your own secrets that weigh you down. Or maybe you worry that other people don’t like or accept you. Or perhaps you have other burdens. For example, maybe you have felt cracks in the foundation of your marriage. Or maybe your children have brought you heartache. Or perhaps you have been blessed with neither marriage nor children, and every family-related comment at church feels like a blow not only to your heart but also to the pillars of your faith. Maybe your professional life has been a personal disappointment. Perhaps your body is racked with pain and you look on in envy as others stroll effortlessly by you. Or perhaps your testimony is wavering, and you wonder if you have built your life upon a lie. Perhaps, like the poor Zoramites, you are wondering how to find the relief you are seeking.
Alma’s first sentence to this group undoes much of what passes today as self-help wisdom. “I behold that ye are lowly in heart,” he said, “and if so, blessed are ye.” In contrast to Korihor, Alma is saying that it is good that they are feeling down! And why is it a good thing? Alma answers that question this way:
Because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a [person] sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy.
Notice what Alma is not saying. He is not saying that there is value in feeling down by itself. In fact, by itself, feeling down is a downer. There is a way of feeling bad (perhaps the most common way, in fact) that is just a way of feeling bad about oneself. It is the way one feels bad when he or she is feeling down about not feeling up. It is a kind of depression or malaise or despair that we feel when we have bought in to the doctrine of up but believe we have failed under it.
“We can distinguish more clearly,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us . . . it is not solely to scold but also to beckon.” In his response to the poor Zoramites, Alma was speaking of the beckoning kind of lowliness Elder Maxwell describes. It is what feeling down feels like when one is down before the Lord rather than down on oneself.
When Alma told the poor of the Zoramites that it was a good thing that they were feeling lowly in heart, he was saying that feeling down gave them a chance to see what they had to see in order to be lifted: their sins, and therefore as well their need to repent. In response, these people might have been tempted to say: Don’t speak to us of further burdens. That just makes us feel worse! We are already down. If we now have to see our sinfulness, too, it will be more than we can bear!
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<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />1pt 0cm; line-height: 150%; text-align: left;”>To which Alma, had he been asked, might have said something like this: It might seem that way to you, but it’s a lie. It’s what seeing one’s faults looks like from the Christ-less perspective of the doctrine of up. It means failure. It means worthlessness. It means despair. But put down the chains of that doctrine and you will discover a truth you have never fully known. For the Lord’s yoke truly is easy and his burden is light. In the moment you allow the Lord to show you your weakness, you will also experience his grace.
Think about it. When we brush up against God’s presence, we are unavoidably reminded of how much we yet lack. This reminder of the chasm that exists between us and the Lord might seem like a depressing realization, but it is cause for despair only if we believe that we are left to cross that chasm ourselves. When we are down before the Lord rather than just down on ourselves, our understanding of the gulf between ourselves and God does not depress us. Why not? Because the Lord also warmly reassures us that our insufficiency in no way disqualifies us from his redeeming love.
So rather than feeling despair, we put ourselves into a position where we can be filled with overwhelming gratitude and wonderthat God could love and redeem such a one as me! “Now, for this cause,” Moses exclaimed without a hint of self-pity after an encounter with God, “I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”
By thinking of the rich Zoramites, we see that up truly is down. This is because when we are feeling up in this way, we rely on what the scriptures call “the arm of flesh.” In these moments, we aren’t looking to the heavens as we must, which means that despite feeling personally strong or sufficient, we are truly down.
By pondering the situation of the poor Zoramites, however, we realize that merely feeling down about oneself is no more helpful than feeling pridefully up about oneself. When we feel this way, we feel devoid of hope. And the reason we feel devoid of hope is because, perhaps without realizing it, in these moments we have bought into a philosophy that is devoid of Christ. In these moments, too, we are relying on the arm of flesh. We’re just despairing because our own arms are so weak.
So while up is actually down, it turns out that down is also down unless we are down before the Lord. This is the lesson we learn from the group in Lehi’s dream that fell down to partake of the fruit. They didn’t merely fall down; they fell down before the treewhich is to say, they fell down before Christ. Only those who knelt humbly before him enjoyed the fruit of happiness. So to the paradox we have been discussing, we need to add a clarifying condition: Up is down and down is up, so long as I am down before the Lord. This is the divine paradox that brings peace to those who are feeling troubled, comfort to those whose hearts are broken, and hope to those who are on the brink of despair.
I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point. I think there are many in the world who have experienced significant happiness in their lives even if they do not believe in Christ. Some of the best people I have ever known come from different religious traditions and belief structures, some of which do not include any concept of a Savior. But they love their families. They love their neighbors. They are honest and hardworking and humble. They are willing to see their faults and not to frantically ignore or gloss over them. They are humbly “down” as we have been discussing. And, when they are, I would suggest that they are humbly down before Christ even if they don’t know that they are.
A passage in one of C. S. Lewis’s books is instructive here. In the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, there is an exchange between the Christ-figure, who is the lion Aslan, and a man who for all his life had been the devoted follower of a wicked and false god known as Tash. When he realized that he had been serving the wrong master, the man fell before Aslan, expecting to be destroyed. But Aslanthe “Glorious One””bent down his golden head and touched [the man’s] forehead with his tongue” and said:
Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. . . . I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.
I believe that the Lord’s grace is immense enough that he blesses people with his Spirit even if they know nothing about it. The world over, there are those who are, in effect, kneeling before him even though they don’t know who he is. But he knows who they are. He knows them, and he knows their hearts. And when they or we bow in humble recognition of our faults, we bow before him and are blessed of him.
As Alma began to teach the poor in spirit of the Zoramites, he knew, as Jesus would later declare, that “blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
” In other words, being poor in spirit alone is not enough. As the divine paradox suggests, we must also come unto Christ. The poor of the Zoramites were feeling down. Alma’s task was to help them feel down before the Lord, as their happiness depended upon their kneeling before the tree. So Alma proceeded to deliver to them one of the most well-known, yet perhaps least understood, sermons that we find in the Book of Mormon. Echoing Lehi’s dream, it is the parable of a seed that grows into a treewhich tree bears fruit “which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure.”
The meekness that allows the Lord to lift our hearts and spirits begins, Alma taught, with faith. Not, however, with faith in general, but with faith of a particular and divine kind.