Cover image: Illustration of a man praying by Joshua Dennis via Gospel Media Library.
In the past few chapters of the book of Alma we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at Alma’s attempts to strengthen the Church and to reclaim the souls of those who have fallen away. As we leave that scenario for a while, we now see that the most pressing event for the Nephites is a series of wars with the Lamanites which is going to consume 44 consecutive chapters. This is the longest period of war contained in the Book of Mormon.
How does one prepare for war? There are the obvious fortifications that can be built—something that Captain Moroni goes to a lot of trouble to accomplish—but if we look to Alma we find that he concentrated his efforts on the spiritual fortifications of his sons. Ultimately, he was more concerned with the death of their spirits rather than the death of their bodies. We are told in Alma 35:16 that, “Therefore, he caused that his sons should be gathered together, that he might give unto them every one his charge, separately, concerning the things pertaining unto righteousness.” This “gathering” of his sons may well have occurred during Passover, when the children of Israel were taught to teach their sons to remember the story of their deliverance from Egypt. (See Book of Mormon Central, “Did Alma Counsel His Sons During the Passover? (Alma 38:5),” KnoWhy 146 (July 19, 2016). For the ancient Israelite practice of telling the Passover story and how this relates to Alma, see Gordon C. Thomasson and John W. Welch, “The Sons of the Passover,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, (Provo UT: FARMS, 1992), 196–198.)
In these next few chapters, we gain insights into the soul of Alma. We have seen him as the chief High Priest of the Church. As the Chief Judge of the land, he had been a mighty missionary—responsible for the spiritual well‑being of thousands of people. But at this point of great danger, he turns to his sons and pours out his soul to them. In so doing he uses a theme that is central to just about all of the public discourses that he delivered.
The Theme of Deliverance
At Zarahemla, Alma asks his audience if they have “sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of [their] fathers” (Alma 5:6). At Ammonihah, he similarly asks “Do you not remember that our father, Lehi, was brought out of Jerusalem by the hand of God. . . And have ye forgotten so soon how many times he delivered our fathers out of the hands of their enemies,” later reminding them how their fathers had been “brought out of bondage time after time” (Alma 9:9-10, 22).
In Alma 29:12 he exclaims, “Yea, I have always remembered the captivity of my fathers.” When counseling his son Helaman, he says, “I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering the captivity of our fathers; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except [God]” (Alma 36:2). And then, not very surprisingly, after two dozen verses, he again picks up the theme: “Yea, and he has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day; and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity” (Alma 36:29).
As recounted in Mosiah 27, an angel reproached Alma for his wickedness and commanded, “Now I say unto thee: Go, and remember the captivity of thy fathers in the land of Helam [Alma’s settlement in the wilderness], and in the land of Nephi; and remember how great things he has done for them; for they were in bondage, and he has delivered them” (v. 16). Alma fell to the earth and was in a coma-like state for three days. When he awoke, he declared himself a changed man, saying:
I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit. And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 27:24-26)
The appearances of these phrases in the Book of Mormon are an indication of how deeply Alma was affected by this experience. He spent the rest of his days urging his people to remember the captivity of their fathers and to receive the same spiritual transformation that he had undergone.
Physical bondage is a distinct possibility at this time for the Nephites.Note that this is not necessarily going to be a war between the good guys and the bad guys. Alma explicitly states that the Nephites are also in a state of apostasy, and that is the reason for the wars. In preparation, the Nephites went to a lot of trouble to prepare themselves physically for the upcoming war. We can read about all these fortifications in Alma 43:17‑20; 49:3‑4. In contrast to all of this activity, notice what Alma counseled Helaman in Alma 37:6. He talked about other types of fortifications. He speaks of “small and simple things” by which “great things [are] brought to pass.” The central event in Alma’s discussions with both Helaman and Shiblon was his own personal theophany. Even though Mormon has already told this story in Mosiah 27, he includes a second version in Alma’s own voice. It does this for several reasons according to Grant Hardy:
- To claim historical specificity (i.e. this is how Alma actually came to understand his own experience, with no paraphrases or prejudicial phrasing)
- Spiritual immediacy (and one of the most compelling expositions of the effects of the atonement to be found anywhere In the Book of Mormon)
- Literary quality (as will be seen in the care with which Alma has constructed his account) (Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 137.)
Chapter 36 of Alma is one of the masterpieces of holy writ. It is not surprising that Mormon chose to embed it whole into his narrative. I am sure that you have all heard that this chapter is a wonderful example of chiastic poetry. Chiasms are a special inverted type of parallelism, or Hebrew thought rhyme. The name comes from the Greek letter chi which is equivalent to our letter “x.”
As one scholar, Bishop Lowth, has pointed out, “this structure, based as it is on meaning, survives translation into the prose of any language with remarkable little loss” unlike the poetry that we are used to which relies heavily on complex metre or a special vocabulary. Alma 36 is probably the most perfect example of chiasms in the Book of Mormon. Jack Welch, the man who first identified this form of Hebraic poetry in the Book of Mormon, described Alma 36 thus:
Alma 36 was one of the first chiasms I discovered within the Book of Mormon in 1967. [It was while he was serving his mission in Europe.] Many years later, it still remains one of my favorites. It is a masterpiece of composition, as good as any other use of chiasmus in world literature, and it deserves wide recognition and appreciation. I cannot imagine that its complex and purposeful structure happened unintentionally. Its sophistication as a piece of literature definitely shows Alma’s skill as a writer.
As with any chiasm, the central message (or turning point of the chiasm) is found in the middle, not at the end where we would expect to find it. In Alma’s account, that turning point comes when he discusses his calling on the mercy of Jesus Christ.
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy (Alma 36:17‑20).
Although this account features the appearance of an angel, and an earthquake, the focus of this account is on Alma’s psychological and spiritual state, rather than the miraculous nature of his experience. He focuses on the coming of the Messiah, and then focuses on what it means to him. The message is clear to Alma – “Jesus has come to save ME, the vilest of sinners!”
I love this quote from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
Most people in trouble end up crying, “What was I thinking?” Well, whatever they were thinking, they weren’t thinking of Christ. Yet, as members of His Church, we pledge every Sunday of our lives to take upon ourselves His name and promise to “always remember him.” So let us work a little harder at remembering Him—especially that He has “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows … , [that] he was bruised for our iniquities … ; and with his stripes we are healed.” Surely it would guide our actions in a dramatic way if we remembered that every time we transgress, we hurt not only those we love, but we also hurt Him, who so dearly loves us. But if we do sin, however serious that sin may be, we can be rescued by that same majestic figure, He who bears the only name given under heaven whereby any man or woman can be saved. When confronting our transgressions and our souls are harrowed up with true pain, may we all echo the repentant Alma and utter his life-changing cry: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
(Holland, Jeffrey R. “Place No More for the Enemy of My Soul.” General Conference April 2010.)
When I think of Alma’s cry for someone to save him from his sins, I think of young man I met a few years ago. He was a convert to the Church from Cambodia named Sokhom Heng. He had been introduced to the Church through the proverbial “free English class” that was being offered by the Cambodian missionaries. He had no interest in the religion they preached, however, being very happy with his own Buddhist religion. He had grown up in a pagoda, and was taught the eightfold path, which include principles similar to the ten commandments – right speech, right conduct, right mindfulness, etc. He was taught to avoid lying, slander, gossip, and drinking, and to cultivate kindness, morality, forgiveness, and insight. He felt that if everyone lived by these principles, it would be enough, and the world would be at peace.
After he told me this, I said, “It sounds like you had it all figured out. What got your attention? What did you learn from your English teachers that changed your mind?” He told me, “I didn’t like doctrine of karma, which says that whatever you do, you get punished for it. According to Buddhist thought, there is no way to get rid of the punishment earned by doing wrong deeds. Even if you repented, you couldn’t get rid of the punishment you earned by your poor behavior. At a young age, this really concerned me. I thought that there must be another way. There must be a redeemer or a savior. Buddha prophesied of another that would come after him, who would have the power save people from punishment and sin, but he himself didn’t have that power. My heart was opened to look for this Redeemer. When the missionaries told me about a Redeemer who would pay for everyone’s sins, it really appealed to me! They had me read a scripture from the Book of Mormon in 3 Ne. 11:10-11. I loved reading about a Savior that appeared to his people after His resurrection, saying, ‘I am the light and life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup . . in taking upon me the sins of the world.’ I loved reading how the people touched the nail prints on his hands. I had found what Buddha prophesied!”
“The missionaries laid out the steps to getting saved. They taught me about the Atonement of Jesus Christ. They taught me about justice and mercy, and that the Savior satisfied the demands of justice by taking upon him the sins of all mankind. They had me read Alma 7:11-13, where I learned that the Savior did just that, he took upon him ‘the pains and sicknesses of his people.’ He Himself suffered pains for man, ‘that he might blot out their transgressions.’ I learned that I must repent and be ‘born again.’ Only then does Christ have the power to save. I loved the idea that the Redeemer would pay for my sins!”
“Buddhism had taught me to forgive and to love. But no one would forgive me of my sins. I was taught that after my life was over, I would be judged, and a specific punishment would be pronounced. After I had paid the price, whatever good I had done would send me to paradise or on to another life, because reincarnation was a Buddhist belief. But Alma 34:32 teaches that ‘this life is the time to prepare to meet God.’ We only have one shot at earth life. Buddhism taught me a partial truth, but the restored gospel taught me the complete truth. I love the quote from President Hinckley, ‘Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work.’”
Alma’s Rebirth: A Chiasm of Deliverance
Alma must have spent many hours crafting the recitation of the story of his rebirth. He first starts by noting the captivity and deliverance of his ancestors, and then moves on to the circumstances of his own life. In the center of his chiasm, he focuses on the powerful effect his understanding of Jesus and his power to save him. After this, he lists how his life has been reordered because of his spiritual turnaround, and then gives another recital of Jewish history, and how God has saved the nation of Israel.
He illustrates that, just as the Lord has saved the children of Israel as a group, he has saved Alma himself as an individual. We see now that the Lord is able to see each member of the group as a unique individual. Alma strikingly juxtaposes accounts of both physical and spiritual deliverance. Grant Hardy suggests, “Indeed, the order and purposeful design of Alma 36 suggest a world in which God – like the writer – is in control, where the lives of individuals fit into some overarching (though perhaps not always immediately perceptible) plan. (Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, 140-141.)
To me, a splendid chiasm like this is evidence that the Book of Mormon is an authentic example of ancient Hebrew literature. Contained within this framework, we see the anguish of a wicked man, the crisis moment of his conversion, and the joy of his redemption. Alma provides us a wonderful example of how to repent, how to call on our Redeemer for salvation, and how to make amends through a life of service.
The balance and beauty of this chiasm indicate that Alma spent a great deal of time and effort constructing the remembrance of an event that had occurred twenty years earlier. This experience clearly meant a great deal to Alma, and at the end of his career, he wanted to present it in a compelling form to give guidance to his son. Just as his being converted unto Christ marked the major turning point in his life, his appeal to Jesus at the center of this chiasm marks the pivotal point of his account.
In Alma 36:8, Alma tell us that the angel appeared and used a peculiar Semitic expression, “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the kingdom of God.” We would normally say, “If you don’t want to be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.” We are missing an important not here. Hugh Nibley explains that in Hebrew, that is how you have to say it. It sounds contradictory, but that is the normal way. (Nibley, Hugh, Teachings of the Book of Mormon 56:1)
Along with a distinctive literary form, Alma’s narrative uses evocative language. He speaks of being “harrowed up” and “racked with torment.” We can easily picture the long tines of a farm harrow ripping up the soil, and a Medieval body being stretched upon a rack of torture. He describes a pain and a joy that were equally “exquisite,” and a happiness so palpable that he can taste it. He definitely wants to engage his sons in his experience. He wants them to imagine themselves in his situation. He wants them to feel what he felt. After the one sentence uttered by the angel, he loses contact with the outside reality and we only hear the voice of his own mind. We might note here that a provocative word from an outsider, at just the right time, might be enough to send a person on an inner spiritual journey toward redemption.
We might wonder why Alma makes repeated reference to the deliverance of his ancestors in the chiastic recital of his conversion. Alma 36:28: “I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, … and he led them by his power into the promised land.” The central focus of this chapter is not about the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, but about Alma’s remarkable conversion to the Lord. Yet Alma appears to have been emphasizing the similarities between his own journey out of his sinful life and the Hebrews’ journey out of Egypt. As S. Kent Brown noted, Alma stated that “trusting in the Lord leads to divine support and deliverance (36:3, 27),” just as the Israelites were delivered from Egypt and were supported while in the wilderness when they trusted in God (S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 82-83.)
In addition, Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy #419 gives the following information:
“Alma’s early life was characterized by rebellion,” just as the ancient Israelites often rebelled against God. Like Israel, Alma was blessed in spite of his lack of worthiness, not because of it. Finally, “the entire chapter consists of Alma’s recitation of his own story; it resembles in a general sense the memorized recitations learned by Israelites of God’s wondrous acts performed on their behalf during the Exodus.” Deuteronomy 6:20–25 commands the ancient Israelites to tell their sons about how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Alma seems to have fulfilled this commandment while also applying this story to his own life.
Alma looked at the Exodus narrative and saw his own life. As Kent Brown put it, he “linked his deliverance from the bonds of sin to Israel’s deliverance from the bondage of slavery.” We may not have had exactly the same experiences as Alma the younger. But in some ways, we are all in bondage to sin, just as the Israelites were in bondage to the Egyptians. Trusting in the power of Christ’s Atonement is the only way for us to be freed from this bondage
I think that this was and is the “small and simple thing” that Alma was trying to impress upon his sons. There are two examples that Alma uses to impress upon Helaman, in particular, the effect that “small and simple things” can have.
Small and Simple Things
President Dallin H. Oaks talked about “small and simple things:”
We are taught many small and simple things in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to be reminded that in total and over a significant period of time, these seemingly small things bring to pass great things. There have been many talks on this subject by General Authorities and by other respected teachers. The subject is so important that I feel to speak of it again.
I was reminded of the power of small and simple things over time by something I saw on a morning walk. Here is the picture I took. The thick and strong concrete sidewalk is cracking. Is this the result of some large and powerful thrust? No, this cracking is caused by the slow, small growth of one of the roots reaching out from the adjoining tree. Here is a similar example I saw on another street.
The thrusting power that cracked these heavy concrete sidewalks was too small to measure on a daily or even a monthly basis, but its effect over time was incredibly powerful. So is the powerful effect over time of the small and simple things we are taught in the scriptures and by living prophets. Consider the scripture study we’ve been taught to incorporate into our daily lives. Or consider the personal prayers and the kneeling family prayers that are regular practices for faithful Latter-day Saints. Consider attendance at seminary for youth or institute classes for young adults. Though each of these practices may seem to be small and simple, over time they result in powerful spiritual uplift and growth. This occurs because each of these small and simple things invites the companionship of the Holy Ghost, the Testifier who enlightens us and guides us into truth.
(Oaks, Dallin H. “Small and Simple Things.” General Conference April 2018.)
Alma was talking about two seemingly “small and simple” things – the Nephite records and the Liahona.
What is the power of the written scriptural record? Alma 37:8
What three things does Alma say that the records accomplish?
1) It “enlarged the memory of this people”
2) It “convinced many of the error of their ways”
3) It “brought them to a knowledge of their God and unto the salvation of their God.”
I love what Elder D. Todd Christofferson had to say about how the scriptures enlarge the memory:
The scriptures enlarge our memory by helping us always to remember the Lord and our relationship to Him and the Father…. The scriptures also enlarge our memory by helping us not forget what we and earlier generations have learned…. Those who either don’t have or ignore the recorded word of God eventually cease to believe in Him and forget the purpose of their existence. You will remember how important it was for Lehi’s people to take the brass plates with them when they left Jerusalem. These scriptures were key to their knowledge of God and the coming Redemption of Christ.
(Christofferson, D. Todd. “The Blessing of Scripture.” General Conference April 2010.)
When Lehi awoke one morning and found the Liahona on the ground outside his tent door, this seemingly “small” thing had great impact on the future course that Lehi and his family would take in the wilderness. However, its workings were not what I would call “simple.” The Three Witnesses were also shown the Liahona, as well as the plates of gold. Doctrine and Covenants records they had a view of “miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.” These “directors” apparently refer to the “spindles” which “pointed the way” that Lehi’s family should travel through the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:10).
According to the prophet Alma, this was “the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). Book of Mormon scholar Jonathan Curci has proposed an etymological explanation for the name Liahona, based on the Hebrew idioms used at the time of Lehi. He presents the grammatical elements used to form the name Liahona, which he shows to mean literally “to Yahweh is the whither” or by interpretation, “direction of – to the Lord.” The entire article is available at
https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=jbms. Perhaps the Three Witnesses were permitted to see the Liahona because it gives credibility to the story of the exodus of Lehi and the founding of the Nephite nation.
Don Bradley has proposed that just as the Ark of the Covenant held sacred religious artifacts related to the founding of the Israelite nation, the Nephites had their own national treasures—including the Liahona—which they held in their own sacred repository. (See Don Bradley, “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,” FairMormon presentation, 2012, online at fairmormon.org) Hebrews 9:4 tells us that the Ark of the Covenant contained a golden pot of manna, the rod of Aaron which budded, and the stone tablets from Mt. Sinai. Remarkably, the Liahona has parallels to each of these items. The strongest resemblance is between the Liahona and the manna. Both were discovered in the morning, both were discovered upon the ground, both were round in appearance,7 and both evoked wonder or astonishment.
Further, both the manna itself and the Liahona helped feed the wanderers in the wilderness. While the manna was eaten as food, the Liahona was used by Lehi to direct his son Nephi to productive hunting grounds. Perhaps Nephi intentionally designed his story to help us, as readers, to make the connection between manna and the Liahona. In each account, the miraculous food appeared after major murmuring from the hungry wanderers. Both groups expressed a desire to return to their own homes.
We are told in Numbers 17:1–11 that Aaron’s rod, among other staffs, was used as a means of determining the will of the Lord. The rod-like shape of the Liahona’s “spindles” or “directors” functioned in a similar manner. They were a means by which the Lord could communicate with his people. The use of sticks or arrows for divination practices was well known in the ancient world, and these are corroborated in a number of biblical narratives. (See Hugh Nibley, “The Liahona’s Cousins,” Improvement Era, February 1961, 87–89, 104–110; Hugh Nibley, “The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State,” in The Ancient State, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 10 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 1–32. For a different treatment of divination practices in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, see Amanda Colleen Brown, “Out of the Dust: An Examination of Necromancy as a Literary Construct in the Book of Mormon,” Studia Antiqua 14, no. 2 (2016): 27–37.)
And finally, just as the Lord inscribed the Ten Commandments with his own finger, he also caused writing to appear on the “pointers” of the Liahona. (See 1 Nephi 16:26–29). These words changed from “time to time,” according to the new circumstances of Lehi’s party. The pointers on the ball worked “according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (1 Nephi 16:28). When counseling his son Helaman, Alma said, “it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land” (Alma 37:44).
Don Bradley has noted that the “Jerusalem temple was, in one sense, a house for the Ark of the Covenant.” With this in mind, he asked, “How could the Nephites keep the Law of Moses without access to the Ark of the Covenant? … Something, presumably something remarkable, would have to sit in the Ark’s place” in their own temple. (See Don Bradley, “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,” FairMormon presentation, 2012, online at fairmormon.org. See also, Gordon C. Thomasson, “Mosiah: The Complex Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 28–32.) The Liahona was kept and revered by Nephite prophets as one of their sacred treasures. Its very existence verifies the reality of Lehi’s exodus to the promised land. The fact that it was shown to the Three Witnesses as part of the Restoration is not surprising.
I love what President Thomas Monson has said about Liahonas in our day:
“Your blessing is not to be folded neatly and tucked away. It is not to be framed or published. Rather, it is to be read. It is to be loved. It is to be followed. Your patriarchal blessing will see you through the darkest night. It will guide you through life’s dangers. … Your patriarchal blessing is to you a personal Liahona to chart your course and guide your way.”
(President Thomas S. Monson, “Your Patriarchal Blessing: A Liahona of Light,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 66.)
Elder Lowell M. Snow added another insight:
The Lord provides guidance and direction to individuals and families today, just as He did with Lehi. This very general conference is a modern Liahona, a time and place to receive inspired guidance and direction that prospers us and helps us follow God’s path through the more fertile parts of mortality.. .The teachings of this conference are the compass of the Lord. In the coming days you may, as Lehi did, walk out your front door and find a Liahona, Ensign, or other Church publication in your mailbox, and it will contain the proceedings of this conference. As with the Liahona of old, this new writing will be plain and easy to read and will give you and your family understanding concerning the ways and paths of the Lord.
(Snow, Lowell M. “Compass of the Lord.” General Conference October 2005.)
As we read Alma’s remarks in Alma 37:38‑46 we are told that “there is a type in this thing.” (v. 45) What does this refer to? The incident of the Israelites in the wilderness and their refusal to look to the serpent of brass created by Moses. (Numbers 21:4‑9 cp. Alma 33:18‑22, and John 3:14) The people refused to do what God commanded them because they thought that it was too simple. Do we ever do that? If something is so simple, why do we want to look for complicated answers?
Alma’s Counsel to Shiblon
In Alma 38:8‑9 we see Alma counseling with his son Shiblon. His message is much the same that he gave to Helaman—salvation comes through Jesus Christ.
This is in stark contrast to the elaborate fortifications that the Nephites were building. As I read the Book of Mormon, I see that this is one of the major underlying messages. Alma is a prime example of a person whose life has been changed by Jesus Christ and then has gone out and literally changed the world. It is certainly the case here with what Alma is trying to teach his sons. It is the simple gospel of Jesus Christ which will ultimately be the only thing that will prevent wars. All of the physical fortifications are merely ambulances waiting at the bottom of a cliff rather than putting a fence around the cliff’s edge.
In three short chapters Alma has made some significant points. It was immensely important to him that his sons should understand on a personal level his commitment to Jesus Christ. He wanted them to be prepared spiritually for the wars that he could see were coming. He knew that it was only through the gospel of Jesus Christ that there could ever be any everlasting peace in the world. Massive fortifications and armies would never be able to do it — but the converting power which comes through a commitment to Jesus Christ, could. In a world where nations spend more money on their military budget than they do on feeding their own people, there is a definite lesson on priorities that we could learn from Alma’s actions.
I would like to close with a final subject that is so well illustrated in Alma 36-38. In his first public statement as President of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson said, “I thank God … for parents who are serious about their commitment to righteous, intentional parenting.” (Russell M. Nelson, “As We Go Forward Together,” Ensign, Apr. 2018, 5.) These chapters teach wonderful lessons on effective parenting.
What was the environment in which Alma raised his sons? Alma 35:15relates that “the hearts of the people began to wax hard, and that they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word.” The people were offended because of the strictness of the commandments. “Strict” can also mean narrow. The people were offended because of the “strait and narrow path.” Notice that the word strait is not spelled with a GH in it. It does not mean the shortest distance between two points. It means “narrow.” It does not accommodate certain behavior. Accordingly, the people seek to BROADEN the gate. (Does this sound familiar?) Society wants to change traditionally held values and replace them with more “tolerant” and “accepting” views. They want the only Value (with a capital V) left to be Tolerance. We may do well to heed these keys to effective parenting:
1. Teach them one by one. Alma 35:16 What is the operative word here?
One by one parenting. Using teaching moments. While driving in the church parking lot. We used to have “dates” with each child every month, to get a little one-on-one time. The kids LOVED this. If Godhood is eternal parenthood, then this is an apprenticeship. 3 Ne. 17:21 Jesus taking children one by one.
2. Teach with testimony.
Joseph Smith’s Lectures on Faith 2:33-34, 56, God gives us another key to effective parenting.
33. From this we can see that the whole human family in the early age of their existence, in all their different branches, had this knowledge disseminated among them; so that the existence of God became an object of faith in the early age of the world. And the evidences which these men had of the existence of a God, was the testimony of their fathers in the first instance.
34. The reason why we have been thus particular on this part of our subject, is that this class may see by what means it was that God became an object of faith among men after the fall; and what it was that stirred up the faith of multitudes to feel after him—to search after a knowledge of his character, perfections and attributes, until they became extensively acquainted with him, and not only commune with him and behold his glory, but be partakers of his power and stand in his presence.
56. We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based which excited the inquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God; and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this inquiry, in the first instance, in their minds. It was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers, this testimony having aroused their minds to inquire after the knowledge of God; the inquiry frequently terminated, indeed always terminated when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries and eternal certainty.
Joseph Smith is basically saying, “I can give it to you in ONE sentence. The TESTIMONY OF THEIR FATHERS is what STIRRED UP the faith of the children to want to FEEL AFTER God. What is the most important thing you can do as a parent? EXCITE and AROUSE your children to “inquire after” God. How do you do that? Human testimony. When does my responsibility end? “Until they are extensively acquainted with him.” Human testimony is the WAY! It is the greatest gift you can give to a child!
Teach with testimony. Children WANT to know what their parents know. Why did Nephi have the vision he had? What about the stripling warriors? Notice “testimony words” in Alma 36:1 “I swear unto you.”
v. 3 “I do know”
v. 4 “I know of myself”
v. 5 “an angel made these things known unto me”
v. 26-27 “I do know.” “Put it in the Lord’s hands.”
v. 28 “I know”
v. 30 “I do know”
Do you think Helaman had ever heard this before? Children love to hear stories of parents’ testimonies! My own children have often heard me relate the story of my 3rd grade Field Day experience many times.
In the spring at Eastwood Elementary, we had “Field Day,” right before school got out for the summer. This was a special occasion because the girls got to wear pants to school. Every other day of the year, girls had to wear dresses to school. I remember my mother took me to Grand Central and bought me a new “Field Day” outfit. It had turquoise blue shorts and a sleeveless blue plaid top with silver threads woven into the plaid. It was the coolest! I was a tall, skinny kid with little or no athletic ability. When we would choose sides in class before P. E., I would inevitably be chosen last. In my new blue outfit, I readied myself for the ordeal of choosing sides for the kick soccer team. (For those of you who do not know what this game is, I will try to describe it. The rules are similar to baseball, but instead of a bat and a pitched baseball, the “pitcher” rolls a soccer ball on the ground to the player who is up at “bat.” and he or she kicks it and rounds the bases.) As I had anticipated, I was again the last to be chosen. It was humiliating, but alas, I was getting used to it. I was assigned to left field, the safest place for one so unqualified, and the game began. As I sat in left field, I thought about how cool it would be if I got lucky, caught a fly ball, made the winning out, and was a hero for once. In Sunday School, we had been learning about prayer, and that if you prayed and had enough faith, God would give you the answer to your prayer. Right at that moment, I was so sick of the mortification that accompanied every team activity in elementary school that I could scream. I drew an “X” on the ground with my sneaker and silently prayed this prayer: “If I stand on this “X” with my arms out, will you please let me catch a fly ball?” It was the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs. Our team was one run ahead, and the other team was up and had the bases loaded. Their best kicker was up. I stood on the “X” and closed my eyes, dutifully holding out my arms. Well, you can probably guess the end of the story. I wouldn’t be telling the story if it didn’t happen just as I had prayed. The kick was high to left field, and I caught it! I was so excited. Everyone was in shock. That day I learned that my Heavenly Father really cared about me, a gangly, skinny girl with braids. That he remembers “every creature of his creating” (Mosiah 27:30).
Alma tells Shiblon the story of his conversion in Alma 38: 6-24. This is FAMILY SCRIPTURE. We all have “family scripture.” What kind of an impact would this story have had on him?
3. Teach children when they are young. Alma 37:35 “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.” When was Shiblon taught? Alma 38:2 tells us that Shiblon had “commenced in his youth to look to the Lord.” Children need to have faith promoting stories shared with them when they are young.
4. Teach them by example. Testimony followed by lifestyle.
We all use these “parent words” – I want you to …. I wish… You should…. When I… They are effective ONLY when we can add “I would that ye should do as I have done,” as Alma does in Alma 36:2.
5. Teach them to love the scriptures – to have faith that in them they can find answers. Arm them with the scriptures!
Alma 37:8-9 What the scriptures will do for us – “enlarged our memory,” “convinced many of the error of their ways,” brought them to the knowledge of their God, brought them to repentance,” “brought them to rejoice in Jesus Christ their Redeemer.”
What to teach children:
Alma 37:29 – “to abhor wickedness” and that wickedness destroys
Alma 37:32 – to have “an everlasting hatred of iniquity”
Alma 37:33 – repentance, faith, humility, ability to withstand temptation because of their faith
Alma 37:38 – Alma likened the scriptures to the Liahona
Alma 37:39 – will show the course which they should travel
Alma 37:40 – works according to your faith in God
Probably my favorite verse in this chapter is Alma 37:11: “Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forbear.” Alma admits that he does not have all the answers. We don’t need to know everything “right now.” We should have faith in what we have had revealed, and have faith that we will know all the answers we need to know in good time. Think of that great fireside in the sky we are promised in D&C 101:32-33, where all things shall be made known to us. “In that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things – Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew. . . Things most precious. . . things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.” Interesting thought: Maybe the Liahona was just as demanding to the Lehi colony in giving guidance as the scriptures are to us. We need to “look” to them, have faith that they will direct us, and be diligent in heeding them.
Chapters 39-42 Counsel of a parent to a troubled child (We will discuss Alma’s counsel to Corianton in next week’s Come Follow Me discussion, but I just wanted to mention Alma’s method of dealing with a rebellious child.)
6. Reprove with truth – not with anger or irritability
InD&C 11:2, the “word” is described as “sharper than a two-edged sword.” Therefore, the counsel found in D&C 121 “reprove with sharpness” does not mean “with cutting remarks,” but means to reprove (correct) with clarity and the truth of the gospel.
1) Show children where they went wrong
2) Show them the consequences of their mistakes
3) Show them how to prevent them from happening again
4) End with the hope of forgiveness and the love of God
Since chapter 41 is about Alma correcting Nehor’s false teachings on the law of restoration, he needs to tell Corianton in chapter 40 what the real story of restoration is – getting what you deserve, getting something you never had. Not that everything will be restored to happiness, as Nehor incorrectly taught.
7. Gift of discernment is used by effective parents
In counseling his son Corianton, Alma repeatedly uses the words,“I perceive.” (see Alma 41:1, 42:) He uses the gift of discernment to discern what his son was worried about, and what things were of great concern to him. Parents need to look beyond the words their children say, and learn to see into their hearts.
I love the counsel that Alma gives to his son Shiblon (which means “young lion” in Arabic) in Alma 38. Is it because he is the middle child that he only gets eighteen verses? He is characterized by steadiness – trying his best to do what he was told to do. I love his counsel and feel that it is a great example to all of us.
- 38:2Future tense. “I hope you will CONTINUE” 38:3 Present tense. He PRAISES his son. SO IMPORTANT! We need to PRAISE our children.
- 38:4What’s he doing here?He’s helping him by VALIDATING his testimony. Don’t miss opportunities to validate a child’s experience. He had been persecuted for the gospel’s sake, and even stoned (38:4), but had put his trust in God (v.5).
- 38:6 Alma shares sacred experiences — these are family scriptures. 38:9 Shares his testimony of Christ. 38:10 Do my children know my expectations? Alma’s children knew what he expected of them. “I would that ye should continue to teach; and I would that ye would be diligent and temperate in all things.”
- 38:12 Shiblon has many good qualities but still is young and needs exhortation in certain areas: bridle passions. “Bridle” suggests the metaphor of a horse. For Alma, passion is a POWERFUL horse that must be bridled. Sexual passion is POWERFUL and needs to be controlled. What really shows love? The controlling of passion increases love. Alma also counsels Shiblon to be humble (v.11, 13-14).
Here is a summary of the keys to effective parenting::
Keys to Effective Parenting
1. Teach them one by one.
2. Teach with testimony.
3. Teach children when they are young.
4. Teach them by example. Testimony followed by lifestyle.
5. Teach them to love the scriptures.
6. Reprove with truth – not with anger or irritability.
7. Gift of discernment is used by effective parents.
1. PRAISE children.
2. VALIDATE your child’s testimony.
3. SHARE SACRED EXPERIENCES
4. LET THEM KNOW YOUR EXPECTATIONS
5. GIVE NEEDED EXHORTATION IN CERTAIN AREAS
Alma had become a very wise man. His conversion experience had made him into a “new creature.” No doubt, as he traveled and saw wickedness around him, he felt deep “sorrow,” “tribulation,” and “anguish of soul” (Alma 8:14). He felt something similar after returning from his mission to the Zoramites—he observed that “the hearts of the people began to wax hard, and that they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word,” and this made his heart “exceedingly sorrowful” (Alma 35:15). What did Alma do about what he saw and felt? He knew that the key to changing hearts was a knowledge of truth. He didn’t become discouraged or cynical about the state of the world. He didn’t build fortification for war. Instead, “he caused that his sons should be gathered together” and taught them “things pertaining unto righteousness” (Alma 35:16). He taught them that “there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. … Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness” (Alma 38:9). I echo his sentiments. Clinging to the truth is the object of my existence. I pray daily to know the “small and simple things” I can do to make the world a little bit better. I want to conclude with a quote from President Ezra Taft Benson on how we can change the world:
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature…. Yes, Christ changes men, and changed men can change the world.
(Ezra Taft Benson, “Born of God,” Ensign, July 1989, 2.)
 See David Alexander and Pat Alexander, eds. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 316.
Wednesday July 15, 2020John W. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights you may have missed before,” eds. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991) p. 116.