We recently returned from serving a mission in Manhattan. Our assignment was to teach and support the young adult wards in that great city. Early in the morning, the subway is packed with people of color making their way into the city from the disadvantaged neighborhoods that ring the island of Manhattan. They look exhausted. They work at subsistence jobs, sometimes two or three jobs. They cook, wash dishes, clean toilets, wipe up wastes in the hospitals, wait on tables, deliver groceries, and build skyscrapers. Without them, the city would collapse. Late at night, you see them going home even more exhausted to their families in the poorer sections of town. They freeze in the winter and bake in the summer. Their children suffer from all the trauma of street life in neglected neighborhoods.
When I read about the poor in Alma 32, I am reminded of the subways. The elitist Zoramites cast out their poor into the streets “because of the coarseness of their apparel. . . They were esteemed by their brethren as dross” (Alma 32:4-5). Webster defines “dross” as “scum, waste matter, refuse.” Interestingly, Alma says they were poor because of the way “their brethren” viewed them. “Therefore they were poor as to things of the world, and also they were poor in heart” (emphasis added).
When the elite Zoramites will not listen to Alma, he turns to the poor (it’s an abrupt about-face!) because they are genuinely humble. Excluded from synagogues they have built themselves, the poor feel they have “no place” in the church. This is so often the case with marginalized people—they don’t “belong.” They know they are despised by those who consider themselves supreme and wonder if God has cast them out as well (32:5).
Alma views these poor people “with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.” Of course, he is not happy that they are poor outcasts, but he is overjoyed finally to encounter “truly penitent” people. He then gives them one of the most important sermons a prophet ever gave, a classic formula for overcoming our own “stubborn hearts” and opening them to revelation (32:6-7).
Much of the world feels no need for repentance. The idea of asking God for forgiveness does not enter the minds of many people. They see themselves as fine the way they are. Important people say, “I don’t bring God into the picture.” They are in no “preparation to hear the word.” But the despised, the outcast, the “poor in heart” are more open. Afflictions bring “lowliness of heart,” says Alma, “for ye are necessarily brought to be humble” (32:11).
Here are some questions for this lesson: “Am I humble? Truly penitent? Do I belong among the Zoramites who think they are fine as they are? Am I a ‘Zoramite,’ considering myself ‘better’ than others? At some level, perhaps even below the level of awareness, do I ‘despise’ people who are marginal—who are not ‘people like us’—who do menial jobs and live in humble circumstances?”
Because of their pride and self-sufficiency, Zoramites do not need to repent and therefore do not need a Savior. When they say “there shall be no Christ,” they’re saying that they have accessed perfection—perfect knowledge, perfect wholeness, and perfect freedom (see 31:16-17). They have nothing to repent of. They have no need of a Redeemer.
By contrast, the poor know lack. Their lack of material security reflects their lack of spiritual security. They know that they don’t know much. “What shall we do?” is their cry, the plea of all human beings humble enough to acknowledge the hunger and thirst of the spirit.
Why is humility necessary for repentance? Why can’t I repent without humbling myself?
Because to repent is to acknowledge that I’m not whole. Something in me is painful, broken, inadequate, or exhausted. I’m hungry and thirsty for wholeness, healing, reassurance, and renewal. The Zoramites are under the illusion that they need nothing; they are complete as they are. But the poor in spirit need Christ.
I have dear friends who don’t understand the need for a Christ. I don’t see them as Zoramites (although I also know plenty of those), but they genuinely ask, “Why a redeemer? What do I need to be redeemed from? I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?” And they are good people.
But if they are honest with themselves, they know they do not experience a fullness of joy.
Why? Because we are all mortal. We know that no matter what we do, we will die. No matter how hard we work for justice and fairness and peace in this world, it will never be enough. No matter how hard we try to be “good,” we will always make useless or cruel mistakes we can never make up for, mistakes whose consequences ripple through time and generate anguish in our souls. We will never know enough, achieve enough, love enough to be enough. No matter how much we love our loved ones, we will lose them, and they will lose us.
No mortal solution exists. The only solution has to be “an infinite and eternal atonement.” Nothing less “will suffice for the sins of the world” (34:10, 12). Nothing less can make up for our infinite lack. Nothing less can conquer mortality. Nothing less can bring complete justice, fairness, peace, love, forgiveness, and everlasting life.
I also have friends who simply can’t accept the divinity of Christ. “He was a good man who taught beautiful ideals. Many great teachers have done the same. That doesn’t make them gods.” In our enlightened age, we live by the principle of skepticism—as we should. Truth matters to most of us, and we don’t want to invest ourselves in mythology. Although the apostles swear that the resurrected Christ “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God,” we weren’t there (Acts 1:3). We didn’t see or hear him.
Still, unless like the Zoramites our hearts are hardened, we yearn to know. Is Christ “real”? Does He really live?
That’s why Alma invites us to do an experiment, which should appeal to us in our post-Enlightenment age. We know that we learn truth by experimentation. We know that do an honest experiment requires humility—not only the desire to know, but the willingness to accept the results and live by them.
“Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection [we are not Zoramites, who know it all already], any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. But if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words” (32:27).
The Hebrew word for “experiment” is nasah—to prove, to test something to see if it holds up. In this experiment we will “awake”—shake off the torpor of hopelessness—and “arouse our faculties.” What are “faculties”? Instruments, tools, senses—our full heart and mind. What does it mean to “arouse our faculties”? It means we get to work, focus, and use the best tools we have to find out the truth. Is this experiment worth that kind of effort? What experiment could be more worthwhile than to discover for ourselves if Jesus Christ really can fulfill His promises?
We conduct this experiment by “giving place for a portion of my words,” says Alma. We don’t have to take it all in at once. “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell.”
Note that you plant the seed “in your heart.” Professor Mark Wrathall explains: “Alma carefully and systematically distinguishes between minds and hearts. The mind in the book of Alma—and in the Book of Mormon and Biblical tradition as well—typically is the faculty responsible for belief and knowledge and so on, for getting our thoughts straightened out and well-organized and getting a good theory or representation of the world. All of that’s the job of the mind.
“But the heart is a very different faculty. If you track the way the heart’s talked about in the Book of Mormon, it’s associated with feelings and moods. So, joy is experienced there—it’s located in the heart,” (“Briefly, Alma 30-63, with Mark Wrathall,” MIPodcast, BYU Maxwell Institute, July 7, 2020, https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-wrathall/).
To plant the seed—the word of God—in the heart, we must get into the proper “frame of heart.” Cold, hard, “know-it-all-already” hearts will not work. The heart we need is humble, curious, unresistant to the gentle murmurings of the Spirit. “When you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—it must be that this is a good seed . . . for it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (32:28).
Truths of the heart and truths of the mind are linked. How often has my mind been enlightened by inspiration that comes up from the heart. Too often with our skeptical mindset we disregard the truths of the heart—love, mercy, justice, kindness, the light of inspiration. But they are just as true and just as real as truths of the mind. If you doubt that, try acting on the opposite principles—contempt, injustice, cruelty, close-mindedness—and see how far you get toward a fullness of joy.
Many faithless people mock the “swelling motions” Alma speaks of. I don’t. I feel them often. When my grandson Kevin was baptized, dressed all in white, his little face looked up at me and he asked, “Poppy, were you baptized?”
“Oh, I’m glad. Then we can be in heaven together.”
My heart swelled to the point that my tears spilled all over him. At that instant, I knew once again that the “seed” was good. My soul was enlarged, my understanding enlightened, and it was delicious to me. When I think of the pinched, hardened, contemptuous souls—or the reluctant souls who hesitate to experiment upon the word of God—who will never experience that enlarging of the heart, I feel profoundly sad.
“Now behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.” The soul swells and “the mind doth begin to expand” (32:33-34). I know this is so. In my experiments with the Book of Mormon, I invariably find my understanding enlightened, my mind expanded, and my soul “swelling.” I love great books—my advanced degrees are in English literature—and I admire great thinking and writing. But reading them, my mind and heart are not lit with the light of eternity as when I turn to the Book of Mormon.
“O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light, and whatsoever is light, is good.” Every time I open the Book of Mormon, I am flooded with light. I can’t speak for the experiments of others. I can only speak for my own. But for me the results are undeniable: the experiment works! Christ is real for me, more real than the decaying world passing away around me.
Like all growing things, this knowledge can shrivel up and die if it isn’t nourished properly. “As the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow and bring forth fruit. . . . But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root, and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out” (32:37-38).
For one reason or another, many friends of mine have lost interest in the fruit of that tree. Some simply neglect the tree as they gradually grow indifferent to it. One year I watched my neighbor bring home an expensive tree in a big tub. At first he watered it faithfully, then only occasionally. Days and then weeks went by before he got around to planting it. By then it was dead. “If ye will not nourish the tree, ye cannot have the fruit thereof” (32:39). Simple.
Others feel offended and have good reasons for it. They uproot the tree of testimony on purpose. An authority makes a mistake; an item in Church history shocks them; a policy insults their sense of fairness. Real flaws and misunderstandings produce pain—and that’s real too. But the tree of life needs care, not rejection.
One spring I found my beloved apricot tree had been attacked by borers. The tree expert wanted to remove it, but I loved that tree. I carefully researched the problem and started applying remedies. It was frustrating work. The expert laughed and said the tree wasn’t worth it, but I couldn’t give it up. The fruit was too delicious. Over time, with care, pruning, thinning, and proper treatment, the tree flourished. This year it produced a beautiful crop.
Despite the limits of this analogy, I believe my friends should think hard about plucking the tree of life from their hearts. “If ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life” (32:40). Does it make sense to discard the whole tree because of its flaws? My tree has suffered through borers, shot-leaf fungus, dead limbs, and useless overgrowth—but because I’ve been willing to care for it, it thrives today.
The Lord’s Church is led by people who sometimes make significant missteps. The cultural matrix in which the Saints live is often hard to resist, so useless, hurtful “philosophies of men” creep in. Folklore supersedes pure doctrine. Our hyper-politicized environment produces hyper-contempt. The eminent Latter-day Saint scholar Richard Bushman once told me, “Students often come to me troubled about some aspect of Church history or offended by a comment from an Authority. I’ve long since given up playing ‘whack-a-mole’ with them by trying to refute their arguments. Instead, I ask them what they think about Jesus Christ. Their answer to that question makes all the difference. If their hearts soften and they express a love for Christ, I don’t worry about them. They will be fine.”
So how do we grow in knowledge of the truth? “If ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith, with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (32:41). Those three elements—faith, diligence, and patience—qualify us for life with our Heavenly Parents, both here and in the eternities.
Faith in Christ comes first. Faith always requires risk. It requires the humility to step forward without knowing what will come of it. Faith in Christ means having the humility to take Him at His word and put it to the test. “Prove me now,” the Lord asks. He pleads with us to test him, to experiment on his words, to verify for ourselves every promise He makes. This is how we learn to trust Him. How can it be otherwise? What point is there in handing out the answers to a test before the test begins? How can you experience the blessings of baptism unless you are baptized? How can you taste the gift of the Holy Ghost if you choose not to receive the gift?
Diligence is also necessary if you want to harvest the fruit. As offspring of God, we are in mortality to learn to become like Him. These lessons do not come cheap. As we are invited to test God, we are also required to test ourselves. Our diligence determines the kind of fruit we will gather. To prune, trim, nourish, and care for the tree of life requires diligence; without diligent effort, the fruit will be thin or sour or even non-existent. As we learn to care for the tree, we also learn how to care for the kingdom that God will give us.
Finally, you must have patience. Every gardener knows about that. You plant, trusting in the principles that govern the garden. That’s faith. You work diligently, weeding, feeding, watering. Now you need patience. Like a tree, your soul needs time to develop. You will face discouragements, setbacks, and doubts. Be patient: Don’t give up. People will disappoint you: Have patience with them. You will disappoint yourself: Repent and be patient with yourself.
In college, I had a part-time job working in the Historical Department of the Church. There I encountered a lot of “anti-Mormon” books. Curious, I read most of them on my time off. Much of what I read startled me. I learned things about our history that baffled me, that I could not reconcile with what I had been taught. This is true of many Saints today. I was fortunate to discover these things decades ago and to have time for a broad study of our history. Through diligent study and patience, I’ve found that much of what I thought was weakness in our history is actually strength. I still have questions, but I’ve learned the value of patience.
Today, forty years later, I’m glad I didn’t uproot the tree of life from my heart. I’m glad I chose faith, diligence, and patience over rejection, denunciation, and bitterness. Why?
Because now I’ve lived long enough to harvest some of the fruit of that tree. My wife and I have a beautiful, faith-filled partnership that we trust will last for eternity. Our love grows deeper every day. We have served as best we can in many challenging callings in the Church. My children are thriving, faithful to their covenants, and at peace in their homes. They serve honorably in the Church and are teaching our nineteen delightful grandchildren to be faithful and honorable, too. Through many trials, the Lord has blessed us and taught us priceless lessons. Our life is filled with love for the Lord and for each other, with peace in afflictions and faith in the eternities.
When I consider what I would have lost if I had allowed the flaws in others or the inconsistencies in Church history or teaching to destroy my faith, I literally shudder. The darkness, confusion, loneliness, and despair that would have been my lot—I can’t contemplate it without thanking the Lord for His patient guidance.
I do know this: The promise that Alma gives to those who will diligently and patiently experiment on his word is being fulfilled in my life: “Because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet. . . . ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst” (32:42). May this promise be fulfilled in your life.