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Bondage is not always marked by the clanging of literal chains or the shouts of overseers. In mortality we often know bondage that is just as restricting, dimming our days and our hopes for happiness. The chains may be resentments or pride that take the shine off of life. Walls may be built brick by brick as disappointment and failed expectations mount and our will slacks. Tragedy, sin, or ill health may stalk above us like overseers, demanding our attention To be mortal is to know pain and weakness, to taste disappointment like ashes in your mouth, to sin and face its bitter consequences.
That is why the experiences of two groups of people who suffer and toil at the hands of Lamanite masters in these chapters of Mosiah are about us. Who has not known some form of bondage and who has not yearned for escape-or at least relief? The different experience of these two groups teaches us something about escaping bondage that can apply directly to us..
Alma’s Group and the Wilderness Pattern
In the land of Nephi, Noah and his people had become wicked-all the time still counting themselves as good. However, when Alma hears Abinadi’s preaching, he believes, writes down the message, and quietly goes about teaching others. At last a group of believers leave the world behind, travel through the wilderness and join together in a tree-lined glade where they are baptized.
Like the Children of Israel leaving Egypt, Lehi’s leaving Jerusalem, and the Mormon pioneers leaving Illinois, Alma’s people are acting out the wilderness journey pattern. That is: 1) They live in a world that is wicked. The Lord sends a prophet to warn them that destruction is coming. Most of the wicked refuse to listen, so, to save them, the righteous are withdrawn from the world. 2) The righteous escape to the wilderness where they have challenges that test them to their very core and teach them their ultimate dependence on the Lord; and 3) They arrive in a promised land. It is the journey of spiritual growth, a necessary journey not only for the groups mentioned above, but for every person. The wilderness journey is the pattern for our individual lives as we seek to come closer to God. The trials of the wilderness purge us of the world.
Alma’s people know great delight at being baptized. They were buried in the water and arose as new people with a new name. It is the name of Christ they bore, and in Mosiah 18:8-10, we have one of the best explanations of what baptism means. These are a people who are willing and, indeed brimming with desire, “to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people,” “to bear one another’s burdens,” “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.”
At these words, the people did not just assent passively, or merely nod their heads in agreement. No, “they clapped their hands for joy.” This was enthusiasm and flowing gratitude to be able to become the Lord’s people. Why, then, did the Lord allow them to be taken into bondage?
It was no ordinary group that stole the freedom of Alma’s covenant people. After their baptism, they were living happily and prosperously in the land of Helam-obeying the commandments-when the Lamanites, who had been following Limhi’s escaping people, happened to come upon them. Couldn’t these Lamanites have gotten lost someplace else?
Not only are Alma’s people delivered up to the Lamanites in bondage, to make things worse, Alma’s old crony from Noah’s court, a fellow priest named Amulon, is put in charge. One can only imagine how eager he was to make Alma pay for his defection from the court. He seems to take special relish in cruelty towards them.
So, here are the righteous, compelled to slave for a nasty group of people, and their lives are miserable. Amulon oppresses and persecutes them. Their trials are great. Mormon gives us this bit of commentary on their plight and the Lord’s role in it. “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith. Nevertheless-whosoever putteth his trust in him, the same shall be lifted up at the last day” (Mosiah 23:21,22). The idea that the Lord chastens those who are seeking to be righteous may seem like hard doctrine. Yet, there is this sense, that without his shaping hand, even our best desires cannot bear fruit. He is making of us something more than we would choose to make of ourselves. We might content to merely “a nice person.” He wants us to be like Him and accept our inheritance.
Better to be the son or daughter of a king, brought up to discipline and character, than the offspring of the neglectful parent who doesn’t care. As we learn in Proverbs, “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth (Proverbs 3:11:12)
The Old Testament gives us another story of some righteous people in bondage. In the book of Daniel we read that Nebuchadnezzar created a golden image and commanded all men to worship it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused, and the king told them he would cast them into the fiery furnace to which they replied: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning, fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O King. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast cast up” (Daniel 3:17,18).
These three knew the One who could deliver them from the fiery furnace-their own form of bondage. God alone had that power. However, their submission to their Father in Heaven was complete. The key words in their response was “but if not.” God could save them, but even if he did not, and they faced the horrible death of burning, they would not forsake him.
Alma’s People Delivered
It may be tempting when we feel in personal bondage in our own lives to forsake the Lord, believing that He has forsaken us. Some claim that God just doesn’t hear their prayers, or that he has forgotten them. God does not forget his children, and it is only through him that we can be released from bondage. It is in the fiery furnace of our difficult times that we must do as Jesus did in Gethsemane and pray with more intent. Alma’s people did this. As the tasks and taskmasters mounted, so did their cries to heaven.
Even when Amulon commanded the people of Alma to stop praying, and they could not raise their voices to heaven they “did pour out their hearts to him; and he did know the thoughts of their hearts. And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage. And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage” (Mosiah 24:12, 13, 14) Thus, God lifted them from bondage, but while it remained, lifted the pain of the burden.
Many can testify that God has done the same for them, in whatever form bondage has taken in their lives. A new widow says the Spirit sustained and comforted her through her loss.
An unemployed father testifies that he felt peace, even as his bills mounted and he looked for a job. It is remarkable to be freed from bondage, and just as remarkable to be soothed and lifted while we must bear it. Both cases are opportunities for us to come to know our Heavenly Father more clearly, and therefore are blessings in their own right.
Limhi’s People in Bondage
Unlike Alma’s people, Limhi’s people had brought themselves into bondage through poor choices and unrighteous living. King Noah had devastated the morals of his people, and Abinadi had prophesied that they would come into the hands of their enemies.
Sure enough, the Lamanites drove into their land and began to oppress them, smiting their cheeks and exercising authority over them, loading their backs with heavy burdens and driving them as they would a dumb ass (Mosiah 21:3). At first, the people responded by murmuring to the king and going twice to battle against the Lamanites. Only after being vanquished and humbled then “did they cry unto their God that he would deliver them out of their afflictions” (Mosiah 21:14) The Lord’s response is different to this people than to Alma’s. In this case, “the Lord was slow to hear their cry because of their iniquities; nevertheless the Lord did hear their cries, and began to soften the hearts of the Lamanites that they began to ease their burdens; yet the Lord did not see fit to deliver them out of bondage (Mosiah 21:15).
In the contrast between God’s response to the people of Alma and the people of Limhi we find a universal lesson. If we are unworthy, we weaken our ability to draw on help from the Lord. The institute manual for the Church uses this story from a speech by President Harold B.Lee to illustrate the point.
President Lee said, “We have a very grievous case that had to come before the high council and the stake presidency, which resulted in the excommunication of a man of a family who had harmed a lovely young girl. After nearly an all-night session which resulted in that action, I went to my office rather weary the next morning, to be confronted by a brother of this man whom we had had on trial the night before. This man said, ‘I want to tell you that my brother wasn’t guilty of that thing which you charged him with.’
“‘How do you know he wasn’t guilty?” I asked.
“‘Because I prayed, and the Lord told me he was innocent,’ the man answered.
“I asked him to come into the office and we sat down, and I asked, ‘Would you mind if I asked you a few personal questions?’
He said, ‘Certainly not.’
“‘How old are you?’
“‘What priesthood do you hold?’ He said he thought he was a teacher. ‘Do you keep the Word of Wisdom?’ He said, ‘Well, no.’ He used tobacco, which was obvious.
“‘Do you pay your tithing?’
“He said, ‘No’-and he didn’t intend to as long as the blankety-blank man was the bishop of the Thirty-Second Ward.
“I said, ‘Do you attend your priesthood meetings?’
“He replied, ‘No,sir!’ and he didn’t intend to as long as that men was bishop.
“‘You don’t attend your sacrament meetings either?’
“‘Do you have your family prayers?’ and he said no.
“‘Do you study the scriptures?’ He said, well, his eyes were bad and he couldn’t read very much.
“I then said to him: ‘In my home I have a beautiful instrument called a radio. When everything is in good working order we can dial it to a certain station and pick up a speaker or the voice of a singer all the way across the continent or sometimes on the other side of the word, bringing them into the front room as though they were almost speaking there. But, after we have used it for a long time, there are some little delicate instruments or electrical devices on the inside called radio tubes that begin to wear out. When one of them wears out, we get a kind of a static-and it isn’t so clear. Another wears out, and if we don’t give it attention, it fades in and out just when we are about to make the winning football touchdown…If we don’t give that attention, and another one wears out-well, the radio sits there looking quite like it did before, but something has happened on the inside. We can’t get any singer. We can’t get any speaker.’
“‘Now,’ I said, ‘you and I have within our souls something like what might be said to be a counter-part of those radio tubes. We might have what we call a ‘Go-to-Sacrament-Meeting’ tube, ‘Keep-the-Word-of-Wisdom’ tube, ‘Have-Your-Family-Prayers’ tube, ‘Read-the-Scriptures’ tube and, as one of the most important, that might be said to be the master tube of our whole soul, we might call the ‘Keep-Yourselves-Morally-Clean’ tube. If one of these becomes worn out by disuse or is not active-we fail to keep the commandments of God-it has the same effect upon our spiritual selves that that same worn out instrument in the radio in my home has upon the reception that we otherwise could receive from a distance.
“‘Now, then,’ I said, ‘fifteen of the best living men in the Pioneer Stake prayed last night. They heard the evidence, and every man was united in saying that your brother was guilty. Now, you, who do none of these things, you say you prayed, and you got an opposite answer. How would you explain that?
“Then this man gave an answer that I think was a classic. He said, ‘Well, President Lee, I think I must have gotten my answer from the wrong source. “And you know that is just as great a truth as we can have. We get out answer from the source of the power we list to obey. If we are keeping the commandments of the Devil, we will get the answer from the Devil. If we are keeping the commandments of God, we will get the commandments from our Heavenly Father for our direction and for our guidance. (Harold B. Lee, Divine Revelation, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year; 15 Oct. 1952, pp. 4-6.)
Blessed for Keeping Covenants
Because we make and keep covenants does not mean we will be spared the suffering of mortality. It does not even assure that we will suffer less. The promise is that we will be blessed, even if the blessing is to endure the suffering well. Those who sin suffer not only the normal vicissitudes of mortality, but the consequences for their acts.
Ultimately, we can be freed from all the types of bondage that afflict us through the atonement and promises of our Savior, Jesus Christ. There is no other way.