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Understand that Jesus Christ banishes pain and sorrow and fills us with light and joy.
The central purpose of the Book of Mormon is to invite all to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32). As we read the Book of Mormon, we can be fascinated and diverted by many other themes; but if we fail to come unto Him as a result of our study, we have truly missed THE point of the book.
The most sublime poem in all the Book of Mormon, perhaps in all scripture, is the 36th chapter of Alma. In this chapter, Alma sums up what it means to come unto Christ, to taste the bitterness of life without him, and to experience the exquisite sweetness of knowing him at last. Those who come unto Christ understand profoundly the tender message of Alma to Helaman, his son and prophetic successor-that to come unto Christ is to find the full meaning of happiness.
To grasp the importance of this chapter, we need to know about the effort that went into its composition. We credit John W. Welch, a prominent gospel scholar, with the discovery of a beautiful poetic pattern that underlies the chapter. Brother Welch noted years ago that the entire chapter is an impressive chiasm, a carefully structured pattern of mirror-image repetition used by Hebrew and Classic Greek poets in ancient times.
Chiasms appear throughout the ancient scriptures. A simple example is Matthew 23:11-12: “Whosoever shall EXALT himself shall be ABASED; and he that shall HUMBLE himself shall be EXALTED.” The Lord often couches his teachings like this; he contrasts the good and the evil in mirror-image statements to emphasize the opposition in all things.
Alma does the same in his 36th chapter, although the mirror-image structure is much more elaborate. Nevertheless, the overall message is as simple as the verse from Matthew above. In the first half of the chapter, he recounts what his life was like before coming to Christ. As an arrogant young man, he “exalted himself,” persecuting the church and becoming the “vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4). He fought against the Lord until, struck down by an angel, he awakened to a sense of what he had done and became “racked with eternal torment” (Alma 36:12).
By magnificent contrast, in the second half of the chapter he describes his deliverance from torment: “there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (v. 21).
At the heart of the chapter is his appeal to Jesus Christ, and the relief that he felt when he called upon the Savior and was “born of God” (v. 18, 23).
Here is a mirror-image outline of this great discourse, as described by John Welch. Each element of the chapter is designed by a letter of the alphabet, with the mirroring verses indicated by a superscript . The verse numbers are in parentheses.
A Mirror-Image Outline of Alma 36
(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1)
(b)KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (2)
(c)DO AS I HAVE DONE (2)
(d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2);
(e) for they were in BONDAGE (2)
(f) he surely did DELIVER them (2)
(g) TRUST in God (3)
(h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3)
(i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3)
(j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4)
(k) BORN OF GOD (5)
(l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9)
(m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10)
(n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15)
(o) PAINS of a damned soul (16)
(p) HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS (17)
(q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17)
(q’) I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18)
(p’) HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS no more (19)
(o’) Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20)
(n’) Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22)
(m’) My LIMBS received their strength again (23)
(l’) I labored to bring souls to repentance (24)
(k’) BORN OF GOD (26)
(j’) Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26)
(h’) Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27)
(g’) TRUST in him (27)
(f’) He will deliver me (27)
(i’) and RAISE ME UP AT THE LAST DAY (28)
(e’) As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29)
(d’) Retain in REMEMBRANCE THEIR CAPTIVITY (28-29)
(c’) KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30)
(b’) KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (30)
(a’) This is according to his WORD (30).
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Is the Center of Our Faith
The remarkable symmetry between the opposing elements of the chapter testifies to the great care Alma took in composing this message. His themes are captivity and deliverance, spiritual death and rebirth, paralysis and renewed strength, arrogance and humility, exquisite pain and exquisite joy.
But the focal point of this grand symphony of opposition is the figure of the Lord Jesus Christ. Brother Welch observes, “I am especially impressed with the repetition of the name Jesus Christ, Son of God’ at the very center of the chapter. . . . the structure of the chapter powerfully communicates Alma’s personal experience, for the central turning point of his conversion came precisely when he called upon the name of Jesus Christ and asked for mercy.”
In this passage we understand what it means to pass from corruption to perfection, from death to life, and it is entirely due to the merits of Jesus Christ.
According to Moroni, we are to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him.” Alma here defines what it means to “be perfected in Christ”-it is to call upon him for mercy and to receive at His divine hand the assurance of forgiveness. He who is forgiven is without sin and is therefore perfect in Christ.
There is no more poignant prayer than the one prayed by Alma: “Jesus Christ, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” The gospel in its fullness is wrapped in this one plea. And there is no greater blessing than the gift of His forgiveness and acceptance.
Let us turn to Christ as Alma did for relief from the pains and afflictions of this life. Let us cast our burden of guilt and frustration upon Him. Let us cry unto him as Alma did for mercy, and then go and sin no more.
Welch, John W. “A Masterpiece: Alma 36.” In Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Deseret Book, 1991, p.117.
Welch, p. 118.