There are multitudes of men and women—in and out of the Church—who are struggling vainly against obstacles in their path. Many are fighting the battle of life—and losing. Indeed, there are those among us who consider themselves the vilest of sinners.
We have all known such people. We have all spoken with someone who does not think he has been forgiven—or worse, who does not think he can be forgiven.
How many broken hearts remain broken because those people feel they are beyond the pale of God’s restorative power? How many bruised and battered spirits are certain that they have sunk to a depth at which the light of redeeming hope and grace will never again shine?
To these the story of the younger Alma comes like water to a parched tongue, like rest to a weary traveler. From the depths of hellish iniquity, from rebellion and destruction and utter wickedness the younger Alma returned—and therein lies again the “miracle of forgiveness.” It is a miracle. In fact, it is the greatest of all miracles. It is the miracle at the heart of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Surely that is the “good news” of the gospel—that there is a way back, that there is repentance and safety and peace because of Christ’s gift to us. The good news is that the nightmares—large ones, little ones, every fear and concern—can end, and a safe loving light can shine in that “dark place, until the day dawn[s],” clean and clear and gloriously bright, and “the day star arise[s] in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1:19.)
That is the message all the world must hear.
The process of repenting, of course, is not an easy one. The experience of young Alma is a frightening testament of that. Wrongs must be made right, and there is no painless way to accomplish it. But it must be done, and with Alma we can all thank our Heavenly Father that it can be done. However weary or wicked we may feel, the story of the younger Alma is an open invitation to every child of God. It is the promise that, with the psalmist, we too may sing:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. …
“He restoreth my soul. …
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. …
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” (Ps. 23:1, 3–4, 6.)
The sons of strong fathers provide many of the messages given in the Book of Mormon: Nephi and Jacob, sons of Lehi, recorded almost all of the material given on the small plates of Nephi. Moroni, son of Mormon, concluded his father’s work and some 1,400 years later delivered it to the young prophet Joseph Smith. Other sons who learned great lessons from their parents provide commentary throughout this sacred scripture.
Perhaps no son, however, captures our imagination like the younger Alma. More pages are devoted to the span of his life and ministry than to any other person in the Book of Mormon, and the book that bears his name is nearly 2 1/2 times longer than any other in the record. He strides with prophetic power onto the great center stage of the Book of Mormon, appearing near the precise chronological midpoint of the record—500 years after Lehi leaves Jerusalem, 500 years before Moroni seals up the record.
The centrality of Alma’s life is not limited simply to chronology or pagination, however. The significance of his life is in the course that it took. The gospel of Christ is literally “the glad tidings … that he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; That through him all might be saved.” (D&C 76:40–42.)
The life of the younger Alma portrays the gospel’s beauty and reach and power perhaps more than any other in holy scripture. Such dramatic redemption and movement away from wickedness and toward the permanent joy of exaltation may not be outlined with more compelling force anywhere else. In him is symbolized the task of the whole human family, which must, as Paul commands, “leave your former way of life, … lay aside that old human nature which, deluded by its lusts, is sinking towards death. You must be made new in mind and spirit, and put on the new nature. …” (Eph. 4:22–24, New English Bible.)
The first mention of young Alma tells us of a difficult time. (Mosiah 27:8.) We might wish to know more of the causes for such difficulties, but we are told little of his early life. Was he born in the land of Nephi? If so, was it before or after his father’s conversion? Or was he born in Zarahemla, in the presence of third- and fourth-generation Christians? What training did he have? Who influenced him? What were his hopes and fears and aspirations?
We do not have the answers to these questions; but we know something went very, very wrong. Unlike most other father and son relationships noted in the Book of Mormon, the bond between the two Almas is characterized, when we first learn of it, by anguish and opposition.
The elder Alma had not been born into church activity (see Arthur Bassett, “Alma the Elder,” Ensign, Feb. 1977), and had it not been for the dramatic message of Abinadi before the court of Noah, perhaps the light of the gospel would never have penetrated the darkness of his world.
But that light had come, and Alma the Elder immediately chose to walk by it. He began to build the church despite the threat of danger to his own life and the lives of those who followed him. With great difficulty he led his little group of followers out of the then-apostate land of Nephi and established them with the faithful body of the church in Zarahemla. (See Mosiah 23–25.) Surely only those who have paid such a price for the gospel can appreciate what deep meaning the Church has in their lives. Of course, the emotion of that commitment is often intensified when others do not recognize that same meaning or sense the same importance. So it was with the elder Alma. As he now directed the affairs of the church in Zarahemla (see Mosiah 26:8), he found that “there were many of the rising generation that … did not believe the tradition of their fathers. …
“And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.
“And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God.” (Mosiah 26:1, 3–4.)
This group brought great difficulty and deep heartache to the elder Alma, and he was “troubled in his spirit.” (Mosiah 26:10.) He labored faithfully, however, inviting such young people to repent as he himself had done. Some did number themselves among the people of God. Others, however, “would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity” (Mosiah 26:36), and the names of these were stricken from the records of the church.
An ecclesiastical problem became a personal tragedy when the elder Alma found that his own son, “called Alma, after his father,” was numbered among these unbelievers. (Mosiah 27:8.) Perhaps no anguish of the human spirit matches the anguish of a mother or father who fears for the soul of a child. Through this travail the elder Alma, and undoubtedly his beloved wife, waded—and waited.
We do not know how sinful the young Alma really was, but the scripture records he was “a very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 27:8), who, with the sons of Mosiah, was “the very vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4). We know he conscientiously worked at destroying the church of God, “stealing away the hearts of the people” and causing dissension among them. (Mosiah 27:9.) He was in every way “a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God.” (Mosiah 27:9.)
Years later, the younger Alma recounted these events in order to save his own sons from walking such a painful path:
“I had rebelled against my God, and … had not kept his holy commandments.
“Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, … so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence Of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.” (Alma 36:13–14.)
Yet Alma returned from such terrible sin and its consequences to become a noble example of faith, service, and righteousness. How did he do it? Can we do it? What can we learn?
We learn that there is majestic; undeniable power in the love and prayer of a parent. The angel who appeared to Alma and the sons of Mosiah did not come in response to any righteousness on their part, though their souls were still precious in the sight of God. He came in response to the prayers of a faithful parent.
“The Lord hath heard the prayers … of his servant, Alma, who is thy father,” declared the angel with a voice of thunder that shook the earth, “for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14.)
Parental prayer is an unfathomable source of power. Parents can never give up hoping or caring or believing. Surely they can never give up praying. At times prayer may be the only course of action remaining—but it is the most powerful of them all.
We learn that there is great power in the united faith of the priesthood. It is not only the elder Alma who prays when his son is laid helpless and insensible before him, but also the priests and, we might assume, other faithful friends and neighbors. With the support of more private prayers, the priesthood assembled and “began to fast, and to pray to the Lord their God that he would open the mouth of Alma, that he might speak, and also that his limbs might receive their strength—that the eyes of the people might be opened to see and know of the goodness and glory of God.” (Mosiah 27:22.)
Here is a majestic example of Christlike love. No one in this group seems delighted that devastating recompense has finally come. No one here seems pleased to imagine the torment of this young spirit. Yet this is the young man who has despised their faith, harmed their lives, attempted to destroy the very church of God which they hold dearer than life itself. But their response is the response of the Master: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44; italics added.) These saints are wise enough to know that they and every other human soul are wholly dependent on the merciful gift of God’s forgiveness, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.) What we all need we cannot in good conscience or integrity deny another. So they prayed for him who had despitefully used them.
We learn that repentance is a very painful process. By his own admission Alma says he wandered “through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death,” that he was consumed with an “everlasting burning.” (Mosiah 27:28.)
“I was in the darkest abyss,” he says. “My soul was racked with eternal torment.” (Mosiah 27:29.)
“My soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. …
“I was tormented with the pains of hell. …
“The very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.” (Alma 36:12–14.)
Then this most appalling cry: “Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.” (Alma 36:15.)
For three seemingly endless days and nights he was torn “with the pains of a damned soul” (Alma 36:16), pain so real that he was physically incapacitated and spiritually terrorized by what appeared to be his ultimate fate. No one should think that the gift of forgiveness is fully realized without significant effort on the part of the forgiven. No one should be foolish enough to sin willingly or wantonly, thinking forgiveness is easily available.
Repentance of necessity involves suffering and sorrow. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not read the life of the young Alma, nor tried to personally repent. In the process of repentance we are granted just a taste of the suffering we would endure if we failed to turn away from evil. That pain, though only momentary for the repentant, is the most bitter of cups. No man or woman should be foolish enough to think it can be sipped, even briefly, without consequence. Remember the words of the Son of God himself of those who don’t repent: “Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. … Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” (D&C 19:15, 18.)
We learn that when repentance is complete we are born again and leave behind forever the self we once were. To me, none of the many approaches to teaching repentance falls more short than the well-intentioned suggestion that “although a nail may be removed from a wooden post, there will forever be a hole in that post.”
We know that repentance (the removal of that nail, if you will) can be a very long and painful and difficult task. Unfortunately, some will never have the incentive to undertake it. We even know that there are a very few sins for which no repentance is possible.
But where repentance is possible and its requirements are faithfully pursued and completed, there is no “hole left in the post” for the bold reason that it is no longer the same post. It is a new post. We can start again, utterly clean, with a new will and a new way of life.
Through repentance we are changed to what Alma calls “new creatures.” (Mosiah 27:26.) We are “born again; yea, born of God, changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.” (Mosiah 27:25; see also Mosiah 5:1–12.) Repentance and baptism allow Christ to purify our lives in the blood of the Lamb and we are clean again. What we were, we never have to be again, for God in his mercy has promised that “he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42.)
We learn that the teachings and testimonies of parents and other good people have an inevitable, inexorable effect. Those lessons are not lost on even the most wayward soul. Somewhere, somehow, they get recorded in the soul and may be called upon in a great moment of need.
It was in such a moment that the young Alma “remembered also to have heard my father prophesy.” (Alma 36:17.) That prophecy may have been uttered in a day when Alma was taunting his father, or jeering at those who believed, or willfully denying the reality of revelation. It may have come at a time when his father assumed Alma did not care or hear or understand. Or it may have come so early in life that his father might think he had forgotten. We do not know when the lesson was taught. But somewhere, sometime, one or more or a dozen of those teachings had been heard and had been implanted somewhere in his heart. Now it was being called forth for the very protection it had intended to give. Like Enos, who was haunted by “the words which I had often heard my father speak” (Enos 1:3), Alma also remembered—and believed. Parents, friends, teachers—none must ever stop teaching and testifying. There will always be great power—even latent, delayed, residual power—in the words of God we utter.
We learn above all else that Christ is the power behind all repentance. We have noted above that Alma had been touched by the teaching of his father, but it is particularly important that the prophecy he remembered was one regarding “the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.” (Alma 36:17.) That is the name and that is the message that every man must hear.
Alma heard it, and he cried out from the anguish of a hell that kept burning and a conscience that wouldn’t heal, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” (Alma 36:18.)
Perhaps such a prayer, though brief, is the most significant one that can be uttered in this world. Whatever other prayers we offer, whatever other needs we have, all somehow depends on that plea: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
He is prepared to provide that mercy. He paid with his very life in order to give it. The least we can do is ask for it and be worthy of it and love it and appreciate the magnitude of its meaning. “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12.)
If Alma’s may be the central human story in the Book of Mormon, surely Christ’s is the central name to the story within the story. It is in exactly this way that the Book of Mormon testifies that Jesus is the Christ—not only in terms of theology and doctrine and precept, which are important, but also in the very power of his name, the reality of his life, and the reach of his priesthood, which are even more important.
We learn, then, that through repentance the earlier sorrow and darkness are transformed into joy and light. Calling out to Christ for salvation from the gall of bitterness and the everlasting chains of death, Alma found his pain being lifted. Replacing it were peace and new possibilities. “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! …
“There can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” (Alma 36:20–21.)
With that wonderful transformation comes another intriguing, even more revealing, change. This young man who was so tormented and horrified at the thought of coming back into the presence of God—who literally wished to be annihilated so he would not have to face the great Judge of the quick and the dead—now has opened to him a vision of God sitting upon his throne, and with his newly cleansed soul he cries, “My soul did long to be there.” (Alma 36:22.)
Not only does our spiritual record change and our physical life become clean, but also our very desires are purified and made whole. Our will quite literally changes to receive His will.
We may have avoided Church attendance, the sacrament, the bishop, our parents, our worthy companions—avoided anyone we had sinned against, including God himself—but now that repentant heart longs to be with them. That is part of the joy and light of the atonement—the “at-one-ment”—which not only binds us back to God but also brings us back to a special unity with our best natural self and our most beloved human associates.
We learn last of all that the ultimate proof of our repentance is in its permanence. (See D&C 58:43.) Its blessings should be in our memories constantly, compelling us to continue in the cause of truth and to lend our best efforts to the work of God. Alma’s testimony is that from the very hour of his conversion “until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. …
“Because of the word which he has imparted unto me, behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen; therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.
“And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God has delivered me from prison, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me.
“And 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.” (Alma 36:24, 26–28.)
And so he lived. From the depths of sin Alma repented and became a prophetic model of virtue and valor, becoming one of the greatest missionaries of any dispensation of the world. There is so much that should be said of him: his political role, his high priestly power, his missionary trials, his concern for his own sons. He saw people repent at great social and political cost. Some paid with their very lives. He met others, even anti-Christs, who would not repent, and he testified boldly against them. He saw faith as a seed that will grow if we nourish it and he wished he were an angel that all could hear his word. He taught deep doctrines, he lived by sublime personal values, and he rejoiced in his own missionary success and the success of his brethren. But these all came after—and finally only because of—his willingness to undergo what one twentieth-century writer has called “the ordeal of change”—movement from night to day, from pain to peace, from sin to the joy of salvation—that monumental process of the soul called repentance.
“O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” is the cry that changed Alma’s world forever.
Then one day he was taken home. He left to join his brethren, men like Adam, Abraham, Nephi, and Jacob. But surely he went first to seek the companionship of his Savior, who had made it all possible and so perfect. After a long and beautiful life of service, the great desire of his soul was finally granted to him: he “did long to be there” with his Master. Perhaps no personal journey gives more encouragement to you or me that peace and joy are possible, that it can—and must—be so.
Unflagging Service, Unforgettable Sermons
• Serves as the first “chief judge” and governor of the people; is also the high priest (Mosiah 29:42)
• Condemns Nehor and his apostate doctrine of priestcraft (Alma 1:12–15)
• Defeats the cunning Amlici in military battle (Alma 2:26–38)
• Gives up the judgment-seat and confines himself wholly to the work of the high priesthood (Alma 4:15–20)
• Preaches to the saints in Zarahemla and ordains priests and elders there (Alma 5–6)
• Takes the gospel message to the lands of Gideon and Melek, establishing “the order of the church” (Alma 6–8)
• Rejected in Ammonihah, comforted by an angel, returns to the city “by another way” (Alma 8)
• Testifies to his sons Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton regarding their need to remain faithful. Each message is a personal one and is directed to the personality and performance of the individual son. Subject matter includes a recounting of Alma’s own conversion, the value of the written record, the need for divine direction, the challenge to be humble, the unequivocal need for repentance, the nature of justice and mercy in the process of resurrection and restoration (Alma 36–42)
• Appeals for “a mighty change” of heart (rebirth) to come upon the saints in Zarahemla, that they might “sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5)
• Warns the people of Ammonihah that it will be more favorable for the Lamanites than for them if they do not repent (Alma 9)
• Teaches a powerful discourse on “spiritual death” as it applies to the fall of man, mortality, temporal commandments, and our “probationary state” (Alma 12)
• Explains the eternal significance of the holy order of the priesthood, including the role of Melchizedek, King of Salem (Alma 13)
• Wishes that he were “an angel,” that he might declare repentance to every soul, “as with the voice of thunder.” Expresses the eternal joy of missionary service (Alma 29)
• Compares faith to a “seed” which, when nourished with diligence and patience, produces sweet and most precious fruit (Alma 32–33)
• Receives Amulek as a missionary companion in the city which persecutes them, imprisons them, and ultimately rejects their message (Alma 8–15)
• Saw Ammonihah utterly desolated as he returned to the land of Zarahemla (Alma 15–16)
• Confronts and condemns Korihor, the anti-Christ (Alma 30)
• Heads a mission to reclaim the apostate Zoramites (Alma 31)
• Helps the Nephites in battle by giving the armies prophetic direction (Alma 43:23–24)
• Concludes his record and departs “out of the land of Zarahemla. … He was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of.” (Alma 44–45)
Jeffrey R. Holland is Church Commissioner of Education, and serves on the Melchizedek Priesthood MIA general board. He lives in the Bountiful Forty-fourth Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake.