A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Book of Mormon Lesson 29
“Look to God and Live” (Alma 36-38)
In Alma 36, Alma describes to his son Helaman the events that turned him from a life of sin and rebellion to a life of service to God and ministry to his fellow men. However, his words constitute far more than a mere description. Alma’s setting of his experience is some of the highest chiastic art in the Book of Mormon and, indeed, in world literature. It is worth mentioning at this point that Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards [https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3004&context=physics_facpub] have made a fairly strong case on mathematical or probabilistic grounds that the chiasm here is extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance, and thus must reasonably have been the result of a deliberate compositional choice
In several ways Alma’s choice of the chiastic form is a natural one. In part it was natural because Alma was highly literate and knowledgeable in the Hebrew scriptural tradition contained in the Brass Plates as we see from his preaching. It was also a natural choice because of the way the form related to the content he wished to relate. Formally, chiasm includes a series of discrete objects or elements (one might say a list) that is presented in one order and then presented in the reverse order. When it is used well, the second repetition may often include a comparison, contrast, or amplification of the objects in the list and should, in any case, support the rhetorical purpose of the work as a whole. The central element of the chiasm, the turning point tends to be the most important and can often represent a point of transition or transformation.
Alma makes use of chiasm in his narrative to show how his life was transformed by his encounter with divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Alma’s life prior to his encounter with the angel was characterized by sin and rebellion, as he states in verse 6, “For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.” The angelic intervention is described in verses 7-9:
7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.
8 But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.
9 And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.
This leads to several immediate consequences. Alma fallse to the earth and suffers paralysis in verse 10, “And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.”
Immediately following this, Alma experiences the spiritual consequences of sins, and the associated burden of guilt in verse 12-15:
12 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine 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.
15 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.” This is associated with great pain as we learn in verse
16, “And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
This torment is distinctly linked to the memory of his sins, as we see in the first half of verse 17, “17 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,” However at this point he encounters a glimmer of hope because as he states in the second half of verse 17, “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.” This thought, germinating from the memory of his father’s teaching takes root and the action that follows becomes the turning point of Alma’s life just as it is the turning point of his composition, continuing with verse 18, “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.” Alma thus cries to Jesus Christ for mercy and deliverance. From here on out his life is changed, and to show this he reiterates the earlier elements of his composition in such a way as to highlight the changes.
19 “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.” This is a direct contrast to verse 17 where he “was harrowed up by the memory of [his] many sins”. Continuing with verses 20-21,
20 “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
21 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.” This is in direct contrast to the period of time in which Alma faced the pains of a damned soul. The change is very much in line with Isaiah 61:3’s description of the Messiah giving beauty for ashes and joy for mourning. Continuing with verse 22,
22 “Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.” This contrasts his former state in which he states that, “the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror,” to the point that he desired his own annihilation rather than face the presence of God.
Continuing with verse 23, “But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.” Whereas he formerly fell to the earth and faced paralysis he has again been put back on his feet and made free.
Finally in verse 24, Yea, and from that time even 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.” Thus while he once worked tirelessly to destroy the church of God, he now works tirelessly to build it up. Whereas he was once a creator of the breach he has become its repairer.
The lesson of Alma’s conversion is one that we might all take to heart. If we will turn to the Lord in faith and repentance, he can transform our pain into joy and take us from a path of desolation to one of fruitful productivity, and we can be changed from people who in our sins would naturally dread the presence of God to people prepared and eager to enter into his presence and rest.