Lesson 22: Have Ye Received His Image in Your Countenances?
Purpose: To help class members understand what it means to experience a change of heart and continue in the process of conversion.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. Alma teaches the people how they can experience a “mighty change” of heart.
2. Alma and the people establish the order of the Church in Zarahemla.
3. Alma testifies of Jesus Christ. He encourages the people in Gideon to follow the Savior.
Today our discussion will focus on Alma, chapters 5-7. These chapters are only a few pages farther along in the Book of Mormon from our discussion last week, chiefly from Mosiah 29 – but so very many things have happened in the years covered by those few pages that we probably need to summarize them briefly.
First, the people in the land of Zarahemla have undergone a dramatic political reorganization, from a nation led by a king to a nation led by judges. What kind of affect might that have had on Nephite society? That is, would it have necessarily been a comfortable change for everybody?
The Nephites have also seen a major development in their religious lives. The Nephites shared a general religious background – the descendants of Lehi, and those who had joined them, had all been taught the religion of their fathers; the Law of Moses was apparently widely followed, and their righteous kings and judges operated according to the law of God. But in the days of Mosiah and the first Alma, churches were organized, among people who made their faith a center of their lives, and who met to share their anticipation of the coming Messiah and their belief in his Atonement. The church strengthened the unity and faith of the believers, but at the same time it marked a division among the people in the land of Zarahemla, between those who were active believers and practicers of their faith, and those who had a cultural awareness of their religion but whose commitment to it was considerably less than that of church members.
To what extend does this describe the society we live in? [Note: Avoid a response limited to active-vs-inactive Mormons; extend response to society as a whole.]
Just as in our own society where differences of opinion are tolerated, even protected, the divisions in Nephite society allowed false religion to arise, even prosper. In the chapters we are skipping over in Sunday School you can read about one great religious challenge among the Nephites, one that masked challenges to civil as well as religious authority and resulted in bloody warfare among the Nephites, and the need to set the churches in order again.
We pick up the story today after their conversion. King Mosiah has died; the great high priest Alma has died; and Alma’s son, Alma the Younger, is chief judge and high priest over the church in the land of Zarahemla.
Alma, chapter 5, is a record of a sermon Alma the Younger preached to the people of Zarahemla. He begins his sermon in verse 3 by establishing his authority as high priest – something his listeners must already have understood, since he had grown up in Zarahemla and both his wickedness and his miraculous conversion must have been very well known. He then turns the attention of his listeners to the past, to a story they must also have been very familiar with.
3 I, Alma, having been consecrated by my father, Alma, to be a high priest over the church of God, he having power and authority from God to do these things, behold, I say unto you that he began to establish a church in the land which was in the borders of Nephi; yea, the land which was called the land of Mormon; yea, and he did baptize his brethren in the waters of Mormon.
4 And behold, I say unto you, they were delivered out of the hands of the people of king Noah, by the mercy and power of God.
5 And behold, after that, they were brought into bondage by the hands of the Lamanites in the wilderness; yea, I say unto you, they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word; and we were brought into this land, and here we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.
Alma has a purpose in reminding the people of the past – either the past of their very own parents, or at least the spiritual past of the church they belong to. Let’s jump ahead to our own day. In what ways do we very often do what Alma has done, in reminding each other of what has happened in the past? [Draw out the idea that we do this by reading scriptural narratives telling of the relatively distant past, and also by drawing on Church history, and also our personal experiences in bearing testimony.] Why do we do that? How is it useful?
After reminding the people of the establishment of the church, Alma asks them to remember the great change that had happened to the people who had been freed from the bondage of both physical slavery and religious apostasy:
6 And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?
7 Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.
8 And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.
9 And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.
In our society, we’re usually not very comfortable speaking openly in such dramatic terms about conversion – yet an awareness of guilt and the fear of eternal punishment has often led people to seek God, and conversion is often accompanied by a sense of being freed from sin. That was certainly the key element in my own first serious prayer when I was about 11, when I knew that God had forgiven me for the thing I had prayed about.
It was also an element in Joseph Smith’s experience of the First Vision. The account of that Vision with which we’re most familiar tells us that the chief question on Joseph Smith’s mind was which church he should join. But Joseph wrote several accounts of his First Vision, each one preserving details beyond the most familiar account. In 1832, for instance, he wrote that Jesus
spake unto me saying “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.”
Your experiences may be too personal or tender for the classroom setting, but if any of you would like to share an element of your own conversion that follows this pattern, of being freed from sin so that you felt the love of God, I invite you to share that now.
Alma continues his recital of the past:
10 And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? Yea, what grounds had they to hope for salvation? What 8si the cause of their being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell?
11 Behold, I can tell you – did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?
12 And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.
13 And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.
Alma is speaking here about the experiences of his father, Alma the Elder, yet ye testifies that to the truthfulness of his father’s experience. How did Alma the Younger know?
What is the “mighty change of heart” that Alma refers to?
The more familiar terms for a “mighty change of heart” are “conversion” or “gaining a testimony.” Sometimes we speak of conversion as if it were a single event – “Alma was converted when an angel appeared to him” – or that a testimony is a single, solid thing to be gained or lost in a moment. Does that match your experience?
To illustrate this, I’d like to call on a half dozen or so of you to state, very briefly, one small element or fact that is part of your testimony or that was involved in your conversion. For example, through an unusual experience, I gained a testimony of Joseph Smith’s call to be a prophet. What “ingredients” go into your testimony?
How likely is it that any one person would become convinced of all of these things [cite three or four elements mentioned by class members] at one moment?
I am concerned by the number of people I hear tell about losing their testimonies, often in an instant – they learn one thing about Joseph Smith that they hadn’t known before, and do not understand, and – poof! – there goes the whole testimony. How can we help our children, and our friends, and maybe even ourselves, recognize that even when a testimony is shaken in one point, there are still countless other points of a testimony to cling to while we work out the difficulty?
[Somewhere in this discussion, draw out the idea that even if we – or anyone we are trying to help – does not feel ready to make a blanket statement like “I know the Church is true” or “I know Jesus is the Savior,” people almost always *do* feel certain of smaller statements, like “I know that following the Word of Wisdom brings blessings” or “I believe that following the teachings of Jesus would make the world a better place,” and that these *are* elements of a testimony that can be added to, piece by piece. Perhaps we can all benefit from making these elements explicit, rather than limiting our shared testimony to the blanket statements.]
Alma 5:14-25 are a series of questions that Alma asks the people: Do they believe this? do they believe that? Will this, that, and the other aspects of your lives allow you to stand innocent before God at the last day? Alma is preaching specifically to members of the church, who presumably have been converted and who made a choice to join the church – much as all of us in this room have done. Why, then, does he ask all these questions about faith and repentance and being reading for the judgment of God? Why can’t he, or the people he is speaking to, take it for granted that because they repented and were baptized five years ago that they still feel and behave the same way today?
All of these questions that Alma asks the people to consider are concerned with large principles of the gospel, and a time that is still a vague distance in the future. For most of us, it would be easy to answer those questions – do you believe in the resurrection? do you believe you must be clean to stand before God? – with the right answers, and believe we’re speaking the truth even if in our heart of hearts we do not yet have a firm testimony of those things.
But then Alma asks a question that I think is almost impossible for us to fool ourselves about:
26 And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?
Why might that be a harder question to answer “correctly” than a question about the future resurrection?
How would you answer Alma? Is it really possible to maintain the joy you may have felt during some tender spiritual experience of the past?
Alma suggests three particularly difficult problems that will disqualify church members from standing blameless before God.
28 Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.
29 Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.
30 And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
Pride, envy, and mocking. Out of all the sins Alma might have chosen, why are these three singled out? Why not, for instance, drug dealing, bank robbery, and murder?
How are pride, envy, and mocking sometimes manifested within the church, by members of the church?
Alma urges his people to repent of their sins, especially these that he has enumerated. He reminds them of the constant invitation of the Savior, in verse 34:
34 Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, he shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely;
But there is another way, he says, for those who do not accept the invitation of the Savior, and that is to follow the path of the devil. It’s easy enough, he says, to tell which is which:
40 For I say unto you that whatsoever is good cometh from God, and whatsoever is evil comet from the devil.
41 Therefore, if a man bringeth forth good works he hearkeneth unto the voice of the good shepherd, and he doth follow hin; but whosoever bringeth forth evil works, the same becometh a child of the devil, for he hearkeneth unto his voice, and doth follow him.
Now, after asking his listeners all those questions about what they believe, and how they feel, and whether they are truly converted, and whether they have maintained the spirit of their conversion, he answers those questions himself, about his own life. As we read these verses, consider whether the points he makes are available only to great prophets and priests like Alma, or whether they can genuinely be a part of the lives of people in this classroom.
43 And now, my brethren, I would that ye should hear me, for I speak in the energy of my soul; for behold, I have spoken unto you plainly that ye cannot err, or have spoken according to the commandments of God.
44 For I am called to speak after this manner, according to the holy order of God, which is in Christ Jesus; yea, I am commanded to stand and testify unto this people the things which have been spoken by our fathers concerning the things which are to come.
45 And this is not all. Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do you suppose that I know of their surety?
46 Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.
47 And moreover, I say unto you that it has thus been revealed unto me, that the words which have been spoken by our fathers are true, even so according to the spirit of prophecy which is in me, which is also by the manifestation of the Spirit of God.
48 I say unto you, that I know of myself that whatsoever I shall say unto you, concerning that which is to come, is true; and I say unto you, that I know that Jesus Christ shall come, yea, the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, and mercy, and truth. And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name.
[As class member reads this passage, write on board these points as they are reached:
testimony of Jesus Christ]
Are any of these things not available to each one of us as baptized, confirmed, faithful members of the Church today? Answering only to yourselves, are any of these things not a part of your personal life?
Alma eventually concludes his sermon by reminding the people of this invitation:
60 And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep …
I suppose for many of us, much of the time, church activity is just that, activity. We do what we do, we say what we say, as much out of habit as of conviction. But Alma reminds us that this should not be the case. Not only can we look back at the circumstances of our conversion – whether conversion means coming into the church for the first time, or making our first serious commitment to live the gospel we inherited from our parents – but we must constantly renew that testimony. What we felt once, we need to feel again and again. If you have forgotten that feeling, I invite you to think about it during the week – What parts of your testimony are still heartfelt? Your gratitude to God for a particular blessing? The comfort or strength that comes from keeping a specific commandment? – as the first step in renewing it.