I should have known better than to tell Nancy that short-notice speaking invitations are a great opportunity for Heavenly Father to show His remarkable teaching ability. As I walked into Gospel Essentials class, I got my opportunity to test the statement. “The teacher is sick. Do you want to teach?”
So we had an invocation, a few minutes for people to share recent blessings and miracles, and I went to the board and wrote a question: “What is the key to perfection?” I clarified the question: “If you could use one word to describe the pivot point, the central issue, the essential focus for our perfection, what would that word be?”
Our class that day was a wonderful blend of full-time missionaries (both elders and sisters), new converts, Gospel Doctrine expatriates, and fellowshippers. In one corner of the room an elder translated the lesson for a sweet older woman who spoke only Spanish. In a chair facing the front row was a woman signing for a man who could not hear.
Our answer to the question about perfection captures our implicit theory of spiritual transformation. Sometimes our theories are clearly thought out; sometimes they are a jumble of old Sunday lessons, scripture phrases, and theological rumors.
The class promptly made several nominations: Constancy. Obedience. Self mastery. Discipline. Love. Charity. My wife. Faith. Hope. Humility. Prayers. Those are the answers just as they were given in class (though the “wife” one had a specific name). All of them are creditable answers. It was the twelfth answer that matched my nominee. Elder Myers said: “Jesus.”
Jesus. The answer to every important spiritual question. The beginning and end of all meaning. The light and life of every person in the world. While each of the first answers has an important place, which of them has power without Jesus? Which of them can save without his infinite and eternal Atonement?
We turned to Alma the younger as a test case. He and his companions were among the vilest of sinners (Mosiah 28:4). He was a “very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 27:8). He “had murdered many of [God’s] children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14).
Right in the heart of the Book of Mormon is the great story of Alma’s transformation. That great story captures the central theme of that great book. The account told in Mosiah 27 is told by the elder Alma and is focused on the younger’s effect on the church and the prayers in his behalf. Alma the younger tells his own account late in life after years of inspired reflection and careful structuring. It is addressed to his beloved son, Helaman. It is magnificent Hebrew poetry and perfect Christian theology. All of the elements of the Christian’s journey are captured.
Alma was confronted with the truth. He realized his own despicable state. Examine his expressive language: “eternal torment . . . harrowed up . . . racked with all my sins . . . tormented with the pains of hell . . . inexpressible horror . . . become extinct . . . pains of a damned soul . . . racked with torment . . . harrowed up.” Alma felt keenly his spiritual destitution.
“So then faith cometh by hearing the word of God” (to paraphrase Paul in Romans 10:17). Alma faintly remembered those childhood lessons planted by his father: “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” (Alma 36:17). Thank heaven for those faintly remembered lessons! Sometimes it is only those threads of recollection that keep us from sliding into lasting darkness.
“O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). Those few words changed everything. When Alma unreservedly threw himself on the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, he was renewed.
“Joy . . . marvelous light . . . joy . . . sweet as was my joy . . . I saw God . . . exceedingly great joy.”
It might well be asked, how could Alma enjoy such heavenly manifestation when he was wicked? Didn’t he need years of repentance to set himself right with God? The answer is simple. When we throw our souls open to Christ, he cleanses us. Anything he touches is purified. When we are clean, we can experience marvelous manifestations of the Divine.
Alma’s transformation was clearly soul-deep. Alma spent the balance of his life after that day of transformation spreading the good news of redemption.
If we take too much responsibility for our own improvement or fail to let Him reign, we make ourselves the gods of our lives. That is clearly idolatry. While we must do all that we are able to do, we must never presume to have power to save. As we labor to make ourselves better, we do well to remember that only He can make us into something godly. As President Benson observed, “the world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Born of God,” Ensign, July 1989, p. 4).
I love Alma. I love his great exuberance that led him into youthful folly but ultimately left a lasting imprint on Christianity when he turned to good. I love his keen mind that paints vivid pictures of the mortal struggle. I love his rejoicing spirit that recognizes God’s goodness in everything.
Alma’s statement to his son, Shiblon, captures the essential message of salvation:
“And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness” (Alma 38:9).
You said: “If we take too much responsibility for our own improvement or fail to let Him reign, we make ourselves the gods of our lives. That is clearly idolatry. While we must do all that we are able to do, we must never presume to have power to save. As we labor to make ourselves better, we do well to remember that only He can make us into something godly.” I agree with this whole-heartedly, but still am often confused over where to draw the line. When have I stepped over the bounds of “doing all that I can” into Christ’s saving role?