Academic knowledge and personal experience knowledge are two very different things. This article is my attempt at taking what has always been very academic for me, and make it more personal. My goal is to feel more deeply about Alma’s conversion experience and translate it into something that means more to me than just a story from the scriptures.
My mother recently pointed out to me that Alma uses several terms in trying to describe his experience of repenting that could bear looking up in the dictionary. I know that I am a rare beast in that I love to spend time looking at alternate definitions for things in the dictionary, but in this case I think it is important to the process of coming to understand Alma 36 on a more personal level.
I also have a video that may appear as just an advertising piece for a farm implement. But when you watch it, note the descriptive language they use to describe what the harrow does to a field, and how it is used. We’ll talk more about harrows further on.
Alma gets slapped
As you recall from having already read the chapters before Alma 36, Alma and the sons of Mosiah had been going around seeking to deliberately destroy the church of God. They did not believe what their fathers had taught them, and both fathers were prophets. They even seemed to have an issue with what “daddy” believed in, because they wanted whatever their father had taught them to be totally destroyed. Call it anger issues, resentment, a reaction to spanking, it doesn’t matter, they were literally hellbent to destroy that which their individual father’s held most dear to them, their religion. I believe this is why they refer to themselves as the most vile of sinners, for they not only wanted to take down the church, but all of the church’s members with it.
When they were traveling about seeking to fulfill their dream of seeing all that their fathers held dear reduced to ashes, they were met on the road by an angel. Here is the recounting of that meeting by Alma in Alma 36:9, 11.
9 And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.
11 And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.
I prefer to reword verse nine in this way: “Unless you want to be the cause of your own destruction, seek no more to destroy the church of God.” I feel like the point the angel was trying to make here was not that God was going to impose some arbitrary punishment on Alma, but that Alma was bringing this destruction upon himself by his own choices. The only way to save himself from this destruction from God was to immediately stop his current behavior, which of course was of Alma’s own choosing.
Fear and amazement
Why do you think Alma was suddenly struck with fear and amazement? A moment before he didn’t believe anything his father taught. In fact, he hated all that his father stood for, but suddenly he is struck with fear and amazement. Was he one of those people who had to see something to believe it? Was he not willing to believe in something without tangible evidence? The scriptures don’t really tell us what his personal issues were with God and believing before this encounter. We are left to wonder how much of us we might be able to find in Alma’s preconversion behavior, versus his post conversion behavior.
All we are told specifically is that Alma was so stunned by his realization that he might actually be destroyed that he fell to the earth in such a state of mind that he could not use his arms or legs, or even communicate for three days. He was well and truly stunned. We are left to wonder if his realization that angels are real started his sense of amazement or if suddenly the state of his own standing before the God his father taught him about was now more than just real – it was an imminent threat to his own safety. This is something to ponder.
One of Alma’s comments about how he felt is shown in verse 15.
15 Oh, thought I, that I 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 .
In 2 Nephi 12:7–11, 19–21 Jacob quotes Isaiah, who addresses this very subject. Isaiah talks about this same experience Alma was having – the realization of the people that they really have offended God. This is what will happen in the last days.
7 Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their ; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots.
8 Their land is also full of ; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.
9 And the mean man down, and the great man humbleth himself not, therefore, forgive him not.
10 O ye wicked ones, enter into the rock, and thee in the dust, for the fear of the Lord and the glory of his majesty shall smite thee.
11 And it shall come to pass that the looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.
19 And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and the of his majesty shall smite them, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.
20 In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which he hath made for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats;
21 To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and the majesty of his glory shall smite them, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.
There is a spiritual fact that is not discussed much, and that is that when God is revealed in His fulness, revelation brings with it a realization of our relationship to Him. We will recognize Him in all His power, might, majesty, dominion, and grandeur. We won’t be able to minimize or discount His importance or His majesty at that day. That recognition brings with it a realization of our own foolishness in thinking we were “all that.” We will suddenly see that we have been willful in the extreme, and that our rebellion against our God’s commandments has put us in a very shaky or untenable position at best. If it were possible, we would prefer to just cease to exist rather than to have to look Him in the eye and confess our sins against his efforts to love us back into His presence. Our shame will do grand things to us in that day.
Alma’s description of his suffering
Here are Alma’s words about how he felt as he began to deal with his realization of the position he had gotten himself into with God (Alma 36:12–15).
12 But I was racked with , for my soul was to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was with the of hell; yea, I saw that I had against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
14 Yea, and I had 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 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 .
Let’s look at some of the words Alma uses and try to get a clearer picture of just what he is trying to describe to us. The first word is “racked.” I have used the Webster’s 1828 edition of the dictionary, since this would have been the same understanding of the word Joseph Smith would have had.
RACK’ED, participle passive
1. Tortured; tormented; strained to the utmost.
What does it mean to be spiritually “strained to the utmost”? It is interesting that he chose the word racked, since it means to be tortured, which inevitably includes great pain and suffering.
The second word Alma uses is “torment.” Notice in the definition that the word comes from something that is twisted or strained, which means here to be pulled in unnatural ways.
TOR’MENT, noun [Latin tormentum.; torqueo, torno; Eng. tour; that is, from twisting, straining.]
1. Extreme pain; anguish; the utmost degree of misery, either of body or mind.
Finally, Alma uses the word “harrowed.” I have included the full definition so you can get a better mental picture.
HAR’ROW, verb transitive To draw a harrow over, for the purpose of breaking clods and leveling the surface, or for covering seed sown; as, to harrow land or ground.
1. To break or tear with a harrow
Will he harrow the valleys after thee? Job 39:10
2. To tear; to lacerate; to torment.
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul–
3. To pillage; to strip; to lay waste by violence. [Not used.]
4. To disturb; to agitate.
The operative words in this definition we need to acknowledge are: break, tear, lacerate, torment, strip, lay waste by violence, disturb, and agitate.
Since few of us were raised on farms, I have included a video about harrowing a field. This is an explanation of how to use a harrow, along with a discussion of its benefits and uses. As you watch the video please try to relate what they are talking about to what was happening to Alma emotionally and spiritually in his account. If we can’t make this basic connection on a personal level we will miss much of the message he is trying to communicate in his description.
I know that revelation is a personal thing, and how you receive revelation is different from how I receive or perceive it. In this instance I would like to try to put into words what I feel Alma is trying to describe. It is perfectly fine if you understand this passage differently. It will all work out the same way in the end if we follow the Spirit, for there is only one truth, though many ways to come to its understanding.
When I watched the video about the harrow, I saw the field as my life, crusted over with clods of dirt that cannot be used for anything good, filled with weeds that will choke out what God is wanting to plant within me that will spring up into everlasting life. In order for my resistance to be broken down, sometimes the Lord must do some twisting, pulling, straining, and other operations that we might consider torment and torture. These operations are not meant to harm us, but to teach us and help us grow and become like Him. It is painful and unpleasant, but the process leads to eternal happiness.
We can avoid much of the torment and soul racking Alma experienced if we are just willing to repent. All repentance requires sorrow, humility, and great effort on our part. But what is the alternative? The alternative to repentance is to experience what Alma describes he went through when he came to the realization that he had offended God and fought against Him. He experienced for a short two and a half days the torments of hell that some will have to endure for many, many years before they have suffered enough to be released.
Alma lived for a couple of days with the sense of hopelessness, despair, shame, and sorrow that came with having the truth about his behavior revealed to him when he was faced with having to justify his behavior before the God and King of this universe. He saw clearly that there was no justification for what he did. He was without hope of being forgiven for what he had done, for he had been bound by the chains of hell, which is the acceptance of the lies of Satan and those who follow him. Alma suddenly realized he had been pitching for the wrong team, and there was no way to be redeemed from that blunder. This is what caused his agony and despair. He recognized that he had really lost his soul.
From damned to saved
This next part happened for Alma in an instant, but I believe I know why. For us, this process often takes years, even decades. Alma was already in hell. He had spent a couple of days living with his recognition that he was in an indefensible position with God. He was suffering just like anyone else who will have to spend time in hell will suffer. But when he remembered his father’s prophecies about Jesus, and how he was going to come and pay for the sins of the world, and that through him we could be forgiven for our sins, Alma turned an emotional corner.
Alma’s remembering his father’s teachings about the Savior suddenly gave Alma hope, hope that he thought he would never see again. In the desperation of his soul he cried out to Jesus to save him, and immediately, the full power of Christ’s atoning sacrifice became operable in Alma’s life. He experienced, probably for the first time in his life, the willingness of the Savior to love us and forgive us, even when we have been the most vile of sinners (Alma 36:17–20).
17 And it came to pass that as I was thus with torment, while I was by the of my many sins, behold, I 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.
18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, mercy on me, who am the , and am encircled about by the everlasting of .
19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my ; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
20 And oh, what , and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
Is there anything unjust about Alma having this experience? Did he get shown special treatment just because his father was the prophet? Well, maybe he got a little special treatment because of the faith his father had exercised in Christ. Alma the elder had been fasting for his son’s recovery from his sinful ways for many days.
Alma filled every requirement for being forgiven. He was willing to give away his sins in order to keep the commandments. He spent years repairing the damage he had done to the church and to the souls he had deliberately led astray. He suffered for his sins in a very real way. People struck him with their fists, and even spit on him when he tried to confess his crimes to them and lead them back to God. His repentance wasn’t just something that happened in an instant. He spent the rest of his life cementing the commitment he made to God in that moment of clarity. He was true to his word to Christ. He had called out to Christ to save him, and the Savior had forgiven him because he was truly sincere in his desire to accept the Savior and live his commandments.
The difference between Alma and us
Why can’t I just accept Jesus with the same level of intensity that Alma accepted him? I think it is because I haven’t already spent two days in hell like Alma did. I am too comfortable in my current sins, just like Alma was comfortable in his before the angel paid him a visit. I am blissfully ignorant of how damning my behaviors really are. I justify the attitudes I live by, and my behaviors that go against the commandments of my God.
For most of us to come to the same kind of redeeming experience Alma had, we need to choose obedience first. Alma didn’t have to go through his harrowing experience (forgive the pun) first in order to become converted. But the Lord knew that this is what it would take for him to recognize the position he had put himself in. And his father’s faith had a lot to do with getting him that experience from the Lord. The Lord won’t always go to such great lengths to answer our prayers in such a dramatic way, but He does all He can do based on the faith we exercise. We don’t always see all the mitigating factors that goes into the answers we get to our prayers. Too often we feel it is a simple thing, so when we do something good we expect something miraculous from God. It just isn’t always that simple.
My point here is that for us to become converted like Alma was converted, the process is the same, but from another direction. We both have to repent of our sins and choose to be obedient to the commandments and laws of God for the rest of our lives. We have to be willing to make covenants and treat them with the sacredness they deserve. Alma was given the instant realization of what happens to those who fight against God. From there he repented and changed his life. We, on the other hand, need to choose of our own accord to repent and learn how to feel appropriate sorrow for our sins, never having had that revelation and experience in hell that teaches just how much it will hurt to fight against God.
We need never experience what Alma went through. We should pray that we never need to experience that kind of pain. And we won’t have to if we choose to repent of our own free will. All we need to do is to choose to follow Jesus and live the commandments and keep the covenants he has given us. He will intercede on our behalf and our Father will forgive our sins. We will feel sorrow, and we will suffer some for our sins, but in the end we will never have to go through the pains of hell like Alma did.
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