Sunday, August 01, 2010

Alma 34 (warning...long....)

Over the years I have run into way too many people who read the words of Amulek in the 34th chapter of Alma and believe that people they love are doomed if they do not repent and turn to God in this life. They become anxious and fearful for the souls of their loved ones, which gets in the way of their being hopeful and full of faith. The two verses that seem to be quoted the most frequently are verses 34 and 35. Thirty four talks about not “procrastinating the day of your repentance” and then verse 35 reads:

"For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold ye have become subjected to the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked."

That certainly, at first glance, seems like a message of “get your act together and believe before you die or you are toast”, but if you read the whole chapter and take these two verses in context, the message is quite different and much more nuanced and subtle.

Amulek begins his discourse by adding his testimony to Alma’s of the divinity and of atonement of Jesus Christ and of the necessity for faith and repentance on our part (verses 1-16). He then strongly counsels his listeners to pray constantly and consistently and then, after developing faith and prayer, to become full of charity towards their fellow men (verses 17-30). He has, in a nutshell, covered the basics of the teachings of Christ: faith, repentance, prayer/communication with God and charity.

Having outlined the essential elements of Christian life he then begins to urge his listeners to embrace them now, and not put it off. You can see it in verses 31-34:

“harden not your hearts any longer”, “this life is the time”, “do not procrastinate”, “ye cannot say , when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent”

And then comes verse 35, and the casual reader thinks, “oh no! When he dies, it will be too late!” But a closer reading reveals that Amulek is not talking about physical death nor is he talking about a deadline. He is talking about spiritual death and about becoming.

Look at the messages in verses 31-36. In the interest of space I will just pull out the key phrases

31. “come forth and harden not your hearts any longer”: Hard heartedness is not helpful.
“now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent…immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.” You can start to change now and you will immediately start reaping the blessings of forgiveness and redemption. There is no waiting for it, it is available right now. This is a message of hope.

32. “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God”: The purpose of life on earth is to become the person God hopes we will be. That work is not just for our time in paradise or prison, it’s the purpose of our life now. And all the other things we think life is about, money, fame, power, stuff, romance, thrills, careers, athletics or whatever, are not what this life is about. Rather the things Amulek talked about before; developing faith, repentance, prayer/communication with God and charity, are the purpose of this life.

“and if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed”: First of all, what is “the night of darkness” that comes? It is not physical death. Doctrine and Covenants 84:54 sheds some light on this:

“your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received”

Darkness comes from choosing not to believe and from refusing to take seriously the things that are important. When Amulek talks about the night of darkness he isn’t talking about death, he is talking about the point in one’s existence, either in this life or the next, when one becomes a person who has the light of truth within himself so seriously dimmed by unbelief and/or a failure to take seriously the pursuit, on any level, of faith, repentance, communication with God or charity, that he no longer finds any interest in nor will he make any effort to choose any of those things, preferring darkness to light. And the darkness isn’t just a little bit of darkness, but a night of darkness. Amulek is talking about a spiritual state of being, a spiritual, not a physical death.

34. This verse challenges the assumption that some of Amulek’s hearers have that they can postpone this hopeful change and repentance, which he outlined in verse 31, until after they hit this dark point described in verse 33 (which they may actually think they may not ever hit if they play their cards right). And he also addresses those who think they might postpone this change until after they have finished all their earthly pursuits and are in the next life, those who think that it will be easy to change their minds and hearts when they stand before God and therefore hope to live it up in this life, postponing their repentance, thinking it will be easy to switch after they’ve finished. You might call this latter the “have their cake and eat it too” crowd. “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis [the ”night of darkness” of verse 33] that I will return to my God…that same spirit that doth possess your bodies at the time that you go out of this life…will have the power to posses your body in the eternal world”. You may notice that in these words Amulek is also addressing those who believe they can change anytime they want, they just don’t want to right now. It is a common refrain heard among us all, and most commonly pointed out in the lives of those who are addicted to substances. But we all employ that rationalization about the sins we enjoy and wish to keep a little bit longer before we give them up. Amulek’s message is that it will be just as hard then as it is now, so postponing it is not as smart a plan as you might think or hope it might be. (And look at all the smart reasons to begin to repent now in verse 31.)

35. “if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death” What kind of death? Remember verse 32? Spiritual death. It’s clear from the ensuing phrases that this is what he is describing: “behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil…the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked”. Here he is warning again against thinking it is worth it to put off repentance and change. He is saying that it is even possible to keep putting it off so long that you get yourself so far down the path of sin and darkness that you have completely given yourself over to embracing darkness and closed yourself off from the light of the Holy Spirit. This, he says, is where determined unrepentance will ultimately (not just 200 years from now, but ultimately) land you if you do not ever choose to turn back. This is, actually, an interesting discussion of what damnation (“the final state of the wicked”) really is. It is not just a judgment call by God. It is the ultimate natural consequence of many, many continuous choices to embrace sin and reject repentance over a very long period of time.

Amulek finishes his discourse by outlining, in verses 37-41, things we can do to assist the repentance process which he hopes we will choose now instead of procrastinating it. Having outlined the basics of Christian life and exhorted his hearers to repentance and frankly addressing the pitfall of procrastination he knows we will be tempted fall into instead, he describes all the principles and tools that will help us to make that repentant change of heart. These verses describe the ever-so-helpful practices of confessing Christ, listening to the Holy Spirit, humility, worship, thanksgiving, recognition of God’s mercy, watchful prayer, patience, bearing afflictions, returning kindness for reviling, and hope.

Amulek’s discourse is not a “do it now or it will be too late when you die” sermon. It is a discourse on the essentials of Christian discipleship, a call to repentance, a promise of the blessings that come from that, a warning about the lies of the temptation of procrastination, a discussion of spiritual death, and an outline of the principles and practices God has given us to help us to avoid that spiritual death both in this life and in every aspect of our eternal existence. It is a message of hope the veracity of which you can see playing out its light in the life of every person you know, including yourself, who is, on any level, no matter how imperfectly or far from the mark, desiring to do and/or be good. And it is counsel to you and me to hope, have faith in Christ, love, repent and praise and employ the merciful aid of God in our lives now, not later.

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