Rock bottom

Today’s Gospel Doctrine lesson: the conversion of Alma the Younger.

If you want/need a refresher, here’s the story, and here it is again.

I often hear this account used as an inspirational story for parents of wayward children. I think it works beautifully to that effect, as long as it’s not taken at surface value, i.e., this isn’t a simple matter of “pray real hard and an angel will make your kid repent.” Some thoughts along those lines:

The angel says (among other things):

Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people. And again, the angel said: Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith. And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more, that their prayers may be answered, and this even if thou wilt of thyself be cast off.

It’s important to note that, while Alma the Elder’s faith plays a heavy role here, he’s not the only mover. The church as a body is under persecution; the church as a body has been praying for deliverance. It’s clear from the wording that Alma has bumped against a boundary set by the Lord that trumps personal agency. The angel says, in sum, If you want to ruin your life, go ahead. But keep away from the church, for the Lord will not suffer it to be overthrown by the likes of you. It’s not clear what would’ve happened if Alma continued persecuting the saints, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume he would have been forcibly prevented from doing so.

However, the angel also says that he has come in response to Alma the Elder’s prayers, so that Alma the Younger may be convinced of the truth. What gives? Why don’t other parents get this kind of dramatic response to their similar pleas?

Answer: I believe they do. But the convincing often comes without a bona fide angel as messenger. Sometimes it comes through a different kind of messenger–someone boring and mortal like you or me. Sometimes it comes through the logical consequences of the child’s actions. Reading Alma’s words, it’s clear that it wasn’t the angel per se who sparked his repentence; rather, it was driven by the pain and suffering which ensued once he became aware of the truth concerning himself.

I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. 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. 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. 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. And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. 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, 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. 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.

I’ve had similar experiences myself, and so have many others I’ve known. Maybe we weren’t knocked into a coma by the force of the truth, but we were knocked hard. And this knocking came when we hit rock bottom. A close friend of mine once prayed regarding her wayward son: May he fall fast, and fall hard. It worked.

Is that what Alma the Elder prayed for? We don’t know. But he sure was happy when he saw his son in a comatose state. In fact, he called for everyone to come take a peek. And then they all prayed for Alma the Younger’s revival.

Again, the health of the church was at stake here–the whole community, not just Alma the Elder, was invested in the Lord’s dealings with the younger Alma. But Alma the Elder’s prayers were strong ones. Here’s one reason why: just prior to the beginning of this story, he had his calling and election made sure. In Mosiah 26: 20 the Lord said unto him:

Thou art my servant; and I covenant with thee that thou shalt have eternal life; and thou shalt serve me and go forth in my name, and shalt gather together my sheep.

Obviously Alma the Elder had been true and faithful to his covenants, so true and so faithful that the Lord had guaranteed his exaltation. Most LDS parents don’t have that guarantee–not yet. But many do have conditional covenantal promises. Every endowed member of the church has been taught the connection between their own faithfulness and the Lord’s freedom to bless their posterity.

The take-away lesson? As we keep our own covenants, we can pray with faith that the Lord will bless and preserve our children. But the answers to those prayers may come in unexpected ways. Often, things may get much worse before they get better. Fallen mortals are stubborn. Many of us won’t repent until it hurts more to keep sinning than it does to stop. And many of us won’t feel those pains until our freefall ends against solid rock. Good thing the rock of our Redeemer is strong enough to bear our weight.

And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God has delivered me from prison, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me.

18 comments for “Rock bottom

  1. I find sometimes that the weight of responsibility for my children is so great that I forget to transfer that burden back to the Lord. What a beautiful reminder to turn this obligation as well as other aspects of my life back to him. Thank you.

  2. Evan Almighty was on TV last night, so I’m paraphrasing it (but the idea is expressed in so many other places) — “When we pray for patience, we are given opportunities where we have to be patient. When we pray for family unity, we are given opportunities when we have to work together for our families…”

  3. One of the things I find interesting about the story of Alma’s conversion (as well as the sons of Mosiah, and the Lamanites they end up converting later) is that on the surface, Alma was not someone you’d expect to embrace the gospel. The Lamanites were murderers and thieves and all kinds of wicked. How many people do we meet and think wouldn’t be open to embracing the gospel based on their lifestyle or choices?

  4. #3 Well-said, Susan! In that light, a couple passages that I like are:
    […] as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. — Alma 23:6
    And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin[…] — Alma 24:19
    Maybe there really is somethng about how people well-seasoned in the dark side truly convert once they accept the light.
    In the Rosario, Argentina branch — my first as a missionary, back in 1971 — they had slips of paper in each hymnal: “Don’t decide for your friends whether they will accept the gospel!” i.e., let them hear it so they can decide for themselves.

  5. he sure was happy when he saw his son in a comatose state.
    I like the phrasing in Msh 27:21: “…what the Lord had done FOR his son…”

  6. The images are particularly striking:

    “racked with torment”

    “harrowed up by the memory”

    I don’t know the etymology of “racked” but I always “see” images of the rack–and people suffering on it.

    A harrow is a farm implement, that none of us city dwellers know about anymore–but the thought of getting run over by one helps us understand what Alma was feeling.

  7. Thanks Kathryn.

    I’ve been having similar thoughts much of the day today.


  8. In my GS class (I am teacher) we have been discussing all the stories in Mosiah in the context of \”bondage and deliverance\” both temporally and spiritually. The story of Alma the Younger is the most dramatic story of spiritual deliverance and is the only story I know of recorded three times within the text. It is interesting to me that out of all the things the angel could have said, he chose to tell Alma to remember the bondage and deliverance stories of the people. Since deliverance is the verb for the atonement, and only Christ can deliver us, the angel is essentially saying–\”remember these stories and how these people were delivered.\” And, if you look to the Chiasmus that is the entire Chapter of Alma 36, you\’ll see this underlying principle (bondage/deliverance) within the second layer at the beginning and the end, right after the foundational covenant,(obey/prosper/disobey/get cut off) which is what he starts and ends his chapter with.In fact, the principle is found in the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon I nephi 1:20. In our class we have flushed out the patterns of each of the bondage and deliverance stories in Mosiah, and now are looking at them allegorically and with personal application in our own lives (Class worksheets are found on the blog

    Relating to word studies, I did some research into the word \”snatched\” (\”My soul was racked with eternal torment; but am snatched, and my soul is pained no more\” Mo. 27:29) It is not found in the OT or NT which was a little surprising. I then looked up the word DELIVERED (there are different roots to this word, but looked up the one that spoke about being delivered \”from\” something) and the very FIRST word that came up under the definition of the root was SNATCHED. Interesting…

  9. A harrow is a farm implement, that none of us city dwellers know about anymore–but the thought of getting run over by one helps us understand what Alma was feeling.

    Our teacher had Alma being “hallowed up.”

  10. I have first hand experience with the harrow. My Grandfather and Uncle ran a farm together in Southern Idaho (colcanic rock country), and when they were turning old pastureland into irrigated fields, they had to be plowed under, after which my brothers and cousins and I had to take a tractor and flatbed trailer out into the field and “pick rocks”. That meant we had to pick up all the rocks that had been plowed up. It was dirty, hot, sweaty work, with smashed fingers, sore arms, and generally took several days to complete. I remember one occasion clearly, that as we were ending up the rock-picking, and were congratulating ourselves on a job well done, my Grandfather showed up at the other end of the field with the disc harrow and started running through the field. We could hear the clanging and ringing of rocks, still hidden under the plowed earth, being turned up by the harrow. The next day we started in anew, and had to go through the whole process over again, only now with dirt that had been reduced to a dry, fine powdery consistency that got everywhere, and stuck wherever you were sweating.

    The point is that all things hidden were turned up by the harrow that the plow (and our initial efforts) failed to remove. That is especially apt when we talk about repentance, and it is a lesson that I recall whenever I read about bieng “harrowed up” in the Book of Mormon.

    ps – I hope the link works correctly for the picture of a modern harrow….

  11. I tried to post with a link to a picture of a real disc harrow, of which I have personal experience, but the post never appeared, so my html chops (or lack thereof) may be to blame. But I have a story, that I think is descriptive.

    My grandfather and uncle had a farm together in Southern Idaho (volcanic rock country), and my borthers, my cousins, and I used to work there as kids in the summer. We were assigned one hot July to “pick rocks”. That meant my uncle had plowed up some previously unused pasture land for planting, and we had to go through the plowed field with a flatbed trailer behind a tractor, and pick up all the rocks that the plow had turned up. It was hot, dirty, sweaty work, with lots of smashed fingers and scraped hands. It took us several days to get all through the field, and we had hauled probably five or six trailer loads of rock off to the rock pile. Just as we were getting through with the field, and had gotten all the rocks that we could see, we heard my grandfather come into the field with the disc harrow behind his tractor. Think of some two or three rows of 18 inch round metal plates each, dropped into the plowed earth. As soon as my grandfather dropped the harrow, we began to hear all sorts of clanking and ringing sounds, and realized that the harrow was turning up lots of rocks that were still hidden in the dirt that the plow had not turned up.

    We went back for two more days, and now the dirt was fine powder, dust getting into our eyes, mouths, down the necks of our shirts, into our shoes. The work after the harrow was even more unpleasant than after the plowing.

    Later, reading the Book of Mormon and its several references to harrow or being harrowed up, has helped me to understand. We would have been happy to quit after the first pass, leaving many rocks still uncovered and not dealt with. But the harrow uncovered all the hidden incompleteness of our work. That’s why for me, this is such a great symbolic use of harrow for repentance. All of the unseen and undealt with issues will eventually be uncovered, and have to be addressed. Harrowed up is not a distant reality for me, either figuratively or in reality.

    For a better picture of a harrow of the type I remember, go here:

  12. #9 – I figure the teacher simply had been reading Harry Potter 7 the night before. They were, after all, DEATHLY hallows.

  13. Ouch, Kevin! That thing looks vicious! Well I guess once the ground is “harrowed up”, it does become ready for the seed to be planted, so it is a good visual analogy. Sometimes we take words for granted, but there’s some fruitful imagery there.

  14. Thank you for this thoughtful post and the reminder that the “Redeemer is strong enough to bear our weight.” LDS blogs serve many purposes but we need more posts of this kind.

  15. Kevin- I absolutely loved your story–thank you for taking the time to write that up. I’ll never read the word “harrowed up” without thinking of your farm in Idaho and the added insight your words brought to this account and to the concept of repentance.

Comments are closed.