Alma's story, like ours, began in the premortal world. In that primeval setting, we all grew to maturity, showing varying degrees of readiness to observe our Father's commandments. Out of all of Heavenly Father's spirit children, a smaller group distinguished itself, during the conflicts incident to the war in heaven, by its exceeding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. (See Alma 13:3-4.) Those who were valiant in these conflicts and chose to follow the Savior demonstrated their desires to become actively involved in the cosmic work of redemption through the great Atonement of our Savior.
Alma the Younger writes of those who were called and prepared from the foundation of the world, and "were ordained . . . in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption." (Alma 13:2.) That is, valiant and Christlike covenant people in the premortal world were foreordained to come to earth and reveal by their own discipleship and through their own ministries the love and power of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that every man "who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 365). This premortal group, called and foreordained to participate in a saving work, became the house of Israel on earth, born into this world through the literal lineage of Abraham. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: "Israel is an eternal people. She came into being as a chosen and separate congregation before the foundations of the earth were laid; she was a distinct and a peculiar people in the pre-existence, even as she is in this sphere. Her numbers were known before their mortal birth, and the very land surface of the earth was `divided to the nations [for] their inheritance . . . according to the number of the children of Israel.' " (Deut. 32:8.) (Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 510-11.) The thing that characterized this group both in the premortal world and during their early sojourn was their love of the work of redemption.Because of the veil over his memory, Alma the Younger did not know for a time about his own premortal foreordination. The account of his life in the Book of Mormon begins with his description as a wicked and idolatrous man who went about trying to destroy the Church of God. (Mosiah 26, 27.) But after the angel's visit, we witness Alma's rapid ascent from spiritual darkness to spiritual vitality and power. We read his discourses which span the great doctrines of the kingdom. The account of Alma's life ends in Alma 45 with his being "taken up by the Spirit" even as Moses. (Alma 45:19.) We understand from this verse that Alma was translated in order that he might extend his own ministry of redemption on the earth. His transformation from his self-obsession to his consumation in Christ presents one of the most dramatic accounts of spiritual rebirth in scripture and bears mighty witness to the power in the Lord Jesus Christ to redeem.
As one who himself had been redeemed, Alma could teach with authority about the process of redemption and strengthen our faith that, if we learn to work the principles that he did, we too can be born again and experience the joy promised the saints in the scriptures - no matter who or what we have been. Let us consider briefly here Alma's teachings on two main doctrines: man's descent from the spirit world to this mortal probation and man's ascent from spiritual death to spiritual rebirth.
The Book of Mormon teaches about the nature of man's descent into fallenness. Two examples: "Now we see that Adam did fall by the partaking of the forbidden fruit, according to the word of God; and thus we see, that by his fall, all mankind became a lost and fallen people." (Alma 12:22)
" . . . for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual." (Hel. 14:16.)
Because of the fall, we are deeply reduced in power and spirit from our premortal life. In speaking of the reductions that man experiences in this mortal sphere, Joseph F. Smith wrote: "I think that the spirit, before and after this probation, possesses greater facilities, aye, manifold greater, for the acquisition of knowledge, than while manacled and shut up in the prison-house of mortality." (Gospel Doctrine, p. 13.)
Earth life is designed to create hungers that will set us on a quest. These hungers can motivate us to develop the tools by which the unseen world of spiritual realities and joys is retrieved. The deprivations of the fall were planned to be deeply felt to create the feeling needed for redemption. One's distress in his fallen condition would create the desire to escape the fall and reach out for the Savior. The scriptures use the terms hunger and thirst to describe man's feelings during his mortal probation.
Alma teaches about this hunger of the fallen person by drawing an analogy between Lehi's journey through the wilderness and fallen man's spiritual hunger. When Lehi's family exercised faith, heed, and diligence, their spiritual compass (Liahona) worked for them, and they not only had direction, but they had also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day. (Alma 37:40.) Nevertheless, because the means of accessing spiritual powers by faith and diligence seemed small, they got lazy and forgot to exercise these seemingly small means. Alma wrote, "Then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions." (Alma 37:41-42.) The wilderness often mentioned in the Book of Mormon is spiritually symbolic of man's fallen, barren condition; the hunger and thirst are symbolic of the emotional and spiritual hungers that man's fall and subsequent sins created. (See also 1 Ne. 8:4-8, and 16:35.).
The Latter-day Saint who is becoming aware of the effects of the fall on himself can get stalled in a kind of spiritual wilderness between spiritual darkness and that full light available in Christ. This twilight zone is a transition state between having recognized one's fallen nature, but not yet having reached the solution. It usually represents an attempt to accommodate both the world and the Gospel. This is a state of hunger and bondage, not total darkness, but hunger for something indefinable. We can recognize it in ourselves when our souls cry out, "Is this all there is to the Gospel, this going through motions but not really feeling happy? Can't I feel a richer inner experience?" We can get stuck in this twilight because we are doing some things rights, we are feeling occasionally the Spirit, we seem to be on the path; but still, there's that nagging hunger in the heart that doesn't know what it wants.
For many Latter-day Saints, this wandering in a spiritual twilight can be an unnecessarily prolonged experience because they sidestep the simple but powerful principles of the Gospel and try a lot of different things to assuage the hunger. For this reason, Alma preaches against the pursuit of the vain things of the world: riches, power, gain, mocking one's brother, costly apparel, elevating oneself above others (Alma 5:51-54) - all in the attempt to fill the hunger inside, but counterproductive where happiness and being born again are concerned.
Thus we sometimes find ourselves half-in and half-out of the will of God. That half-and-half state is precisely the problem and the cause of the prolonged hunger. The hunger comes from the need for the most powerful nutrient a fallen human can receive: the healing word of God, the principles of godliness planted in the heart, the indwelling presence of the Lord Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit. The Lord said, "Blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost." (3 Ne. 12:6.) The Holy Spirit is the key to the presence of the Lord and to happiness during our probation here.
Alma teaches this sublime solution for the discontent that fallen man carries within him by teaching how to eat the fruit of the Lord's Spirit:
"But if ye will nourish . . . the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
"And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious . . . sweet . . . white . . . pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
"Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you." (Alma 32:41-43, emphasis added.)
This fruit can so fill the soul with joy in Christ that Alma promises: "Then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will." (Alma 33:23).
It appears that intelligent beings exist on a sliding scale of Spirit, and that the direction a person is sliding with respect to the Spirit determines the degree of his or her happiness: "He that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full." (Alma 12:10.) It is clear that the knowledge to get the Spirit is the most valuable knowledge that can be offered to a person, or that he can implement, to affect his total well being. Thus man is moving either toward exaltation or into varying degrees of captivity by the adversary.
Alma is a special witness; he has the authority of personal experience where the extremes of emotional states are concerned. He says, describing his excruciating transformation from pain to joy:
"I was racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. . . . harrowed up by the memory of my many sins . . . I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy . . . concerning . . . Jesus Christ . . .
"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. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! . . .
"Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost." (Alma 36:16-24.)
Thus Alma describes his rise from his descent through the pain of change to being filled with the Holy Ghost, born again, and consumed by the desire to rescue others.
Alma's history is most instructive because it points us to what it is we are to become if we are to merit sitting down in the kingdom with such people as Alma. Still, the transformation is not easy. He and the sons of Mosiah had been the "very vilest of sinners." (Mosiah 28:4.) Their spiritual rebirth, though miraculously rapid, was not handed without price to them.
The normal process of gradual repentance, remorse, and change was dramatically condensed - but so also was the pain. The record says, "They suffered much anguish of soul because of their iniquities, suffering much and fearing that they should be cast off forever." (Mosiah 28:4.) But how remarkable the change from trying to destroy the souls of men to that acutely sensitive condition of being unable to "bear that any human soul should perish: yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment
which they had tastedT did cause them to quake and tremble. And thus did the Spirit of the Lord work upon them, for they were the very vilest of sinners." (Mosiah 28:3-4.)
Truly the natural man does not sense his fallenness, nor its impact on his soul, nor the thick veil his condition creates between him and the joys of the eternal world; nor does he begin to sense the consequences of his sins and the action that the Law of Justice is taking and must yet take against him at the judgment.
Man's ascent and spiritual rebirth, with man having tasted joy, seem to be characterized by a strong desire to have a saving influence on other people. Alma says, characteristic of the rebirth, "I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost." (Alma 36:24.) This desire to participate in the redemption process brings us back to the premortal House of Israel.
Elder David B. Haight explains the reason the Lord has revealed the doctrine of the premortal world: "Most of us have wondered about what occurred in the premortal world and how it relates to our existence here.We should be acquainted with the truth that knowledge of the premortal life was restored that we might fulfill our responsibilities as children of God. . . . John A. Widtsoe provides insight to an earth-life responsibility made in that premortal world which is of great importance. He highlights a contractual agreement we made concerning the eternal welfare of all of the sons and daughters of the Eternal Father: . . . "Since the plan is intended for all men, we [the covenant people] became parties to the salvation of every person under that plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves but . . . saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. . . . The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation.' " (David Haight, Conference Report, October 1990, 73-74.)
Likely our own labors with many spirits commenced in the spirit world, our hearts being bound together in love from our associations through eons. There we received specific assignments to perform a saving work for those with whom we had covenanted in the premortal world. Genealogical chains of parents and children were formed, specifically arranged to promote a variety of the Lord's saving purposes. The plan seemed to be that each of the premortal House of Israel would, as part of their progress toward godhood, experience being redeemed by mortal and immortal beings and also learn the role of redeemer; each would be labored with until he or she could labor with others. The redeemed would become the redeemers. To each of us covenant people it would be said, "Freely you have received, freely give." (Matt. 10:8).
We would, by our premortal covenants with loved ones and with the Lord, become extensions of God's power during our mortal probations, and actually be able to exert a saving influence on an increasing number of people. Jesus Himself is our model when He says, "For their sakes, I sanctify myself." (John 17:19.) The willingness to sanctify ourselves in order to have a saving influence on others is a powerful and foundational principle of our admission to the House of Israel. (D&C 103:9-10.) Once we know what we're here on earth for, we can focus on what is really important. We can look at the people that the Lord has put into our lives and ask what it is that He would have us do for them. It is helpful to remember that the earth and the very lives we live upon the earth were created for entirely spiritual purposes. It may be that among the most enlightened beings in all of the Lord's creations, the power to bless, the power to redeem, is the most coveted power.
May we remember, as feelings of inadequacy threaten to inhibit our efforts to have a saving influence, that we can be partners with a powerful Redeemer and that "our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable than even the best of His servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend." (Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1929, 110-111.) May we, like Alma who could not rest from his ministry (Alma 43:1), seek to enlarge on and to extend this power in all our associations.