I love the passage of scripture in the Book of Mormon where Alma and Amulek are teaching the poor amongst the Zoramites. Their teachings comprise chapters 32-34 of Alma, and begin with the famous passage comparing the word of God to a seed. This passage is worth study itself in relation to the Atonement because ultimately, Alma teaches, the seed will grow into the Tree of Life which, as Nephi teaches us earlier, is a representation of the love of God, as manifest through His Only Begotten. “To partake of the love of God is to partake of Jesus’ Atonement and the emancipation and joys which it can bring.”, said Elder Neal A Maxwell about the Tree of Life (Lessons from Laman and Lemuel, October 1999 General Conference).
As we partake of the fruit of this tree, “…behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is 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 32:42-43)
It is interesting that Alma here teaches that some of the blessings of the Atonement will come to us after we have exercised a degree of patience. The Alma here is the son of another Alma we read about in the Book of Mosiah. Alma Senior had lived in a distant city, as a Priest in the court of wicked King Noah. They were soon to be defeated by a Lamanite army and a prophet Abinadi had come to preach repentance, only to be executed. But Alma Sr believed, converted and baptised several hundred individuals and they were later driven away by King Noah and his army. They then settled in a beautiful valley and lived peacefully, “…they came to a land, yea, even a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water. And they pitched their tents, and began to till the ground, and began to build buildings; yea, they were industrious, and did labor exceedingly.” (Mosiah 23:4-5)
But despite their righteousness, the people were about to undergo a real test of their faithfulness. Mormon records, “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.” (Mosiah 23:21) A group of Lamanites, led by Amulon, another of the former wicked priests of Noah – who had a grudge against Alma – found them and subjected them to all sorts of persecution. Interestingly, the wicked people Alma and his righteous group had left behind, may have been safely back in Zarahemla by now. They had been redeemed, though after much tribulation of their own making. So we have a group of righteous souls who would be suffering persecution at a time when those who were less righteous may well have been comfortably safe. Although this is entirely my own speculation, I imagine that this was a “Zion’s camp” type experience for these people – that many of the teachers and leaders which Alma later appoints when they arrive in Zarahemla come from this group. While those who had previously rejected Alma’s teachings had now been saved, this group were about to be purified. And that purification comes, at least in part, when the people demonstrate their patience in the Lord, and continue in prayer when it is difficult to do so.
The scriptures tell us that Amulon, “…began to exercise authority over Alma and his brethren, and began to persecute him, and cause that his children should persecute their children. For Amulon knew Alma, [and] was wroth with him; [and] he exercised authority over them, and put tasks upon them, and put task-masters over them. And it came to pass that so great were their afflictions that they began to cry mightily to God. And Amulon commanded them that they should stop their cries; and he put guards over them to watch them, that whosoever should be found calling upon God should be put to death.” (Mosiah 24:8-11)
We read that the Lord very quickly tells the people, after they continue to petition Him “in their hearts”, that He will deliver them, “…the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.” (Mosiah 24:13), but their deliverance doesn’t come quickly. The Lord’s people went through a process before they were delivered – a process designed to test their patience – although even here the Lord’s mercy was upon them. The Lord tells them, “I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.” (Mosiah 24:14)
I wonder how often the Lord has eased my burdens, and yet I have not noticed. Usually when I have a trial or some other challenge I don’t ask for the burden to be eased, I ask for it to go away, and I’m not satisfied until it does. But the Lord doesn’t want a comfortable people, He wants a people who are faithful and true in all things and who are able to rely on the Saviour in all things, at all times, and in all places – a sanctified people. This righteous group under the leadership of Alma, “did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.” (Mosiah 24:15) That’s rather impressive I think.
The record continues, “And it came to pass that so great was their faith and their patience that the voice of the Lord came unto them again, saying: Be of good comfort, for on the morrow I will deliver you out of bondage.” (Mosiah 24:16) The Lord delivers them not just because of their great faith, but also because of their great patience. They had to be patient for some of the fruit of the Tree of Life, but it came as promised because of their faith and patience.
It is also important to note here that while their less righteous brethren may have already been rescued, there are some important differences in the nature of the rescue. Firstly, the people led by King Noah, and then his son King Limhi, had to come up with their own plan, ultimately helped by Ammon (another “type” of the Saviour), for their rescue. The Lord aided them, it is true, but he left them to come up with the plan. Their first plans involved direct combat and many of their number were killed. When Ammon arrived they came up with a different plan, they executed it themselves, and they escaped, but all-in-all a great many were lost prior to their rescue.
In the case of Alma and his people, the Lord came up with the plan, and by and large He executed it, with none being lost – He put the Lamanites to sleep. If we can learn to exercise that level of faith and patience, the Lord will surely ease our burdens, fight our battles, and deliver us.
Of course, the Lord did all of this for Alma’s people in response to their prayers, and as we return to the Book of Alma and writings of Alma Jr, we find the next portion the sermon to the poor Zoramites to be on the subject of prayer. In chapter 33, we find Alma sensing that the people wanted to have the fruit from the Tree of Life, but didn’t know how to obtain it – they were still confused. So to answer them, he begins quoting Zenos, one of the prophets considered great by the Nephites, but one for whom we have no record other than through the Book of Mormon. Zenos is speaking about prayer, and says, “Thou art merciful, O God, for thou hast heard my prayer, even when I was in the wilderness; yea, thou wast merciful when I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies, and thou didst turn them to me. Yea, O God, and thou wast merciful unto me when I did cry unto thee in my field; when I did cry unto thee in my prayer, and thou didst hear me. And again, O God, when I did turn to my house thou didst hear me in my prayer. And when I did turn unto my closet, O Lord, and prayed unto thee, thou didst hear me. Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them. Yea, O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations. Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; yea, thou didst hear my cries, and wast angry with mine enemies, and thou didst visit them in thine anger with speedy destruction.” (Alma 33:4-10)
I love the poetic nature of this passage. As I read this I think not just of the places where Zenos is praying and the lesson we learn about how the Lord will listen to our prayers wherever we may be, but at least as importantly these places of prayer also represent the things Zenos is praying for. Zenos begins by starting with the prayers relating to his “wilderness”, and his enemies. Life is a wilderness and we need general guidance to get through it, just as Nephi did in his vision regarding the Tree of Life. He then becomes more focussed and prays regarding his fields, or his work; his employment so to speak. The focus drawers tighter as he prays about his house – his family. And finally, he prays in his “closet”, or about his own welfare.
Next Zenos turns again to his prayers, “in the midst of thy congregations”. Even when we surround ourselves with those who have covenanted to be Christ’s disciples doesn’t mean all will go well within that group. We are all imperfect mortals, mistakes are made, and while we carry with us as members the covenant commitment to share each other’s burdens, there are inevitably times when our burdens, if not caused by other members, aren’t or can’t be carried by others. The Lord recognises that even in the midst of his congregations we won’t always find relief and we have need to cry unto Him – and He is still merciful and will respond lovingly.
Finally, Zenos returns again to praying for those who are his enemies.
This passage is instructive itself on the subject of prayer as it is, but the next verse is crucial to the message Zenos was trying to get across. He says, “…and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me, therefore I will cry unto thee in all mine afflictions, for in thee is my joy; for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son.” (Alma 33:11) The relief from, and answers to, prayers, have come to Zenos because of Jesus Christ.
To emphasise the point, Alma repeats the final phrase from Zenos, “Thou hast turned away thy judgments because of thy Son.” (Alma 33:13), and then asks, “…how can ye disbelieve on the Son of God?” (Alma 33:14)
We have covenanted to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, and to the degree that we keep that covenant, so the mercies of Christ will operate in our lives and our prayers be answered. In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord teaches, “…if ye are purified and cleansed from all sin, ye shall ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus and it shall be done.” (D&C 50:29)
We close our prayers, “in the name of Jesus Christ”, but how often do we really consider the significance of those words? In a very real sense, when we use that phrase we are calling upon Jesus Christ, in His role as our advocate, to support the things we have asked for. We are, in a way, saying, “Because of His perfect righteousness; because of His total purity, Jesus Christ has power to request anything and have that petition granted; and because of the atonement, my covenant membership in His kingdom, and the way in which I keep my covenants, I can use His name to call for blessings for me and for those I love, with confidence that they will be granted through His mercy.” I believe that to the degree that we are keeping our covenants to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, so will our prayers, ended in His name, be answered.
Prayer is a powerful medium to gain blessings from our Saviour’s atonement for our selves and for others, and we all need to learn how to make our prayers more effective in this way. In Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life, Lehi sees the Tree only after he has prayed for mercy (see 1 Nephi 8:8, 10). When Alma, Amulek and several of their brethren head out to teach the people, we are told that, “…the Lord provided for them that they should hunger not, neither should they thirst; yea, and he also gave them strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ. Now this was according to the prayer of Alma; and this because he prayed in faith.” (Alma 31:38) The power of Christ provided for them and gave them strength, but this was as a result of Alma’s prayer of faith.
Prayer has been a wonderful blessing in my life. I am grateful I am able to speak directly to my Heavenly Father, the God of the universe, whenever I want. I am grateful that He loves me enough to have provide me with answers to my prayers – not always as quickly as I wanted, and not usually in the ways I expected. But answers there have been. I hope I can continue to develop improved patience and faith as I pray.