The Saintly Throng in the Shape of a Rose, by Gustav Dore

As I pointed out in my last post, the scriptures and their authors consistently maintain the need for firsthand experience in gaining knowledge, while we don’t always correctly teach that principle.

When the Lord softened Nephi’s heart and spoke with him in 1 Nephi 2, Nephi knew he had spoken with the Lord. But he could only say he “believed” Lehi’s words, because he hadn’t yet had Lehi’s experience.

Later, when Nephi wanted to know what Lehi knew, he prayed to see the things Lehi had seen for himself:

1 Nephi 10:17 And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost…I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

In Alma chapter 32, Alma teaches that our knowledge grows according to our experience with God and his words. Knowing that a seed is good is not the same thing as knowing the taste of the fruit and receiving its nourishment (vs. 34-37).

Joseph Smith taught:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God

Knowledge of these things, can only be obtained by experience in these things, through the ordinance of God set forth for that purpose.

Reading others’ experiences, hearing them relate their revelations, and even receiving a spiritual witness of their honesty, do not qualify us to claim to know what they knew.

Joseph also said, specifically of how we gain knowledge of God (which is eternal life, according to John 17:3):

No one can truly say he knows God until he has handled something, and this can only be in the Holiest of Holies. (Manuscript History of the Church, Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 119-120; 1 May 1841)

Accordingly, the redeemed find themselves brought, like Alma, Lehi, and all who follow their example, to the throne room of a heavenly temple–the Holiest of Holies–to gain a knowledge of their redeemer.

Contrast these doctrines with a recent multi-stake youth fireside in which Elder Dallin H. Oaks answered questions from the audience. He was asked the question:

What should we pray for to receive the same testimony [or] conversion that Alma the Younger experienced, for our friend who are not members?

Elder Oaks answered:

 I don’t think you’re likely to have that kind of experience that Alma the Younger had. Remember he had a miraculous appearance of an angel and really got hit over the head spiritually. Most of us don’t have that kind of experience, but I interpret your question as being how can we get the kind of testimony that he received. I don’t think we’ll get it like Paul did on the road, when the angel appeared to him, or like Alma the Younger had that startling experience. The Lord gives a few of those kinds of experiences and they are recorded in the scriptures to catch our attention. I’ve never any kind of experience like that, and I don’t know any of the First Presidency or the Quorum of the 12 who have had that kind of experience, yet every one of us knows of a certainty the things that Alma knew. But it’s just that, unless the Lord chooses to do it another way, as He sometimes does, for millions and millions of His children a testimony settles upon us gradually like so much dust on the windowsill, or like so much dew on the grass. One day you didn’t have it and another day you did and you don’t know which day it happened.” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Bellevue Washington Youth Fireside, 23 Jan 2016)

Though Nephi could not receive the kind of testimony Lehi received without sharing the same experience, we are not taught that those experiences are still requirements for knowledge. Certainly, steeped in such traditions, Elder Oaks is quite correct that we are not “likely to have that kind of experience that Alma the Younger had.” After all, the only thing that can prevent those experiences is the absence of faith, and being told that God is somehow unwilling to grant them most certainly discourages faith (Moroni 7:35-38). He is correct to point out that our spiritual witnesses begin simple, small, and still. But he is tragically and eternally wrong to suggest that Alma’s testimony and knowledge can be had without Alma’s experience. The Lectures on Faith call this sort of thinking”vain.”

Lecture on Faith 6:8 It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.

I assume the “Q&A” format of the meeting made a thorough and considered answer to the question difficult. He may have interpreted the question as merely a request for instructions about how to gain a sense of religious conviction, and answered accordingly; however, his claim to “know of a certainty the things Alma knew” seems to reach further. He may have thought she was merely referring to Alma’s interaction with the angel as the source of his testimony or conversion, though the story makes it clear the angel was merely an instigator. I feel sorry for the questioner, who’s seeking of God may now be hampered by a lack of confidence in God’s consistency. It is no wonder that Lecture on Faith 3 goes to such lengths to establish that God is no respecter of persons; Even the leaders of God’s church are sometimes prone to believe that God grants visions and visitations only when “he chooses to do things differently,” rather than in accordance with eternal law (D&C 130:20).

Had Elder Oaks been given sufficient time to review Alma’s actual testimony, pray, ponder, and respond, he may have clarified:

Alma’s experience is really a series of experiences, with Alma’s responses to each experience determining whether he advances or retreats in light and truth. These experiences are available to us all, and are similarly contingent on how we react when God reaches out.

First he is visited by an angel, not in response to any faith of his but in response to the faith and prayers of others (Mosiah 27:14). The fact that it was a heavenly messenger delivering the message is the only unusual aspect of the story, and is largely irrelevant. It could as easily have been an earthly messenger with the same commission to demonstrate God’s power and use the sharp sword of his word to pierce Alma’s heart. There are even messengers like that on the earth today.

Alma responds to the angel’s admonishment by allowing himself to reflect on the words. He didn’t retreat from them, nor attempt to deflect the accusations and justify himself. He allowed a consciousness of his own guilt to wash over him (Alma 36:12-16). This shows the rare quality of Alma’s character. Most people reject such messages of repentance, preferring to believe they are and will always be righteous, and that the messenger must have been mistaken (1 Nephi 3:29-31).

After days of torment, he is reminded of his father teaching about Christ, likely a gift of grace from God rather than Alma the Younger’s having carefully listened to his father’s words (John 14:23).

Alma’s response to this demonstrates his whole-souled surrender to Christ:

Alma 36:18 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.

His yielding his heart to God allowed God to sanctify him (Helaman 3:35). His heart was perfectly soft, and able to receive a complete knowledge of God’s mysteries (Alma 12:10). His eye was fully single to Christ’s glory, and therefore he could comprehend all things, and was able to stand in God’s presence (D&C 88:67-68). When he awakes he describes the “testimony or conversion” that he has gained:

Mosiah 27:24 … I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.

25 And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

26 And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

27 I say unto you, unless this be the case, they must be cast off; and this I know, because I was like to be cast off.

28 Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.

29 My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.

Alma had been redeemed, meaning he was brought back into God’s presence and forgiven of sin. He was born of the spirit, and was instructed by God that not only he, but all mankind must be born of God and redeemed, thus becoming his sons and daughters. Alma later spoke of his great vision of God on his throne, of the knowledge he gained from that experience, and how others could also know as he knew:

Alma 36:22,25-26: Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there….

Yea, and now behold, O my son, the Lord doth give me exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors;For because of the word which he has imparted unto me, behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen; therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.

According to Alma, someone who has not done the things he did, including being born of God, tasting as he tasted, and seeing eye to eye as he saw, cannot claim to know as he knows.

The only thing that is unique about Alma’s experience is that the messenger preaching repentance to him happened to be an angel, and that fact is not what granted Alma the light and truth. There are such messengers among us now, commissioned to preach repentance, though they may wear suits or street clothes. It was Alma’s response of a soft and open heart, something that everyone can choose, that resulted in his knowledge. Everyone can ask God to make them conscious of their standing before him. Everyone can fully yield their hearts to God, resolving to obey him, crying out to him for salvation. Everyone who does so will be sanctified, and those who are sanctified will enter in to the rest of the Lord. They will see eye to eye, as Alma saw, and will know as he knew. Alma’s story isn’t an example of an unusual conversion. It is an example of the only path to salvation, and a demonstration of how quickly the Lord will come to one who’s heart is prepared. As Joseph Smith said, “if he does not, he has not told the truth.” God is honest. He keeps his promises. The only thing standing between you, or me, or Elder Oaks, or any of his colleagues, and the experience of Alma the Younger, is the condition of our own hearts.