Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Alma Syndrome

Posted by NathanG on July 17, 2008

I grew up listening to my uncles and father sing “Oh That I Were an Angel” and grew to love that verse at the beginning of Alma 29.  I was disappointed when I finally read beyond the first two verses (the text of the song) and came to verse 3 “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me. “

So the previous chapters describe the successes of the sons of Mosiah in the land of Nephi including the destruction of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and subsequent destruction of Ammonihah.  So, what prompted Alma 29?  Was it the successes that had been enjoyed, or was it the sorrow over the loss of so many people, particularly in Ammonihah?  If it were me, I would have a hard time getting Ammonihah off of my mind, and I would struggle to turn my thoughts to the reasons for joy (Anti-Nephi-Lehies, Zarahemla’s repentance, Gideon’s righteousness, sons of Mosiah still good, etc.)

Alma begins chapter 29 with an illustration of what I have dubbed the ‘Alma Syndrome’.  When he’s in his sorrow he reaches for something he knows to be effective from personal experience.  He was the recipient of an angel that spoke with a voice of thunder and commanded him to repent.  He saw the profound impact that experience had on his life as well as the life of the sons of Mosiah.  He saw the subsequent fruits that resulted from the angel’s visit.  Could there possibly be a better mode of conversion than this?  Couldn’t everyone have this experience?

Is this such a bad thing?  Alma’s desire was the joy of others.  His desires may have been righteous, but the method he recognized was wrong.   It’s telling God that his methods aren’t working well enough.  It overlooks the individual way that God is willing to work with his children.  It ignores the individual gifts and struggles that all of these individuals have.

The syndrome is alive and well today.  If I were writing Alma 29, I wouldn’t talk about angels, I don’t understand that experience.  I would wish that everyone could have been raised in an active LDS family in a small town in Idaho.  If only they would read their scriptures in their youth and gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon in their youth.  I would wish everyone could have had classes from my favorite teachers.  I would wish everyone could have a desire to understand the scriptures.  I would wish that everyone could be me (thank goodness they are not). 

The now replaced missionary guide even had a similar line of statements we could make.  “I know that these things are true because I have prayed about it and if you pray about it, you can know just like me.”  Unfortunately, I think the message I missed is that I wasn’t trying to get them to have my experience.  I was trying to help them to simply have the desire to know for themselves and understand a method by which they could know. 

I have heard similar laments, often in testimony meeting, ftom people who have a strong testimony of a particular concept.  “Every one of you needs to get to the temple because I’m a temple worker and the temple is empty.”  “I do my home teaching every month and know it is God’s program, why can’t you?”

Solutions?  Well, the desires behind all of these situations still seem to be on target, it’s a methodology flaw.   We don’t need to get others to have our testimony, our desire, or our knowledge.  We need to turn our desire over to God and let him perform his work through us.  We don’t need to hijack God’s work for our own agenda.  If we allow ourselves to do God’s work we may even find that we can learn from the other individual’s strengths.  As an example, there was a member of my ward that did not appear too be very active and didn’t seem to get into the gospel like I think I do.  One day he gave a talk and shared an experience where he shared a Book of Mormon with one of his college classmates and how that led to an eventual baptism (several years later).  Suddenly I felt very ashamed as my own missionary efforts have been rather pathetic and then even more ashamed that I had allowed any sort of judgment in my heart.  Sounds a lot like pride.

I’d like to note that I’m not completely satisfied calling this the ‘Alma Syndrome’ because I think it accuses him of more than he was guilty of.  I really have nothing but awe and respect for the man.  If you have a better name, I’m all ears.

7 Responses to “The Alma Syndrome”

  1. robf said

    Oh that everyone could enjoy the feast upon the word wiki, like I do!

  2. BrianJ said

    Interesting analysis, Nathan. I’ve always read this as Alma being too hard on himself, but you may have convinced me otherwise. There is something about Alma’s wish that is vaguely reminiscent about Lucifer’s plan: let’s hit everyone over the head with the Gospel so that they are compelled to believe.

    For a related post on how we share our spiritual experiences with others, see FPR.

  3. Matthew said

    I liked how you tied this into Alma’s own experience of being converted by an angel. I also think it is significant that Alma doesn’t just desire that an angel visit everyone (which you rightly point out isn’t the Lord’s way) but he actually wants to be that angel. There’s maybe an element of pride there.

    Brian, I’ve always thought the view that Alma’s wish was actually good was only shared by people who really had only read the first 2 verses of this chapter (or heard them in song). The fact that you have accepted this view for so long makes me want to reconsider. If you ever have the time and want to, I’d be interested in hearing some defense of that view.

  4. BrianJ said

    “but he actually wants to be that angel. There’s maybe an element of pride there.”

    I disagree with this idea, and since it has always been the prevailing explanation for why Alma’s wish was bad, it is why I always (secretly) thought that his wish was actually good. First, why I disagree: maybe this is bad logic, but look at the three Nephites’ wish. Didn’t they essentially ask to be angels? Weren’t they afraid that they were being selfish (i.e., prideful)? But Jesus dismissed their fears and reassured them that their wish came out of love and not pride. I don’t see much difference between Alma and them (in this regard), so I can’t condemn Alma—not even a little bit—of being prideful.

    And frankly, I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t want to be “angels”—if what we mean is “servants of God who minister with power and authority” (i.e., the high priesthood). Mormonism’s major claim is that we can become gods; desiring to be a mere angel seems rather harmless by comparison.

    Given that I rejected the standard (and only) explanation for Alma’s “sinful” wish, I was left concluding that he was just being too hard on himself. Nathan’s exegesis changed that for me, opening up another way of seeing Alma’s wish. And while I’m comparing him to the 3 Nephites, it seems that what they wished for was to just keep on doing the Lord’s work—i.e., in the same way they had been. In contrast, Alma (as Nathan explains) wants to change the nature of how the gospel is spread on earth.

    In other words, it wasn’t the nature of what Alma wanted to be, but what he wanted to be able to do that was bad.

  5. NathanG said

    robf: I had no intention to accuse you of anything:)

    Brian and Matthew: I’d like to bring up one thing that is neither really pride or compulsion (brian #2). After posting this I reread Alma’s experience in Ammonihah with the eventual martyrdom of the women and children after those who believed were driven out of the city. What an awful experience. Is this some of the sorrow he wishes would not be on the earth. Later he talks about how all men have agency are allowed to choose life or destruction. He just witnessed the destruction that was chosen. I remember on my mission as my investigators were contemplating critical decisions such as baptism I would keep myself a little emotionally aloof, so when they would exercise their agency contrary to how I would have liked them too, I didn’t feel as much sorrow. In this emotionally detached state I would find myself wishing that their choice had been different. No magnify any sorrow I may have felt to what Alma must have had to endure, and I think we see a different level of wishing for something that just isn’t going to be (Alma preaching the gospel as an angel).

  6. Jacob M said

    That is an interesting way to look at it. I would like to put forth a thought. Alma was latter translated. To me this means the he eventually got his wish of being an Angel. I’ve always thought v.3 is similar to the three Nephites being ashamed of their desire to tarry. I’ve always thought it a lesson that God will eventually grant us the righteous desires of our hearts, but that it needs to be in his time.

  7. NathanG said

    Jacob M: That is an interesting detail that I had not thought of.

    There are, I think, some contrasts between Alma and the three Nephites.

    First, the three Nephites were translated so that they could continue to preach on the earth, which they did until such time that the people were too hardened to have them in their presence any longer (in Mormon’s time). When Alma was supposedly translated (and they only presume that he was), nobody heard from him again. We could speculate that he continued to teach, or we could speculate that he went wherever all the other translated beings went to hang out until Christ’s resurrection.

    My take on the three Nephites was that they felt shame in asking since everyone else desired to be back with Christ in a glorious resurrection, but they didn’t want that, at least not immediately. They wanted to continue to teach, but they weren’t really asking to have their ability to teach altered. Alma, on the other hand wanted the convincing power that he knew an angel had, he wanted to move from what man was capable of to higher plane.

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