Repentance and Conversion: Principles for All Times
In Alma 35, the Zoramites had become incredibly wicked and had just engaged in war with the people of Ammon. The Zoramites drove all the righteous people from their midst and were becoming increasingly more evil. In Alma 36, Alma speaks to his son, Helaman, and gives him counsel to help him endure through the trials he faces. Alma teaches the importance of two key doctrines: repentance and conversion. He does so through the story of the turning point in his life where he saw an angel and forsook his evil ways. The advice and counsel Alma gives to Helaman was not only applicable in 74 BC; it is also relevant completely relevant in our own lives.
The first principle Alma teaches in chapter 36 is that of repentance. The main way he teaches this is through example. In his talk, Repentance and Conversion, Russell M. Nelson delineates the repentance process, “As prerequisites to forgiveness, there must first be recognition, remorse, then confession,” (Nelson). Alma exhibits all these aspects of repentance and through that exhibition, teaches his son (and us) how to repent.
The first step in the repentance process is recognition. Alma 36:13 states, “Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities,” (Smith). When the angel confronted Alma, Alma did not simply feel guilty because he was caught doing things he shouldn’t. He remembered every offense against God, every transgression, every word that he had said that led people away from the church of God. He realized exactly how sinful he had been, and he became very suddenly aware that he had completely rebelled against God. Like Alma, the first step we take in repenting is seeing our wrongdoings and recognizing them for what they are, and were, without attempting to justify or excuse ourselves. This leads to acute remorse.
In Alma 36:12, Alma says “But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins,” (Smith). Harrowed means extremely distressed, and racked is defined as feeling excruciating physical or mental pain. Alma felt these feelings of anguish for three days and nights. He felt the pains of a damned soul, and was overcome with horror at the idea of coming into God’s presence. He wished he could be completely annihilated so that he wouldn’t have to stand and be judged by God for his deeds. These feelings of utter remorse consumed Alma until he remembered the words his father had told him about Jesus Christ and the atonement, (Smith). Depending on our sins, we may not have to feel such complete torment, but we still must feel regret and remorse for the things we’ve done; we must feel Godly sorrow and understand the weight and measure of our actions. These experiences with Godly sorrow fulfill the second step in the repentance process: remorse.
The final component of the repentance process is confession. Alma says that he cried out to God and asked for mercy because he was in the gall of bitterness, (Smith). I think at this time he also confessed his sins to God. Of course Heavenly Father knew everything that Alma had done, but that was not the point. The point would have been for Alma to admit all of his shortcomings and appeal to Christ to atone for them. Alma had to confess his faults in order to lay them on Christ and be relieved of that burden. When we sin, we must do the same. We must admit our shortcomings and ask God to grant us grace because of the atonemtent.
As stated by John Welch referring to Alma, “The mercy that was shown to him in his desire to repent (otherwise unworthy as he was) became the driving characteristic of his total existence,” (Welch). The knowledge of this available mercy would have been especially important in 74 BC (the time in which Alma gave his son this counsel) because of all the tumult and confusion his people were experiencing; and because that mercy had become such a big part of Alma’s life, he would have wanted to share the joy it brought him. The people were incredibly sinful and needed to repent, but Alma knew that no one in the city would listen to his cries for repentance except his son. The Zoramites were ripe for destruction and were too far down the path of evil to listen to a prophet of God, but Helaman was not. There was still hope for Helaman. Alma wanted to help him be strong in the gospel despite the atrocities surrounding him. He wanted to help his son experience the mercy that he had felt in his life because he knew that was the only way Helaman could withstand the effects of the evil in which he was encompassed. The power of mercy and forgiveness can and will bring us strength and peace amidst times of great struggle. We should apply Alma’s wise words about mercy and forgiveness to ourselves, and find hope in that knowledge.
The second principle Alma taught in chapter 36 was conversion. Alma proved his conversion in many different ways, but the first was simply through action. Elder Lawrence said, “it is insufficient to hear the word of God as declared in this conference or in other places of worship. In order to make it effective—to receive the promised blessings—we must follow it,” (Lawrence). Alma easily could’ve listened to the angel and felt guilt and then just decided to sit stagnantly and not do anything. When an angel confronted Laman and Lemuel after they beat Nephi and Sam, they stopped beating their brothers, but they didn’t do anything to show that they had been converted because of the experience. They simply continued complaining. Alma however, changed his way of life. He heard the words of the angels, realized what he had done wrong, and then, after waking up after three days, completely turned his life around and started working for God’s cause. We probably won’t have angels confront us about our sins, but we will receive personal revelation. When that revelation comes instructing us to change or do something, we need to follow it and not just continue in our way of life.
Russell M. Nelson said that “A repentant soul is a converted soul, and a converted soul is a repentant soul,” (Nelson). Obviously Alma was incredibly repentant, so he must also have been converted. But how does he show this? W. Mack Lawrence said in a general conference talk, “One who is converted and committed will not simply “go through the motions” in fulfilling a Church service assignment,” (Lawrence). Alma didn’t just go through the motions after he repented. He immediately started preaching the gospel. Alma said in verse 24 of chapter 36, “…from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance….” (Smith). It wasn’t a formal church assignment or calling like members of the church receive now, but it was an assignment from the Lord for the church. The Lord chastened Alma and put him on the path to build the church and help it progress. Because Alma was converted, he showed it through his diligence in keeping the commandments and sharing the gospel.
Conversion is shown by and through both our actions and our thoughts and feelings. Kendall Ayres said, “when we truly become converted to Jesus Christ, committed to Him, an interesting thing happens: our attention turns to the welfare of our fellowman…” (Ayres). This presents another way in which we know Alma was truly converted to the gospel. At the end of verse 24 Alma says, “I have labored…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,” (Smith). Alma was completely selfless in his desires for his people. He wanted them to be happy and to feel the joy that he felt. Because Alma was converted, his attention turned from himself completely to his fellow man and what he could do to help those around him find happiness.
Alma told Helaman the story of his repentance process and conversion, and by example admonished Helaman to repent and accept the mercy of God into his life. That helped Helaman become a strong leader and remain righteous even in the face of evil. The principles of repentance and conversion were essential in 74 BC, and they are still every bit as important.
In the present day, members of the church are constantly put in the face of evil and are surrounded by confusion and corruption. Alma’s story wasn’t just meant for Helaman. It is meant for us as an example so that we may triumph over the wickedness around us and be faithful through our afflictions. We can, and should take Alma’s counsel to Helaman and read it as if it is counsel to us. We need to be converted. As Elder Ayres said, “ ‘conversion’ means conversion to Jesus Christ, which implies a desire to assimilate the principles He taught and personified,” (Ayres). We need to be and do just that—be converted to Jesus Christ and assimilate the principles He taught and personified into our lives. We need to repent. We must recognize our sins and faults, feel Godly sorrow for them, and confess them to God and to others those sins may have affected. Alma 36 shows, through Alma’s experience, a perfect guideline for becoming converted and repentant. Elder Welch said, “We are the great beneficiaries of Alma’s remarkable candor about his own mistakes and successes. Alma spoke as a personal witness and bore personal testimony of the things that he had experienced and learned,” (Welch). Alma 36 is a great blessing and a great guide for us. We should learn from both his mistakes and his triumphs and strive to be more Christ-like, repentant, and converted people of the Lord.
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