This week I finished the Book of Mormon again, and if I were to guess, I would estimate it was somewhere around my 40th completion of the book.
This was one of the most impactful and mind-expanding readings I’ve ever done. And yes, I’m aware that I say that every time.
When I started this time, I began with a research question: I wanted to focus on what the text says about belief.
Can belief be chosen? What factors go into that choice?
What is the difference between belief and faith?
How is the word unbelief used throughout the text?
And so forth.
I pondered and highlighted every single reference to belief and unbelief that I came across. But one in particular stood out and left me contemplating its meaning and implications for weeks.
9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
10 And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and 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.
11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
It’s hard to express how extraordinary this passage is.
What we see here is a model of coming to understanding that is directly at odds with “propositional” faith, which only indicates a person’s willingness to give assent to abstract ideas. Alma speaks of knowledge of God in terms of “mysteries” that are only available to people who are ready to receive them. And this readiness comes from decisions made at the level of the heart, not through scientific or other academic forms of investigation. Nor does it come from simple assent to the beliefs of others in our community.
Alma talks about a lesser portion of the word, and a greater portion of the word. What might those be?
Here are some examples of the “lesser portion of the word”:
Do I fit in among the people around me at church?
If I did ___, would people at church judge me?
What is the bare minimum of belief I need to have in order to get a temple recommend?
Is it okay to have dealcoholized wine with my dinner?
If church policy x evolved over time, then why should I feel obligated to observe it?
Can I get away with not wearing garments some of the time?
All of these are questions that are commonly asked by members of the church, and there is nothing inherently wrong with these questions; they just reflect 1) a horizontal faith, centered on the perceptions of people around us, and 2) a mentality of “what can I get away with?”
Here are some examples of the “greater portion of the word,” in the form of questions from the scriptures.
And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? Moses 7:28-29
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
…Whom say ye that I am? (Matthew 15:16)
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? (Luke 10:36)
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
And I said: Lord, how is it done? (Enos 1:7)
Now go back and read the “lesser portion” questions, and compare them to these “greater portion” questions. See how fundamentally different they are? The lesser portion questions are endlessly debated in contentious discussions on social media. The greater portion questions are answered in consecrated service to others, in quiet contemplation under the stars, during moments of thought while doing housework or taking care of horses, in dreams, while rocking a baby, and in quiet moments of insight and understanding conveyed from God’s spirit to ours. And one of the greatest modes of learning the “greater portion” is through suffering.
Alma also says that if we are only able to receive the “lesser portion,” it is because of the hardness of our hearts. What does that mean? It means that we have no room for the greater portion because other things are taking up that space, and we are unwilling to evict them. What might those be?
Obsessive thoughts of the past and the future
Alma says that fixation on the lesser portion of the word, and refusal of the greater portion, is what is meant by the chains of hell that drag people down to destruction.
Look at blogs and social media influencers whose focus is on the lesser portion of the word. Look at the constant airing of grievances and the contention. Look at the compulsive accusation and the rationalizing of sin. Look at the verbal stoning of the prophets, and the inability to love enemies. Look at the interpretation of scriptures in the most self-serving ways in order to justify sin and hatred and unforgiveness.
Hell is definitely experienced here and now. Its fixation on the lesser portion of the word is a seductive temptation for every one of us, me included.
Now, look at people who are oriented toward the greater portion of the word. They are capable of superhuman acts of forgiveness and grace. They see a long game at work in the redemption of God’s children. They try to act from their divinely-informed values, not from their grievances. They become capable of receiving more and more of God’s wisdom, God’s mysteries, and God’s perspectives, because they can be trusted not to misuse those precious gifts in the service of their petty cravings for revenge or prominence or whatever.
These are profound lessons from Alma. I don’t understand why those passages never stood out to me in all of my previous readings.
On second thought, yes I do.
In previous readings, I wasn’t prepared to receive them.