As I have pondered and prayed as to what I might say that would be helpful, my thoughts have continued to return to the account of Alma the younger’s repentance experience as recorded in Mosiah chapter 27 and again in Alma 36. I pray that the Spirit of the Holy Ghost will be with us today and that we will allow Him to communicate with us and teach us what He would have us learn, whether it is through my words or His gentle promptings and thoughts given to each of us individually.
As you will recall, Alma was living a life that was contrary to the desires of his father and hurtful to the Church. He was described as a wicked and idolatrous man, one who was going about trying to destroy the Church.
You remember what happened. An angel of the Lord came unto Alma and the sons of Mosiah. The angel asked them why they were doing what they were doing. The angel explained that the Church they were trying to destroy was the Lord’s Church and that nothing was going to overthrow it save it be the transgression of the people. The angel instructed Alma to stop—to seek no more to destroy the Church. And if he didn’t, he would be destroyed.
Alma was stunned by the angelic visitation. The scriptures describe Alma as being so astonished by the visitation that he became dumb and couldn’t function for three days. During that three-day period, a repentance experience is recorded which is unparalleled in the scriptures. The experience resulted in Alma leaving his past behind him, never again to persecute the Church. Instead, he proceeded to go about building up the Church, teaching, baptizing, and testifying of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His level of commitment and conversion was so great that he continued on this path—without wavering—for the remainder of his days.
I have often asked myself, what was it about this experience—and this man—that brought about this unwavering, permanent level of commitment and conversion that lasted forever?
Before exploring some of Alma's words describing his experience, I would like to share with you a personal experience as an analogy. I am not suggesting that this example is meant to explain Alma's experience, but perhaps this analogy might give us something to ponder as we face the challenges in our own lives when we find ourselves not on the right path.
As President Clark mentioned, I have a passion for flying. Over the years, I have earned a number of ratings, one of which is an instrument flight rating. When completed, this rating authorizes a pilotto fly in instrument conditions—in other words to fly in the clouds or fog or in conditions in which the pilot does not have visual reference with the ground.
In order to receive this rating, a pilot must pass a flight examination. Part of the exam requires the student to actually pilot an airplane under simulated instrument conditions while accompanied by a flight examiner.
I remember the day of my flight examination well. After successfully completing the oral part of the exam, I felt pretty confident. I had been able to articulate the pertinent flight rules and was able to explain how flight instruments work. Then came the flight test. After taxiing to the runway, I successfully executed a take off and climb relying only upon the flight instruments. When we reached the assigned altitude, my examiner, a wonderful man by the name of Bob Clayton, directed me to demonstrate a few maneuvers relying only on the flight instruments. After completing the maneuvers, he then asked me to demonstrate what is referred to as an NDB holding pattern.
This maneuver requires the pilot to fly to an imaginary point in the sky, as indicated by flight instruments, and then depart from that point in an assigned direction. Then, in simple terms, the pilot flies elongated oval patterns, each revolution, crossing over the imaginary point, or, what pilots refer to as the initial fix.
I flew directly to the imaginary point or initial fix. I banked the airplane until I had intercepted the assigned course for the holding pattern. I was confident that I had headed in the correct direction. But as I approached the point where I should start turning and create the oval pattern, the needles on the flight instrument seemed to go the wrong direction. The more I turned, the further from the correct course the needles seemed to indicate.
I became confused. I started turning the other direction hoping that by chance I might find my way again. This time, the needles didn’t even seem to move at all. I became more confused and became nervous. The stress of the situation increased. All this time, I was also trying to maintain control of the airplane and maintain a constant airspeed and altitude.
Needless to say, the situation continued to deteriorate. For a moment, I thought maybe if I adjusted the flight instrument, possibly the needles would line up and I would magically get back on course. That idea failed immediately. I knew I was hopelessly off course, and I knew that my examiner also knew I was off course. After making a couple more futile attempts to get back on course, I realized I had no idea where I was. I made a decision. I turned to my examiner and said: “I have lost my way; I would like to return to the initial fix and try the maneuver again.” He responded by saying that he thought this would be a splendid idea and that I should probably do it very quickly since I had strayed way off course. I returned again to the initial fix and this time was able to properly demonstrate the holding pattern.
The flight test continued and my examiner asked that I demonstrate other maneuvers. But, as I did, it seemed that I wasn’t doing a very good job. My altitude and airspeed began to fluctuate; my maneuvers seemed choppy, not smooth. My concentration wandered from the maneuvers I was asked to demonstrate tothe memory of the terrible mistake I had made. Even though I had corrected the mistake and successfully shown that I knew how to do it, I just couldn’t seem to let go of how badly I had erred. My confidence began to fail me. I was embarrassed. I started questioning my every move. I was not hearing all of the instructions that my examiner was giving me. Doubt about the whole exam entered in and soon, I had convinced myself that I had probablyfailed the exam.
This great flight examiner sensed my loss of confidence and my discouragement. To this day, I will never forget what he did. Bob Clayton said, “Richard, let me take the controls for a minute." He then gave me some great advice. He told me that I had made a pretty monumental error when I began the maneuver. But even in the midst of the mistake, I had kept the airplane straight and level, I had not lost control. He told me that when I had realized my mistake, I admitted it to myself and to him. And then, I had made a great decision and chose to return to the place where I knew I could get back on course. Then he said, “Take a deep breath. Forget about your mistake. Go forward with this test and show me what I know you can do.” My confidence began to return. We continued on with the test.
Upon completion of the flight test, we landed and returned to the room where we had conducted the oral part of the exam. As we reviewed the flight portion of the test, Bob Clayton helped me understand what I had done wrong in the holding pattern maneuver. I was surprised at how such a minor error had gotten me so disoriented and so far off course. He then explained something that has stayed with me all these years. He told me that he can usually tell within the first ten minutes if a pilot can handle an airplane in simulated instrument conditions. But, he said, what is really telling about a pilot’s ability is what he does when things go wrong. He informed me that I had passed the test because of two reasons:
1. First, when you discovered you had made a mistake, you didn’t spend a lot of time continuing on the wrong path, hunting and hoping to accidentally find the true course. You didn’t try to fool yourself and, more importantly, you didn’t try to fool me that your incorrect course would somehow lead to the correct destination. Instead, you chose to be honest with yourself. You admitted that you were off course and you then made a great decision—to return to the point where you knew you could begin to get back on course.
2. Second—and equally important—when discouragement, frustration, and doubt entered in as a result of your mistake, you were able to heed my counsel and let it go. You didn’t allow the memory of your mistake to spoil the rest of your exam. And then he said there is something I want you to remember: disastrous airplane accidents often begin with a single simple mistake. Yet the actual cause of the accident is usually due to a pilot's loss of control of the airplane. Too often a pilot becomes so overwhelmed and preoccupied with a mistake, that even though it may be corrected, he fails to pay attention to flying the airplane and then loses control which in turn results in disastrous consequences.
For twenty years, this experience and the counsel that Bob Clayton gave me have helped me become a better pilot and probably have saved my life during some difficult flying conditions.
In that context, I return and focus on a few of the words Alma used in describing his experience.
We marvel at the tremendous change that Alma experienced. Many attribute it to being visited by an angel, but certainly the prayers of righteous parents helped. However, scriptures contain a number of accounts of wayward children raised by good parents who prayed for their children constantly, some were even visited by angels. Yet, they never experienced that “mighty change of heart” that Alma experienced. What was it that brought about this tremendous conversion?
After describing to his son Helaman how astonished he had been by the angelic visit, he said:
And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; . . . for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was t ormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. 1
The role of the angel in this repentance process, although a jolting influence, seems secondary to something much greater.
Last week, in his devotional address, President Clark referred to the parable of the Prodigal Son, and particularly, the scripture that describes that difficult moment when the prodigal son “came unto himself” and faced the reality of his circumstances. So it was for Alma. In the midst of this startling experience of seeing an angel, he chose to face his circumstances. He was honest with himself and with God. He acknowledged his sins. He faced the painful reality of a life which had gone badly off course. As painful as this realization was, he did not kid himself, he did not whitewash his actions nor did he minimize his mistakes.
It was during this very candid and painful time that Alma made a decision. Rather than to continue to 'follow strange roads', using Nephi’s terminology; and fooling himself to think that through minor adjustments or zigzagging on his current path, he might miraculously get back on the right path; instead, Alma decided that he must abandon his present course and return to a place that he knew would get him on the right path again.
He explained to his son that as he was being “racked with torment” and “harrowed up by the memory of my many sins” he:
Remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. 2
In the midst of his pains, Alma chose to return to the eternal truth that had rung true in his heart many years previous—his knowledge and testimony that there would come a Savior to the world and that through His Atonement, He would redeem men from their sins and forgive them.
Alma immediately and thoroughly jettisoned his old ways. He repented. He was forgiven—all in the matter of a few days. He described to his son that:
I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. . . there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains . . . on the other hand there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy. 3
But, that is not the end of this remarkable account. I would suggest to you that it was really just the beginning. From this pivotal point in his life, he explained to his son that:
Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; 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.4
Alma did not hesitate. When he said, “I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more,” he meant no more—never again. He did not allow the memory or regret of his sins to stand in his way. For almost thirty years—the remainder of Alma’s life—he went forward with faith, hope, and confidence not only in the Lord but also in himself. Gone were any barriers that might block the direction that he knew his life must take. And Alma refused to allow the barriers to ever rise again.
As we face the reality of our life, choosing to be honest with ourselves and with God; repenting of our sins, forsaking them forever, and then tasting of the sweet forgiveness that comes through the Atonement of our Savior; all the barriers which might block our path which our Father in Heaven has directed us to follow are also gone. The Savior promised:
Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.5
Intellectually, we understand this doctrine of which I have spoken. In the daily living of our lives, sometimes it seems difficult to implement.
During the past three years more than a few times, I have spent long hours talking to missionaries—dedicated, worthy, repentant missionaries—who continued to be haunted by past mistakes. These are missionaries who had felt the forgiveness of their sins. But, when life became difficult, and it always does at some point on a mission, they allowed doubt and guilt and embarrassment of the past to once again enter in. These feelings then blocked the progress of their missions and stole from them, and the Lord, valuable time.
I would like to share a story and a comment from Elder M. Russell Ballard.
Elder Ballard knew a young man who had been guilty of past moral transgressions. At times in his life, he had repented and had been victorious over temptations. Other times he had not. He had worked with a number of priesthood leaders over the years and seemed to have conquered his past temptations. This was a young man who had served in the Church. He had married in the temple and had a wife that loved him and was devoted to him and their family. Intellectually, he had a great understanding of the gospel and of Heavenly Father’s plan. Yet he continued to struggle.
In a conversation the young man had with Elder Ballard, the young man said to him, “I knew that I was a child of God,” he said. “But, to be honest that thought didn’t give me much comfort. I figured that I was one of Heavenly Father’s bad children and that all I had succeeded in proving during this life is that I wasn’t one of the ‘noble and great ones’ Abraham saw.”
Elder Ballard continued, “This young man served in significant Church callings. People praised him for his effectiveness as a priesthood leader, but he was unmoved by their praise. He assumed that he had simply fooled them, that if people knew the truth about him and who he really was, they would know he wasn’t what he appeared to be.
“But it was my friend who had been fooled. Satan had convinced him that he was fighting a losing battle, so when temptations came his way, it was easy to give in. He was after all, one of God’s bad children; therefore, it was understandable if he occasionally did bad things."
There is no truth in Satan's deception. We are good. All men and women born into this world come here good. We are good because we are Spirit children of our Father in Heaven. We kept our first estate. At some point in the premortal world we stood and said, “I will.” I will accept my Father in Heaven’s plan and come to earth in order that He might “prove us herewith” as to our devotion, our love, and our willingness to obey Him.
The young man who Elder Ballard described in the story had been deceived. Even though he had forsaken his sins, he yielded to Satan's deception that he was bad and would probably always be bad. As a consequence, he refused to let go of the pain; the pain of past sins; pain that the Savior Himself desires to lift from us. The refusal to let go of the pain not only blocked his path forward, but started again a cycle of returning to his past ways.
Alma on the other hand chose to let go of the pain and “be harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.” He resisted the temptation to look back and linger on the doubt and fear and regret that he had once faced and had conquered. Yes, he let the pain go; refusing to believe he was inherently bad.
Each of you, like Alma, has something great and wonderful to contribute to others. But, just like Alma, we won’t be able to accomplish this work if we are mired down, wallowing in doubt, guilt and regret for things of the past which the Lord has forgiven and which He no longer remembers.
Brothers and sisters, may we have the faith and courage to let go of the pain of past sins of which we have repented. I have a testimony that the Lord has lifted them from us and remembers them no more.
The Lord needs you. It just might be that your contribution, and the love you extend to another will be the Heaven sent influence which will “lift [another's] hands which hang down and strengthen their feeble knees”6 unto realizing once again that they are children of Heavenly parents and that they are good.