There is an unusual chapter in the Book of Mormon in which Alma reflects on his missionary experiences. Mormon quotes this passage (Alma 29) without introduction, and it is only from the text itself that we can tell it was written by Alma the Younger. For seventeen verses, Alma shares his deepest feelings, including his misgivings and his discomfort, about his missionary service. It is a candid discussion, in which he grapples with the gap between his vision and the realities he has experienced. Unlike Alma’s other writings, it’s not clear who his intended audience is. It reads like a journal entry, a self-reflection, intended to help him work through his own thoughts and feelings.
He opens the passage with a lament: “O that I were an angel,” he cries, “and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth.” If only he had more power, more eloquence, more influence over others, then he would be able to achieve his ultimate goal: “that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (Alma 29:1-2).
His motives are good. He’s not seeking power so that he can subjugate or harm others; he just wants to help them overcome their own self-defeating behaviors so that they can be happy. And it’s not hard to understand why he imagines that he would be more effective as an angel. After all, when he was a rebellious young man, it was the sudden appearance of an angel that jarred him out of his foolish state of mind, caused him to rethink his direction, and ultimately led him to embrace the blessings of the gospel. If the appearance of an angel could do that for him, couldn’t it do that for anyone? And if so, then why shouldn’t everyone have that experience?
But Alma quickly self-corrects: “I am a man, and do sin in my wish,” he says, “for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me” (Alma 29:3).
Was his original desire a sin? And if so, why did Mormon choose to include it? More broadly, should we approach our discipleship with the passion manifested by Alma in the first two verses or with the circumspection of the third verse?
I think the answer is “Yes!” We need both. That is the paradox of discipleship. A true disciple of Jesus Christ loves all of God’s children and wants to do everything he or she can do to bring them back to Him. But a true disciple is also willing to submit to the will of the Father in all things. After reminding himself that God is just, that He loves all of His children, and that He gives each of them ample opportunities to choose, Alma again questions his initial desire: “Why should I desire that I were an angel?” he asks. “Why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6-7). Then, he goes on to rejoice in the miracles he has been part of, the lives that have been changed by the gospel, and the success of his good friends, the sons of Mosiah, in their missionary labors. The passion was a critical part of these successes, but that passion was channeled and constrained by an awareness that Alma and his friends were acting on behalf of the Lord, that they needed His help and guidance to complete their missions successfully, and that their efforts were part of a much bigger work which was directed by God Himself.
Today, I will remember the example of Alma the Younger. I will seek to emulate both his enthusiasm to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and his willing submission to the will of God. I will strive to develop a spontaneous desire to serve others, tempered by an awareness that I can’t do everything. I will therefore focus my efforts on fulfilling the assignments that I have been given by the Lord.