“Be careful what you wish for,” is familiar enough advice that it usually elicits the same cause-and-effect response, “you just might get it.” The prophet Alma seemed to understand this principle a little clearer than most. You have likely heard the expression before, and possibly even used it yourself. But how much do you believe it?
“O that I were an angel,” is an intriguing exclamation by Alma, in chapter 29 of his record, when you compare it with the history that preceded and succeeded this statement.
We learn from the record of King Mosiah that Alma was a “wicked and idolatrous man,” and, “he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities.” (Mosiah 27:8) His friends, the four sons of Mosiah did much to destroy the church of God. They were “the very vilest of sinners.” (Mosiah 28:4) Alma, himself later states that he rebelled against God and “murdered many of his children, or rather led them away to destruction.” (Alma 36:13-14) But he changed.
Not long after the peak of Alma’s wickedness was this statement made about him, “Alma did walk in the ways of the Lord, and he did keep his commandments….” (Mosiah 29:43) The reason for the change was a visit by an angel in answer to his father’s prayers. In this visit, Alma was severely chastened. He became weak and helpless for three days. However, in this experience, the words of the angel awoke in him a realization of his misplaced desires along with the eternal consequences that were bound fast to his choices. One thing that makes Alma unique is how quickly he fully repented and began to repair the damage he had caused.
Between ten and twenty years later, Alma, as the high priest over the church, visited a city of people who lived after the manner of his former example. The people of Ammonihah were hardhearted and wicked, and they refused to listen to Alma. As Alma was weighed down by the burden of confronting the effects of his own sins a second time, through the sins of those people, an angel again appeared to him. It was the same angel that visited him before. The angel encouraged Alma and commanded him to return to Ammonihah again because there were people who yet needed to be saved, just as Alma had.
Alma knew the power of an angel. He also knew that he had personally done terrible damage in his earlier years. Recognizing that Alma was the beneficiary of a ministering angel on at least two occasions adds great significance to his wish. “O that I were an Angel, 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, and cry repentance unto every people.” (Alma 29:1)
A unique detail of Alma’s story is the fact that the manner of his death is not fully known. In abridging the Nephite record, Mormon said that Alma departed out of the land and was never heard of more. “As to his death or burial we know not of. Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man; and the saying went abroad in the church that he was taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord, even as Moses.” If that were the case, Alma got his wish.
While the history of Alma is interesting and worth reading, particularly the role that angels played in his life, it is not the part that I tend to focus on most. For me, the most important part about his story is the lesson on desire.
In the few verses that follow Alma 29:1, Alma says he sins in his wish because he ought to be content and isn’t. In verse 4 he says that Father grants unto men according to their desires with decrees that are unalterable. The word unalterable has a certain sense of finality – not that he will decree a judgment on us that is unfair, but that he will ultimately give us exactly what we want, because he is more than fair. This type of decree merits a closer look at what desire really is.
One may argue that desire is merely wanting. Perhaps it is. Yet we may receive according to our desires proportionately to their magnitude. Thus if our desires are great, the likelihood that we will realize them increases dramatically.
If a person who is close to death has a desire to live, and has any hope of doing so, their efforts to ensure that they do will likely be anything but casual. Survival becomes almost instinctive. People are willing to do almost anything to preserve their lives when they desire to avoid death. Whether it is our lives or other needs that we are willing to protect and preserve, we guard the things that are dearest to us. We keep these things carefully secured within the room our hearts with our desires. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Our desires and passions typically lead us to action. Just as faith without works is dead, desire without action may only be whimsy. We are beings that do what we want. If we want to work, we do. If you don’t want to work, but go anyway, be the judge if you are really working or just going through the motions. If this is true, we can more carefully measure what our desires are, not by what we want, but by what we do.
It is so important for us to watch our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. Each of them eventually shapes our desires. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.” Because this is true, and is consistent with what we are taught in scripture, it is worth a constant watch with accompanying prayer that we are not deceived. In addition to watching our desires, we need to watch for the adversary’s efforts to tempt us. A good friend of mine recently told me, “Desire is a good motivator, but like all things good, Satan loves to twist.” If we do not watch and pray always, Satan desires to have us, and he will use our desires to work against us rather than for us.
In contrast to the danger of misplaced desire, consider the instruction from the Lord to Joseph Smith regarding our wants. “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.” (D&C 88:67) As we focus on what the Lord wants, trusting that He truly wants us to be happy and is doing everything He possibly can to allow us that choice, our hearts change. They become new, and we become new creatures.
An interesting verse in the Book of Mormon tells us the importance of aligning our wants with God’s will. When Jesus appeared to the people on the American continent after His resurrection, He taught them to pray more sincerely. In 3 Nephi 19:24 we read that the people prayed without ceasing, and “they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire. If our desires are not aligned with God’s we can ask for help to change. When we do, He can teach us how to pray more sincerely. He can fill us with desire to do what is right. But, this can only happen when we are willing to turn our hearts to Him. We have to be willing to align our eyes so they are single to His work and His glory – to bring about our eternal happiness and exaltation. To have faith in Him is to trust that He is always right.
Remember, that when Alma changed and turned his heart to God, his exquisite and bitter pains were replaced with exquisite and sweet joy. He was filled with marvelous light, and was born of God. It was after he turned his heart and tasted of the goodness of God, that he knew he would be supported under his trials, his troubles, and his afflictions, and would be lifted up at the last day. (Alma 36:3, 20-21, 23)
Moreover, Alma taught his son, “see that ye bridle all your passions that ye may be filled with love….” (Alma 38:12) As we do, we learn to sing the song of redeeming love. The atonement becomes active in our lives and our hearts are sanctified that we cannot look upon sin except with abhorrence. In this process, we truly become like our Father.
Desires are a beautiful thing. They enhance the spiritual experience Father intended each of us to have on this earth. These desires are divinely given to help us become like Him. It is imperative that we remember why they are given so that we don’t consume them upon our lusts. Father has decreed that He will grant us according to our desires. Alma taught that what He grants is our choice, “whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yet decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.” (Alma 29:4) We are always safe when we choose to look to Father, ready to listen and obey.
Be careful what you desire, because your life will inevitably go wherever your desires may lead. That much has been decreed.