The Miracle Equation

I’ve always struggled with the question of “What can I feel good about?”  The scriptures consistently condemn pride as a grievous sin and extol humility as a key attribute of a Christlike character.  But I have been blessed to see miracles in my life and the lives of others, and I have been fortunate enough to play a small role in some of those miracles.  When that happens, am I offending the Lord by noticing or taking joy in whatever contribution I made?

The Book of Mormon provides a wonderfully clear answer to this question in the 26th chapter of Alma.  Ammon and his brothers have been reunited after their missionary journeys, and Ammon is talking about the success they have enjoyed.  He celebrates that they have “been made instruments in the hands of God” in bringing about the miraculous conversion of thousands of Lamanites. (V. 3).   As Ammon rejoices over their success, Aaron cautions him to tap the brakes, as he fears that Ammon’s joy is “carrying thee away to boasting.”  (V. 10).

Ammon’s response not only addresses whether it is acceptable to feel good about our accomplishments, but it also provides a formula for success:  A Miracle Equation.

Ammon makes clear that his celebration is limited with respect to his own efforts.  He is willing to take credit for two things only.  First, for “showing up.”  As he reminds his brethren, none of these miracles would have occurred if they had not “come up out of the land of Zarahemla.”  Simply put, Ammon gives himself props for being where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there.

The second thing Ammon is willing to take some credit for is working hard.  He and his brothers “did thrust in the sickle” and “reap with [their] might,” laboring “all the day long.”  (V. 5).  Ammon understood that hard work was a prerequisite for the specific miracles they had experienced, and he took  joy in the fact that he and his brethren rolled up their sleeves and did what was required.

So Ammon is comfortable taking some satisfaction for things that were within his control and agency.  But he also recognizes that without divine help, his individual efforts would fall far short of miraculous results.  He acknowledges:  “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.”  (V.12).  Ammon does not suggest that he was the difference-maker; rather, he knows that without the enabling power of God (what we might properly refer to as “grace”) there would have been no miracle.  But when God’s strength was added to Ammon’s mortal efforts, “Yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.”  (v. 12).

This then, is the Miracle Equation:

(Showing up + Hard work) + God’s strength and grace = Miracles.

Is it really that simple?  I think it is, especially because the “hard work” in the formula necessarily includes exercising faith and repenting so that we can be fit receptacles for the system upgrade that comes through the power of God.

This also allows us to feel good about fulfilling our part of the equation.  We all have our agency as to where we are going to be and what we are going to do.  If we make choices consistent with what is expected of a disciple of Christ, we should feel good about and rejoice in those good decisions.  Living the gospel isn’t always easy, and often there will be no one to pat us on the back but ourselves.  It is perfectly acceptable to look in the mirror and say, “Not bad, dude.”  Where we get into trouble is when we discount the divine and think that we are bringing about miracles from our own efforts.  Pride occurs only when we take God’s grace out of the equation.

Engraving His Image on our Countenances

Chapter 5 of Alma is probably my favorite chapter of  the Book of Mormon, although I’ll admit that I haven’t developed a “Top 40 Countdown” of chapters from Book of Mormon.  It is one of those chapters that, for whatever reason, resonates with me in a way that stands out from other passages of scripture.   This is not to be confused with Jacob 5 (the extended olive tree parable), which resonates with virtually nobody.

I think that much of the appeal of this chapter is the series of self-interview questions that Alma invites the Nephites in Zarahemla to apply to themselves.  As he tries to take the spiritual temperature of the people collectively, he gives us the opportunity to conduct some self-analysis concerning our own relationship with God.  He opens by asking whether we have been “spiritually born of God,” and refines the question with this familiar inquiry:  “Have ye received his [Christ’s] image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14).

I think that this question hits upon the defining destination of discipleship:  Do we believe in and follow Christ so closely that when other people look at us, they can “see” Christ?  Are we where He would be, doing what He would be doing, and saying what He would be saying?  This theme is touched upon throughout the scriptures and in the sacred ordinances we perform in the Church.  In His intercessory prayer on behalf of his twelve apostles, Christ prayed that they would be unified together, and also that they would be “one” with Him as He is one with the Father.  At the center of our baptismal and sacrament ordinances is the covenant to take upon us the name (i.e., the identity) of Christ.  The very nature of the word “atonement” suggests bringing us together as “one” with Christ.

We discussed this concept in my seminary class today, and we talked about the importance of how our behavior is perceived by other people.  We talked about acting in such a way that other people will be able to see Christ in our conduct.  But as we read further in Chapter 5, I was struck by a follow-up question propounded by Alma that forces an even closer evaluation of our own behavior.

Alma encourages his audience to imagine the final judgment and what their ultimate interview with Christ will be like.  He asks, “Can you look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands?  I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?”  (Alma 5:19).  This is a much harder inquiry.  It is one thing to be able to convince our friends, family, and other associates that we are walking the walk of discipleship, even if our hearts are not fully aligned with our actions.  It is a much different thing to “look up to God” at the last day and have Him see His own reflection in our faces.  There is no chance of pulling off the “long con” when our judge knows perfectly not only our actions, but also our thoughts and desires.  At that point, there is there hope of escaping scrutiny through a technicality: We will be what we will be, and He will know the unvarnished truth.

Discipleship can be daunting, especially when we consider that our ultimate objective is to be able to see the face of Christ and have it reflected in our own.  That will be no easy sell, and one cannot help but wonder how anyone can hope to escape that final interview with their salvation intact.  Fortunately, Alma makes clear that there is hope, and it comes from the very individual who will be our final judge.

First, the type of disobedience addressed by Alma is clearly defined.  He sets as the contrast to bearing the image of Christ those who “have set at defiance the commandments of God.”  (Alma 5:18).  It is the bull-headed disobedience of those who know what they should be doing and willfully opt for another path that would keep us from receiving all of the blessings the Father is prepared to give us.  For those who honestly strive towards obedience, Alma promises that Christ’s “arms of mercy are extended toward them.”  (Alma 5:33).  He assures us that even if we have gone astray, “a shepherd hath called after you and is still calling after you,” and that our task is to “hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd.”  (Alma 5:37-38).

Thus, while those who “persist” in wickedness (a word that Alma uses several times in verses 54-56 to describe willful disobedience) cannot have a place with the Savior, Alma reminds those who repent and strive to keep the commandments that Jesus Christ is “full of grace, and mercy, and truth.  And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name.”  (Alma 5:48).

To me, what this means is that the only hope of being able to look to God at the last day with His image engraven on our countenances is if we have permitted Him to do the engraving.  It is only through the atonement that we can become, using Paul’s familiar expression, “perfected in Christ.”  We become at the end as we were at the first:  A creature of His creation.  Through our best efforts we can only hope to be a rough-hewn imitation of our Savior.  But having done so, at the final judgment, the greatest sculptor of all will chip away at all of the stubborn stone of our character and bring us into His perfect image.