We’ve all seen the movie scene where the hero or heroes walk in super slow motion through explosions, train wrecks, the concrete runway to a space ship, gunfire, or other dramatic and death defying scenery while some amazingly crafted music plays amid slow and deliberate helicopter thumping above that causes us all to drool and think to ourselves “these guys are so awesome”. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and your mom has done it. That’s why it’s in the movies, over and over again.
Variations on this theme could include the super slow motion impact of a Russian boxing glove causing spittle and blood to erupt from Rocky Balboa’s mouth, or maybe his blood stained face hitting the mat and bouncing like a rubber kickball.
The point is, these scenes are designed to stir deep feelings in us. And they work. What they try to depict is great power, strength, the will to overcome, or absolute show-stopping beauty and/or victory over all odds.
These scenes are pretty awesome on their own, but they are extra cool if we have been shown the backstory, struggle, and hardships that the hero had to endure before getting to this dramatic victory point. Rocky had to get pummeled to the point of near unconsciousness or death by Ivan in order for his comeback to be dramatic. Rudy had to endure rejection after rejection after rejection before finally getting accepted into Notre Dame. Harry has to withstand 7 years of turmoil and ridicule from peers, death eaters, and everyone else before he gets to the turning point. If we aren’t exposed to the tear-wrenching struggles that the hero endures, to the point of hopelessness then we can’t enjoy the success story of finally overcoming the battle.
As viewers of these stories, the more invested we become in the back story (the internal struggles, the motivating factors, the love and agony, and the ever growing willpower to endure) that is developing within the hero during the hard times, the more the story means to us at the moment of triumph.
In Alma 9-14, there is a story that fits this mold. Alma the younger, and his companion Amulek are preaching the word to the people who live in the city Ammonihah. The people of Ammonihah are not to eager to help them out – or even be friendly at all. Prior to this event, Alma had already tried to preach to the people in Ammonihah (Alma 8:8-13) without success, and he had gone through many struggles (much labor in the spirit, wrestling with God in mighty prayer, and eventually they reviled him, spit upon him, and caused that he should be cast out of their city). With that, Alma’s backstory includes “being weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul”. It was at this time, while Alma was “in the furnace of affliction” (see 1 Ne. 20:10) that he is instructed to go back to the city of Ammonihah and preach to them again. He didn’t get to lick his wounds, he didn’t get to take a time out, and he didn’t get to move on to a nicer city. He was instructed to continue his tribulation and anguish of soul with more tribulation and anguish of soul. We all know that a tragic backstory is only improved by more tragedy right?
Alma meets up with Amulek, who happens to live in the city of Ammonihah (with a backstory of his own), and they start preaching. Notice in verse 1 of their record (Alma 9:1) that as soon as Alma started teaching, the people started contending with him. They didn’t wait, they didn’t take it easy on him – they likely remembered “casting him out” previously and were looking forward to it again. This continues while both Alma and Amulek preach to the people, and then it comes to a head when the people get so angry with them that “they took them and bound them with strong cords” and presented them to the chief judge of the land. To add to the tragedy of this back story (it will still get a lot worse), one man who happened to believe them, and was convinced of the truth, stuck up for them and “began to cry unto the people” (including the chief judge) – only to have the people “spit upon him, and cast him out” as well.
Being tied up and bound is bad. Having someone who sticks up for you cast out is worse. But then the people who have become angry take it to the next level by spreading that anger to others including “all those who believed in the words which had been spoken by Alma and Amulek; and they cast them out, and sent men to cast stones at them”. Now it’s really bad. Imagine that you are Alma at this point and you think to yourself. “Why was I told to come preach here again”? It seems that anyone who believes me is getting cast out, stoned, or being treated poorly”. I doubt he thought to himself “this tragic backstory is just getting better and better”.
Not satisfied with simple stoning’s and physical rejections, the angered people of Ammonihah decided to pass the point of no return when “they brought the wives and children [of those whom they’d cast out and stoned] together, and whosever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire”. We are now at level 10. This is bad. But, the tragic backstory continues without relief, because they (the people of Ammonihah) then “took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire”. Put yourself in Amulek’s place. He lives in this city. He likely knew most all of these people who believed and were carried forth to the ‘place of martyrdom” (after all, he was ‘a man of no small reputation’ and ‘had many kindreds and friends through his industry’). This backstory just became absolutely gruesome for Amulek. He can’t handle any more, and pleads with Alma to “exercise the power of God” to save them, but it wasn’t meant to be.1
That tragic incident adds to our investment into the backstory of these two missionaries/prophets. I can’t help but feel pain and loss and anguish with them in that moment of struggle and despair. And it gets worse.
After this martyrdom of all the believers, the chief judge and his cronies come and pour salt into the Alma and Amulek’s wounds. They come over and taunt, sneer, and “smite them upon their cheeks” all while asking if they have anything else to “preach again to this people”. The chief judge, like most others in positions of assumed authority, is really feeling good at this point. He no doubt enjoys the fact that Alma and Amulek are bound with strong cords, it makes him feel powerful; he likely watched them shed many tears of sorrow during the atrocious burnings, which added to his feeling of power. And now he is reveling in his showy demonstration of power to these two, and to further prove his assumed power, he says “ye see that ye had not power to save those who had been cast into the fire; neither has God saved them because they were of thy faith. And the judge smote them again upon their cheeks, and asked: What say ye for yourselves?” The chief judge thinks he is in charge. He thinks he has power. And not just power, he thinks he has much power. He thinks he is powerful. He continues “know ye not that I have power”? He commands them to speak, to answer, to respond, but “they answered him nothing”.
It probably can’t get worse can it? Yes, it can.
This continues for the next several (many) days. The chief judge and his priests jeering, taunting, gnashing their teeth upon them, spitting upon them, mocking them and smiting Alma and Amulek all while asking them that “If ye have such great power, why do ye not deliver yourselves”? And “they did withhold food from them that they might hunger, and water that they might thirst; and they also did take from them their clothes that they were naked”. Can we even imagine many days of this torture, after being forced to witness ‘the place of martyrdom”? I can’t. Yet through all this suffereing, Alma and Amulek ‘answered him nothing’. Kingly silence (sound familiar)?
At this point, the viewer/reader should take a time out. Pause, and recognize that at this very moment, the moment when there is no way it can get worse. Death would be the only release from this torture. This is the point where Rocky falls on his face on the mat. This is where Rudy sits down on the bench before opening the letter knowing full well that it’s now or never – literally. This is the point where the hero might actually succumb to the weight of the task. This is the tipping point where the music starts to play very softly, and we sense that something amazing is about to happen. The hair on our arms and legs starts to stand up, and we can sense some real power is just around the corner. And while that may be true, this inkling of real power, might just be enough to endure a bit more tragedy. Because as the music starts to play softly, the chief judge, and his cronies one by one “even until the last” went forth and smote them one last time, saying the same words (prove to us your power). Then it happens.
“When the last had spoken unto them – (not until after the very last had spoken their bitter angry words) the power of God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet”. That was it. I imagine two starving, thirsty, beaten, naked, dirty, bloody, and physically weakened men roped to a wall in a prison taking punch after punch from the chief judge and his evil priests for “many days” – all of a sudden stand up with a look in their eye that is unmistakable. Absolute majesty and power. That look on their face is the look of righteous anger – kindled. They stand up, they cry; “O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance”. And then they broke the cords with which they were bound. The music is starting to get a little louder at this point, and the bad guys even hear it (not to mention the scene of their prisoners miraculously loosing their bands). They know that their pretend power is no match at all for these two – and “they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. Shadows and darkness flee before the light.
Now, we are at full crescendo in the soundtrack; the priests and the chief judge and the lawyers and the teachers (all the bad guys) are overcome with fear and fall to the earth (still within the prison), the earth shakes mightily, the walls of the prison are rent in twain and everyone inside the prison is crushed by the falling walls.
Queue movie scene above, where the prison walls are crumbling down, huge cement stones are flying everywhere, debris is crushing bad guy after bad guy after bad guy (with screams of anguish, despair, panic, and the very definition of fear on their faces), dust and rocks are flying everywhere and there is no possible way that anyone can survive the destructive carnage brought about by this mighty earthquake. People nearby can hear the destruction and run to see what is happening only to see Alma and Amulek as they straightway came forth into the city – somehow unscathed. These people see this scene – two starving, thirsty, beaten, naked, dirty, bloody, and physically weakened men who had been bound in prison and made to endure unspeakable torment – walking calmly from a scene of great destruction… and they run away. “They fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions”. What a great description of real power. The image of these two was powerful and wonderful and awe inspiring, even as “terrible as an army with banners”. 2 Power that has absolutely nothing to do with physical strength and everything to do with men “becoming as [children], submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon them” (Mosiah 3:19).
Alma and Amulek might not have ever known that they would be delivered. They certainly didn’t have a countdown to deliverance chart in the prison that they were able to track. They may not have even known until that very moment when ‘the power of God was upon them’ that they would even be delivered at all. Such is the case with us. Our tragic and necessary backstory is being written every day. It will include some trials, some wrestling with the Lord, some taunting, some jeering, some smiting upon our cheeks, and maybe even some hunger, thirst, imprisonment, or silence from the heavens.
After all, our trials are hand crafted just for us – that’s why they are our own. I don’t get your trials and you don’t get mine – because it’s easy for me to deal with, solve, and overcome other people’s problems, but somehow very difficult to deal with, solve, and overcome my own. Nephi felt that way when he said, “I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all” (1 Ne. 15:5) and if Nephi felt that way – I can feel that way. Our afflictions are tailored specifically to our needs by a loving father in order to maximize effective humility and produce faith and repentance (which leads to positive experience, wisdom, testimony, gratitude, and patience). So in a sense, our afflictions are and should be ‘above all’ and they cannot be compared to other people’s afflictions (or the outward manifestation of their afflictions, which may seem much easier to bear than our own). Yet, we should try and recognize our afflictions for what they are – contributions to our backstory that will ultimately lead to the most positive moment of triumph and we can be given the power of God.
So, in the moment when it seems dark, heavy, gloomy, or when people are jeering, smiting, and taunting us, let’s remember that if we are patient, attentive, and humble, the power of God will come upon us – and at some point in the future we will just know when it’s time to stand up. We will hear (or feel) the hero soundtrack start to play, so “just keep listening, because pretty soon you’ll start to figure out your part”. 3 Let us in that moment, be able to ‘standwith brightness’. The Lord himself has told us “I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are… in this the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness – clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (D&C 5:13-14).
1 – I don’t include it here, but this is a common theme in the world (If God really loves us, why does he allow us to suffer? The answer is in Alma 14:11 and it has at least 2 parts; 1) Innocent people (especially martyrs), killed by wicked people are ‘received with glory’ into heaven; and 2) the Lord loves us all enough to give us free agency and choice – even if we use or abuse that agency to kill or take a life in order to provide perfect justice to all. There can be no arguing with the consequences of murder. In other words, the Lord allows everyone to seal their own fate by their actions, choices, and agency.
2 D&C 5:14. See also Songs of Solomon 6:4,10
3 – See “Glorious” by David Archuleta
Artwork above taken from LDS.org (1991 Gary L. Kapp)