I recently read Garry Wills’ new book Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, a volume in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series published by Princeton University Press. (Incidentally, a volume on The Book of Mormon, written by the non-Mormon scholar of American Religion Paul Gutjahr, will be coming next April.)
Wills, describing Chapter 10 of the Confessions, writes:
After the profound preliminary section on memory, the examination of conscience by Augustine has a perfunctory air. He is checking off items on a list, some relevant to his situation, some not. Most such exercises have a mechanical air, like that of pilots running through the items on a pre-flight survey of the equipment, or like a doctor’s rundown of physical possibilities in a patient’s checkup.
Actually, Augustine is less mechanical than might have been expected. Others have used the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Cardinal Virtues as their guides to spiritual danger. Augustine uses a short formula from the First Letter of John (2.16) to cover all the temptations that can face a human being. In the Latin of his Bible, the Letter said: “The things of this world are the urges of the flesh, the urges of the eyes, and worldly designs.” (p. 106)
Augustine accordingly does a quick spiritual self-evaluation to see if he has sinned with regard to bodily desires for food, drink, sex, lovely possessions, or any of the pleasures of the five senses (urges of the flesh). He then checks on his indulgence in mental temptations such as idle speculation, frivolous entertainments, or knowledge that merely shocks or titillates (urges of the eyes). And finally, he asks himself about his weaknesses for power, wealth, and especially, for praise (worldly designs).
These sorts of lists are common among people who are striving for spiritual improvement, and they show up in The Book of Mormon as well. King Benjamin, for example, ends his famous sermon with a similar outline for taking stock of one’s moral state:
And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not. (Mosiah 4:29-30)
Remembering to regularly examine our 1) thoughts, 2) words, and 3) deeds is a useful religious exercise, though perhaps it is not quite as descriptive or provocative as Augustine’s list. Nevertheless, there is another passage in The Book of Mormon that features a checklist that really does rival in specificity those that might be employed in a cockpit or emergency room.
Alma 5 is the first of three recorded sermons that Alma the Younger delivered in his preaching tour of various Nephite cities, shortly after he resigned his position as chief judge. In the aftermath of the Amlicite Rebellion, which had been put down with much loss of life (“tens of thousands of souls sent to the eternal world”; Alma 3:26), the Nephites had repented, with several thousand joining the church.
But not long thereafter, as so often happened, their peace brought prosperity, which in turn brought pride: “the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches ... [and they] began to wear very costly apparel ... they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure ... yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions ... yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy, and the naked, and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted” (Alma 4:6-12).
Alma was thereupon inspired to give up his judgeship in order to focus on his responsibilities as high priest over the church, so that he could “go forth among his people, or the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty” (4:19).
The trouble, of course, is that the people he will be addressing don’t see themselves as sinners. They regard their comfortable lifestyles as well-deserved, their beliefs as superior, and social inequality as just and fair. In order to break through to them, “to stir them up in remembrance,” Alma’s sermon at Zarahemla is organized around the most extensive spiritual checklist to be found anywhere in scripture.
He doesn’t condemn the people directly; instead, he wants to get them thinking, and he does so with a series of about fifty questions, beginning with these three:
Note how subtle Alma’s approach is here. First, he starts out by asking them to think about someone else; that is, he doesn’t immediately launch into a sharp attack of their own sins, which would probably just bring on defensiveness and resistance. And second, watch how that he starts with “yes” or “no” questions. He’s not asking for a lot of spiritual effort here; he just wants his listeners to follow along.
It might be interesting to take a paperback copy of The Book of Mormon and underline each of the questions in Alma 5, one by one, so that you can follow the logic of his presentation. And then you can compare your analysis with that of John and Gregory Welch in their book Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo: FARMS, 1999), charts 61-65.
The Welches divide Alma’s series of questions into several sections: “Remembering God’s Acts for his People,” “Knowing the Essential Logic of the Gospel,” “Being Personally Converted,” etc. In my Reader’s Edition, I introduce subheadings that also help readers follow the train of Alma’s thought through the tangle of questions upon questions:
verses 1-13: Remember the Deliverances of Your Fathers – 12 questions
verses 14-25: Imagine the Judgment Day – 17 questions
verses 26-32: Repent and Prepare – 7 questions
verses 33-42: Hearken to the Call of the Good Shepherd – 2 questions
verses 43-49: Alma’s Testimony – 2 questions
verses 50-52: The Words of the Spirit – 0 questions
verses 53-56: To those Who Persist in Wickedness – 7 questions
verses 57-61: To Those Who Desire to Follow the Good Shepherd – 3 questions
Within this single sermon are some of the sweetest invitations for reflection in The Book of Mormon:
Have ye been spiritually been born of God? [Why is the adjective “spiritually” necessary here?]
Have ye received his image in your countenances?
Can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day:
Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?
There are also some rather pointed inquiries:
Can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness?
Can ye think of being saved when you have yielded yourselves to become subject to the devil?
Will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
Will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another?
If you are ready for a thorough spiritual checkup, read Alma 5 again, and take time to consider your answers.