It's hard to imagine a more wrenching scene than Amulek, in bonds, wanting desperately to intervene as his wife and children and their trusting friends were about to be tossed by their enemies into a raging fire. He knew the power of the priesthood he bore. He had complete confidence that it could extinguish the flames. But when he cried out to Alma, "How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames" (Alma 14:10), Alma replied, "The Spirit constraineth me that I must not" (Alma 14:11).
It must have been acutely painful to swallow Alma's explanation that the martyrs were being lifted up to glory and there was a divine purpose for permitting the catastrophe to continue. When Amulek then said, "perhaps they will burn us also" (Alma 14:12), I imagine there was longing in his voice.
But neither he nor Alma was martyred. Instead, their torture continued. The chief judge, who had presided over this execution, waited until the flames had consumed all the bodies of the victims, then approached Alma and Amulek to gloat over them. He struck them in the face and then he challenged them: "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...What say ye for yourselves?" (Alma 14:15).
I marvel at Alma and Amulek's forbearance in not even replying. And I wonder at what was going on inside their minds.
In the past, I used to think that the chief judge, a follower of Nehor, had misconstrued the situation. I thought that Alma and Amulek did have the power to save the martyrs, but didn't exercise it because the Spirit constrained them not to. But did they? If they had ignored the constraints of the Spirit and stretched forth their hands to rebuke the fire in the name of Jesus Christ, would they have been able to put it out? I think not. I don't believe priesthood power can be used contrary to the will of God and the guidance of the Spirit.
I wonder what would have been the Ammonihahites' response if Amulek had replied, "I couldn't save my family because that wasn't God's will and I can't exercise His power contrary to His will." I'm inclined to think they would have dismissed it as a convenient excuse. But if not, if they'd actually believed him, I think they would have been perplexed and offended.
They were a people who craved power to the point that they were studying to undermine the liberty of the Nephites; to the point that they casually killed a multitude of women and children who refused to fall in line with their system. For them, mystical power would be all about being able to get what they wanted. I think they would have been repulsed by the notion of seeking to wield a power that depended on the will of an all-powerful Other, a power that would abandon you if you tried to use it for something else.
Alma and Amulek had a very different perspective on power. For them, it conferred capacity to bless and to become. They didn't want supernatural power to do something contrary to God's will, because they wanted to be fully aligned with God and they knew that was how they could do the most good for others.
For a long time, I have seen the Ammonihahites as an object lesson on the dangers of seeking after one's own will. They seem to have devolved into a narcissistic society that wielded what power they had destructively, without any concern for how it affected others. I thought the way to avoid becoming like them was to forget about my will and just seek after God's.
But now I think that picture is too simplistic. I no longer believe that seeking one's own will is a bad thing. In fact, I think it's vital and that a fundamental purpose of coming to Earth was to figure out what we really desire. When Nephi was caught up into a mountain by the Spirit of the Lord, the first thing the Spirit said to him was, "Behold, what desirest thou?" (1 Nephi 11:2). Come judgment day, the scriptures teach that we will be judged according to our desires: "The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil" (Alma 41:5).
I don't think that the Lord wants us to sacrifice our will to His. I think that He hopes that we will develop a will like His, that we will learn to love what He loves, to seek what He seeks. And yes, that involves sacrifice, even wrenching sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice of what we intensely want now, for what we desire even more. Amulek in Ammonihah wanted desperately to save his loved ones from a fiery death. He couldn't do it by the power of the priesthood, but he might have bargained for their lives in exchange for a denial of his faith. To the Ammonihahites, whose desires were focused on the physical world and the present moment, such a bargain would have made perfect sense. For Amulek, who loved goodness, whose deepest desire was to come unto Christ and to bring his loved ones with him, such a bargain would have been unthinkable.
What all of this means to me: I want to make my choices in a way that is mindful of my true desires. And when I minister to others, I want to do so in a way that honours their desires.
I'm not sure how to do that in situations where someone is so caught up in temporal longings that they've lost connection with their deepest desires. Recently, I was present when someone was invited by the Spirit to serve the Lord in ways he didn't think he wanted to serve, and promised that if he did, he would become the man he did not yet know that he wanted to be.
I think my role at a time like that is to express confidence in God's love and that He keeps His promises. It is to encourage without manipulation but with honest persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and unfeigned love. And then, to continue to communicate love and confidence, even if the person decides they aren't ready to sacrifice their temporal desires. Also, I can pray for them. And trust God to do the heavy lifting. His Spirit can kindle a burning desire from a dormant ember. The best I can do is invite His Spirit.