I had a beautiful and thought-provoking experience this week. A friend of mine experienced a spiritual rebirth and a mighty change of heart on Monday night. He'd made a bargain with God that if he could catch a fish that was big enough to keep, he'd read the Book of Mormon that evening, something he had not done in a long time. He then caught a fish that was exactly long enough to be legal. That evening, while reading the Book of Mormon, he received a personal witness that it was true and felt filled with God's love as if there were arms around him. He had a sudden outpouring of clear answers to whatever questions he asked the Lord and the on-going guilt that troubled him over past mistakes was swept away. He said he loved the way he felt; he wanted to hold onto that feeling forever. Despite a history of trouble with anger management, he was able to hold onto his peace, to be teachable and meek for two days. He was also given glimpses into a glorious future.
And then the world came suddenly crashing back. It was almost as if the idyllic two days hadn't even happened, except for one mighty difference. My friend was now earnestly wanting to do what was right and willing to pray for help through his battles with his temper.
It reminded me of Alma's teachings about faith and seeds and trees.
"Faith," he taught in Alma 32:21 "is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true." In other words, faith isn't a destination. It's what leads us along our journey toward that destination, what keeps us putting one foot after another, despite fatigue and encroaching darkness, especially when we can't even see the beckoning lights of the city ahead.
We initially exercise a particle of faith by making a choice to try an experiment, by giving a little bit of space in our hearts for the word of God. Maybe we decide to listen with hearts and not just ears to somebody else's witness. Maybe we read the scriptures or sing a hymn, or pray and really listen. However we do it, we give space for God to plant a seed in our hearts and make it grow.
And then it grows. Sometimes, that initial growth seems spectacular. Just like sprouting seeds can seem spectacular. I've done some sprouting this year, experimenting with different types of seeds. Wheat takes a couple of days to sprout, and then the growth is steady and impressive. You can see the difference in the size of the sprouts from one day to the next. Within four days, the sprout is generally as large as the initial seed.
Alfalfa, though, is incredible. It's almost (not quite) as if you could see it growing with the naked eye. A teaspoonful of tiny seeds produces a quart jar full of sprouts in just four days. So, whether they're "slower" growing wheat or the more-speedy alfalfa, seeds have a tendency to grow very noticeably.
For two days, the seed grew like alfalfa in my friend's heart. His experience was like the people of King Benjamin, who said,
Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.
And we, ourselves, also, through the infinite goodness of God, and the manifestations of his Spirit, have great views of that which is to come; and were it expedient, we could prophesy of all things. He felt a remission of his sins, filled with the love of God and eager to hold onto that feeling for the rest of his days. For him, the seed was sprouting like alfalfa. And to paraphrase Alma, he recognized that the word was good because it enlarged his soul, enlightened his understanding, and was delicious to him. (Mosiah 5:2-3)
During that period of time, it was easy to feel like the natural man was overcome, like the working out of his salvation was complete. But Alma alerts us that this is just the beginning of faith. We know the word is good, because of this initial, mighty change that it's wrought in us. But all we've achieved so far is to grow a sprout, and our call is to cultivate a tree that bears the incomparable fruit of eternal life.
I wonder if the reason that a mighty change of heart feels so spectacular is so that we can remember that experience along the rest of our journey, during the times when growth is slow and change seems imperceptible. Because trees grow SLOWLY. The mango tree, as a plausibly local example for Alma's parable, may take 5-8 years to bear fruit.
So, when the initial flush of conversion has worn off (as it inevitably does), when we are fighting once again with the natural man, watching our testimony wax and wane, and wondering if we imagined that outpouring of divine love and oneness with God, we are once again called to exercise faith. This is the time that Alma counsels us to nourish our tree "with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us" (Alma 32:37).
I love his referencing the roots, because that is growth that tends to be imperceptible but essential to a vibrant tree. I love it because I can look back on times in my life when the love of God felt like a distant memory, when my prayers felt like they bounced off the ceiling, when my study of the scriptures was punctuated by doubt about apparent inconsistencies instead of enlightenment. And I prayed, studied and obeyed anyway because I could remember the feeling of the seed when it swelled and sprouted and began to grow. I remembered feeling God's love and it being the most real and desirable experience of my life. And I wanted to feel that way again.
Now, I believe those were the times when I was growing roots for my tree. I felt like I wasn't growing at all. I actually feared I was falling apart. But the Lord let me choose to exercise faith in the fruit I wanted, in spite of contrary inclinations at the time. And diligence in choosing Him ultimately made the gospel ever so much more precious to me.
And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst (Alma 32:42).
For all of us who've ever felt those swelling motions of initial testimony, and for all of us who've ever had to exercise faith through what seemed to be a never-ending night, Alma's teachings about faith to plant seeds and nurture trees have profound application.
I'm grateful that my friend's faith has survived the reemergence of the natural man. That it took him to church today for the first time in years. I pray that each of us will have the diligence, patience and faith to continue nurturing the word in our own hearts so that it can grow up to a fruit-bearing tree.
What do you remember of the initial swelling of testimony in your own life? And what are the most effective ways that you've found to nurture your tree?