In 1990, President Henry B. Eyring gave an address to Seminary and Institute teachers in the Church Educational System. He shared an experience he had when his boys were still in high school. He explained that his son, Matthew, had been called to serve on the seminary council and had just returned from a meeting in which they were determining their theme for that particular school year. As Matthew walked in, he told his dad that he was hoping he would be willing to carve something for the seminary. He then handed President Eyring a piece of paper that had the phrase that was to be their theme for the year. The theme they had selected was a quote from President Ezra Taft Benson which said, “The Book of Mormon will change your life.” President Eyring carved that phrase onto a beautiful plaque for the seminary. He shared how that plaque had been hanging in that particular seminary building for several years and how he had hoped the students who saw it would come to believe it.
Because his audience was a group religious educators, President Eyring then explained how the Book of Mormon itself is the greatest curriculum ever developed because it is designed to lead to a divine change in the hearts of its readers. He said, “You know and I know that if a person will read the Book of Mormon, it will describe that change and how to have it and will draw you to it more than any other book on earth.”
As we read the Book of Mormon we realize that it not only describes this change, but that it also illustrates how to experience it. As we read the accounts of the characters in the Book of Mormon we are drawn in to their story. We come to see what they saw, feel what they felt, and are inspired to experience what they have experienced. Perhaps a story will help illustrate this principle.
There once was a young man who had grown up active in the church and had always participated in whatever priesthood assignments came his way. In many ways he was a very ordinary LDS boy. As he went through his young teenage years, he struggled a bit with confidence but had a tendency to try to mask these insecurities by telling jokes and trying to make others laugh. While his, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” attitude seemed to be convincing to many, he knew that he lacked the confidence that comes from knowing who he really was and the work in which he was meant to be engaged.
As he went through high school, he attended seminary and appeared to really enjoy the lessons. While he seemed to feel the Spirit and have good experiences in both seminary and at church, the gospel had not taken root in his heart and his private religious behaviors were left wanting. Because of this lack of depth in the soil of his soul, the temptations of the world would come and scorch the seed thus leading him, like young Joseph Smith, to “frequently [fall] into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led [him] into diverse temptations, offensive in the sight of God” (Joseph Smith—History 1:28).
During the last couple of months of his senior year, he took a challenge to read the Book of Mormon for himself. At first it seemed as painful as it had been the many previous times he had started this seemingly impossible feat. But then . . . something changed. As he read the experiences of the characters in the book, he felt like he could relate to the feelings they had. Over time, the reading became not only tolerable but delicious! He began to spend more and more time in this incredible book of scripture. This diligence allowed the Spirit to prick his heart and lead him humbly to his knees in seeking forgiveness for his sins. As he petitioned the Almighty in prayer and supplication, the Lord, in his mercy and grace, reached down and snatched him from the grasp of sin. As he continued his study of the Book of Mormon, he began to feel the fire of the covenant and the penetrating words became etched on his soul. He had felt of the Lord’s rescuing power and continued to seek His guiding hand.
As a result of these experiences this young man’s life completely changed. The music he listened to, the movies he watched, the way he spoke to others, and the way he spoke about others all changed. His desires changed, his motives changed, his conversations with his buddies turned from girls, sports, and food to the gospel, missions, and the temple. . . . and probably still girls. In fact, nobody had to ask him to serve a mission because, at this point, there was nothing that could keep him from sharing his testimony of the Atonement with others.
The young man in this story . . . is me. I experienced the Atonement in a way and with a power that I cannot describe. I wanted to share the gospel with others more than anything else in this world! I had felt the burden of sin and the guilt of being unclean. When forgiveness came, I did not know quite how to process it other than to cry out in humility and profound gratitude that the Lord saw fit in his infinite mercy to “save a wretch like me.” From that moment on, I remember the distinct impression that if the Lord could forgive me and sanctify my soul, then He could surely do it for everyone else. Furthermore, I thought and felt that if he could change my heart and I could experience the exalting joy of forgiveness, then surely such a thing would be desirable to others if they could but feel what I felt. This then led to a fire in my bones that drove me to want to share the gospel with everyone I saw.
I suppose one of the reasons the conversion experiences of those in the Book of Mormon resonates so deeply with me was because I feel like they give words to my own personal experiences where I have been unable to “say the [even] smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16). These experiences were initiated as I began to drink deeply from the pages of the Book of Mormon and was thus drawn in to these inspiring stories. As I felt the penetrating power of the Holy Ghost, I realized that I was not yet the person the Lord expected me to be. I began to view myself in my own “carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:2). Indeed I felt “racked with torment” and “harrowed up by the memory of my many sins” (Alma 36:12, 17). It was in the midst of this pain and suffering that I cried within my heart my own version of, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18). For a small moment, I wondered if relief would come. I continued my prayer with my own plea of, “God, if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee” (Alma 22:18).
As I continued this “wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2; emphasis added), I began to feel peace and “my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain” (Alma 36:20). Indeed “there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:21; emphasis added) as I felt “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). I remember feeling relief and feeling hope as I had been touched by the Savior’s amazing grace. I remember thinking, like Enos, “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1:7). I wondered how my guilt could be swept away, taking with it all of the pain, sorrow, and feelings of being unclean. The familiar answer came softly and gently to me, “Because of thy faith in Christ” (Enos 1:8).
I now had my witness. This experience led me on a mission and caused me to choose as my missionary plaque scripture, Mosiah 28:3, which reads, “Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.” I chose that verse because I felt that those were the deepest thoughts and feelings of my heart also. I felt like I was “the very vilest of sinners” and was deeply humbled that “the Lord saw fit in his infinite mercy to spare [me]” (Mosiah 28:4). I thought that if others were feeling the pains of transgression, they too should have the opportunity to be sanctified and cleansed. Having learned for myself, I—like Alma—have tried to “manifest unto the people that I had been born of God” as I have “from that time until now, labored without ceasing . . . that I might bring [others] to taste of the exceedingly great joy of which I did taste” (Alma 36:24).
I had learned, firsthand, that “after an encounter with the living son of the living God nothing is ever again to be as it was before.” My desires changed. My focus changed. My dreams changed. My music, my language, my interpersonal relationships, my commitment to my covenants, my love for the word of God, my professional ambitions—it all changed. As I felt the grace of Christ sanctify my soul, I felt that which was spiritual dross melt from my heart. In saying all of that, I continue to have those moments where I am less than I should be and I cry out, “O wretched man that I am!” (2 Nephi 4:17). I continue to be “encompassed about because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me . . . nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:18; emphasis added)! In this mortal journey, I am still not the person that I ought to be and am certainly not who I want to be or hope to be in some future day. But still, I am not what I once used to be and, as the Apostle Paul said, “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10; emphasis added). And that, to me, is one of the most important messages from the Book of Mormon. God be thanked for His mercy in providing us these powerful examples and patterns to follow as we strive to experience this change through our own continual encounters with the divine.
Ryan Sharp is a full-time religious educator and speaker at Especially for Youth, Best of EFY, and at Brigham Young University’s Campus Education Week. He served as a full-time missionary in the Auckland New Zealand Mission. He earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies from Brigham Young University. He completed a master’s degree in educational leadership and is just finishing his PhD in health promotion and education, both from the University of Utah. He married Jessica Farish in 2005, and they are the parents of five incredible and energetic little boys. He loves sports, writing, spending time with his family, wrestling his boys, and studying and teaching the restored gospel.
Ryan’s latest book, Meeting Christ in the Book of Mormon, shows how mortal men came to know the Savior. Learn to meet Him as they did by following in their footsteps and discovering Christ in new and profound ways.