Alma 39 shows us that destroying others’ testimonies is an ‘abominable’ sin

Thanks to Mike Parker and Michael Ash for these thoughts, which should be attributed to them. I thought they were worth sharing.

In Alma 39, Alma talks to his son Corianton and admoninishes him that he has committed “abominable” sins.

We normally think that his primary sin is sexual sin, but in fact if we read Alma 39 carefully, it is mostly about something else: destroying the testimony of other people.

To quote Mike Parker who wrote here:

Note that Alma tells Corianton that “these things [plural] are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.” What Corianton did wrong was more than one thing (i.e., just sexual sin alone).

Also note that after describing Corianton’s sins as “abominable,” Alma does not go into a discourse about chastity, but rather discourses on the unpardonable sin of denying the Holy Ghost and also “whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness” (39:6).

Let’s put this passage into context: What exactly did Corianton do that was “an abomination in the sight of the Lord”?

39:2. He did “go on unto boasting in [his] strength and [his] wisdom.” Okay, not so good there.
39:3. He “fors[ook] the ministry.”
39:3–4. He “did go over into the land of Siron…after the harlot Isabel.” Just because she “did steal away the hearts of many…this was no excuse for” Corianton.
39:5. It is “these things” — all of the above — that “are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.” Why?
39:11b–13. “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words. And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: ‘Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction’; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities; that ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly; but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.”
When the Zoramites saw Corianton’s behavior, they would not believe the gospel message taught by Alma (39:11b). This was so bad that the Lord gave a commandment directly to Alma to tell his children to do good so that people would not be lead to spiritual destruction (39:12). Alma commanded Corianton to repent and go the Zoramites and try to repair the damage he had done (39:13).
Through his sins Corianton was engaging in spiritual murder. Alma himself had been guilty of this as a young man, and had repented only after he was chastened by an angel. Alma himself confessed to his son, Helaman, that through his actions he “had murdered many of [God’s] children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14). It’s bad enough to commit murder; it’s essentially the same thing to kill testimonies by our bad behavior.
Compare Matthew 18:1–6. The disciples ask Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1). Jesus responds by comparing believers to little children: Only those who change and become humble as children will enter and become great in the kingdom of heaven (18:2–4). Whoever receives a person who has become like a little child receives Jesus himself (18:5). And whoever “offends” such a person is worth of capital punishment (18:6). The message is not about hurting little children (although, like sexual sin, that’s certainly a serious offense before God). Rather, the message is about adult believers in Christ: Anyone who causes one of them to stumble, sin, or fall away (KJV “offend”; see fn. 6a in the LDS Bible) is guilty of a capital offense. Just as someone who murders a person is worthy of death, so is someone who kills them spiritually by destroying their testimony or enticing them to sin.
This is very serious stuff. We’re rightly concerned about avoiding sexual sin. Are we just as concerned, if not more, about causing offenses that harm other people’s testimonies?

To sum up, one of the worst sins you can commit is to hurt the testimonies of others. Is this a lesson we are prepared to accept?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

16 thoughts on “Alma 39 shows us that destroying others’ testimonies is an ‘abominable’ sin

  1. I think this is definitely the right lesson to take from this scriptural passage. I think this is one area where intent is very important. It could be damaging to someone’s testimony if a person gets up in testimony meeting and promotes their political views. It could be damaging to someone’s testimony to learn that Brigham Young instructed the Saints to bring coffee on the westward exodus. It could be damaging to someone’s testimony to learn that Paul H. Dunn wasn’t always completely truthful in his stories. Does this mean none of these things should be brought up or discussed?

    Sometimes testimonies are fragile because they are built on a sandy foundation. That foundation needs to be replaced with the sure rock of Christ — but not everyone will successfully make the transition as their old foundation shifts from underneath them. It can be tricky to promote a sure and solid foundation (in contrast to someone’s existing shaky foundation) without risking damage to someone’s testimony as it is.

  2. Aside from not being the person to judge others sins unless it is your specific calling, the big trouble here is in how broad you make this. Is someone who truly believes in the Muslim faith commiting a sin if they are trying to convert a Mormon? I think this is more directed at those (like Nehor and Alma the Younger) who -knew- the truth and were working to convince others that it was false. Also, we can assume from the case of Alma the Younger that this is a sin that still can be repented of.

    I wonder how many people had a hard time forgiving Alma for his work in destroying their faith, even after he was called as a Prophet?

    Yes, teaching falsehoods when you know the truth is a serious sin (kinda like ultimate lying), but we’re not in a position to be able to judge if a person is trying to dissuade others from what he knows to be true as opposed to someone who is trying to dissuade others who does not know it to be true.

  3. Christopher and Frank, great points. It seems there are at least two lessons here that I can think of: 1)your example does matter, and if you do things that are sins and take down other people with you, it’s a bad thing and 2)concentrate your energies on building up the testimonies of others, not pushing people in the direction of questioning their own testimonies.

  4. If you look at all those things as a whole, I would argue that it isn’t that he was destroying testimonies, because that was a side effect. I would argue that it is that he had committed to teaching the word of the Lord, to being His representative here on earth, but deliberately put himself above service to his God.

    In essence, he broke the covenant he had made with the Lord.

    So, for those who have been baptized into the Church, and thus made a covenant to stand as His witness, forsaking that covenant (let alone weightier ones later,) especially in a way that brings others down with you, is the sin next to murder. It is, essentially, spiritual murder.

  5. Which is sort of what you said, except forsaking one’s covenant is more serious than sinning out of temptation or ignorance.

  6. Interesting! I had just barely read a compeltely different interpretation of that chapter that is along the same lines in a way- see (masturbation commentary aside).
    Basically, Corianton’s sin wasn’t sexual, it was religious- the “harlot isabel” wasn’t a woman he had a fling with, but represented an idolatrous religion he had turned to and brought others to. I thought this was interesting, given your interpretation as well, though I suspect the rest of that post goes in a completely different direction with it.

  7. As a reformed co-dependent, I have to agree with SR’s comment. We can’t be held accountable with what others do with our life. I have a daughter who taught me well that I don’t own either her success or her failures and I’ve recently written about that. On the other hand, I am accountable for how I’ve caused her to stumble (made her execution of her agency more difficult) and blessed for how I have increased her tools available to her in choosing. When Jesus said that it would be better that a millstone be hanged around someone’s head than that they cause someone vulnerable to stumble, I take that seriously, but I still can’t own their choice wholly. It’s a very fine and difficult line to manage. It should fill us with fear and trembling and send us to our knees regularly.

    I also wholeheartedly agree that part of the responsibility was his calling. There are extenuating circumstances that worsen some of our more unwise choices, as the sin against the Holy Ghost aptly illustrates.

    So how do we apply this knowledge? We warn. Unless we’re in a position to call someone to repentance, we have to be tenuous in our evaluations of their personal path. We can speak in generalities (as you have) but it’s ticklish speaking in your-life-alities.

  8. I’ve been on facebook too much because I tried to find the “like” button for Nathan’s comment. Brant Gardner has produced a great commentary on the BoM.

  9. Great post Geoff. Good comments all. This is a balance issue. It is important not to let others influence our lives, to the point it causes us harm, but yet in turn, we should not be offensive. Most of the people I have known, who have left the church, did so because of bullies at church. A few others left because of sin+pride, either their own or someone else. In all cases,after the wedge of sin+pride/bullying, then they allowed the anti’s to finish their faith off.

    Since we really only have control over ourselves and our own actions; we need to protect our testimonies. We need to be careful about what we truly believe in. For example, in my life I have decided I only have an absolute testimony of G-d, Christ, The Book of Mormon, and what Joseph Smith said he saw G-d and Christ in the Sacred Grove. Those are my hills to die on.

  10. It’s an interesting point, Geoff. The sins we commit ourselves may not even be as bad as the example it sets for others, which multiplies the negative impact one hundred fold.

    When we sin, sure we break a commandment. But this is not necessarily where it ends. It can be contagious, it’s consequences can reach out in unintended ways and reverberate across generations.

    I used to believe in the complete autonomy of the soul. But we are influenced by others powerfully, in positive and negative ways, that are of great consequence. What we do does have an impact on others.

  11. I think this adds to the reasons why his actions were terribly wrong and helps teach some true principles. But I cant help but think this misses the mark in that many of the brethren and prophets have commented on this passage and focused on immorality. Are they wrong or misguided? I would take these thoughts as a supplemental addition to theirs and not a replacement.

    How does this commentary square with previous teaching from the brethren? Again, its a good lesson to learn, but I think you can’t ignore the immorality aspect.

  12. Interesting detail, the word in Greek for “offend” in the verse in Matthew, is often translated as “cause to stumble.”

    verse 6 in this chapter: “For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once had place in you, and ye know that ye deny I, behold this is a sin which is unpardonable;

    Yea, AND whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness.”

    Alma is telling Corianton that his serious sin has been that of abandoning his calling to teach light and life and, not only that, then acting in ways that actually abet the spiritual death (separation from God) of others. Alma elaborates in verses 11 through 13 when he again warns Corianton not only to avoid Isabel but to avoid being led away by any vain or foolish thing because “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words. And now the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction…turn to the Lord…that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly”.

    The three great sins are not denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and breaking the law of chastity. The three great sins are denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and this third one: aiding and abetting another person’s spiritual death. Christ’s great work for us is the effectuation of redemption from physical death and spiritual death. You can see why it might be therefore that our greatest sins are committed when we work directly against that, causing physical death or spiritual death in ourselves or in others.

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