Lately in my scripture reading, I have come across the word harrow.
Alma in the Book of Mormon uses this term the most, particularly when he tells his son the story of his conversion.
We don’t know a whole lot about Alma’s younger years, but we do know that he was a jerk – the “vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4). He did some pretty bad stuff, but before he completely destroys his life and those around him, he gets a spiritual smackdown. The wake-up call must have worked because he quickly returns to his faith, becoming one of the best missionaries of all time and converting thousands of people.
As Alma shares his conversion story and life experience, in a kind of final blessing he gives specialized advice to each of his sons. This is where we start to see the use of the word harrow.
Back in the midst of Alma’s divine smackdown, the amount and enormity of his sins finally dawned on him.
But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
What did Alma mean by using the word harrow?
Turns out that a harrow is a… gardening tool. Didn’t help my understanding much. My dad, who grew up on a farm, would have to educate me.
He told me that a harrow is a farming tool used to prepare the soil for planting – something that has been used by farmers for centuries. After plowing, the soil is uneven and full of clods and rocks – not suitable terrain for seeds. So the farmer brings in a harrow – a rack of metal prongs that, when dragged behind a tractor, digs into the dirt, breaks up clumps, and evens out the surface of the soil.
Harrowing readies the field for planting.
I could now see why Alma used this word in describing his sin-laden soul. The realization that you have done something wrong and all the guilt and shame that comes with it feels awful.
You know the feeling – that pit in your stomach when you make a mistake, the lead in your chest when you hurt someone’s feelings, the down-turned eyes, the curl-up-in-a-ball feeling.
Harrowing is a pretty good description.
Alma knew that feeling well.
Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.
Here, Alma describes the feeling of godly sorrow, or feeling guilt and regret for sins. Despite how much godly sorrow hurts, it differs from regular sorrow.
Regular sorrow – worldly sorrow – tells you that you are stuck, that you can never escape. It tells you that you cannot and will not ever change.
Godly sorrow, on the other hand, acknowledges the wrong act and motivates you to correct and move on.
Here’s the thing about harrowing – farmers don’t harrow a field to beat it up for not being good enough. Farmers wouldn’t waste their time on unsuitable ground. They know good soil when they see it, so they harrow to soften the hard, rocky dirt and prepare it for new seeds. In the same way, godly sorrow softens our heart and prepares it for new life.
That is why godly sorrow is one of the first steps of repentance. When we allow the knowledge of our sins to harrow our soul, we are allowing God to prepare us for a better harvest.
Alma described these blessings best –
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: 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.
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.
Realizing your errors is a tough thing to do because it hurts. But the joy that comes through repenting is far greater than the pain.
Repenting is so much more than simply saying sorry for our mistakes – it is a process that helps us become more like Jesus Christ. Repentance renews our determination, our faith, and our view of God and our Savior.
Don’t allow the soil of your heart to become hardened. But if you do find a little dry earth, don’t think you can not change. You can change. Just loosen the ground, plant some seeds, and you will feel “exquisite and sweet… joy.”
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