This is the second post in a series about how, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we gain power within each part of our beings: our Heart, Might, Mind, and Strength. The first post, found here, is an overview and explains how I understand these principles.
This second post considers in more detail how the Atonement helps us overcome the shortcomings of our Heart, or – as I understand this – our spitritual selves. (The next post will look at our Might, or emotional selves).
Our spiritual wellbeing is usually damaged
by sin or transgression of God’s laws – something we are all guilty of. Together with the resurrection, this aspect of the Lord’s Atonement is taught most fully in the Church, and understandably so. Without these elements of the Atonement our futures would look very bleak indeed. Nephi’s brother Jacob explained it this way,
“For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more. O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more. And our spirits must have become alike unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.” (2 Nephi 9:6-9)
I will not repeat all that is taught in our Sunday lessons on Christ’s Atonement for our sins. It is frequently taught, and I don’t want to duplicate those discussions. Rather, I will just make one or two points about things that have had a particular significance for me as I have read and studied the scriptures on this topic. None of these points will necessarily be new or interesting for anyone else, of course, but they have helped me to gain a greater appreciation for the Atonement, and for the love Jesus offers me.
I was struck while reading in the Doctrine and Covenants a few years ago, the well-read passage in section 19,
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink….” (D&C 19:18).
One thing struck me from this verse itself, and then another from the surrounding verses. The first point is that the Saviour Himself states that the reason why He asked the Father if there was another way (see Matthew 26:39) is because He wasn’t necessarily certain He could get through it – in His words, He might “shrink”. I had never before considered that. Here was a task so big, and so unimaginably difficult, that even the Son of God, the Messiah, the Creator of all things and the Judge of all, was maybe not sure that He was up to the task!
I had always previously imagined the Saviour’s plea to the Father that the cup be removed if it were possible to have been related – yes to the enormity of the task – but more to the degree of suffering He would have to endure. In this passage in the Doctrine and Covenants one interpretation seems to suggest that it may have been, at least in part, because He wished for a way that perhaps He felt more confident in. His concern wasn’t about how much pain He would have to endure – He was willing to suffer any amount of pain for us and to fulfill His Father’s will – but His concern was rather whether He was sufficient for the task: whether there was a road more certain of success. He seems to be saying, “Father, now that I see this task more fully, I’m not certain that I can do it. This is risky, and because it is so important – everything thou hast created hinges on this moment – if there is another way, then it would be preferable.” But there wasn’t another way. He still went through with it, paid the price, and was triumphantly victorious – and this makes the second point even more impressive to me.
Both before and again after the verse quoted above the Lord makes the point. The fact that He makes it either side of this tells me He is trying to emphasise the importance of it. I’ll quote them both together here,
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I….Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken….” (D&C 19:16-17, 20)
I like the “Wherefore” in the above scripture. The Lord is saying, “This is the whole reason there are commandments to repent – by repenting, suffering is avoided.” It is amazing to me that Jesus Christ, our elder brother, the firstborn of the Father in Spirit and the only begotten in the flesh would take upon Himself a task so enormous that He wasn’t sure whether He would succeed, in order to remove suffering for us. He risked Himself so that we wouldn’t have to suffer – even when there was no guarantee we would accept it. What love!
I think the most dramatic example of this power in action is with Alma the younger. When he faints after seeing the angel, he says he was,
“racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.” (Alma 36:12-14)
These are no feelings of sorrow simply for being caught. Alma isn’t suffering because the Lord won’t allow him to be happy in sin, as many of his descendants would feel nearly 500 years later. Alma’s remorse is genuine, and it is intense beyond anything many of us will likely have felt in this life. Alma explains to his son that it is so intense, in fact, that he wishes he did not even exist any more, “Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body….” (Alma 36:15)
But those feelings didn’t last. Alma’s suffering because of his sins kept up that intensity – so intense he remained unconscious – for three full days, at which point he finally came to understand that he needed Christ:
“…I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. 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.” (Alma 36:17-18)
As genuine as was Alma’s pain, so was his final recognition that he needed Christ. It is interesting that he needed three days of exquisite pain to remember the words of his father. His suffering could have been reduced if he had paid a little more attention to his father’s teachings. But he had buried those words very deep in his mind, probably determined that he was never going to heed them, and it therefore took something fairly dramatic, which included extended and excruciating pain, for him to dig deep enough into his own soul to remember them.
But having found those words of his father, his recognition that there was only one who could save, that there was one who could redeem him, was total, “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)
And by finally calling upon the Saviour with his whole soul, his pains were taken off him – they were transferred to another who would feel those pains for him – who would pay the price of his sins for him. And in place of pain, there was joy,
“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!” (Alma 36:19-20)
For most of us this transference of pain isn’t so instant or so complete, but when we see Alma’s life after this, we can see how complete his repentance was, and how thoroughly converted he was. When we talk about this passage of scripture we usually focus on the repentance of Alma which, to be sure, is an important lesson Alma was trying to teach his son. But for me, just as important in this passage is the change from exquisite pain to exceeding joy. That is the point of the Atonement according to the passage in D&C 19 – Christ suffered so that we don’t need to – and Alma is teaching his son, and us, that he learned the hard way that working for worldly definitions of success brings only intense sorrow: it is Christ who brings joy.
For most of us, the process of developing faith in Christ is a gradual one which takes time. It is like the seed that is planted and nourished to grow little by little. And as our faith grows, so our capacity for repentance grows, because faith in Christ will lead to repentance, and true repentance is a change of our hearts, or natures, “…the holy scriptures [and] the prophecies of the holy prophets…leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them….” (Hel 15:7). This is the true challenge of mortality – to change our natures; to become a people inclined to righteousness; to become Saints.
This was what happened to the people of King Benjamin. After he concluded his speech to them, they,
“…all cried with one voice, saying: 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.” (Mosiah 5:2)
Their natures had been changed – they had overcome the natural man, which is precisely what King Benjamin had been teaching them was necessary,
“For the natural man is an enemy to God…and will be, forever and ever, unless he…putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord….” (Mosiah 3:19).
There is a difference between wishing we were righteous, and having no more disposition to do evil. I wish I were righteous. I have a desire to be a better person than I am; to keep my covenants more faithfully. But when push comes to shove, people still irritate me and I still react sinfully; I get grumpy when I am tired; I criticise others when I should have more love for them; etc. My wishes for righteousness are in conflict with the natural man in me, who is far from being overcome. The challenge for me is to move from wishing I were more righteous, to having no more disposition to do evil.
This is the process of sanctification – the process of casting off the natural man; overcoming our sins to such an extent that we have become people who no longer have any propensity to do evil, but to do good continually. This process can only be achieved for any of us through the Atonement of Christ.
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” (Moroni 10:32-33).
In it’s fullest sense, this is the state we will be in once the Atonement has wrought fully on our hearts.