Understanding the Atonement

The Atonement is something most of us have all heard about, read about, or studied about at some point in our lives. Atonement is the word that refers to the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the entire purpose of His coming to Earth. It’s something we will probably never fully understand in this life, but we will come to understand at least some of the parts that we personally need to access. The Atonement of Jesus Christ covers so many different things, not just sins – pains, afflictions, sicknesses, death, and even temptations (Alma 7:11-12). That means that Christ, your Savior, knows exactly what it’s like when someone tries to get you to swear or drink alcohol or do drugs or even temptations that might not seem so serious like “I’ll just watch one more episode of this show even though I’ve been watching it for seven hours already” or “I don’t really need to go to that service project. Plenty of people will already go and they don’t really need my help.” Christ’s Atonement covers that and any pain you’ve ever had – pain of a broken heart, a broken arm, arthritis, migraines… Whatever it is He has felt it in the same exact way YOU have felt it. neweralp.nfo-o-97d

Sister Chieko Okazaki, a former member of the General Relief Society Presidency (1990-1997) said this when speaking to women (though it applies to every single one of us):

“We know that Jesus experienced the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It’s our faith that he experienced everything- absolutely everything. Sometimes we don’t think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don’t experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means he knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer- how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced Napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism.

Let me go further. There is nothing you have experienced as a woman that he does not also know and recognize. On a profound level, he understands the hunger to hold your baby that sustains you through pregnancy. He understands both the physical pain of giving birth and the immense joy. He knows about PMS and cramps and menopause. He understands about rape and infertility and abortion.

His last recorded words to his disciples were, “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20) He understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He’s been there. He’s been lower than all that. He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save his people in their imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and our grief.

So do you really think you’re shielding Him by keeping the door closed? Do you really think He doesn’t know? Doesn’t understand? The door to Him is always open, but the door to you can be closed and stay closed, if you choose to close it.”

While I was at institute on Thursday night, there was a lengthy but extremely enlightening discussion concerning this topic of the Atonement. We mostly focused on what it was like for Christ to go through so much pain and suffering that He would be able to know our own pain and sufferings PERFECTLY. Luke recounts what the Savior experienced in Gethsemane saying in chapter 22 verse 42-44:

“…Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

The Savior Himself wasn’t sure He was ready or even that He wanted to do what was about to happen. But because He exercised faith in His Father and continued on with the Atonement, He received help directly from heaven to give Him the strength He needed to complete His purpose for coming to Earth. Instead of giving up at the beginning, He pressed forward. Instead of giving up after experiencing a few minutes of pain, He pressed forward. Instead of giving up towards the end, He continued onward in faith and was able to endure the pain – pain so great that no human being would ever be able to survive even just a part of it – and continue on to finish His Father’s will. When Jesus Christ was experiencing YOUR life in the Garden of Gethsemane, He didn’t give up on you. He continued on so that He would know exactly how you feel, what you’re experiencing and why you make the choices you make. Why? Because He loves the Father and knew that in completing the Atonement, it would make it possible for you to be brought back into the presence of God, for no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God (Psalm 24:3-4, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Nephi 10:21, Alma 11:37, Moses 6:57). But it wasn’t just because He loves His Father that He didn’t give up on you. It’s because He loves YOU.

The other night at institute, we were discussing the suffering that Christ went through in Gethsemane. At one point, we brought up the scripture Doctrine and Covenants 122:8 which says “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” This section of the Doctrine and Covenants came to Joseph Smith when he was in Liberty Jail in Missouri. For those who don’t know, Liberty Jail was nothing more than a root cellar where the men with Joseph couldn’t even stand up straight. They were there from December 1838-April 1839 – a period of about five months in the dead of winter. Food was brought to them by the “guards”. And it wasn’t food fit for a dog to eat, let alone six grown men. Not to mention that those guards were members of the mob wanting to kill Joseph Smith and every Mormon there ever was. D&C 122 was given to Joseph Smith at a time when he wondered where God was in all of this – hadn’t he done everything the Lord asked? Why did he deserve to suffer so much pain and sickness? Why did he deserve to be torn from his family in the middle of winter? Was God punishing him for something?

The Lord’s answer was more than just verse 8, but the conversation that followed us reading that particular verse in class was quite profound. Many different thoughts came but there were two that really touched me:

First: “When we try to get through our trials and afflictions on our own, we’re rejecting Christ’s Atonement. Do you think you’re stronger than Him, that you can go through this life on your own?”

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Sometimes, the pain we go through comes because of our choices. We’re human. So that means we’ll make mistakes, and we’re going to sin because we’re weak. But that’s what the Atonement can be used for – to overcome our human weaknesses. It takes time, it takes pain, it takes endurance. But it is possible and we don’t HAVE to suffer as much as choosing NOT to use the Atonement would cause us to suffer. Those are the times that we can feel unworthy to ask for Christ’s help or feel that “I got myself into this mess, I have to get my own self out of it.” But no. Those are the times that the Atonement was meant for.

There are other times when our pain isn’t because of our own choices. It’s sometimes because of the choices of others around us – we care so deeply for them that their pain causes us pain. Their decisions that take them away from God cause us to suffer in a way similar to Christ – all we want to do is help, but we can’t if they don’t choose to let us. That’s when we turn to the Lord, give Him our burden and continue to do everything we can for that person without having to experience the pain of it in its fulness.

Second: “Christ has gone through the worst imaginable pain and suffering – He PLEADS for us to not have to go through that as well because He knows what it’s like and He desperately does NOT want any of us to have to go through it, too.”

One other way that was pointed out in my class was that pain comes despite us choosing the right and doing everything God has asked of us to the best of our ability is simply because it just comes. In Matthew 27:46, as Christ was hanging on the cross, He cried out: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles describes what happened and why in his talk None Were With Him. He says:

“Now I speak very carefully, even reverently, of what may have been the most difficult moment in all of this solitary journey to Atonement. I speak of those final moments for which Jesus must have been prepared intellectually and physically but which He may not have fully anticipated emotionally and spiritually—that concluding descent into the paralyzing despair of divine withdrawal when He cries in ultimate loneliness, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 16

The loss of mortal support He had anticipated, but apparently He had not comprehended this. Had He not said to His disciples, “Behold, the hour … is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” and “The Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him”? 17

With all the conviction of my soul I testify that He did please His Father perfectly and that a perfect Father did not forsake His Son in that hour. Indeed, it is my personal belief that in all of Christ’s mortal ministry the Father may never have been closer to His Son than in these agonizing final moments of suffering. Nevertheless, that the supreme sacrifice of His Son might be as complete as it was voluntary and solitary, the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence. It was required, indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.”

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……..

We might be keeping the commandments, praying daily, reading and studying the scriptures and trying to apply what we learn in our own lives daily, attending church meetings and activities, magnifying our callings, etc etc. We might be doing all of those things and still, we don’t always feel happy or enlightened. Then we get frustrated because we feel like we should always be happy, and why aren’t we happy if we’re doing everything right?!?

…But our eternal progression, our eternal well-being is DEPENDENT on those times of unhappiness, trials and tribulations! Just as Christ’s fulfillment of the Atonement was dependent on the time that Heavenly Father withdrew from Him on the cross. God knows exactly what we need and sometimes that need requires Him to let us be in darkness for a time, to test our faith, to test our love for Him, to test who we really are.

But joy always comes after sorrow…

“But Jesus held on. He pressed on. The goodness in Him allowed faith to triumph even in a state of complete anguish. The trust He lived by told Him in spite of His feelings that divine compassion is never absent, that God is always faithful, that He never flees nor fails us.”

As we progress through our lives and encounter times of darkness, we can turn to the Savior’s example of faith, diligence and love and ask Him for strength to endure. No matter the circumstance, no matter the reason, the Savior is always there for us, willing to hold us and walk with us because He has experienced everything that you have experienced, are experiencing and will experience in your life.

And guess what? He. Still. Loves. You. I believe that it’s because He knows and understands exactly your individual life – the good and the bad. And He believes that the good outweighs the bad. He believes that you can still become a perfect being like Him, like God. He believes that you can inherit all that He has (Matthew 5:3-12, Romans 8:17, Romans 21:7). He believes in YOU.

So believe in and love Him. Have faith in Him. Allow the Atonement of Jesus Christ to be a part of your life on a daily basis. Allow Him to calm your fears, carry your sorrows and wipe away the tears.

Let Him be a part of you because YOU are a part of Him.

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He is with you, always.

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