Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My line-upon-line education on the Atonement

When I was a teen, when I’d hear lessons about the Atonement and that we all needed it, I had a hard time accepting that I needed Christ because deep down I still thought I could do it on my own. The extent of my knowledge of the repentance process was 1) admit I had done wrong, 2) stop doing the bad thing, 3) take the penalty.

What I was missing was an understanding that if Christ’s Atonement had never happened, I would still have to suffer for my sins even after admitting my mistakes, stopping the sin, and taking the earthly consequences. I had to learn that Christ’s Atonement is the only thing that makes repentance possible at all. In fact, I had to learn that everything church-related that I do would be to no avail without the Atonement.

I only began to understand this when I found I had faults that I could not fix myself. That’s when I realized I really needed Christ.


It has always been hard for me to think at length about what Christ suffered for me in the Garden of Gethsemane. When I try to comprehend it all, I think of the sins I burdened Him with, and then I think of the sins of my family, and as I try to imagine what the sins of billions of people must have been like, very soon I get overwhelmed. My heart feels like it is going to burst, and I just want to bawl. But because I don’t like crying in front of people, I find myself shutting off my feelings in order to regain control. ("Back, tears! Back, I say!") You may feel this way too.

But part of the sacrament prayers say that we take the bread and water as a witness that we always remember Him so that we can have His spirit to be with us always. So we have to let ourselves feel it, even if it makes us cry.


What was it like for Christ to take the responsibility for everyone’s sins even though He was innocent? That’s been another hard thing for me to comprehend. I take great pleasure in not feeling responsible for other people’s sins. And I know what it is like to feel responsible for my sins. So I had to come up with a sort of thought experiment to try to understand in a small way what it was like for Christ. (Actually, it is both a thought experiment and a feeling experiment.) Here’s it is:
“Suppose your family died in a terrible house fire set by an arsonist, but you were able to escape alive and unhurt. You are innocent of their deaths.
But then suppose that somehow you begin to feel like YOU were RESPONSIBLE for their deaths, even though you know you are innocent and someone else did it. And suppose that you had to allow yourself to feel that responsibility until those deaths were all ‘paid for.’”
I know this is a massive understatement, but all I can say is, “Ouch.”


There have been times when I’ve said to myself, “I know I did something wrong, but I don’t feel any pain or anguish for my sins. The suffering can’t be that bad, can it?”

Fortunately, Christ has already answered that question.
Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. (D&C 19:15)
I finally learned why we don’t know how exquisitely painful our suffering will be when I truly grasped the concept of our mortal probation. While we are here in mortality, our Heavenly Father is holding back from us the full consequences of our sins to give us time to repent. If He didn’t, we’d get hit with the full punishment immediately after sinning. So He holds it back, and Judgment day is when the full consequences come.

When I realized that, it put the fear of God into me. Suddenly repentance seemed a LOT more attractive.


One of my problems as I tried to learn how to use the Atonement in my life was that I knew in my head what the steps were, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. What was I supposed to pray? What was I supposed to feel? How would I know I had been forgiven? I kind of had to learn by trial and error, until I found out what worked.

Eventually, I found a scripture that gave a fantastic example of how to use the Atonement in daily life. I wished someone had pointed it out earlier, but I’ll share it with you now.
1 And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.
2 And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
3 And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them. (Mosiah 4:1-3)
It’s all there—what to feel, what to believe, what to do, how to pray, how we’ll know we’re forgiven. This scripture has been so precious to me. I wish everyone could see how significant it is.


What if we “repent” knowing deep down that we will commit the sin again later? There were times when I found myself repenting for the same sin multiple times. I started to ask myself if I was really making any progress. Eventually I ran across this scripture:
12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins. (Alma 24:12-13, emphasis added)
It struck me that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis took the most serious view of the Atonement. After having been forgiven, they feared to sin, fearing that killing again would make it impossible to be cleansed again, hence their anxiety to do whatever they could to avoid sinning. I realized that repenting loosely with the idea that I was just going to have to repent again and again indicated I had not really repented. I had to really hate the sin. I had to be absolutely serious about repenting like the Anti-Nephi-Lehis were.

Further, I had to realize that God could see into my heart and I could never fool Him with half-hearted repentance.


I know my own weaknesses. I know that repenting doesn’t guarantee that I won’t ever be confronted with the temptation again. Yet if I have repented, I must find the strength to resist.
Pray always, that you may come off conqueror; yea, that you may conquer Satan, and that you may escape the hands of the servants of Satan that do uphold his work. (D&C 10:5)
I had always wondered what good prayer could do me at a time of temptation. I mean, let’s be real here—in the midst of temptation, giving in looks good. Yes, part of us wants to resist, but there is still part of us that wants to give in and say that we couldn’t help it. It is hard to pray against temptation with your whole heart when part of you wants to give in.

When I found myself confronted with a truly fearsome temptation, I found the only refuge I had was to pray. I was terrified of giving in. I knew giving in would destroy me. But as much as I tried to focus on something else, the unwanted thoughts kept popping into my mind. I realized I had no power on my own to resist at length, and it scared me that the temptation might last longer than a few minutes. So I had to pray. It was my only hope. I put my whole soul into it. I told Heavenly Father I was being tempted. I told Him exactly what the temptation was. I told Him why I found it tempting. I told Him that I desperately did NOT want to give in and I needed help to resist. I didn’t dare disengage from prayer for a while because I didn’t want to face the temptation again. I just kept focused on Heavenly Father and my desire for help to resist. I let it fill up my entire consciousness. I don’t know how long it took, and I don’t know what changed, but when I finally “let go” of my prayer-lifeline, the temptation was gone. And I had a new testimony of the power of prayer.


Recently my testimony of the power of prayer as a tool for resisting temptation helped me see with new eyes Jesus’s prayers in the garden of Gethsemane.
37 And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
38 Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.
39 And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
40 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?
41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
42 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.
43 And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy.
44 And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
45 Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. (Matt. 26:38-45)
It became evident that Satan was using the big guns on Christ right there to try to prevent Him from making His atoning sacrifice. Christ had to keep praying to resist temptation. He had to pray multiple times because Satan kept coming back. But ultimately, the Savior overcame it all and atoned for us.

This has taught me that Satan may attack me multiple times and I will have to pray multiple times to resist, so I should not get discouraged and feel like prayer is not working if a temptation comes back soon after praying.


I’m sharing this in hopes that my experiences can help someone else avoid some of the errors I made. Do you have any experiences that you can add?


Frank Pellett said...

Most excellent post. You reminded me how difficult it must have been for the anti-nephi-lehis to not kill again, especially when their families, husbands, wives, children, babies, were going to be slaughtered by the Lamanites.

I, too, am very greatful for the atonement, and continue to work to give away all my sins to know our Father better.

Barbara said...

Thank you! So many great things to learn about the Atonement and how to apply it. I feel super-lazy sometimes and don't really want to "give away all my sins to know Him" yet. This was a good reminder to not be complacent.