Dialogues With Myself
That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement
One of a series given in 1966, when I was in the Stanford Ward Bishopric, to introduce Mormonism to friends of LDS students; published in Dialogue, Autumn 1967.
[p.77] A deep feeling of estrangement haunts modern life and literature and thought. The feeling is not at all new to human experience, but in our time we seem especially conscious of it. More of us seem caught up by the divisions in our lives to a terrible anguish or a numbed resignation.
We find ourselves cut off from others, relating to each other as things, not as personal images of the eternal God, unable to say our truest thoughts and feelings to each other, exterminating each other in the gas ovens of Auschwitz and the firestorms of Berlin, fighting unjust wars to satisfy our greed or pride, responding to the color we reflect to each other’s eyes and not to our sense of each other’s being.
We find ourselves cut off from God, without a deep sense of joyful relation to him, witnessing him die in us and our civilization through the dead forms of our concepts of him and the inflexible forms of our response to him in the world, unable to let our confidence wax strong in his presence through the feeling that our lives are in harmony with his will.
And we find ourselves cut off from ourselves. We sin. We act contrary to our image of ourselves and break our deepest integrity. We do not just make mistakes through lack of knowledge or judgment but consciously go contrary to our sense of right. Therefore we not only suffer the natural consequences of all wrong action (however innocently done), but we also suffer the inner estrangement of guilt—that supreme human suffering which gives us our images of hell. This is an important [p.78] distinction, made very clearly in Christian thought: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” is James’s definition (James 4:17). Christ had said, “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin, but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:41). We all know sin. We are inescapably moral by nature in that we cannot evade the question that finally comes into all reflection: “Am I justified?” We have eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and find the self of action tragically divided against the self of belief.
These are things we all know about. And if we are Christians we also know something about a claim which is incredible to most people—the claim that these estrangements can uniquely be healed through the Atonement of Christ. Atonement—a word whose pronunciation disguises its meaning, which is literally at one ment, a bringing to unity, a reconciliation of that which is estranged: me and you, me and God, or me and myself. The Atonement remains, as Paul described it, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” We have no greater need than that there be a force of healing in all our public and inner strife; that there be some source of forgiveness and change for the oppressor as well as help for the oppressed; that there be something large enough in love to reach past the wrongs we have done and can never fully make restitution for; that there be hope in the possibility that anyone can be renewed by specific means to a life of greater justice and mercy toward others. But for most of us, the claim that such a possibility truly exists is scandalous.
The scandal to humanistic people is the idea that they cannot make it alone—that their reason will not save them. Knowing what is right is not enough; there must be power to do what is right, and humans (as the appalling organized evil of this century has reminded us), no matter how sophisticated or civilized they become, continue to act against what they know is right—their additional knowledge and merely efficient reason capable of becoming, in fact, more powerful means of doing evil rather than increased good. The scandal to the non-Christian is that God would take the necessary reconciliation upon himself but is unable to do it except by descending below all of us into particular events in the history of the Jews and finally into the particular body and life of one human, Jesus of Nazareth—and that thereby he would enter the full range of human experience. The scandal to the non-Mormon is the claim by a contemporary church of special insight into the meaning and [p.79] means of the Atonement and of special authority in making it efficacious in the lives of men.
In his letter about Mormon beliefs to Chicago editor John Wentworth in 1842, Joseph Smith said, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” The Atonement makes it possible that all of us may be saved—by obedience. God’s concern is for the salvation of everyone and he expresses that concern in the free gift of Atonement, which, as we shall see, is directly related to our actual growth through obedience—in fact, makes such obedience possible. The understanding to which Joseph Smith had come through a long process of revelation and study finds succinct expression in this Article of Faith. It embodies a unique understanding of the harmonious relationship of grace and works and of the resulting effect of the Atonement on the moral nature of us all, and it implies a unique role of the properly authorized Church in bringing to all people the full power of that effect through the teachings and ordinances of the Gospel.
In traditional Christian thought, the Atonement of Christ has always been related directly to the Fall of Adam. For some, it has seemed a direct and relatively simple answer, a solution to the estrangement of God from mortals which was caused by God’s rejection of Adam after Adam’s rebellion had spoiled God’s plan. But most Christians (and Jews) have been able to see that it is inconsistent with their understanding of the nature of God to imagine him turning his back on us, to suppose that we must propitiate God and win back his favor in the process of Atonement. Clearly any rejection involved is the rejection of God by us and any reconciliation must be the reconciliation of us to God. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “[God] has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them ….” (II Cot. 5:18-19). But in too much Christian theology, as well as folk religion, the Atonement has remained an event remote from the common life of mortals, somehow involving Adam and God and mysterious supernatural realms such as the spirit prison or strange metaphysical structures such as absolute justice. For many, the Atonement is something crucial, no doubt, and to be deeply grateful for, but has nothing very clear to do with redeeming the daily round of studying differential equations and commuting to [p.80] work and waking up in the night in the deep loneliness and pain of our regret.
Mormons are certainly not immune to this tendency to miss the immediate relevance of the Atonement to their day-to-day lives, but there are dramatically unorthodox resources in Mormon theology with which to involve us in that relevance. In Mormon scriptures Adam’s action did in no way spoil God’s plan but was, in fact, part of the plan—a preordained action, necessary to our eternal development, which he and Eve entered into knowingly. Mormons do not look upon them as depraved, willful sinners caught up in a pride of their own being and a desire to know which led them to rebel against God, but rather Mormons see them as great, courageous figures who chose a difficult path necessary to their and our progression—the way of estrangement and reconciliation, of sin and resultant openness to redeeming love.
Mormon scriptures tell of Adam and Eve becoming, as it were, Christians. Sometime after their expulsion from the Garden, in the time of separation from God and extreme consciousness of the threat of death, they are taught by an angel of the Lord about Christ’s mission, which would come to fruition on the earth in the far distant future. Christ’s Atonement would include a Resurrection which would eventually reunite each person’s spirit and body in a condition of everlasting life; and it would also include a Redemption that could immediately give to each of us who chose to respond to it power to be reunited to ourself and to God in a condition of eternal (or increasingly God-like) life. These scriptures, given in vision to Joseph Smith from the writings of Moses, unabashedly imply a notion heretical to most traditional Christian thought—felix culpa, the fortunate fall. Adam’s response to the great message of the angel about the forthcoming Atonement is, “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10).
A Book of Mormon prophet makes the point in these words:
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon …. (11 Nephi 2:25-26).
The clear implication is that the process of estrangement and reconciliation, of sin and atonement, is not a flaw, an accidental thwarting of [p.81] God’s plan, but an essential part of it, a necessary ingredient of our eternal realization of our possibilities as children of God. Through this process, and apparently no other, we are able to reach the depths and thereby the heights of our soul’s capacity—to know fully our capacity for evil but also then to know the full freedom and strength of soul that come uniquely through being caught up in response to the “pure love of Christ.”
There is an additional important implication of this account of Adam, which is reinforced by many experiences in the Book of Mormon. It is clear that long before Christ had actually performed the central acts of the Atonement—the suffering in Gethsemane, the death on the cross, the Resurrection—mortals were able to be affected by those acts through the prophetic knowledge that God intended to perform them in the future. What this means is that the mechanics of the mission itself did not need to occur at a certain point in time as a precursor to their effect on people, as some theories of the Atonement would require; Christ’s mission was not to straighten out some metaphysical warp in the universe that Adam’s taking of the fruit had created. The effects of the Atonement were not metaphysical but moral and spiritual: They reach people living at any time and place through their knowledge of the spirit and events of the Atonement.
About 600 years before Christ was born, a young man living in Jerusalem, seeking confirmation of his father’s spiritual experiences, was given a remarkable vision:
… I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin …. And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and said unto me; Nephi, what beholdst thou? And I said unto him: a virgin most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. And he said unto me: knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things. And he said unto me: behold the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh …. And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father. (1 Nephi 11:13-21)
After further explanation by the Angel, Nephi continues,
[p.82] And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my Father had spoken. (I Nephi 11:26-27)
We have here an important insight into the Atonement of Christ, an insight preserved by this young man and his people in their religious history as they journeyed to America and until their descendants 600 years later welcomed Christ there after his death and resurrection. The word chosen by Joseph Smith in his translation is crucial: condescension—descending with. Christ is the descending of God with us into all that we experience, including our estrangement, and this is the heart of the power of the Atonement.
Many years after this group of people had arrived in America, one of their great prophet-kings named Benjamin, approaching old age and death, gathered his people together to declare to them a great revelation of understanding that had come to him. After reminding them in very colorful terms of the implication of their human tendency to sin and the effects of guilt upon a sinner—”which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of God, and to fill his breast with guilt, pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever”—King Benjamin tells them of a vision that had come to him of an event still 125 years in the future:
For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay ….
And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death: for behold blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of Heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name …. (Mosiah 3:5, 7-9)
Here, for the first time chronologically in all known scripture, we have a clear reference to what seems to be the central experience of the part of Christ’s Atonement that concerns our individual sins: “Behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.” This is not a description of what occurred on the cross but of what occurred in the Garden [p.83] of Gethsemane in that night when Christ participated fully in the fearful loneliness that lies at the extremity of human experience—participated even in the anguish of estrangement. Christ descended, through capabilities which only he had as the literal Son of God, into the fullness, both in depth and breadth, of human guilt. We begin to get clearer insight into what occurred in that Garden through a revelation given by the Lord Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith in 1830:
Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest… your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. 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; 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—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19; my emphasis)
Although we certainly can’t begin to understand all that happened in Gethsemane, especially how it happened, we can begin to feel the impact in our hearts of the divine love expressed there. Jesus Christ has created the greatest possibility we can imagine: that our common lot of meaninglessness and alienation can be redeemed, that we need not suffer if we would repent. The God who planned and created and who directs our earth experience, who sent us here into tragic risk and suffering because only here could we experience further growth in his likeness, has sent his son, not only to guide and teach us through his revelations and his life, but to enter willingly into the depths of man’s life. He takes upon him human “temptations,” “sicknesses” and “infirmities” that he might be “filled with mercy” and thus come to “know according to the flesh how to succor his people” (see Alma 7:11-13)—not offering solutions without knowing the pain of the problem and not setting prior conditions, but taking into himself the fullness of pain in all human estrangement by gaining some awful awareness of the full force of human evil. Because the love is unconditionally offered and comes freely from the same person who gives us our standard of right and who will eventually judge us, it has the power to release us from the barrier of our own guilt and give us the strength to repent.
The effect of King Benjamin’s revelation on his people was immediate and dramatic. After hearing his words, [p.84] … 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. And we, ourselves, also, through the infinite goodness of God. and the manifestations of his Spirit, have great views of that which is to come …. And it is the faith which we have had on the things which our king has spoken unto us that has brought us to this great knowledge, whereby we rejoice with such exceeding great joy. And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments and all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days … (Mosiah 5:2-5)
King Benjamin responded,
Ye have spoken the words that I desired; and, now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name …. And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye shall be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:6-8)
A great thing is occurring here—the formation of a Christian community 125 years before Christ as a group of people respond in faith to the possibility that they can be at one with themselves through means provided by Christ. Struck to the heart by the meaning of God’s love extended to them in the midst of their estrangement from him and themselves, they experience a mighty change which leads them into a covenant, and the covenant sustains a process of development through continual repentance toward the image of Christ.
Fifty years later, another prophet among these people, clearly influenced by the prophecies and experiences which had been part of his people’s history, discoursed on the sacrifice of Christ and made even clearer what had happened to King Benjamin’s people:
… it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be … a stop to the shedding of blood, then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled ….
[p.85] And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which over powereth justice and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption. (Alma 34:13-16; my emphasis)
This prophet, named Amulek, seems to be saying that Christ’s sacrifice—his suffering—is uniquely capable of striking through the barrier in our nature which prevents me from overcoming my estrangement from myself enough to move on to achieve the exalting power to act as I believe. Here we must remind ourselves of an amazing aspect of the eternal human personality. Paradoxically, our moral sense of justice both brings me to the awareness of sin that must begin all repentance and yet interferes with my attempts to repent. I feel that every action must bear its consequences and that I must justify my actions to myself; since there is a gap between belief and action I am in a state which brings into my heart and mind a sense of guilt, of unbearable division within myself. As Alma taught his sinful son Corianton, “There was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man” (Alma 42:18). This same moral nature, this sense of justice that demands satisfaction, causes me to want to improve my life but also to insist that I pay the penalty in some way for my sin. But of course there is no way I can finally do this. As Paul knew from his own experience and expressed so poignantly in his epistles, the law which Jews looked to for salvation in the Pharisaic tradition can inculcate great moral seriousness and indicate direction for change, but it can also be a terrible burden because humans always fail to some degree in living it fully; it therefore stands as a continual reminder of our failure—a failure that the law’s framework of justice demands be paid for, but which we are incapable of paying for. God pierces to the heart of this paradox through the Atonement, and it becomes possible for us personally to experience both alienation and reconciliation, which opens us to the full [p.86] meaning of both evil and good, bringing us to a condition of meekness and lowliness of heart where we can freely accept from God the power to be a god. And Alma also taught his son this other essential role God plays in the Atonement. Besides giving mortals “remorse of conscience” by giving the law and judging us, “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice …” (Alma 4 2:15).
Christ is the unique manifestation in human experience of the fullness of that unconditional love from God which Paul chose to represent with the Greek term agape. As Paul expressed it, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s sacrificial love was not conditional upon our qualities, our repentance, anything; he expressed his love to us while we were yet in our sins—not completing the process of forgiveness, which depends on our response, but initiating it in a free act of mercy. This is a kind of love quite independent from the notion of justice. There is no quid-pro-quo about it. It is entirely unbalanced, unmerited, unrelated to the specific worthiness of the object (except in that each of us has intrinsic worth through our eternal existence and God-like potential), and that is precisely why it is redemptive. It takes a risk, without calculation, on the possibility that we can realize our infinite worth. It gets directly at that barrier in us, our sense of justice, which makes me incapable of having unconditional love for myself—unable to respond positively to my own potential, because I am unable to forgive myself, unable to be at peace with myself until I have somehow “made up” in suffering for my sins, something I am utterly incapable of doing. The demands of justice that Amulek and Alma are talking about, which must be overpowered, are from our own sense of justice, not some abstract eternal principle but our own demands on ourselves; those demands which bring us into estrangement with ourselves (as we gain new knowledge of right but do not live up to it) and thus begin the process of growth through repentance, but we cannot complete that process. An awareness of the true meaning and source of that last sacrifice and its intent has the power, as Amulek says, “to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.”
That the Atonement is performed by Christ, the son and revelation of God, is, of course, crucial. He represents to us the ultimate source of justice and is the one whose teachings and example bring us directly to [p.87] face our need for repentance; he awakens our own sense of justice and stands as a judge over all our actions and thus only he can fully release us from what becomes the immobilizing burden of that judgment, through the power of mercy extended unconditionally in his Atonement. It is possible, as King Benjamin’s people found, to be moved to sufficient faith in the divine being, by his unique redemptive act, that there comes into the soul a power which can bring us to repentance as no other power can. I stand all amazed at this love—and that is precisely the point: This love can move us with sufficient amazement through our knowledge of it to change our minds and our hearts, to release us from self-inflicted suffering as it creates in us the possibility of new being through repentance.
The question “Why is man’s salvation dependent on Christ and the events surrounding his death?” is the most central and the most difficult question in Christian theology. The answers (and there are many) are, as I have said, the chief scandal of Christianity to the non-believer. Attempts to define logical theories of the Atonement based on New Testament scriptures have been largely contradictory and ultimately futile—mainly because the New Testament is not a book of theology, a logical treatise, but rather gives us the reaction, the varied emotional responses, to the Atonement as people experienced it and tried to find images for their joy. Some clearly felt released from the powers of evil and darkness which they believed, much more literally than any of us today, were all around them. Some believed that their souls had been bought from the devil. Some felt that Christ had taken their place in suffering the just and necessary punishment under the law for their sins. The explanation I have tried to develop, based largely on Book of Mormon scriptures, is at significant variance with most of these theories, especially on one major point: The redemptive effect of the Atonement depends on how an individual responds to it rather than on some independent effect on the universe or God, which theories such as the ransom theory, the substitution theory, the satisfaction theory, etc., all tend to imply. Of course, the rich reality of the Atonement lies beyond any theory or explanation, including the one I am suggesting here, and people can bring themselves into redeeming relationship with God from within the framework of each of these theories as they reach through to that rich reality. But the needs for powerful personal response and for a release from the immobilizing demands of justice within each of us [p.88] seem to me crucial and best served by an explanation different from the traditional theories.
The ransom theory, which was prominent in Christian thought into the Middle Ages, seems very crude to us today. The idea was that because of Adam’s sin man deserved to die and go to hell, but God bought the souls of mortals from the devil with the sacrifice of Christ. Satan was deceived into believing that he could keep Christ’s soul in exchange, but once the bargain was completed, the devil could not hold the soul of the divine, sinless Christ. Of course, this seems to require a concept of a God with whom the devil can make bargains and who in turn is capable of practicing a shabby trick on Satan. The more sophisticated “satisfaction” theory was put forth in the twelfth century by Saint Anselm. In Anselm’s view, God’s nature, which includes absolute justice and mercy, demands satisfaction for our sins even though God wants to forgive us. We ourselves are incapable of providing that satisfaction because our sin is infinite, being rebellion against an infinite being. Therefore, to retain his honor and position, God himself, in the person of Christ, becomes a substitute for us all in paying for sin through suffering. This view of the Atonement prevails in various forms down to the present day.
The popular image associated with the theory is that of the traffic court: We have broken the law; justice must be satisfied, but we haven’t enough money; Christ steps forward to pay the fine and release mortals while still upholding the law. An immediate objection to this view is that it seems on the face of things to be a legalistic formula clearly influenced by the feudal times in which it grew up. It implies that God is in a position much like a feudal lord: If he allows offenses against his justice to go unanswered, if he allows people to get off easily, his position will be questioned in the minds of his subjects, which will lead to disrespect and rebellion. Of course, this is carried even further in the notion some have that there is some absolute principle of retributive justice (as opposed to natural law of cause and effect) by which God himself is bound despite his own desires. Thus a certain amount of sin must be balanced in the scheme of things, sometime and by someone, with equivalent punishment and suffering—in addition to the natural consequences of actions. But it is a very disquieting notion that God should be bound to an unfortunate situation and in a way that we clearly are not. In human experience, we continually are able to forgive each other without satisfaction and yet with some redemptive effect.
[p.89] Anselm’s contemporary, Abelard, was convinced that God could forgive us without conditions and that the problem lies in our nature not God’s. He denied the whole legalistic framework, believing that Christ’s sacrifice exercises its power by moving us to an awareness of guilt and a change of life: “The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.” The danger of this unusual position, which places the moral influence of Christ at the center of the Atonement, was immediately seen—and Abelard’s work was rewarded by his denunciation as a heretic. The main problem is that his theory seems to leave the Atonement without a foundation of absolute necessity. In other words, if someone drowns trying to save me after I’ve fallen in a stream, it is one thing, but if he walks along a stream with me and suddenly jumps in and drowns, crying, “Look how much I love you; I’m giving my life for you,” it’s hard to see some kind of essential sacrifice taking place.
The Mormon concept of the Atonement which I have suggested seems to me close to Abelard’s—with the important addition of an understanding of why the atonement is absolutely necessary. It is not necessary because of some eternal structure of justice in the universe outside us which demands payment from us for our sins, nor of some similar structure within the nature of God. The Atonement is absolutely necessary because of the nature of intelligences, a nature that is self-existent, not the creation of God, and therefore uniquely impervious to metaphysical coercion. The problem is not that God’s justice must be satisfied (or the universe’s) but that our own sense of justice demands satisfaction. When it creates a barrier to repentance, that barrier must be broken through, and it cannot be broken by metaphysical tinkering with our nature; it can only be broken through by the powerful persuasion of a kind of love which transcends our sense of justice without denying it—the kind of love that Christ was uniquely able to manifest in the Atonement.
The Atonement is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in salvation from sin—necessary because only Christ can fully motivate the process in free agents, and insufficient because an agent must respond and complete the process. There is no condition in which we can imagine God being unable to forgive. The question is what effect will the forgiveness have; the forgiveness is meaningless unless it leads to repentance. The forgiveness extended in the dramatic events of the Atonement is that [p.90] kind of forgiveness uniquely capable of bringing “means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” In other words, the forgiveness must be accepted in order to be efficacious: “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33).
As Paul Tillich has pointed out, the most difficult thing for us to do is accept our acceptance, to accept the fact that God accepts us, loves us—freely—even in our sins. Our practice in our dealings with other people and, most important to my point here, in our dealings with ourselves, is to demand satisfaction before we can accept, to demand justice before we can forgive. This is not Christ’s way, and therefore his love (and the love which he tells us we can develop in response to that love) is redemptive. It has a quality of mercy which allows us to be at one with ourselves and thus gain the strength to be the new person that our sense of justice in the first place demanded that we be. We do not repent in order that God will forgive us and atone for our sins, but rather God atones for our sins and begins the process of forgiveness, by extending unconditional love to us, in order that we might repent and thus bring to conclusion the process of forgiveness. And the center of the experience is Christ’s ability to break through the barrier of justice, in those who can freely respond, with the shock of eternal love expressed in Gethsemane. It comes to us only through our deep knowledge of that event and our involvement in the process of sustaining that knowledge in our lives, through the continual reminding of ourselves of the event and our recommitment to the implications of it which occurs in the ordinances of the gospel. The process is a complex one, an ongoing one. It may be triggered by particular events and have climaxes, but essentially it is a lifelong process—one beautifully described toward the end of the Book of Mormon in these words from the prophet Mormon to his son Moroni:
… repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law. And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins; and the remission of sins bringeth meekness and lowliness of heart and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which comforter filleth with hope and perfect love …. (Moroni 8:24-26)
As a young missionary, I had not yet experienced the central drama of the Christian faith and of my Mormon faith in a decisive personal [p.91] way. Towards the end of my mission experience in Hawaii, in a new assignment different from previous assignments that had meant mainly teaching primary school and administration, I was suddenly faced with a very real human situation involving the central principles of the gospel. A southern sharecropper, who had lived a life of extreme brutality and self-indulgence, had jumped ship in Hawaii, married a Japanese girl, and under her influence and the influence of children coming into his life had softened and opened—to the point of hearing the gospel from previous missionaries. He had believed their message and came to me with a plea for help. He believed that certain principles were true but could not find the power to change his life to live in accordance with those principles and was suffering deeply. He was estranged from himself, his habits terribly opposed to his sense of God and what God hoped for him. As I tried to help him, searching again the scriptures and explanations of the scriptures having to do with the Atonement, as I gropingly expressed my growing sense of what the love of Christ meant to me and tried to express, along with my companion and the man’s family, some of that same unconditional love to him, and as I watched him grow under that love and under his growing awareness that Christ was capable of loving and forgiving him in his present condition, he and I both came slowly and then suddenly to a deep sense of the kind of love, expressed in Gethsemane, that made Atonement possible. I saw him change dramatically as the power inherent in an understanding of that experience came into his life. The burden of sin was lifted and the healing, renewing process of repentance made possible as he said to himself, “If God can have this kind of love for me, who am I to withhold it from myself?” My life didn’t change as dramatically, but the beginnings of change were laid there, and the understanding of atoning love that began there has been increasingly vindicated in all my experience.
Humans in our time have turned upon each other with incredible hate and cruelty. And the victims and dispossessed and their allies have turned back in kind. The ills of our time, which grow by escalation—blow for blow, hurt for hurt, raid for raid, riot for riot, all defended in the name of justice and personal or national rights—must eventually be subjected to more than justice.
Each of us must come to a kind of love that can be extended equally to victim and victimizer, dispossessed and dispossessor—and even to ourselves, a kind of love that moves us to demand justice in society and [p.92] within ourselves and that then goes beyond justice to offer forgiveness and healing and beyond guilt to offer redemption and newness of life.
I am convinced by my thought and experience and the deepest whisperings in my soul that there is a source of that love—one that transcends all others and is therefore our salvation.