To Taste the Atonement
I never lamented about the vicissitudes of time or complained of the turns of fortune except on the occasion when I was barefooted and unable to procure slippers. But when I entered the great mosque of Kufa with a sore heart and beheld a man without feet I offered thanks to the bounty of God.
Gulistan of Sa’di
Often, we tell ourselves stories during hard times to convince ourselves to be grateful for what we have, rather than dwelling on what we have lost. But comparing our painful experiences to the worse experiences of others can leave us feeling ungrateful, invalidated, and even afraid that our situation WILL get worse.
When I read accounts of the Savior, I see Him minister to the hurting, no matter their degree of pain. He didn’t tell Mary and Martha to be grateful they weren’t dead, too! He paused in His task to raise Lazarus, and ministered to them in their pain, even knowing it would be short-lived. Jesus wept. He didn’t ridicule the woman who touched His hem by telling her there were those with more pain than hers that He needed to attend to. He stopped, turned around, and sought her out from the crowd to minister to her.
We don’t know exactly what the Savior suffered when He withdrew to the Garden of Gethsemane, only that he somehow suffered and paid for our sins while He was there. Doctrine & Covenants 88 tries to describe the atonement, saying that Christ “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth….” I have thought long and hard about this, trying to imagine what He suffered, and how that is supposed to help us at all.
It sometimes seems strange to me that creating a cosmic whipping boy has the potential to save and exalt us, to return us to the presence of God. How can it be that by suffering the pains of my sins, and my weakness, Christ can balance the scales of justice? It was only in the process of recovering from my divorce that I finally caught a glimpse of the glorious truth of the Atonement.
My relationship with my husband was a very mild one when it came to abuse. Until the final night, when he left me, he had never actually laid hands on me. He had raged, broken things, chased me bare-footed down the street when I was pregnant, but never actually touched me in anger. But that night was different. My daughter was there, and I was not going to run and leave her alone.
There was a moment during his rage that night when I thought for certain my life was almost over. Through direct intervention of God, he decided to hold back. Rather than beating me he tried to force me out of the house. In the end, I had only faint bruises, nothing that lasted more than a couple of weeks. With counseling separately and together, I realized the kind of life I had been living, that with him it would never change.
As I was struggling to recover from my abusive marriage, I had to deal with Stockholm-type syndrome, fear of losing my children or my life, symptoms similar to PTSD, and coaching my daughter through the same process without doing anything to alienate her from him. I also had to work my way through the utter humiliation and sense of complete failure that came with ending my marriage.
Many times during this process, self-critical thoughts crept in. Why was I having such a hard time recovering? Why could I not just let it go? At least he never hit me. Why couldn’t I just stop being afraid? I was much safer than people in war-torn countries.
I did not have to heal broken bones. I did not have to stay in a dangerous marriage. I did not have to mourn the death of either daughter at his hands. I was incredibly blessed to have escaped so cleanly.
But as I recovered from my own fear and heartbreak, I came to realize that my suffering could be used to recognize and heal all suffering, no matter how much worse it was than mine. Rather than looking down on those who suffered less or looking down on myself because of those who suffered more, I learned that degree of drama does not measure degree of suffering.
Whether a person loses a toe or a leg, they must heal. The stresses of a stay-at-home mother’s life are no less simply because I’m a single mother. I can empathize with my friend whose husband is away on an extended business trip, even while I deal with my own nagging fear of never being able to marry again, even while women are being sold as sex slaves, or murdered by their spouse. Suffering is suffering, and it ALL deserves succor.
The suffering of another in no way diminishes the suffering of one. This is what Christ can teach us as we come to Him. He took the pain He suffered on our behalf, great and small, and made it a tool of healing. By His pain, He learned compassion. It doesn’t matter if He ever suffered exactly what I’m feeling, or worse than I could ever bear. What matters is that He knows suffering, and therefore because of His charity He knows my suffering.
My tiny glimpse into the atonement has given me the ability to no longer judge others for their pain, only to recognize its presence. Knowing that He has mourned with me, however small the price I am paying when compared to others, makes me ache to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort others who suffer.
Do not compare your trials to others. Any human suffering is legitimate, even that suffering that we experience because of our own choices. The point is not how much we suffer, or why, but that we suffer. When we hurt, we can forge that pain into compassion so that we may minister to others.
That is how we can be most like Jesus.