Walking the Path to Charity through the Atonement

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by Paul

so cute... {explored}From a workshop presented at my stake’s women’s conference.

Because we are born we will die.  Life is, after all, a terminal condition.  Our very presence on earth condemns us to death.  To make matters worse, we are cut off from our Father in Heaven’s presence.  We are alone.

The good news is, of course, that the Atonement offers us a way back home, a way to overcome death and sin and suffering in this world.

In Alma we read of the Savior’s mission:

And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me. (Emphasis mine.)

It is telling to me that it’s not until the end of that scripture block Alma mentions overcoming sin.  The Lord will overcome pain, affliction, temptations, sickness, infirmity and death on our behalf.

Elder Scott teaches us similarly that the blessings of the atonement can touch our lives:

No matter what the source of difficulty….[all] human reaction to a challenge in life that engenders hatred, despondency, distrust, anger, or revenge must be supplanted by the tender mercies of a loving Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son….  Do what you can do a step at a time….  The surest, most effective, and shortest path to healing comes through application of the teachings of Jesus Christ in your life.

We all seek the blessings of the atonement in our lives.  Elder Scott gently encourages us to take it slowly, one step at a time.  Here is a way that has worked for me:

atonement 1

If we imagine the blessings of the atonement are a gold mine on one side of a river, and we are on the other, we ask ourselves how to get to that gold mine.  We don’t want a one-shot trip: we want to return to the gold mine again and again, so installing a rope swing or putting a tree across the river won’t do.  Fortunately, the Lord’s plan of Happiness helps us to build a bridge.

atonement 2We start with the pier on our side of the river.  It’s built of three key blocks that are all based on the first principle of the gospel: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The three blocks are these:

  1. I can’t.
  2. He can.
  3. I think I’ll let him.

I need to understand that there are certain things I cannot do in my life.  I cannot fly an airplane.  (I could learn, I suppose, but today I can’t.)  I cannot force a child to eat or go to the bathroom or sleep.  I cannot control another person’s feelings.  I cannot absolve sin.  I cannot even do all the things the Lord has asked me to do without His help.  The sooner I come to grips with my own helplessness, the better off I am.

The Lord can help me do the things that are most important.  President Eyring has taught (including in a stake conference I attended) that one of the reasons we have difficult callings is so that we will learn to depend on the Lord and recognize the need for Him in our lives.  The same is true for adversity.  When I allow the Lord to fill His role, I am humble and submissive as King Benjamin taught.

Understanding my proper role – that there are things I cannot do that God can do, and then allowing God to do His part in my life – is an act of faith.  It represents the first pier of my bridge to the blessings of the atonement.

atonement 3The next step is building the surface of the bridge across the river.  (I know there are engineers who would want me to build the other pier first, but that doesn’t work with my object lesson; sorry about that.)  This bridge surface is all about turning to the Lord.  Another way to think about turning to the Lord is repentance.

In Numbers Moses lifts a fiery serpent onto his staff to save the children of Israel from those same serpents.  The Book of Mormon teaches that there were many who would not look and live because of the easiness of the way.  But we have a way to turn to the Lord.  Here is one way to describe that process that has been helpful to me:

  1. Understand where we are.
  2. Share where we are with someone else.
  3. Align ourselves with God’s will.
  4. Ask Him for help.
  5. Ask ourselves, “Whom have I hurt?”
  6. Make amends with those whom we have hurt.

This process is a little different from the four or five “R’s” of repentance we learned in Primary, but hopefully they’ll make some sense.

Understand where we are.  My father spoke in our ward conference my first Sunday home from my mission.  He had recently returned home from a foreign assignment for his company in Lagos, Nigeria, where there was no organized unit of the church at the time.  He and my mother had a small sacrament meeting each week with themselves or with one other member most of the time.  They were under the auspices of the International Mission at the time.  Dad spoke about the value – which he found during this time away from the body of the saints – of conducting an occasional personal inventory to understand where we are compared with where the Lord wants us to be.

This inventory can be quite healing as any veteran of a 12-step program can tell you.  In it, one can examine himself against a standard – the temple recommend interview, For the Strength of Youth, the 42 questions Alma asks in Alma 5, the Beatitudes , the list of Christlike attributes in Preach my Gospel.

We can also consider trials we’ve had, times we’ve felt bad, and try to understand what our part in that is, what the Lord is trying to teach us.

In the end, we ought to try to sort out what we’re doing well and where we’re falling short.  We might end up with a short list of next things we’d like to work on.

Share where we are.  Once we have that list, we should share it.  Why?  Because if we keep it to ourselves, we are not accountable to anyone.  We could share it with the Lord in prayer.  We could share it with a trusted friend (who will respect our confidences).  We could share it with a loving spouse, a visiting or home teacher, a bishop or a therapist.  But the act of sharing the list puts it in the light of day and helps us to feel accountable, particularly with those weaknesses we’d like to improve upon.

Align ourselves with God’s will.  When I was a kid, I loved to watch Roberto Clemente play for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He had a trademark bread basket catch in right field.  He positioned himself under the ball and it fell into his glove.  When we align ourselves with God, we position ourselves to receive the Lord’s blessings.  This process is closely related to what we did while we were building the first pier of our bridge.  When we keep commandments and honor covenants, we put ourselves – as imperfect as we are – in the path to receive the Lord’s blessings in our lives.  Despite whatever weakness we have, each commandment we keep, each covenant we honor draws us nearer to Him.  We are not eradicating the weaknesses we identified in our inventory here; we are simply doing our best to draw near to Him.

Ask Him for His help.  As we draw nearer to Him, we can ask for His help in removing our weaknesses, correcting our flaws and overcoming our trials.  As Alma taught us, the Savior has already suffered anything we will suffer, so He knows how to succor us.  We can ask for His love and support.  We can ask for our burdens to be lifted or at least lightened.  (Sometimes He removes our burdens; sometimes He makes them easier for us to bear.)  The Apostle Paul did not ever have his thorn in his side removed, despite repeated requests, but he did learn to live with it.  The Savior, though he sought to avoid the bitter cup, did not shirk the burden He bore on our behalf.

Ask ourselves, Whom have I hurt?  As we turn to God, one of our normal responses is the realization of the effects of mistakes we have made.  We will realize that we may have hurt others along our path.  We need to recognize who those people are.  Sometimes the people we identify may also have hurt us.  Ultimately, we will seek forgiveness from those whom we have hurt, but we before we can do so, we will also need to forgive them.  It seems a bit of a paradox to seek forgiveness from the same person whom we must ourselves forgive.  And that paradox can cause some discomfort for us.

It is helpful to remember that forgiveness is an act of letting go, not an act of absolution.  Returning to that first pier, we do not have power to absolve sin.  When we forgive, we are letting go of the hurt that we carry; we are not releasing a person from responsibility for his or her actions.  That is not in our power.  But withholding forgiveness is like our drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.  The act of forgiveness is, in the end, a kindness to ourselves.

Make amends with those whom we’ve hurt.  Finally, we must do our best to make things right with those whom we have hurt.  Apologies are a start, but they are rarely enough.  A parent remembers teaching small children the lesson of restoring what has been lost when we take a child back to a shop keeper to pay for a stolen candy bar or when we shop to replace a broken vase or curio.  Restitution is often not so simple and may only be possible through a period of a life well lived, demonstrating a truly changed heart and truly changed behavior.

atonement 4If all we wanted to do was get to the pot of gold, then we could stop here.  But we want repeated access to these blessings.  For that we must build another pier.  The second pier is based on daily maintenance of the steps we have already taken:

  1. Daily self-check
  2. Daily seeking of the Lord’s will
  3. Sharing the good news with others

Each day we can do a mini-self inventory and check our progress on those things that are most important at the time.  Each day we can evaluate how we have done in our personal relationships.  Each day we can review our behaviors against the standards we have established for ourselves.  And we can make course corrections as required.  We can immediately go to someone we have harmed today.  We can work to improve a relationship today.

We can daily seek the Lord’s will.  President Eyring has taught the value of praying in the morning to know what the Lord would like us to do (Whom should I serve?  How should I serve?), noting the inspiration we feel, and then reporting back at the end of the day.  We can honestly ask the Lord, “What wouldst Thou have me do?” rather than giving the Lord our wish-list for Divine Intervention.

As we do these things, our hearts will fill with charity.  We will have a desire to reach out to others.  Our spiritual wells will fill and we will have an inclination to share with others around us, perhaps not in a Golden Question / Would-You-Like-To-Meet-The-Missionaries way, but in a Love-Thy-Neighbor-As-Thyself way.

President Uchtdorf reminds us:

 Oh, it is wonderful to know that our Heavenly Father loves us — even with all our flaws!  His love is such that even should we give up on ourselves, He never will.  We see ourselves in terms of yesterday and today.  Our Heavenly Father sees us in terms of forever….  The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of transformation.  It takes us as men and women of the earth and refines us into men and women for the eternities.

photo by: Adrian Dreßler

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

12 Responses to Walking the Path to Charity through the Atonement

  1. Bonnie says:

    This was especially timely for me Paul, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the practical application of the Atonement. As in, I believe, how do I do this on a daily basis? I’ve come to believe that the allegory of Zenos contains many of those truths. We dig here. We prune there. A little at a time, and we keep doing it. Elder Scott’s quote was especially helpful.

    “No matter what the source of difficulty….[all] human reaction to a challenge in life that engenders hatred, despondency, distrust, anger, or revenge must be supplanted by the tender mercies of a loving Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son…. Do what you can do a step at a time…. The surest, most effective, and shortest path to healing comes through application of the teachings of Jesus Christ in your life.”

    I was thinking this morning about a trial that I’ve had for quite some time that most people don’t have. I was tired. I don’t pray for reprieve anymore because I understand that I’m a toddler learning to walk and the Lord just keeps standing me back up and encouraging me to do it on my own. Still, I sometimes feel tired. I guess I just do what I can a step at a time, with each step reassured by a loving encouraging God, slowly replacing all my reactions with better actions. Dig a little here, dung a little there, prune. One day despondency, hatred, distrust, anger, and revenge will not even be in my list of reactions.

  2. Paul says:

    Bonnie, I fear the day that despondency, et al, are no longer on my list of reactions is the day I stop breathing. (How’s that for despondent?) But I also know that there are better reactions and they are possible each day, even on the bad ones.

    I lived for many years believing IN the atonement, watching it work for others, and still missing the Big Truth that it was also meant for ME. Go figure.

    • templegoer says:

      Fair enough Paul, few of us have the wisdom to know how flawed we are until we find out we are though experience of our own fallibility. I think that’s OK too. We live and learn, thank God. I too, despair of perfection and there’s not enough time left for me to get it all right. I also am more grateful than I could ever have imagined for the Atonement. We have to know we are broken before we can get fixed.

      • Paul says:

        Indeed, Templegoer, not only do we need to know we’re broken, but we need to know that’s ok that we are broken, odd as that sounds. And you’re right. Sometimes in our quest for perfection we miss the fact that we can’t do that alone. (In fact, WE can’t do it.)

      • Ray says:

        When I define “perfect” as “complete, whole, fully developed” (footnote Matthew 5:48) – and when I realize God has “all generations of time” and “all eternity” to accomplish his goal for me . . .

        Yes, I believe we can “know the truth, and the truth shall set (us) free.”

        • Paul says:

          Clearly perfectionism is not helpful in our quest for happiness. The definition of perfection that you cite is a helpful tool to overcoming that unhealthy desire to “be perfect” (which is, I suspect, more a desire to do things perfectly, which is, as you say, not the point).

  3. Ray says:

    When looking at charity, I think we underestimate the duration of “long-suffering” in the case of God’s charity for us. I think we have little understanding of eternity and how small a piece of it is filled by our time here.

    I understand, intellectually and emotionally, why we need to stress how important this life is, and I will never attempt to devalue this life in any way – but, at the same time, I think we miss so much beauty by our obsession over this life and fail to see the damage that obsession does to our ability to appreciate godly charity.

    • Paul says:

      Ray, I think you’re right. In fact, one of the points of my workshop is that a quest for charity is really a quest for Christ in our lives. As we draw nearer to Him by enjoying the blessings of the atonement in our lives, charity is a natural result. That Godly charity we receive (some call it grace) will also build charity in our own hearts.

  4. Jendoop says:

    This process is similar to what I’ve done a majority of my life (althought not as organized nor as often as I should). Recently through some great tutoring and difficult experiences I’ve approached repentance and growth with a more positive reach. Your perspective seems rooted in constantly telling ourselves how bad, sinful, flawed we are.

    My change has been focused on bringing in good instead of pushing away bad. Instead of focusing on the bad that I need to get rid of, I focus on what positive trait or behavior I want to enter my life. In the process of supplication and desire for better, the sin or flaw is removed, as the Savior heals me. I let it go because my desires become more focused on good, on Gods desires for me.

    Maybe this is romantics, but the subtle change has made a big difference for me- knowing that God’s focus isn’t my sin, but my potential, my power through him, and all I can do. The power is in me to do much good and bring about righteousness. While I have no forceful power over others or nature, my actions and reactions influence everything around me. In that there is great power if we learn how to be a new creature through Christ.

    • Jendoop says:

      That would be semantics, not romantics :)

      • Paul says:

        Maybe romantics, too. :-)

        Your comment made me go back and re-read what I wrote, because I thought I had encouraged people to think about positives and negatives, particularly in the inventory. And I did. But you;re right: a program that starts with my own helplessness is rather bleak.

        It is instructive that this is based on the 12-steps of recovery, and people in recovery are trying to overcome significant hurdles. Often their addictive behavior springs from or is reinforced by other hurts in their lives that they need to sort through. As a result, the ‘surface of the bridge’ section is key to dealing with those elements of one’s life, including correcting wrongs where necessary.

        In the end, however, the hope and healing comes from Christ and His mercy. As my stake president said at the same women’s conference, we ought to be thrilled that life is not fair; otherwise we could not hope for the Savior to rescue us.

        I think your approach of inviting good is an excellent one, and I have to think about how to incorporate that into this approach.

        BTW, in recovery, we talk about the focus being on weakness, not sin. There is a difference, of course. Weakness may lead to sin, but it is not, in and of itself, sin.

        • Jendoop says:

          I fully sustain weakness not being a sin. There’s a great book about that ;) But often in our times guilt and the label of “bad” are mistakenly associated with both.

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts, wisdom gained through experience and diligence. I think there is a place for all of these ideas in our lives, meaning one isn’t wrong and the other right. Depending on our state of mind, and maybe even the challenges we are having at the time, different approaches to repentance and progress are good. I’m grateful for all of the resources we have in this day, different ways to consider improvement and repentance: good people like you with wisdom, 12 step programs available for free, books, blogs, testimonies, etc. and of course personal revelation. God is so good to us to give us so many roads to him.

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