Walking the Path to Charity through the Atonement
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:
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.
We 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:
- I can’t.
- He can.
- 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.
The 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:
- Understand where we are.
- Share where we are with someone else.
- Align ourselves with God’s will.
- Ask Him for help.
- Ask ourselves, “Whom have I hurt?”
- 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.
If 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:
- Daily self-check
- Daily seeking of the Lord’s will
- 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.