Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 16 November 2008
Subways fascinate me. For the past four weeks, I’ve been working in Boston and I have started using the T as my primary mode of transportation, even to get from the airport to my hotel. The T also makes it very convenient to visit my daughter Hillary and her husband Jake who live only a handful of blocks from the North Quincy station. And not only is it more economical, I also find it more interesting and invigorating. I like to observe the waves of people moving in and out of stations, trains and platforms in various patterns of harmony and random chaos, like graceless yet choreographed dancers moving on and off the stage. I also like watching individual people, noticing what they are wearing, attempting to determine what they are reading, trying to guess what they are listening to with their iPod buds stuck in their ears, or imaging the fascinating yet possibly mundane stories of their lives.
I first acquired my fascination for subways during the last six months of my mission spent in Paris—which still has one of the best subway systems in the world. Both on that mission and when I returned a couple of years later as a student, I would buy an unlimited pass that allowed me to get anywhere in the city that I wanted and at any time of the day.
Many years later when I went back for a third time, rather than buy the unlimited pass, I spent more time walking from place to place. To my surprise, I was very intrigued with how everything fit together. I realized that up to that point, my geographical understanding of Paris was like that of a gopher: I knew lots of distinct neighborhoods disconnected from each other. Every time I moved from one to the other, I would go down into my little hole in the ground and then re-emerge several minutes later in a different place. As silly as it sounds, I really had not thought of all those places as connected to each other. So when I finally took the time to walk from the Louvre to la Madeline to the Eifel tower, I was amazed to discover how they flowed from one to the other and that they really were connected. And what really blew my mind, was the drive back from a friend’s house in the northeastern suburbs to our hotel in the southwest corner of the city. For the first time in my life, I traveled from one end of Paris to the other, above ground in a car and got a sense of the entire layout of the city that I had never had before. My understanding of Paris changed because I experienced a very different perspective of the city.
When Bishop Krzyminski’s architecture firm is hired by a client to build a structure, they create a blueprint. In fact, they create lots of different blueprints. One might be the electrical blueprint, showing where the electricity enters the building, and where all the wires will be in all of the walls, as well as the outlets and fixtures. Another might be the plumbing blueprint, showing where all the pipes will be, as well as the faucets and drains. Another might show the detail of the joists for the floors, the studs for the walls and the trusses for the roof. And another might show the exterior landscaping plan. No one blueprint can show all the detail; all but together they can give a complete picture of the building.
When I was young, I loved the story of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each man experienced only one part of the animal through the single sensation of touch. One, who felt the leg, described the elephant as massive as a tree. Another, who felt the trunk, described it as a strong and pliable as a snake. The one who felt the tail compared it to a rope and the one who felt the ear said it was like a giant fan. Each was right from his or her own perspective, but none of them was able to really understand what an elephant was.
I have realized that my understanding of some gospel principles suffers from the same seven-blind-man-and-the-elephant phenomenon. I sometimes think that I have finally and completely understood the principle and feel quite content; maybe I even become a little confident if not complacent in my understanding. But at some point, I will often learn that there is at least one very different perspective that I was missing and as a consequence, I must make an effort to adjust my thinking. One of these gospel principles has been the Atonement.
I suppose that because the Atonement is as conceptually massive as an elephant, it is unavoidable that, like those of the blind men, there are various and distinct perspectives and understanding of the principle. A very important note to make here, however, is that none of the blind men were wrong; they were not blind to their individual perspective and understanding. They were simply blind to, i.e. did not see, the whole.
So it is with various perspectives and understanding of the Atonement. No one of them is wrong in and of itself. Taken together, like pieces of a puzzle, they all give a pretty good grasp of the whole. I’d like to share a few with you that have helped me gain a more complete picture of that whole.
The first blueprint for understanding the Atonement is focused on Justice and Mercy. This perspective claims that like every other immutable law of nature, the Law of Justice requires that there be an appropriate outcome for every action and that that outcome must be satisfied. If the action is good, then there is a reward; if the action is bad, then there must be a punishment. As individuals, it is in our nature to perform lots of bad actions. We even perform them unwittingly and unintentionally. But we perform them nevertheless. This puts us in a nearly impossible predicament given our goal to return to live with God. By ourselves, we will never qualify for exaltation.
The Atonement mitigates our predicament by calling upon the Law of Mercy, offered through Christ, to satisfy the demands of Justice. However, it is not free. Before the Atonement can be effective in our lives, we must engage in another good action called repentance. Fortunately for us, the appropriate outcome of our repentance is that Christ can and will then exhibit mercy towards us by taking upon himself the consequences of, i.e. the punishment for our bad actions.
The second blueprint for understanding the Atonement is also focused on the laws of justice and mercy, but rather than using a physical law metaphor of cause and effect, it utilizes a transactional analogy that borrows from accounting and banking. Because we are mortal, the argument goes, the debits of sin and wickedness keep our heavenly bank account always in the red. In fact, the debits hold us hostage, and the only freedom we have from the Law of Justice acting as a kidnapper, is a ransom that only Christ can pay.
The classic manifestation of this blueprint is the parable of the indebted servant that most of us have seen enacted in a video produced by the church. In the story, a well-intentioned man goes into debt to start a business—a farm. For the most part, he works hard and prospers. But after making a couple of mistakes, he finds himself short on cash when the accounting for his debt comes due. His only option is to foreclose on the farm. But a friend steps in and pays off the debt. The debtors get their money and the Law of Justice is satisfied. The man gets to keep his farm and the Law of Mercy is manifest. However, the man is not off scot free because he is now indebted to his friend. In this case, the Atonement acts more as a rebilling transaction, transferring liabilities from one party to another rather than acting as a compensating adjustment to the account. The consequences of our actions are not simply written-off; they are transferred to the Savior who pays the price.
The third blueprint for understanding the Atonement doesn’t call as much directly upon the laws of justice and mercy as the first two did, though it does not ignore them altogether. Rather than using metaphors of physical cause and effect or transactional accounting, it makes use of an organic healing metaphor. It acknowledges the wickedness and decay that are part of mortality and that engulfs all of us. By our nature we are a fallen people. But also by our nature we are divine and can be healed. In most cases, our physical bodies are capable of healing themselves—except when ravaged by age or cancer. In contrast, however, our spiritual bodies are not self-healing in the same way. Yes, we can strengthen our spiritual muscles and by certain actions are able to develop our spiritual strength. But when it comes to the ultimate spiritual goal of eternal life, we are never healthy enough.
Through the atonement, Christ fixes what is wrong in us. He heals us and gives us the spiritual strength to live with God again. One of the biggest differences in this blueprint from the first two is that the Atonement heals, i.e. changes, the individual and does not simply ameliorate a condition or state the individual finds him or herself in. It is not just a payment or ransom for something that I have done or not done. It actually cures my condition.
In a fourth blueprint for understanding the Atonement, the focus shifts from the physical and the physiological to the mental/emotional and psychological. The focus is on the possibility of perfection and the hope the Atonement offers. There is still a recognition that we, as mortals always fall short. And the objective is the same as the other blueprints, that is, that we can become exalted. Like the healing power of the Atonement, the effect of this understanding of the Atonement is that the individual becomes a new being. The atonement does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It eventually makes us perfect beings like our Savior and His Father.
This understanding also provides a new possibility that the others did not: the hope of the Atonement benefits not only the sinner, but also “those sinned against—that is, the victims of sin.” (Faust, Nov. 2001) The emotional and spiritual healing which is manifest in individualized, internal change is also available to “those who have been innocently victimized by the sins of others;” or in other words, those who have been hurt and even damaged by the consequences of the bad actions of others. Examples of such actions could include divorce, greed, war, and terror. The hope that the Atonement offers is that even though the powers of darkness have come upon and affected me, I can nevertheless withstand, prevail, and yes, even have the negative and damaging effects erased from my life. Through the Atonement, nothing—not the consequences of my actions nor those of those—need keep me from exaltation and becoming perfect like God.
In summary, the various blueprints we have identified thus far form a continuum that describes the Atonement as being 1) a satisfaction of the Law of Justice, 2) a transactional reconciliation of debt, 3) a spiritual healing and 4) a hope of perfection.
The final and fifth blueprint for understanding that I would like to describe focuses on the transformative power of the Atonement. It shares the same assumption that all the others have, that is, that we all fall short—due to our mortal natures—of our goal of perfection. It also acknowledges that we make bad choices and that we sin. But sin is nothing more than being in this, our mortal state, where we are not like God, where we are different from Him and from His state of being. In this blueprint, the power of the Atonement is not just one of reconciliation, not just one of making up the difference between us and God. Rather, the Atonement has the power to fundamentally transform our natures. It provides the opportunity, the possibility, and the reality for us to change and become like Christ. Though mortal, like Christ in his sojourn on earth, we can rise above the vicissitudes and exigencies of our present state. We can acquire the same attributes He possessed and we can become what He has become. And that is nothing short of perfection.
When our objective is to become like Christ, repentance ceases to be something that we merely do. Rather, it becomes something that we are: as I become more Christ-like, I become repentant, submissive, and aligned to the will of the Father just as Christ was. And that becoming transforms who I am and allows me to be what God intends me to be. The Atonement makes me at one with God not merely by compensating for my inadequacies, but by transforming me; it changes me in spite of these inadequacies.
How does the Atonement do this? It does it only through the power and example of the only One who has actually become like God, that being His Son. Christ, having submitted unconditionally to the will of His Father, gives us the strength and power to do the same. By showing us the way, He gives us the power to do likewise.
What I learn from Christ’s example is that I really can change. Like Jean Val Jean of Les Miserables, I can put the past behind me and be a different person. I do not have to let what I have done in the past dictate who or what I am in the future. Likewise, the Javerts of my life who continue to tell me that I can never change end up having no power over me because I know that I really can change. I am the agent of my destiny, not because of my own will and power, but only because of the power God has placed within me. And only as I use that power the same way that Christ did, that is, aligned with the will of the Father.
One of the amazing things about the Savior is that He knew who He was, as preposterous as it sounded to the rest of the world. He knew His potential and never wavered from what He knew He should do. He also always remembered the source of His power. He knew that it never was about Him but always about His Father. Even in the bleakest moments of his mortal existence—in the garden and on the cross—he never unaligned himself with the will of the Father. I am grateful that he showed his humanness, by acknowledging his weaknesses and asking God if He could be spared. But even in his asking, he submitted himself and his own will to that of the Father. Christ’s own transformation into resurrected immortality makes possible my own transformative at-one-ment with God.
One thing that the transformative power of the Atonement does for me is that it means that I don’t always have to be right. It does mean that my heart must be in the right place. It does mean that I must have good intentions. It does mean that I must be submissive and willing to bend my will to that of the Father. But it doesn’t mean that I have to know everything. It doesn’t mean that my way of doing things is the best. It doesn’t mean that I have to make sure that I am absolutely certain and correct about everything because I am afraid of being wrong and afraid of having to change my ways.
I generally find in my own life that I am my own worst enemy. Despite the power within me, and the power of the Atonement, I sometimes have convinced myself that I really cannot change. Or I convince myself that it is okay to continue doing what I have always been doing even though I know that what I am doing is really holding me back. In these moments, I realize how unlike the Savior I really am because He never made excuses.
The transformative power of the Atonement suggests that I learn from the past, but that I always look toward the future. I cannot undo what has been done in the past. However, I can change the present and thereby remediate the future. The reconciliation of repentance doesn’t merely mean that I pay for the damages of the past; it means that I put things in place so that the effects of the past do not determine or mar the future. It means that I change the potential outcomes of the future in a positive and worthwhile way.
The transformative power of the Atonement does not mean that I repudiate the past, nor does it mean that I repudiate or hold as less viable other blueprints for understanding the Atonement that are not transformation focused. It allows me to always find the good and valuable in everything one says and does. It does not mean that I deny heartache and disappointment; it does not mean that I even try to avoid them. But it does mean that when I experience them, I do so fully and with the ability to move ahead at the appropriate time. It allows me to learn from what appear to be the incomprehensible events in my life.
Last week when I was in Boston riding the T with Hillary, it occurred to me that it would be really cool to see a 3-D model of the Boston subway system, showing all the various layers of tunnels as well as all the stations, stairways and hallways connecting one line to another. And then I thought that what would make it really cool is if it were interactive, showing where each train was at any moment. Such a model would give me a full understanding of the whole system, and not just a limited, gopher-like perspective of one stop and one train at only one point in time.
Likewise, all of the various blueprints that describe the different aspects of the Atonement—when viewed together as a whole—would also provide a more complete understanding of what it does and how it works.
In a way, the Atonement itself can be a model for our lives. It is the model of Christ’s life. It is the power to become, through Him, like God because it not only shows us the way, but gives us the way. May we allow the Atonement to transform our lives so that we can actually become like Him, in whose name we come together as fellow sojourners on our individual and collective paths to perfection and exaltation, and in whose name I witness these truths. Amen.