Delivered by Michael Harward in a sacrament meeting of the Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 16 April 2023
As far as I can determine, we in the church didn’t talk much about the enabling or transformative power of the atonement before Bruce Hafen’s masterful treatment of the atonement in his 2005 book A Broken Heart. Jonathan Gibson would not have been able to give the wonderful talk he gave last Easter Sunday had it not been for Brother Hafen. Before 2005, whenever we did talk about the atonement, it was in terms of overcoming sins and transgressions. For decades, the preeminent metaphor used for understanding the atonement was that of the debtor-creditor relationship, particularly as it was taught by Boyd K. Packer in a video called The Mediator which the church produced.
As we learned from Brother Hafen and from Jonathan, the preliminary work of the atonement is to remove from us the negative impacts of sin—sin being anything we do that is wrong and that holds us back from fulfilling our life’s mission. But once that impact has been removed, the atonement is able to do its real work and transform us into god-like people. In both cases, i.e. overcoming sin and transforming us into holier beings, we cannot do it by ourselves: we need Christ to not only show the way, but to make it happen.
The debtor-creditor metaphor mostly works to help us understand the role of Christ in the transaction. However, it doesn’t adequately teach what has to happen to us as the sinner, as the debtor. I realized that I used to think of the transaction as letting me off, scot-free from the consequences of my transgression. As long as I had faith in Christ, He washed away the consequences of my sins. Like an MLB pitch hitter, Christ would stand in for me when faced with the exigencies of justice, and voila, I would be washed clean. And projecting that into the future, when I would stand before Christ at the day of judgement, as long as I had allowed Christ to wash away all my blemishes, then I was “fit for the kingdom” and would live with God eternally.
But I don’t think that that is how it is going to work.
I don’t think that the transformative power of the atonement Jonthan taught us about is just an optional, nice-to-have consequence of our faith when it comes to our progress along the covenant path, in our efforts to become more like God. The point is that in order to live with God we have to be like Him. We have to change from our fallen, mortal state to become like Him. And that change is hard because it means that I really have to become a different person that the natural man that I am. And the only way I can become a new being is by letting the transformative power of the atonement take effect in my life. I have to welcome Christ and His influence into my life. I have to follow and become like Him. Our talking, rejoicing, preaching and prophesying of Christ is not just an academic exercise, a transfer of knowledge from parent to child, from shepherd to sleep. God really expects us to change and become like Him. And the good thing, is that He does not leave us alone, does not simply bid us “good luck” but He actually does everything in His power to make sure that we do change—of our own free will and choice.
But change we must.
During weekend of the most recent General conference, for my own personal scripture reading I happened to read the account of Alma going to the Zoramites with several of his companions, including Amulek who had recently been converted. As you recall, they were astonished beyond imagination to find the Zoramites engaging in a perverse form of worship standing upon what they called a rameumpton. Alma knew that rather than overtly condemning them for the practice, the greatest influence he could have on these people was “the preaching of the word [which] had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else” (Alma 31:5) Alma felt that the best course of action for getting the Zoramites to change would be to “try the virtue of the word of God.” So he gave a blessing to each of his companions just before they split up to go their own ways as led by the spirit, much like Ammon and his brothers had done when they first set out to preach to the Lamanites.
In contrast to Ammon’s earlier success with the ruling, influential class, Alma and Amulek found themselves having more success with the humble class of the people, especially those who had been denied access to the churches and synagogues they helped construct, due to the “coarseness of their apparel.” (Alma 32:2) At one point, Alma and Amulek find themselves teaching a group of people on a hillside. Mormon, the editor, doesn’t tell us a lot about this group of people. However, he does contrast them with another group that approaches, which he describes as “poor in heart because of their poverty as to things of the world. (Alma 32:4) Alma then diverts his attention to these, the poor, and without dismissing the first group, teaches them both about faith, and planting the seed and letting it grow. In order to be very clear to them, Alma then teaches them that the seed they should plant is a testimony and understanding of the love and mercy of God.
When Alma is done, I can hear him saying, even though Mormon did not record it this way, “We will now hear from Brother Amulek” who then preaches about the atonement of Christ. Put yourself into the frame of mind of just having listened to the most recent weekend of conference and hear how Amulek closes his remarks:
“Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;
“Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.
“Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.
“Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.
“Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening.
“Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.
“Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.
“Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.
“Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.
“But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.
“Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.” (Alma 34:17-27)
To me, that was exactly what I had just heard in conference: Come unto Me, find Christ in the world around you, in your fields and in your closets, hear Him and welcome Him into your life. Let the transformative power of the atonement make you new creatures.
What Amulek says next, however had an impact on me that I did not anticipate:
“And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing.” (Alma 34:28)
I first took these words of Amulek to mean that just as my understanding of myself as a debtor handing over my sins to Christ as a creditor wasn’t enough, allowing the transformative power of the atonement to change me into a more Christ-like person was not enough either. It sounded like Amulek was trying to teach me that if I only allow myself to be transformed and still do not take care of the poor and needy, then my transformative change has been in vain.
King Benjamin seems to lend support to Amulek, suggesting that we really cannot progress, i.e. take upon us the enabling power of the atonement if we neglect the poor and needy.
“And now, . . . for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:26)
I think that Amulek and King Benjamin are on to something. They would agree that allowing myself to be transformed by the power of the atonement is not a small matter. It is huge in and of itself. However, allowing the atonement to transform me may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. Any transformation of myself is not enough. Part of that transformation must include how I respond and take care of others, particularly the poor and needy.
Amulek and King Benjamin are not the only Book of Mormon writers who are concerned about how we treat, i.e. mistreat the poor:
Nephi:“They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.” (2 Nephi 28:13)
Alma: “Will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?” (Alma 5:55)
Helaman: “And thus they did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God.” (Helaman 6:39)
Mormon: “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy.” (Mormon 8:37)
The Doctrine and Covenants is a little more explicit in the Lord’s condemnation of those who abuse the poor.
“And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.” (D&C 52:40)
“Wo unto you . . . that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation.” (D&C 56:16)
“If any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” (D&C 104:18)
The Doctrine and Covenants is also a little more explicit on how we are to succor the poor:
“Look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.” (D&C 38:35)
“Thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.” (D&C 42:30)
“Ye must visit the poor and the needy and administer to their relief.” (D&C 44:6)
“And widows and orphans shall be provided for, as also the poor.” (D&C 83:6)
Now I suspect that most of you are like me. My go-to natural-man response when confronted with poverty, is one of judgement: what did these people do to bring this situation upon themselves and what are they not doing that would get them out of their situation? Whether I like it or not, every time I feel this way, King Benjamin’s indictment rings in my ears:
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 4:17-18)
President Nelson tells us that “ours is not to judge; ours is a covenantal obligation to care for the poor and the needy.” (In the Lord’s Own Way, April 1986 General Conference) Given his current emphasis on the covenant path, this obligation must be high on the Lord’s list of transformations He hopes and expects to see in our natures.
The first distinction I want to put into the mouth of King Benjamin and President Nelson is that they do not expect us to fall prey to con artists. When I was on my mission, there was a man always on the lookout for missionaries at one of the train stations in Paris. He always had a compelling story, and knew how to manipulate the feelings of the missionaries so they would give him some money. Fortunately, I was confronted by him when I was with a more seasoned missionary who taught me how to see through him. But he also taught me that not everyone was a con artist.
A few years ago, I participated in a poverty simulation exercise that helped me learn how to be more empathetic of the poor. As a consequence, I am better equipped to tell the difference between the real and the fake.
In the simulation, each of us was given a part to play. Each part was based on a real live experience. There were various entities that we had to interact with, such as family and social services, charities, the law enforcement, landlords, employers, etc. Over 4 rounds or days, we had certain situations or scenarios that we had to respond to, such has trying to get to a job interview using public transportation, what to do with a child while at the interview, responding to the landlord’s demand for payment of rent, falling behind on a loan payment etc. I was one of the lucky ones because I had a car and I had a spouse who had a job. But at the end of the simulation, I was emotionally spent. The system itself was so overwhelming and did little to help someone with good intentions succeed. What I learned, is that it is very hard and very overwhelming to be poor, and it is seldom a choice that an individual makes.
One cannot pretend to talk about poverty without mention of the Savior saying “for the poor always ye have with you.” (John 12:8) Why did He say that? And what did he mean? It may be that he was just trying to use a very common, every day situation that would always be with them, in contrast to Him, the Savior who would be gone from them all in a few days. He did finish the phrase by saying “but me ye have not always.”
But I think it is more than that.
What are Amulek, King Benjamin, President Nelson and the Savior trying to teach us about the poor and our responsibility to take care of them? It’s got to be really important because in the same talk mentioned above, President Nelson states: ”Few, if any, of the Lord’s instructions are stated more often, or given greater emphasis, than the commandment to care for the poor and the needy.”
Let me try to articulate some ideas of why it may be so important and what Christ meant.
First, back to its everyday-ness. I suspect that despite our best intentions, poverty is never going away. We may help one person escape its hold, but there will always be another case that appears somewhere on the horizon. Our tendency in such a situation is to give-up; but like the response to the person on the beach throwing a star fish back into the ocean when confronted with the overall futility of such an action given all the star fish on beaches around the globe, it really does make a difference to that one start fish. Despite the enormity of the task, it does matter to the one individual saved from the clutches of poverty. So we need to keep trying and helping, no matter how futile it seems or how tired or discouraged we get.
Second, I think dealing with poverty can help us learn something about salvation vs. exaltation. At its elementary level, salvation refers to what Christ offers us in the form of overcoming death. But in addition to saving us from death, Christ is also able to save us—free us—from anything that holds us back, that keeps us from becoming like God. President Nelson explains that salvation is an individual matter, i.e. between an individual and the Savior.
In contrast, President Nelson proclaims that exaltation is a family matter—and not just a nuclear family, but the family of God. We help each other, through Christ, to be transformed from children of the world into sons and daughters of God, members of His family. We are exalted together with our family and friends.
When I succor the poor and needy, I am remembering that they, too, are members of my eternal family, that they who are the least like me are the most like me if for no other reason than that God is their Father. And with Him as their Father, they are beloved individuals like me.
I enjoy the blessing of working once a week at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen downtown. Keith used to go with me. He loved working in the dining room, clearing trays and wiping tables. Like him, I have loved the interactions with individuals that working in the dining room provides. When I first started going on a regular basis, the patrons were just a sea of disheveled faces with mismatching clothes. But I have discovered that each time I try to learn a new person’s name, I feel like I get to know them a bit better. And slowly, they are becoming my brothers and sisters, as much loved of God as I am. Each week I need a hug from Shawnda, who is one of the nicest, most gentle people I have ever met. I also check in with Brad, who is sleeping in his car, to see how he is doing and whether he is still safe. I remark on the jade necklace King wears. I smile at Robert and he smiles back at me.
But then there is the crabby lady. When the empty nesters were scheduled to serve dinner at a men’s shelter and we pulled off the interstate downtown, Nancy pointed out someone carrying a cardboard sign up ahead and jokingly suggested that we should pick him up and give him a ride to the shelter. Even from two blocks away, I recognized that who Nancy thought was a “he” was actually the crabby lady who came to Our Daily Bread and no, I did not want to stop and offer her a ride let alone talk to her. She really is that much of a nuisance when she comes to the soup kitchen. A few days latter, she was back at the soup kitchen. I avoided her as usual—until she got up to do karaoke since it was the final Friday of the month. Doing karaoke is meant as a fun, light-hearted way to help people feel good about themselves. But the crabby lady, who had never done it before and who didn’t have a very good voice, chose a song I had never heard. I listened. So did everyone else. And we heard her sing “I am alone; I am down trodden; I am broken.” And I realized I had misjudged a daughter of God. She is part of my family. She or someone else as crabby and unlikable will always be there. My interaction with her or lack therefore, indicates how far I still have to go on my path to transformative exaltation.
So I simply ask, “Will you all help me?” I promise to help you.