Sin Boldly! – Part Five: The Atonement Isn’t a Worst-Case Scenario; It’s the Best-Case Scenario

After completing the mini-series, I’ve felt a need to expand more on my ideas of the Atonement and why I believe. This is the first part, detailing how as a church culture we often exhibit a very wrong attitude towards the Atonement of Christ.

Like the Pharisees, sometimes we may feel paralyzed from the fear of sin, or even the simple perception. We chide people who commit acts that might even have the inkling of evil. Members preach about the dangers of chocolate, because it has caffeine, and caffeine is in coffee, and coffee is against the Word of Wisdom. I knew a missionary who felt that working out was evil because then you would become physically attractive and if you were physically attractive you might break the law of chastity and even if you didn’t sleep around with beautiful women, people might think you were. We treat the Atonement as a worst case scenario – that if all else fails, if every other option is exhausted then we might think about accessing a little bit of the Atonement’s power. Our attitude towards the Atonement resembles our attitude towards food storage; it’s comforting to know it’s there, but heaven forbid we ever have to actually use it.

The truth of the matter is different, however. Rather than a worst case scenario, the Atonement is the best case scenario. We preach not the idea of perfection achieved by human will with an unpleasant backup plan. We preach the idea that despite our inevitable imperfections, God has provided a way to save us. The Atonement is central to everything we preach, yet often as members we push it aside as a periphery doctrine. I do not believe we do this on purpose, but accepting the Atonement means accepting some very unsavory concepts of ourselves – that as mortals, we lack ability to save ourselves, that no matter how hard we try, the world will sully us – this kind of thought can become disturbing for the most of us. So we push it aside. Instead, we talk about how the gospel strengthens our families, how we feel needed within our lay clergy church structure, or perhaps how without the Church, we have no idea how we could have raised our rowdy teenagers. We talk about temporal blessings or perhaps the sweet whispers of the Holy Spirit when we lie in our beds, our pillows wet with the tears of our sorrows and loneliness. We might talk about how the presence of the priesthood has blessed our homes or how our sons and daughters have become valiant missionaries. But none of this matters without the Atonement. Until we promote the idea that Christ has died for us, until we internalize the fact that the Atonement has freed us from sin, that we have no more need to fear the cold, ruthless hand of justice, until we actually begin to live as if God actually overcame the world and we no longer fear ourselves because God not only thinks we are worth something but actually put proved it, we promote nothing more than another philosophy, another ideology. We belong not to the body of Christ but to a social club where we parade our picture perfect families and swap mission stories and talk about our latest “tender mercies” while judging those who might not live as picture perfect of lives as us and quavering in fear that someone might discover our lives have become a facade as well.

“Before you were formed in the belly, I knew thee,” God reminds the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus declared to the furious Pharisees (John 8:58). God knew the type of people we would become, even before our parents conceived us. He’s existed forever; He knows the drill. The sinful nature of mortal man is a constant in the universe, like gravity or the speed of light. Before the formation of the earth, before our narrative began, God began to concoct a plan. He wanted His children to grow, to learn, to love, to experience life. But He knew the constant of the universe – mortals make mistakes. And so, He planned the Atonement. He knew nothing humanity could do could redeem itself. God will come down, save humanity, and humanity will experience the wide range of opportunities known as life without the fear of spiritual death as long as they clung to the Atonement and its promises.

“Men are that they might have joy,” the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi declares (2 Nephi 2:25). A life of joy is not a life spent in guilt. We discourage people through negative association from accessing the Atonement because we emphasize the sufferings and deprivations of sin rather than the cure as (for?) a church culture. Too many bishops feel their job is to discipline, not to forgive. As judges of Israel, they would rather pass sentence rather than rehabilitate. The Atonement is not a gift in many members’ eyes; it is a punishment. It is a walk of shame which we must endure in order to appease the anger of a jealous God. But this thinking is wrong – not only do we make our potential conversation and relationship with God horrible and painful, we estrange ourselves from his His true character. We deny the aspect of the Atonement which establishes itself firmly as a gift, not a scourge to castigate, and instead of emphasizing His mercy as His Son did, we emphasize His anger. We have replaced mercy (and the Atonement) with the stern schoolmaster, not the other way around as Paul wanted (Galatians 3:24) – he’s probably spinning in his grave (or in heaven or the spirit world – whichever you prefer). This attitude only separates us from the power the Atonement has to offer and when we see others access it, we assume weakness rather than humility and strength, all the while forgetting that stating the fact of weakness in humans is like stating the fact that humans need to breathe to exist – it’s so ubiquitous, so natural, so common-knowledge that the fact loses any sense of wonderment or fascination. So why do we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that our sinful natures are some kind of bizarre aberration of who we are? And why do we refuse to see that the Atonement is the cure, not the cross, for sin?

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6 responses to “Sin Boldly! – Part Five: The Atonement Isn’t a Worst-Case Scenario; It’s the Best-Case Scenario

  1. Jamie

    I’m having trouble responding to this essay because I so strongly disagree with the fundamental premise that our church treats the Atonement as a peripheral doctrine.

    Except for only three Sundays out of the year (2 General Conferences and Stake Conference), we bless, pass and take the sacrament. Anything else in our Sunday service is changeable: we can have the primary program, testimony meeting, hymn sing-alongs, high council talks all open to any gospel related subject. But the sacrament is the exact same, essentially every single week. Even though it might seem like it’s become background noise, it’s a very powerful statement. Out of all we do as a congregation, this is the one thing that matters.

    Maybe we don’t talk about the Atonement as often as we talk about families or personal revelation or missionary work, but as you say in the post, they are all made possible by the Atonement. I can only offer my personal experience and perception, but I don’t see evidence that people in our church don’t realize this. If people in the church really started marginalizing the Atonement, we’d see that in decreased church attendance and an increase in “Christmas/Easter” Mormons. I know I’m assuming here, but I’m sure the people you are talking about — the people that parade their perfect families, swap mission stories, or credit all life success around the church — all attend church every week, and likely attend the temple often. Whether or not it’s a fully conscious statement is debatable, but the action of attending church and taking the sacrament every single week is strong evidence that the Atonement is considered central, not periphery. If it really is done simply for social acceptance, then there would be a subset of purely social Mormons who would find a less liturgic (and more convenient, and more showy) way to participate in that society.

    • Ted

      I have really been appreciating your comments and your challenges (and willingness to call BS if you see fit)! :p

      I would agree that some form of the atonement is internalized. But I think this thought experiment would probably show were some peoples’ feelings (or at the very least, their habits) would lie.

      Suppose a family goes to church every Sunday. They stay for the sacrament, then leave after the ordinance is finished. Sometimes they stay for Priesthood, Relief Society, or Sunday School. But unless their callings have them do so, they usually don’t. They’re good members; they go to the temple, they keep the Sabbath holy, they pay their tithing. They home and visit teach. They magnify their callings. They just don’t attend all of church – only the sacrament.

      1. How many people would think they were fully active? How many people would think they were less active?
      2. If they didn’t have callings in the Sunday School, Priesthood, or Relief Society, do you think the bishop would try to call them to a position there for the explicit hope that they would “feel needed” and come to those auxiliary meetings?

      How people would answer the question really shows a lot of their own beliefs of what faithfulness and activity in the church means and also the faith they put in others around them. Me? I don’t have as much faith in ward members as a whole in this situation, but that’s because I’m really, really, really pessimistic.

    • Ted

      Oh, also, I am definitely not saying the Church doesn’t talk about the Atonement Evar. My thesis is rather than in my limited personal experience in churches around the States, the majority of the congregation experience a type of behavior disconnect. They say they believe in the atonement, but sometimes their actions (and which church programs they put faith in and which they don’t) don’t match up to what they believe. In other words, idealized culture doesn’t necessarily equal real culture.

  2. I’m with Ted on this one. It has taken me until I was 25 to really start to come to grips with the Atonement as an all-encompassing concept in the gospel. I could have recited Joseph Smith to you, calling it the central doctrine of our church, but I think our commentary and often our attitudes indicate a lack of focus (for many, many members) on the Atonement as the central concept in our faith and our lives.

    I recently read ‘The Peacegiver’ and ‘The Holy Secret’, which are fantastic explorations of the depth and importance of the Atonement in our personal and interpersonal lives. It greatly improved my understanding of myself and the Atonement, I can’t recommend it enough.

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