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?