Tag Archives: atonement

The etymology of “Atonement”

I used to induce myself into a simmering wrath whenever I heard “Atonement” picked apart as “At-one-ment.” No way a word’s meaning could be deduced so simply in such a sophomoric fashion. It’s like saying the word “microphone” really means “micro” + “phone,” and micro means “small” and phone means telephone, so a microphone is a really small telephone. I felt it poor scholarship, and as a fan of etymology, I was offended, I’ll admit. Drove me crazy whenever anyone would define “Atonement” in that fashion.

Well, egg on my face because according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

[In use a verbal n. from atone, but apparently of prior formation, due to the earlier n. onement and the phrase ‘to be atone’ or ‘at onement.’ Cf. the following:
1533 Q. Cath. Parr Erasm. Comm. Crede 162 To reconcile hymselfe and make an onement with god.1599 Bp. Hall Sat. iii. vii. 69 Which never can be set at onement more.1555 Fardle Facions ii. xii. 298 The redempcion, reconciliacion, and at onement of mankinde with God the father.]

Well darn. Other sources mention that the term could have been coined by William Tyndale (oh, that rascally Tyndale!) , recognizing that he understood no direct translated from Hebrew or Greek into English had yet existed. How a scholar of languages invented a word with such a boring origin is beyond me, but because of its spiritual meaning, the word has transcended beyond its dull roots to take on a beautiful, uplifting, redeeming connotation.

So it turns out that those guys in Sunday School just might be right. Fine. I’ll accept it. However, to the missionary who took it further than usual and said that “-ment” in “atonement” means “with” in Greek or Latin, I may never forgive you in this life.

Edit: For an interesting short history lesson as far as this explanation’s existence in Mormon culture, look no further than this blog post “When did Atonement become At-onement?” Fascinating!

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Tender Mercies

Elder Bednar, upon his calling as an apostle, gave a blockbuster sermon concerning the tender mercies of God. The sermon itself is a great, powerful speech on the everlasting mercy of God. Most unfortunately, however, it spun off a new catch phrase that has gained a level of insipidness and inanity usually unseen within our church culture. Now, tender mercies, as my wife bitterly puts it, is attributing anything good that happened to you, from a timely green light to you finding ten bucks on the side of the street, to God. Everything is a tender mercy, and when everything is a tender mercy, the idea of mercy loses its potency. It also opens up a disturbing implication (Rebecca J discusses this in her blog post “Not Lucky, Blessed” if you want to read more of this).

The original scripture that spawned this cliche comes from the very first chapter in the Book of Mormon: “But Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). At the time, Nephi had fled to a promised land, but along the way, his family has seen horrible trials. They almost starve to death in the deserts of the Middle East. They barely make it to a new land alive after a large storm threatens to sink their ship. Nephi’s older brothers, after years of abuse and beatings, decide they don’t like their uppity younger brothers and determine to kill them. They enlist others to the point that the famous Nephite-Lamanite rivalry escalates into full blown wars (at the loss of thousands of lives). In the end, Nephi has a vision of his own people growing to a prosperous nation that ultimately disintegrates and destroys itself from within because of unrighteousness. How, exactly, is the Lord showing any sort of tender mercy?

Why does Nephi, the first author of the Book of Mormon, introduce his memoirs by speaking about mercy? And most interestingly, why does Moroni, the last author of the Book of Mormon, close his writings with a plea to ask God about the veracity of the Book of Mormon by speaking of mercy? He writes, “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts” (Moroni 10:3). It’s obvious at this point, that when a book opens saying, “I will tell you about mercy,” and ends with, “Now think about the mercy I have talked about in this book,” mercy is an important thing to the writers.

But this isn’t the warm fuzzies, feel-good tender mercies we hear about so much in church. One prophet dies by burning before he sees a single convert. Entire groups are conquered into slavery simply because God wanted to test them. There are terrible wars that result in so many dead that it chokes up the rivers. Judges are asassinated, governments crumble, sons go astray, daughters are kidnapped and raped, entire sects begin to persecute each other, people are thrown into jail for religious beliefs, others burn all of the women and children in town who believe in Christ simply to taunt the prophets. And in the end, despite a visitation by Jesus the Christ himself, Nephi’s vision comes true – an entire civilization crumbles into dust and are wiped out because they fail to heed the word of God.

Where is the mercy in this book? What mercy keeps Nephi, though seemingly abandoned in a strange, new world, full of hope for the mercy of God? What mercy keeps Moroni from falling into crippling despair as he wanders the hostile, new world alone, his entire family and friends slaughtered by the onslaught of merciless enemies? God certainly wasn’t making their proverbial stoplights turn green or helping them find any ten dollar bills on the sidewalk.

Jeffrey R. Holland succinctly sums up this mercy thusly:

“The principle character in the book is Jesus Christ…Christ is everything in this book.”

“We are supposed to be Christ-like, we are supposed to be charitable, we are supposed to demonstrate love, but he is saying that were it not for real charity, capital C, the one time in all the world that real charity was demonstrated, i.e., the pure love of Christ, if it were not for that, ‘we could not inherit the place which thou has prepared in the mansions of thy Father.’ This is the chairty that saves. This is the charity that faileth not. Ours does not always save and it does sometimes fail. As much as we try, we fall short. But one time, by one Person, the pure love of Christ was demonstrated. Real charity was given to this world. Christ loved us perfectly and it lasts forever. That’s why we can say that real charity never faileth. He never fails us. The message of the Book of Mormon is that Christ does not fail us. That’s what we’re trying to tell the world. That’s what we’re trying to say through this basic missionary text of this dispensation. Christ’s love is pure love. He is the only one who has ever really mastered it while the rest of us are still trying to do so. His salvation will not fail, His ordinances will not fail, His Church will not fail…Life has its share of fears and failures. Sometimes things fall short. Sometimes people fail us, economics fail us, business or government fail us. But one thing in time and eternity does not fail us, the pure love of the Lord Jesus Christ as manifested in His atoning sacrifice.”

Recently, a Facebook friend put up a quote for her status that basically said the adversary will have us focus on a lot of meaningless things rather than the few meaningful things that count. While the quote bothered me (the intent is usually to insinuate that what I like is important; what you like isn’t), I cannot deny it’s truthfulness. And I cannot deny the fact that our Church sometimes falls guilty of that. We have reduced a very powerful phrase – tender mercies – encapsulating the crowning achievement of God in redeeming his children from sin and sorrow, the demonstration of perfect charity, given freely and paid with a terrible price, so that God can shift the burden of responsibility of our sins from us to him to help us return back from miserable exile – to simple coincidence and happenstance that marginally improves our lives and helps us feel better. This is a terrible shame.

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Sin Boldly! – Part Eight: Personal Salvation, Personal Qualification

So how does one qualify for the Atonement? This is the obvious question people ask when they realize the awesome power the Atonement holds. Here lies the battlefield of a hundred denominations, and the crux of the issue for many, many Christians. At this very doctrinal issue we argue and gnash our teeth and condemn and hate and deride and bully. How exactly does one qualify for God’s redeeming grace?

At the extreme end we find utilitarianism, the idea that anyone can qualify for God without even necessarily believing in God. At the other extreme end we find those who believe that strict obedience and perfection is the only road to heaven. Most people remain in the grey middle, drawing up lines denying access to the Atonement for some while allowing others into their hearts.

However, vengeance is mine, thus saith the Lord, and He also remains the sole arbiter for the fate of mankind. Only He can look into our hearts and read our intent. A common turn of phrase in our Church says we’ll all be surprised who ends up in the Celestial Kingdom – and who doesn’t. However, few people believe this. I’ve met many a Mormon who feels that those who drink coffee won’t make it. This is, albeit, definitely one of the more extreme and ridiculous notions, but it isn’t indicative of just our denomination. I’ve also met Evangelicals who believe that people who love Harry Potter won’t make the cut. I hope that all good, loving, thinking Christians realize this is rubbish.

When God tells us not to judge, He means to tell us not to judge who will make it and who won’t. Many a breath has been spent, many an inkwell spilled, about whether or not Emma Smith will make it to the Celestial Kingdom or not. If we spent just as much time continually asking ourselves if we feel we qualify and how we could improve ourselves and help others, our Church would grow in stature and maturity. Such speculative thinking damages us on a twofold basis. First of all, the entire exercise wastes a monumental amount of time. Only God knows, and we won’t know everything until the end. Wondering who will make it and who won’t based on limited knowledge is like trying to game the stock market with a limited understanding of economics – even those who obtained a vast understanding and corpus of knowledge about the stock market will never beat it. Those who try simply because they read one investment book or watched Mad Money will get burned, simple as that. Secondly, we begin to gossip of others and worry more about how others act than ourselves. Gossip is dangerously corrosive; Satan wants us to deflect attention from ourselves towards others. This way, we lose focus of why we’re here in the first place and begin to look down on others – a dangerous trend, the scriptures teach us.

The relationship with God should be an intensely personal one – for a case study, look no further than Alma 5. Alma 5 has the reputation as the “interview chapter.” Alma desires the reader to ask him or herself a series of questions concerning his or her relationship with God. He asks them, among other things:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

Notice Alma doesn’t ask a lot of questions about various specific commandments. He doesn’t ask if you keep the law of chastity, or if your sleeves cover your shoulders and midriff. He doesn’t ask about our specific media consumption. Alma asks about intent, he asks about feeling, he asks about change. He wants to know if we’ve changed our hearts and our intentions, if we’ve experienced God’s mercy and the power of His Atonement, and (very importantly) if we remember it. Then, and only then, does he ask if we continue to do good works, because Alma understands that a desire to do good is a symptom of God’s good infection. How does he detail disobedience to God? As defiance and pride. Defiance because they refuse to hearken to God’s call, despite it being open to everyone, and pride because they feel better than others. We are “too good” to accept the Atonement – we simply cannot accept or come to grips with the fact that we – we in all of our worldly glory! – make mistakes all the time and cannot save ourselves. We cannot bring ourselves to understand that we need God everyday. This thought process contributes directly to the idea that tapping into the healing, forgiving power of the Atonement is shameful and weak, and that those who make mistakes should be shunned. The world constructed from these premises is not only delusional; it is cruel.

But most importantly, notice that Alma only asks about you. He doesn’t ask you to ask your neighbor. He doesn’t say, “Want to know if you’re gonna make it? Ask your bishop and pastor. He’ll know.” Only you can know the answer, because ultimately, salvation comes from God, not man.

So how do you know if you qualify for the Atonement? Ask God – read, pray, listen, talk to others who claim to have had similar experiences of God’s cleansing power. But ultimately, no one can tell you whether or not you qualify except for you (and God). You will know in your heart what you need to do. He’ll let you know – and only you. Are there general basic principles to help us develop a closer relationship with God? Absolutely. But can we use these basic principles to gauge where a person stands in the eyes of God? Absolutely not. Does this make it messy? Yes, it does. Does it make religion a little hectic, possibly even subjective? Maybe. But just as how Christ visited the Nephites in the Book of Mormon one by one, the Atonement is a one on one process (2 Nephi 11:15). Hierarchy, bureaucracy, theocracy – neither of these can package up and parcel out salvation. We utilize the priesthood to administer saving ordinances, but there’s a reason why we also administer saving ordinances to the dead – God understood that by leaving a portion of His work in our hands and our initiative, we would make mistakes (we are human, after all). But He didn’t plan on leaving anyone behind on account of our own mortal pettiness; we can see so little of the plan in our current position and with our current scope. God’s cosmic plan encapsulates more than this mortal life, and He made sure the Atonement was more broad, eternal, and timeless than our own temporary, human mistakes.

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Sin Boldly! – Part Seven: Fear and Trembling

The penultimate chapter of my recent disgorging of religious belief. I’ve spoken extensively on the Atonement and what it means to me. Here I reject the traditional LDS cultural belief of what works necessarily means, and that perhaps we might not be as culturally far apart from the misaligned Pharisees as we think.

Then what about works? All of this sounds vaguely and suspiciously…evangelical. So all I have to do is believe in Jesus and I’m saved, no questions asked? That’s silly and naïve. Grace was too easy, there had to be a catch, some kind of small print I’m missing. I once thought this way, too.

First of all, what’s wrong with easy? After all, Christ says that His yoke is light (Matthew 11:30). The prophets lament that all we had to do was look, but because of the ease of the action, many perish (Alma 33:19-22). Naaman, the leprous man who visited the Old Testament prophet Elisha initially rejected his counsel because it was too easy for a great man like himself (2 Kings 5). Ease has nothing to do with the equation.

However, the scriptures are explicit that faith must be coupled in some way with good works. The epistle James famously declares that faith without works is dead (James 2:26); even Paul, that great proponent of faith, urges church members to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). What exactly do these good works mean?

Many church members think good works must exist as some kind of checklist; Elder Oaks famously compared the erroneous thinking as a spiritual bank account. Another group of people believed that good works meant strict adherence to the commandments alone, and Jesus openly derided them during His earthly ministry. He scolded them for their scrupulous, meticulous measurements for tithes of mint and cumin, and yet forgetting the weightier matters of the law, such as mercy and justice (Matthew 23:23). And what of Mormon’s warning that God rejects even good gifts offered up begrudgingly (Moroni 7:8)? Intention rules all when it comes to doing any good, for we begin to understand that good works themselves have no real saving power; intention empowers good acts to become manifestations of the grace of God within us. There is little power or morality derived from the things we do – morality exists within the intention, and the blessings of obedience grow as our intent eventually aligns with our outward actions.

However, we focus far too much on what someone does rather than how they feel or whether they have faith in Christ. Some of this attitude derives itself from institutional practice, which is lamentable (conflating the Word of Wisdom, for example, with having faith in Jesus Christ to qualify for temple blessings seems rather erroneous, even if from an administrative point of view some find it necessary). Still, much of it derives from our attitude towards the Atonement. When one embraces the Atonement as the key to everyone’s salvation, not just our own, we realize that our good merits earn us very little in the long run. We’ll still mess up and make mistakes. Instead of our actions as a tool to save our own skin, we begin to see our actions as tools to save others, to alleviate pain and suffering. Our decisions should focus on helping others and to show mercy to our fellow humans as much as possible.

Basic obedience is important – Christ obeyed all points of the law. However, the concept of perfect obedience becomes impossible when we understand we’ve already blown it. In addition, as an aside, Christ understood the difference between commandments of God and cultural commandments. Healing on the Sabbath infuriated the Pharisees but Christ felt that commandment held no power. Unfortunately, because of our natures, we cannot know without doubt which commandment comes from God and which from man – but it’s okay. Mistakes happen, and God already anticipated that scenario. So don’t stress it. If our religion orbits around the Atonement, then we understand that nothing matters but our acceptance of that gift and its cleansing power. All other things, such as obedience or prayer or church or attendance or the abstinence of coffee or food storage lead us to that center. When they cease to lead us to the center no matter how hard we try, perhaps it becomes time for us to reconsider their usefulness.

Still, we should devote our lives to good works. But what kind of good works? The For Strength of Youth pamphlet is a good start, but remember that Moses didn’t use the For Strength of Youth pamphlet to deliver Israel. Reliance on the Spirit and our own developing discernment is the ultimate key to good decision making, and unfortunately, we can’t exercise our discernment without making a few mistakes (silly mortals that we are). Good thing the Atonement took care of that potential disaster! We understand that committee meetings will not save us, to riff on an old, yet apt, Mormon stereotype, but ignoring the promptings to help a homeless man on the way to said meetings (regardless of our socio-political-economic beliefs on homelessness) could potentially cause us to release our grip on the Atonement. When we refuse to apply the Atonement to others and their mistakes, what does it say for us?

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Sin Boldly! – Part Six: The Atonement Isn’t the Conclusion; It’s the Premise

Recently, I wrote a four part mini-series about my faith and my conclusions after struggling with a particularly disturbing doctrinal problem. I have felt the need to further explain some of the basic ideas I believe concerning the Atonement and how they formulate the blueprints for my current theological mindset.

We often act like the Atonement is our fault. Because of this, we also treat accessing the Atonement as a form of weakness. We cluck our tongues and shake our heads when people walk mournfully into the bishop’s office to confess some grave sin and thank God that He doesn’t allow us to sin like the other weaker people around us (compare with Alma 31:17). But rather, life is the other way around – tapping into the infinite healing power of the Atonement exhibits strength of character; hiding in the shadows, our tails tucked between our legs, avoiding as much life as possible so that we can avoid sin as much as possible and thus avoid the Atonement as much as possible shows cowardice and a lack of faith in God’s promise. “I have overcome the world,” Jesus tells His followers right before their darkest moments (John 16:33). He reminds them that they need not live the same fearful, suffocating life as the Pharisees – He is about to set them free.

God planned the Atonement from the very beginning. The Atonement didn’t come about as a consequence of the Fall of Adam; rather, the Fall of Adam was an unfortunate reality, an inevitable occurrence derived from the basic fact of the Atonement’s necessity. When Eve ate the fruit and convinced Adam to as well, heaven’s courts calmly came down to the Garden to remind Adam and Eve the consequences as well as reassure them of the future Atonement. They did not freak out and scramble about for a contingency plan, pulling out blueprints and waking up Jesus from His nap to tell Him that the Worst Thing That Could Happen actually happened and now, He needed to experience the most horrific of experiences – taking upon Himself the crushing weight of humanity’s sinful nature and mortal pain – because of us and, gosh darn it, we really screwed things up.

As mentioned before, people associate repentance and accessing the Atonement with guilt – mostly because we as members impose that guilt upon others. We treat the church as a monastery for pious saints rather than a hospital for sick sinners. We forget after the years of membership within the church that we go to church every Sunday not to fulfill our calling or attend Sunday School or bear our testimonies but to partake within the priesthood ordinance of communion in order to re-baptize ourselves and cleanse ourselves from sin. We go to church because a necessary priesthood ordinance occurs every Sunday that allows us to personally tap into the Atonement and its cleansing power. We forget, sometimes, that we rely on Christ completely.

Christianity has the potential to liberate people, especially from guilt, especially from pain, especially from sorrow, especially from regret; instead, we strap people to a liturgy of commandments that we must strictly follow in all points, no exceptions. No coffee, no tea, no alcohol, no smoking. No R-rated movies, no video games on Sunday, no family brunches before church at the local buffet for grandpa’s birthday. We define church membership and our sense of belonging to the beverages we drink or the discrepancies in doctrine. We allow people to voice the idea that black people are the result of disobedience in a past life, but we refuse to give any say to people who say that perhaps homosexuality results from nature and not choice. We parcel out the monikers and categories, placing people in safe boxes labeled Good Mormons, Jack Mormons, Unorthodox Mormons, Coffee Drinking Mormons, Ex-Mormons, Disfellowshipped Mormons, Dry Mormons, and the ubiquitous Non-Member.

The Atonement, however, makes no distinctions. Christ will not turn anyone away from the Atonement. In the eyes of God, all of us sin and thus, all of us stand in need of mercy. When we begin to make distinctions we lose sight of the important fact that nobody can achieve any kind of better salvation than the other; no other categories exist. There’s good news and bad news, however. The good news is we can stop worrying about what people think and it becomes easier to forgive each other and ourselves when we realize that mistakes, slights, offensives and even really big screw-ups are inevitable. The bad news is we can never feel better than someone else based upon our adherence to the commandments alone. The one major tenant of Christianity all Christians can agree on regardless of denomination is that we all are sinners in need of some serious mercy. Even the prophet, the Pope, Rick Warren, or Billy Graham.

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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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Sin Boldly! – Part Four: Real Faith

We reach the conclusion of my four part mini-series detailing what I believe, discovered during the grappling of a very real doctrinal problem.

Living a life of passion requires real, active faith. As we pursue a life of goodness and righteousness, pushing the boundaries of our faith so that we may grow, we make mistakes, we rush things, we mess up, we fail. We draw false conclusions, believe skewed or incomplete doctrines, and make outrageous claims. God looks into our hearts and knows why. Do we do this out of selfishness, out of a need to justify or rationalize our sins, or because we seek truth and we seek God? The Atonement has nullified the effects of an unavoidable sinful life. Instead of obsessing over whether our individual actions fall under the massive scope of our commandments, wondering whether or not skipping a church committee meeting to spend an impromptu ice cream night with your children is right or wrong, or whether driving the pretty secretary home without your wife in the car with you will put across the right or wrong message (or whether leaving her to walk in the rain would send the right or wrong message), we focus on intent. We fill our lives with charity, with compassion, with love, with forgiveness, and with a strong sense of right and wrong. When people tell us we’re too brash, we’re too passionate, we need to rein in our zeal, we take note, we learn, we adjust, and we quickly learn to temper our fire with knowledge, temperance, and wisdom. We allow the Maker’s hammer to beat us against the anvil so that we can become a useful tool in His hands, rather than hope that we can stay on the shelf, shapeless, formless, and safe. This way, the lump of ore thinks, I can never disappoint. I will never exhibit any imperfection. The thinking is false – the imperfections may never come into light (though eventually, all of them will), but they never go away. The lump of ore remains untested and impure.

When we understand our predicament as people, we can’t help but fill our hearts with charity. We understand that nobody stands in a better position, that we all need help, and that no matter how vile we become, God still thinks we’re worth something. That’s a powerful belief and a powerful sentiment. Faith becomes less an expression of public standing due to our outward appearances and acts but more of an internalized expression of faith and rejoicing within the powerful redemptive force known as the Atonement.

Examine this case scenario. When Alma the Younger’s son embarrasses him by running off with a harlot, instead of telling Corianton how ashamed he was, how he could never show his face at the local ward again, how now he must endure the prying eyes and furtive whispers, Alma gently reminds his son that all actions have consequences and then proceeds to teach him – what else? – about the Garden of Eden and the Atonement. Instead of warning his son to avoid sin “or else” or lashing him verbally for all the pain and trouble and shame and embarrassment his sin had caused, he reassures him of the peaceful, loving promise God offers all of his children: “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29). Then, in an incredible move of reconciliation and love, he reinstates his son as a missionary, and the scriptures tell us that his sons go out and preach the word with incredible success. The father who had suffered the harrowing pains of hell because of his own passion completely understood his son’s sexual passion. No need to put the fear of God into this child – only to teach him carefully about the Atonement, help his son to internalize it and understand its implications, and then show the same mercy God showed him.

Sin is inevitable. God teaches us this in the Garden of Eden. There will be times when you will face impossible choices, choices that perhaps it becomes impossible to sin, even when we strive so hard to do good. Yes, perhaps we may get a little dirty along the way; this is lamentable. But it is also inevitable. Even a life of strict asceticism and self-denial will lead to sin, for there will have no opportunities to serve humanity. But even from the beginning, God had a plan to counteract the deadly effects of sin. Christ has overcome the world, and it’s our job to use this liberating gift to do as much good as possible. It’s impossible to have acted perfectly in this life, our burden to bear as imperfect mortals. But perhaps it’s not impossible to have perfect intentions in this life and that’s what Christ wanted us to have when He commanded us to be perfect and when God began to tell us a story of how He set up a very tricky, impossible situation for His first children where sinning was impossible to avoid and maybe, that’s actually not as bad as we think.

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