Taking to Heart the Atonement of Christ

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

October 7, 2004
Van C. Gessel
Dean of the College of Humanities, BYU

My dear brothers and sisters, aloha! (Every time we have a visitor from your campus speaking in Provo, they of course begin with that same salutation, and I've wondered why we mainlanders can't come up with an appropriate greeting of our own; you know, something like, Brothers and Sisters, Howdy-Doody!? Hmm maybe we need to work a little more on that.)

This is not my first visit to your idyllic campus. In fact, I was here before many of you were catapulted out of the preexistence. Back in the waning months of 1969, when the smallest of computers filled an entire room and dinosaurs still roamed the land, I came to what was then the Church College of Hawaii? to study Japanese at the Language Training Mission. We sapling missionaries were incarcerated I mean, accommodated--in a campus building that now serves as a women's dormitory. (I think if walls could talk, the women living there now would be hearing some pretty nightmarish stories from those days of yesteryear!) It was a lonely time for me: I had been a member of the Church for just over a year; I had never been away from home before; I didn't know a gecko from a cockroach; I was a pampered only child back when that word had nothing to do with diapers; and my two months at the LTM managed to coincide with Thanksgiving, my girl friend's birthday, Christmas, and New Year's. I've never spent such glum holidays and, frankly, it didn't help that we were surrounded by the inaccessible beauties of Paradise while being subjected to the linguistic tortures of the Inferno. I am, consequently, doubly grateful to be able to return here today under such pleasant circumstances and to be able to share a few thoughts with you about what we might call, in the words of that glorious classic, The Little Prince, matters of consequence.?

I have spent the last twelve years of my life in several callings that have given me the sacred privilege of serving among the young adults of the Church young people just like you who are striving to draw closer to Christ and to someday become like Him. I know of a certainty that you and your peers throughout the international Church are the finest young people on the earth today, and that, with astonishingly few exceptions given the temptations of our present age, you are the greatest exemplars of virtue to be found now or at any previous time.

I also know that you face unprecedented challenges to keep in remembrance your glorious celestial heritage and destiny, to maintain your sense of divine worth despite incessant negative messages from the media, and to bridle your passions while having to watch so many others of your generation gallop unfettered and unabashedly after the fleeting pleasures of the world. I salute you for your valor and restraint, and I assure you that, just as the temptations in my youth were less accessible and less vile, so your own spiritual maturity dramatically exceeds the level I had attained at your age.

During the decade I served in the single student wards and stakes in Provo, friends and neighbors would often ask what sorts of problems the young adults were facing. Sometimes this question would be accompanied by a wink, suggesting that the daily vigilance required to keep the Law of Chastity was the sole challenge for today's young singles. While I would acknowledge that there are some real concerns in that area, invariably my reply was: These marvelous young people have an extraordinary intellectual understanding of the Atonement. What they most need is the opportunity to actually experience the Atonement in their personal lives.?

I suppose what most concerns me are the many instances I have seen where our knowledge of and feelings about the Atonement do not translate into behavior, into the manner in which we think about ourselves, or into the ways we treat one another. I am convinced that if we truly grasped the meaning of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, there would be significant changes in the way we view ourselves, the way we treat ourselves when we make mistakes, and the way we interact with those around us who are less than perfect. To be totally honest with you, I personally don't think I will see a people who have sufficiently internalized the purport of the Atonement until I see a city where people don't run red lights, don't raise their voices in anger, don't belittle or treat others with condescension, don't do illegal downloading from the Internet, and don't for even a fleeting moment believe that they are a superior being because of their gender.

In fact, I would be so bold as to propose to you that it's not even sufficient to have a spiritual understanding of the Atonement; in a sense, Satan's minions have a kind of spiritual comprehension of the Great Plan of Happiness, but obviously that knowledge can only magnify their misery. Their endless and eternal torment is exacerbated by the fact that they do not have physical bodies capable of experiencing the Atonement in precisely the same way Christ Himself experienced it: in the flesh. By contrast, one of our greatest blessings is that we can experience it in our bodies. However much our mortal flesh may cause us temptation, pain, selfish desires, and ultimately physical annihilation (I think of Hamlet's lament over the burden of lugging a body around with us throughout our mortal journey: Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew?), it is that very same tormenting flesh which is, in one of God's great philosophical paradoxes, the only instrument through which we can, to any profound and permanent degree, experience what the Atonement truly means to us in our individual lives. Thinking about it will never be enough; even a spiritual acceptance of it will not suffice. Just as Christ had to give His entire body a sacrifice for us all, so we have to subject ourselves, spirit and body, to the processes of cleansing, scourging, healing, suffering, and ultimate exalting that are only available to us because of His incomparable gift.

We talk repeatedly about the purposes of coming to mortality: to gain a body and to be tested and proved by the Lord. I would like to suggest a corporeal corollary to that essential doctrine: that we are here on earth so that we, like Christ, can experience the workings of the Atonement in our flesh. This physical body, though the agent through which much of mortal suffering comes our way, is also the instrument through which the greatest human joys are experienced think of ice cream, or the scent of tropical flowers, or a kiss, or the holding of a newborn baby. And it is also the means through which we must, no matter how imperfectly, partner with Christ so that we can avail ourselves of the power of the Atonement and get just a taste of how it operated--within our own bodies. This important principle was taught to President Boyd K. Packer in his patriarchal blessing, which counseled: Guard and protect [your body] take nothing into it that shall harm the organs thereof because it is sacred. It is the instrument of your mind and the foundation of your character.?[1]

Elder David A. Bednar, president of BYU-Idaho and sustained just this past weekend as a new member of the Council of the Twelve, has stated: our relationships with other people, our capacity to recognize and respond to truth, and our ability to obey the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ are amplified through our physical bodies. In this classroom of mortality we experience tenderness, kindness, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, pain, and even the challenges of physical limitations in ways that prepare us for eternity. Simply stated, there are lessons we must learn and experiences we must have, as the scriptures describe, according to the flesh (1 Ne. 19:6; Alma 7:12-13).?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that some of you, hearing the word "body" uttered in this setting, have already jumped to the conclusion that this is going to be yet another sermon on the Law of Chastity. I confess that I am firmly of the belief that none of us can hear that particular sermon too frequently, that youth is indeed the time when, the body energized by hormones, we come closest to trying to rebel against righteousness just as Satan did, because the body is fighting for domination over the spirit. But that is not my intent here today. What I want to suggest to you for your consideration is the idea that, in addition to the temporal and eternal blessings of joy, peace, and family solidarity that devolve upon us from staying morally clean, yet another compelling motivation for respecting our bodies and keeping them scrubbed from sin is so that they can be worthy chalices into which the Savior can pour the healing antidote of His redeeming blood. That blood is more sacr`ed and holy than any cleanser that can be found on this polluted earth, and more capable of washing us clean than anything else in the heavens. We cannot expect to be cleansed by His sacrificial blood if we cannot, as Paul phrased it, "present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is [our] reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).

Recall in this context that the Savior cautioned: "Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17). If our inner vessels, our bodies, are made fragile and foul through misuse and transgression, we cannot expect Christ to be able to fill us with the sweet wine of His new covenant, else we ourselves would break and perish, just as do the dirty bottles when they come into contact with the fresh fruit of the vine. If we are to be preserved, we must fashion, through our thoughts, our actions, our faith, and our devotion, bodies that are fit to be filled with the only fluid capable of cleansing and sanctifying us. The scouring brush of the Atonement alone can do the deep cleansing of our hearts if we are truly penitent.

Speaking to us on this subject, the Lord says in the 88th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants: "And I give unto you...a commandment that you...purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands before me, that I may make you clean; That I may testify unto your Father, and your God, and my God, that you are clean from the blood of this wicked generation; that I may fulfill this promise, this great and last promise, which I have made unto you, when I will" (D&C 88:74-75). It sounds suspiciously to me that our bodies can either be drenched in "the blood of this wicked generation" or "made clean" through the purifying blood of Christ.

What strikes me as critical here is not simply that we must "cleanse the inner vessel, though, of course, that is where it all begins. But consider an analogy: when the call comes to clean the Church's temple buildings in preparation for the second and final advent of our Savior, will we be satisfied with a quick, once-over vacuuming of the carpets and a hasty dusting of the chandeliers? Or will we give the most intense effort of our lives to make the interior of His House utterly spotless, completely free of dust and cobwebs, the wood on the walls polished to a shine, the doilies atop the altars pristine and pure, the doorframes free from gashes and scrapes? Cleansing what lies within requires more than just a superficial wiping: this will not be a time to sweep dirt under the throw-rugs. One of the reasons we keep our temples sparkling clean even today is that we do not know the hour of His coming, and we simply must have it ready for Him so that it can be filled from corner to corner with His light, His radiance, His Spirit.

I can't begin to fathom all of the reasons why the Savior's Atonement had to be performed in the flesh. Certainly part of His incomparable condescension was designed to give Him an opportunity to learn obedience: as Paul said in Hebrews, "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). In addition, He had to fulfill the law of sacrifice by willingly laying down His physical body, literally mortifying the flesh, and then transcend the fatal flaw of the mortal body by taking His back up again in perfect, exalted form. By unfailingly choosing virtue and righteousness, He prepared Himself to consecrate His entire being, body and spirit, on our behalf. One of the most moving scriptural passages describing the enormity of His intercession for us is in Alma 7: "And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sickness of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities." (Alma 7:11-12) A disembodied spirit, however unblemished, could not suffer "pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind," or take on our infirmities; the Redeemer was filled with mercy "according to the flesh," which I take to mean that His mercy for us was magnified by the excruciating experiences He endured while He dwelt within a mortal body. Enduring all that we must endure and much, much more, He was the only one who knew "according to the flesh" how best to comfort and console and heal us from our comparatively superficial wounds. He alone was able to provide means for us to overcome our carnal state by literally becoming God incarnate.

Just as Jesus had to suffer the pains and pay the price for each of our individual shortcomings and sins with His body so that the Atonement could be infinite and universal, so we likewise have to embrace His offering with and through and in the very core of our physical bodies. His magnificent gift was given freely and without reservation, with every molecule, every atom of His body. How can we possibly hope to be worthy to receive that gift unto ourselves if we are not willing to commit our bodies in every respect to its acceptance?

What I am urging you to consider, then, is a "full-bodied" acceptance of the Atonement of Christ. How can we even for a moment suppose that we can embrace that ever-astonishing bequest in bodies that are not fully committed to Him, to His commandments, and to His spotless example? That is why it is so vital that we move beyond a merely intellectual understanding of His sacrifice and prepare within our bodies, through our obedience and our consecrating of our bodies to Him, a receptacle capable of actually experiencing the healing powers of His Atonement.

Spiritual truths that are compacted into the brain, inert and disconnected from our actual life experiences, cannot have sufficient power to change us, in our hearts or in our behavior, unless they are decompressed, unpacked, and allowed to circulate through our bodies and ultimately be engraved into our hearts. It is not enough to have the doctrine merely filed away in our brains. It is inadequate to be able to randomly access scriptural references to the Atonement, or to have memorized some lesson-plan paragraphs that describe this incomparable process--not event, but process--to the logical mind but no deeper. It is not enough to have done something wrong and simply stopped doing it. If Alma had wanted to tell us about a "minuscule" change of heart, he would have done so. The change of which he spoke, the only change that makes any lasting difference in our lives, must be not only mighty, but also ongoing. If ever there comes a day in my life when I think I am not utterly reliant upon the Atonement of Christ, that will be the day you can be certain I have been swallowed up in my own pride and will choke myself to death on it. If we can activate the cleansing and healing power of the Atonement in our hearts and bodies, then can begin the mighty changes that will transform our thoughts and behavior and help the natural man and woman become "unnaturally" more like Christ. The doctrine of the Atonement must "distill" upon our hearts and permeate our very being, both physical and spiritual. We must consume and digest these truths, not merely store them on the pantry shelves of our minds.

And now, to the hard part. What will it take in our individual lives to move from a head-bound knowledge of the Atonement to a heart-felt, soul-deep experience of its power? The answer will be different for each of us, of course; for some fortunate few, the endeavor may not be so difficult. But I fear that for most of us, myself leading the list, adequate personal interaction with the Savior will come only in the same way He grew: "by the things which [we] suffer.." Somehow we seem determined, in our dogged independence and willfulness, to refuse to be taught by anything other than our trials. But I would submit to you that it is those very trials themselves that are patiently coordinated "though far less often caused" by a God who knows what a powerful tool of instruction they can be. As C.S. Lewis famously observed: "....God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[2] Or, to put it in even more popularized terms, as the song "Try to Remember" suggests: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow."[3]

Our pains, oddly enough, serve as a means of bringing us to the feet of our Savior, if we will allow them to; in the midst of our sufferings, once we realize there is no hope, no alternative, no possibility of rescue from any mortal source, at that point the sole eternal solution to all the confounding conundrums of this earthly probation should appear before us in clear focus. Only by embracing with our entire beings the Atonement offered by Christ can our pain have any positive purpose. In the midst of our comparatively meager sufferings our eyes and ears, our thoughts and hopes, our bodies and our spirits must be turned toward the example of the only One who ever has or ever will totally conquer the curses of a fallen world. Christ utterly rejected the sinful nature of our imperfect environment by, paradoxically, taking upon Himself, in body and in spirit, the consequences for every mortal flaw and failure, for none of which He Himself bore personal responsibility. Once we are brought down into the dust of humility and recognize that the only safe transport out of our pain and sinful stagnation is through following the example of the only Being who navigated that path without a single misstep, then we will come to realize the truth of what George Macdonald wrote: "The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His."[4]

Part of our challenge as mortals is that our worship and our devotions are too easily performed superficially, from our heads but not our hearts, or even from our hearts but not our heads. How much greater the challenge to give ourselves over, surrender ourselves, to the Savior, not only in mind and heart but in body and spirit as well. Our rebellious, "natural" nature leads us to assert out wills against His--first in our minds, and then extending out into our bodies, which we use as instruments to try out some of our dumber ideas. So long as we harbor within our hearts a secret vault where we are determined to "do our own thing," we will never be able to give Christ everything, which is the only suitable gift to offer in exchange for the gift of the exalted everything He gave for us.

As we open ourselves up, head, heart, body and spirit, to the Savior, He can begin the process of transforming us into vessels worthy of His grace. Tad R. Callister in his book, Infinite Atonement, eloquently describes how fully and freely the Savior gave His sacrificial offering on our behalf: "His divinity would be called upon, not to immunize him from pain, but to enlarge the receptacle that would hold it. He simply brought a larger cup to hold the bitter drink."[5] It seems to me highly unlikely that we will be prepared to receive the over-running cup of Living Water that Christ wants to pour into us to cleanse us if we offer as a container only a thimble that represents the parts of our selves we are reluctantly willing to give over to Him.

Part of the test of mortality is to determine whether we will allow our pains, our trials, and our subsequent surrender to Christ to chip away at the false compartment walls we have erected in our hearts to defend the last remnants of our selfish will. Hardened hearts that cannot feel the depth of His mercy, and stiff necks that cannot be turned to face the truth must be lubricated by the anointing balm of His sacrifice for us. The more we submit to Him, the deeper the Atonement can carve out a deep, open chamber in our hearts that can then be cleansed and which will thereby be ready to share boundless doses of love and service with others. I testify to you from my personal experience that there is no limit to our capacity to expand our hearts by sharing love with others. This process of excavating, scouring, and then activating our hearts through service is the full-bodied experience of the Atonement that will forever transform our lives and open up the blessing-laden windows of heaven for us.

This is a lifelong, probably eternity-long process of growth, because the only true definition of growth is one that is predicated on our ever-increasing capacity to love others, because that is one of the primary ways that we become more like Christ. To participate in this expansive project, you must begin by accepting the fact, with your heart and with your body, that you are a beloved son or daughter of God. You have already made some mistakes with your heart, and probably a few with your body. But in order to be cleansed of those defects, you must avoid feeling the wrong kind of guilt, that demoralizing, paralyzing guilt which Satan uses to hammer away at your self-worth, and replace it with gratitude for our Savior's love, a love so extraordinary and so exquisite that He took upon Himself the punishment for every single one of the sins that you will choose to repent of, so that Justice could be satisfied and Mercy could sweep you up in its healing wings.

If nothing else, I hope that my remarks today might help you to see how vital it is that you keep your minds and your bodies clean from the tainted blood of this sinful generation. A grimy vessel cannot hold the oblations from above that will rid us of the consequences of our sins. President Boyd K. Packer has plainly counseled: "Young men and women, keep yourselves worthy. Stay away from those environments, the music, the films, the videos, the clubs, and the associations that draw you into immoral conduct."[6]

Let me give you just a couple of examples from our contemporary environment. How much of the foul language that abounds in our day in every form of media, but is perhaps most pervasive in popular music and films, desecrates the divinity of our physical bodies? Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught: "Indecent and vulgar expressions pollute the air around us. Relations that are sacred between husband and wife are branded with coarse expressions that degrade what is intimate in marriage and make commonplace what is forbidden outside it. Moral sins that should be unspeakable are in the common vernacular. Human conduct plunging downward from the merely immodest to the utterly revolting is written on the walls and shouted in the streets. Twentieth-century men and women of sensitivity can easily understand how Lot, a fugitive from the actions and speech of Sodom and Gomorrah, could have been "vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked" (2 Pet. 2:7)."[7]

C.S. Lewis observed: "Our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. [That is because] there is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan."[8] If that is true, then there is no such thing as a neutral movie or a neutral song lyric or a neutral cable program. There are only leisure moments that God will proudly endorse, or that Lucifer will viciously poison. Mormon teaches that "every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then may ye know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one..." (Moroni 7:16-17)

Can any of us, if we are honest with ourselves, delude ourselves into thinking that brazen depictions of nudity and sexual activity and graphic scenes of bodily mutilation will have a neutral impact on our souls? May I remind you that all such representations focus upon the human body being used in ways that run directly counter to the purposes for which God created our mortal bodies? Would we pay good money to go see and then cheer a movie that depicted temples of God being defaced and destroyed? Would we want to sit quietly as people ripped the doors off the temples and gawked at the sacred elements inside? How is that any different from watching visual media that remove the clothing and expose the nakedness of the human body, which was designed to be a celestial object veiled from the eyes of others? How does it differ from all the bloody depictions of human bodies being shot, stabbed, exploded, and defiled instead of respected as tabernacles of the Spirit? Who in the world could be so insanely jealous of our physical bodies that he would go to such lengths to denude the body, violate it, and then maul it beyond recognition? How much glee it must bring to the adversary when bodies clad in the garment of the Holy Priesthood walk through the doors of movie theatres and video stores to witness the desecrations of the human body that he has inspired. How subtly he persuades us to deny Christ and to do evil!

Let me conclude by bearing witness that, as the Doctrine and Covenants clearly teaches, a fullness of joy can only be had when "spirit and element", that is, spirit and body, are "inseparably connected" (D&C 93:33).[9] And they can only be joined together harmoniously and for eternity when both aspects of our divine humanity are in the service of our God. If we will follow Mormon's counsel and accept the invitation to allow into our spirits and bodies only the influences that lead us to Christ, and engage only in the activities that will allow us to be deep-cleaned by the power of His Atonement, we are prepared to receive that fullness of joy. I share with you the testimony that I bear in my mind, in my heart, and in the deepest recesses of my body: that Jesus the Christ has, indeed, given Himself body and spirit in order to redeem us from our fallen state. That His Atonement has the power to obliterate the mistakes of our past. Christ is poised at each and every moment, ready to forgive. I know of no more glorious or hopeful message, or one which is so inadequately understood. Please remember what President Boyd K. Packer taught in the October 1995 General Conference, where he declared, "Save for those few who defect to perdition after having known a fulness, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.....That is the promise of the atonement of Christ."[10] When you give in to despair because you are less than perfect, when you give up on yourself because you are prone to repeat transgressions and mistakes, and when you conclude that you'll never be any better than you are right now, you are buying into one of Satan's most successful lies and accepting his sick contention that the Atonement is of limited efficacy. In the eyes of the Lord, we stand worthy and clean if we have repented. Allow the Atonement to work its cleansing miracle in your heart and in your body, and then believe the Savior when He asserts in all solemnity that He will not remember the sins which you have discarded. That He can and will do so, in His great, loving mercy, is my personal testimony to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] Boyd K. Packer, "Ye Are the Temple of God," Ensign, November 2000; emphasis added
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 83
[3] Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks (New York: Avon Books, 1968), p. 16
[4] Quoted in the frontispiece to Lewis' The Problem of Pain
[5] Tad R. Callister, Infinite Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), p. 119
[6] "Ye Are the Temple of God," op cit.
[7] Dallin H. Oaks, "Reverent and Clean," Ensign, May 1986
[8] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), p. 33
[9] This point is clearly made by John S. Tanner in "The Body and Joy," Ensign, July 1993
[10] Boyd K. Packer, "The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness," Ensign, November 1995, pp. 19-20