Is the Atonement out of Reach?

Danny, age 6, is awake in his bed. It is 9:30 in the evening. This is not the first time his parents have gone out and left him and his young sister with the baby sister, but Danny’s apprehension remains. The routine with which he is comfortable has been broken and he is experiencing fear. When will his mother and father return? Are they safe? Has there been an accident? Sleep seems impossible, and he feels powerless. Danny seeks comfort through saying a prayer. Prayer is a frequent

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event in his home. Prayer is taught in Primary. Danny prays – for himself, for his sister, for his parents. He looks at the picture of the Savior on the wall of his darkened bedroom. He looks again at the clock. It’s not very long before all his worries return. Sleep does not come. In about half an hour he hears the sound of the front door opening. He runs downstairs. They’ve come home; they’re safe. Danny doesn’t mind the mild scolding, “Why aren’t you asleep?” Back in bed his mind is calm. Forgotten is his prayer, or any sense that it might have been answered.
Jill, age 15, is 5 feet 4 inches tall, normally sports naturally blond hair, and goes to some lengths to appear attractive to herself and others. Today her hair is sprinkled with little tufts that stick straight up. The tufts are blue. She likes the short skirt she is wearing, but knows it will elicit raised eyebrows from some of the Young Women’s leaders when she walks into Church. Jill notes that her entrance also draws a few laughs from the small group of guys her age standing in one corner of the foyer. The text in Seminary, earlier in the day, had been from Helaman. Something about building on a rock – Jesus. And “shafts in the whirlwind,” whatever that means, coming from the devil. The “shafts” in Jill’s “whirlwind” seems to be coming from people she thought were her friends, and adults she is supposed to respect. The doctrine of the Atonement might be a distant abstraction for Jill. Eternity seems a long way off compared to the immediate critical decisions about what to wear to school tomorrow. And maybe, she ponders, as she walks home alone, maybe I’ll skip Seminary tomorrow.
Mary is 43. If asked, she would admit, honestly, to being blessed. But today, well, she’s just frazzled. Her husband and the kids made it out of the house on time, mostly. There’s the breakfast dishes demanding her attention, and a pile of clothes next to the washing machine to attend to. She hasn’t done her visiting teaching. She had wanted this past week to spend some time alone with the scriptures. It didn’t happen. She lost her temper when the clerk at the store had been rude. Mormons aren’t supposed to lose their tempers. She paused on her way passed, to look in the mirror. Oh no. Mormons aren’t supposed to gain weight and look like that. She felt guilty at not yet having visited Sister Johnson next door

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to see if she were feeling any better after her illness. “Put you shoulder to the wheel,” Mary. “Push along,” Mary. She sat down and started to cry. Don’t cry, Mary. Mormon women don’t cry, Mary. Her daughter Sara, 12, always got good grades, was respectful, and usually kept her room clean. Thank Heavens for Sara. Mormon children are always supposed to keep their rooms clean. Kevin, 14, had yelled unkindly at his Mom when urged to get his homework done. Mormon sons are not disrespectful to their mothers. She was supposed to get some genealogy done this week, but it didn’t happen. “We all have work, let no one shirk.” Don’t shirk, Mary. She went outside to sweep leaves from the driveway. She had timidly approached her doctor about depression and he had prescribed medication. Mary felt guilty about it. Mormon women don’t take anti-depressants. Mormon women pull hand carts. Before the children came Mary and her husband went dancing. Inside again, she cleaned up the puddle where the new puppy had urinated on the kitchen floor. Mormon women are supposed to dance. Mary went to the post-it-note where she had a lengthy list of what she needed to get done. Groceries [note: cut out the coupons], read Sunday’s lesson about the Atonement, call her Mom, put canned goods out on the front porch to be picked up, donate to the blood drive, read two more chapters before attending the book club . . . Mary thought about taking a nap. Mormon women do not nap. Mormon women pull hand carts up and over roadless mountains.
Stephen had always supposed that a midlife crisis was phony, something to ridicule. Now, several years beyond his fiftieth birthday he isn’t so sure. He has just survived another round of layoffs at his work, but the Spector of being unemployed is still hanging over his head, the uncertainty still a constant worry in the background. There is also the matter of his heath. He had always been able to eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. But no longer. It now takes a week of working out to compensate for milk and cookies over the weekend. His cholesterol level is too high and he has to suck in to get his pants buttoned up. Stephen has always tried to be a good husband and a good father, but looking back he is constantly reminded of all the mistakes he made along the way. His service in the Church is generally rewarding, but not uniformly so. Some of his Family Home Evening lessons were pretty bad, he remembers. He used to know the answers to all of the gospel mysteries, but doesn’t any more. Stephen sometimes questions the quality of his faith. He does feel the Savior’s love, but wonders whether or not he’ll be able to measure up.
If our view of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is accurate, the Savior, our Older Brother is there for us, at every age, in every need. The Son of God, He doesn’t hold office hours; no one is excluded; His love, unconditional.
Don’t we hope that many times in his mature years Danny will read about Christ’s blessing of the Nephite children. Those words were too sublime to be recorded. He blessed them, each child individually. And He wept. And Danny will be blessed with some sense of Christ’s concern, now and back then in the sleepless anxiety of that darkened bedroom.
And for Jill, perhaps we would want a perception of the Savior, not just of The Risen Lord with only tenuous connections to children wanting to be adults, but a realization of what she needs most – a friend. For He reassured the Prophet Joseph with these words, “I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me.” And perhaps, best of all, we would want for Jill friends of the mortal variety, surrogates for Christ who would rise up to bring her in from the margins, to a realization that she belongs.
Mary, He has communicated that “It is not requisite that a woman should run faster than she has strength.” Don’t stop the medication. Dance when you can. Watch your children dance when you can’t. When you think you’re not doing enough, remember His words: “I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.”
Stephen is feeling inadequate and trying to make sense of his life. Let’s remind him of why there is hope. Jesus is described as “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth.” All things, Stephen. Your things, my things, the things of all of us. Get back in the fight. Lay off the cookies. Go where the Light of Truth can shine on you.
The stories you have just heard about Danny, Jill, Mary, and Stephen are fictitious. I made them up. The story you will hear next is not fictitious. It is a direct quote.
From the moment I realized that my sexual attractions were atypical, I tried to change that. In prayer, I would make pacts with God that I would pray harder and more often, read my scriptures more, fast more, and try to be a better person to those around me. I would strive to be a better Latter-day Saint. Every day I did this, for 13 years, and nothing changed. When I prepared to go to the temple to

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receive my endowments, I struggled to feel worthy to go, and I thought that perhaps my receiving my endowments would help me to change. I even thought that going on a mission would help me change. All through my mission, I said the same prayers, and asked for the same help. I began to lose faith in myself that I would be able to change. I began to feel I must be doing something wrong, I must not be exerting enough faith, I wasn’t good enough in order for God to bless me. I attempted suicide twice during this time period. I just couldn’t handle being an abomination. After I realized I was too weak to kill myself, I would pray to God almost every night (especially while on my mission) and beg Him to let me die.
The person who wrote these poignant words is alive, and gratefully his attempts at taking his own life did not succeed. Unfortunately, our own Ward has not escaped such a tragedy, in which one of our own dear young people in a similar circumstance did succeed.
The person whose story we have just heard does not lack faith. He is not unworthy of receiving an answer to his prayers. He did not fail to try hard enough. The problem was that he has been asking for a blessing that God cannot grant. The object of our sexual attractions is not subject to reversal. And when we ask for something that is outside of the power of the Atonement to grant (like changing left-handedness or our mature height), the result is often loss of self-worth, a feeling of increasing distance from God and His Son, and alienation from the Church. I suggest then, that our understanding of the Atonement must include both the deepest appreciation for its positive impacts both now and in the eternities to come, and an additional respect for those unchangeable traits that many of us carry through our mortal lives. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.”
The statement is made frequently that the doctrine of the Atonement is one we can’t fully comprehend.

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That’s probably true. But we know enough. At the center is the idea that we are dependent, that we all need help, and help is available from Someone who knows and understands. Life is pretty successful in proving that you can’t do it alone. “Have faith in Christ!” Could it be that that sentiment is less a commandment – you’d better do it or else, than it is a simple statement of a reality? That is, that there is no alternative. There really is no other route. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. This realization of our relationship to Him should make us more humble. What’s the best metaphor for the Orem 7th ward? Is it a museum, a place to show off our perfections, and enumerate our achievements? Or is it a hospital, a place where Christ calls for “their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and their blind, and their dumb, and whose afflicted in any manner,” physical or spiritual, and we all do our best to assist The Savior in the healing of his brothers and sisters?

3 comments for “Is the Atonement out of Reach?

  1. Anonymous
    February 12, 2013 at 9:16 am

    What a beautiful post.

    “Our understanding of the Atonement must include both the deepest appreciation for its positive impacts both now and in the eternities to come, and an additional respect for those unchangeable traits that many of us carry through our mortal lives.”

    I had never thought about the atonement this way. Thank you for teaching me something today.

  2. February 13, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Much thanks for this, Bill. And for all of your ongoing tireless and loving work.

  3. Bob Rees
    February 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Bill,

    This is an important reminder of both the power and the limitations of the atonement. It is essential that we understand its purpose in our lives and welcome its great transforming power while at the same time being clear about what it was not intended to accomplish. In relation to gay and lesbian issues, some have promised changes through the atonement that the Lord never intended when he went courageously into Gethsemane that fateful night and on to Calvary the next day. To make such promises in the name of the priesthood or the name of God is to undermine the purpose and power of the atonement and to erode rather than strengthen faith in Christ. Thank you for reminding us of this important truth and also for reminding us that we are all responsible for administering love in those instances where neither the atonement, science, nor other forces can affect change. A slight modification of the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer might serve us well: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things neither the atonement of thy Son nor I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

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