Repentance has a bad reputation. For a long time, thinking of repentance brought up images of crazy people insisting the world was ending imminently, confessions of sins, guilt and other extremely negative ideas. Add on top of this that Christ explicitly tells his followers to call people to repentance as one of his final acts in the New Testament, and you get to add guilt for not telling people to repent to the list of negatives.
However, lately I’ve begun to think of repentance differently, all thanks to one simple idea. That idea was the realization that the importance of repentance comes not from the guilt nor even the forgiveness, but rather from it’s utility in promoting positive changes in our lives. This leads one to conclude that the main process for accomplishing repentance is to choose to make positive changes — to try to be a better person. When I changed my perspective in this way, the negativity associated with guilt was swept away, replaced by the recognition that we are always falling short of our divine potential, and can make incremental changes constantly in an effort to become better people. The awesome part about this is that whenever we are trying to do what we believe is right, and are trying to become better, His forgiveness makes it possible for us to push forward without the baggage of guilt for the past.
As I began thinking of repentance this way, I realized that although there may be occasions when a more formal confession-forgiveness type of repentance event is necessary, more often than not, what is required is an attitude of repentance — a penitent perspective. Again, though, it is important to slough the the negative connotations from those words and our attitudes. We might regret or be frustrated by our blunders and imperfections, but the key purpose of those emotions should be motivation to continue to try to be better.
The Atonement provided by our Savior makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect after repenting. That means if we are constantly repenting and trying to be more perfect, even while knowing that we will never be perfect through our own efforts, that brief periods of perfection can be attainable, as the history of our mistakes is washed clean through the grace of the Atonement. Perhaps rather than aiming to be perfect, we should aim to repent faster than we sin.
The peace available through the Gospel comes from knowing that we are reconciled to God and that all will be well in the end. Learning to live habitually repentant can help us have this peace more often, regardless of the chaos swirling around us.
Repent! It’s awesome!
Holy Week is a time to reflect on the life and mission of Jesus the Christ, shared by all who call themselves Christian. This week celebrates the pinnacle achievement of His time on Earth and the purpose of His condescension. Many might think it was His resurrection that was most important, but according to LDS theology, His resurrection was only the last step of His much greater work, the Atonement.
The Atonement encompasses everything our Savior did as part of the miracle that allows us to be forgiven of our sins, reconciled to God and gain immortality, Eternal Life and Exaltation. It was an excruciating trial for Jesus that would have killed any ordinary mortal, even before the Crucifixion. It was His capacity as the Son of God that allowed Him to endure the burden He took upon Himself as the Son of Man; His dual parentage was critical. As the two-part nature of the Last Supper foreshadowed, and the Sacrament (Communion) reminds us, the Atonement itself had two parts — the physical resurrection of the body and the redemption of the spirit.
Key to understanding the LDS perspective on the Atonement is a general understanding of the “Plan of Salvation,” which I have explained in a separate series of posts. The salient point being that God’s purpose in sending us to this Earth was to provide us the experiences that would allow us to return to His presence and eventually to become like Him. We cannot endure the presence of the Father unless we are completely without sin. As all have sinned, we all have need of a savior, to redeem us from our sins. We also believe that God has a perfect, immortal body. (D&C 130:22) So, we need to be resurrected to become like Him.
Although one could argue that Jesus’s whole life was part of the atoning process, as He experienced mortality in its fullness — the joys, the sorrows, the excitement, and the mundane — I consider this preparation. From my perspective the Atonement started in Gethsemane.
It is my understanding that most Christians consider Jesus’s plea to the Father to “take this cup from me” in Gethsemane is referring to the Crucifixion. The LDS reading of this plea is more immediate and is in reference to the unrecorded prayer He gave immediately thereafter before he was betrayed by Judas.
Were it not for Luke 22:44 in which He sweat blood, that prayer given in Gethsemane would be completely unremarkable going solely from New Testament writings. LDS doctrine states that it is through that prayer in Gethsemane that He literally took upon Himself the “pains of all men … both men, women, and children” (2 Ne. 9:21) and bore the consequences of sin for all. There have been documented cases of people sweating a few drops of blood from the forehead when under extreme physical and mental stress. We understand it to be the same principle, magnified, that caused Him in Gethsemane to bleed from every pore. (D&C 19:16-19)
For many Mormons, the prayer given in Gethsemane during which He shed blood is considered The Atonement, and everything after is epilogue. However, I believe the Atonement only started there and only ended with His crucifixion.
It is at this point that I need to reference the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifices, and the doctrine behind them. Generally speaking, the purpose of Sacrifice prior to Christ was to serve as a symbol of what the Messiah would do for the people. The animal would bear the people’s sins and be killed to reconcile them to God. It is because of the directions and tradition surrounding these sacrifices, that I believe that Jesus continued to bear the burden of our sins through his final hours. In this way he would have experienced living with guilt, proxy guilt though it was. If that is truly the case, He was probably also deeply ashamed.
I do not suggest this with any intent to demean. On the contrary, this makes His sacrifice so much more amazing to me. We believe that in the Atonement, Christ descended below all, in part that He might know how to “succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12) For Him to have experienced those emotions with which we are so familiar, yet were probably previously unfamiliar to Him while going through the interrogations and torture of the next day fills me with awe. To even consider that the Savior may have felt that He deserved that punishment while knowing He did not is heart-wrenching.
I take little solace in the thought that with all of this going on inside Him, the pain of the physical trials which He bore leading up to and including the Crucifixion must have been overshadowed and dulled by the emotional and mental anguish He carried. Is it any wonder He stumbled and could not carry His own cross (perhaps also partly because of exhaustion from the loss of blood)? While the men He was crucified between likely fought and struggled as they were nailed to their crosses, Jesus, king of the Jews, was likely limp, with little more than a twitch and a moan.
Did He also more fully and explicitly understand the hearts of those around him during that process? He said of the guards, “they know not what they do,” and to one of his fellow prisoners, “today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23) So, perhaps the experience also gave Him more knowledge and understanding, as well as the obvious sympathy.
Finally, as He concluded the Atonement by dying on the cross, LDS doctrine is that He chose death, when, as the Son of God, He could have chosen to step down off the cross and live. However, His role in the Plan of Salvation was to die in order to redeem us all. He followed the will of the Father, and allowed His death to seem normal, as His purpose was not to prove His godliness at that time, nor to that audience.
Before Jesus “gave up the ghost”, He said something very important to understanding the Atonement. “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Because He carried the sins of the world, He was separated from the Father just as all of us who sin are. The Father could not be with His Son during Jesus’s time of greatest suffering, as much as they both wanted to be together. Similarly, both Jesus and the Father want us to return to their presence. That is why Christ suffered.
Through the Atonement, Jesus the Christ became our Savior, Redeemer and Mediator with the Father. He became the Way by which we can receive both forgiveness of our sins and relief from the trials and burdens in this life. By accepting the covenant He offers, we receive these benefits in exchange for our efforts to be better people and to help those around us. But that is not all.
On the third day, Jesus was resurrected. He was the Son of God. He alone had the power to take up His body, glorify it, and become immortal. By doing so, He unlocked the gates of death, and allowed those saints who had died before to be likewise resurrected and proceed with their eternal progression. (Matthew 27:52-53) Eventually, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected to a perfect, immortal and glorified body.
I understand that many people think this either far-fetched or delusional. The only evidence we have for resurrection is based in scriptures. This interpretation is consistent with all the scriptures I am aware of, and is beautiful to me. For the Atonement, though, my evidence is first hand.
I have felt my guilt swept away through repentance. I have felt my burdens become so light that I have laughed with joy. I enjoy peace amid turmoil around me. All of this because of the Atonement. I know of my Savior’s love for me because I have felt it. I have received the Comforter and the blessings associated with that Holy Spirit. I believe in miracles because I have experienced the miracle of the Atonement.
Because I can think of no better way to end this, I will end with the words of the hymn, I Stand All Amazed.
I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That he should extend his great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
By Lisa Hains Barker, PhD
My sister wrote this essay a few years ago, and shared it with me. A conversation brought it to mind recently, and I asked if she would permit me to post it here, which she did. Lisa is a practicing neuropsychologist, who specializes in helping people recover from brain trauma.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
I love the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9), because of its wonderful insights into the Savior’s perfect ability to love and heal us. John wrote, “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind” (John 9:32). John was trying to call our attention to the distinctiveness of this particular miracle. While wondering about why this event was different from Jesus’ other healings, I realized the reason stemmed from basic principles of neuroanatomy and brain function. We don’t really see with our eyes, we see with our brain. Our eyes are sensory organs that take in variations in light, and details from the world around us, then transform that information into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent to some very specific areas in the back of the brain (the visual cortex & surrounding areas) that allow us to see and make sense of what we are seeing. While our eyes and the visual cortex of the brain are formed from birth for the very particular task of seeing, our vision and understanding of what we see develop as we interact with our environment. Vision is acquired in much the same way language is, in infancy and early childhood. For example, a young child learns names for visual details like colors and shapes, and eventually that a red, round shaped object might be an apple, or a pomegranate, or even a ball. But if a person is blind from birth, those parts of the brain which are supposed to do the work of “seeing” don’t develop in the same way, and can be encroached upon by other, working senses.
Applying this modern understanding of neuroanatomy, we can appreciate the complexity of Jesus’ miracle. It is more than just the man’s eyes that needed healing. If the Savior had only healed his eyes, the man would likely have been confused by the images he was “seeing” because his visual cortex wouldn’t have developed normally. He would have no frame of reference to understand depth or color or other visual details. In fact, there are modern examples of this very problem. But that is not what happened. The Savior anointed his eyes with clay and told him to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” We are then told that the man went and washed “and came seeing” (John 9:7). The Savior did more than heal his eyes, he healed his brain. He made up for a lifetime’s lack of visual input – almost instantaneously. He restored, or completely repaired the man’s whole visual system.
Isn’t that a profound foreshadowing of later events? That through his atonement, Jesus can completely make up for our lifetimes of weakness and sin; and through his death and resurrection, he will restore our living physical bodies. He can and will make us whole again.
And yet another sweet bit of familiarity comes from this story… when the man was later asked by the Pharisees, repeatedly, about how this miracle could have occurred, the man defended Jesus and defended his works; “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes…If this man were not of God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33). His genuine testimony resulted in him being cast out. But John was able to capture his words, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”
(For those picking up here, you may want to read the overview first.)
The LDS view of mortality is not nearly as unique as our teachings on our existence prior to and following it, but is, perhaps, more clearly defined than most other religions’ teachings in terms of purpose.
As I noted in the previous post on the pre-mortal existence, the long-view purpose of mortality is to gain a physical body, and to learn how to independently use our agency. Inasmuch as we learn to do these things in ways that are in harmony with God and His plan of happiness, God will help us. He has provided a way for us to return to His presence.
Many of the events traditional Christianity consider tragedies of God’s plan having been derailed by people, we consider to have been part of His plan all along. From the Fall of Adam & Eve to the Crucifixion of Christ to the Martyrdom of the prophets, we see God using the agency of people to provide conditions that He could not directly produce as they would be contrary to His nature. Though the Fall and Crucifixion were central to the plan, the various martyrs throughout the Bible were necessary to testify of the Gospel and were allowed because His plan was really more about agency than anything else. To punish or prevent wickedness overtly would have been to diminish agency. His justice is delayed to allow us to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them.
These major events in Christianity were central in making his plan work, but the plan is ultimately meant to be applied individually. Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. We must all choose to follow the path Christ provided for us. We can and should try to help others come to Christ, but we cannot force them. We are responsible for our positive and negative influences on others, but only as this is part of our individual responsibility for our own actions given our individual circumstances.
Inasmuch as God wants us to become like him, and becoming like Him will bring joy and happiness to our lives, He has provided teachings and ordinances to guide and help us. As we follow the teachings, we develop attributes that bring us closer to God. It is the development of our character to be in harmony with God that is the true purpose of this life and is also what brings us the greatest joy.
This is made difficult both by temptation and by what Mormons refer to as the “natural man.” “The natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) To develop godlike attributes usually means overcoming our natural tendencies and instinctive desires. It is not easy to follow God’s teachings, and it is not enough to be better than someone else, or good at only one thing. We must improve ourselves constantly. This is at the core of what the Church calls “eternal progression”. We are instructed to be perfect (Matt. 5:48), which is ultimately impossible in this life, but, used as the goal, provides the target for our daily improvement.
Humility is an essential attribute as we strive to become closer to our Savior. Through it, not only do we recognize our need for our Redeemer’s assistance, but we also increase our compassion for others. Recognizing our own mistakes and character flaws is not always as easy as it perhaps should be. Sometimes it is easier to see these things others. However, when we truly have a desire to become better, and to repent of our mistakes and imperfections, we begin not only to become better through that process, but are also able to understand the illusion of perfection — that is at once unattainable and required by so much of our society — and gain an appreciation of the difficulties others go through in reconciling behavior to that standard.
Another trait that is essential in finding peace and happiness in this life is gratitude. The modern world runs on generating discontent for the purposes of enticing people to buy things in an attempt to satisfy that discontent. By design, this does not work. The only way to find contentment is to choose it. When we are grateful for the things we have to the extent that we do not feel the need for anything else, we are by definition, content. Gratitude is a matter of discipline. To increase our gratitude, all we need to do is consider the things we have that we appreciate. Our discipline can become powerful enough that we can even be substantially content when real needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met.
Above all, the attribute most important to our progression is love. Not just the love of a partner or within a family, but the true love of Christ, or as the scriptures call it, charity. It is a love that extends to every living thing: our friends, colleagues, strangers, enemies, even animals and plants. It is manifested in respect, compassion, care-taking, courtesy, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, sharing, service, and kindness. It is through love that we will find the greatest happiness in this life. Without love, we will never find true happiness.
Though those attributes are the most important in terms of what to develop, through faith we can learn how to develop these characteristics. It’s our faith in Christ that keeps us going and motivates our progress. It is so very easy to get discouraged and become cynical. Faith helps us maintain our optimism about both the future and our own capabilities. It motivates us to develop Christlike attributes, and gives us access to His help to do that.
Through our faith we are able to access the power of the atonement. This is what changes us to the core. When we have truly experienced the change of heart associated with a conversion to follow Jesus Christ, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This does not mean that we are perfect or that we do not make mistakes, it just means that we truly and deeply desire to do what God would have us do. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a permanent state. As Mormons, we do not believe that people so converted are “saved” in the same sense that many other Evangelical churches teach. We believe that after conversion we must also “endure to the end.”