Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Enabling Transformation of the Atonement

I am going to talk to you about the Atonement. At least the way I perceive the Atonement.  This has sort of become my pet concept in recent months, ever since a very special experience I had on January 9, 2013.  I've already told a lot of people about what exactly happened on that day, but I'd like to talk for a while here about the kinds of things I've experienced immediately following that experience.  I'm interested in the results of discovering the Atonement.  
For years and years, I've had a very particular attachment to a scripture found in the fifth chapter of Alma.  I’m not sure exactly what began that obsession.  It might have been a Janice Kapp Perry song.  But for years, I considered Alma 5:14 to be my all-time favorite scripture:
"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?"  (Alma 5:14) 
I think what I initially liked about that scripture was the fact that it’s a boatload of really important questions.  Actually, the whole fifth chapter of Alma is full of great questions.  These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself frequently.  
Where am I on the road to salvation?  
Have I been truly converted?  
Is Christ’s image really reflecting through my countenance?  

Alma talks about experiencing a "mighty change of heart." Well what is that mighty change of heart?  It’s obviously a specific kind, since he put the word this in front of it... 
I have come to believe that what Alma is really asking here is this:  Have I allowed the ATONEMENT to change my heart? 
I testify that the Atonement changes hearts.  And when it changes hearts, it changes lives. 
One of my absolute favorite talks ever given is by Elder Bednar.  He spoke at a University Devotional in 2001, and his address is called “In the Strength of the Lord.”  It is a GREAT talk for college students and young people like us.  And I kid you not, it changed my life. 
First he quotes President David O. McKay: "The purpose of the gospel is… to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature.”  Then Elder Bednar goes on to say, "Thus the journey of a lifetime is to progress from bad to good to better and to experience the mighty change of heart – and to have our fallen natures changed.”  He then explains that in order to experience such a change, we have to do as King Benjamin directs in Mosiah 3:  We must put off the natural man and become saints through the atonement of Christ the Lord. (Mosiah 3:19)
That statement right there is GOLD.  We must put off the natural man and become saints THROUGH THE ATONEMENT.  We can't forget to include the Atonement, because only with the atonement does real, permanent change happen. 
So that’s my first point.  We can – and we must -- change through the Atonement.  The Atonement is an agent for change.  Or, as I would rather say, an agent for TRANSFORMATION.  Point one. 
But now the question is HOW does the Atonement change us?  For a long time I was really caught up in this question.  I had trouble visualizing exactly how something so abstract and so eternal could actually have an effect on my life.  I never questioned that it happened.  I knew Christ existed.  I knew Christ suffered and died, and I knew that he rose from the grave and is now our Savior.  But HOW did Christ save me?  What was it that he did that makes his sacrifice able to change who I am?  How can something apply to me and yet still apply to someone else, with different problems and different sins and different experiences?  And more importantly, what do I have to do to make this Atonement thing work?  It’s not a pill I could take.  It’s not a hat I could put on.  For a long time I imagined trying to hold the Atonement in my hand, and all I could see myself doing was holding just air. It was an elusive mystery that I could never understand. It’s more of an idea or event than it is an actual thing.  And I was really frustrated by that, because I like things to be concrete.  I like things to be measurable, but how do you measure something that’s infinite?  If the Atonement is the result of an action by Christ, how can I really understand what that action was if it happened two thousand years ago?   If the Atonement is a reconciliation with God, how can I know that I’m reconciled with God without even seeing Him or witnessing His son's Atonement?  Everything is just so…  unknown.  Immeasurable.  Incomprehensible.  HOW CAN I USE THAT? 
And up until just this past year, I had no answer to these questions.  But then I experienced a few trials that helped humble me and turn to the Lord, and suddenly one fine day there were some things that clicked. I still don’t know the answer to this question 100%, but I do know that the key is Christ. 
One thing I now know for sure is in order to understand the Atonement enough to actually use it to transform your heart, you need to understand Christ.  And the way you understand Christ is to spend time with him.  Read the scriptures, you guys.  It’s such a smart idea.  You can find out exactly how Christ behaved and what his attitude was in the scriptures.  And the Book of Mormon… Oh Gosh, I learned so much from that book this week. 
So what have I learned about Christ through reading the scriptures?  Well, I've learned that he was both WILLING and ABLE to perform the Atonement.  He was ABLE in the fact that he was the only person on earth that could do what he did.  First of all, he’s the only begotten of the Father.  He had Deity in his DNA, and therefore he was able to do something that only a God could do.  He was also ABLE to perform the Atonement because he was perfect and without sin.  No one else can say that about themselves.  No one else can atone for us.  Only Christ is ABLE to change us by atoning for us. 
But the more meaningful part about this is the fact that he was not only ABLE, but WILLING.  Christ, like everyone else on this earth, had agency, and he CHOSE to perform the Atonement.  And I can’t speak for Christ, but from the looks of things, it was a REALLY HARD CHOICE. Because of that choice, he had to experience an infinite amount of pain and suffering, only to be betrayed, scorned, and killed by people he loved immediately afterward. We read in Luke that he said in Gethsemane, “Father, remove this cup from me.”  Obviously the conditions were less than desirable.
 But then he says “NEVERTHELESS (and I’ve recently learned a little about the power of that word, NEVERTHELESS) not my will, but thine be done.”  (Luke 22:44)
And what was God’s will?  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Begotten son.” (John 3:16) “For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”  (Moses 1:39)
God LOVED us, so he sent his Son.  And Christ, he loved us enough to perform the work God appointed him to do.  Christ was motivated to do what he did by love.  He was not only ABLE to perform the infinite Atonement, he was WILLING, because he loved us. 
Now that kind of love is confusing and overwhelming.  Honestly, I've often wondered HOW someone could have that kind of love for me.  What kind of love is it? 
Last week, I went to the temple, and as I sat there in my white jumpsuit waiting to do baptisms, I thought about the love of Christ.  It began with me stressing out about how other people (mainly boys) felt about me.  I care so much about what this guy or that guy thinks of me... But I felt bad about it because I knew that I knew better than that.  Christ loves me.  Shouldn't that be all that matters?  And that's when I started having this little battle with myself.  I thought, “Okay. Sure. Christ loves me.  But that's nothing special. Christ loves everyone; what makes his love for me so important?”  
Have you ever had your mom say “I love you” and you’re all like, “Oh mom, of course you love me!  You’re supposed to love me!  You’re my mom!”  Well I sort of had that attitude towards Christ.  “Well, of course you love me!  You’re Jesus!  You love everyone!  How is that supposed to make me feel any better?  How does that make me special?” 
And then I heard this voice in my head, very clear.  It brought me to tears.  It said, “Hannah, surely you must know that my love for you is deeper than that!  I love you perfectly!  Because I KNOW YOU.” 
And then my thoughts turned to my dear sister Ellen, who is here in the congregation today.  She’s going on a mission to the Philippines in just three days, and I’m so excited for her.  There in the temple, I thought of her and I realized that I don’t just love my sister because she’s my sister and I HAVE to love her.  I love her because I know who she is. I've grown up with her.  I have seen what a sweet, gifted, loving, beautiful daughter of God she is, and I can’t help but love her!  I love her because I know her! 
He has ULTIMATE, INFINITE empathy for us.  It is impossible for any mortal to understand EXACTLY what another person has gone through.  We may have similar experiences and we can experience similar feelings, but none of us can TRULY COMPLETELY empathize with another person.  Except CHRIST.  Christ can perfectly empathize.  And because of this infinite empathy brought about by the Atonement, Christ can have an infinite love for every person.  He loves ME INFINITELY.  
And the minute I figured that out, this "How-to-use-the-Atonement problem I had began to make sense.  IF WE START SEEING THINGS THE WAY CHRIST SEES THINGS, WE WILL EXPERIENCE THAT MIGHTY TRANSFORMATION OF OUR HEARTS!  WE WILL EXPERIENCE A TRANSFORMATION WITHIN OURSELVES.  We will become like Christ.  Like God!  We will, as Moroni put it, be "made perfect in Christ."  (Moroni 10:32)
And when I discovered this, I found the process begin to happen within me! 
I had the chance to take a look at 3 Nephi 17 this week.  This is the chapter where Christ says “Behold, my time is at hand,” (3 Nephi 17:1) and he prepares to leave the Nephites after appearing unto them, but then he sees the multitude, “in tears, and they did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.”  (3 Nephi 17:5)
And what does Christ say?  He says, “Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.  Have ye any that are sick among you?  Bring them hither.  Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner?  Bring them hither and I will heal them.  My bowels are filled with mercy.” (3 Nephi 17: 6-7)
And then he commands that the little children should be brought unto him.  And he kneels on the ground and groans within himself, and says, “Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 17:14) And then he prays unto the Father, and the “things which he prayed cannot be written…:And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things… and no one can conceive of the joy which filled [their] souls.” (3 Nephi 17:17)
I testify that Christ’s bowels are filled with mercy towards every one of us.  He sees us as we really are.  He knows us perfectly.  He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.  And when we disregard his healing power, he is troubled.  But I also testify that if we start to see ourselves the way Christ sees us, and when we start to follow his example and consider his Atoning hand in our lives, we will be blessed. 
I’ve always wondered why it was so important for us to share the message of the Atonement to the world.  If the Atonement is going to save us all anyway, why do we need to know about it?  Why can’t we just be good people?  And there are so many good people who aren’t members of this faith.  But then I considered the JOY that these Nephites felt as they heard Christ pray.  “No one can conceive of the joy which filled their souls.” (3 Nephi 17:17)  I believe -- nay, I know -- that the Atonement not only ensures blessings for those who accept it in the future, but it ensures blessings for us RIGHT NOW in this life!  Having this heart transformation brings you joy!  There are blessings that come from having a knowledge of Christ’s atonement! The moment last January that I figured out just how much Christ loved me, I found myself happier.  Living the Gospel made me HAPPY.  Obeying the commandments brought me JOY.  I found myself more grateful for the things I had.  I discovered that I saw other people differently – the way God would see them.  I was beginning to have CHARITY.  
It was like in those Claratin clear commercials.  After a few seconds, the sheet is pulled back and the world suddenly becomes "Claratin-clear!" You don’t realize how dull and blurry the world was until you see things through new eyes.  Through the lens of God.  When your heart is transformed, everything around you transforms as well.  When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.  The problems in your life don’t go away, but you learn to see them differently.  
Last January, I had a chance to experience a change of heart.  I became converted, and for a short while, I could feel Christ’s image emanating in my own countenance.  There were some things I thought I could never change about myself… and they were changing.  I wasn’t always this bubbly, I promise.  I've had my depression.  I've had my trials.  And I used to always think “Oh I can’t do that, I’m not strong enough.”  I can’t fast for 24 hours, I don’t have the constitution.  I can’t read my scriptures every day, I’m so busy.  I can’t not be depressed, my life just sucks so much.  I can’t serve that person, I don’t know him well enough.  I can't forgive him, he's hurt me too much.
            But suddenly… I can!  Christ has not only healed me.  He’s ENABLED me.  Now I can do things I couldn't do before. 
How can I not share such an amazing, transforming message!? 
The Atonement is for everyone.  It is not rocket science.  If it were rocket science, then Christ would only be inviting the rocket scientists to come unto him.  He’s not.  He invites all men to come and partake of his goodness, and he denieth no one who cometh unto him. (2 Nephi 26:33)

The Atonement is a transforming agent.  It not only possesses a healing power, but also an ENABLING power. It changes bad people into good people, yes.  But it also changes good people into better people.  It is through the Atonement that a simple “I’m sorry” turns into repentance.  It’s through the Atonement that a simple promise is turned into a covenant.  It’s through the Atonement that a marriage is turned into a sealing. Through the Atonement of Christ, miracles are performed, and things that are dead are given life.  Yes, Christ turned water into wine, but he also can turn a trial into a blessing.  A meaningless thing into a meaningful thing. An ordinary person into an extraordinary person. It’s through the Atonement that “I can’t” turns into “I CAN!”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones... But Words have Power Also

I have this theory. I feel like it's in line with what the gospel teaches, but it also stems from other religious theories, particularly Hinduism. The main books of Hindi scripture are written in a language called Sanskrit. This is a very sacred language that represents the creation. When God utters something in Sanskrit, it is created and made real. Therefore, how the Sanskrit language is spoken in recitations is very important to Hindus. When Hindu priests learn Sanskrit passages, they say the words over and over again, using complex mnemonic devices so that they get every single word exactly right. Every time. By doing this, they are respecting the life-giving, creation-bearing language of God, and in a way mimicking God's behavior. They are attempting to align their language with their God's language. This brings them closer to deity.

God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.
I see this principle of how language gives life in the Christian  creation story. God says the words "Let there be light," and there was light (Genesis 1:3). And when he saw it, he said it was good (Genesis 1:4). I think this is a scriptural testament to how powerful language can be. In the book of John, we read "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." (John 1:1-2) Through modern revelation (JST John 1:1-2), we know that John is referring to the gospel when he says the Word, and the gospel was preached through the Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ embodies the Word. So, in other words, the Savior is the Word.

How interesting, that the Savior is likened unto, of all things, a word!

After reviewing what I know to be universal truths about God, the Savior, and the Plan of Salvation, I have come to the following conclusion: Words matter. They have consequence. As Gods in embryo, we are learning how we can use words to create. While we don't take the time to learn the Adamic language like Hindus take the time to learn Sanskrit, I still think God has entrusted us with the power of language so that we can learn how to be like Him and grow closer to Him. We, too, as God's spiritual offspring and potential heirs to his kingdom, can come closer to our Father in Heaven by mimicking his behavior and allowing our words to create good things.

In Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's conference talk, "The Tongue of Angels, an apostle of the Lord says the following:  Words are sacred.

You know the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" Well, Elder Holland begs to differ. He quotes an Apocryphal scripture that says quite the opposite: "“The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.”

Words not only possess the power to create. They also possess the power to destroy. Words can hurt.

What kinds of words hurt? Well, hurtful ones. Criticism, gossip, murmuring, complaints, and profanity are hurtful. But also manipulative words. Words of deception. Words of judgment. Words born by foul motivations. Even the way we say words can be hurtful. Shouting, whining, sharp sarcasm, etc. We all know it when we see it. But do we avoid it in our daily lives?

"Negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking."
-- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Words of pessimism and negativity are, in my opinion, probably the most frequently-overlooked grievances in our religious culture. This is particularly sad because Elder Holland says it is especially important for members of the Church to bridle their tongues and avoid negative language. I think it's very easy for members of the Church to serve two masters with their tongues. In the words of Elder Holland: "The same voice that bears profound testimony, utters fervent prayer, and sings the hymns of Zion can be the same voice that berates and criticizes, embarrasses and demeans, inflicts pain and destroys the spirit of oneself and of others in the process." This passage hits me very hard. It's amazing that the same voice that proclaims forgiveness and love through the Atonement is the voice that can utter words of stubborn judgment and hate. I think this is one of those "unto whom much is given, much is required" kind of deals (D&C 82:3). I have been blessed with a testimony, with a knowledge of the Gospel and the Atonement. Should not my words be in line with what I know to be true?

Our words are a manifestation of what is in our hearts. And as members of the Church, we have promised that we would have pure hearts (as well as clean hands, which I think relates to our actions) (Alma 5:19). Therefore, our words should be as pure as our hearts. Purity is a difficult thing to quantify, but I think it's safe to say that in order for our language to be pure, it needs to be free of profanity, negativity, or unrighteous judgment.

Some of us, me included, have a very loquacious personality.
We are very candid. We say what's on our minds...
Some of us, me included, have a very loquacious personality. We are very candid. We say what's on our minds. Whether it's something I mean or not, there are times in my life when everything that enters into my head comes out of my mouth. While this in and of itself is not sinful, I think we chatterboxes of the world have to especially take this counsel to heart. Often we say things in the attempt to help other people, or just to let our ideas "air out." Sometimes it's how we process information. I think out loud. I solve problems by talking about them and working through them through dialogue. Heck, there are times when no one is around when I still find myself saying things out loud. We often use phrases like "No offense," or "I'm just saying" or "But that's just me" to cushion the blow of some of the more negative statements we make. It can be very easy for us to say something to someone else in hopes that our words will be taken as "constructive criticism" or "just a matter of opinion." But what we need to realize is that everything we say has an impact on another individual, and some very small things we say can leave a negative impact. We do not have a full understanding of another person's spirit, and therefore we do not know the impact that our words will have on another person. Even those who appear to be Teflon-strong against sharp comments can still be affected by words we say. I think the character Thumper from Bambi said it best when he said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

Honestly, could any WRONG advice come out of this rabbit's mouth?
Honestly, I don't think it's ever our place to criticize other people at all; we have so many faults ourselves! However, if words of correction are to be given, (and there will be moments in our life where God will require us to do this), they must must MUST be done with charity as its main motivator. Charity suffereth long. Charity is kind. Charity is not easily provoked and rejoices in truth. That means our words should be full of patience, kindness, and love. Think in your head how Christ treated those around him. I can think of many cases where the Lord had to deal with people who made some pretty dumb mistakes. The story of the woman taken in adultery is a great example. Not only did Christ wait until he was speaking in private with the woman before he gave correction, but the words he said to her were direct, without guile. "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more." (John 8:11) I can imagine Christ's tone of voice as he says these words. Not icy and judgmental, but warm and inviting.

"Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more."
Speaking out of pride, judgment, or selfishness is not acceptable before God. In Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord counsels against any act of authority that is performed with ill motivations such as these. We read that "the heavens withdraw themselves [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved." (D&C 121:37) While this section particularly targets holders of the priesthood, Elder Holland says that "the sin of verbal abuse knows no gender." Anyone can be moved by pride to say something they oughtn't.

Unkind words may seem small, but they can lead to so much more. In the spirit of this same theory that I described in the beginning about how words can create, I believe that by saying something out loud, we are making it real to us. The more we say we believe something, the more inclined our brains are to believe it is true. That's why it's important that we not only have a testimony, but bear it in public. And that's why we are encouraged to pray out loud to our Heavenly Father from time to time. When we transform something as abstract and visceral as a thought into something physical like a spoken word, we are creating a reality in our minds that, with time, becomes part of our core beliefs, which are difficult to shake and result in action and behavior.

So words inspired by negative thoughts can then lead to negative attitudes and, in turn, negative behavior.

"Hold your tongue, Ella!"
We know that "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass." (Alma 37:6) But it's important to realize that those small and simple things can lead to either great miracles and blessings, or great disasters and failures. We see this all the time in modern society, and we also see it in the scriptures. When James refers to the tongue as the "very small helm" of the ship that is the body or a small kindling that can beget a forest fire (James 3:4-5), he is emphasizing how something very small can yield very large, often disastrous consequences. Most of the time an abusive spouse or parent begins with simple words before turning to physical assault. An unrighteous sexual act often begins with simply casual talk and joking about sex. I honestly don't think Laman and Lemuel would ever have tried to strike their brother Nephi or tie him to a boat if they had nipped their negativity in the bud and avoided all that murmuring. In contrast, look at the kinds of things Christ brought about by using kind, loving, clean words. We don't really know what happens to the woman taken in adultery after her exchange with the Savior, but I have a feeling that the way Christ spoke to her had a profound impact on her future behavior. A bridled tongue can lead to a more positive change in people than an unbridled one. It is through Christ's words, as well as his actions, that we saw miracles performed. As Joseph Smith says, " by words, and with words, its mightiest works have been, and will be, performed."

Imagine what this knowledge of the power of small and simple words can do in our own lives! Not only will we bless the lives of others by using uplifting, positive language, but we will also change our own attitudes about life and about ourselves! How can a person who constantly accosts himself with negative language about himself feel good about himself? He can't! It's one thing to think poorly of oneself, but as I explained, it's even more hurtful to actually say things aloud because then it becomes real to us.

I have a good friend who is very successful and talented. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold. He's got a great job, lots of friends, and he seems to be good at everything! Piano, sports, video games, making friends, public speaking... He's like superman! One time I commented, "Geez, you have been blessed with so many great talents! I wish I was as awesome at all those things as you are, but I could NEVER be THAT good."

His reply was very passionate and from the heart: "Hannah, I think the only thing that separates you and me is the fact that I believe I can do something and you obviously don't. You wouldn't have said that if you did. You need to stop saying 'I can't' and start saying 'I can!'"
How does what we say about ourselves
indicate how we see ourselves?
I responded with a simple okay, but then he said, "And don't just think it. Say it. Say it now."

Elder Holland states: "In all of this, I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable."

Have you ever been tempted to say "Man, I suck at this"? I do it all the time! But the more I think about this friend's advice, the more I think that I need to change the way I talk about myself, even if it's just in jest. If we really understand who we are, and more importantly, who we can become, I don't think we would even submit ourselves to the kind of language that we so often treat ourselves to. Our words toward ourselves must be just as charitable, loving, and forgiving as they are towards others! Often there are things we say about ourselves that we would NEVER say about other people. I've called myself stupid, ugly, fat, incapable, worthless... Words I would never dream of directing towards someone else! How is it that we allow ourselves to be so negative towards ourselves, even though we claim to have a knowledge of our unlimited potential and divine nature!? It's almost like we think it applies to everyone BUT our own selves. That is a grave contradiction! Christ atoned for EVERYONE, including you, including me! God loves every one of God's children. And on the day of judgment, he won't stand for any unclean thought, word, or deed that has been committed towards any one of his precious sons and daughters of God (Alma 11:37). And furthermore, how can we expect to show love to other people when we don't show love towards ourselves? The words "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18, emphasis added) come to mind here.

Christ atoned for EVERYONE.  Including you, including me!
I testify that the words we say -- as small as simple as they are -- can lead to great consequences. These consequences can be wonderful, but only if they are spoken with Christlike charity and love. I testify also that the words we say towards ourselves can have as equally profound of an impact on our lives as the words we say towards others. If we start using uplifting, pure language now, we will see positive results in our lives, and we will serve and uplift those around us. If our language is in line with the Lord's language, we will find our will aligning with His will. We will grow closer to him and closer to his blessings.