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!”

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