As much as we study Christ’s Atonement, we can never comprehend it entirely. But as we try to understand what it is—and isn’t—we can come to understand how it applies more fully in our everyday lives.
All my life I thought Big Ben was a famous clock tower in London. I was absolutely sure of it and had even taught that fact to others. Then I went to London and found out that Big Ben is actually the nickname of the largest bell inside the tower, which is now called the Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. And if we are going to get picky, it’s not even officially in London, but rather in Westminster. In that moment, the bell and the tower had not changed, but my understanding certainly did.
In the same way, we sometimes go through our entire lives thinking we understand the Atonement—the central doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and then suddenly we have an experience that helps us see it in a new light. The doctrine has not changed, but our understanding has deepened. These moments of insight help us appreciate and value the Atonement more and more. Here are a few “Big Ben” realizations about the Atonement that have made a difference to me:
1. The Atonement is not just about immortality and eternal life but about not having one without the other.
Living forever may not be such a great gift without the possibility of living with God and loved ones. When my daughter Whitney was in elementary school, she read Tuck Everlasting—a wonderful novel that tells the story of a fictional family finding the fountain of youth, drinking, and then discovering that living forever is not all it’s cracked up to be.
One night while I was putting Whitney to bed, she asked, “Dad, you know how you say because of Jesus we will live forever? Well what if I don’t want to?” What joy I felt as I was able to testify to my young daughter that immortality is only part of Jesus’ great gift. It is coupled with the possibility of eternal families and eternal purpose.
2. The Atonement is not just about sins but also struggles.
Even though many of our challenges do not make us unworthy, they can still pull us from God. How often do we raise angry fists toward heaven and cry, “Why me?” instead of humbly reaching out to God and Christ?
Christ descended below all things. This includes our mistakes, loneliness, and afflictions. Christ’s Atonement qualifies Him to be able to succor us in desperate moments because He has literally felt our pains.
3. The Atonement is not just about receiving but also giving.
Great perspective awaits those who are willing to see that as we choose to accept and use this gift, we also bring joy and glory to God. Sometimes we mistakenly believe God and Jesus already have everything, but they don’t have you or me until we consciously give ourselves to them.
As we freely offer our hearts and wills, we can bring Them great joy. I find purpose and satisfaction in knowing that in this small and simple way, I have something to give Them.
Without us, the blessed emblems of the sacrament would simply sit in trays each Sunday. It is up to us to pick them up and internalize them. As we do so, we are not just receiving, we are also giving.
4. The Atonement is not just about earning but also learning.
Our faith, repentance, covenants, and efforts to receive the Holy Ghost and endure to the end are not works performed to earn salvation. Rather, they are how Christ is transforming us. He asks us to follow Him and keep His commandments, not to earn our way to heaven but to become more heavenly.
We chose to enter this mortal school because we knew that through the Atonement, not only could we go home but we could also be better for having come.
5. The Atonement is not just about immediate perfection but also eventual perfection.
Justice requires immediate perfection or a punishment if that perfection is not attained. Because Christ took that punishment for us, He can now provide a different arrangement. He calls for eventual perfection and offers to support us throughout the process. We don’t go to church and partake of the sacrament because we are perfect but because we are willing to be perfected. We don’t go to the temple because we have made it, but because within those walls God and Christ are making us more like Them. They could change us in an instant, but strength so easily attained is not strength at all. This is why, as Christ and Heavenly Father change us from human to divine, They typically do it the same way that a child learns to walk—over time. Time is the medium through which the power of the Atonement is made manifest in our lives.
Enduring to the end doesn’t just mean to the end of the week, month, year, or even the end of this life. Enduring to the end means enduring to our ultimate end— becoming more like God and Jesus.
6. The Atonement is not just a reward for the righteous but the source of righteousness.
Grace is the divine help and enabling power that is available throughout the entire perfecting process. Christ stands ready to forgive, but also ready to mentor, strengthen, and empower us.
These gifts are not a reward waiting for us once we get our acts together, break all our bad habits, and become worthy of His help. They are an unearned and undeserved gift throughout our quest. We must be careful not to see Christ’s grace as somehow supplementing our works or our works as somehow supplementing Christ’s grace, as if we have to meet some sort of minimum height requirement to get into heaven. It is not about height. It is about growth.
We do not reach heaven by supplementing but by covenanting. A covenant represents a warm relationship between two friends who are working together toward the same end. Instead of speaking of His part and my part, I try to speak more of His heart and my heart loving and reflecting one another.
7. The Atonement is not because we are good but because God and Christ are good.
They love us not because we are always loveable, but because They are always loving. Understanding this helps us feel Their love even when we don’t see any reason to love ourselves. “I’ll never do it again,” we say. Then we do it. “Now I really mean it. I will never do it again.” And then we do it. At such low moments, it is easy to become discouraged and lose hope. We have such a hard time forgiving ourselves that we mistakenly believe God and Christ must be feeling the same way. We think each setback is devastating, but God and Christ simply recognize them as growing pains.
Jesus suffered for our sins—plural. That means multiple sins, but that also means multiple times we commit the same sin as we learn how to break bad habits once and for all. “Never again” may be the ultimate goal, but in the meantime we can set more realistic milestones to reach along the way. Each time we repent and start again, we are one step closer to our ultimate goal—usually much closer than we think. The love of God and Jesus is perfect—offered consistently through our moments of great success or utter failure. Although we often want to give up on ourselves, God and Jesus will never give up on us. Their hearts simply cannot and will not let go.
8. The Atonement is not just the best way but the only way.
Christ is not just one of several possible correct answers on a multiple choice exam. He is the only correct answer. In today’s world, it is not popular or politically correct to speak of absolutes. Some claim truth is relative and constructed by each person individually. They don’t want to abandon sin and get comfortable with God. Rather, they wish to abandon God and get comfortable with sin. None of this changes Christ’s reality and their absolute dependence on Him.
As Latter-day Saints, we know Christ and His Atonement are the source of all spiritual blessings. As King Benjamin taught, “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ” (Mosiah 3:17).