"O How Great the Plan of Our God!" (2 Ne. 9:13)
Elder Neal A. Maxwell
of the Quorum of the Twelve
(Address to CES Religious Educators, 3 February 1995, Temple Square Assembly Hall)
My gratitude to each of you for your presence. All of you are part of Elder Eyring’s wonderful team. He is a man who combines brightness and sweetness. To hear from Stan Peterson that your constituency is now over a million constitutes a major landmark in Church history. The whole Church wasn’t that big until comparatively recently, so I salute all of you for such extensive service!
I wish to thank Stan Peterson, who renders such quiet but effective service, for making possible this special opportunity to be with you who teach religion in the Church Educational System. It has been a privilege to associate with you for so many years, hence I truly am grateful to be here.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote some interesting lines concerning the role of the holy apostleship, several of which are now quoted to provide a somewhat different introduction for my remarks. Kierkegaard wrote:
“An Apostle . . . does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on; on the contrary, he remains himself and by that paradoxical fact he is sent on a particular mission by God. . . . He was called to proclaim this new thing.
“. . . Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. . . . I have not got to listen to St. Paul because he is clever, or even brilliantly clever; I am to bow before St. Paul because he has divine authority; and in any case it remains St. Paul’s responsibility to see that he produces that impression, whether anybody bows before his authority or not. St. Paul must not appeal to his cleverness, for in that case he is a fool; he must not enter into a purely aesthetic or philosophical discussion of the content of the doctrine, for in that case he is side‑tracked. . . . [Instead, he is to say] ‘I cannot and dare not compel you to obey, but through your relation to God in your conscience I make you eternally responsible to God, eternally responsible for your relation to this doctrine, by having proclaimed it as revealed to me, and consequently proclaimed it with divine authority.’ . . .
“. . . God cannot help men by providing them with physical certainty that an Apostle is an Apostle-which would, moreover, be nonsense. Even miracles, if the Apostle has that gift, give no physical certainty. . . .
“. . . Therein lies the essence of an Apostle’s life of self-sacrifice, even if he were never persecuted, . . . that he never dares take the time or the quiet or carefreeness in order to grow rich. Intellectually speaking he is like a tireless housewife who herself hardly has time to eat, so busy is she preparing food for others. . . . that a man is called by a revelation to . . . proclaim the Word, to act and to suffer, to a life of uninterrupted activity as the Lord’s messenger (The Present Age and Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises [London: Oxford University Press, 1940], pp. 143–61).
These interesting perspectives, as indicated, provide a different context out of which, as the Lord’s messenger, I hope tonight to proclaim the word humbly, desiring that the spiritual food so given to you will prove to be nourishing. It is certainly served with a special appreciation for all each of you does to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with so many-week in and week out!
Before speaking of Jesus’ atonement, the first portion of this address will note some indicators from the vexing times in which we live. This context is worth pondering, if only briefly, since it is the setting, day in and out, in which you and I labor in this last dispensation.
The many intervening centuries since Jesus’ mortal Messiahship seem to have worked against the faith of many in the last days. Peter’s prophecy about the attitude of latter-day scoffers is thus steadily being fulfilled: “Where is the promise of [Christ’s] coming? . . . all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Hence, seeming repetition on the human landscape comes to be viewed by many as the absence of any discernible, divine purpose.
The resulting indifference adds to iniquity, and iniquity brings its inevitable harvest of bitter despair (see Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:30; Moroni 10:22; D&C 45:27). Moreover, as the love of many waxes cold, a massive failure occurs with regard to keeping both the first and second great commandments (see Matthew 22:36–40; 24:12).
Unsurprisingly, those in despair question life’s meaning, saying, “Is this all there is to life?” Even their conquests and achievements turn out finally to be empty. Illustratively, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, once the powerful king of Hollywood’s hill, at the very end of his life, said despairingly from his hospital bed, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters” (in MGM: When the Lion Roars, part 3, “The Lion in Winter,” 1992, Turner Pictures, Inc., shown on PBS).
Those who “live without God in the world” anxiously glean their few and fleeting satisfactions, but they are unable to find real happiness (Mosiah 27:31; see also Mormon 2:13). Today, many are caught up in one form or another of the “club-and-pub” culture. Others focus on the popular and pervasive substitutes for real religion-sports and politics. All this is accompanied by political churning as you and I watch the secular “Princes come, Princes go, An hour of pomp and show they know” (Robert Wright and George Forrest, lyrics from “Sands of Time,” Kismet).
As in the days of Noah, many individuals become preoccupied with life’s routine, such as “eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage, until the day” (Matthew 24:38; see vv. 36–39). Many of those comfortably situated say, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Revelation 3:17), while being confused about causality, saying, “My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). It is much today as in ancient Israel when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; also 21:25). In our time, “every man walketh in his own way, and after . . . the likeness of the world” (D&C 1:16), which might be called everyman ethical relativism-and we are swamped by it in our time.
Shorn of spiritual memory, people thus “do their own thing,” resulting in an uninspired, unanchored individualism that rejects the need for spiritual submissiveness, which, after all, is one of the great purposes of life’s trek. Ancient Israel was advised: “And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
Ignorant of the plan of salvation, many simply do not know what the journey of life is all about. Therefore, modern selfishness and skepticism brush aside the significance of the Savior, considering Jesus merely “a man” (Mosiah 3:9) or “a thing of naught” (1 Nephi 19:9).
So positioned intellectually, these people say “it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (Helaman 16:18; see vv. 17–20). Should some prophesied things happen, skeptics say the prophets have merely “guessed right” (Helaman 16:16).
Secular people, of whom there are more and more, insist on seeing instead of walking by faith (see 2 Corinthians 5:7). In their passion to see, they fall into the trap of “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), including failing to notice the sprouting leaves on the fig tree signalling that summer is nigh (see Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:38–39; D&C 45:37).
In such a context, those trying to spread the gospel’s glorious truths often encounter people, as did Ether, whose reactions to his “great and marvelous” prophecies were “they did not believe, because they saw them not” (Ether 12:5; see also Acts 28:29).
Farther along the spectrum of the human landscape, the honorable of the earth do so commendably well with less than full gospel light. You and I know many of them; they are wonderful and decent people. These individuals, like some of the followers of John the Baptist, simply do not yet know. Asked if they had received the gift of the Holy Ghost, John’s followers replied, “We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost” (Acts 19:2; see vv. 1–6). Among the honorable of the earth are so many individuals “who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12).
The Restoration, of course, provides the resplendent remedy with such high relevancy for our times. When accompanied by the Spirit of truth, the Restoration proves not only informing and inspiring, but also convincing! (see D&C 50:21–22).
Some, however, must first be chastened by afflictions, death, fear, terror, famine, and pestilence before they will be stirred to remember God (see Ether 12:3). Only a comparative few are “in a preparation to hear the word” (Alma 32:6), but for these, “the word [has] a . . . more powerful effect . . . than . . . anything else” (Alma 31:5). Yet even these comparative few still need a teacher:
“And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
“And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30–31; emphasis added).
I repeat my special thanks for all you do to “guide” and to “sit with” so many, helping them to “liken all scriptures unto [themselves]” (1 Nephi 19:23).
Continuing the sampling of the societal spectrum, there are the lukewarm Church members who lack dedication and who are not valiant in their testimony of Jesus (see D&C 76:79). These often fear losing either their place in the secular synagogue or missing out on the praise of men (see John 12:42–43; see also Acts 6:7; John 7:48; 1 Corinthians 1:26). Some members are like the earlier Amulek, who was called and would not hear; he really “knew,” yet he “would not know” (see Alma 10:4–6). These members, like Amulek, may even have experienced feeling the redeeming, loving power of God, but they do not “feel so now” (Alma 5:26). Isn’t it marvelous, by the way, that the longsuffering Lord reclaimed, tutored, and later used Amulek to declare especially powerful teachings!
Fortunately, in the midst of all these things, so many Church members are sincerely striving for consecration. They “seek . . . first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness” (JST, Matthew 6:38). These members, in spite of their individual trials and discouragements, nevertheless, rally again and again and say, “Shall we not go in so great a cause?” (D&C 128:22).
Soberingly, we are also advised, “Behold, the enemy is combined” (D&C 38:12). Faithful Latter-day Saints will thus surely be encompassed round about (see D&C 76:29), yet we can still develop our communities of Saints who are spiritually “one, the children of Christ” (4 Nephi 1:17).
So much for these samples, far too hastily just described, from the landscape of the last days.
We should not really be surprised at how some of the foregoing reflect the absence or neglect of the holy scriptures. History tells of those who, without sacred records, soon denied the Creator! (see Omni 1:17). The untaught can, so quickly, become unbelieving. They form a rising generation who do not understand the words of prophets and who do not believe in the resurrection of Christ, as when there “arose another generation, . . . which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10; see also Mosiah 26:1–4).
Holy scriptures testify powerfully, but they also familiarize us with the history of what God has done for His people. This spiritual memory is so essential. Consider this relevant verse, often neglected in favor of the special verse it precedes: “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts” (Moroni 10:3).
Holy scriptures, when searched and believed, help us to “remember,” as it were, from the sacred records. These are part of the institutional memory of the kingdom of God. Hence, Alma observed to his son Helaman how sacred records, in effect, “have enlarged the memory of this people” (Alma 37:8).
The Restoration brought back such sweeping spiritual substance, including the reality of the resurrection, but it also brought back a vital, revelatory process. Please note the blend:
“And righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten; his resurrection from the dead; yea, and also the resurrection of all men; and righteousness and truth will I cause to sweep the earth as with a flood” (Moses 7:62).
“God . . . saw that it was expedient that man should know concerning the things whereof he had appointed unto them;
“Therefore he sent angels to converse with them. . . .
“And they began from that time forth to call on his name; therefore God conversed with men, and made known unto them the plan of redemption, which had been prepared from the foundation of the world” (Alma 12:28–30).
The Restoration, for instance, provides so much more truth concerning both the character of the Father and the nature of His plan! President George Q. Cannon said, “There is in the plan of salvation, which God our heavenly Father has revealed, perfect love, mercy and justice, and every other attribute which pertains to the character of Deity are perfectly illustrated in the plan of salvation which he has revealed for man’s guidance” (in Journal of Discourses, 14:312; see also Moses 7:30). However, President Cannon lamented, “The difficulty today is, that the people do not believe that God is a being of this character” (in Journal of Discourses, 15:371).
It is so in our time, too. No wonder King Benjamin pled: “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).
There are a few among us who believe in God but do not want to let Him be God; they would limit Him in terms of character and attributes. Reassuringly, in two adjoining verses, the Lord said tersely, “I am able to do mine own work”! (2 Nephi 27:20–21). Brothers and sisters, that is about as nice a way as God could say to us that He can handle it!
The richness of the Restoration dispels doubt and despair with regard to the meaning of life, mitigating misery and giving us assurance concerning immortality and God’s great plan of happiness! (see Alma 42:8). The Lord’s ways are higher and more effective ways (see Isaiah 55:9).
Not a day passes in the television news or in the press without our seeing some secular solutions being sincerely advanced to solve vexing human problems. These solutions usually involve lower ways, however sincerely offered they are, and they resemble trying to play shuffleboard on a slippery hillside, using a twisted stick for a cue, with a misshapen lump for a puck.
The Restoration, to mix metaphors, is like a harvest basket, to use Jesus’ metaphor, which is a “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). This abundant harvest spares us from hungering because of doctrinal deprivation. Without this fulness, however, some, malnourished, struggle with adversity while trying to believe in a God of loving purpose. Each of the Restoration’s key doctrines, by itself, would help us greatly. However, when “shaken together,” these doctrines can produce much stronger faith through their vital nourishment. The harvest is not only abundant and “running over,” but it also brings back the most vital “plain and precious things” (1 Nephi 13:40; see also 13:26)-the balanced essentials.
Consider one example of a consequence of deprivation. Some, doctrinally perplexed, lament, “If God is good and all powerful, why does He permit so much human suffering? Why does He allow so much evil to be in the world he created?” A very prominent religious leader in England several decades ago spoke of this with unusual candor:
“All of my life I have struggled to find the purpose of living. I have tried to answer three questions which always seemed to be fundamental: the problem of eternity; the problem of human personality; and the problem of evil. I have failed. I have solved none of them. . . . And I believe no one will ever solve them” (Daily Express, London, England, 13 July 1953, p. 4).
Without Restoration fulness, this problem is understandably poignant and persistent! Such deprivation is remedied only by revelation.
Without understanding the encompassing plan of salvation, trying to comprehend this life is like trying to understand a three-act play while seeing only the second act. Without knowing beginnings and endings, the middle becomes muddled. What is really going on? Is there a director who will make sense of it all? Does the plot have purpose?
Evil and suffering do take a terrible toll in the world, and we certainly cannot give glib answers to cover every wrenching, human situation. But, through the blessings of the Restoration, we can see things as they really were, are, and will be (see Jacob 4:13; D&C 93:24). We can then better walk the straight and narrow way, inspired and informed by faith, but not by sight (see 2 Corinthians 5:7). However, these added understandings provided by the Restoration clearly do not exempt us from either temptation or from suffering. There are no immunities, only variations.
Latter-day Saints also know that God did not create man ex nihilo, out of nothing. The concept of an “out of nothing” creation confronts its adherents with a severe dilemma. One commentator wrote of human suffering and an “out of nothing” creation:
“We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God [who creates all things absolutely-i.e., out of nothing] must be an accessor before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe” (Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” New Essays in Philosophical Theology [London: SCM Press, 1955]).
Of course, God is not “responsible” for our human misdeeds! How vital, therefore, the “plain and precious” truths of the Restoration are in order to see “things as they really are” instead of being puzzled.
Restoration correctives provide emancipating perspectives! The revelations, when “pressed down and shaken together,” emphasize that man is, at once, an intelligence or spirit co-eternal-but certainly not co‑equal-with God (see Abraham 3:18). Thus, doctrinally, we are positioned very differently, because “God is neither the source nor the cause of either moral or natural evil” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, s.v. “evil”). God is thus the organizer of eternal intelligences, which can neither be created nor destroyed (see D&C 93:29). Furthermore, God will not coerce men since all intelligence is free to act for itself “in that sphere in which God has placed it. . . .
“Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man” (D&C 93:30–31).
In the Restoration, we further learn that, built into the existing structure of mortal life, there is “an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11). This doctrine is more than just a minor clue to life. It is a major divine disclosure! As BYU Professor David Paulsen has thoughtfully written:
“Without moral righteousness, there is no happiness; without significant moral freedom, there is no moral righteousness; without an opposition (opposing possibilities to choose between), there is no significant moral freedom. Thus, happiness and opposition are essentially related” (personal letter dated November 1994).
When Restoration truths are thus “shaken together,” powerful understandings vital to daily life emerge.
It is my opinion, not Church doctrine, that one distant day, brothers and sisters, it will even become more apparent than it now is that-given whatever constraints within which God began His work (so far as whatever each of us was, way “back of the beyond”), and also given the agency and independency of man-our loving Father God is doing all even He possibly can do to help us!
Additional revealed truths reassure us that we actually are enclosed in divine empathy. As Enoch witnessed, we worship a God who weeps over needless human misery (see Moses 7:28–29, 32–33, 37). Jesus’ perfect empathy was assured when, along with His atonement for our sins, Jesus also took upon Him our sicknesses, sorrows, griefs, and infirmities and came to know these “according to the flesh” (Alma 7:12; see also v. 11). He did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby also know how to succor us in our infirmities. Jesus thus fully comprehends human suffering. Truly, Christ “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things” (D&C 88:6).
Without gospel fulness, however, many, understandably, have equivocal views not only about human suffering but also about Jesus Christ and the resurrection. Without freshening and reinforcing modern prophets, the ancient prophets can easily become less read, less revered, and seem less relevant to daily life. Similarly, without the confirming and freshening of additional, attesting scriptures, the Bible is less read, less believed, and less convincing. Mankind desperately needs doctrinal nourishment!
Even daily life’s repetitiveness actually occurs for a reason. President Brigham Young reflectively observed:
“Sometimes I think it quite strange that the children of men are so constituted as to need to be taught one lesson all the time, and again it is not so marvelous to me, when I reflect upon . . . the designed effect . . . of this state of probation. Men are organized to be independent in their sphere, . . . yet they have, as soldiers term it, to run the gauntlet all the time. They are organized to be just as independent as any being in eternity, but that independency . . . must be proved and tried while in this state of existence, must be operated upon by the good and the evil” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:316).
So often in life, a deserved blessing is quickly followed by a needed stretching. Spiritual exhilaration may be quickly followed by a vexation or temptation. Were it otherwise, extended spiritual reveries or immunities from adversity might induce in us a regrettable forgetfulness of others in deep need. The sharp, side-by-side contrast of the sweet and the bitter is essential until the very end of this brief, mortal experience. Meanwhile, even routine, daily life provides sufficient sandpaper to smooth our crustiness and polish our rough edges, if we are meek. But what demanding calisthenics!
Anne Morrow Lindbergh shared a wise caution:
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable” (in Brigham Young University Law Review, vol. 1991, no. 1).
Certain forms of suffering, endured well, can actually be ennobling. Annie Swetchine said, “Those who have suffered much are like those who know many languages; they have learned to understand and be understood by all” (in Neal A. Maxwell, We Will Prove Them Herewith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982], p. 123). In tonight’s audience there are multi-lingual individuals who have earned their eloquence the hard way. Even so, most of us do not line up in queues, eagerly waiting to enroll in extra courses leading to such multi-linguality.
Paul spoke from considerable personal experience when observing that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (Hebrews 12:11). You and I are not expected to pretend chastening is pleasant, but we are expected to “endure it well” (D&C 121:8). Only afterward is “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” enjoyed by those who “are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11). But what demanding calisthenics!
Moroni said that only “after the trial of [our] faith” do we receive certain assurances and blessings (Ether 12:6). Taking Jesus’ yoke upon us really does help us learn of Him by personally experiencing His special love for us. We also come to appreciate more His meekness and lowliness-even though His love goes unreciprocated by us (see Matthew 11:29). Edith Hamilton observed:
“When love meets no return the result is suffering, and the greater the love the greater the suffering. There can be no greater suffering than to love purely and perfectly one who is bent upon evil and self‑destruction. That was what God endured at the hands of men” (Spokesman for God [New York: W. W. Norton, 1936], p. 112).
Many parents love and care but experience unreciprocated love. This is part of coming to know, on our small scale, what Jesus experienced. Part of enduring well consists of being meek enough, amid our suffering, to learn from our relevant experiences. Rather than simply passing through these things, they must pass through us and do so in ways that sanctify these experiences for our good. Thereby, our empathy, too, is enriched and everlasting (see D&C 122:7).
This life is carefully designed, if we are willing, to produce for us a harvest of relevant and portable experience. But there is such a short growing season! The fields must be worked intensively amid droughts, late springs, and early frosts. For the disobedient and despairing who refuse to plant, plow, or harvest, theirs is not simply a “winter of discontent,” but is a despair for all seasons. The indifferent and lack-luster who work only the surface of life will harvest little. Only for the perspiring and “anxiously engaged” faithful will the harvest be many-fold (see Matthew 19:29).
There is another very powerful inducement for us to endure well. President Young said of Jesus, “Why should we imagine for one moment that we can be prepared to enter into the kingdom of rest with him and the Father, without passing through similar ordeals?” (in Journal of Discourses, 8:66). Peter noted how this sacred process produces an exclusive cadre-those who have known the “fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). These are they who will have the greatest capacity for endless service, joy, and happiness.
I turn now to Jesus, who is at the center of it all. Brigham Young observed that real faith requires faith in Jesus’ character, in His atonement, and in the Father’s plan of salvation (see Journal of Discourses, 13:56). Jesus’ character necessarily underwrote His remarkable atonement. Without Jesus’ sublime character there could have been no sublime atonement! His character is such that He “[suffered] temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11), yet He gave temptations “no heed” (D&C 20:22).
Someone has said only those who resist temptation really understand the power of temptation. Because Jesus resisted it perfectly, He understood temptation perfectly, hence He can help us. The fact that He was dismissive of temptation and gave it “no heed,” reveals His marvelous character, which we are to emulate (see D&C 20:22; 3 Nephi 12:48; 27:27).
Jesus, who, by far, suffered the most, has the most compassion for all of us who suffer so much less. Moreover, He, who suffered the most, has no self-pity! Instead of self-pity, even as He endured the enormous suffering associated with the Atonement, He reached out to others in their lesser suffering. Consider how, in Gethsemane, Jesus, who had just bled at every pore, nevertheless, restored an assailant’s severed ear, which, given Jesus’ own agony, He might not have noticed! (see Luke 22:50–51).
Consider how Jesus, while hanging so painfully on the cross, instructed the Apostle John about caring for Jesus’ mother, Mary (see John 19:26–27). Consider how, in the midst of the awful arithmetic of the Atonement, Jesus, nevertheless, reassured one of the thieves on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He cared, even in the midst of enormous suffering. He reached outwardly when a lesser being would have turned inwardly.
Jesus’ loving and discerning character is such that He gives customized counsel, taking into account our differing bearing capacities. He healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank Him. Jesus didn’t chide that leper, whereas you and I sometimes unload on the undeserving. Instead, Jesus simply said, “But where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17).
To the more informed mother of James and John, who requested next world status for her sons, Christ was more reproving, “Ye know not what ye ask” (Matthew 20:22). Jesus further pointed out how the determination had already been made by the Father.
Jesus pressed Peter three times, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” (John 21:16). The third time, as you know, when Peter could bear it no more, he implored, “Lord, . . . thou knowest that I love thee!” (v. 17). Back came divine direction, “Feed my sheep” (v. 17). Affection, but with direction!
However, it takes perceptivity, patience, and love to so customize counsel. Doing so is the very opposite of the unloving and impatient stereotyping we see in so many sad human relationships.
Consider another great insight as to Christ’s character. Jesus-just as He had promised premortally-always gave the glory to the Father, as revealed in those marvelous words, “Glory be to the Father” (D&C 19:19). This glory giving, President Howard W. Hunter once told a small group of us, was, for him, the most impressive thing among those great words in section 19.
The Atonement is the chief expression of Christ’s loving kindness. He endured so many things. For instance, as prophesied, He was spat upon (see 1 Nephi 19:9). As foretold, He was struck and scourged (see Mosiah 3:9). Likewise, He was offered vinegar and gall, while aflame with thirst (see Psalm 69:3).
Yet, in His later description of His agonies, Jesus did not speak of those things. Instead, after the Atonement, there was no mention about His being spat upon, being struck, or of the proffered vinegar and gall. Instead, Christ confides in us His chief anxiety, namely, that He “would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18)-especially desiring not to get part way through the Atonement and then pull back.
Mercifully for all of us, He “finished [His] preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:19). Jesus partook of history’s bitterest cup without becoming bitter!
The Book of Mormon describes Jesus’ atonement as “an infinite atonement” (Alma 34:12); it certainly required infinite suffering. When suffering and burdened, Jesus entered Gethsemane. He “fell on the ground” (Mark 14:35); He did not merely kneel down, pray intensely and briefly, and leave. His agonies were so great that He began to bleed at every one of thousands of His pores. An angel, whose identity we do not know, came to strengthen Him (see Luke 22:43). Mark wrote that Jesus became “sore amazed” and “very heavy” (Mark 14:33), meaning, in the Greek, astonished and awestruck, and depressed and dejected, respectively. None of us can tell Christ anything about depression!
In the course of that great prayer, He pled with the Father in the most intimate and familial of terms, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). This was not theater, but real pleading to a loving Father from a suffering Son in the deepest possible distress!
In the Atonement, Jesus experienced what He later described as “the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God” (D&C 76:107; also 88:106). We can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like as He stood in our places and paid the price for our sins.
Though sinless Himself, He bore the sins of billions. Thus His empathy and mercy became fully perfected and personalized. Indeed, He thus “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things” (see D&C 88:6; see also 122:8).
He was scourged, most likely with a Roman flagellum of several thongs, at the end of each were sharp objects designed to tear the flesh. His tensed back muscles would have been torn. If struck with the usual number of blows, thirty-nine, the first blows would have bruised, and the last blows would have shredded His flesh. Believing Christian physicians wrote that, medically speaking, Jesus would have been in serious, if not critical, medical condition because of the loss of blood (see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 21 Mar. 1986, p. 1458), and, as we know by revelation, He had previously bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The divine reproach Jesus felt so exquisitely, because of His meekly standing in for us, fulfilled yet another prophecy: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20). His heart was broken as He suffered “both body and spirit” (D&C 19:18). He trembled because of pain, and yet He finished His preparations, bringing to pass the unconditional immortality of all mankind and eternal life for all those who would keep His commandments (see Moses 1:39).
At the apogee of His agony, Jesus uttered on the cross the great soul cry of foresakenness: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Brigham Young’s insight helps us understand His aloneness, which was a unique dimension of His agony:
“At the very moment, at the hour when the crisis came for him to offer up his life, the Father withdrew Himself, withdrew His Spirit, and cast a veil over [Jesus]. That is what made him sweat blood. If he had had the power of God upon him, he would not have sweat blood; but all was withdrawn from him, and a veil was cast over him, and he then plead with the Father not to forsake him” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:206).
This withdrawal occurred in the context of a special Father/Son relationship, which I digress briefly and relevantly to describe.
No father ever had a more superb son. No son ever had a more exemplary father. In their unique majesty is an elegant meekness. In their special oneness they are mutually deferential of each other. Jesus always honored His perfect Father, including by emulating His Father:
“Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).
When people sought to praise Jesus, He said, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). When people marveled at Jesus’ doctrine, He quickly deferred, saying, “My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me” (John 7:16; see also Matthew 7:28; 22:33). Christ instructed us, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As in His earlier premortal obedience, the Savior’s ultimate submissiveness occurred when the “will of the Son [was] swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7).
The Father was ever quick to praise Jesus, saying on more than one occasion, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5; see also 3 Nephi 11:7; Joseph Smith-History 1:17). In a rare instance, where the voice of the Father was heard, note the words used: “And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful” (2 Nephi 31:15). The mutuality of their divinity reflects the mutuality of their meekness and their love!
Thus, when during the Atonement the Father withdrew His presence and His Spirit, Jesus’ agony was exquisitely keen. Jesus then understood personally “according to the flesh” (Alma 7:12; see also v. 11) what it is like to feel forsaken and alone, for “none were with [Him]” (D&C 133:50).
Even so, He gave all the glory to the Father, just as promised (see D&C 19:19; Moses 4:2). He suffered willingly and voluntarily because of His “loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men” (1 Nephi 19:9). Such sublime and submissive character!
When Jesus comes in overwhelming majesty and power, in at least one of His appearances He will come in red attire, reminding us that He shed His blood to atone for our sins (see D&C 133:48; Isaiah 63:1). His voice will be heard to declare, again, how alone He once was: “I have trodden the wine-press alone, . . . and none were with me” (D&C 133:50).
The more we know of Jesus’ atonement, the more we will humbly and gladly glorify Him, His atonement, and His character. We will never tire of paying tribute to His goodness and loving kindness. How long will we so speak of our gratitude for His atonement? The scriptures advise “forever and ever”! (D&C 133:52).
Praise be to God for the harvest of such bounteous blessings from the Restoration, which, truly, are “running over.” I humbly exclaim with Jacob, “O how great the plan of our God!” (2 Nephi 9:13).
Praise be to Jesus for His great atonement, the central act of all human history! Praise be to the Prophet Joseph, the conduit through whom this cascade of restored doctrine flowed!
You and I are so blessed, compared to many other human endeavors, to be part of a work that is really going somewhere, a work that will succeed, a work that really matters!
Having mentioned remembrance and the importance of spiritual memory, may I close with comments about a confluence of remembrance that has encompassed me lately as several streamlets have converged.
Not long ago I attended my fiftieth high school reunion. It was interesting as all of us “survivors” reflected on how, back in those days, we were all poor together, but we did not know it, nor did we feel deprived.
Next, this very week I was privileged to bless a returned missionary who is having a health challenge. He is the nephew of an uncle he has never known, but that uncle whom I knew, over a half century ago, as my wonderful Aaronic priesthood advisor. Shortly after he taught me and other young men, he was killed while flying in the 8th Air Force over Europe. I look forward to the day when that nephew can meet his uncle and when I can say “thanks” to that role model since, alas, as teenagers, we didn’t thank that advisor as we should.
Another streamlet. Two times recently, including just today, Colleen has joined me as we have lunched and visited with some World War II buddies. One of today’s group has cancer and is in the midst of chemotherapy. We had a strong sense, so long ago, of belonging to a Kingdom, as assembled on distant shores, in fragmentary little groups, time and time again. We knew who we were. We had identity in a then little known Church. On the lighter side, today it seemed we could remember events of fifty years ago better than we could remember last week!
This toll from the passage of time can be related to the chocolates Stan Peterson was just kind enough to give Colleen and me. After each lunch in the temple on Thursday, the Brethren enjoy a box of these chocolates. The box comes down the line according to seniority. Ironically, as one rises a bit in seniority and thus has a little more choice, he may have forgotten which are his favorite chocolates!
Again, contributing to this confluence of remembrance, at a luncheon ten days ago with my five wonderful sisters and Colleen, one of my sisters surprised me with a packet of my letters from the mission field to my home. I hadn’t known my father had saved them. Just quickly sampling them underscored for me my immaturities, but tucked away in them were some gems of memory, such as a letter recounting when I had the privilege of being interviewed by Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who was touring our Canadian mission. In the process of the tour, he selected me and set me apart to be a district president in days when district presidents watched over members and missionaries. To have his hands on my head in Toronto so many years ago, and then to have his hands upon my head in subsequent callings many years later, and then to have the privilege of having my hands upon his head as we joined in setting him apart as President of the Church was so special!
We all are connected with memories that matter!
Most recently, the Bountiful Temple dedication refreshed again another streamlet of spiritual remembrance that washed over me like surf. I was put in remembrance of the account of my parents’ sealing in the Salt Lake Temple.
Father was a recent convert to the Church. Dad had no one in his family to go to the temple with. What a contrast to the ways we rightfully take our children to the temple in large family groups when they are to be endowed and sealed. Dad had a friend go with him, and my mother’s parents and family couldn’t go, so my maternal grandmother went with her.
The four boarded a streetcar on Seventh East one morning and went to the Salt Lake Temple, arriving just before 8:00 a.m. By 2:30 p.m. they had taken out their endowments and were sealed. The two guests went home. Mom and Dad had enough money to go to a movie. Movies were clean in those days. This constituted their entire honeymoon. They got back on a streetcar and went back to a small, rented home. Praise be to pathfinders!
Each of us, if we will preserve them and teach them delicately and sensitively, has a storehouse of such memories. They are, for the most part, many little things, but, cumulatively, they bulk so large and remind us who we are and how good God has been to us. I look at how long-suffering the Lord has been with me. Now, in my twilight and sunset years, I hope He will continue to help me and to tutor me. I am so grateful to Him!
When Jesus comes again and the stars fall from their places in heaven in a spectacular solar display, it will not be that display that will evoke expressions from us. Instead, as modern revelation tells us, what we will speak of will be Jesus’ loving kindness and His long-suffering. We will gladly so express forever and ever!
Of Him, therefore, I gladly bear witness, and of the reality of His marvelous and great atonement, as I ask Him to bless you in the classrooms, in your private conversations, and in the small groups of students in the hallway or foyer-so that the words you say will be inspired. In ways that only He can do it, may the Lord micro-manage things to bless you to say the things that will touch youths quickly and deeply so that (long after the sounds of the classroom are stilled, and after the youths are gone) they will remember what you taught and exemplified, for you do not have much time.
May God bless you to convey this immense sense of the overflowing harvest basket of the Restoration, that they may be induced to be nourished thereby.
May the Holy Ghost bring to their remembrance these precious things is my blessing and my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.