Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theological Interlude 01: Imperfection and the Atonement

Recently my mind has been in a more explicitly theological place rather that political (don’t worry I’ll get back to politics soon.) So, for the next little bit, I’m going to focus on more “spiritual” things (whatever that means.) These may not seem directly political or liberal, but it is these spiritual teachings that inform my values, including (and perhaps especially) my politics and my embrace of a liberal world view. If you want know why I’m liberal and what that means to me perhaps this and future ruminations may help.

Christ told Peter that “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may shift you as wheat.” The same can be said for any of us. Like the ancient farmers that sat and shifted the wheat to separate it from the chaff it is Satan’s goal to separate us from our Father in Heaven and the Love of Christ.

I worry that we underestimate the cleverness and the subtleness with which the Deceiver goes about his work of attempting to separate us from God.

In the Book of Mormon the Prophets Lehi and Nephi each had similar dreams. In their dreams they saw the Tree of Life and wanted all of their family to come and sit with them and eat the fruit that they found growing there. But as they looked for their family they saw that everything was covered with a mist of darkness and yet in that curious way of dreams they were able to discern a guiderail leading through the darkness to the Tree of Life. They also saw a terrible ravine with a dangerous river at the bottom, and, within shouting distance of the Tree, they saw a building which they described as “great and spacious.” They saw many people pushing forward in attempt to get to the Tree of Life, but they also saw many others push forward in an attempt to get to the building, which Nephi was told represents “the pride of the world.” Then they saw this building collapse destroying all that were in it.

Of course we need to stay clear of this “great and spacious building.” But one of the things that Satan wants us to forget is this: It doesn’t matter to him where we end up so long as it isn’t the Tree of Life. He doesn’t care if we end-up in his supposedly great and spacious building, drowned in the river, or just wandering aimlessly through the dark, any of those would suite him just as well. It is his goal to keep us from the Tree of Life which is the Love of God.

As a church community we are very good at understanding that sin can lead us way from the Love of God and to places that will ultimately prove, like the building in Lehi’s dream, to be without foundation. But we are not always so good at recognizing that there are other tricks that the deceiver uses to separate us from God.

It strikes me as both ironic and cleaver that for Satan to get maximum benefit from his great and spacious building he has to place it within shouting distance of the Tree of Life. And so it is with many of the more subtle tricks that he plays on us. Some of the deceits of Satan will only work against good, faithful members of the church. He twists our desire to reach the Tree of Life into a hyper-awareness of the “great and spacious building”, and thus we turn our efforts from seeking God to avoiding Satan. He makes us fear his “great and spacious building” so much that we let go the guiding words of the Lord and end up wandering lost in the dark, unable, to find the Love of God. He works hard to turn our righteousness into a snare and to use our understanding of the commandments against us to push us beyond the mark.

Although Satan has many such specialized lures in his tool kit I want to touch on just one. Remember, his goal is to separate us from God anyway he can. And so he works to get us to believe that we are unworthy of God’s love or his help. If he is successful in getting us to believe that because we are imperfect, or that because we have sinned, or are weak in some way, we are unworthy of the love of God, then he can prevented us from using the very tools that the Lord has provided for us to us heal from our shortcomings. If he can convince us that we are unworthy of the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord then we may not hear those promptings when we are buffeted by temptation and need them most. If he can convince us that our weakness disqualifies us from the Atonement, then he has denied us the only tool that can overcome that weakness.

During the time of the Apostle Paul there were many followers of God who believed that it was possible to “obey” their way into heaven. In fact, prior to his conversion Paul was one of these. But Paul learned that this is just not possible, we can not be righteous enough to be saved on our own merits. His letter to the Romans was written to help those that where struggling with this false belief understand the True doctrine of the Atonement. In chapter 3 verses 10 and 12 he quotes from the Old Testament when he says: “There is none righteous no not one…They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good no, not one.” And in verse 23: “…all have sinned and, come short of the Glory of God.” We cannot earn our way into heave by our own works of righteousness for as King Benjamin tells us in Mosiah “…[the Lord] doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him and are and will be forever and ever; therefore of what have ye to boast?...Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answerer you Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth.”

If God where to require us to be without sin before receiving the Holy Ghost, receiving revelation, or receiving forgiveness, then no one would feel the Spirit, receive revelation, or be forgiven. No one would be saved and nothing would ever have been able to be reveled. Satan’s attempt to get us to believe that our human weakness disqualifies us from the Spirit of the Lord is an effort to deprive us of the very tools we need to overcome, or transcend that weakness. He wants us to believe that we need to perfect ourselves before we can qualify for the blessings of heaven and then sits back and laughs as we fail at the impossible task that he has set before us.

Unlike Satan, the Lord doesn’t place before us impossible tasks. The Lord knows and understands the effects of the fall. He knows that we will fall short of the standards that he has set for us, and of the standards that we set for ourselves. He knows about the briars, thorns, and noxious weeds. And so he provided a way for us to transcend our struggles. He provided us with our Savior.

Satan wants us to believe that to qualify for the help of the Lord we need to be perfect, but the Lord teaches that to be perfect we first need his help. In other words we need his help now, before we are perfect, before we “repent,” before we change. It is the Atonement that allows us to change. This is what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Saints at Ephesus when he said: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”

Do we need to qualify for the Atonement? Of course, but we need to understand the qualifications as revealed by Lord. The Prophet Lehi in speaking to his son Jacob taught about qualifications and the Atonement this way: “Behold [Christ] offereth himself a as sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.”

In other words the Atonement of Christ becomes effective, not after we have fixed ourselves, but once we have shown a desire to do be fixed-even though we may lack the capacity or skills needed to make the corrections ourselves. When our desire is sincere, the power of the Atonement can cleanse us of sin and guilt and can help us through the process of healing. He can help us carry our loads and he can help us to grow and develop the skills we need in order to become increasingly like him. We do not have to do this alone, we don’t need to struggle by ourselves, or worry that we are not doing enough. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, complained of a thorn in his flesh which he had begged the Lord to remove. The Lord responded, not by removing the thorn but by telling him: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t need mountains of faith to move mountains. As Alma taught the Zoramites, sometimes all we need to start is only a desire to believe, and by letting that desire work in us we can turn our hearts to Christ and he can heal us. The gospel of Mark tells of man who brought his son to Christ to be healed. The savior told him that if he believed then his son could be healed. “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” That was enough- the Savior healed his son.

Satan will do anything he can to separate us from God. He will miss-quote and miss-use the scriptures and teachings of the Prophets. Like the friends of Job sometimes the carriers of his messages of despair may be well intentioned, but misinformed people close to us, whose misguided attempts at comfort, add to, rather lighten our burdens.

Do not be deceived, Christ’s grace is sufficient for you. Embrace it now and then work with Christ to be healed. As long as you are moving toward him he will be with you however small your steps and however long it takes, until he has perfected you in and through his Grace.

1 comment:

JT said...

Your post is very articulate. I tend to agree with you. Sometimes I think that we focus so much of our energy in trying to overcome our "thorn", that we neglect improving the other parts of our lives.