On Not Understanding the Atonement

There are some pretty major aspects of our Latter-day Saint faith–and of Christianity in general–that I don’t really understand. Specifically: the necessity and efficacy of the Atonement. Repentance and forgiveness make sense to me. The Atonement is a mystery, and none of the explanations or theories resonate with me on a deep, personal level.

I am convinced that the scriptural accounts–especially in the Book of Mormon and New Testament–are true. I believe what they tell me. I just don’t understand them.

What I do feel, and feel viscerally, is the fundamental brokenness of the human condition generally and my own shortcomings in particular. The world is broken, and I am broken in it. I am just as utterly convinced of the splendid beauty which we may all glimpse from time to time within this broken world and among its broken inhabitants. We are broken, but we we dream of wholeness. That dream came from somewhere. Wholeness–perfection–is also real.

What I don’t understand is how Christ and the Atonement comes into play in helping us get from the Point A of Brokenness to the Point B of Wholeness.

There’s only one thing I’ve ever read that helped me start to build a scaffold across the chasm of my ignorance. That’s Sister Neill F. Marriott’s talk from the General Women’s Session of the October 2017 General Conference: Abiding in God and Repairing the Breach. I read the talk about a year ago, and I loved it so much that my underlined, commented hard copy has been sitting in my top drawer ever since, waiting for me to write this post. I’m not sure I’ll do the talk justice, so–in case I do not–please just go read it yourself. Having said that, I’m going to do my best to explain what I personally took from Sister Marriott’s talk.

Early on in the talk. Sister Marriott stated that “Our sins and pride create a breach–or a gap–between us and the font of all love, our Heavenly Father.”

This got my attention because the concept of a gap between what we are and what we want to be is one of those things that does resonate with my core. I quote this a lot–so apologies,if you’ve heard it from me before–but I love Ira Glass’s discussion of an aesthetic gap that, to my mind, applies just as much to a gap in character.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. (You can find the quote many places. This version is from Goodreads.)

So far so good, as problem statements go. Just as aspiring artists are convicted by their own good taste, all of us are convicted by our consciences when we fail to live up to the light of Christ we inherit as our birthright. But, whereas an artist can get across the gap by sheer stubborn practice, Sister Marriott argues that the gap in character is one that we cannot cross alone: “Independently forcing ourselves to have humility and trying to make ourselves love others is insincere and hollow, and it simply doesn’t work.”

I’m not absolutely convinced by this. It seems to me that if you try hard to act as if you love someone then–over time–you may actually stumble your way to the real thing. In fact, it seems that a lot of LDS arguments in favor of obedience are based around this principle that if you go through the motions long enough, you eventually break through. You can fake it until you make it.

Indeed, there’s something almost Calvinist in Sister Marriott’s assertion that we can’t lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But if there’s a faint echo (very faint!) of total depravity here, it’s one that is also discernible in the Book of Mormon.

8. O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.

9. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself (2 Nephi 9:8-9)

So, according to Jacob, without the intercession of Christ we are ultimately unable to escape the gravitational pull of evil. We are all trapped on the wrong side of a moral event horizon, and nothing but Christ can pull us out.

I’m amenable to this, but up to this point it’s all very abstract. What does it mean, really? Without Christ, we ultimately fall back to earth–an inevitable personal fall as inexorable as gravity–because, why? Why are we doomed to recapitulate the Fall in our own lives. Is it because we ultimately just get too depressed by our individual failures? Is it some kind of moral equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics?

Sister Marriott has a concrete example:

One memorable night a relative and I disagreed about a political issue. She briskly and thoroughly took my comments apart, proving me wrong within earshot of family members. I felt foolish and uninformed—and I probably was. That night as I knelt to pray, I hurried to explain to Heavenly Father how difficult this relative was! I talked on and on. Perhaps I paused in my complaining and the Holy Ghost had a chance to get my attention, because, to my surprise, I next heard myself say, “You probably want me to love her.” Love her? I prayed on, saying something like, “How can I love her? I don’t think I even like her. My heart is hard; my feelings are hurt. I can’t do it.”

Then, surely with help from the Spirit, I had a new thought as I said, “But You love her, Heavenly Father. Would You give me a portion of Your love for her—so I can love her too?” My hard feelings softened, my heart started to change, and I began to see this person differently.

Now this begins to make sense! For one thing, even if it is possible that in some hypothetical sense we could fake it until we make it–pretend to love until the feelings arrive–that’s not necessarily very helpful in the real world. In the real world, we do not have infinite time to wait for habit to become something more. We have a lifetime, at most, in most cases a lot less than that. For another, we don’t have the luxury of taking apart our relationships and dealing with them one at a time, each in isolation from every other. We are enmeshed in dense networks of relationships, and during the time when we are incapable of loving someone, that has consequences not only for them, but also for other people who are close to us. To be honest, even if it were possible to do this the hard, slow why: who would want to wait? I would not. If the option is a painstaking process of chiseling my own heart into something beautiful or exchanging my hard heart for a new one from God, I want to give mine away today and experience love.

Sister Marriott’s story made me see even more than that, however. For one thing, it’s a literal and beautiful example of living on borrowed grace. It’s not only that we depend on God to love us, but that we depend on God to share His love for others with us. “The Savior’s Atonement is a conduit for the constant flow of charity from our Father in Heaven,” says Sister Marriott. “We must choose to abide in his love in order to have charity for all.”

It also explains how the Atonement can be communal. It’s not about–or, at least, not only about–repairing a breach between ourselves and God. This has always seemed a bit strange. If I can forgive my child when they do wrong without requiring someone pay the price, why can’t God forgive me without extracting a price from Christ in blood? I am not denying that this is the case; I’m just saying I still don’t get it.

But if the Atonement is also about borrowing God’s love so that we can forgive and love those around us, then in that case I can clearly see how the Atonement can bind the human family together.

Our Father’s infinite love reaches out to us, to bring us back into His glory and joy… we must make the connection with Him now to learn what really matters, to love as He loves, and to grow to be like him.

This explanation from Sister Marriott speaks to my mind as well as my heart. It makes sense to me. I do not believe it is the final answer to the Atonement. There’s a lot I still do not understand. But it is, for me at least, like a sip of cool water in a wide, dry desert. I’m still thirsty, but the taste of this water is sweet.

I’m grateful that I’ve had my parents’ example to teach me to be patient with things that I do not understand. There are many claims in the scriptures that seem strange to me. If I lived according to my own understanding, I would have rejected them by now. I would have rejected the necessity and efficacy of the Atonement and jettisoned claims like those–oft repeated in the scriptures and in General Conference–that the ultimate solution to the problems of the world is a return to Christ. With my training in economics and all that I’ve read of political theory, it’s awfully to see how returning to Christ has any direct relevance to the controversies of our day in a real, concrete, practical, effectual way.

But I haven’t lived according to my own understanding. I accept things that I do not understand. I affirm things that are beyond my comprehension. Not out of wishful thinking. Not out of blind obedience. But out of simple trust. God has revealed a few, small things to me. Enough for me to rely on Him and be patient while I struggle to make sense of the rest.

Sister Marriott’s talk is another breadcrumb. Another reassurance that I’m on the right trail. Another signpost pointing onward. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.

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