In working with individuals who struggle in their faith because of sincere unanswered questions, criticisms they encounter, or because of incongruities between their lives and the standards they hold, I have found a need to constantly draw such people back to the foundational principles of the Gospel. Foremost among them is of course faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
For some, their lack of answers undermines their confidence in the overall gospel plan. For others, criticisms cause them to reconsider once deeply held beliefs. For others, their struggles to live standards they accept create a wedge between them and their Heavenly Father. In all of these cases, however, the result is a sense of distance from the Father that loves them, and who patiently invites them home.
The path out of such situations is often a long path requiring patience and persistence. Such individuals need to re-anchor themselves to foundational principles, and most importantly regain a spiritual connection with Heavenly Father. It is through such a connection that they can find strength to persist through their questions, doubts, or the process of repentance.
In going through such struggles, I often find that once unsettled, the most basic of principles get called into question. Once confidence is undermined, even the most basic of concepts we hold true become open for debate, and the uncertainty started by unrelated struggles can spread and undermine the most fundamental gospel principles.
Even the atonement of Jesus Christ is not immune from such questioning. Those going through periods of questions and doubts about the restoration might begin to ask themselves why a loving God cannot simply forgive and forget and accept us as we are. Why would it be necessary to send someone else to suffer in order to compensate for our suffering? Is God not able of his own accord to forgive? If so, why do we need another to rescue us?
The foremost principle I follow when trying to understand gospel principles like the atonement is this: Father does nothing because He needs it, but because we need it. We aren’t told to pray because without it God doesn’t know what we want, but because by praying we learn to adjust our will such that we want what He wants. We don’t gather to worship because God has low self-esteem and gets angry if we don’t give Him attention, but because in gathering we unite in our common cause of service to each other, and as King Benjamin would say, our service to our fellow being puts us in the service of our God. It is in that service that we learn the nature of God – His mind and heart! Even the ordinances of the Church are intended not for God to secure an assurance of our commitment, but for us to signal to ourselves that we accept the covenants He extends to us.
As for the atonement, many theories of the atonement are based on penal substitution or some form of deficit compensation required by God. Such theories presuppose a need on the part of God to have the “books balance”, implying that God is otherwise incapable of forgiving the individual. As such, there is an implied limit on the ability of God to forgive unless some external requirement is met, thereby implying that God himself is not omnipotent when it comes to forgiveness.
This notion similarly runs counter to the God that I know. The God who reveals himself to me through scripture and spiritual experiences is a fatherly God. He asks that we refer to him as our Heavenly Father, implying paternal affection towards us that we would recognize in our earthly relationships. As such, I feel that I can understand something of His nature by looking closely at what I would consider to be the ideal father on earth.
I find examples of such an ideal in the father of the prodigal son, as taught by the Savior when accused of eating with the publicans and sinners. Teaching a principle of humility that one could argue is more about the faithful son who was critical of the father’s willingness to so quickly forgive the prodigal, Christ reveals an ideal that I believe instructs us on the nature of our Heavenly Father.
In the parable we have a son who squandered the great gift his father gave him, and found himself in the lowest of circumstances – working the field where unclean beasts were fed. He had sunk to the lowest point, and could sink no further. Fully stripped of pride, with no pretense of deserving more, the prodigal sought out his father with the humble hope that he might simply be a servant in the a place he had once called home. So, he approached his father’s comfortable estate, unsure what reception he might receive.
His father, who was apparently watching for the return of the son he loved, saw him afar off. He ran to him, fell on his neck and without reservation or condition kissed him. His son, confessing his sins against heaven, implored acceptance as a servant. But the father rather killed the fatted calf, rejoiced in his return, and treated him again as a full son, replete with the symbols of honor including robes, shoes, and a family ring.
This example teaches me much about Heavenly Father if he is like the father of this prodigal. He has not only the willingness, but eagerness to accept home any wayward child who would again wish to live as a son.
If this is the case, then the need for an atonement does not come because Heavenly Father requires it, but because without it we would be unwilling ourselves to take the painful steps away from the earthly field of feeding swine towards our Heavenly home of acceptance and welcome. It is what enables us to let go of the guilt within us that condemns us, and allows us to receive the forgiveness openly offered.
In the scriptures, we learn that sin causes us to withdraw, and even wish that rocks would fall upon us and hide us from our Father, not so that we are protected from his wrath, but so that we would not have to face our own sins which would be unavoidable in the full light of His goodness and glory. In other words, we fail in our confidence before God because the scales of justice within our hearts reveal to us that we have fallen short. In essence, we withdraw not because Father would not receive us, but because we feel inadequate because of the willful, disobedient choices we have made.
Father and Christ know this about us. They realize that we need an anchor for our faith so that we can once again regain our self-confidence before God despite having done wrong. In response, Father provided, and Christ volunteered, for one beyond reproach to come and experience what we naturally experience when we sin. Christ, upon his knees in Gethsemane, contemplated our condition as being alone in our sins, much like Alma and Ammon and the sons of Mosiah felt contemplating the seared conscious of regret they themselves felt knowing the great wrongs they had done. He felt our sorrow and our shame. He felt our anguish and pain that causes us to withdraw from Father. In essence, his experience was a universal feeling of empathy for the entire human family, for every sin of every person committed and yet to be. He felt the collective shame of the world, causing Him, the very Son of the Father, to tremble because of pain and bleed from every pore.
Realizing this, we find an escape for our shame – a way to release the guilt that binds us and prevents us from openly returning to Father where the full acceptance of a beloved son once lost but now found can be felt. Realizing within ourselves that the consequence of shame formed by the imbalance of justice we cause has already been realized by one who himself has no reason to feel shame, we are able to let go of our own guilt, trusting that Christ has already suffered, and we need suffer no more. With such a realization, we can take those critical steps out of the worldly “field of swine” and approach again Father who anxiously awaits our return. Indeed, it is our faith and confidence that the suffering of guilt and shame has already been paid that allows us to let go and in fact forgive ourselves. In such a state we can accept the unconditional forgiveness Father anxiously waits to give us as soon as we take the steps towards home.
Of course, the steps home are necessary, just as the wayward son had to take the journey back. We must come to humility and realize our faults, just as the prodigal realized his fallen condition. With that realization, we must commit to leave the field of unclean things, and persist in a path homeward. In a gospel sense, it means that we must put behind us our old life, and start anew, as if we were reborn as a rightful son and heir. All this is symbolized for us, like all ordinances, through the outward act of baptism and partaking of the sacrament. Indeed, the sacrament itself could be considered a symbolic feast of the fatted calf for the wayward son now home!
The capstone of the atonement is what happened at Golgotha. His death and resurrection turned the key for the human family to escape the consequence of Adam and Eve’s choices in the garden. Without condition, the whole human family can escape death and again live with Father in immortal, glorified bodies.
So for me, the atonement is not necessary because God requires it, but because without it we would be unable to let go of our guilt, accept Father’s forgiveness, and remain with Him as a son and an heir. With it, we can confidently move forward away from our past, and use our mistakes to solidify our commitment to righteousness. We thereby gain the benefits of the fall of Adam (knowing good from evil), and lay hold on the invitation of Father to learn and yet come home as a son or daughter.
For me, the atonement compensates for the weakness within us, not some inability of God to forgive.
The story of the prodigal son gives us another lesson that we would be wise to consider. The older, faithful son who criticized his father was gently chastised when the father called him not to resent the welcomed prodigal, but to rejoice in his return. It is a tempting reaction we all can encounter to feel critical of those who question, struggle, or sin. In so doing, our resentment turns to judgment, and our own reaction may prove a barrier to those who would otherwise be homeward bound. We would be wise to not judge, so that we ourselves are not too harshly judged of the weaknesses we have but perhaps do not so outwardly display. We would do well to welcome any who come to the altar of humility seeking reconciliation with Father, and do all that we can to ease them from their wandered path and invite them home again as sons and daughters, and full heirs of salvation.
Indeed, we should eagerly look to the horizon of the lives around us, watching prayerfully for the prodigals to return. And when they do, not hesitate to invite them in, but rush to them while they are yet afar off, and embrace them with love reflective of the kindness of the Father. In so doing, we will make ourselves a little more like Him as we thus gain not only His mind, but also His heart.
For those struggling in the midst of questions, doubt, or unresolved issues in the standards you live by, I encourage you to re-anchor yourself in the foundational principle of the atonement. Recognize that Father loves you unconditionally, and will gladly welcome you home once you are ready to make the journey. The Savior loves you such that he felt your pain. It was his love for you that compelled him to feel what you now feel. I encourage you to trust in that love. Recognize that your discomfort, anxiety, and possibly even shame can all be overcome simply by trusting that you need not remain in such a state. Anchor yourselves in the atonement so that you can eventually make the path home and be welcomed by a Father ready to great you with a warm embrace and genuine rejoicing. In so doing, you will find the strength to persist until your questions are answered, your doubts are resolved, and your life is made right again.