[For those of you who are unfamiliar with the way Mormon church services work, a word of introduction. Latter-day Saint congregations do not have a pastor. There is a local leader known as a bishop who makes sure the congregation runs smoothly, but he doesn't give sermons every week. Instead, members of the congregation are asked to give talks on various topics. Recently I was asked to speak on the topic "Strengthened by the Atonement." Here's my talk from today.]
Today I'd like to talk to you about scars.
My guess is that if you're over six months old, you probably have some kind of scar. I have a small circular scar on my arm, where my pediatrician gave me the very last smallpox vaccination of his medical career. There are a few striped scars across my knuckles to remind me of the time I absent-mindedly leaned up against the red-hot grill of our family's kerosene heater. My brother Tim has a small crescent moon-shaped scar above his left eye, where a German shepherd bit him. And my husband has a scar on the back of his knee, where he impaled himself on a spear-tipped fence.
Most scars happen by accident, or as a result of necessary life experiences, as with my smallpox scar. Other physical scars are more problematic. That amazing tattoo you got at age 19 might not be quite as amazing when you're 45. Or you may wear long-sleeved shirts to deflect difficult questions about the marks you continue to bear from past traumatic experiences you would rather not discuss.
Then there are the scars no one else sees – the marks we wear on our hearts as the result of physical or mental illnesses, the scars left on our souls from wrongs done to us by others, the scars of remorse we bear from having done others harm.
Regardless of what manner of scar we bear, we tend to think of such marks or disfigurements as permanent and immutable. We may believe they are part of us and can never be wiped away. But as partakers of the restored Gospel, we should come to understand that this belief, no matter how deeply seated, how often reinforced, is an illusion. For we live with a hope and a promise that all scars, no matter their type or origin, will at some time be erased by the sacrificial tokens in the hands, feet and side of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
The Atonement – although it is a core tenet of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the central event around which the Plan of Salvation is based – is not as well understood as perhaps it should be. Because I don't claim to have any unusual knowledge of the subject, I have looked to the words and writings of others with greater insights into the Atonement – what it is, what it does, and what that means for us.
Beginning at Gethsemane and continuing with his crucifixion on Golgotha, Jesus Christ took upon himself the great task for which he was born into the world – the Atonement, the means by which mankind may be reconciled with God. We do not know precisely how the Lord took on this burden, but we do know some of what that burden entailed. Speaking of the Savior, Alma taught:
"And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me." (Alma 7:11-13)
Here, Alma partly defines the Atonement of Christ, and teaches us that the Atonement covers more than just suffering for sin. He tells us that Christ would suffer temptations, but also that he would take upon himself pains, sicknesses, infirmities, even death, in order to blot out all these things suffered in mortality so that he might deliver his people unto eternal life. Alma also says that Christ will know how to succor his people – "succor" being a word that means to bring aid and assistance in times of trouble or distress. And "his people" are any and all people who come to Christ seeking deliverance.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated, "[B]ecause of His Atonement, the Savior has the power to succor – to help – every mortal pain and affliction. Sometimes His power heals an infirmity, but the scriptures and our experiences teach that sometimes He succors or helps by giving us the strength or patience to endure our infirmities." ("Strengthened by the Atonement of Jesus Christ," October 2015 General Conference)
Enduring an infirmity, as Elder Oaks puts it, can be extremely difficult. [Here I made reference to two people I know, true disciples of Jesus Christ who have endured many years of ill health and debilitating pain.] Not only physical and mental imperfections, but feelings of doubt or deficiency are also covered by the Atonement of Christ. I have spoken to a number of people in the Church – some truly amazing people – who suffer from depression and discouragement because after having done their best, they feel they are still not good enough. If you ever feel this way, I hope you will consider the words and actions of the Savior. He knows what you are going through. His Atonement also applies to your feelings of discouragement. He does not expect you to do everything perfectly in mortality. All he asks of you is to come before the altar with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and this sacrifice will be counted worthy before him.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell – himself slowly succumbing to the ravages of cancer at the time – said, "While so striving daily, we will fall short. Hence the avoidance of discouragement is so vital. So where is the oft and much needed resilience to be found? Once again, in the glorious Atonement! Thereby we can know the lifting tide flowing from forgiveness." ("Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ," October 1997 General Conference) Or as my mother, a wise woman, puts it, "If we truly understood the power of the Atonement in our lives, we would be the most joyous people on the face of the earth."
When we come to the Savior asking for help, the Atonement covers the whole of our sin. When I was young I believed the way the Atonement worked was that we would have to do everything we could, and the power of the Atonement would then cover the rest, but I was wrong. As imperfect human beings, we cannot do anything to atone for our own sins other than to come to the Lord asking for help. At that point, the power of the Atonement covers EVERYTHING. Our responsibility then becomes to turn away from our past sins, ask for forgiveness, follow the Savior and keep his commandments.
There may be someone here currently thinking, "Well, that's all very well and good, but I've done some terrible things in my past. The people I've hurt can't forgive me, and I can't forgive myself. The Atonement cannot possibly apply to me."
All right, let's talk briefly about serious sins. In the Book of Mormon, the People of Ammon, after being converted to the Gospel, decided they would lay down their weapons and never fight their brethren again. As their king stated: "And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain – Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren." (Alma 24:11-12)
These were people who, in the words of their own king, "were the most lost of all mankind" and had committed "many murders." But they had great faith that the Atonement of Jesus Christ – a being who, at that time, had not yet even been born – would save them from all their sins, even the sin of murder, if they would only turn away from what they had done. Such was their faith in that salvation that they would not even take up their arms in self-defense, lest they should lose the precious gift they had obtained through the coming Atonement.
If the people of Ammon believed that the Atonement made it possible for them to repent of the sin of murder and to be right before God, should we not have that much more hope to be cleansed of the various sins which we may have committed? I think we should. Even the most serious of sins, although they may call for Church disciplinary processes, can also be repented of through the power of the Atonement.
As King Benjamin, who must have been a powerful speaker, gave his farewell address to his people, the influence of the Spirit made them keenly aware of their own fallen state. The Scripture states: "And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them." (Mosiah 4:2-3)
Elder Kim B. Clark of the Seventy states: "There is no sin, no guilt, no shame, no fear, no loneliness, no heartache, no loss, no depression, no sadness, no terror, no pain, no challenge, no weakness that Jesus has not experienced and overcome. He has all power over all things. If you turn to Christ and repent of your sins, He will forgive you and cleanse you and change your heart. This is the redeeming power of the Atonement. If you turn to Christ when you face challenges and need capacity beyond your own, He can strengthen you and magnify your capacity. This is the strengthening power of the Atonement. If we come unto Christ and are faithful to our covenants, Jesus will sanctify all of our mortal experience to our blessing both now and forever. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we may become more and more like Him – we may walk in the newness of life, His sons and daughters, clean, pure in heart, filled with the pure love of Christ, blessed with joy and happiness and peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come." ("The Redeeming and Strengthening Power of the Savior's Atonement," April 2016)
Brothers and sisters, I testify to you that as you not only believe in Christ, but also believe Christ and come to rely on the power of his Atonement, your hearts will truly be filled with the joy and peace the Lord's servants have promised. I promise there will come a day when all your scars, both outside and within, will be stripped away by the power of the Atonement. These things I leave with you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.