James is a member of the Church in the UK, he is Senior Lecturer in Religious Education at the University of Chester, holds a PhD in Mormon Theology from the University of Liverpool and, most importantly, is married to Ruth with four gorgeous children. His book, Towards a Latter-day Saint Theology of Religions is to be published by Greg Kofford books later this year.
Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.
This week’s Sunday School lesson provides me with a perfect antidote to some of the discussions that took place last week. Though agreeing with the necessity of chastisement and also the character building nature of trials I was left feeling a little bit empty as I considered the nature of a God whose purpose in our suffering is to teach us a lesson. Two things come to mind in such a discussion. Firstly, the endless number of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons where Calvin is told by his dad that his experiences will build character. Secondly, discussions I used to have with my students when I taught high school. We used to look at the Irenaean and Augustinian theodicies. In Irenaeus’ vale of soul making I used to use the analogy of a stone who was rough around the edges and needed the lessons of life to smooth us off. Whereas the Augustinian, we began perfect but because of the Fall we got battered and chipped- in this theodicy we are filled and smoothed. Both have their place in Mormon theology but I am led more to the filling and smoothing (though have to admit that the battering and chipping off a rough edge is the one I hear most in Church).
The events of this week’s Sunday School lesson are set in Liberty Jail where Joseph Smith is led to ask the question “Where art thou?” I love this question, because it is the heartfelt questioning of a devoted son. In discussing the Lord’s responses the lesson outline suggests five sections to explore:
1. Joseph Smith’s prayer in Liberty Jail, and the Lord’s response
2. The Saviour’s perfect understanding of our sufferings and adversity
3. Purposes of adversity (to some degree repeating the lessons of last week)
4. The Lord’s counsel to those who experience adversity
5. The Lord’s promises to those who are faithful in adversity
All of these sections could be lessons in themselves. Though I hope Sunday School teachers will focus on the element of trials that draw us into a mutual relationship with the Saviour. Quoting BH Roberts the lesson manual suggests that these revelations “made Liberty jail, for a time, a centre of instruction. The eyes of the saints were turned to it as the place whence would come encouragement, counsel–the word of the Lord. It was more temple than prison, so long as the Prophet was there. It was a place of meditation and prayer. … Joseph Smith sought God in this rude prison, and found him” (B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:526).
I think this centre of instruction is more about a place where Joseph Smith was able to develop and show us a greater expanse in the purpose and nature of the Atonement rather than an intellectual schoolroom. As Latter-day Saints we are perhaps more familiar with the penal substitution model of the Atonement, but there are many more modes and understandings of the Atonement that draw us into a greater relationship with the Saviour. When we read section 122 and the oft quoted “The Son of Man hath descended below them all, art thou greater than He?” We can read it in one of two ways. The less charitable version is “stop whinging kid, Christ has suffered more than you,” the other way is to expand on an interpretation where Christ has suffered more than us all; as such he is able to draw us into a relationship with him where our sufferings will be taken up. This is discussed briefly under section 2 of the lesson; but I feel is extended as we explore the Moral Compassion view of the Atonement.
In the moral influence view of the atonement, “the atoning work of Christ is designed first and foremost to effect a change in human beings… The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love for sinful humanity. The atonement was directed primarily at humanity, not God.” Through the fallen nature of humanity people refuse “to turn to God and be reconciled. Through the incarnation, life experiences, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ, the love of God shines like a beacon, beckoning humanity to come and fellowship.” Blake Ostler suggests that the “purpose of the atonement in LDS scripture is to ‘bring about the bowels of mercy’ so that God is moved with compassion for us and we are moved with gratitude to trust him by opening our hearts to him.” For me, this understanding of the Atonement draws humanity into a loving relationship with God and it also reconciles God to humanity. “The suffering that Christ experienced not only moves us with compassion for him, but it also moves him with compassion for us.”
Christ’s mortal life was for the purpose that he could “succour them in their infirmities” (Alma 7: 11-12). It was necessary for Christ to experience all of the trials of every day life and in Gethsemane to be a perfect example and to be able to bear the burdens of humanity. The moral influence model expands our understanding that the atonement is for more than sin. This compassion theory of the atonement draws us into a relationship with Christ. In expanding the Atonement into every area of our lives:
When we let go of our past and release the painful energy of alienation [and suffering], Christ experiences and receives into himself the pain that we have experienced to be transformed by the light of his love. If we refuse to let go of our past histories and the pain that arises from our sins, [sicknesses and infirmities] we will continue to experience that pain. If we let go of that pain, however, then Christ experiences the very pain we release, but we no longer have to. In his Passion we find compassion.
This is explored in much greater detail in The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens. But to understand our trials as a way to understand the Atonement more and envisage a God who suffers alongside us and weeps every tear with us is a great comfort and strength to me. He is not just a God who is moulding and shaping us through character forming experiences, rather he is intimately involved in everything we do, suffering the highs and lows. For me, this makes my trials more bearable to know I am “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love,” not just in the eternities, but eternally, here and now (2 Ne. 1:15).
1. Beilby and Eddy, ed., The Nature of the Atonement. Four Views, 18-19.
2. Beilby and Eddy, ed., The Nature of the Atonement. Four Views, 18-19.
3. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God, 235.
4. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God, 238.
5. Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God, 236.