I want to start by talking about perfection. Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect.” That is a steep injunction, but that is required of us. What many people do not understand is that we were never meant to attain that perfection in this life, only to get closer every day. To try harder, draw nearer, love deeper. Perfection in all things in this life is impossible, but once we give up our sense of need for perfection today, then we can get so very near perfection and still hold onto our sanity. But, because we allowed ourselves the room for human error that is inherent in our fallen state, we need access to repentance.
To repent is to return to the will of the Lord after wandering or disobeying or even just making a mistake. The need for repentance comes from any shortcoming – intentional or not. What a wonderful gift from a loving God. Knowing that we can’t feel His spirit or eventually dwell in His presence without perfection He provided a manner and method to attain perfection and that is called Repentance. The reason repentance works is because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. To truly understand why repentance is a gift and not just a difficult and often humbling and embarrassing obligation we must first understand the atonement.
The process of bringing the Atonement to pass was put into motion long before we came to Earth, and the Atonement is the central part of the Plan of Salvation. Before this life, in that great council in Heaven, God presented His plan and Jesus volunteered to be our Savior and every single one of us here accepted that proposition. That is a testament that anyone on this earth can follow Jesus; we already have. Jesus came to earth as a child of God and man, the only begotten of the Father, which gave Him the ability to remain perfect His entire life and gave Him power over death. The Savior’s life was not an easy. Being part Divinity did not spare Him from great suffering and temptation. His own people rejected Him and He was greatly tempted by the Adversary on several occasions, but He remained loyal to the royal within Him. These two attributes, perfection and divinity made the Atonement possible.
At the end of His life the Savior went into a garden known as Gethsemane, which, being translated, is the wine press. In ancient Jerusalem a wine press was a great wheel weighing hundreds of pounds that was turned and would squeeze all of the juice out of the grapes or olives and leave behind a flattened pulp. As the lonely Savior prayed in the Garden He felt that weight descending upon Him and he fell to His knees. As he continued praying that heavy wheel kept turning and came down on our brother Jesus. He lay flat on the ground in the dirt and leaves, and yet despite the weight of the sins, guilt, sicknesses, pains, and every other negative thing we can and can’t comprehend He continued praying for us and the wheel continued turning. When the full weight of that terrible wine press was on His back droplets of blood began to pour from His body. Not a few droplets, but blood from every pore.
At the end of this terrible ordeal He finally understood and loved us in a way that no one else can. He walked back to His friends changed. Filled with the spirit of the Father again, but still physically and spiritually exhausted as he exited the Garden. Barely 3 steps outside of the place of that great and terrible suffering He was met by His friend and disciple, Judas, and some soldiers. He was taken into custody, tried, convicted, and put on a cross. While on the cross He felt all of our pains again before finally calling upon the Lord forgiving the soldiers, proclaiming the end of His mortal work, and then giving up His spirit to the Father. He died on the cross and was quickly and unceremoniously thrown into another man’s tomb. A boulder was rolled in front of it and guards posted outside. For the space of 3 days He was separated from His body before He was resurrected. That resurrection is the end and fulfillment of the Atonement.
Because of the Atonement we are free from the bonds of sin and vice and one day we can be perfected, even as God is perfect, and live in a state of peace, love, and joy beyond what we can imagine here. But those blessings only come after we do our part, or repent of our un-Godlike actions and attributes. To repent we must change, and not just stop doing bad things, but rather fill our lives with good things. We can’t just ask to have our pride taken from us, but rather to have experiences to help us be more humble and meek. We can’t just stop swearing, instead we can learn new words of praise and thanks. Refraining from bad things is good, but doing good things is Godly, and that is our eventual goal.
Being good and doing good are hard, and oftentimes we will feel so very lonely and afraid when faced with the pressures of life and the thousands of voices giving us advice. How do we combat that tumult of information? The answer, of course, comes back to the Atonement. As Jesus was in the garden He felt all that we have felt. Every fear, insecurity, anxiety, guilt, pain, heartache, and loss. In His physical form He experienced all that we have and so He perfectly understands. Who that is good, when they see another struggle, doesn’t want to reach out and help? How much more would one who has walked in our sufferings want to help us? And He does, but it often seems like it is in a roundabout way.
Allow me to use three stories, one from while I was in Brazil and two from Cape Verde, to illustrate how the Lord wants to relieve our discomfort and succor us in our suffering.
In Brazil we walked 25 miles a day on average and we often had to work through the hottest parts of the afternoon when our appointments fell through. On a few of the occasions my companion and I were so exhausted by early evening when we had tried all of our appointments, contacting wasn’t working, and the Spirit seemed to be on hold. As the sun began to slide down the horizon one of us would ask the other: “What should we do now?” And the response was always “Cry in the street.” We would then proceed to sit down, read our scriptures for a few minutes, make a plan, and then seek inspiration from the Spirit to know if what we had decided to do was where we needed to go. The very first time we did this a random man walked by, a street vendor, and he offered us some food, we declined because we had no money, and he gave some to us anyway. The next time, someone gave us free churros, and the next time we got almost an entire casserole from the woman who lived above us. This happened on seven or eight separate occasions. Each time renewing our strength and adding a smile to our faces. Each time we began to feel hopeless and exhausted, the Lord sent some kind person to bless His missionaries.
In Cape Verde they speak Portuguese, but every island has its own Creole that is almost a different language. One time we were teaching a man for almost an hour. He spoke a different Creole, but he seemed to understand our Portuguese. After teaching him for a while we got to the end of our lesson and begin to try to make commitments. He stopped us and in his Creole, which was barely intelligible to my companion or me, he said he didn’t understand what we’d said, but he’d heard our church will give food to hungry people. We tried to explain to him about the welfare program, but he didn’t understand. Then he just asked for some money. At which point we had to leave because it was time to go home and because we just could not communicate with this gentleman. Our entire week had been like this. At the close of yet another disappointing exchange we walked outside into the pitch darkness. As we were walking down the mountainside we saw what looked like a floating cigarette butt in the air and heard a very drunk man say “Hey. You. Come over here.” Slightly nervous about the darkness and the drunkenness, we went over. He said, “Come inside my house. I have something I need to show you.” We told him it was late and we needed to go home, so he told us to wait outside and he’d be right back out. My companion and I looked at each other and discussed the possibility of running away before he came back with a gun, but we couldn’t do it. When he came back a minute later he had a copy of the Book of Mormon in his hands and he said “I need your help. I need to understand this book and your religion and I know that you can help me.” We set a time to meet with him. And he changed his whole life and the lives of his family and several friends. They all stopped drinking and smoking. They marked dates to get married to their spouses. They came to church, and they felt the great blessings in their lives. And I did too. By listening to a prompting after a frustrating experience I was able to watch some amazing changes and feel the spirit very intensely work in their lives and mine. The Lord helped to renew our feelings of value as missionaries and gave us the courage to push on even through difficult language and cultural barriers.
The last experience I want to relate is from when I got sick. Now, Cape Verde is an incredible place. There is not enough food or adequate clean water. The entire country is made of volcanic mountains and so there are no flatlands to speak of and we walked everywhere. It was constantly hot, dry, and windy. With all of these combined it is expected that every missionary who goes to Cape Verde will get sick in their first transfer and then several times after. With that in mind, in the beginning of my third week I became ill, but we kept working, because as a missionary you don’t get a choice. It became so bad that I couldn’t work anymore and so we went to the hospital to have me checked out. The doctor ordered five days of bed rest. We went home, and our house was out of water so we moved into another companionship’s apartment. The whole time I was sick I slept on the floor. I had a head ache, sore throat, body aches and muscle weakness, ear aches, my knees were hurting up more than they ever had before, and a pain in my lower abdomen so intense that sometimes when I would try to stand up I would drop back to the ground and writhe. My companion didn’t know how to help, and I received several blessings, but nothing helped. The hospital was several miles away and we had to walk each time we needed to visit the doctor. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do the work, and the only thing I wanted to do was to do the missionary work. I prayed to be healed. I prayed to develop the faith to be healed. I prayed to have the doctors discover what was wrong and to have my mission president know what to do.
As I lay there in bed for weeks, because I didn’t get better after my first week of bed rest, my mind kept coming back to the phrase, “swim in deep waters.” To me this had always signified to struggle and just push through difficult times, because on the other side there are blessings, and it is always worth it. But my friend wrote me a letter in which she talked about how it doesn’t matter how deep the waters are, with faith in the Lord, as Peter had, we can walk on the water with the Savior. That changed my focus. I stopped dwelling on my sickness and instead decided to stay positive. I clamped on to three phrases: “Every trial has a purpose and a blessing. Our job is to find that purpose and enjoy the blessing.” “I was meant to walk on the deep waters with the Savior, not struggle through them.” And “I am not yet as Job.” With my change in focus I was able to get out of bed and work a couple of hours a day, but I was far from healed. As I look back on the experience though, I feel the Savior’s hand in all of it. Changing me, embracing me, purifying me. My faith has become unshakable. I am truly converted. Trials have become opportunities to grow, not times to struggle. But more than anything else I have learned to be completely unafraid to give anything and everything to the Lord. As I lay dying, quite literally dying, on a bed in Africa, I gave the Lord my life in return for the opportunity to bless others and sacrifice to do so. I never thought that my mission would bring so many trials so rapidly, but because of the Atonement, the Lord knew what I needed far better than I do or anyone else does. I am so grateful for my mission experiences and wouldn’t trade them for anything. My mission was life changing.
I know that the Atonement is how we gain access to the Lord’s help. His loving hand is extended and all we have to do is look up and grab it. Sometimes it will be difficult to see, but it is always there. He loves us so dearly that He suffered everything for any one of us, and for all of us. I promise that as we seek after the Lord’s divine help in our lives we will receive it, and we will be better for the hard times. I bear testimony that the Savior lives. This is His one true church upon the earth and we are guided by Him and His prophet. God is our Father and one day we will return to His loving arms and be embraced in a state of full joy and love with Him and with our families. That is my fondest hope and my greatest aspiration, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.