Feast upon the Word Blog

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Atonement Perspective: Overcoming or Escaping?

Posted by BrianJ on April 18, 2009

Short thought question:

We point to two types of suffering Jesus experienced as part of the Atonement: 1) that due to our sins and 2) all the other kind (physical pain, sorrows, etc.). Our scriptures illustrate that the Atonement experience served as a kind of tutor for the Savior himself:

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. (Alma 7:12)

he question is: How does Jesus know how to succor us? What did he actually learn?

Maybe that seems like an easy answer: “If he knows what it’s like to break one’s leg or lose one’s job or have a terrible disease, then that means he knows how to help me if/when I go through such things.” But how does knowing how painful something is equate to knowing how to adress that pain? It doesn’t. If that’s all he accomplished, then at best Christ could merely answer our cries for deliverance with, “Yeah, I totally know what you mean.” I don’t know about you, but if I ever break my leg, I don’t want my friends to tell me how much it hurt when they broke theirs—I want someone to get me an ice-pack and some Vicodin.

In other words, I want Christ to succor me in affliction, not just empathize.

I’m thinking of two options (add more if you think of them):

1) He learned how to overcome each infirmity. Broken leg—opiates; Messy breakup—chocolate; Worried about sick child in hospital—prayer and fasting. Essentially, Jesus gained a giant “Infirmity Remedy Recipe Book.”

2) He learned how to escape the suffering that comes with infirmity. Worried about losing your job? Focus on your riches in heaven. Love one passed away? Remember that they are in a better place now. Cold and hungry while pulling a handcart? And should you die, before your journey’s through, happy day, all is well: you then are free from toil and sorrow too…. In other words, your problems aren’t fixed, but with a new outlook you don’t suffer (as much).

In some ways, I favor option 2, because it squares nicely with “keeping an eye single” to God and his glory. Jesus learned how to stay focused on oneness with God even while he was plagued with sorrow, pain, worry, etc., and it was precisely his focus on God that got him through his trial. On the other hand, option 2 could easily lead to saying that human suffering isn’t even real—it’s “not eternal,” and so on.

Thoughts?

5 Responses to “Atonement Perspective: Overcoming or Escaping?”

  1. BrianJ said

    Of course, one approach to this question is to look at ways that Christ actually does succor his people.

  2. Matt W. said

    Interesting. Escaping doesn’t seem like the right word. Escaping makes me think of not having any infirmity to begin with. Your #2 makes me think more of gaining the capacity to cope, but I don’t know that it is simply a matter of positively thinking about the riches in heaven vs the lost job as it is so much having the peace and understanding of knowing you are not alone in your struggles, no matter how hard they are.

  3. douglashunter said

    “Maybe that seems like an easy answer: “If he knows what it’s like to break one’s leg or lose one’s job or have a terrible disease, then that means he knows how to help me if/when I go through such things.” But how does knowing how painful something is equate to knowing how to adress that pain? It doesn’t. If that’s all he accomplished, then at best Christ could merely answer our cries for deliverance with, “Yeah, I totally know what you mean.””

    Here us a different kind of answer. What you may be addressing is an altered form of the question of useless suffering. A question usually reserved for human suffering. You seem to ask, what is the use of Christ’s suffering? I think its worth bracketing pragmatics when addressing the atonement and human suffering. Too often in Christianity we seek to apply a use value or teleological program to the experience of suffering. I admit that this is a central feature of the Mormon approach to suffering as well. Nonetheless, I assert that there is no pragmatics to suffering. What Christ learned was not about intensity or kind of suffering, nor was it about overcoming or avoidance. The learning he did had to do with the spiritual and emotional consequences of suffering, of how intense spiritual and emotional trauma can radically change us as human beings, can alter us in ways that we do not desire, fully understand, control or are able to recover from. The experience of radical suffering is the experience of radical de-centering. So I think the atonement contains an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand Christ is transformed in that he rises again, his path through radical suffering is glorious, he passes through it more centered, more complete than he was before. But having gone through such suffering he also has first hand experience of how abject human suffering is and it is not gloriously transformative, of how it is not teleological, and that just existing after radical suffering takes a great deal of our spiritual and emotional ability.

    So rather than overcoming or escaping what he learned relates to mourning with those who mourn. Its the act of being with, of being in relationship with sorrow rather than trying to fix it that matters. The atonement was a most radical act of being with, and an act that, in relation to suffering had no use value in the sense you describe.

  4. BrianJ said

    Matt: It probably isn’t the right word; I wrote this up right when the thought came to me. I was trying to get at the difference between having an infirmity and the suffering that comes with that infirmity—i.e., two people with the identical infirmity will suffer differently and to different degrees depending on how they deal with their infirmity; one might get lost in it and succumb to the suffering whereas the other might focus on something else and thereby “escape” the suffering. Still not the right word….

    Douglas: Already I was at a loss for the right words to describe what I was thinking, now I am really at a loss to respond to your comment. I think I get what you are saying and it seems immediately right. I wonder, though, how you would answer the pragmatic portion of my question which I think is still valid even when “there is no pragmatics to suffering.” That is: How does Jesus know how to succor us? How does he succor us?

    That question I think comes right out of Alma 7:12; I don’t think one can read it and not ask “Okay, he knows how to succor us—so how does he?”

  5. DavidJ said

    I feel perhaps your analysis is a bit too focused on a couple different issues that may not be that relevant. First, how does Christ immediately respond to our suffering. Second on His learning during the atonement process.

    First, John in Revelation and Isaiah talk of Christ wiping away all tears – but not until the Millenial period. To me, that means that the rewards are so great and the joy so intense that past hardships become distant and trivial. But, as Wayne Brickey puts it, first there must be tears before they can be wiped away.

    Second, while no doubt the Christ learned during the atoning process (not taking away for the knowledge he already had), the atoning sufferage was to pay the price of sin, to fulfill the law of justice. (A concept I have been struggling with a bit recently but that is a different topic.) This allows his mercy to reclaim us-the imperfect, somewhat soiled children of our Father in Heaven, if we offer a broken heart and contrite spirit. Oh, by the way, the suffering helps us attain.

    So what short term perspective does Christ give us as we slog through trials and tribulations, self-imposed and otherwise? It provides the perspective that He does understand and that that understanding allows Him to see us as something more than we see ourselves. And that there will ultimately be reward. A good question for us as we go through life is ‘how long will rolling waters remain impure’?

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