Putting the Doctrine of the Atonement to Work in Family Life
by H. Wallace Goddard

There are a handful of doctrines that undergird the atonement of Jesus Christ: Mercy. Love. Covenants. Compassion.

But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth. (Psalms 86:15)

While the doctrine of the atonement defines truth and purpose from the heavenly perspective, the reality of the atonement builds the bridge that brings us from estrangement to at-one-ment with God. Unlike pagan sacrifice in which innocent humans are killed in order to mollify an irritable, peevish god, in Christianity, Jesus Christ Himself died in order to win our hearts.

We’re not trying to reach God and touch his heart with our sacrifices, rather God is trying to reach us and touch our hearts with his infinite sacrifice (Stephen Robinson, Believing Christ, pp. 111-112).

In order to fully inform His compassion, Jesus not only looked on our mortal challenges with compassion, He took upon Himself every pain, every sin, every heartache, every disappointment, every injury we will ever suffer.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

All of this we know. It resides on the shelves of our minds with other volumes of theology. Occasionally some experience pulls the idea off the shelf, blows off some dust, and renews it for us. But generally it does not inform our daily decisions. It does not reach into our family life. Yet Elder Packer suggests that doctrine can change us.

True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel. (Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, October 1986)

On one occasion a young, earnest, intelligent, LDS mother sought me out for advice. “My husband is a good man but I no longer find him attractive. I am thinking about leaving him. But I am not sure if it is right.” I really wanted to help this good woman find answers to her dilemma. I prayed for guidance. And I found myself talking inexplicably about the atonement of Christ. All my training in family life protested: “What does that have to do with her dilemma?” But my spirit would not be deterred. An hour of testifying of that inestimable goodness, mercy, and love spilled out. Phrases from the great atonement chapters in the Book of Mormon came to life. The cup of testimony was brim with joy. After it all poured out, I paused, wondering how to apply the doctrine of the atonement to her dilemma. But her face told me that nothing needed to be said. The atonement of Jesus Christ was the answer. Because of His goodness, we are reconciled to each other and to God. He makes us One. Filled with charity—that sweet and divine gift of heavenly love—she felt a renewed bond with her husband. She would stay with him. Gladly. Lovingly. Eternally.

The doctrine of the atonement is the answer to our family challenges.

I desire that ye should remember these things . . . That ye contend no more against the Holy Ghost, but that ye receive it, and take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you. (Alma 34:37-8)

A sincere young man asked my advice for dealing with his mother. He and she had been battling for years. She seemed entirely unable to accept him or to respect his choices whether he was running around foolishly or trying diligently to serve God. He had tried everything he could think of to show her his heart. Yet the harder he tried to show her, the more angry became their divide.

After listening to his struggle, I gave him the counsel that is stock among psychologists: See things from your mother’s perspective. Steve Covey describes it as “seek first to understand—then to be understood.” I illustrated the principle by standing side-by-side with this good man and asked him to imagine that he was seeing through his mother’s eyes. See her struggle, her pain, her desires, her disappointments. He softened. “I can see how hurt she must be. She has felt betrayed by her husband, by her mother, and now by me.” Accusation was replaced with understanding.

But both of us were to receive a new revelation. Standing by his side with my arm around him, I asked myself, “Is this pop psychology or true doctrine?” Tears came to my eyes. Suddenly I realized that Jesus, the perfect example, has done exactly that for each of us. He has stood at our sides and experienced our pain. But then He has done what no one else could do: He has made it His own. He has “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” Mine. Yours. Every single human who ever lived on this earth. He informed His compassion for our suffering with His personal experience of it.

He knows more about pain, grief, loneliness, contradiction, shame, rejection, betrayal, anguish, depression, and guilt than all of us combined. For in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the hill of Calvary, Jesus took upon himself the sins and the pains of all the world. (Robinson, p.116)

He does not merely empathize with us. He takes our pains into Himself. As a result, He, only He, is able to say when we groan under the pains of mortality, “I know how you feel.”

With anyone else we can rightly protest, “You just don’t know how I feel.” With Him we must acknowledge, “Thou hast descended below all things.” And He adds, “That I might lift you above all things.”

Once again, the doctrine of the atonement was the answer to family pain. When we stop defending our puny territory and stand side-by-side with family members, and look with compassion on their lives, we become lord-like in our understanding. We find a common cause. We become one. The beam of self-interest is removed and we see clearly.

For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)

Contention, selfishness, accusation, unkindness, unfaithfulness—every brand of human failing—falls away when we are flooded with the doctrine of the atonement. He is the answer to every family dilemma.

Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice. (Mosiah 15:9)

We cannot by some act of will become Christlike. Yet we can fill ourselves with awe, regard, reverence, and appreciation. We can throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace. We can beseech Him for a mighty change of heart. When we do, He transforms us so we can join Him in His holy work. He gives us to gift to see as He sees, to love as He loves, to lift as He lifts. When we empty ourselves of our petty grievances and stubborn will, He can come in and take possession of us. When He does, everything is made new.

To make better family life, we should fill ourselves with the doctrine of the atonement.