It was near the end of the most important week the world would ever know, the week marked forever by the greatest act of love: the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. It must have been a time of tumultuous, swirling, conflicting, and confused feelings for the disciples of the Lord. He had finally told them clearly that he would be taken from them, and the events of that week moved inexorably toward that Passover when the Lamb of God would be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world.
Yet in the midst of all this upheaval, there was a time of sublime quiet and deep instruction before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. From the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus presented binding ordinances and teachings of love that are among the greatest treasures of the New Testament. During this time he promised: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27.)
This was a promise of a healing inner peace that would transcend the tumult of the world. It is a promise that has spanned the centuries and is as open to us as it was to the disciples of that time.
Part of that peace comes in knowing that the trials of this world cannot harm us eternally. The fruition of the gospel plan extends beyond this life. Christ has overcome the world, and the promise of a universal resurrection, and the physical perfection of that state, provides us with a certain peace and allows us an optimistic spirit. Of course this assurance does not relieve us of the necessity of combating evil and relieving suffering in this world. The parable of the final judgment (Matt. 25) tells us precisely the opposite! But this is only the beginning of peace; lasting and satisfying peace comes from overcoming the tumult within. Though we recognize that the death and resurrection of the Lord provides the assurance of resurrection for us all, what peace are we promised within our own souls?
We seek the blessing of inner peace at every stage of life. Parents attempt to provide children with an environment of assured, unconditional love so that trusting, loving souls may grow. But adolescence brings wrenching change and the challenges and fears of autonomy. As young adults we compete for position and security and face profound choices of marriage and profession. In middle years, the oneness that we want so desperately begins to fray: Youthful goals are unmet, and perhaps for the first time we perceive that the laws of mortality apply, astoundingly, to us, too, as we knew they did to all others. We can feel (and see) the system unwind, begin to run down. Old age, with its excruciating problems of health, may prove, if we live long enough, that it is easier to be born than to die. Through all this, somehow we still seek wholeness, coherence, oneness of soul.
The message of those few hours from the Last Supper to the Garden again points the way. Christ’s prayer at that time was a prayer for oneness: that we may be one as he is with his Father; we in him and he in us, that we may all be one with our Father. (See John 17:21–23.) We become one in at least three ways.
1. Clearly we seek union with the Father, realizing, at least intuitively, that we will not be whole nor fully happy outside his presence. We overcome our spiritual estrangement from the Father through the atonement of Christ. He died for our sins so that through repentance we might overcome spiritual death and return to our Father.
2. As we overcome physical death, the separation of our body and spirit, we obtain immortal bodies in the Resurrection—a gift given freely through the atonement of Christ. Only in this eternal union of body and spirit can we experience a fulness of joy in the presence of our Eternal Father, where we become one with him. (See D&C 93:19–34.)
3. But there is another oneness that Christ makes possible: the uniting, or making whole, of the fractured parts of our soul.
Paul perceived the warring parts of his own soul. He longed to be united as a son to his Father through conversion to the Father’s Only Begotten Son. But Paul perceived that deep parts of his own soul tore at him, attempting to maintain and amplify his estrangement.
“For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. …
“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. …
“I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
But Paul perceived that we could be led by the Spirit of God and thereby become his sons and daughters. The Spirit helps our infirmities, making “intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” And our own spirits, perceiving that we are God’s offspring, “groan within ourselves,” as we struggle in inner turmoil, attempting somehow fully to become sons of God and not slaves, crying Abba, Father. (See Rom. 8:14–16, 22–23, 26.)
Paul expressed with beauty and insight this attempt of our inner self, our own core, to influence our conscious, rational self. He described our great purpose of mortality to achieve that wholeness, that integration of our soul, that would in fact make us one with the Father.
The process of conversion is the means by which we become one with our best selves and with the Father. The groanings of the soul of Paul reveal one disciple’s struggling within himself to complete the process from testimony to conversion.
On the subject of the nature of faith, the nature of the Atonement, and its relationship to the process of conversion, perhaps no greater sermons exist than those recorded in chapters 32, 34, and 36 of Alma. [Alma 32; Alma 34; Alma 36]
In the thirty-second chapter [Alma 32], Alma tells us that, if we are to have faith, we must first “arouse our faculties” and “experiment upon” his words. We must “exercise a particle of faith,” even if we can do no more than “desire to believe” in Christ. This will “work within” us, like a growing seed; and if we don’t displace it with unbelief, it will grow until we feel “swelling motions,” which will enlarge our soul, enlighten our understanding, and “begin to be delicious.”
If this understanding is nourished and the roots run deep, the tree of faith will blossom and give fruit which “is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is … pure above all that is pure.” (Alma 32:17–42; compare the Master’s sermon on the True Vine in John 15.)
It is through this faith, and through the Atonement which makes possible the exercise of this faith, that conversion is possible.
In chapter 36 Alma [Alma 36] shows how faith in the Savior’s atonement led to his own dramatic conversion. After returning from a disheartening missionary journey, Alma called his son Helaman to him and related with shattering power the story of his own conversion: the many sins of his youth, his persecution of the Church, his vision of an angel. Then he received a warning that he would be destroyed if he continued to seek to destroy the Church. He descended into an abyss of terror and pain, in which his “soul was harrowed” because of his sins. He experienced such exquisite pain that he longed not simply for death, but for his own complete extinction.
At that point, he remembered his father’s teachings about the atonement of the Messiah to come. This was the turning point: he cast his faith on the mercy of the Savior as the Atoning One. Then he began his ascent out of the abyss. Exquisite joy now replaced his previous pain. The prospect of eternal life now replaced the prospect of eternal damnation. Having related the story of his conversion, Alma urged his son Helaman to keep the commandments.
The prerequisite to oneness of soul, to the Lord’s peace, as shown by Alma’s experience, is that we totally turn to Him: “Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you.” (Zech. 1:3.) We are to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength that we might become one with the Father and the Son just as they are one with each other.
As we turn to Christ and our Father, as we begin to love them, we experience conversion. Our responsibility after this conversion is to follow Christ in single-minded discipleship, without diversion toward false gods. The fruit of our discipleship is peace.
Some people attempt to fulfill the natural yearnings of their soul for peace and completeness with money, new homes, automobiles, worldly success, sexual encounters, even national pride. But none of these sugar pills even satisfy, let alone cure. Our restless longing can finally be fulfilled only through the Son of Righteousness. He alone has healing in his wings. He alone is the Source of our life.
Conversion and discipleship must include a singular effort to become like our Father. This is the essence of Latter-day Saint doctrine. And it is perfectly natural. We are his offspring, created in his image and likeness. (See Acts 17:28–29; Rom. 8:16–17.) True fulfillment can come only when we attempt with all our heart, with all our might, mind, and strength to fulfill that tendency to become like our Father. When we violate this, we experience frustration, self-hatred, anger, and unhappiness.
But when we are on the track toward oneness with God, we experience happiness because we are fulfilling our eternal nature: we are growing in emulation of our Father. Jesus said that life eternal was to know the Father. (See John 17:3.) Surely the essence of such knowledge and the meaning of worship is to become like him whom we most love and therefore worship.
That is the essence of the first commandment. God knows that we will become like that which we worship and love. If we love God with all our heart and with all our might, mind, and strength, then our lives will begin to emulate his.
Conversely, if we love the false gods we see about us, then we take on their attributes and we remain unfulfilled, always seeking fulfillment in greater amounts or more perverse versions of such idols.
How do we emulate the Father when we have not seen him? Phillip asked, “Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” Jesus replied: “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Phillip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father, … Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?” (John 14:8–10.)
He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one can approach the Father without the Son. And he is our earthly pattern in emulating the Father. The most powerful sermons of the Master tell us this. He is the Source of all life. He is the fountain of water springing up into eternal life. He is the Living Water for us, as he was for the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He is the Source of our daily bread, our manna, the Bread come down from heaven, the Bread of Life. He is the Light of the world. He is the True Vine, and we are the branches. Cut off from him, we can do nothing.
We have been given ways to invite conversion.
We are to turn toward God in repentance, and at some point do so with such intensity, with such single-mindedness, that for us God finally has no competitors. Repentance is simply a turning toward God. Conversion and repentance are related parts of the same process: a turning, or a return, made possible by the Savior’s atonement.
We must love as he loves—not only those who love us but also our neighbor and our enemy. Love is the great characteristic of our Father.
We are to search the scriptures, for they testify of Christ.
We are to receive the Holy Spirit, which testifies of the Father and the Son and teaches us all things.
We are to worship together in communion, being nourished by each other as parts of the body of Christ.
We are to fast so that we may single-mindedly seek him now that he is not physically present with us.
We are to take a sacrament of bread and water so that we may contemplate and remember his body and his blood shed for us.
We are to pray, so that God might teach us and bless us with his Spirit. We should experience prayer in its many forms. We pray with our families. We hold dialogue with God, alone, in our closets. We seek our Father by meditation and by contemplative prayer, listening and feeling after His Spirit, on our journey into the center of our soul.
We are to serve others in emulation of Christ, not only to fulfill the second of the two great commandments, but also as an act of worship: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)
At the end of that sublime period between the Last Supper and the Garden and Cross, Jesus prayed for the Apostles, that they might be one with him as he is one with his Father. Then he prayed for all of us who would come after, who would believe on him through apostolic teaching, that we too might become one. (See John 17.)
The profound oneness for which the Master prayed is the essence of atonement. The return to him is the essence of conversion. The accomplishment of oneness is the peace of Christ.