What little I understand about the seasons and cycles of life, I understand from growing up in a world of fields and pastures. After a cold winter, spring’s thaw reminds me that life is gloriously worth living. I find much to celebrate in the greening of grass, the songs of doves and meadowlarks, and the first long evenings of spring so full of possibilities.
What kind of wisdom and intelligence would be required to set in motion a system whereby regeneration and renewal happen as splendidly and dependably as the sunrise? I cannot fathom such perfect foresight. Almost everywhere we look in nature, there is some provision for renewal. Surely the cycles and sequences of nature were ordained by God; the natural world is a study in the absolute necessity of constant renewal.
As marvelous as this power of renewal is in the world around us, it is even more compelling when we realize that it extends to us as well—individual human beings, sons and daughters of the same God who set the seasons in motion. He has endowed us with a promise and capacity for both physical and, more important, spiritual renewal. At Easter, these truths seem especially relevant. Let’s look at several examples of renewal of our various physical, mental, and spiritual capacities.
Perhaps physical rejuvenation is the easiest to illustrate. Those who have worked at anything exhausting can comprehend this sort of rejuvenation. Consider, for instance, a task as commonplace as moving from one house to another. Boxes and more boxes, trunks and baskets, crates and sacks; up stairs and down stairs; from the house to the truck or van—back and forth, back and forth. Then come the heavy, unwieldy couches and chairs, refrigerators and mattresses in tight hallways and doors. And perhaps an old solid-oak upright piano in the basement. In the category of plain, ordinary work, few things sap energy in quite the same way as a move.
Most people have gone through a move or two—or ten or twenty. And most have felt utter fatigue at one time or another. So it is interesting to consider the little miracle engendered by a meal and good night’s sleep. Doesn’t the new day spell a kind of renewal? Sore muscles, maybe. Tired back, probably. But even these symptoms indicate the body’s facility for mending itself.
How about a difficult week? Without some sort of occasional rest, our pace would slow to a stumble, and we’d lose interest in even the most engaging tasks. What does Sunday do for one’s physical well-being? A day away from the desk or tools or routine? Time to regroup, rethink, rejuvenate. In truth, human nature is better suited to healthy proportions of work and rest than it is to unbroken, protracted stretches of either one. Ask any boss: a break or vacation generally pays for itself in an employee’s renewed interest in work upon his or her return.
Perhaps Heavenly Father blessed us with this capacity for physical reinvigoration because he knew, as only he could, that in facing the relentless adversity of life, we would need more than sporadic or superficial recreation and relaxation. We would need regular, habitual interludes of refreshment and recommitment for the very health of our souls.
Unless we understand this concept of renewal, it’s difficult to understand the resurrection and atonement of Jesus Christ. What our Savior made possible was not just the eternal renewal of our bodies and a renewal of innocence that will qualify us to dwell in our Heavenly Father’s presence; the reach of his gift extends even further. Because of our Redeemer, we can renew and refresh and rejuvenate our spirits here and now in a manner just as miraculous as anything we see in nature.
In other words, Christ’s sacrifice applies to every facet of our spiritual well-being. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but human beings have spirits, and those spirits are as subject to fatigue as any muscle or backbone; they are as susceptible to flagging concentration as any eye long trained on close, tedious work. There are seasons in life that buffet and gnaw and deplete our spirit just as certainly as hard work grinds at our bodies. But with our spirits, the possible consequences are far more serious; if our spirits were to reach a point at which they were too beaten to rebound, we might begin to question our most basic religious convictions. It’s no surprise, then, that this unseen but very real dimension of our being needs its own kind of regular rest and strengthening.
The most obvious detriment to our spirit is sin—of whatever magnitude. The Atonement can, on condition of our repentance, cleanse us. In a general conference address several years ago, President Thomas S. Monson quoted from a Deseret News “Viewpoint” article that explained Portland, Oregon’s appeal to ship captains. A captain whose ship’s hull is encumbered with saltwater barnacles can spare a lot of chiseling and scraping in dry dock if he can just make it to Portland, because ” ‘barnacles can’t live in fresh water. There, in the sweet, fresh waters of the Willamette or Columbia, the barnacles loosen and fall away, and the ship returns to its task lightened and renewed.’”
The metaphor here, equating sin with barnacles, is wonderfully apt. President Monson continues, “‘In His infinite love and mercy, our Lord has provided a harbor where, through repentance, our barnacles fall away and are forgotten. With our souls lightened and renewed, we can go efficiently about our work and His.’” (Ensign, May 1988, p. 42.)
A related image, this one from Elder Boyd K. Packer, teaches us how repentance figures into such renewal. “I readily confess,” he says, “that I would find no peace, neither happiness nor safety, in a world without repentance. I do not know what I should do if there were no way for me to erase my mistakes.” (Ensign, May 1988, p. 71.)
Just how vital is an eraser? All I know, from my own experience, is that I would no more sit down to write without some means of deleting vague, trite, or awkwardly arranged words than I would set out to build a house with a clawless hammer. Without the Atonement, our sins would forever prevent any sort of spiritual renewal. Without Jesus Christ, we truly would be lost.
From Joseph F. Smith comes a rather unsettling thought about our own limitations as men: “Who shall repair,” he asks, “the wrongs [men] have done to themselves and to others, which it seems impossible for them to repair themselves?” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 98.)
Cleanse, erase, repair. And we can augment the list: Heal, hearten, comfort, correct, cheer. These are powerful verbs, and they all relate directly to the spiritual renewal we celebrate at Easter, in yet another spring of another year. We notice, too, that most of these words apply to spiritual ailments and weaknesses beyond easily recognized and definable sin. It is ironic that we often speak of the incomprehensible scope of the Atonement and then seldom get beyond the obvious or “grievous sin” section of the Sunday School lesson or discussion. This is surely understandable. Repentance from all degrees of sin is a fundamental principle of the gospel and is possible only through Jesus Christ. But clearly distinguishable sin—flagrant wrongdoing—is just one of many things that can plague and weary our spirits.
Even if we could fully eschew wrongdoing of every kind, eradicate all sin from our thoughts and actions, we still might make old garden-variety mistakes, commit embarrassing errors and gaffes, stumble and blunder at least once in a while. We’d still feel inept and inadequate and helpless in certain circumstances. We’d still know a measure of distress or fear or regret from time to time.
We might, in tense moments, still speak too soon or not at all. With a thoughtless tone or word choice, we might imply something stupid, even hurtful. We might still forget important dates or deadlines. Or daydream when we should pay attention. We might mean well but actually alienate someone with our efforts to serve or help.
Even without sin, we might choose one of two seemingly good and appealing alternatives only to realize, in retrospect, that the one passed over was indeed the better. In short, we might still make mistakes of all shades and descriptions. And as if our own mistakes and failings aren’t sobering enough, we must live with the mistakes of others.
Published in the April 1990 Ensign was an article by Bruce C. Hafen entitled “Beauty for Ashes.” As Brother Hafen reminds us, the only way we learn so much of what we have to learn in this life is “through the practice of trial and error.” (Ensign, Apr. 1990, p. 10.) We are practicing at perfection, just as we practice to learn anything—any skill or process intimidating by its very newness. Like any master of anything, the Savior made perfection look easy. But even he “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52.)
We, too, increase in such ways but are clumsier at it. Still, Brother Hafen emphasizes as a basic tenet of our beliefs the fact that God intended and ordained life as a place for our learning and growth, however imperceptible our progress sometimes seems. One of the eternal principles taught in the gospel is that opposition always “must needs be.” (2 Ne. 2:11.)
But no matter what form that opposition takes, no matter its source, the Atonement extends to and strengthens us, lifts and comforts and, in reality, renews our spirits. “The blessed news of the gospel,” Brother Hafen explains, “is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ can purify all the uncleanness and sweeten all the bitterness we taste.” (Ensign, Apr. 1990, p. 10.) Life’s hardships seldom arise from simplistic circumstances in which easy or glib solutions serve. But whatever the source of our anxieties, whatever our level of responsibility regarding them, the Atonement’s alleviating influence applies:
“Between the poles of sin and adversity … lie such intermediate points as unwise choices and hasty judgments. In these cases, it may be unclear just how much personal fault we bear for the bitter fruits we may taste or cause others to taste. Bitterness may taste the same, whatever its source, and it can destroy our peace, break our hearts, and separate us from God. Could it be that the great ‘at-one-ment’ of Christ could put back together the broken parts and give beauty to the ashes of experience such as this?” (Ibid.)
The answer, thankfully, is yes. The Atonement can do just that. We must remember the verse in Isaiah that speaks of Christ’s healing influence: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” (Isa. 53:4.) Modern-day Apostles have made the same point. President Howard W. Hunter speaks of the Savior’s taking upon himself “all of our sickness and grief and pain of every kind.” (Ensign, May 1988, p. 17.) Likewise, Elder James E. Faust acknowledges that the Lord bore “our transgressions, our foolishness, our grief, our sorrows, and our burdens.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 13.)
It is only the Atonement that ultimately makes life worth living, only the Atonement of Jesus Christ that can make winter-weary people feel at peace with themselves, happy and optimistic at the outset of another new season. Truly there is a promise of restoration that accompanies Easter, a power of renewal difficult to articulate. In this promise and power lies our reason to cherish life, to love breathing and seeing and smelling, to love spring and the possibilities accompanying its sunrises.
Of all celebrations, Easter should stir our gratitude for the conviction that Jesus is risen. All the things we do to cultivate this conviction, everything we do because of our faith and belief in Jesus Christ, rekindles our spirits over and over again and invests us with the sort of spiritual resilience on which we must depend in this very real probationary state. Perhaps this is the resilience Isaiah refers to when he promises that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isa. 40:31.)
And when this time of mortal probation has passed, each of us will await the ultimate renewal—the resurrection, made possible through Jesus Christ. For the Lord promises, “I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, …
“And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it.” (Ezek. 37:12, 14.)