Sometimes when I teach about Jesus suffering for us, I will have my students close their eyes while I place a rock in their hand. With their eyes still closed, I tell them they have one minute to get to know their rock by touch only—not by sight. They feel their rock’s corners, crags, and crevices, assessing its weight in their hands and features on their fingertips. Then, with their eyes still closed, they place the rock back into a large sack, where it becomes lost among dozens of other unique and varied rocks that have been handled by other students. When I tell them to open their eyes and find their rock, they do so energetically, picking up various stones to closely feel them, putting back stone after stone until someone triumphantly claims, “This is my rock!”
“How do you know it’s your rock?” I ask, “How did you recognize it?”
“Because it has this lump here,” or “It’s got this crack there,” they say. They can identify their rock because they have intimately felt it.
Similarly, one of the divine powers of Christ centers on the profound truth that our Savior identifies with us because he intimately felt with us. Astoundingly, we worship a God who had the power to create and govern a world and then voluntarily chose to live upon it together with all his other creations. But did Jehovah have to come here as an infant, to be born and raised and then crucified at thirty-three? Could he not have made a briefer appearance, riding off of premortal clouds straight into his triumphal entry in Jerusalem? Why did he have to live a complete mortal life?
In this sense, the Atonement did not occur over one weekend. It took place each day of the Lord’s life, from birth to death, as he experienced and successfully overcame all aspects of mortality.
The reasons go back to the rocks: To save us from all that mortality encompasses, Christ had to experience it to truly identify with us. His complete mortal life was a necessary part of his saving qualifications. In this sense, the Atonement did not occur over one weekend. It took place each day of the Lord’s life, from birth to death, as he experienced and successfully overcame all aspects of mortality. Jesus lived a mortal life to become a perfectly empathetic Savior capable of guiding us to eternal lives. What follows here is how Jesus did it, why he did it, and what it should mean for us in our efforts to receive of his divine power in our day-to-day lives.
Ascension through Condescension
The Book of Mormon introduces us to a wonderful term, the condescension of Christ (2 Nephi 4:26). Condescend means to come down from a high station to a low station, or “to waive the privileges of rank.”1 Condescension in a worldly sense would be like LeBron James retiring from the NBA in his prime to play as a reserve on your elders quorum basketball team. In heavenly terms, condescension is God agreeing to leave his exalted station in heaven, waiving his privileges as a member of the Godhead, and descending to the lowliest of stations on earth—born as a helpless baby in a dirty cave in a backward town to an impoverished and obscure family in a politically oppressed nation. The God who formed worlds without number (see Moses 1:33) and had the very elements obey his voice (see Abraham 4; Helaman 12:8) became a helpless infant who couldn’t speak, becoming completely dependent upon the very flesh he would redeem, being cared for by first-time parents with pure hearts but inexperienced hands. God became a mortal, like you and me, in every sense of the word.
From the moment Jesus was born to Mary and wrapped his celestial spirit in telestial flesh he became like us in his mortality. And like all of us, our Lord experienced the veil of forgetfulness.2 Jesus had to learn he was Jehovah. When did he realize he was special, was the Messiah? We don’t really know. It is evident by the time he was twelve years old in the temple that he already understood who his real Father was and that his life’s purpose was to do God’s will (see Luke 2:49). Despite this knowledge, however, Jesus continued to develop as a regular boy. He probably preferred to play and run with his friends instead of doing chores around the house. Like many boys, he may have loved being outside and enjoyed the beauties of nature. He likely ran foot races, and probably lost as often as he won. His mind was brilliant, for sure, but perhaps he forgot things—misplaced his father’s tools, lost track of the time, had to be reminded of something. The story when he was twelve at the temple is evidence of that, as he overlooked telling his parents where he was, causing an unnecessary three-day search for a missing boy. There’s no sin in any of this. It was just part of his physical, mental, social, and spiritual development, which Jesus had to experience as he grew into a man (see Luke 2:52). None of what I have written here implies any impropriety in God’s Divine Son. It implies mortality. It reminds us of the condescension of the Son of God.
Jesus’s Temptations and Mistakes
Jesus not only experienced mortal life as we do but also experienced temptation as we do, in all its difficulty. The Lord felt the tugs of temptation on his divine robe and had to reject its pulls, just like the rest of us. He had to resist feelings of pride and selfishness—the most common of all human vices. Jesus faced usual temptations of dishonesty, deceit, laziness, lust, anger, overindulgence, and the like. You name your temptations with sin, and Jesus felt them too.
Speaking of this familiarity with temptation, the Apostle Paul tells us, “For we have not an high priest [Jesus] which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Speaking from empathy and not sympathy, the Lord said in the Doctrine and Covenants that he is “Jesus Christ, your advocate, who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted” (Doctrine and Covenants 62:1; emphasis added). The New Testament says, “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations” (2 Peter 2:9). Why? Because he experienced and resisted temptations in his life as well. … This mortal reality of Jesus doesn’t demean him, it deifies him.
How is it possible to ask a God to dry tears that he himself has never shed?
In a life of difficulty, however, how could we really worship a God who was exempt? How could we seek deliverance from temptation and look to someone as an exemplar who has never resisted it himself? How could we turn to a God to help us grow and change who hadn’t learned to grow and change too? How is it possible to ask a God to dry tears that he himself has never shed? Jesus’s humanity comprises an essential aspect of his divinity. In a beautiful illustration of this idea, the Free Church minister and poet Edward Shillito wrote, in “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.3
Jesus’s empathy, however, extends beyond the experience and suffering of a normal human being—even beyond that of any mortal. What is it that enabled him to identify with everyone as Savior? The scriptures teach us that Jesus (1) descended below all things, that (2) he might ascend above all things (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:6). Understanding each of these truths is key to unlocking the divine identifying power of Christ in our individual and varied daily lives.
Christ Descended below All Things
When Jesus crossed the brook Cedron and entered the Garden of Gethsemane late that fateful Passover night, he crossed a threshold beyond any human experience, into something only he could endure and none of us could imagine. Within the next twenty-four hours he would experience “even more than man can suffer” (Mosiah 3:7)—the consequences of sin, the fierce demands and wrath of justice, and the all-out hell that Lucifer and his unholy demonic legions mustered to try and thwart the Redeemer. More germane to the identifying power of Christ is an additional part of his atoning suffering—a part which wasn’t perhaps necessary to satisfy the demands of justice and redeem men from their fallen, sinful state: Jesus’s suffering for all aspects of our mortality.
In what Elder Neal A. Maxwell eloquently called the “awful arithmetic of the Atonement,”4 Jesus not only expiated the sins of humanity, but somehow also suffered the pains, sicknesses, and infirmities of all mankind who had ever lived or would yet live. Given the incalculable breadth and depth of human emotion, pain, and suffering, these are pits of personal hell through which Jesus passed that we cannot possibly fathom.
Jesus’s suffering was not only vastly deep, but extremely personal. We don’t know how this divine act of infinite, individualized suffering came about, and there needs to be caution here on this point, [but] whatever the answer may be, the gospel reality is that a connection was made that night through the Lord’s infinite suffering to each of us who suffer.
Perhaps this is why Isaiah taught that “in all [our] affliction [Jesus] was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). Somehow through his infinite atoning sacrifice, Jesus gained perfect empathy for each of us individually.
Christ Is above All Things
Because Jesus suffered in all things for all people, “he comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:41; emphasis added). While each of us is in a unique situation and at times misunderstood by others, nobody can accurately or rightly say to heaven, “You don’t understand,” because our Savior does.
His day-to-day mortal experience became a necessary part of His day-to-day saving divinity; it makes the Lord our ultimate counselor.
The scriptures are clear that Jesus suffered for all of us so he can empathetically guide us. Succor is the word often used, meaning “to give assistance or aid.” After articulating the range of Jesus’s mortal and atoning suffering, Alma says that he did all of this “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). Thus, because Jesus has successfully suffered and overcome all things, he can help us in our things. That is why his day-to-day mortal experience became a necessary part of his day-to-day saving divinity; it makes the Lord our ultimate counselor.
Counseling with the Man of Counsel
To those who feel alone, Jesus’s identifying power says you are never alone, promising that “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18). This empathetic promise applies to the first-time mother, the grieving widower, the new kid at school, the prisoner, the homeless, the addict, the dying. It also applies to any who feel that no one understands, yet wish someone who could help them would. Because of his perfect empathy for what we are currently going through, Christ always stands by us, “on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit [is] in your hearts … to bear you up” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:88).
To find daily power in Christ, however, it isn’t enough just to know that Jesus descended below all things for us and that through his identifying love he suffers together with us. Remember, he suffered below all things so that he could rise above all things—for us. Thus, a direct, daily application of the identifying power is to listen to the counsel that comes to us through the Lord’s Spirit as we seek divine direction in our daily lives.
Whatever it is we are facing today, we can turn to Christ and say, “How should I handle this? What should I do?” and He can in turn say, “I understand. I have walked this mortal path. Let me teach you from my experience. Let me show you the way. Let me show you how to faithfully overcome this.”
Jesus can perfectly guide us today because He perfectly identifies with us, always.
In Christ in Every Hour, gospel educator Anthony Sweat explores six of Christ's divine powers, explaining what they mean, why they're relevant, and what they can do for us as we live life each day. Discover more about Christ's power to cleanse, heal, restore, identify with, strengthen, and transform us, and learn how to draw upon the Lord's grace and power in every hour of your life. Which power of Christ's Atonement do you need today? Or in this very hour?
- See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1915), 105.
- See Dallin H. Oaks, “Sins and Mistakes,” Ensign, October 1996, 62–67.
- For an excellent read on the nature of Jesus’s atoning suffering, I would recommend The Infinite Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002) by Tad R. Callister, particularly chapter 14, “Infinite in Suffering.”
- Merrill J. Bateman, “The Power to Heal from Within,” Ensign, May 1995, 14.