Latter-day Saint Life

Do we gloss over the Savior's death? How pondering the realities of Christ's suffering brings peace during pain

Imagine that I were to offer you a free painting of Jesus Christ. If you could choose any of the below six images to hang in your home, which would you choose?

1. Christ on the Cross, by Carl Bloch. 2. Jesus Praying in Gethsemane, by Harry Anderson. 3. Gethsemane, by Carl Bloch. 4. The Crucifixion, by Harry Anderson. 5. Crucifixion, by J. Kirk Richards. 6. Gethsemane, by J. Kirk Richards.
Provided by the author.

My colleague Anthony Sweat and I asked this question to more than 800 Latter-day Saints and found that 97 percent chose one of the Gethsemane images. Only 3 percent chose an image of the Crucifixion. And I can understand that—for a lot of people, images of death aren’t very comfortable or desirable.

But note what the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob teaches: “We would to God that we could persuade all ... [to] ...view [Christ’s] death” (Jacob 1:8). Does that teaching surprise you?

We might wonder, “What does it mean to view Christ’s death?” Scholar Deidre Green wrote, “The operative definition of the word ‘view’ during Joseph Smith’s time was ‘to survey intellectually; To examine with the mental eye; To consider the subject in all its aspects.’ Additionally, a sense from the Latin root is that of reaching or extending toward the object one views. Jacob desires for everyone to contemplate thoroughly the multifaceted death of Christ in a way that requires each person to reach or extend toward it” (emphasis added).

As Latter-day Saints, we tend to contemplate thoroughly, or focus on, the living Christ. Some have offered that focus to explain why the cross isn’t used on our church buildings or in other official capacities. But President Jeffrey R. Holland recently offered a more thorough explanation of the relationship between Latter-day Saint tradition and the cross in his general conference talk “Lifted Up upon the Cross.”

In that talk, he said that “two pieces of art … serve as backdrops for the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in their sacred weekly temple meetings each Thursday in Salt Lake City.” And that the “portrayals serve as constant reminders to us of the price that was paid and the victory that was won by Him.”

The two paintings President Jeffrey R. Holland referenced in his general conference talk. Left: The Crucifixion, by Harry Anderson. Right: Mary and the Resurrected Lord, by Harry Anderson
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These images focus on both the living Christ and what I call the “loving Christ”—Jesus Christ personally defined His greatest act of love as His Crucifixion: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We don’t have to choose between the living Christ or the loving Christ—He is both.

On several occasions, prophets found peace through contemplating the death of Jesus Christ. Consider the example of Mormon who experienced decades of bitter disappointment and loss. He worked his whole life to protect the Nephites spiritually and physically but failed on both accounts. Rather than wallow in despair, Mormon told his son, “May [Christ’s] ... death ... rest in your mind forever” (Moroni 9:25). Like Jacob, Mormon does not want us to shy away from contemplating the crucified Christ.

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Consider also the prophet Enoch’s experience.

As Enoch saw the destruction of the people, he had “bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren.” Can you relate to Enoch? Have you ever felt bitterness of soul? What image did God show Enoch in response to Enoch's heartache? God showed him, “The Son of Man lifted up on the cross, after the manner of men” (Moses 7:55). The answer to the pain Enoch felt was found in the cross of Christ.

I think it’s interesting that Enoch found comfort in the Crucifixion. Especially because, going back to the survey I did with Anthony Sweat when we asked participants to explain why they chose the painting that they did, about 50 percent of people specifically said something negative about the Crucifixion paintings. Things like, “It’s too painful,” “It makes me feel uncomfortable,” or “I only want to focus on the living Christ.”

But the reality is that Enoch found comfort in the cross. Amid despair, Mormon invited his son to let Christ’s death rest in his mind. And Jacob urges us to view Christ’s death. What does the Savior himself say?

In Doctrine and Covenants 6:36, Jesus declares, “Look unto me in every thought, doubt not, fear not.” That’s a verse many of us are familiar with, and we often stop there. But continue to the next verse. Christ says, “Behold [meaning “fix your eyes upon”] the wounds which pierced my side, and also the prints of the nails in my hands and feet.”

The living Christ personally invites us to fix our eyes on His Crucifixion wounds. Those who have suffered bitterness of soul can find comfort from the cross.

Sometimes we want to focus only on the happy experiences in Christ’s life. But maybe there are times that we, or those we love, can find power from the Savior’s suffering. Consider this story, told by a woman named Jessica Brodie.

“Ugly tears coursed down my cheeks. Why? How could this have happened? ... I felt so alone. ... Talking to a counselor brought temporary relief but no real solutions. Blocking it out and staying as busy as possible only worked for so long. Then came Jesus. In the darkness, in the depths of my pain, I realized: He knew. ... He’d experienced the worst pain, the deepest betrayal, the hardest suffering—none of it deserved ... and it hurt Him—so very, very badly. But for some reason, I’d never before understood this.

“Growing up, I’d been taught Jesus died on the cross, but His suffering seemed abstract. In paintings depicting the Crucifixion, the holes from the nails had a bit of blood, and Jesus was frowning beneath His crown of thorns, but it was all rather contained—a PG version of what He’d really been through.

“Then His suffering was over and, whoosh! Our Savior was dressed in head-to-toe white with a glowing golden halo, smiling like He’d never been gasping for His last breath or sobbing from the pain of being sold for thirty pieces of silver by one of His twelve best friends.

“But when I encountered Jesus in my sorrow, it wasn’t the Sunday School, family-friendly version kneeling beside me as I collapsed before Him in a darkened room with my prayer of surrender. It was the scarred-up Jesus, the One who remembered the ragged blood-stained holes from where they’d driven the nails in, who didn’t wince as they beat Him but cried out in agony, who didn’t just quietly and stoically accept that Judas let Him down but ached over the treachery. This Jesus understood. And when I realized that, and I allowed Him to meet me in my suffering, I was no longer alone.”

In our own lives, and as we teach others, if we gloss over the cross, we rob those who have experienced deep pain the opportunity to learn more about a Savior who understands their grief. Jesus Christ knows what we are experiencing and He will not leave us comfortless (see John 14:18).

I’m not suggesting that we all need to go and buy paintings of Christ’s Crucifixion and hang them in our homes. But how might we be strengthened by taking Jacob’s invitation to “view [Christ’s] death” (Jacob 1:8)? How could we respond to this teaching today?

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