This is an adapted version of the lesson that I taught for Easter Sunday yesterday.
The Good News of Christ makes faith and repentance possible. We have cause for faith because, in vanquishing death and sin, Christ gives us all something to believe in: the possibility that every grief and sorrow may one day be turned to joy. Christ’s perfect example and his Atonement also serve as the motive and means for repentance, filling us with a desire to turn to Him as well as a path back home. These principles—faith and repentance—will lead us be baptized and then to receive the Holy Spirit, which will cause us to become new creatures. This is it, the whole Gospel, in one paragraph.
I want to expand this message into three parts: the what, the why, and the how of the Gospel, each expressed as a promise of Christ’s gifts to us.
I Will Give My Flesh
Before the foundation of the world was laid, Christ knew that he would come and give his flesh for us. This is what John teaches, comparing the manna that fed the Israelites wandering in the desert to the bread of life given by Christ.
47 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.John 6:51
48 I am that bread of life.
49 Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
50 This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Jesus taught that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13) and Paul reminded us that perhaps the most incredible aspect of Christ’s sacrifice for us—for His friends—is how undeserving of it we have proved to be:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8 (NRSV)
Christ’s sacrifice extended beyond him laying down his life for us, however. He not only died but also lived for us. The leaders of the world expect to benefit from their followers, but Christ—our King—came not to be served but to serve, not to be ministered to but to minister to us.
25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.Matthew 20:25-28
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
In addition to dying for us and ministering to us, Christ also suffered the same things that we suffered. He did this so that he would know through personal, first-hand experience, what each of us face in our lives.
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.Alma 7:11–13
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, 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.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
This is what we remember on Easter: that Christ give himself for us.
I Will Give You Rest
What is it that Christ accomplished through the gift of his life? He made possible all His promises to us, and in particular his pledge to give us rest. This is an old promise, with one instance dating back to the Exodus.
14 And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.Exodus 33:14
Christ renewed the promise during his earthly ministry.
28 ¶ Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Matthew 11:28–30
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The promise of rest is, I believe, just one aspect of an entire suite of promises to us, each of which exchanges something desirable we lack for something miserable we have chosen instead.
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;Isaiah 61:1–3
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
So here is my question: rest from what?
Rest from all pain and suffering. This includes the pain and suffering we feel as a result of the sins of others. And also the pain and suffering we feel as a natural result of living in this fallen world where justice is delayed and where tragedy strikes without fairness or mercy.
But what I want to talk about is a particular kind of rest that Christ offers us alongside these other two.
38 But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.Helaman 13:38
How exhausting is it to spend a lifetime searching for happiness in wickedness? We all do it. We seek for happiness in money or power or prestige. Especially in prestige. And the wicked thing about prestige is that it is what is a zero-sum game. That’s a term from game theory, and it refers to the kind of contest where the only possible way to win is to make someone else lose. Human status is, by definition, a zero-sum game. You can only have more status at the expense of someone else.
This means that the moment you seek to find peace or comfort or solace in popularity or a reputation or any other form of prestige you have entered into a ceaseless battleground where every one is the enemy of other person.
This is worse than ineffective. It is counterproductive. What is it in you that calls out for rest? Are you afraid of your own weakness? Your own brokenness? Are you lonely? Have you been betrayed? Are you struggling under the weight of your guilt from betraying someone else? It doesn’t matter, because once you try to solve this problem by gathering up the treasures of this Earth it’s inevitable that you will make things worse. Even if you win, it will come at the expense of cutting corners, breaking promises, and doing things that you swore you would never do. Whatever drove you to seek rest in this zero-sum game, you will make it worse rather than better.
Even worse than the fatigue from struggling to seize peace and joy and contentment from the self-destructive battle for status is that—at the same time—we have to constantly fight against the gentle but persistent coaxing of our conscience, the voice of Christ calling us to abandon our counter-productive struggle and turn to Him for rest.
When Jesus interrupted Saul’s voyage, what did he say? First: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” And then “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
How hard have you been fighting against the small, sharp prick of your own conscience?
It’s like the lyrics from the Hymn, Redeemer of Israel:
How long we have wandered
As strangers in sin
And cried in the desert for thee
And so I ask: aren’t you tired? I am. I’m exhausted.
I Will Give You a New Heart
We know the what: Christ gave His flesh. His life.
We know the why: Christ wants to give us rest. To save us from each other, to save us from the hardships natural to this fallen world, and especially to save us from ourselves.
But how? How will it be done?
For me, the clue came from something Samuel the Lamanite taught the Nephites.
7 And behold, ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them.Helaman 15:7
When we use the expression “a change of heart” we are usually referring to repentance. But this change of heart—the one Samuel is talking about—isn’t repentance. It’s something that happens after repentance, and that is brought about by faith and repentance.
I’ll tell you what I think. This isn’t about changing the heart we have. It’s about giving us an entirely new one.
26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36:26–28
27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
28 And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.
I have felt this stony heart inside my own chest. I have learned a tragic lesson recently, and it is this: I can’t even repent perfectly. Even when I regret what I’ve done, even when I wish I’d done better, even when I’m genuinely broken-hearted and seeking forgiveness, there is still a stone inside my heart that says, “Better, yes… but only this much.” I want to be better, truly and sincerely, but I can’t say honestly that I want to be perfect.
What are we supposed to do when we are imperfect and like it that way? Is it time to give up? Time to just settle? No, because Christ has something higher and better in mind. He’s not giving up on us. And so—even when I’m tempted to give up on myself—I will not and cannot give up on Him. There’s a problem with my heart? Very well, I’ve been promised a new one.
7 And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.Jeremiah 24:7
I don’t have a heart to know God. Not yet. The heart I have wills to follow Him, but not wholly. It’s still a rebellious and arrogant heart, prone to assert itself and reject the Lord’s counsel. To try to have things my own way. To repent, but only as little as possible. This heart that I have? It will never know rest.
But this, too, is accounted for in God’s plan.
And so we end up at Alma the Younger’s magnificent sermon on changing of hearts.
Writing of his father’s generation and how they repented, Alma says:
7 Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word…Alma 5:7
Alma isn’t talking about the first change of heart, the kind that means repentance. The kind that we do for ourselves. Alma is talking about the second change of heat. The kind that Christ does to us, if we will let Him.
Next, Alma challenges his audience:
11 Behold, I can tell you—did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?Alma 5:11-14
12 And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.
13 And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.
14 And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Well, have you? Because this is how you get the rest. This new heart—the heart that Christ longs to give you—is one that knows God. That keeps His statutes. It is a soft heart. It is the heart of a child. It is a heart that knows how to trust. And it is a heart capable of rest.
Alma has one more question:
26 And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?Alma 5:26
Even for someone like Paul or Alma the Younger who experienced a mighty change of heart all at once (also the Lamanites that Ammon and his brothers taught), it’s not entirely a one-time event. Skeptical? Read Alma 29.
1 O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!Alma 29:1-3
2 Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.
3 But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.
Does this sound like a heart perfectly at rest? It is not. Alma wrote this decades after his conversion, and he is still wrestling with his recalcitrant, human, imperfect heart. His best friends, the Sons of Mosiah, left him behind and went on a 14-year mission to the Lamanites. Just before this chapter, Alma the Younger encountered them on their way back home with tens of thousands of eager, righteous, steadfast new Christians. How much had Alma yearned to go with them? But God had a different plan. So he had to stay behind and deal with the ambiguities and complexities of political leadership (he was chief judge) and war (he killed in combat) and church bureaucracy (he spent all his time organizing and re-organizing a Church that kept going apostate).
The contrast wasn’t actually that stark. Ammon had a little hand-to-hand combat of his own, and he and his brothers had just watched thousands of their converts butchered while they prayed to God. But, at least in the moment after meeting them, Alma’s anguish was real. His rebellious heart wanted one thing, his God asked another, and he struggled “to be content with the things which the Lord had allotted” to him.
If Alma was still struggling so long after his momentous conversion don’t expect your journey to be any shorter or easier.
This is the Gospel, as I understand it today. That Christ came into the world to give His life. That he did so to grant us rest. And that He gives that rest by giving us a new heart, a heart that is at peace.
I know that in my case it’s a slow process because I can’t seem to force myself to take more than a step at a time. I believe Christ goes as fast as we will let Him. He holds nothing back, except to respect our agency and for our own good.
But, slow as the process is, I can turn behind me and see how far I’ve come. How far I’ve been brought. I know that I am a better person today than I was before. I am more patient. Gentler and more loving. More forgiving and trusting.
I’m still an egotistical mess. The amount of desperation I feel for external validation is, frankly, embarrassing. It should not matter that much to me what people—imperfect people no better at judging character than me!—think, but it still does. Not as much as it used to, though. Slowly, step-by-step, my Lord is giving me a new heart, and it is one that is free of the chains of worldly need. One that has an easier and truer appreciation for truth and beauty.
I’m still tired. Tired of not being happy with who I am. Tired of seeing the gap between who I am and who I’d like to be. Tired from trying to address spiritual needs with temporal solutions: a new gadget or a fished-for compliment. Tired from realizing that part of me likes it this way. Prefers who I am now to who I could be.
But I have felt, in passing moments, the rest of Christ. I have felt His love. Felt Him change my heart. Felt to sing the song of redeeming love. I know that there is peace in Him. I know that I can rest. And even though even my aspirations and repentance fall short, I trust that He will carry me home. Because He’s carried me this far.
One day I will truly rest.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?Romans 8:35–39
36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.