Dear Cousin Allison,
Thank you for this opportunity to put in writing how our experiences of the last year have taught us more about our Savior Jesus Christ and his Atonement. I have always had a strong, personal testimony that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that through his glorious Atonement – his suffering for our sins and dying on the cross – we are enabled to face the challenges of mortal life and one day overcome sin and death. Over the past year we have had many powerful experiences and impressions that have strengthened these convictions. Some things Katy and I have processed separately while others we have processed together. I’ll try to articulate some of our impressions. I apologize if I ramble a bit while sharing.
The Sunday before we left Albuquerque for Boston at the beginning of Emmett’s treatment I had the opportunity to share my testimony in church. I expressed my deep gratitude for a Father in Heaven who was willing to watch his only begotten son suffer in agony, bleed, and die so that we all might live. And I expressed that having our only son Emmett go through cancer treatment would provide Katy and me the opportunity to come to know our Father better by feeling some of the pain He felt.
Understanding the Atonement through the roles of the Father and the Son
A year later I can testify that our experiences of the past year have indeed helped me come to a new and deeper understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Specifically, this last year has helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the sacred roles played by both God the Father and His son Jesus Christ in this marvelous event and the immeasurable love they both have for us.
God's love is shown by giving his Son to be our Savior
A chapter of scripture helped bring this new understanding to light during family scripture study one night. In 1 Nephi 11 the Spirit begins showing Nephi the interpretation of Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. I’ve read this chapter many times, but after our experiences of this past year I made new connections that brought it to life
In Nephi’s vision the Spirit appears and asks what he desires. After Nephi expresses his desire to understand his father’s dream the Spirit begins expounding the vision to his mind. The first thing Nephi is shown is the tree of life – a beautiful tree with delicious fruit – which was the focal point of Lehi’s dream. And then the rest of the chapter is spent providing the context necessary for Nephi to fully understand the spiritual significance of what the tree of life represents.
The next thing the Spirit shows Nephi is the Lord Jesus Christ as a young child when he sees the virgin Mary bearing a child in her arms. I’m impressed that Nephi’s first introduction to the Savior wasn’t of a grown adult during His mortal ministry, but instead it was a vision of the Savior as an infant in the pure, innocent state that all children begin their mortal experience in – a state of innocence and purity that every parent can relate to.
The vision then takes an abrupt turn which up until recently has always confused me a little. The Spirit returns to the topic of the tree of life and asks Nephi what it represents. Given the previous introduction to the Savior one would expect the answer to be that the tree of life represents Christ. This assertion is not correct, however. The tree actually represents the love of God. I’ll return to this thought shortly.
As the vision continues, the Spirit shows Nephi the life of the Jesus Christ. He sees the Savior’s baptism and mortal ministry; he sees Christ teaching and testifying; he sees the twelve apostles and the multitudes following Him and believing; he sees the miracles and healings performed by the Savior.
And then he sees the Savior taken, falsely accused, lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.
And this is where the whole vision of the tree of life, or the love of God, came together for me the other week when I was reading it to Emmett – and is why Nephi needed to see the perfect Savior’s life before he could understand God’s love for His children. The love of God is his son Jesus Christ, His precious, innocent boy…his little Emmett…that he was willing to sacrifice that we all might live. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In a metaphor that every parent can relate to, the perfect measure of God’s love is in his perfect son he was willing sacrifice so the rest of us might live.
The Father’s part in the Atonement – watching his child suffer
The word gave in John 3:16 implies so much – the pain of the Father in giving his only son – though it’s not what we normally focus on when we reading this verse. And empathizing with the pain of a parent called to watch their child suffer and die is one way we’ve come to understand the Atonement better through our experiences of the last year.
I understand what it’s like to watch your pure, innocent, undeserving child suffer pain and agony. I know how it feels to stand by helplessly, wanting so badly to take the pain away, to take the burden upon yourself, but being completely powerless. In every surgical waiting room, pondering what part of Emmett’s body might not work anymore after the operation. Wondering what the harmful effects the radiation and chemotherapy might have, whether he’ll be paralyzed or impaired in other ways, wondering whether I’ll ever be able to play ball with him or what his academic opportunities might be. As a parent you dream about all the opportunities you will give your child, every opportunity that you ever had and more. And as your child goes through cancer therapy you contemplate crossing things off the list instead of adding to it. Will he even survive at all? The questions are endless.
It absolutely kills you to watch the most precious thing in the world to you go through so much. I can’t think of a more painful experience than for a parent to have to stand by and watch their child suffer all things, even death.
Often when we think of the Atonement of Christ we think only of the suffering of the Savior. Indeed Christ’s suffering was great beyond measure, and I will not pretend I can begin to imagine the pain he went through. But now I can testify that the Father suffered too during that atoning event. And while I can never perfectly understand how painful it was for Father in Heaven to watch His son suffer, I have a much better understanding now than I ever have before.
Oh how much our Father in Heaven loves us!
The Son’s part in the Atonement – submitting to his Father’s will
The other aspect of the Atonement we are coming to know through our experiences with Emmett is what it means for a child to submit his will to his father. Back in October I was strongly impressed that we are not where we need to be (and where God wants us to be) until we can honestly say, “thy will be done”; until we’re honestly okay with any outcome for Emmett. And that until we’re to that point we haven’t fully qualified for whatever blessings Father would have us receive. This impression was reaffirmed to us when a visiting Area Authority reiterated it. Father Abraham received the blessings he did because he did indeed put Isaac on the altar, not because he brought him up the mountain. If in his heart he never intended to sacrifice Isaac, he would not have received the blessings for being willing to make that ultimate sacrifice.
In accomplishing the Atonement the Savior had to submit his will to his Father’s. I take comfort in the fact that it isn’t necessarily what Christ wanted to do – he did ask if the cup could pass by him if possible, but “thy will be done” were his final words on the matter.
We certainly don’t want to lose Emmett – nothing would be more painful for Katy and me – but ultimately we have to be willing to submit our wills to the Father, whatever His will ends up being, just like the Savior. And in some small way, we have gained a greater appreciation of what the Savior had to go through in accomplishing his atoning sacrifice.
Oh how much He loves us too!
We know people who have been called to give up their child to this horrible disease, who have been called to make the most painful sacrifice I can imagine in this mortal life. Our hearts and love go out to them. I admire their strength, courage, and faith, to say the very least. I pray that God strengthens them. I pray He does not require the same of us, that somehow we be allowed to keep our precious child. We will continue praying that Emmett be allowed to stay. But at the end of the day we do subject ourselves to God’s will, whatever it may be. I know His knowledge and purposes are perfect. And whatever pain our mortal journey holds here, I am so thankful for the Atonement of Jesus Christ which brings about the resurrection of life and the promise of a bright and glorious future!
The beautiful Atonement and glorious Resurrection
I testify that it was a perfect atonement made in humility and love. A father who loved his children so much that he was willing to sacrifice his only perfect son, no matter how painful it was for him to witness. And a son who loved his brothers and sisters so much that he was willing to submit to his Father’s will and allow himself to be sacrificed that we might live. Oh how our experiences with Emmett over the past year have helped us to come to better understand and more deeply appreciate both sides of this divine equation!
How joyously we celebrate that beautiful Easter morn! How beautiful the resurrected Lord’s salutation to the sobbing Mary: “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?” as if to say: Look up Mary, I am here! The night is gone, the pain is past! The morn is come and it is accomplished! It is no longer a time for tears of sorrow, but tears of joy! Death is gone, Satan conquered, and the painful, yet beautiful Atonement is accomplished! My Father and I are celebrating this glorious morning, and so should you!
And so let us likewise celebrate on this beautiful Easter morn! How grateful I am for the Atonement of Jesus Christ, for the resurrection of life and freedom from pain! What great reasons we have to rejoice! We may not know what the balance of each of our mortal experiences hold and what challenges lie ahead, and for my family we will forever live with knowledge that Emmett’s disease may return, but even now we have reason to rejoice in the joy of the resurrection and the eternities ahead all made possible through the glorious, incomprehensible love of a father and a son – of which I have a better understanding now than ever before in my life. Of our Father in Heaven and His son our Savior, and their great love for us I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.