Expanding Our Gratitude for Jesus Christ

Bret Gundersen

Bret Gundersen, "Expanding Our Gratitude for Jesus Christ," Religious Educator 22, no. 3 (2021): 148-159.

Bret Gundersen (bgundersen@gmail.com) is a senior director of product management at Adobe.

Some Latter-day Saints have an enduring appreciation for God and his Son, but others struggle to feel that strong sense of gratitude. As society moves away from religion in the United States[1] and elsewhere, if people want to increase their connection with Jesus Christ, the process may feel more elusive than ever. This essay is intended to help individuals expand their gratitude for Jesus Christ through an improved understanding of our deep individual need for his Atonement.

For much of my life, I haven’t felt as much gratitude for Jesus’s Atonement as I thought I should, or as deeply as others seem to. In testimony meetings I’ve watched people share love for our Savior through tears or sobs, and there I sat, wondering how they came to feel so strongly. Have they repented of more serious sins than I have? Has the Spirit testified to them more powerfully? While I accept that justice requires an Atonement, I don’t appreciate Jesus the way I think I should. I suspect many students of the gospel feel a similar inadequacy about their connection with Jesus Christ.

This longing resulted in years of study, trying to understand more deeply why I need his Atonement and how the infinite suffering of the Son of God makes it possible for us to be forgiven and stand comfortably in God’s presence. Despite these years of study, I don’t fully appreciate how the suffering of the Son of God makes it possible for me to find forgiveness and peace. However, it has become obvious that I am utterly lost without a Savior. I now see the myriad gifts from our Father in Heaven and understand why guilt is an inescapable result of sin. This understanding has helped me appreciate Jesus more than ever before. The concepts that follow have helped increase my appreciation for Jesus. I hope teachers can use them to help students find similar gratitude.

How to Return to God’s Presence

In lessons about the plan of salvation, earth life is often referred to as a test,[2] and people sometimes assume that this test is intended to prove to God that we can be admitted into the celestial kingdom. The flaw in this assumption is that God knows everything. “All things are present before [his] eyes” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:2). He already knows which of us will receive celestial glory. Our time on earth will not teach God anything. Instead, the purpose of our test is personal. It is “to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”[3] As the Apostle Paul said, the Lord’s teachings and teachers were given that we may all attain “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). We can aspire to become comfortable in the presence of a perfect, loving God—to feel no guilt, remorse, or shame at the thoughts we have or the things we have done (see Alma 12:14).

The scriptures clearly indicate that Christ’s Atonement both sanctifies us and justifies us, allowing God to forgive us. “We know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true; and we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:30–31; emphasis added).[4]

In other words, Jesus’s Atonement doesn’t just allow God to forgive us (justification); his supreme sacrifice allows us to become pure (sanctification). Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained these concepts this way: “To be sanctified through the blood of Christ is to become clean, pure, and holy. If justification removes the punishment for past sin, then sanctification removes the stain or effects of sin.”[5]

Moroni said that the wicked (perhaps they could be called the un-sanctified) will be “more miserable” dwelling with God than they would be “with the damned souls in hell” (Mormon 9:4). Moroni’s warning implies that God’s statement to the wicked at the Judgment Day, “Depart, ye cursed” (Doctrine and Covenants 29:41), will be filled with mercy rather than vengeance. God’s work and glory is to exalt us (Moses 1:39). Thus, Jesus’s Atonement, in addition to allowing God to forgive us, allows us to become purer and holier people so we can feel confident in the presence of our Father and our Savior, whose most precious and personal gifts we have all, at one time or another, trampled under our feet.

Sin Creates Self-Inflicted Torment

Our need for sanctification is much stronger than may originally be apparent, especially for those of us who haven’t murdered, abused, or caused extreme suffering in others. To understand why we need Jesus’s Atonement so desperately, we must start with truly understanding the consequence of our sins.

Breaking commandments causes spiritual death, or to be “cut off” from God’s presence and his Spirit in our day-to-day lives.[6] However, it’s not always clear that breaking commandments also causes eternal misery. Lehi separated these outcomes when he taught Jacob, “By the temporal law [men] were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever” (2 Nephi 2:5).[7] Lehi implies that breaking the temporal law has a different consequence, being “cut off,” than breaking the spiritual law, becoming “miserable forever.”

But misery is a self-inflicted feeling. If I angrily yell at my mother just once as a teenager, will that really make me miserable in God’s presence? I believe the answer to that question is yes.

If I break a spiritual or higher law by yelling at my mother, I have felt or will eventually feel guilt, which can make me uncomfortable in God’s presence. At a more extreme level, guilt is what Alma felt when he realized that he had caused his brothers and sisters to die spiritually. Note that Alma was as concerned about causing other people’s spiritual deaths as he was about his own: “I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, . . . so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds” (Alma 36:14–15; emphasis added).

Alma’s description of his horror is like Jesus’s description of his Atonement. When Christ suffered for our sins, he experienced both effects of sin: separation from God (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46) and misery so terrible that we cannot comprehend it. He said this “suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit”; then, with the forcefulness of a parent forbidding a child to touch white-hot iron, he pleads, “Wherefore, I command you again to repent, . . . lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:18, 20).

This suffering is the misery that Lehi categorized as the spiritual consequence of sin. The physical and emotional torment of hell (either spirit prison or outer darkness) doesn't come from fire or physical torture, it comes from guilt and remorse, as many prophets have taught.

For example, King Benjamin said the consequence of sin is “guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire” (Mosiah 2:38).

Jacob said that if people’s hearts are uncircumcised, meaning they aren’t wholly dedicated to God, “a knowledge of their iniquities shall smite them at the last day” (2 Nephi 9:33). Notice that it is not God who will smite us.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said of the unpardonable sin, “A man is his own tormenter, and is his own condemner: hence the saying they shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone—so is the torment of man.”[8]

The punishment described by these prophets is internal and therefore inescapable. This self-inflicted hell is at least part of the payment required for sin. It is not an arbitrary sentence laid down by God, it is the natural consequence of refusing to do God’s will. By establishing temporal laws and upholding their consequences (exclusion from the celestial kingdom), God is not looking for reasons to punish us. God is trying to save us from self-inflicted torment.

Just as there are two consequences for sin, spiritual death and guilt, perhaps there are two judgments at the Judgment Day: God’s judgment that mercifully agrees with our self-judgment. We judge ourselves at the bar of God in that we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in his presence. If we, like the children of Israel, cannot “endure his presence” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:24), we will choose to separate ourselves from God, to avoid being constantly tormented by our own guilt. Elder David A. Bednar pointed out that it’s not God that we will be afraid of; it’s the knowledge of what we have done:

Please note that godly fear is linked inextricably to an understanding of the Final Judgment and our individual accountability for our desires, thoughts, words, and acts (see Mosiah 4:30). The fear of the Lord is not a reluctant apprehension about coming into his presence to be judged. I do not believe we will be afraid of Him at all. Rather, it is the prospect in his presence of facing things as they really are about ourselves and having “a perfect knowledge” (2 Nephi 9:14; see also Alma 11:43) of all our rationalizations, pretenses, and self-deceptions. Ultimately, we will be left without excuse. . . .

If our desires have been for righteousness and our works good, then the judgment bar will be pleasing (see Jacob 6:13; Enos 1:27; Moroni 10:34). And at the last day we will “be rewarded unto righteousness” (Alma 41:6).[9]

Although the scriptures clearly describe eternal guilt as a consequence of sin, it’s not always clear why we will feel so guilty. How could one frustrated outburst to my mother cause so much guilt that I want to leave God’s presence?

A Sense of Our Own Guilt

We will all be ashamed about how we have treated God, either before the Final Judgment as we repent, or at the judgment bar itself. As Abinadi said, without the Atonement, “all mankind were lost” (Mosiah 16:4). Why? As we approach the Final Judgment, we will learn or remember the supreme goodness and mercy of God, who gave us gifts we are completely incapable of attaining without him, all of which make it possible to receive a fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11; 3 Nephi 28:10; Doctrine and Covenants 93:33–34). As we consider everything God has done for us, we will all recognize that we have shown ingratitude for those gifts and feel immense guilt.

Consider how these seven gifts create an unending flow of blessings, beginning millennia ago, before our birth as spirits.

  1. God gave us spirit bodies. He told Adam that he “made . . . men before they were in the flesh” (Moses 6:51).
  2. God prepared us for life on earth. He ensured that we “received [our] first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:56; emphasis added).
  3. He created a universe for us. God told Moses that he created “worlds without number . . . for [his] own purpose,” which is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:33, 39).
  4. After we had spirit bodies, some preparation, and a world on which to grow, God gave us physical bodies, which unlock the possibility to “receive a fulness of joy” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:34, see also Doctrine and Covenants 138:50).
  5. To help us receive this fullness of joy, he gave us the freedom to make our own choices and become new creatures. God taught Moses that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3, see Doctrine and Covenants 101:78). This agency is the freedom “to choose liberty and eternal life” (2 Nephi 2:27), which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7).
  6. God gave us commandments and the Light of Christ to guide those choices. As Elder Christofferson reasoned, “Truly He loves us, and because He loves us, He neither compels nor abandons us. Rather He helps and guides us. Indeed, the real manifestation of God’s love is His commandments.”[10]
  7. If we could live without sin, these gifts would eventually bring us a fullness of joy. But, because we are mortal and imperfect, God gave us his greatest and most personal gift: the Atonement of his Son (John 3:16).

But often even those of us who have learned about these gifts for years don’t appreciate their magnitude and personal significance. For most of us, they are common facts that apply to everyone in the universe, rather than individual expressions of love from a tender Father. A few prophets have given glimpses into how personal God’s love is.

When Lehi was shown a book in vision, he “read and [saw] many great and marvelous things” (1 Nephi 1:14). What he learned taught him about God’s power and the vastness of his creations, and Lehi was also struck by God’s love: “Thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Nephi 1:14; emphasis added). Of all the things for Lehi to marvel about, goodness and mercy were at the forefront.

Enoch told perhaps the best example of beholding God’s love. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland described Enoch’s experience,

[Enoch, while] in the midst of a grand vision of humankind . . . turns his gaze toward the Father and is stunned to see Him weeping. He says in wonder and amazement to this most powerful Being in the universe: “How is it that thou canst weep? . . . Thou art just [and] merciful and kind forever.” . . .

Looking out on the events of almost any day, God replies: “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands. . . . I gave unto them . . . [a] commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. . . . Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”[11]

Enoch was prepared to bow in respect for God’s power but was struck by his tenderness. When Enoch comes to the judgment bar of God, he may ask himself, “Have I caused God to weep for me?” The honest answer to this question will, in large part, determine our comfort level in God’s presence.

The rest of us will learn about this love throughout our lives, both before and after death, and perhaps also when the veil of forgetfulness is removed. Somehow, by the time we reach the Judgment Day, every child of God will have learned or remembered enough so that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess . . . that he is God . . . [and] that the judgment . . . is just” (Mosiah 27:31). Because of our agency, this reverence for God’s justice and mercy will be given of our own free will. I believe there will be no question that we are all entirely indebted to God, and that everything we’ve done contrary to his commandments has worked to destroy his gifts to us. This knowledge will make us very uncomfortable in his presence.

This discomfort in God’s presence is at least part of, if not the entire punishment for sin. It is a natural consequence of breaking God’s commandments. Alma taught that even God can’t remove the consequences of sin without “ceas[ing] to be God” (Alma 42:22; see also verses 20–27).

While many scriptures don’t specify the actual punishment for sin,[12] others indicate that our trampling of God’s gifts under our feet will cause terrible guilt at the judgment day, if not beforehand. For example, the prophet Jacob made it clear that God’s gifts and mercy, combined with our rejection of those gifts, will create guilt and shame. He said that “the power of the redemption and the resurrection, which is in Christ, will bring you to stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God” (Jacob 6:9).[13] For most of my life, I would have expected Jacob to say that shame and guilt are results of God’s justice, but Jacob clearly indicates they are caused by God’s love.

Let’s return to the earlier question: If I yell at my mother in anger just once, will that really make me miserable in God’s presence? Losing my self-control and hurting another person’s feelings is equivalent to figuratively throwing aside the Light of Christ, one of God’s precious gifts to us. Losing self-control is like trampling the gift of freedom under my feet, because I took that freedom and hurt one of God’s children with it. I will recall perfectly what I’ve done (see Alma 5:18), and if I haven’t repented and felt forgiveness, then just one instance of tossing aside these gifts will create guilt. Yes, God understands that I was immature and that I’m unlikely to do it again, but my ability to feel peace and confidence is internal, knowing that God sees everything I’ve done.

If everyone has sinned enough to feel guilt in God’s presence, then it could seem unfair for everyone to stand before God, especially those who are raised in houses where hatred and anger are fostered. The beauty of the plan of happiness is that opportunities abound for each of us to repent and be sanctified before that Judgment Day. For example, Jesus organized teachers in the spirit world after his death (see Doctrine and Covenants 138:30–34). Also, during the Millennium, “the gospel will be taught with great power to all people. Eventually there will be no need to teach others the first principles of the gospel because ‘they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord’ (Jeremiah 31:34).”[14] Thus, the work of the spirit world and the Millennium will help everyone prepare for the Final Judgment, removing the inconsistencies of mortal life and granting us all the gift of repentance and sanctification, so that we “may not shrink with awful fear; that [we] may not remember [our] awful guilt in perfectness, and be constrained to exclaim: Holy, holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty—but I know my guilt; I transgressed thy law, and my transgressions are mine” (2 Nephi 9:46). No matter our circumstances during our mortal lives, we all will have equal chances to feel comfortable in God’s presence.

Jesus Christ made it clear to Joseph Smith that these chances are being granted now. Jesus “is pleading [our] cause before [the Father]” and asking him to “spare these my brethren that believe on my name” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:3, 5). Our “advocate with the Father” isn’t saving his pleading for the Judgment Day, he is actively pleading our cause. By pleading to God on our behalf today, Jesus allows us to be justified today so our separation from God can be removed, and we can have God’s Spirit with us, to sanctify and guide us in preparation for that great and last day.

Time May Not Heal All Wounds

Here on earth, time and forgetfulness have a soothing effect on guilt. After months and sometimes years have passed, we mercifully forget the sting of guilt we once felt, perhaps because we believe others have forgotten, and because other people have seen enough of our actions to know that we’re normally kind to others.[15]

However, multiple scriptures show that forgetfulness is a mortal condition. Amulek told Zeezrom that “we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt” (Alma 11:43). Jacob taught the Nephites that after the Resurrection, “we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness” (2 Nephi 9:14).

Even more penetrating than our perfect recollection of guilt is the idea that those in the celestial kingdom will be able to “see as they are seen, and know as they are known” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:94). Thus, our very natures will be laid bare; our thoughts and intentions will be completely visible. I believe Jesus was referring to this transparency when he told Joseph Smith that “the rebellious shall be pierced with much sorrow; for their iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and their secret acts shall be revealed” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:3; see also Luke 12:1–3).

We have all sinned enough that, if those actions were laid open before God and those around us, they would stoke our personal fires of guilt into terrible blazes. Whether those things are large, like mocking God who has given us everything, or small, like laziness, impure thoughts, or things viewed or done when alone, we will wish we could “enter into the rock, and hide” (Isaiah 2:10). Our need for a Savior will be critical. Truly, “all mankind must unavoidably perish; . . . all are hardened; . . . all are fallen and are lost, . . . except it be through the atonement” (Alma 34:9).

Thus, it is God’s love combined with our sins that creates unavoidable misery and a desperate desire for separation from God. These natural consequences of sin are at least some of the demands of justice. How can Jesus’s Atonement remove this most excruciating suffering? I still don’t fully understand how the suffering of a God can remove my guilt, but I know from experience that it does.

My Guilt Removed

Jesus Christ’s Atonement has removed our need for suffering. I, like Enos, have felt that “my guilt was swept away” (Enos 1:6). When Enoch asked how it was done, he was simply told that it is “because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen” (Enos 1:8). Likewise, I have not heard or seen Christ, but I have felt the fire of guilt extinguish within me, and that gives me enough reason to trust him.

Perhaps one reason for Christ to take upon himself our pains, sicknesses, and sins is that we need his empathy in our process of improving and forgiving ourselves. He knows what it’s like to go from intolerable pain and self-loathing to peace. Alma taught, “He will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, . . . that he may know . . . how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12). These acts of love strengthen my appreciation for him.

The goal of my study has been to appreciate the Atonement of Jesus Christ more. Although that has happened, more than appreciating the act, I have come to appreciate Jesus more. As I have pondered the gifts of God with more understanding, I see how easily I trample them under my feet. But surprisingly, this doesn’t generate guilt. Instead, I have more hope and peace than ever because I see God’s gifts as personal expressions of love, and I understand more fully the role that Jesus plays in helping me move past that guilt.[16] Finally, I see love in every commandment, especially in the commandment to “repent, . . . lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:20). Truly, ours is a God of immeasurable love.

We have an opportunity to help students of the gospel understand more deeply that God’s love, combined with our rejection of that love, will create unquenchable, self-imposed guilt and remorse. Clearly, we need a Savior much more than modern society would like us to believe. But the glorious part of this lesson is that Jesus Christ can not only remove that guilt but turn it into sublime peace and appreciation.


[1] "The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular,' now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009." Pew Research Center, "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace," Octover 17, 2019.

[2] Here are two of my examples: "And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them" (Abraham 3:25), and "Satan wants us to fail the test on earth." See Sheri L. Dew, "This is a Test. This is Only a Test," Ensign, July 2000, 62-66.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, "The Challenge to Become," Ensign, November 2000, 32.

[4] This essay focuses on santification through Jesus, but many scriptures state the need for justification through him: Christ shall "justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" (Mosiah 14:11); "by [Jesus] all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39); Jesus "offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law" (2 Nephi 2:5-7); "him will I hold guiltless before my father" (3 Nephi 27:16); and many others.

[5] D. Todd Christofferson, "Justification and Sanctification," Ensign, June 2001, 22.

[6] The Guide to the Scriptures defines spiritual death as "separation from God and His influences." "Death, Spiritual," scriptures.churchofjesuschrist.org.

[7] The temporal law Lehi refers to is "the law of Moses, or the law of external commandments," and spiritual law is "the higher law of love, mercy, forgiveness, and service," according to Elder Bruce D. Porter, "The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel," Ensign, October 2000, 13.

[8] "Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Times and Seasons," p. 616, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[9] David A. Bednar, "Therefore They Hushed Their Fears," Ensign, May 2015, 49.

[10] D. Todd Christofferson, "Free Forever, to Act for Themselves," Ensign, November 2014, 17.

[11] Jeffery R. Holland, "The Grandeur of God," Ensign, November 2003, 72.

[12] These are some examples where prophets indicate that we will be judged, but don't specify the punishment: "we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ" (Romans 14:10); "all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgement" (1 Nephi 10:20); "if they will not repent and believe in his name, and be baptized in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned" (2 Nephi 9:15).

[13] Alma also indicated that at least one punishment for sin is guilt and remorse when he said, "Can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?" (Alma 5:18)

[14] Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 265.

[15] A noteworthy exception to this idea that time heals all wounds was demonstrated by a seventy-seven-year-old President James Faust, who talked about how as a boy he didn't get up to help his grandmother bring firewood into the house. After nearly seventy years, he could not control his emotions because of the sting of treating his grandmother that way, and he wished he could ask her forgiveness. James E. Faust, "The Weightier Matters of the Law: Judgement, Mercy, and Faith," Ensign, November 1997, 59. I believe those of us who see this as a trivial sin have yet to be refined. Will Jesus Christ's Atonement help him remove that guilt? Of course.

[16] My experience has been like one shared by Elder Christofferson. A friend of his, while serving as mission president, was given a dream where he saw his sins and the distance between him and God. Elder Christofferson said, "It is important to recognize that this good man's vivid revelation of his sins and shortcomings did not discourage him for lead him to despair. Yes, he felt shock and remorse. He felt keenly his need to repent. He had been humbled, yet he felt gratitude, peace, and hope - real hope - because of Jesus Christ." D. Todd Christofferson, "The Living Bread Which Came Down From Heaven," Ensign, November 2017, 38.