One of my favorite Christmas carols is O Holy Night. The song is a sermon in and of itself, but today I’d like to focus on just one couplet:
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Chains are a powerful symbol of being in bondage, both figurative and literal. On my office shelf I keep a small box containing something known as a manilla – a piece of bronze in the shape of a horseshoe. These were produced in Europe and then shipped to West Africa where they were traded for slaves.
This particular manilla was making its journey to Africa aboard the English schooner Douro when the ship hit rocks and sank off the isles of Scilly. As each manilla was used to purchase a human life, it’s a grim reminder of what mankind is capable of.
The Douro sank in 1843, but let’s rewind to 1748 to another slave ship, this one carrying a sailor by the name of John Newton. The ship was in the North Atlantic when it was engulfed in a violent storm. Newton later said of the storm, “I awaited with fear and impatience to receive my inevitable doom.” He was not even remotely religious, yet after seeing other crewmen washed overboard and experiencing the full force of the storm’s fury while tied to the deck for eleven hours something began to change within him.
The memory of this experience never left him and in 1764 John Newton became a minister. To accompany a sermon he would deliver on New Year’s Day of 1773 he penned the words now made famous:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
People can change. At one point or another we’ve all pleaded, “Just give me another chance.” We are convinced that if we have just one more shot at something we’ll do better, we’ll be better.
Other times we feel hopelessly trapped, weighed down by the consequences of our own actions or by the actions of others. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley wears a massive chain and informs Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life… I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it.” He goes on to tell his former business partner of the ponderous chain that Scrooge himself wears.
The scriptures are full of instances in which chains are used as metaphors. We learn in Psalms that God “bringeth out those which are bound with chains” (Psalms 68:6). The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi exhorted his sons to “shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe” (2 Nephi 1:13). In the book of Moses we read of Enoch’s great vision in which he saw countless generations on the earth. The scripture states, “And he beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced” (Moses 7:26). This caused the God of Heaven Himself to look upon the earth and weep.
What are these chains? The prophet Alma explained that when men and women harden their hearts, “to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell” (Alma 12:11).
When we harden our hearts against the influence of the Holy Spirit we subject ourselves to the chains and bondage of the Adversary. We become prideful and refuse to repent. We reject the cleansing power of the Atonement – both for ourselves (since we see no need to change) and for others (since we do not believe they deserve the opportunity to change).
If we truly wish to change we’re going to need some help. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “We thank our Father in Heaven we are allowed to change, we thank Jesus we can change, and ultimately we do so only with Their divine assistance. Certainly not everything we struggle with is a result of our actions. Often it is the result of the actions of others or just the mortal events of life. But anything we can change we should change, and we must forgive the rest.”
“We must forgive the rest.” Is it just me or is that a difficult thing to do? In Elder Holland’s most recent General Conference talk he said, “Surely each of us could cite an endless array of old scars and sorrows and painful memories that this very moment still corrode the peace in someone’s heart or family or neighborhood. Whether we have caused that pain or been the recipient of the pain, those wounds need to be healed so that life can be as rewarding as God intended it to be.”
We each keep our own Naughty and Nice lists and we unconsciously update them with the name of each new person we come in contact with. The waitress who made sure to bring me extra hot sauce – definitely Nice list material. But the man who cut me off on the way home from work yesterday – he’s going on my Naughty list for sure.
The worst part is that we tend to write our Naughty lists in permanent ink. It’s easy to add a name, but it’s hard for someone to erase their name from our list. Even if they do something nice we doubt their motives and continually repeat to ourselves (and often to them, as well) their history of hurts like some kind of mantra of misery.
There is an old saying, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” How often do we reverse that in our minds? We hate those who have hurt us while holding fast to our own favorite set of sins. We repeatedly ask others for a second chance, but do we allow others to change or do we keep them encased within a tragic snow globe, trapped and unable to escape. Receiving no attention from us except when we choose to give them a good shake and keep a storm of offenses swirling around their heads.
As in all things, Christ was the perfect example of forgiveness. As the Almighty Jehovah on Mount Sinai He gave the commandments to Moses, including “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Yet during His mortal ministry when a woman taken in adultery was brought before Him, He did not condemn her. While her accusers impatiently awaited His answer, He stooped and silently wrote on the ground.
Christ had every right to condemn. It was He who wrote the immutable commandments in stone with His own finger. It was He who would shortly pay for that woman’s severe sins with His own blood. Yet He chose not to condemn her. And not only did He not condemn her, but he silenced the chorus of accusing voices with His words, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
The merciful Savior gave her another chance. As President Dallin H. Oaks explained, “The Lord obviously did not justify the woman’s sin. He simply told her that He did not condemn her—that is, He would not pass final judgment on her at that time… The woman taken in adultery was granted time to repent, time that would have been denied by those who wanted to stone her.”
Change takes time, but it can occur. The Joseph Smith Translation of John 8:11 tells of the woman’s repentance: “And the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name.” John Newton did not immediately change after his harrowing experience at sea, he continued in the slave trade for another 5 years. But eventually he did change and he worked to end slavery in England. Our favorite Christmas stories are stories of change. Like Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey we hope for redemption. We hope that, like the Grinch, our small hearts may grow three sizes one day.
In Elder Holland’s excellent talk on forgiveness and reconciliation he ended by quoting Phillips Brooks’ admonition: “You who are letting miserable misunderstandings run on from year to year, meaning to clear them up some day; you who are keeping wretched quarrels alive because you cannot quite make up your mind that now is the day to sacrifice your pride and [settle] them; you who are passing men sullenly upon the street, not speaking to them out of some silly spite … ; you who are letting … [someone’s] heart ache for a word of appreciation or sympathy, which you mean to give … some day, … go instantly and do the thing which you might never have another chance to do.”
My hope is that as we strive for change we grant others the same opportunity. May we write their names alongside our own on that oft-forgotten third Christmas list of “Still Trying.” May we truly forgive and forget. May we remember Alma the prophet, not Alma the sinner and Paul the Apostle, not Saul the Persecutor. May we see the saint in every sinner and the friend in every foe.
And most of all may we remember that Jesus Christ has already paid the price for each and every one of us. He has broken the chains. I pray we can all release those unlocked shackles, whether on ourselves or others. Let us leave the chains broken on the ground and move forward into the wondrous freedom for which He paid so very dearly.