BYU church history and doctrine professor Anthony Sweat described Christ’s ability to identify with his children as one of his atoning powers in his BYU Education Week address.
“You could call this Jesus’ empathetic power,” Sweat said. “It’s his power to relate to us; his power to connect to us. It’s his power to literally feel with us and experience with us.”
Sweat said Christ knows exactly what humans go through because he experienced it himself. Sweat highlighted the difference between sympathy and empathy, defining sympathy as “feeling with” someone and empathy as “feeling into” someone. By that definition, Christ is the only one who can truly empathize with everyone.
“Even our closest people in our lives, our best of friends, our best of counselors, our spouses, whoever we’re the closest with — even they cannot fully empathize with us,” Sweat said. “That’s why (Christ) is the only one who can truly understand.”
Christ’s Atonement was not accomplished in one weekend, according to Sweat. Christ’s ability to understand each person was shaped by his entire mortal experience; not only his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and during the crucifixion.
“If we understand that part of Jesus’ saving divinity had to do with him coming into mortality and experiencing mortality with you and I, then we start to understand that every day of Jesus’ life comprised an aspect of the Atonement,” Sweat said. “It literally was from his birth to his death as he felt all aspects of mortality.”
As a mortal, Christ had to grow “line upon line” and “grace for grace” just as all other mortals do. Although Christ was perfect and never sinned, he too faced temptations, according to Sweat.
“Every day he had to face the decision … do I follow truth and light, or do I not?” Sweat said.
Sweat said although Christ was perfect because he never sinned, he did make mistakes as he learned and grew.
“There is a difference between sin and mistakes. Sin is when we know what we should do and we consciously choose not to do so,” Sweat said. “I would say Jesus made mistakes. He had to; that was part of his learning and growth.”
As an example, Sweat told the story of when Mary and Joseph left Jerusalem after celebrating the Passover and didn’t realize Jesus wasn’t with them until three days later. Although Jesus’ mistake — not telling Mary and Joseph where he was — was innocent, Sweat maintains it was still a mistake. These mistakes are part of how Christ grew “grace for grace” until he was perfected, Sweat said.
“I am positive that once Jesus learned that, he perfectly obeyed it,” Sweat said. “But he had to learn it.”
The idea that Christ, a god, lived a mortal life complete with temptations and trials can be a controversial for some sects of Christianity. However, Sweat said Christ’s condescension actually only further glorifies Christ.
“What I’m saying doesn’t demean him. In my mind it actually deifies him more, because how can you and I turn to a god for help and direction who doesn’t understand mistakes? Or how can you and I turn to a god to dry tears when he himself hasn’t shed tears?” Sweat said. “That’s the beauty of what we’re teaching about the condescension of Christ.”
Sweat said it’s not important to know how Christ was able to experience every affliction each human has and will suffer.
“How it happened isn’t as important as why it happened and that it happened,” Sweat said. “He did this…so that he knows how to help us or succor us individually.”