For the past 6 years, interrupted by an 18 month mission abroad, I have taught Sunday School at my local county jail. I have felt compelled for a while now to share some of the lessons that I teach. This has been a unique and rewarding experience for me personally, and I have probably learned more than any of the students – hence the title of this series: “Lessons from the Jail”. (Read lesson 1 here) (Read lesson 2 here) I hope and pray that you, readers, will find in them a perspective and an honesty that will brighten your own understanding of the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Lesson # 3 – The Good News
I walked into the classroom one Sunday intending to teach one of my “prepared” lessons. One of the pleasures of teaching these lessons is that even the “prepared” lessons are typically driven by the spirit to meet the needs of the men in the room. On this particular day the spirit took over quickly when, during the opening prayer, the man who prayed thanked the Lord for me being there to bring them “the good news”. The prompting came, and off we went with a completely impromptu lesson on what, exactly, is the “good news” of the gospel.
As usual, I started off by asking the question. Responses were varied, from “Jesus died for us” to “we can repent” to “we can go to Heaven”. Switch to narrative voice:
Those are all good answers, but really – what is the good news? Good news implies bad news, doesn’t it – it’s typically only good news when compared to the real or potential bad news? After all, if all we ever heard was good news, we wouldn’t appreciate it when we heard it. (2 Nephi 2:11) So maybe we can figure out what the good news is by focusing for a minute on the opposite – the “bad news”. So, what is the bad news? The bad news, gentlemen, is death – physical and spiritual death – and misery. The bad news is that, if we’re not careful, we’re going to make a mess of the opportunity we’ve been given – the opportunity to become like our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Have you ever stopped to consider that we are eternal beings? Yes, eternal beings! Eternity is a very, very, very long time. And if I’m going to be miserable, I’m going to be miserable for a very, very, very long time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be miserable for eternity. I’d much rather be joyful for eternity, wouldn’t you? So, if the bad news is that I could end up being miserable, or even just mediocre, for eternity, what’s the good news? Of course – it’s that I can be joyful and great for eternity. But how do I do that? How do I learn to choose joyful and great over miserable and mediocre?
The answer, gentlemen, is right here (hold up the scriptures). That’s what the “gospel” is all about. It’s not about what we can or can’t do. It’s not about punishment and damnation. It’s certainly not about fear. No, it’s about what we can do. It’s about eternal joy and happiness. It’s about love (1 John 4:18) This, joy and love and peace and happiness, is what we are created for – that’s who we are. Remember our first lesson? Who are we? We’re children of God, right? We were created to be great, to be loving, to be honest and compassionate and kind and strong and faithful! That’s who we are.
So, the good news is, first, just knowing who we are – that anyone, I don’t care who it is, who tells you that you were “born in sin”, or that you’re a “devil child” or that you are anything but good, is lying to you. The good news, first, is that you are beautiful.
Second, the good news is that all the myths you’ve been raised with about heaven and hell are wrong. You see, here’s the truth. You lived with God before you were born. We all did. When we were there, 1/3 of us chose to follow Satan on what they thought was the path of security (he lies – a lot!). The rest of us put our faith in Christ – in His eternal plan of salvation. We chose to come to this earth. But there was a catch. We wouldn’t remember this choice (although He would). We would come here and be deceived, lied to, tested, and hurt. We would experience pain and fear. Some of us would remember Him better than others. But we would all have the light of Christ. We would all know the difference between right and wrong. And we would all have our agency – that we might choose and that we might become. What we become, in turn, would depend not only upon our choices but also the context within which we made them. D&C 82:3 says:
For of him unto whom much is given much is required, and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.
And here’s the great part – we’re all going to heaven! We’re all going to spend eternity in that sphere of existence where we will find the most joy – based on what we’ve become. Why? Well, it’s because we already made the really tough choice. We already chose to follow Christ! Mormons call this “keeping our first estate”. We already passed a huge test, and our reward is already promised us.
Still, what part of heaven we spend eternity in is up to us. It is based upon what we’ve become. A man whose internet name is “Amonhi” said, (I really love this), “In order for me to go to heaven, I have to become the kind of person that, when I enter heaven, it’s still heaven for everyone else”. This applies to whatever state we spend eternity in. In other words, we’re all going to heaven, but what our heaven is like depends upon who we’ve become, because our heaven needs to still be heaven for everyone else after we get there. The heaven that we fit best in will be ours.
Third, the good news is that life is supposed to be joyful, and we’re supposed to be here to learn how to love. Who here wouldn’t like to love and be loved unconditionally? Right – we all would, wouldn’t we? Well, that’s why we’re really here – to love and be loved…unconditionally. That’s how Christ loves us, and that how we’re supposed to love ourselves and each other. It’s all about the light, it’s all about the love, it’s all about the goodness. So, lighten up and relax. We typically take life much more seriously than we need to. The Lord’s got our backs, unless we walk away from Him. Again, we just need to remember who we are and then live like it.
Lastly, the good news is the atonement of Jesus Christ. The good news is that He died for us, and on the third day He rose from the dead. I already mentioned that we will experience a lot of contention here. Some of it will be the result of our choices, some of it the result of the choices of others, and some of it just because. There will be sadness and pain. There will be lessons to learn…the hard way. We know what that’s like, don’t we? We all seem to need to learn the hard way, don’t we? Therefore, we will make mistakes; we will sin. As a result, we will become unclean and imperfect. But we will never become unloved. And through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we can be cleansed and made perfect – typically in spite of ourselves. It works like this – I call this the parable of the easter egg hunt:
A young family had just moved into a new home. It was Easter time. Springtime in Utah is typically wet, and they had not yet had time to put in the landscaping. The yard was simply muddy. Still, it was Easter Sunday, right? The parents really wanted to have an easter egg hunt for their children. So mom and dad carefully prepared the yard, hiding easter eggs wherever they could. Some would be easy to find, but others might well require some rooting around in the mud. Some were real colored eggs, but others were the plastic kind with treats inside. The ones that were easy might have a piece of candy, but the harder ones contained money. The kids were excited – it was time to hunt and there were treasures to be found! The kids ran into the yard with abandon! They quickly found the easy eggs, but they also quickly found the mud. As they trudged through the yard, the stains and dirt got thicker and thicker. The parents urged them on, telling them there were yet more treasures to be found, and providing clues when needed. The kids searched and searched, sometimes even helping each other, the whole time getting more and more soiled, and finding more and more treasures. Finally, they had found all the eggs and it was time for church. But wait – they can’t go to church caked in mud. But Mom and Dad had this all figured out. They had prepared the bathroom with visqueen (plastic sheeting). Off the kids went to be cleansed in the bathtub. New clothes, a spritz of jasmine water, and they were ready for Sunday School.
This, of course, is how the atonement works in our lives, too. The Lord knew we would get dirty when we came here – we had to, or we couldn’t “become”. We had to make mistakes or we wouldn’t grow. We would all struggle and we would fall in the mud, but the way has been prepared for us to be presented to our loving Heavenly Father in spotless new clothes, even a spritz of jasmine water.
This, gentlemen, is the good news of the gospel. The Lord created us to be great. He offered us a life of trials filled with joy and growth and becoming. We accepted His offer, and here we are. When this life is ended, we have the promise of an eternity of joy – because that’s why He created us (2 Nephi 2:25). Will you accept this? Will you commit yourself to becoming someone that, when you enter heaven, it is still heaven for everyone else? I promise you that if you will make that commitment, and walk the walk one step at a time, the Lord will prepare the way for you to have peace and joy in this life, and an eternity of joy in the life to come. I declare the truthfulness of these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.