He Has Been There before Me
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“He Has Been There before Me,” Ensign, July 1975, 23

He Has Been There before Me

When I kneel at the limits of my personal extremity …

We determine, to a degree, our future by the choice of those whom we select for our models, those in whom we place our trust. When I have seriously altered my own lifestyle, it has been because of my deep respect of or love for someone, and my desire to imitate or to please that person. Other forces, of course, have caused me to alter my actions momentarily; but I am referring here to inner commitments, changes of the spirit.

My priorities in life, my basic likes and dislikes in everything from clothing styles to value systems, have been determined largely by my past associations. For example, my interest in classical music can be traced to a missionary companion and to some friends I met in the mission field, and my interest in country and western music to a neighbor. My quest for excellence is traceable to my father, and my appreciation of the quiet life to my mother. My teaching style has been influenced by impressive teachers in my past. That which I have become can be traced to a great extent to those whom I have considered important in my life, those in whom I have placed my confidence. In this, I assume I am no different from others.

By the same token, I have been prompted to a new challenge in my lifestyle by the Savior’s attitude toward life. As he became more important to me, I experienced a new type of sensitivity emerging in my relationship to others. I have also found this same experience to be true of numerous students in New Testament classes. As they become alert to the attitude of the Master, as they begin to trust more completely in his love, their lives begin to change. Faith in Christ thereby becomes the first—and last—principle of the gospel. Our lives, if they are to be turned in right directions, need the experience of having known him and having seen life through his eyes. Just as I have enjoyed eating out because my wife enjoyed it, or just as I learned to like hiking because I have experienced the mountains through the eyes of a friend who loves them, so might I learn to seek to understand people more compassionately because Christ understood them in that fashion and I feel a kinship with him.

On one occasion the Master said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3.) It is interesting to notice how often Jesus stated this same truth in different ways—the truth that entrance into eternal realms is contingent upon our coming to know him.

Near the beginning of his ministry, when he was delivering the Sermon on the Mount (his blueprint for Christian living), he stated, concerning those within the Church, “And many will say unto me in that day [i.e. the day of judgment] Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name; and in thy name cast out devils; and in thy name done many wonderful works?

“And then will I say, Ye never knew me; depart from me ye that work iniquity.” (JST, Matt. 7:32–33; italics added.)

Also, near the end of his ministry, when the Master was relating the parable of the ten virgins (again in a reference to members of the Church), he told how the five foolish virgins pled for entry when they found the door shut against them:

“But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, Ye know me not.” (JST, Matt. 25:11; italics added.)

Knowing, like loving, has different dimensions. It is one thing to know of sickness through reading a medical treatise. It is another thing to visit a hospital and know sickness at close range. However, it is still another thing to be confined in the hospital yourself and know of sickness intimately and personally. The same is true of knowing people. One may know another by hearsay, by a slight association, or by close affiliation.

I believe that Christ, when he speaks of knowing Him, is referring to the third sense of the word—not just that we know of him by reading about him or by hearing about him, but that we know him through the bonds of common experience and common feeling. Hopefully we will come to know him even more personally through prayer and the communion of his spirit with us, just as we would know an earthly friend. It is in that sense that he came to know us, and I am convinced that that is the only way that we can truly come to know him.

If he becomes a central influence in our lives, I think we will come to seek his way of life just as we seek the course of life pointed out to us by the actions and thoughts of our earthly friends. We will begin to see things as though through his eyes, and sense things more deeply, as though through the depths of his feelings. As we begin to find ourselves becoming more like him, we can truly say that we are beginning to know him. This should be the goal of every Christian. A major purpose of all we say and do in his Church is to make people more sensitive to him and his ways.

Nephi recorded:

“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Ne. 25:26.)

This was an oft-repeated pattern among the prophets. They realized that their total mission was to bring individuals to the Master in a way that would let them experience the warmth and vitality of his companionship.

I have often wondered if we could truthfully say the same thing that Nephi said, concerning our homes and our wards today. How central to our lives is the Master? How often in our family home evenings, in our sacrament meetings, in our Sunday Schools, in our Relief Societies, and in our priesthood meetings is he made the central topic of our discussions? If he has not become central to all that is said and done, then I fear we have missed the mark, and we should ask ourselves why.

The apostle John has suggested that those who come to love the Master are those who recognize his love for them. (See 1 Jn. 4:19.) In other words, the pathway to a love of Christ stretches behind the gateway of recognizing his love for us. Further, I am convinced, one finds that gateway in the Gethsemane experience of the Master, in a recognition of what the Master underwent on that occasion.

Having worked for several years with young people of the Church in seminary and institute classes, I have seen in their lives the problems I had in my own as I learned to recognize the love of the Master. My own experience and feelings, I suspect, were not atypical, and will illustrate a process often involved in coming to recognize the Savior’s love.

Since I was a small child in Sunday School I had heard discussions of the atonement. I had heard terms such as “ransom,” “eternal law,” “mercy,” and “justice” used in these discussions until I could reproduce the logical argument myself. Great care was taken to point out that mercy could not rob justice, and that under the rules of eternal law every transgression must be compensated for by a punishment. I understood thoroughly that Christ’s suffering in some way paid the price of justice to atone for the sins of all mankind. The entire system, as I understood—or perhaps misunderstood—it, seemed so cold, so devoid of any feeling. Christ had been given a mission to fulfill, and through the act of the atonement was simply fulfilling his calling. In many ways he became, in my mind, simply a theological necessity that made the entire legal system work.

All of this brought the Savior no closer to me, until I later began to penetrate all of the legalistic aspects of the atonement, and to discover the very personal level of that experience. Not until I began to see the compassionate part of the Savior’s mission did I begin to sense any responsive feelings of my own.

As a child, I initially felt the bond between me and the Master very real and tangible. But as I grew older and witnessed the society around me, a gap between us began to develop on my part. To me, Christ was the head of the Church, and consequently a very important person. In the world I knew, the successful people always seemed to gravitate toward other successful people, and they had apparently little concern or sympathy with those who were lower on the social, educational, or business strata than they. They did not seem to want to be with these “lower” beings nor to attempt to really understand their viewpoints. Any social concern, I noticed, seemed to be for their equals or for those above them in the social stratum. Even though some expressed interest in the social welfare of the less fortunate, I observed that they kept what I considered to be a “safe distance” between them and those less fortunate. They seemed glad to spend time working with their brethren on the welfare farm, but had little (if any) time for the company of those who were needing the welfare. Though they gave much to worthy charities, including those of the Church, they did so with little apparent inconvenience to their own comfortable lifestyles.

I had come to believe that this was the way that all men operated, the natural order of society. I assumed that the Master would fit the same pattern. His concern, his time, and his attention should have been reserved for the leadership of the church and for other important individuals. I felt he had little or no time for insignificant individuals, myself included.

Yet, as I began to think more seriously upon his life, I discovered more and more that he did not seem to fit the mold I had constructed. Though the socially elite of his time sometimes sought him, he did not exclusively seek them. His interest seemed to be in the down-trodden, the unfortunates of his world—and I found that exciting! I came to feel his genuine interest in mankind, not because of their station in life nor their position in society, but simply because they were human beings. I marveled at his great personal resources, at his strength demonstrated in his willingness to be stripped of all power, prestige, or position so that he might more fully comprehend human experience at its humblest levels.

How appropriate, I thought, that the Savior of mankind should understand life at its most basic level, that he should know intimately the soul of the suffering one—not from the clinical safety of a distant view, but, as it were, by experiencing personally the suffering of the one in the hospital bed. I wondered how Alma’s insight could have escaped me so long:

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people.

“… And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11–12.)

I found that his love was somehow closely intertwined with his descent into the depths of life. I read again the account of Nephi’s dream in which Nephi discovered that joy, the reason for man’s existence, was associated with the experiencing of God’s love, and that this love was shown in the dream by the Savior’s future experience with suffering. The question which the angel used to introduce His comments to Nephi took on great significance to me:

“Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Ne. 11:16.) I found myself responding in my soul with Nephi’s response: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Ne. 11:17.)

“Condescension” was a good word, I felt, but one which could be misleading. I did not want to be patronized by anyone, even by God. But now I realized that condescension could also imply going down to a lesser station to be of help. According to what Christ told the Prophet Joseph, He had descended lower than anyone who had ever come to earth. (See D&C 122:8.) Gethsemane began to work its way into my consciousness; it held a kind of fascination for me. I sensed that something more important had happened there than just the sterile satisfaction of eternal law, something very personal involving all of us and our relationship with the Master.

I began to see the Last Supper as a continuation of an excursion into the depths of human experience. I witnessed again the Master attempting to impress upon his apostles the necessity of their accepting his new challenge, his new commandment—that they learn to love others, not as they loved themselves, but as He had loved. He asked them to exert themselves until they could get outside of themselves and their own field of concern to see more clearly into the souls of the suffering.

How discouraging he must have found it: attempting to teach the apostles love during that same meal when they had been arguing over who would have positions of honor in the future. I saw through new eyes his infinite patience in administering the sacrament to them and girding himself in the manner of a servant to wash their feet. I listened with renewed interest to his prayer to the Father for them, that they might be the instruments in bringing unity into the world, and that their love and empathy might be complete—“that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26.)

About this time I learned of Brigham Young’s comment that during the Gethsemane experience the Father had withdrawn his Spirit from the Savior, and had drawn a veil between them. This, President Young stated, was the cause of Jesus’ sweating blood from every pore. (Journal of Discourses 3:206.) Knowing this gave me a great sense of pathos when the Savior told his apostles before entering the garden, “Hereafter I will not talk much with you; for the prince of darkness, who is of this world, cometh.” (JST, John 14:30.) Christ, who had never sinned, was shortly to experience the consequence of sin in his total separation from the Spirit of God and in the full torment given by the Prince of Darkness.

I think I sensed to a small degree the significance of the words of Matthew: “And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” (Matt. 26:37–38.)

Mark adds, “And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane, which was a garden; and the disciples began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy, and to complain in their hearts, wondering if this be the Messiah.” (JST, Mark 14:36.) At the very moment when Christ began to witness the worst that life’s experiences had to offer, he was also cut off from the companionship of friends and God. He was soon to know the anguish of loneliness in its most agonizing form.

I thought of the anguish I had felt following some of the mistakes I had made, and wondered how much more intense the Savior’s experience must have been to force blood from his pores. I understood a little of his reaching out for human companionship as he returned again and again to the disciples. To some degree I sensed him, strained to his human extremities, possibly near his own breaking point, as he pled with the Father to take away the cup of his suffering in the garden.

Although I am still not totally aware of all that is meant by the statement that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, I have come to feel that part of this experience was vital in his coming to recognize the trauma we all feel at the time of transgression or in times of loneliness, frustration, anguish, or torment. Among the lessons he learned during the atoning process was this true “at-one-ment” so far as his relationship to men is concerned.

When the Master emerged from that experience, I believe he brought with him a new sensitivity, a new awareness of life and its accompanying terrors. Isaiah’s description of the man who was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, took on a new dimension for me because of Gethsemane. (See Isa. 53:3.)

It seems to me that Gethsemane was more than a flogging with the lash of eternal justice; it was a transforming process in the experience of him who was someday to be my advocate with the Father. He who was to become the Savior was introduced in the fullest sense to the people he would be called upon to save. As he came out of Gethsemane in the bonds of captivity, he knew “humanness” in the deepest sense of the word.

This has very personal implications for me now. When I kneel at the limits of my own human extremities, I sense that he has been there before me, and that he is there yet—not waiting to condemn, but waiting to say, “I understand. And I can help if you will let me. I know the path back; I can help to heal your wounds.” That to me is important. It gives me a new sense of worth and a recognition of my importance in his sight. No longer is he simply the head of the Church—in a real sense, he has become to me, once more, a truly compassionate and concerned Elder Brother.

  • Dr. Arthur R. Bassett is an assistant professor of humanities and comparative literature at Brigham Young University. He teaches Sunday School in the Winder Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Winder Stake.

Photography by Frank Gale