“The Condescension of God,” Ensign, Dec. 2001, 16
“The Condescension of God”
From His magnificent throne, Jesus Christ descended to face the most extreme humiliation and suffering that mortality could inflict.
There is much to ponder about the greatness of God, His condescension, and what it might mean to us as recipients of His great gift.
We read of the great condescension of God in a few select verses of Nephi’s vision that explain Lehi’s dream of the tree of life.
“And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me. …
“And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
“And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:14, 16–17).
With Nephi’s somewhat vague response, the angel began to teach him about the condescension of God.
“And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. …
“And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. …
“And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him. …
“And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God!
“And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him. …
“And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them. …
“And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
“And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Ne. 11:18, 20, 24, 26–28, 32–33).
To understand the meaning of condescension, reference can be made to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior.” President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught, “It means to descend or come down from an exalted position to a place of inferior station.”1
The Condescension of God
As the angel taught Nephi, he may have been speaking of two condescensions—one of God the Father and one of the Son, Jesus Christ. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles elaborates, “‘The condescension of God,’ of which the scriptures speak, means that the Immortal Father—the glorified, exalted, enthroned ruler of the universe—came down from his station of dominion and power to become the Father of a Son who would be born of Mary, ‘after the manner of the flesh.’”2 God the Father also condescended by sending His Only Begotten Son to suffer the sins of the world. The Savior is God’s gift to us.
While God the Father’s condescension reflects His great love for all mankind by permitting His Only Begotten to be sacrificed for even the humblest and lowliest of His children, Christ’s condescension was more personal and visible—for He was the sacrifice. His condescension was manifest by who He was and the way He lived. His condescension can be seen in almost every recorded act of His 33 years of mortality. In this article we will focus on the condescension of the Savior of the world as the Creator/Redeemer and Exemplar.
God the Creator/Redeemer
We know of Jesus Christ’s work in the creation of the world under the direction of the Father. In preparation for Moses’ great work, our Father in Heaven, through the voice of Jesus, revealed to Moses the wondrous creation, “yea, even all of it, and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold” (Moses 1:27). Then a few verses later the Lord stated, “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33). Our understanding and testimony of this is further enlightened and reinforced through our temple worship.
The magnitude of God’s work is incomprehensible. It is infinite. From His magnificent throne, Jesus Christ, the God of this world, all-knowledgeable and all-powerful, descended. Indeed, it is sobering to ponder that He alone would come down from this glorified throne to face the most extreme humiliation and suffering that mortality could inflict.
President Benson stated, “When the great God of the universe condescended to be born of mortal woman, He submitted Himself to the infirmities of mortality to ‘suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death’ (Mosiah 3:7).”3
The Lectures on Faith teach that one reason Jesus Christ is called the Son of God is because He “descended in suffering below that which man can suffer; or, in other words, suffered greater sufferings, and was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be.”4
The Book of Mormon helps us understand the magnitude of this descent. When brought before the wicked King Noah, Abinadi testified of this magnificent, unthinkable condescension that evidences the Lord’s mercy and love:
“And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.
“And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God. …
“And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people” (Mosiah 15:1–2, 5).
But, hardened by years of evil, self-indulgence, and selfishness, King Noah had not the slightest comprehension or feeling toward the truths being unfolded before him.
When I contemplate the magnitude of this gift, the magnitude of His descent, and the extremity of His suffering, the words of a song thunder through my mind: “O Lord my God. … How great thou art! How great thou art!” (Hymns, no. 86).
In the 34th chapter of Alma, Amulek testifies of the need for the Son of God to personally come down to perform the Atonement according to the great plan of the Eternal God. He explains that the Atonement must be “a great and last sacrifice,” not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast or fowl as was customary (see Alma 34:9–10). It had to be infinite, covering all transgression, all suffering, and it had to be eternal—applying to all mankind from the infinite beginning to the endless end. No, it could not be a sacrifice of man, beast, or fowl. It had to be a sacrifice of a God, even God the Creator, God the Redeemer. He had to condescend from godhood to mortality, and in mortality to sacrificial lamb. His gift of redemption, through His condescension, necessitated His suffering, exquisite pain, and humiliation.
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
“But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
“Which 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—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:16–18).
Like the vastness of God’s creations, incomprehensible to the finite mind, His suffering is equally incomprehensible, as His Atonement is also infinite. His condescension is an integral, necessary, and inseparable part of the Atonement. The Atonement itself was predicated upon His willingness to descend and suffer. His condescension, as part of the Atonement, is probably as essential to the redemption of mankind as was His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the cross. His Atonement was a free gift to all mankind—a gift that could be obtained no other way. It resulted from His willingness to descend. He descended not because of obligation, nor for glory, but only for love. His condescension to redeem us through the Atonement was the price He paid to provide salvation and exaltation. As the song rolls on, “I scarce can take it in” (Hymns, no. 86).
It is at the extremity of His suffering, His greatest condescension, that we witness the majesty of His mission. It was at this time of His greatest humiliation and lowest state that He gave greatest glory to His Father in Heaven and then signaled the completion of His mission by simply uttering the words “Father, it is finished, thy will is done” (JST, Matt. 27:54, footnote 50a). Indeed, He had descended to fulfill His Father’s will.
When the Prophet Joseph Smith suffered in Liberty Jail all the indignities that a mortal being could withstand, he cried out, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1). At this time the Savior gave encouragement and deep consoling words to His prophet of the Restoration, reminding him, “Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee,” and then, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 121:10; D&C 122:8).
There is an interesting parallel between the Prophet Joseph’s and the Savior’s darkest hours. During the Prophet’s hours of deep despair, he descended from revered prophet to humiliated, tormented, and despised prisoner—the lowest of humanity in the eyes of his persecutors. From this experience came one of the most inspiring, comforting revelations of all times, a portion of which is now in Doctrine and Covenants 121 and 122. Perhaps this then is the great irony, that the finest moments, the most significant developments in furthering the kingdom, are often purchased with the greatest trials, sufferings, and condescension. The great contradiction—by descending, they soared to heavenly achievements.
God the Exemplar
The Savior taught: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:11–12). The Savior lived His teachings. He showed us the way. The God of this earth, the Redeemer of the world, condescended to minister to the humble, despised, despairing, hopeless, and helpless. His condescension was evidenced in His everyday living and by these examples:
God, the Redeemer, the lamb without blemish, submitted to baptism “to fulfil all righteousness” (2 Ne. 31:5).
He explained, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
When the woman at Jacob’s well said, “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans,” He taught her, “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst” (John 4:9, 14).
When the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Him with His own words in the presence of the adulteress, He responded, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
When asked by a cunning lawyer who his neighbor was, Jesus used an illustration of a wounded man shunned by a priest and a Levite and then cared for by a lowly Samaritan (see Luke 10:29–35).
In His final hours, after washing the feet of His disciples, He admonished, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
When the God of this earth, the greatest of all, knelt at the feet of His disciples, He was teaching more than the fundamentals of foot washing. Some of the words associated with Christ’s condescension are descend, love, mercy, grace, suffering, submission, obedience, service, sacrifice, redeem, humility, minister, judged, and slain.
And so the angel said to Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Ne. 11:16). I believe we know something of His condescension—as God the Creator, Redeemer, Exemplar. For instance, we know:
He descended to be born of mortal woman, even though He was glorified and exalted.
He descended to be baptized of man, even though He was perfect and sinless.
He descended to minister to the humblest of the humble, even though He was exalted.
He descended to subject Himself to the will of the Father, suffering Himself to be tempted, mocked, scourged, cast out, and disowned, even though He was all-powerful.
He descended to be judged of the world, even though He was the Judge of the world.
He descended to be lifted on the cross and slain for the sins of the world, even though no man could take away His life.
So what does this mean for us? Our understanding of Christ’s condescension should take us beyond our feelings of awe and deep gratitude. As members of His Church, being called to represent Him and testify of Him, our great opportunity is to try to emulate Him.
We will not emulate Christ as the Creator. The earth has already been created. We will not emulate Him as the Redeemer. All mankind has already been redeemed from death, and from sin if they would repent. But we can testify of Him and declare His gospel. Thus, many of the words associated with Christ’s condescension can also be associated with our ministry—words like descend, love, mercy, submission, obedience, service, sacrifice, and minister.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The condescension of the Father of our spirits, in providing a sacrifice for His creatures, a plan of redemption, … ought to inspire everyone who is called to be a minister of these glad tidings, to so improve his talent that he may gain other talents, that when the Master sits down to take an account of the conduct of His servants, it may be said, Well done, good and faithful servant.”5 As the Father and Son both condescended from lofty and glorious stations to fulfill Their missions, we also can become the true servants in doing Their work, following Their example.
Some time ago, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the Seventy told of an experience regarding Elder J Ballard Washburn, also of the Seventy. Brother Washburn, with a companion, was visiting a home in an impoverished area. They arrived to find three small children who had been abandoned for several days and left to fend for themselves. They discovered a baby who had not had a diaper change for some three or four days. His bottom was sore from dried excrement. The stench was so bad his companion had to leave the home and go outside for fresh air. Brother Washburn went out and fetched some water, then carefully soaked and gently washed the baby. After washing the baby’s entire body, he asked for a clean towel and then tenderly diapered him. His condescension was of service to “one of the least of these my brethren” (Matt. 25:40).
Like the Savior, our greatest good may be brought about through administering to even “the least of these my brethren.” We must remember that in any station of life or particular calling, every person is a beloved child of God; and ours is to minister even to the most humble and to serve them as the Master would serve them.
For us to follow the Savior’s example in our callings, we can be kind to all with whom we come in contact. We can build others, inspire them, lift them, and teach rather than criticize. We can show love, respect, and caring to all those we meet. We can “descend” to be the servant of even the humblest.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles conveys the following thought: “When at times we encounter a situation in church service in which a pigeon seems to be supervising an eagle, we need to be accepting even if our evaluation seems accurate. Besides, humility keeps us from spending our time and talent wastefully in counting the plumage of our peers. Remember, this is a kingdom wherein the First is the servant of all!”6
I vividly remember my first visit with President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985). When I was a new employee of the Church, he took my hand, gently pulled me down to his level, kissed me on the cheek, and whispered, “Thank you for coming; I love you.” The prophet of God had in effect condescended to my level, and I felt as though my feet had just been washed. President Kimball had much to teach in this regard.
Perhaps Nephi most appropriately summarized what our response to the Lord’s condescension might be: “O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions? And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (2 Ne. 4:26–27). And, I might add, why should I not serve in the manner that He taught me to serve?