It’s a short hymn with only eight lines, but despite its brevity and simplicity, it packs a punch. The lyrics “we may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear” speak volumes, as do the lyrics that complete that thought: But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.
The Atonement is unfathomably deep and impossibly broad, and we can’t hope to understand it in its fullness. And that’s alright, because we aren’t asked to. We can understand how it applies to us personally. We can make use of it in our own lives, striving to repent and exercise faith in the One who has made it possible to become clean again. For me, it’s overwhelming to think of the staggering magnitude of the Atonement and the suffering the Savior endured on the cross and in the garden of Gethsemane. I feel so inadequate when I try to think of that. So I don’t think of that. Instead, I can think about how He suffered for me, and while that’s still an overwhelming thought, it’s more personal, and somehow more manageable for me.
There’s a lovely bit of wordplay in the third verse that I’ve noticed every time I’ve sung this hymn for the last ten or fifteen years. I don’t know that it appears in other languages (wordplay is notoriously difficult to translate), or even that it’s intentional, but I’ve always liked the double meaning that can come from these words:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.
The lyrics ostensibly refer to the fact that there was only One who was able to suffer the consequences of sin for everyone, thus allowing us to return to the presence of the Father. And yet you can just as easily read a different meaning into that word “only.” While it’s true that He only could unlock the gate, it’s also true that He only could unlock the gate. He cannot force us through, nor will He. He paid the terrible price to open the door for us, but it’s up to us to make that first step. Both readings impress themselves on my mind when I sing this hymn.
The lyrics of the fourth verse seem to drive home that same idea. Listen:
Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.
We place our trust in Him. We cannot know that our sins will be forgiven simply by hearing those words. We receive that confirmation as we act on those words, and as we do so, we feel the purifying influence of the Spirit washing us clean. The Spirit brings our knowledge of the power of the Atonement back to our remembrance, helping us to strengthen our faith and trust in the Savior. Our love for Him is strengthened, too.
There’s a double meaning in this verse, too, convincing me further that I’m not simply seeing something that isn’t there in the third verse. We are told that the Savior has loved us “dearly,” and both meanings hold true. “Dear” can refer to deep affection or regard, and that’s certainly true of the love our Savior holds for each of us on a personal level. During those moments of insight when I can feel His love without reservation, I can feel how much He cares about me in particular. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better description of that love than “dear.” But it can also mean “at a high cost,” and that’s a meaning that brings a gasp to my throat when it comes to mind as I sing. Surely no one paid a higher price for love than our Savior did in the garden of Gethsemane. When he begged the Father to “remove this cup,” we are given the slightest glimpse into the terrible agony He felt. And when we read further the phrase, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” we feel the love He had not only for His Father, but for each of us for whom He suffered.
He has loved dearly, no matter how you choose to define it, and we must love Him, too. And we do, as we place our trust in Him and do the things He has asked. We remember the suffering He felt on that green hill far away, but we also remember the depth of the love that led Him to that hill. And we trust in His redeeming love, and try His works to do.