It has been my experience from teaching in various organizations of the Church, and from my limited understanding of the Atonement while growing up, that many in the Church falsely assume that Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and at Golgotha replaces any suffering on the part of the repentant sinner beyond what is deemed godly sorrow. These same individuals will often quote from D&C 19:16 and conclude that Christ has already “suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent.” The purpose of my remarks below is to show that this simply is not the case.
Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah made it a habit of going about “seeking to destroy the church” when “the angel of the Lord appeared unto them” and turned them from the error of their way (Mosiah 26:10-11). Now, these guys weren't your average anti-Mormons with an axe to grind. Astonishingly, Alma admits to having “murdered many of [God’s] children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14), and Mormon characterizes Alma and his companions as “the very vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4).
Alma was so overcome by the angelic vision that he was left in a somewhate vegetative state for three days and three nights (Alma 36:10), during which time he reports that “after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God” (Mosiah 27:28) (emphasis added). He explained to his son Helaman that during this time he was “racked, even with the pains of a damned soul” (Alma 36:16).
The pain and suffering that Alma underwent while repenting was so exquisite that it ostensibly took him to the brink of physical death. As is often the case, the depth of one’s repentance must be in proper proportion to the severity of the transgression. I conclude that Alma’s punishment was just, and simply proportional to the seriousness of his sins.
Because many in the Church falsely believe that Christ’s atonement effectively removed all pain and suffering for the penitent individual, they find it hard to grasp why Alma suffered so intensely while honestly embarking in the repentance process. In this they are misled. What they fail to realize, and something that I certainly did not grasp when I was a youth, is that there is no repentance without suffering.
Alma himself understood this concept very well, undoubtedly doctrinally as well as experientially. In teaching his son Corianton, Alma explained that “repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be” (Alma 42:16). Having quoted this scripture, President Spencer W. Kimball instructed the priesthood leaders of the Church as follows: “Ponder on that for a moment. Have you realized that? There can be no forgiveness without real and total repentance, and there can be no repentance without punishment. This is as eternal as is the soul. . .” (CR, April 1975, p.115) (emphasis added).
The Lord warned us that “if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:17). In other words, if we repent we will not be required to suffer “even as” the Savior suffered, but there is no indication that we will forego all suffering. Instead, besides having to bear the burden of any natural consequences of our sins and express godly sorrow, each of us will have to experience the full anguish associated with true repentance. President Kimball taught that suffering “is a very important part of repentance. One has not begun to repent until he has suffered intensely for his sins. … If a person hasn’t suffered, he hasn’t repented” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, pp. 88, 99).
In the eternal scheme of things, all individuals are required to suffer as long as they remain in sin. Joseph Smith taught that “[a]ll will suffer until they obey Christ himself” (TPJS, p.357). Once each of us repents and justly suffers for our sin, Christ’s atonement may then lay claim upon us.