Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Awesomest Atonement Analogy Ever!

Posted by BrianJ on August 9, 2009

A decade ago, I attended a Sunday School class where the instructor used an ingenious object lesson to illustrate a particular point about the Atonement. The activity was so clever, so original that it captured everyone’s attention and I remember it vividly to this day:

Teacher: Who here, chancing upon a penny, would stoop to pick it up?

{a few hands raise.}

Teacher: Why didn’t every hand raise? Is it that most deem a penny too insignificant to bother? Too much effort, too little payoff?

{many nods, whispered “yesses,” etc.}

Teacher: Well, here’s a penny: you there, you raised your hand. Come up here and take your penny.

{the indicated man, Patrick, walks the few rows to the front of the room and takes the penny, then returns to his seat.}

Teacher: Now then, Patrick, if I offered to trade your penny for this nickel, would you make the effort to come all the way back up here?

{Patrick answers affirmatively and exchanges coins.}

Teacher: That wasn’t too difficult, and already Patrick is five cents richer than when he came to class. Would you, Patrick, also be interested in trading that nickel for this dime?

{Patrick, as expected, agrees to the trade.}

{The teacher proposes several more trades, always waiting until after Patrick returns to his seat before making the new offer, which Patrick accepts every time. Dime to a quarter, quarter to a dollar, and so on up to a fifty dollar note.}

Teacher: This is like the Atonement because….

You can see why this was so memorable. I remember today, ten years later, and I imagine I’ll remember it just as well 10, 20, 50 years from now.

What I can’t remember, unfortunately, is what came after the elipse. What was the point of the excercise? I really can’t say. I confess that I’m not even 100% certain it was related to the Atonement and not some other Gospel principle—like faith, or obedience. A great attention-grabber for sure, but it’s the only part of the lesson I remember.


I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. If so, It’d be fun to hear them; i.e., a compendium of loose-ended analogies. I’d also like to discuss why you think you can’t remember the point your particular teacher was trying to make memorable. In this post, I don’t want to talk about what goes into a good analogy; let this discussion be about how not to analogize. In my case, I think the problems were that:

  • the analogy was more abstract than the point it was designed to illustrate,
  • the class had no idea beforehand what the object lesson intended to teach; therefore, we couldn’t make mental connections during the “display,”
  • the “object” took waaaay more time than the “lesson” (e.g., maybe the lesson was: “With the Atonement, Christ asks very little of us in comparison to what he gives in return.” There, that took me 5 seconds, whereas the activity took ~15 min!).

I’m sure that if the teacher succinctly reminded me of his point today that I would easily see how it fits with the analogy—but that raises the question: “If the teacher can succinctly make his point, why not do so and avoid making a sideshow into the main event?”

36 Responses to “The Awesomest Atonement Analogy Ever!”

  1. BrianJ said

    Of course, even as I write this I realize that you, my reader, may come away from this post remembering only my example and not my point.

  2. clarkgoble said

    I want to know if it was staged… Or did someone get much richer that day?

  3. BrianJ said

    Not staged. Patrick didn’t even know the teacher beforehand. The ward had no long-term members (mostly BYU students) and the teacher was a visitor from the Stake. And at that stage in everyone’s careers, $50 was “much richer” indeed!

  4. joespencer said

    Brian, this is something I’ve thought about a good deal—this question of the disconnect between vivid object lessons and their points.

    My personal example: I very well remember eating a dog biscuit in the course of a seminary lesson, but I have no recollection whatsoever of what the point was—and I was a pretty attentive student!

    But I think this is very common. In CES at least, much of the talk about object lessons centers on focus, not on productivity. That is, object lessons are recommended as a way of getting the whole class focused on one thing and working together. They are supposed to be exciting and memorable so that they distract the students from everything (or everyone) else that might be attracting their attention.

    The problem, though, is that if this is a means-to-an-end kind of thing, the means ends up distracting the students from the end. When I was still taking seminary teacher training courses at BYU, I worked hard on coming up with really vivid object lessons. But when I finally found myself teaching, I found that they always did more harm than good to the classroom environment, not only because of the inevitable disconnect that leaves the memory of the object but not the lesson, but also because object lessons generally overexcite, engender competition, start sidetracking conversations, etc. By the time I began substitute teaching seminary, I dropped them entirely, and I’ve never looked back.

    Another problem I’ve identified with object lessons since—now from observation of other teachers—is that novelty is only novelty once, and so now I find myself rolling my eyes at most object lessons, because I’ve seen this or that idea at least a couple of times already, which means I know where this is going, and it isn’t going anywhere very productive any time soon….

    For what it’s worth…

  5. Matt W. said

    Yesterday my Councilor did the whole Boyd K. Packer “How you present cake” = “How you present the Gospel” lesson for the Young men. I’d done it a few years back with the priests, and they remembered, so they were a little non-plussed. But to make your point, one of the boys asked me afterward “What was the point of that again?” Several other boys got it though.

    I think Object lessons are going to be part of the church culture forever, as Christ used object lessons all the time, and we are trying to be like him. The question in my mind is how we make certain the point is as memorable.

  6. joespencer said


    Yes, Elder Packer states quite clearly in his Teach Ye Diligently that the Savior used object lessons, and that that is why they are so effective. But I don’t know that I agree with Elder Packer on this one (though I am generally in agreement with him, quite against the current in academic circles!). First, a parable is not exactly an object lesson. But even if we so regard it, second, part of the Savior’s purpose in using parables was precisely to ensure that (part of) His audience missed the point. I don’t think we’re trying to accomplish that with our own object lessons, are we?

    I will confess, though, that the chocolate cake object lesson is marvelous. Maybe one like that would only work with “adults” (the scare quotes marks my awareness of the problematic nature of calling missionaries adults…).

  7. document said

    Actually, this is an experience I had as a 13-14 Sunday School teacher. I took a bullfighting sword into class, described a little about bullfighting, and then described the pinpoint accuracy the person needs to thrust the sword while being faced with an angry half-ton bull with two very sharp horns facing them. I then asked them if they would be willing to step into an arena facing a bull without any experience in bull-fighting. I explained that even well experienced bull fighters still make mistakes and even die in the ring.

    I likened it to sin and our experience in life. I explained that we all make mistakes (there is no perfect bull fighter, likewise no perfect human) but if we continue to work hard, accepting grace, we become better at avoiding sin. Anyway, not the best analogy.

    I ran into one of my kids a while back, and she said “I still remember the bull fighting lesson”….but she didn’t remember what the lesson was about.


    The object was “too cool” for 13 year olds, who saw a sword and couldn’t think of anything else
    The connection was a little too stretched
    While the object lesson was short, it required too much explanation to bullfighting

  8. BrianJ said

    Document: A sword?!?! That’s so awesome! I wanna see it. Man, that would be soooo cool… Wait, what was your point?

    Just kidding. I totally agree with what you say: “who saw a sword and couldn’t think of anything else.” Exactly. If nothing else, I think the showmanship of object lessons is the biggest problem. The object is distracting largely because the point isn’t revealed until the very end.

    Matt: …and that may be one of the big differences between the Savior’s use of parables and our misuse of object lessons: He often stated up front what the subject was (“I will liken the kingdom of heaven unto…”) or used parables in reply to a question, so he wasn’t going for some showy reveal at the end. Also, most of his parables are pretty boring—really, how exciting is sowing seeds, finding sheep, or sweeping houses? Lastly, most of his parables/analogies are brief—maybe a verse or two.

    Joe: You’re right that novelty is a problem. First, because it becomes more important than the point (“I’ll bring in a cake, but not just any ordinary cake….”), and second, because if the novelty fails (they’ve seen it before, or they aren’t particularly interested in the object) then you double-fail.

    As for Jesus’ use of parables to confound, we’ve talked about this before and I’m still not sure that we’re reading that the same. See here also.

  9. Gilgamesh said

    It is one thing to point to talk about sowers when they are with you in the audience, or at work near where you are. It is another to bring in an object to a classroom and try to wedge it into a correlated teaching schedule. The Savior seems to have molded his lessons to fit the object, not molded the object to fit the lesson.

  10. BrianJ said

    Gilgamesh: good point. Jesus, in that sense, was an opportunistic teacher.

  11. J. Madson said


    as to parables I think we have sanitized them in our culture and turned them into quaint little stories often divorced from historical and textual context. These were radical statements told in parable form which were later taught in open in Jerusalem leading to Jesus’ death. As Jesus is telling familiar stories and meaning the wrong things by them.

    NT Wright suggests:

    “If people really understood what was being said, a lynching would always be in the cards. This is…at least in part to be understood as the literature of subversion, of the cryptic undermining of a dominant and powerful worldview, and the encouraging and supporting of a revolutionary one.”

    So yeah parables are supposed to get your attention but for the sake of revealing an underlying truth. The content is the thing not getting your attention for its own sake.

  12. Robert C. said

    If we don’t remember the point, but we remember the analogy, isn’t this then similar to what the Savior did? The points of the parables weren’t always obvious. They required thought. Many object lessons I remember are thought-provoking for me. I may not remember the teacher’s point, but I continue to ponder the potential meanings of the analogy or object lesson activity. Good object-lessons outstrip the teacher’s point and create ongoing food for thought for the listeners, just like the Savior’s parables. IMHO….

    • Valerie Morley said

      Brain research shows that long-term learning takes place when the learner has some foundation to attach the new message to and can thus make some meaningful connections. Teachers can lead the discussion, but being told what something means is not very helpful even though it is quicker. Analogies are great places to start and then let students talk about the meaning. I love object lessons, but they only stay with us when we can talk about them and digest them. Who wants to cover the power of the atonement in 5 seconds?? An entire lesson on this saving vehicle in our lives is worth hours of discussion. If kids actually learned what the atonement really meant, we would have no worries for our kids…..ever! So I say, bring on the object lessons, but don’t rush the meaningful discussions afterwards. Be the devil’s advocate to get them thinking if necessary, but at the end they will not forget the analogy or the powerful message behind it. People enjoy listening to popular speakers, but can rarely remember much of what was presented because they cannot digest anything. The speaker has already moved on to the next topic.

  13. BrianJ said

    Robert: maybe, to a degree. I think the problem with the examples shared here (mine about the money trading and Document’s about the sword) illustrate that the object can be so distant from the lesson—the analogy so contrived—that the student never makes the connection. There’s definitely two extremes here:

    1) All Object Lessons Welcome: make it as abstract as you like, just make sure it’s memorable. Students won’t have a clue what you’re talking about, but they’ll ponder it for years to come and make their own connections. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a four-headed ninja with laser swords….” (Huh?)

    2) No Analogies Whatsoever: say what you mean. Analogies confuse and/or distract. Object lessons are just drawn-out analogies. If students don’t understand your simply-stated point, then they’re not going to follow an analogy either.

    I hope you can see that I’m going for something in between those two extremes. In other words, trying to let teachers know that they don’t have to use analogies.

    Also, perhaps it would be worth going through Jesus’ parables and analogies to identify those whose meanings (at least the initial layer of meaning) were not immediately obvious. For example, I think an initial layer of meaning is quite obvious for the parables: Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan, Sower, Lost Silver Coin, Mustard Seed, The 11th-hour Workers, and many more. In other words, at first hearing there is still a connection made—a message that the parable gets across. Further study certainly yields additional insights into each of those parables, but it’s that initial lesson (I think) that gives those parables their real hook: you immediately taste a bit of their sweetness so you keep thinking about them and uncover additional layers of meaning.

  14. TStevens said

    I joined the church when I was 12. I remember my first Sunday School Teacher taught a lesson on the Ten Commandments; specifically he taught us a way to remember them in correct order using a simple mnemonic device.
    3 = tree which has leaves which has veins.
    6 = sticks which are used to make toy guns, etc

    Anyways, I turn 40 in two weeks and I can still remember all ten commandments today thanks to that lesson.

  15. Robert C. said

    Brian, yes, I agree. I tend to like analogies when they’re thoughtfully drawn and used, but I totally agree they can sometimes be distracting rather than helpful.

    Also, I wonder if we have a tendency to teach scriptures too simplistically, in that we already know the underlying gospel principles so we just use the scriptures to proof-text this understanding, and so we turn to analogies to try and bring back some of the freshness, original and even mystery that is missing in non-analogy lessons. In this sense, I think the turn to the endless potential and mystery that is more obvious in analogies is a turn in the right direction, if only sub-consciously. The trick, then, is to make our non-anological teaching more rigorous, thought-provoking and inquisitive….

  16. BrianJ said

    Good point about mis-using analogies to add spice to an otherwise bland lesson—that doesn’t have to be bland!

  17. J. Madson said

    Robert C wrote

    Also, I wonder if we have a tendency to teach scriptures too simplistically, in that we already know the underlying gospel principles so we just use the scriptures to proof-text this understanding

    I wonder if this is a bigger problem then we might want to admit. I have been suspicious for a while now that believing we have all the truth prevents us from discovering truths in the scriptures by proof texting what we already believe. I think an obvious example of this is the way we read atonement theories like penal substitution back into the BoM where IMHO they dont occur (Alma 42 comes to mind). We assume we know how something is and then we read the scriptures to confirm what we already think is right but maybe just maybe we dont know the underlying principles as well as we assume.

  18. Robert C. said

    J Madson, yes, agreed. If you or others aren’t familiar with Jacob Mogan’s Sunstone article or Blake Ostler’s work on this point about penal substitution, I’d recommend having a gander (this was also a common topic on some extremely long threads at the New Cool Thang blog a couple years ago, if you can’t get enough reading on the topic).

  19. J. Madson said

    This was actually part of my sunstone presentation yesterday and I am familiar with Jacob’s paper and the discussions at New Cool Thang. Although I was more focused on how certain atonement theories can affect our morality in the world negatively. As to Jacob’s paper, I agree with his dismissal of satisfaction theories but I think he dismisses moral persuasion too quickly and I find the early Christian ideas of a cosmic battle (Christus Victor) are very appealing when we consider that the evil Christ confronted was not a personified Satan but real evils found in his society and world. But this is a threadjack.

  20. joespencer said

    Hmmm. I have lots to say about atonement theory, and no time to say any of it this morning…. Soon?

  21. J. Madson said


    sounds good, maybe start a new thread.

  22. Robert Matthews said

    I think people use ‘object’ lessons because they don’t understand the principle(s) in question well enough to be able to teach it. It’s the ‘crutch’ we use to try and get a point across.

    J. Reuben Clark once said, “You do not have to sneak up behind this spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in his ears; you can come right out, face to face, and talk with him. You do not need to disguise religious truths with a cloak of worldly things; you can bring these truths to him openly, in their natural guise.” (Charted course of the Church in Education, 1938)

  23. Chris said

    I know it’s been quite a while, so it’s quite likely that no one will see this post. I’ve read most of the comments here and have noticed that no one has stated the obvious about Jesus’ parables. Jesus always used things that were ‘familiar’ to the people – either within their field of view or that would be readily accessable to their minds. His point in using parables and analogies (apart from sometimes seeking not to reveal the whole truth to everyone, as stated in Mark 4:10-12) was to make a point of familiar connection to the people.

    The reason he spoke of sewing seeds was that it was primarily an agricultural culture, and the people would have understood what he was talking about (with the farming aspect, anyway) – so on and so forth. Therefore, yes, using fantastical object lessons might be catchy, but if there is no direct connection with the audience it does kind of miss the point. Then you have to spend time explaning the object lesson (though I must say I’ve been guilty of it myself, too!).

  24. CJ said

    This is coming from a high school aged kid who has to say that maybe you just aren’t teaching the lesson and you are leaving objects there if the students don’t remember it. I can remember at least over 20 objects and their lessons from my teachers. The emphasis in an object lesson should be on emotion however because every one of these object lessons left an impression upon my psyche making me want to change something, a singular aspect, or to remember Christ more. To me, they were incredibly effective.

  25. Robert C. said

    I wonder if Joe’s recent comment about anxiety isn’t a way to make sense of CJ’s point (comment #24) and the point of Brian’s post. The object lesson kinds of exercises prepare readers by engaging and involving them in a existentially anxious kind of way, analogous to the frequent scriptural injunction to “awake!” or “arise!” This is different than the content of a lesson, but it can be very important in its own right—perhaps analogous to what Jesus does with his parables that oftentimes aren’t understood by those who hear, but that misunderstanding itself is potentially very provocative, powerful and thus effective…?

    • BrianJ said

      I think that’s a good way to look at it, and I would just say that what too often happens in the context of teaching is that the anxiety is too great and therefore too memorable.

  26. Matthew said

    I enjoyed re-reading this old post & resulting conversation. But I have to admit one disappointment… no one ever told us what the point of the object lesson was. I figured someone must have heard this one before. I guess not.

    Anyway, here’s my guess: if we don’t obey the commandments God gives us today (rationalizing that they aren’t a big deal) we won’t have the opportunity to be trusted by God to do those things that are more important. The object lesson then is like the parable of the talents where fear of losing money is replaced with laziness of not making enough money and where you follow the actors for several rounds instead of just one.

  27. Amanda said

    Feast upon the scriptures. Give each child an M&M and ask them to eat is as fast as they can. Ask for any thoughts that came to mind while eating. Then give each child another M&M and ask them to eat it as slow as possible. Ask for any thoughts that came to mind this time, and there will be many more. If we feast upon something, we put our more into it and get more out of it.

    • Mike B said

      Haha, I do this all the time with m&m’s. If you just suck on a m&m without biting, then after about a minute or so you’ll feel the shell crack. It just kinda pops as the chocolate expands from heat. It’s fun.

  28. Blake said

    The object lesson is a good one. The atonement is infinite in that it always offers “more than”.

  29. Farah said

    REALLY enjoyed this thread!
    I wonder if the original object lesson (money) was related to the meaning of sacrifice. Giving up something for that which is more valuable. I did am object lesson on this principle recently where I brought in a 6 pack of soda for 7 girls. They were all excited to have a can of soda & I told them I didn’t have anymore. One girl chose to give her soda to the one that was without. So, I pulled out a 2 liter of soda for the girl that gave up her can of soda to illustrate the point of sacrifice.
    I feel there was a direct connection in this particular object lesson, but not in all that I have come across. As I read ideas from others I think, “how does this relate to the lesson. Does this even relate to the YW in my ward?”
    As some have mentioned, Jesus chose to use that which was familiar to his audience to illustrate his point. That being said, I would have to pass on the awesome sword object lesson (although my boys who are taking fencing would love it!).
    I love your money object lesson so much I am keeping it in mind to fit it into a future lesson. How fun would that be? And how true is it that when we sacrifice a little we gain SO much more?!

  30. Brett Moan said

    i know. I’m posting on something super old so maybe no one will read this.

    First a teaser about my self made object lesson its about: how Satan makes sin look satisfying vs the God’s real blessings that seem less satisfying. it involves milk.

    But i must agree on a few things stated previously.

    Like that the “object” part of the object Lesson its self needs to be less memorable, or the lesson part will be forgotten. I think CJ is right about the feeling though. The whole point of teaching the youth is to get them to act. to actually become more Christ like and to “put off the natural man” if they get too excited about the objects themselves (like a sword) then they will forget the meaning of the object lessons.i think this is why boring object lessons (like salt, water, soap = cleansing power of the atonement ) lighting a tea bag on a hand to test our faith, make at least in my experience a stronger connection. but the strongest connection is the feeling

    Also important to note.

    A parable is not always an Object Lesson. there is no object lesson in the Boyd k packers the mediator. or President Kimball’s story of Tom taking the whipping for little Jim. i dont think they included an object.

    so when we compare to Jesus Christs teachings we should ask ourselves. which if the parables WERE object lessons? maybe the parable of the sower was one. not a very interesting object though. I must agree however that President Packer’s object lesson with cake is quite useful, but it must be re-emphasized. one does not sinpley preform an object lesson and expect that it will be remembered. The disciples asked the savior the meaning of the parable of the sower.(? or was it another parable idk) if there is repetition, then it will stick. (not a repetition of the lesson its self but an reference to the point of the object in discussion.) In the MTC the teachers discussed the Cake =sharing the gospel lesson, and sometimes when we talked about not being to pushy, or preparing the person, we would say “prepare the cake, don’t shove it in their face”

    As to repetition and feelings. if the connection to feeling is strong, even if the connection of the object to the lesson is at first forgotten, i believe that with an object lesson that invites a strong emotional response, that if the with object lesson is forgotten, then upon a 2nd encounter with that object lesson, the emotion will be remembered, and hopefully provide the student

    Another note i might add, is if the object lesson is about something the students will likely encounter (like using a parable about seeds when talking to farmers.) they are more likely toi make 1 the initial connection (the foundation is already there) and 2 they are likely to encounter the object or the topic in everyday life, and hopefully remember the gospel part of the lesson in the midst of their everyday life, because of the connection to an object that now has a relationship to a gospel topic that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

    anyway There is my 2 digital cents.

    Heres my object lesson
    You’ll need milk, 2 glasses of milk, and soy sauce.

    1 glass of regular white milk and another that appears to be chocolate (its color however comes not from tasty hersheys, but from soy sauce)

    first ask for a volunteer from the class “who likes chocolate milk?”

    Decide who will probably go along with your object lesson

    “so if you were to choose one of these jars of milk you’d prefer the chocolate one?” (obviously yes)

    Persuade him/her to drink first a sip of the white milk. Ask if (s)he likes it (this is done to stimulate the good taste of white milk and also to increase the contrast when the volunteer inevitably drinks the soy sauce milk

    (optional, as this can backfire) ask him/her if (s)he’ld not rather just prefer the white milk, (but, dont get him/her to ACTUALLY take it)
    give him/her the soy sauce milk, and be ready for whatever the reaction is :)

    if you do this object lesson, and then immediately ask whats wrong with that milk, there is the added benefit of the possibility of the volunteer saying “its soy milk” and getting a great pun :)

    I’m not sure how good the object lesson is, but hopefully if its used in a 13-14 class the next day at lunch at school the kinds might remember the lesson when they drink the milk. Maybe they might even remember and if they don’t they might mention it and discuss it. Hopeful thinking? maybe. but I think a optimism is a good thing.

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