Elder Bruce C. Hafen, former member of the Seventy and an author, joins Scot and Maurine Proctor today to look more deeply and understand with greater clarity the magnificence and personal nature of the Savior’s atonement. He helps us see how the atonement is not just for sinners, but for the range of human weakness, miscalculation, negligence and error that humanity in a fallen world are liable to. He teaches us what the place of grace is in our lives and how the Savior’s sacrifice can help us see our weaknesses and be transformed through Him. Daily repentance can become a daily refreshment.
Elder Hafen is the author of The Broken Heart; Faith is Not Blind, any many other significant books.
Hello, we’re Scot and Maurine Proctor and this is Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast, where today we celebrate Easter. We remember well those events and carry their magnificent hope with us. One night Scot and I were trying to photograph an olive tree on the Mount of Olives, not far from Gethsemane, to represent the Savior in the garden. It was dark and gradually a hush and then silence fell over our world where we worked alone. Because it was dark, these photographs took several minutes, and we worked alone on that mount for nearly three hours, hoping to capture a stunning photograph. We remembered how Elder Jeffrey R. Holland had described the Savior’s atonement. “We celebrate the gift of victory over ever fall we have every experienced, every sorrow we have ever known, every discouragement we have ever had, every fear we have ever faced—to say nothing of our resurrection from death and forgiveness for our sins.”
As we consider the Savior’s atonement today we have invited Elder Bruce C. Hafen to join us, whose book The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences and Covenant Hearts has helped so many understand the atonement more thoroughly.
Bruce Hafen grew up in St. George, Utah. After serving a mission to Germany, he met Marie Kartchner from Bountiful, Utah at BYU. They were married in 1964.
Elder Hafen received a bachelor’s degree from BYU and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Utah. After practicing law in Salt Lake City, he went to BYU in 1971 as a member of the original faculty of BYU’s new Law School. He taught and published research on family law and constitutional law.
He served as the President of BYU-Idaho from 1978 to 1985. Then he was Dean of the BYU Law School and later served as the Provost—the second in command–at BYU. He was called as a full-time General Authority in 1996, serving in area presidencies in Australia, North America, and Europe. He also served at Church headquarters as an adviser to the Priesthood Department, the general auxiliary presidencies, Church History, and the Temple Department. He became an Emeritus General Authority in 2010 then served as president of the St. George Temple. More recently he served as Chairman of the Utah LDS Corrections Committee, overseeing the Church branches in Utah’s state prisons and county jails. He is the author of several books on gospel topics, including the biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, and books on marriage, the temple, and the Atonement—including The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences and Covenant Hearts and most recently, a book called Faith is Not Blind, which is a wonderful book for those who are struggling with their faith or having a faith crisis. It’s an excellent book. We highly recommend it.
The Hafens have seven children and 46 grandchildren.
Welcome. We’re so pleased to have you with us.
When I think of Easter, I think of a bright morning after a long, dark night because everything that is hopeful for us in our lives are caught up in the Savior’s atonement and resurrection. This is a hard time for a lot of people. The circumstances in the world are so difficult and discouraging. We went from COVID to war to feeling personally in our pocketbooks challenges, shortages, worries about people in our own family. There’s so much to think about and yet here is this hopeful Easter with these beautiful centerpieces of the Savior’s atonement and resurrection. Respond to that, how can we find hope when we need it so badly?
Thank you, Maurine, just hearing you talk about that prompts a memory, since you mentioned St. George, of an Easter experience that is my equivalent of what you described. Just an image, a feeling. I was a teenager in St. George a long time ago and on an Easter Sunday, our stake had a fireside for all of the youth and young adult in the St. George stake. I was one of about eight young people; four boys and four girls, who were invited to go inside the St. George temple, climb up some stairs to some back rooms that I didn’t even know existed and we wound our way until we were out on the little balcony at the very top of the St. George temple. We were outside the temple on the little balcony, looking out to see the whole world. The rest of the kids in our stake were right below us, sitting on the lawn in chairs. It was a “morningside”, as we’d call it now. We could just see the sun coming up east of us. I remember seeing the color streaks of Zion National Park way off in the east, with the sun coming up over it. Our role was to sing a song, and that song has stayed with me ever since.
It came to mind as I was thinking about Easter and as I’ve heard what you’ve said. It goes this way, I wish I could bring all those kids back to sing it for all of us, “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoso believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved.” That is Easter morning for me. It’s hope. I love the part about the Lord came not to condemn. That connects to some ideas about the basic framework of Atonement doctrines for me. You know that Marie and I have been interested in trying to understand this doctrine together for a long time. At one point, we found it helpful for us to simply see the framework doctrinally and practically for the blessings of Atonement. Because the blessings go far beyond forgiveness and resurrection. That’s where we start. We ended up just making a little list and I’d like to put what you’ve asked about in the right place in this list as we’ve looked for this doctrinal framework.
We start with the purpose of the Atonement and then we look at the unconditional blessings. Everybody receives these blessings, whether they deserve them, whether they even want them or not. They’ll all be resurrected. We are cleansed from the effects of Adam’s sin unconditionally. Then there are conditional blessings; if we are faithful. The three conditional blessings are: 1) redeeming blessings, 2) strengthening blessings, and 3) perfecting blessings.
Your comment about today’s world has drawn my mind to strengthening blessings. I remember when President Dallin H. Oaks talked about the strengthening blessings of the Atonement in a general conference. It was a beautiful, thoughtful talk and there’s a place in the Old Testament—and we’re studying the Old Testament this year in Come, Follow Me, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to think about it in that context—Moses had led his people out of Egypt and he was really concerned about where they were going. His people had carried so many burdens and he was personally burdened, “what am I supposed to do now?” must have been his constant prayer. And the Lord came to him when Moses needed it.
For example, notice the Lord’s language in talking to Moses. “God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob and God said, ‘I have seen the affliction of my people, I know their sorrows.’” And then after he crossed the Red Sea, the great miracle that then protected and freed the Children of Israel to keep going, the Lord said to Moses, “you have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bear you on eagles wings and brought you to myself, therefore if you will obey and keep my covenants, ye shall be unto me a holy nation.” That captures this personal relationship between God, that was Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, Christ. He brought them to Himself.
One more place that my mind turns to, as I look at those scriptures is some verses of one of our favorite hymns. It was even known in the first hymn book, it was in that book. We should sing the latter verses more often than we do. I think of these verses and I think of the world you’ve just described, Maurine, which is kind of stunned and disoriented, all of us. The Lord says to us,
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee, and sanctify to thee,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, thy dross to consume,
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
To me that makes it pretty clear that God understands us. The Savior understands us. He’s the one who’s talking here. “Flame will not hurt thee”, “I call thee to go”, “I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless”. If we were all in one group, everybody who is listening today, maybe we could sing that song because the very familiar music is stirring. That’s one we could all sing when it’s time to sing a hymn.
I think one of the things that really moved me about what you just quoted, was that the God of the Old Testament, who is Jesus Christ, had seen their affliction and sorrows. Sometimes my view of the Savior or of our Heavenly Father is that He sees my mistakes and my sins, but doesn’t see my afflictions and my sorrows. The latter, the afflictions and sorrows view, seems to be one of great compassion, and one who looks upon me with love and with desire to help me through those circumstances.
One of the reasons I think the Lord can look at us that and we can be close to Him, with deep understanding and gratitude that He knows what we’re going through, is that He’s been through it all. Elder Maxwell referred to this part of the Savior’s experience, which is really part of that Easter season and those tremendous, earth-shattering moments of the final days of Christ’s life. In Gethsemane, and with everything that he experienced there; far beyond our ability to comprehend, He felt what we had been through. There are some scriptures that say, I think this is somewhere in the Book of Mosiah, He saw His people. We can see Him. I think it’s possible to reflect on him without understanding what He was doing. The result of all of that, as Elder Maxwell put it, is the Savior’s earned empathy. He empathizes with us because He has been there. He knows it all and we can have total confidence that, even though we don’t see how anybody could go through what we’re going through and survive it, He has been there. He knows.
When I was a child and would think about the Atonement, I thought that the Savior was paying in my behalf for a sin here and a sin there. And then as I grew older and saw that my life; as all of our lives are in this mortal, fallen experience; is full of error and challenge and sometimes heedlessness and blindness in relationship to the way we act and are; and I realized that the Lord must have lived my entire life with me. Because as long as we are sinful and mortal, these are all things that the Lord experienced with us and paid for us. And it made it so much more meaningful for my understanding.
You’d hope that as we grow, our spirits would grow, our minds would grow, and we would all come to that. I think especially today’s Church, we’re getting better at that. Richard Bushman gave a talk at BYU, it was one of the Easter conference messages at BYU in the last year or two. The title of his talk there was, “The Atonement Then and Now”. And he actually said some things similar to what you just said, Maurine. When he was young, even as a young bishop, he saw the Atonement in the ways you have described. And he would counsel people in those ways. But then he went on to talk about how his life has developed, how society has become more difficult and he has seen growth in the way we, in the Church, understand what the Atonement is about. It is for healing. It is for strengthening. It blesses and helps us. It becomes so much more personal in the way that attaches our thoughts about the Atonement to our personal relationship with Christ. I think that’s really helpful so that we don’t start seeing the Atonement as some new spaceship up in the sky that is a new source of blessings that isn’t part of our doctrine. It’s very central to our doctrine. It’s what the sacrament prayer talks about: if we always remember Him, if we are willing to be witnesses of His name, He will then link us to Him in a relationship that gives us access to Him. His Spirit will always be with us. It’s a relationship with Him. It’s not just some separate idea.
President Nelson gave a wonderful message about that once; about how “the Atonement” is “the Atonement of Christ”, it’s not some new, separate power. I hear some people talking about it as if it were an independent source of emotional and spiritual power that kind of fits the day in which we live; it’s the electronic version. It goes far beyond what normal tools and experiences can get for us. He emphasizes the importance of developing that relationship.
Thinking about something you said does help me. In one of the really strong, beautiful, memorable experiences in the Book of Mormon about what we’re discussing, you may remember this, in Mosiah 24 where we learn about the experience of Alma and his people when they were held captive by Amulon. The people couldn’t pray out loud because they were in bondage. And in those circumstances, the Lord said to Alma and his people, “I, the Lord God, do visit my people—” Notice that, my people, not the people, “I do visit my people in their afflictions.”
“Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage” (Mosiah 24:13).
What covenant is He talking about?
The covenants of baptism, the covenants of the temple; and that’s what make us His. In fact, the ultimate expression of that is in the fifth chapter of Mosiah after his people have listened to his great sermon on the Atonement of Christ and they rejoice and they say they have no more desire to do evil, but to do good continually. That’s an important prerequisite for all of this to happen. It develops, it’s not all at once. But if you keep reading in chapter 5, Benjamin says, “This day hath he”—the Savior, “begotten you” and you are becoming the children of Christ.
Then Benjamin tells them they’ve entered the path of following Christ, the Savior. President Nelson has really picked up on this and is helping all of us understand it. He talks about the covenant path, stay on the covenant path. It is the path that is marked out for us when we keep the covenants that we’ve made in the temple and in our baptism, and then we keep going. And again, using Benjamin’s phrase, if ye are “steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works,” so, keeping moving on that covenant path. Then the last part of chapter five of Mosiah right after that phrase, if we keep going, “Christ will seal you His”.
So, that relationship that starts off that we are the children of Christ, we’ve made covenants with Him, where is that going? He will seal you His. That’s a temple word. That’s worth some reflection, I think, for all of us. What would it mean to be sealed to Christ in some way? We’ve grown from being the children of Christ to being full grown men and women of Christ. That’s the quest of a lifetime, really. That’s what the covenant path is about. It’s where we can go.
And incidentally, in today’s world, I’m reminded even as I say the phrase about “Christ will seal you His”, there’s another place in the Book of Mormon, I think it’s in Alma 34, where Amulek is talking and he’s talking about Satan and the power he seeks to have over us. As Amulek describes the influence of Satan, he says words to this effect, if we follow the path that Satan marks out for us than ‘he doth seal you his’. That is just chilling to me. He wants to take us off the path to follow him on his path. The world is so full of it today, but it has a destination. We will become children of the devil, just as we can become the children of Christ and grow into that full relationship.
I’m glad you brought up President Nelson’s teachings of recent days because one of the things that came to mind as you were talking there, Elder Hafen, was this quote: “Too many people consider repentance as punishment—something to be avoided except in the most serious circumstances. But this feeling of being penalized is engendered by Satan. He tries to block us from looking to Jesus Christ, who stands with open arms, hoping and willing to heal, forgive, cleanse, strengthen, purify, and sanctify us.” So, obviously Satan is going to try to block us from having access to that power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance is part of that process; daily repentance. It is a process, not just an event.
Right, and hearing you say that, Scot, reminds me of when I realized that the purpose of the Atonement is to help us grow and learn. It’s not just one and done with baptism or saying we believe in Christ. It’s the process that helps us grow and develop. Other Christian churches don’t believe that that’s what their version of baptism does for people. It’s to be cleansed of Adam’s sin. But when we see that the Atonement has a developmental purpose, then we begin to see our sins, our inadequacies, our mistakes; all of those things, we see them as part of that growth process. We’re on this path of learning and that’s why repentance is really a process of seeing what we’ve done that we could do better. And we welcome the critique instead of hearing the Brethren at conference, or hearing our wife or husband, or hearing from any source about something we need to pay attention to, and do better. It’s just like listening to a good coach help an athlete strengthen his skills. Only a really foolish athlete would say, “coach, don’t talk to me like that, that makes me feel bad.” If that’s how you feel, then you will never develop the skill, the strength that you would seek to have by even having a coach.
I think it’s interesting when you talk about development and how we see it. It isn’t just enough to be forgiven of our sins, though that is huge, but something else needs to happen. I think about the example, let’s say there’s a woman who is praying during the sacrament because she is angry at a family member who she has felt misused and betrayed by. It’s not a small hurt, but a big one. But she doesn’t want to be angry, because she notices that anger divides her from the Spirit and divides her from what she wants. It is wonderful and lovely to be freed from that anger toward that one person, but the Lord wants to take us further to be freed from anger as a way of living, as a way of thinking about other. And then the Lord wants to take us further, He wants us to replace that anger with love, which is his bestowal, His gift. And all of those things are part of the Atonement; It is not only forgiveness of the sin, but that development.
I think it’s so generous because one of the things that hurts us the most are our weaknesses, whether we see it or not. And the Lord is saying, “I’m here to lift these things from you, if you will but completely align yourself with my will, if you will let God prevail. We together can lift these.” And I think it’s so interesting that sometimes if we don’t see all that the Lord is willing to do for us, through his Atonement. We beat ourselves up and we think, “I’m not enough”, “I can’t do enough”, “I fall into error”, “I’m not compassionate enough”, “I don’t see other’s point of view”, “I don’t love enough”—I mean there are so many “not enoughs” that we can add into our thinking. And the Lord says, “don’t go there, we’re on a journey together and all you need to do is give your very best and rely on this beautiful gift of the Atonement.”
It lifts from us this sense of insecurity and misery that so many of us travel with. We’re on a journey with His presence with us, just like the Children of Israel had His presence with them. We’re on this journey and our destination is His presence and He helps us make that journey. It’s not something we can be casual about, like we say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if I do this because I can repent tomorrow.” That is a very flippant way of looking at something so holy and gracious. The truth of the matter is, you do have to give your entire heart, but what the Lord gives back is a sense of ease to your soul; a sense of joy that you didn’t have before; hope that you need. These are all His gifts to us through this mighty sacrifice of the Atonement.
Thank you for bringing that into our conversation, Maurine. Your insight takes me back to the little list that I offered about categories of blessings to understand the parts of the Atonement. If we are faithful, then following our baptism, we’ve done that part—as one person has said, we get the weeds out of our lives—then once the weeds are out, our land is clear, and we can plant flowers in the place where we had the weeds. That’s the positive part about the Atonement. The little framework that I mentioned suggest that in that part of our growth and following the Savior, we receive redeeming blessings, strengthening blessings, and then perfecting blessings. And what you were just describing about the woman in Church and what she was wanting to go through; it’s really the gift of charity, which is an ultimate perfecting blessing. When we receive it as a spiritual gift, if we have been true and faithful in all that that means, then we become as He is. The love that Christ has for other people, the pure love of Christ, when we feel that, we can be completely consumed and changed. The fruits of that kind of repentance and that process of growth and really abundant.
This goes back a few years: I was serving in an area presidency and we received information that someone in our area had been disciplined by a Church council. He had been excommunicated and he was appealing that decision to the First Presidency and the First Presidency sent us the file and asked for a review and a recommendation. We didn’t know this brother and we didn’t know the people in his stake, but the Brethren wanted our input as the general authorities who were really close to that part of the world. And as we looked into what had happened, we learned that the man who had been excommunicated had gotten into an argument with the other man.
It had started it and at a low level of disagreement and it grew to frustration and finally it became really raging anger. These two men were just so angry with each other that they were worried about what one was saying to other people about them and it kind of got out of control. This led to a disciplinary council. The one man who felt especially hurt, even though he was kind of out of control, he demanded that the other man be excommunicated. Without going into the details, the council: the Stake presidency and High council, decided “ok, he should be”, but then the other man was so angry that he appealed the decision. They were going to keep venting their anger, bordering on hatred, to the highest court. So, the Brethren sent it back to us and we reviewed it and then had the assignment to call the Stake President who was new. He had not been a Stake president at the time of the decision, but as we talked, he told me how this had happened, that it had all began with a misunderstanding and because of this unwillingness to forgive each other, it grew and grew and got out of control.
So, we finally decided to recommend, and the First Presidency sustained it, that they should start over and have another disciplinary council, which seemed like a strange resolution. We weren’t going to go back in to the facts and arguments and all that. They would start over. Then the Stake President called me a few weeks later, after we’d counseled together and he’d agreed to hold another disciplinary council. He told me what had happened: on the evening of this second council, when these two brethren were in the same place sometime earlier, and the place was probably still fuming with the anger they had brought before, they sat smoldering in the waiting area as their stake leaders discussed the issues and what to do. And then suddenly, one of these men got up, went over to the other man, knelt down in front of him and said, “what are we doing to each other? Can you ever forgive me for this?”
And the other man started to cry. And they began talking softly. And then they embraced and they talked more and within a few minutes, they knocked on the door of the room where the others were deliberating. The Stake President opened the door and he saw these two men arm in arm, with the tears running down their cheeks. He was stunned. “What has happened?” They came into the room and when the other Stake leaders saw them, everybody in the room started to cry.
It was a clear witness to me of what happens when the Lord brings His charity into a room where it is needed. These men were ready for this to happen and they responded to it. Sometimes that energy is there and we don’t hear it, we don’t feel it, we’re not open to it; we’ve shut all those doors. But these two still had enough of the milk of human kindness; they still cared about the Lord enough to reach out and hear Him. I think they possessed that charity from then on.
Elder Hafen, we appreciate so much that story, that really moves us. I want to ask another question about something that we have noticed that many people are dealing with in our world today and that is, this whole idea of perfectionism.
I remember when I read your book years ago, I think I’ve read it two or three times—the one on The Broken Heart—you had a chapter in there that really caught my attention and I think if I remember correctly, the title of the chapter was “Two Cheers for Excellence”. I was very interested in that because I see this all around me with people feeling like excellence is the most important thing. Perfectionism is what we have to seek for all the time. In fact, we even misconstrue the meaning of “Be ye therefore perfect” and we just don’t get it right. But can you comment on that “Two Cheers for Excellence”?
That was a long time ago that you read that chapter, Scot. Yeah, I remember that. What I was concerned about then and what I am still concerned about in the world we live in, is that western society have become consumed with competition against one another. It just goes really contrary to what we’ve been talking about; the desire to come to the Lord and have Him see our weaknesses. I guess I was thinking in general terms. It was kind of a plea for charity because if we’re not open to the Lord’s direction and willing to come to Him and show Him our weaknesses, then He’s not going to strengthen us. I guess it was in Ether chapter 27 where the Lord says to Moroni—Moroni’s pretty frustrated, I think he’s feeling that he wouldn’t do too well in the Stake writing competition. He says, “the gentiles will mock my words” and so what does the Lord say to him? ‘I give unto men weakness that they may be humble and if they will come unto me and acknowledge the weakness, I will show unto them’—He’ll tell us more.
That’s why I’ve sometimes thought when we’re feeling very distressed and discouraged and seeing all the things we don’t do well at and we aren’t going to compete in whatever ways we feel we need to. When we are seeing our weaknesses, that’s not necessarily a sign or a clue that the Lord doesn’t care about us anymore. On the contrary, it might be evidence that he’s closer to us than He’s been before. He wants to help us see our weaknesses. Then he will help us overcome them.
“I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
Those are all words related to the perspective on the Atonement that we have been alluding to. It is all about our learning and growth and when we get so glued to the world and its competitiveness, we can tune out all the signals that are trying to help us; what’s wrong, what do we need to work on. Only wanting to do better compared to other people is just contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel. In addition, it really interferes with the growth process that we are engaged in if we understand the covenant path. The covenant path is not a place where we dash to finish line and see if we get ribbons for the first three places and everybody else has failed. So, that’s probably what I was thinking.
We live in a time where many are having faith crises and it seems to be fed by the internet, where they can talk to other people who are having faith crises and they begin to see one flaw after another and then they find themselves in turmoil. I know you’ve been very concerned about this and have written a wonderful book called Faith is Not Blind addressing this. I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about that and connect it to what we’ve been saying here about the Atonement.
As I reflect on our conversation today, this Easter day, and reflect on the Atonement, we’ve been describing what the Atonement does to mark the path. ‘He marked the path and led the way and every point defines’. That applies today and one of the dark clouds that makes things so difficult and disturbing everywhere that we see is the crisis of faith, loss of confidence in each other. There is a way to process the experiences we’re having by recognizing how we’ve going from innocence and good feelings that don’t run that deep, to crises that are really wrenching and difficult—if we persist and we understand a little of what’s going on and have some faith about getting through it—the Lord will help us get through this. And the darkness can change into light if we will allow Him to help us.
When we learn from what we’ve gone through and we come out of the clouds of that darkness into the clear valley of the light of the simplicity beyond complexity—it’s a journey. It’s just like the one we’ve discussed about the Atonement. The Atonement has a lot to do with this, it’s another manifestation of how the Lord works with us through a process of learning from experience until we’re more like Him and we’ve had to struggle through some things that were hard. He helps us.
We have so appreciated this time together with Elder Bruce C. Hafen. This is Scot and Maurine Proctor. We are excited to continue to study the Old Testament in the coming weeks. Next week we’ll be studying Exodus 18-20 in a lesson called “All that the Lord Hath Spoken, We will do”. Our great thanks again to Paul Cardall for the music that accompanies this podcast and to our producer, Michaela Proctor Hutchins. Have a great week, a joyous, wonderful Easter and see you next time.