Radical & Infinite Empathy: What the Atonement Means to Me

[An attempt to recreate my remarks delivered in the ***** Ward, 24th July 2022.]

Welcome! Good Morning!

It is Pioneer Day!

The day we commemorate the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, after leaving this place we all call home. And, I believe, the day that we all should think about our own role as pioneers—to realize that each and every one of us is a pioneer—no one else has ever been me, Conor Hilton, living in Iowa City in 2022! No one else has ever been you! I have experienced things that no one else has and no one can fully completely understand everything about me. Just like I can’t possibly know or understand everything about each one of you.

BUT I believe that Jesus Christ has experienced everything that I have experienced, am currently experiencing, and will experience. He experienced everything that you have experienced, are currently experiencing and will experience!  

Alma, in the Book of Mormon delivers one of my favorite sermons on the Atonement. He teaches that:

“And [Jesus Christ] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.” (Alma 7:11-13)

These verses gave new life to the Atonement in my life. They have helped me come to realize that the Atonement is about radical empathy—Jesus’s empathy for me and you, and I believe, our growing empathy for one another as we lean into the power of the Atonement, doing what Jenn called us to do earlier today. Because Jesus fully understands everything that has happened to me, even the worst suffering and biggest evil that I have encountered, I believe that we can collaborate with him and God to find and make good out of even the worst things we can imagine. It is difficult work to transform suffering and evil into Good, it’s the work of Redemption and Consecration. I believe this sort of transformation is only possible with the complete and full experiential understanding of our suffering that the Atonement gives Jesus.

In honor of Pioneer Day, here’s a story about one of my ancestors, Ann Rogers (my great-great-great grandma), warning this is a tragedy.

Ann Rogers was born in Wales, where her mother died, before she came with her father to Council Bluffs, where he died. She left behind a sort of proto-fiance, John, in Wales. She left with some of the Saints, traveling with her stepmother, to come to Utah shortly after arriving in Council Bluffs. Prior to leaving, she and John arranged that they would wait 3 years for each other, exchanging letters, while he saved up enough to join Ann in Utah.

Ann wrote John faithfully throughout the entire trek, but never once received a letter from John.

She arrived in Utah, is proposed to almost immediately, but declines, as she is waiting for John.

Eventually the three years are up.

Ann then marries my great-great-great grandfather, William Snow (a man almost 30 years older than her) and becomes one of his plural wives. According to the memories of her grandchildren, she always referred to him as “Brother Snow”, ‘Your Father”, or “Your Grandfather”.

A few months after they are married, she receives a stack of letters from John that he’d written over the last three years—they’d been kept somewhere until now (family tradition is that the stepmother kept and hid them from Ann).

A few years later, after Ann and William have had a few children, John comes to Utah, he’s married and has a couple of kids of his own. John had refused to marry until he heard that Ann had gotten married.

I don’t know if Ann or John or anyone else involved found something good about this experience while they lived. I don’t know if they’ve found any good in it yet. But I believe that the power of the Atonement can transform this tragedy and their relationship to it.  

Thinking about this story and the Atonement reminded me of some things that Stephen Colbert has said about the loss of his dad and two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was 10. I’m paraphrasing lightly here, but he said,

“I learned to love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I believe that through the Atonement we can too can learn to love the things that we most wish have not happened. Even as we may continue to wish that it hadn’t happened. We can love the thing and wish it hadn’t happened all at once.

I believe that we can also work with Christ and our heavenly parents to feel the radical empathy the Atonement allows towards others and even characteristics about ourselves. Basically, to collaborate with them to view ourselves and others more charitably, as Jenn talked about earlier today.  

A friend and mentor, Matt Wickman, recently published a book where he describes some of his experiences with the spirit helping him do just that. In one section he describes his anxieties and concerns about his teenage daughter who had moved in with her girlfriend and removed her name from the records of the Church. He took his concerns to God in prayer and describes the answer he received here:

“I found that these latest answers took an old, familiar form: gentle irony. A light from a corner of my darkness. A soft voice echoing through deep canyons of the ominous and unknown. I was anguished, and God was not. I mourned the prospect of lost futures for my children, and God did not. I expressed regret, and God would have none of it.

I lack a language for the strange hopefulness of these spiritual ministrations, for the joy it seemed God expressed, and expresses still on my behalf even if I could not, cannot, feel it myself.” (Wickman 156-57)

I’ve had this sort of experience with myself.

I am a naturally skeptical, questioning, doubting, critical person. For much of my life, I’ve sat through church meetings, school, and elsewhere, making snarky comments to my friends and family about talks, testimonies, comments, lectures, anything and everything. I poked logical holes in whatever people said. Eventually I realized that this was terrible for my spiritual well-being.

I decided to just stop. To not be critical anymore.

This was worse. I kept all my comments and thoughts bottled up inside, festering in a toxic stew.

I tried this for awhile. Before I paid attention to a feeling that perhaps this part of me that I thought was bad, part of my personal ‘natural man’, was not actually bad. But just misdirected. I listened to that feeling. I realized that I needed to use the skills that I had naturally been using for snark and criticism, looking beyond what was said to find flaws and problems, to instead take that same ability to look beyond what was said and creatively think about what would cause someone to say that, to imagine what other ways of expressing that idea there might be.

I’ve been trying to make this empathetic, connecting impulse my natural tendency for the last seven years or so. And I’m better at it than I used to be. But it’s still work. I still feel the impulse to be snarky and critical and skeptical. I still indulge that impulse when I can’t help it. But it has been remarkably healing to try and work at it, recognizing that God and Jesus love even the parts of me that I don’t know what to do with.

I believe that my work to be more empathetic is possible because of the Atonement. I believe that because of the Atonement we can all collaborate with Christ to learn to love the things that we most wish haven’t happened. I believe that we can grow and work to access the empathy that Jesus feels for all of us for not only ourselves and our experiences, but also for each other.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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