Elder Duncan’s Empathy Ointment #ldsconf

Elder Kevin R. Duncan’s conference address was a highlight of the Saturday morning conference for me. Opening with a metaphor about a painful splinter he carried in his hand for years, he was finally rid of it when he took the time to daily apply ointment that softened the skin enough for the bit of wood to work its way out. His hand is no longer sore, and the splinter left no mark—just the lesson that there was no need to have carried that pain with him for so long.

The metaphor went that we have the tendency to carry around splinter-grudges or splinter-judgments that application of the Atonement could soften our hearts enough to let go and forgive.

What really struck me was the way Elder Duncan described this Atonement application (I always feel like as Latter-day Saints we talk a lot about “applying the Atonement,” but I’m nearly never sure about what we mean by that, so I appreciated Elder Duncan’s definition of what he meant by this). He described Atonement application as empathy:

“As we strive to forgive others, let us also try to remember that we are all growing spiritually, but we are all at different levels. While it is easy to observe the changes and growth in the physical body, it is difficult to see the growth in our spirits.

“. . . One key to forgiving others is to try to see them as God sees them. At times, God may part the curtain and bless us with the gift to see into the heart, soul, and spirit of another person who has offended us. This insight may even lead to an overwhelming love for that person.

Elder Duncan’s call for empathy reminded me of Brené Brown’s definition of the same, animated in the video below. This video has long been running the rounds of social media, but it always warrants another watch, in my opinion, and it fits neatly into this General Conference message.

Seeing into another’s heart doesn’t mean feeling sorry for them—it means feeling sorry with them. It means being willing to step into the shoes of others, to see how they see things and hear how they hear things, regardless of our differences:

“In our shortsightedness we may sometimes find it easy to develop resentments toward others who do not act or think the way we do. We may form intolerant attitudes based on such superficial things as rooting for opposing sports teams, holding different political views, or having different religious beliefs.”

And sometimes we can feel really justified in our intolerance and resentment:

“I am convinced that most of us want to forgive, but we find it very hard to do. When we have experienced an injustice, we may be quick to say, “That person did wrong. They deserve punishment. Where is justice?” We mistakenly think that if we forgive, somehow justice will not be served, and punishments will be avoided.

While Elder Duncan was careful to differentiate between “condoning” and “forgiving” meanness or rudeness or other “bad behavior,” he exhorted listeners to look beyond the offense and empathize with the one who offended us. I thought of the people I have always felt justified in feeling angry against (in other words, that I felt my angst was justice for how I feel they have done wrong): the Donald Trump lovers in my Facebook feed; that bishopric member when I was 13 years old who told me the Young Women didn’t need a bigger budget because “yarn is cheap” (insinuating that we learn to crochet while the Boy Scouts camped, hiked, and paint-balled); the bishop when I was 25 years old who told me that because I was “in shape” and “pretty” that I “had no excuse for not being married”; that woman in my old ward who made a comment in Relief Society about how marriages made outside of the temple are not conducive to God’s spirit and He cannot dwell there, suggesting that the part-member family I grew up in was somehow deprived of God’s love, or that He could not currently dwell with my family’s families or the families of many of my dearest friends. The message here is that I can forgive and empathize even with these.

Duncan’s message itself is healing ointment to our church that, to many, seems like a place currently rife with misunderstanding, judgment, and/or people taking offense. It means that the woman who strongly believes that 3-year-olds should have their shoulders covered in the name of modesty should be able to agreeably and even excitedly sit next to the woman wearing pants to church, and vice versa. It means that the young single Mormon who also identifies as transgender should feel welcome at a young single adult activity, and it means that another young single Mormon should not be ridiculed for posting to Facebook that she believes marriage is between a man and a woman. It means that even when we strongly disagree with each other, that we can still love each other and be friends with each other—and even be able understand where the other is coming from.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If “applying the Atonement” includes forgiving by feeling empathy toward those whom we even strongly disagree with on important values and issues, then this means, perhaps, that the test of a first-rate heart is the ability to understand two opposed ideas/values in our heart/mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function or act according to our own moral code. We can understand those of a different heart without losing our integrity. I can love that bishop who hurt me so much as a young, lonely single adult, because, like Elder Duncan, I believe that no one should have to be “defined by the worst thing we have ever done.” There is more to that bishop than I have been giving him credit for in the last decade of memories that have cast him as a villain I had had to overcome. And for this I repent, today.

I am ready to let some of these splinters I have been harboring loose, with hope that Elder Duncan is right when he declares, “We can forgive. . . . We will be free.”



  1. Excellent thought! Thanks for sharing!

  2. The word “atonement” appears once in the new testament (KJV). It is a translation of the Greek word otherwise commonly translated (in various forms) as “reconciliation.” In Mormon-speak, it has seemed to me that “the Atonement” used to mean the reconciliation between God and man, the restoring of the proper relationship between God and man, that was accomplished by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. I have been irritated in recent years by the cheapening of that concept through the increased use (mostly not attributable to GAs) of the phrase “use the atonement” as if it were a screwdriver or a wrench, useful for a particular task, and subject to our decision when to use it or not. I have not heard significant use in my circles of the essentially similar phrase “apply the atonement” (as if it were a band-aid or an ointment). Just this morning I was explaining to a Roman Catholic friend, who has attended our Sunday School and High Priests Group meetings for over a year, that I had not heard and had not been able to find that cheapening and offensive phrase used by leaders of our Church. I explained that I thought, but was never quite sure, that those who used it were using the word as short-hand for various concepts such as repentance, or opening oneself to receive gifts of the Spirit, or reliance upon the power of God, or trying to align one’s will with that of the Lord, or something, but generally not reducing Christ’s accomplishment to a casual tool. Now I will have to study Elder Duncan’s address and be prepared to explain how “atonement” has been used at upper levels of the Church. It seems Mormon-speak is becoming an increasingly unique dialect of English. In an earlier form, I thought it was my native tongue. Does the word “atonement” have any specific referent in current Mormon-speak?

  3. “. . . One key to forgiving others is to try to see them as God sees them. At times, God may part the curtain and bless us with the gift to see into the heart, soul, and spirit of another person who has offended us. This insight may even lead to an overwhelming love for that person.“

    There’s a sister in my ward who is part of a cabal of vocal hard-liners. They make church painful more often than not, and I’ve struggled with feeling loving toward them. She was ward music chair the year I submitted a song for Mother’s Day that was essentially about Heavenly Mother. Of course it was rejected, and she broke the news to me. I expressed my honest frustration with how erased HM is, and this woman I at times considered an enemy held my hand and shed tears with me. We still see eye to eye on very few occasions, but I’m so deeply grateful for that humbling, transcendent experience with her.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Grover.

    JR, I’m with you on disliking that locution. My sense is that Mormonism in general is becoming less theological, meaning less interested in being critically minded about our God-talk. The nearer we approach a kind of propositional creedalism, the more we risk nominalism, which makes it possible for “Atonement” to be the conceptual heart of our discourse without necessarily meaning much. (By none of this do I mean to discount the ways that people individually experience the atonement as meaningful: the point is only about the discourse.)

  5. Thanks so much adding that anecdote to this thread, Melissa. Beautiful.

  6. Elder Duncan gave a very good talk. Offering forgiveness is a prerequisite to healing, but does not guarantee it. Nor does the great atoning sacrifice of our Savior guarantee healing on this side of the veil. Some will have lifelong PTSD, hypervigilance, and trust issues no matter how forgiving they are toward their abusers. Medication and counseling are helpful. But for some spiritual and emotional pain, depression, and anxiety occurs daily, and healing will only come on the other side of the veil. I forgive all those who have abused me and hope they receive all the blessings that the Lord has in store for them, but the pain…

    – Tom Irvine

  7. Jason and JR, I agree that “apply the atonement” or worse, “use the atonement” can be problematic phrases. The truth is, we don’t apply the atonement, we petition God to apply the atoning blood of Christ. The distinction may be fine, but it is important.

  8. The distinction is vital. The atonement is the central immersive mystery of life, not a band-aid or some magic spell you cast.

  9. Mr Sneed says:

    Thank you, Grover and everyone else, for your insightful comments and commentary. Your words have struck a nerve and helped me understand some of my struggles a bit better. And thank you for keeping the comments positive and respectful. So much nicer than many places on the internet these days.