Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Thirteen: Joseph Smith And The Principle Of Empathy

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Thirteen: 
Joseph Smith And The Principle Of Empathy© 

I enjoyed a wonderful early morning today.  I awoke before 4:00 a.m. and began reading as I often do. Today I encountered a phrase in a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants I have never noticed before.(1) It set me on the task of writing this the thirteenth evidence of why I believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God. Actually two related passages from scriptures produced by Joseph Smith came with considerable force into my mind as both intensely interesting and vitally important principles of human relationships.  

In September of 1830 Joseph Smith was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday. In Fayette, New York, following a three-day conference he received a revelation calling Peter Whitmer, Junior to accompany Oliver Cowdery as a missionary companion on a mission to the Lamanites. Among other things the Lord said to him, 
And be you afflicted in all his afflictions, ever lifting up your heart unto me in prayer and faith, for his and your deliverance; for I have given unto him power to build up my church among the Lamanites.(2)
I have highlighted the portion of this passage which was emphasized in my reading and which impressed itself upon me as profound–very profound for a twenty-four-year-old young man. Profound because it encourages a principle of human relationships–empathy-that is subtle, poorly understood and seldom discussed, yet is profoundly and vitally important. This is a scriptural injunction for missionary companions to practice empathy toward each other that I wish I had known and understood when I served as a mission president in northern California when I was between the ages of 59 and 62.  It would have been a great principle to teach those missionaries who so frequently encountered “companionship problems.” It could have moved them from being “me” centered to “others” centered, and that was often the problem–both companions concerned more about themselves than their companion. How did Joseph Smith know about this at his age, experience and educational level?  I should add that this principle also applies to our relationships in marriage and family, and indeed, as we shall see below to the covenant people of the Lord.(3)

What is empathy? Coincidentally, I recently read two definitions of empathy which explained the difference between it and sympathy which I liked enough to copy into my “Commonplace Book.” Sydney J. Harris, a thoughtful newspaper columnist said,
What is empathy? It is, basically, the ability to get inside another person and see the world through his eyes. Sympathy is feeling “for” someone else; empathy is feeling “with” him. (4)  
 H. A. Overstreet, wrote,
Psychologists are giving currency to a word that is useful in this connection: empathy, which signifies the imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into an object or person outside oneself. We sympathize with another being when we suffer with him; when we feel with him. But an empathic relationship is closer: we then enter imaginatively into his life and feel it as if it were our own. Though our bodily separateness remains, we effect a psychic identification.  We stop being an outsider and become and insider.(5)
Getting “inside another person,” seeing “the world through his eyes,” and “feeling ‘with’ him” is the essence of empathy and I believe it is accurate to the intent of the Lord’s instructions to Peter Whitmer, Junior. Elder Bruce C. Hafen, commenting on this passage wrote:
In other words, let his afflictions be your own, no matter what they are or where they come from. Absorb them. Accept them. They are yours because they are his. Then your prayers will be not only for him but for “his and your” deliverance.”(6)
Elder Hafen also points out that there is a positive side to empathy which should not be ignored. That is the ability to divest ourselves of envy, competitiveness, and perhaps even personal insecurities and develop the capacity to be happy and rejoice in the happiness, joy, and success of others.

Why is empathy so important in human relations? Smarter and more analytical minds than mine can doubtless give lengthy philosophical explanations for the importance of empathy in society, but for me one important answer comes from the second passage which I mentioned above. It is from the book of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, and refers to the obligations one assumes at the time of baptism.  The passage reads:
...and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; 9) Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort....(7)
Those who come into the fold of God and are “his people,” should have deep empathy toward other covenant people of God. Perhaps this is a cloaked meaning of becoming “of one heart” which is the essence of being a Zion people. Empathy is “feeling” with the other person.  In the scriptures feelings are centered in the heart, so if we feel “with” the other person, we are of one heart with them. Empathy is critical to the oneness God desires between him and his people and which his people have with each other. It is the essence of emotional and spiritual unity which allows us to move the cause of Zion forward together without ego, envy, self-centeredness, selfishness, and contention. It both smooths the way between people and paves the way for positive action.

In addition and very importantly, empathy is an attribute of Christ. Isaiah said in language similar to D&C 30:6, 
8) For he said, Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.  9) In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.(8) 
And again, Alma reports:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind... and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy ... that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.(9)
The Atonement was the greatest act of empathy in the universe. When we not only experience sympathy for someone but let it become empathy “with” him to the degree that we are afflicted in all his afflictions we are moving in the direction of becoming Christlike ourselves and that is not small or insignificant for either ourselves, our family, our community, or our society. Such empathy filled Christ with mercy and knowledge of how to succor his people. “Succor” is to render assistance and support in times of hardship and distress. If it was important for the Savior to learn how to do that and we aspire to become like him, it follows that we must learn how to succor people as well and the beginning of that process is to learn to empathize with people.

When it is boiled down, empathy is a profound element of or manifestation of Godlike love. It is Atoning love.  It is merciful love. It is heartfelt love. It is a love intended to transform individuals and societies. It is the love that prevails in the Celestial Kingdom.  

I love Joseph Smith for producing these scriptures that have caused me to engage in this kind of thinking and analysis, which have moved my soul and begun an important transition within.  

Thank God for Joseph Smith.

Lets think together again, soon.


1. I acknowledge my debt for the idea for this blog to Bruce C. Hafen's brief discussion of several of these passages in his, Covenant Hearts: Why Marriage Matters and How to Make It Last, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), pp. 96-98, and I heartily recommend this book on marriage.

2. D&C 30:6.

3. Elder Hafen does not dwell on the missionary companion relationship, but straightway applies this principle to marriage.  He does not mention the baptismal covenant in this portion of his treatment of the subject.

4. Sydney J. Harris, The Best of Sydney J. Harris, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), p. 33.

5. H. A. Overstreet, The Mature Mind, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1949), pp. 64-65, emphasis in original.

6. Bruce C. Hafen, Covenant Hearts, p. 96.

7. Mosiah 18:8-9, emphasis added.

8.   Isaiah 63:8-9.

9. Alma 7:11-12.

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