Book Review: The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences by Bruce C. Hafen.

February 10, 2014    By: Matt W. @ 11:11 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

This week was ward conference in our ward, so no teacher improvement this week. In lieu of that, I wanted to point out an old book on the atonement and some points it raises that I found interesting. The book is “The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences” by Bruce C. Hafen. 

I picked up this book in December because I was interested in the promise in the subtitle of the book, that it would help me apply the atonement in my life experience.

This book did not, in and of itself, offer some mechanistic ritual (for which I am grateful), but it did serve as a welding link between the atonement discussions we have had here at the Thang and the feelings I have had as I believe I have experienced the atonement in my life. Hafen doesn’t introduce a method to apply the atonement so much as clarify what the atonement is, which further enables us to seek out the atonement in the right situations, and thus better apply it to our selves. Hafen does this through three things: First, he limits the scope of the atonement, Second he limits the coverage of the atonement, and third he extends the scope and coverage of the atonement.

  1. He limits the scope of the atonement. Hafen accepts the idea that the atonement answers the ends of justices, but further clarifies this with the concept that satisfying justice is not enough. When a criminal goes to jail, justice mandates they serve their prison term for their crime, but they can serve their full term and leave prison unrepentant and unchanged. Hafen clarifies that while Christ works with us to cause a reformation within us, that it is up to us to make the choice for ourselves to be different. So while Christ does wholly own our justification, and his grace enables our sanctification, we must, of ourselves, turn toward him. Thus the scope of the atonement is limited.
  2. Similar to this, Hafen limits the coverage of the atonement by taking the idea of “at-one-ment” very seriously. Hafen suggests that it is irreverent/trite to a certain extent to say that the atonement covers every boo boo and sad moment we have in our lives. He feels this trivializes the efficacy of the atonement to apply it to every time a child is disappointed that they didn’t get the lead role or every time someone stubs their toe. He says it can apply to these things, but it’s ultimate aim isn’t to be a pacifier for every hurt or sadness. It’s aim is to remove the estrangement any such event could place between us and God. So ultimately, per Hafen, the focus and coverage of the atonement is limited to those things which keep us from being in an indwelling relationship with our Father in Heaven.
  3. Finally, based on the above, Hafen extends the coverage and scope of the atonement past the traditional concepts of sin and death by focusing on the idea of estrangement from God as the focus of the atonement. Hafen does this within what I would term the cycle of Adam and Eve. Rather than go into all the details of this, I will just say that within this cycle, he does not place just “sin” between our initial state of community with God and our eventual Estrangement from God. Instead he intentionally extends this to cover all “acts of independence”.  The example that brought this home for me was in thinking of my sweet daughters going to school. They are good kids and they are not doing bad things at school. But as they are away, they grow into themselves, they like music and games and topics and people I would not choose. Their independence makes us estranged from them and estranges them to us. I make extra effort to reach out to them and minimize the growing apart, but also want them to have the freedom to become who they want to be. For me, this helped place the atonement in the broader scope of the full plan of salvation. It implies that why we are here is to enable us to have acts of independence we need to grow and develop. It implies we came from a place where we were less able to be independent, and it assures us that “where we are going” is a return to indwelling community with God and one another. This extension of the atonement to cover all independence allows me to no longer feel bad when I feel far from my God. Instead it allows me to just turn to the atonement, not wondering why I am far from him, but like the Catholic ritual saying I need only recognize my estrangement and say “lord, though I be unworthy to receive you, only say the words and I will be healed.”

While there are some parts of the book I did not fully grasp, I really appreciated these teachings and feel like they have been able to better help me apply the atonement to my life experience. I would recommend the book as worth the read.


  1. Those are some great insights. Thanks for sharing. I remember when I used to think I had a pretty good understanding of the atonement. Then I found this blog :)

    Comment by Bryan H. — February 11, 2014 @ 11:29 am

  2. I appreciate this review, and Elder Hafen’s book (I’ll have to read it). Based on your summary, Hafen seems to be speaking directly to some of my concerns about how we understand the atonement.

    I find that in discussion, the atonement often gets turned into a tool to be used rather than the path back to God. So, either we turn it into one of the steps in the forgiveness process; or, we treat it like some kind of mystical self-help tool to improve our lives and solve our problems. It sounds like Hafen elevates the conversation, which we, or maybe just I, need often.

    Comment by DavidF — February 11, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

  3. Bryan H,

    Yeah, I remember when I set out to study hard and get a real understanding of the atonement. The false assumption I had back then was I assumed that God had explained the atonement in detail to someone at some point. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. There are a lot of details that no one knows still and it appears God is not anxious to tell us most of those details.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 12, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  4. Thanks for the kind comments.

    Geoff, while I agree with your comment, I also feel like in seeking I have come closer to understanding than otherwise. For example, if I had read Elder Hafen’s book just a few years ago, I am guessing all this nuance would have escaped me.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 13, 2014 @ 6:09 pm