In December 1991 during a televised news conference, Terry Anderson, the American journalist who had just been released as a hostage in Lebanon, was asked how he intended to help in the effort to capture and punish those who had held him captive. Mr. Anderson replied that he had no intention of being involved in a pursuit of his kidnappers. “I’m a Christian … ,” Anderson said. “It’s required of me that I forgive, no matter how hard it may be. I have a whole new life. It’s going to be happy.”1
Terry Anderson’s reply, perhaps disappointing to reporters seeking a more sensational comment, reminds us that in a world filled with anger and revenge, there are courageous people who have committed themselves to the principle of forgiveness. Indeed, the sorrows of the entire world would be immeasurably lightened if more people would accept and live this simple principle.
Forgiveness is a personal attribute, not just a decision we make from time to time when we feel we should. To have a forgiving heart is to see the world in a different light. It is to forsake the tendency to judge, condemn, exclude, or hate any human soul. A forgiving heart seeks to love and to be patient with imperfection. The forgiving heart understands that we are all in need of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
A forgiving heart is one of the most Christlike virtues we can possess. If we have a forgiving heart, our very nature will be kind, patient, long-suffering, and charitable. Forgiveness plants and nourishes the seeds of Christlike love in both the giver and the receiver. Indeed, forgiveness, in its fullest expression, is synonymous with charity, the pure love of Christ.
Those who reject the forgiving heart and choose instead to harbor resentments, bitterness, and revenge see the world through darkened glasses. They are quick to take offense, always assuming the worst in others’ motives. They feel the pain of human relationships more intensely. They are intolerant of the differences that exist between themselves and others. Such persons tend to be lonely because they can find no one to meet their standard. They are often angry with themselves because they are no more forgiving of their own faults than they are of the faults of others. They are sometimes even angry with God and want to blame him for the frustrations of their lives. Joy finds no place in their hearts.
All of us have, to some degree, an unforgiving nature, for to be unforgiving is a tendency of the “natural man.” But if we yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,” as King Benjamin admonished, we will put off “the natural man and [become] a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:19.) Such a person learns that forgiveness can open the door to a happier and more spiritually mature life.
In November 1973, ten-year-old Kelly Hulme was walking from school to her home in San Jose, California. While crossing through an orchard, she was accosted by a teenaged boy who dragged her into a vacant house and raped and then killed her. The young man who murdered Kelly was convicted shortly thereafter and sentenced to a life term for his crime.
Paul Hulme, a former LDS bishop then serving as a high councilor in the San Jose California Stake, faced the challenge of his life. Kelly was his youngest daughter. To have her life cut short so brutally assaulted his sense of justice and brought him to a crisis of faith. His pain, intense enough at the loss of one he loved so much, was compounded by feelings of anger and bitterness that began stirring in his heart. He sought comfort from the Lord for himself and for his grieving wife and family.
As he prayed for strength, he found solace in the knowledge that Kelly was in the loving hands of her Heavenly Father, secure from the cares of this world. He also recognized that the growing bitterness in his heart, if not resolved, could seriously threaten his future peace of mind and spiritual well-being.
He found that his thoughts, guided gently by the Spirit, began to turn to the parents and family of the young man, who was then in jail awaiting trial. He knew that his daughter was safe and content, but what of the young man responsible for her death? What hope did he have of forgiveness and peace? And what of the boy’s family, also grieving at the loss of one they loved but uncomforted by any knowledge that all was well with their son and brother?
Bishop Hulme decided to visit their home and offer whatever comfort and support was his to give. As he met with the boy’s family, he explained that he understood the anguish they must be feeling. But even as he shared his concern, he sensed that the family did not fully comprehend his motives or the message he brought. He came to understand that this home had never been touched by such simple Christian principles as faith and charity. It was unclear to Bishop Hulme whether he had accomplished any good by his visit. Nonetheless, a miracle occurred in his own heart as he felt bitterness and anger melt away, replaced instead with charity. His life would be forever changed because of his forgiving heart.2
The scriptures testify that there is a relationship between forgiving and being forgiven. In the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in Matthew, Christ teaches we should petition our Father to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12.) Following the prayer, the Savior repeats for special emphasis:
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
“But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14–15.)
In section 64 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord states: “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.” (D&C 64:8.) Beyond this, the Lord indicates a more serious problem with harboring an unforgiving heart: “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.” (D&C 64:9.)
Is the Lord truly saying that refusing to forgive another is a greater sin than the offense committed against us? Yes. Truman Madsen suggests one reason for this: In refusing to forgive another, we, in effect, attempt to deny the blessings of the Atonement to that person: “You may have reached the point of desperation in your own life when you have prayed and yearned for forgiveness of your own guilt and sin. But then you turn and say, ‘But not him! Don’t you forgive him! I’m not going to, he doesn’t deserve it.’ You will then close the channel of love and compassion and revelation from the Lord. You seek to nullify His atonement for others. It is like triple plate steel against water.”3
Perhaps this is why the Lord has said, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:10.)
A tender story from Church history illustrates the power of a forgiving heart. William W. Phelps joined the Church during the Kirtland era and became a devoted follower of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was called to be a member of the stake presidency in Jackson County, Missouri. Later, as a result of some financial improprieties and an unrepentant heart, Brother Phelps left the Church. He became bitter and declared himself an enemy to the Prophet. His defection occurred during a time of intense persecution when the Prophet, along with many of the leading brethren, had been arrested and placed under military guard following the “extermination order” of Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri.
The Prophet’s life hung literally in the balance. In the midst of such turmoil, William W. Phelps came forth to serve as a state witness against the Prophet. Compounding his betrayal, Phelps also signed a certificate defending the actions of one of the Saints’ worst enemies.
As a result of such testimony from Phelps and others like him, the Prophet and several of the brethren were incarcerated in a series of Missouri prisons, including Liberty Jail, until April 1839, when they escaped and fled to Illinois. We can perhaps imagine the bitter disappointment the Prophet endured during the months of his imprisonment as he contemplated the betrayal of brethren he had loved and trusted.
Two years later, after great anguish and bitter remorse for his actions, Brother Phelps sent the Prophet a heartfelt letter that began:
“Brother Joseph, … I am as the prodigal son. … I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed.” He begged the forgiveness of the brethren and asked that even with severe chastisement he might return to them.4
The Prophet’s almost immediate reply stands today as a worthy example of the power of forgiveness and of the great heart of the man Joseph Smith:
“Dear Brother Phelps: …
“You may in some measure realize what my feelings, as well as Elder Rigdon’s and Brother Hyrum’s were, when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves. …
“It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. …
“However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God’s dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. …
‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
‘For friends at first, are friends again at last.’
“Yours as ever,
“Joseph Smith, Jun.”5
Brother Phelps returned to the Church, directing his energy and testimony with new resolve and commitment. His love for the Prophet and his gratitude for another chance were deep and sincere. It was William W. Phelps who spoke at the Prophet’s funeral service and who later penned the words that have become one of the great hymns of the Restoration:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere. …
Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.
Millions shall know ‘Brother Joseph’ again.
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.6
Joseph Smith had also written to William W. Phelps in the letter previously quoted: “Inasmuch as long-suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our heavenly Father towards the humble and penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example, cherish the same principles, and by so doing be a savior of my fellow man.”7
The Prophet’s words admonish each of us to learn the ways of our Heavenly Father and copy his example. In so doing, we will bring peace and contentment into our lives and perhaps influence others to come back to the Lord.
President Joseph F. Smith, whose kindly way and tender heart endeared him to the Saints of his day, admonished: “We hope and pray that you will … forgive one another and never from this time forth … bear malice toward another fellow creature. …
“It is extremely hurtful for any man holding the gift of the Holy Ghost to harbor a spirit of envy, or malice, or retaliations, or intolerance toward or against his fellow man. We ought to say in our hearts, ‘Let God judge between me and thee, but as for me, I will forgive.’ I want to say to you that Latter-day Saints who harbor a feeling of unforgiveness in their souls are more censurable than the one who has sinned against them. Go home and dismiss envy and hatred from your hearts: dismiss the feeling of unforgiveness; and cultivate in your souls that spirit of Christ which cried out upon the cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ This is the spirit that Latter-day Saints ought to possess all the day long.”8