“Forgiveness: Our Challenge and Our Blessing,” Ensign, Aug. 2004, 44
We live in a time when society emphasizes individual rights. We are told that if someone violates our rights, we should take action. Advocate groups of all kinds are ready to redress our grievances. To a certain extent, this may be good. But I believe that when we are despitefully used and persecuted, we are on trial as much as our enemies are.
How can this be? When a person deprives me of my good name, my property, my sense of self-worth, or when someone violates my trust or likewise misuses a friend or family member, how am I on trial?
Many years ago I approached a man I respected greatly, a leader in the Church, for counsel. He shared a personal experience with me. Without revealing any personal details, he told me that a senior brother had unjustly called him to task during a Church meeting. Without learning all the facts, this brother had chastised and embarrassed him. My leader’s first impulse was to defend himself at the expense of the older man. But he paused to debate within himself: “What will this do to him? He deserves it! But it won’t help him; it will just embarrass him. Another confrontation won’t help the situation.” He bit his lip and said nothing. A few weeks later the correct information came to the senior brother, and he apologized and wept with my leader in love.
After hearing this story I wondered, “Why did he share this with me? Is he preparing me for something?” Since that time I have indeed experienced similar situations. Once, for example, I received a letter from someone who, from my point of view, upbraided me unjustly. I was angry! I was hurt! He had no right to do that to me!
I fumed and steamed. I told my wife, Judy, and she fumed and steamed. I talked to some of my friends, and they too were irate. After seeing their reactions, however, I felt uncomfortable. I pulled back a bit and said, “Now, wait a minute, you don’t have to react that strongly.” But I had already let the cat out of the bag, and I could not control their responses. I began to wonder if my behavior had been justified. I said to myself, “I’m not helping this man, and it really did not help me to vent.”
I learned that there may be times when we do need to confide in someone if we have been hurt. Yet we need to be extremely cautious in doing so, because we put a great responsibility upon our confidant’s shoulders. We offer only a limited amount of data, most of it negative. I might tell my wife about a particular person I am really frustrated with, leaving her feeling the same way I do. A week later, I may feel good about that individual because of my ongoing relationship and because I can now see our problems in the proper perspective. But Judy would not have that new information and may still be burdened with negative feelings.
When it seems we need a listening ear, it may help to ask: “Why do I want to discuss this? Am I trying to hurt the offender and find justification for my inappropriate responses? Or am I trying to sort things out and gain a new perspective so I can act appropriately? What effect will this have on my confidant? Can I be certain he or she will keep these things confidential?” I have learned that we need to first counsel with the Lord before we ask someone to help us.
Two negative reactions to injustice are common. One is to deny what is going on inside. We may say to ourselves: “What that person said hurts. I shouldn’t let it affect me. It really doesn’t bother me. I’m fine.” Yet ignoring our feelings does not necessarily make them go away. They may continue to negatively influence our behavior in subtle ways without our even being aware of it.
Another reaction is to wallow in our feelings, allowing them to become an obsession. We may talk about an individual who has wronged us to anyone who will listen. Even if we never seek revenge, we may continue to dream of doing so. An old sore is never permitted to heal when it is continually rubbed.
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) shared this incident:
“[A] couple had had much trouble which culminated in divorce. The woman had acknowledged her guilt of infidelity, and had done all she could to make adjustment through her bishop, and had remarried in what seemed to be a happy marriage. The man, on the other hand, had been most demanding and seemed determined to see that she was disciplined severely. From authority to authority he took the case, rehearsing all her weaknesses and eccentricities, fully embellishing them and demanding that the Church take action.
“… Revenge seemed to be his obsession. It was necessary to say to him: ‘You have done your full duty when you have reported the misdeeds to the proper authority. You need not take the matter further.’ And when he persisted, it was finally necessary to tell him that unless he desisted, action might be taken against him. Revenge is sweet to some, but ‘revenge is mine, saith the Lord.’ Again, he that will not forgive is worse than the original culprit.”1
In Doctrine and Covenants 64:9 the Savior said, “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.” The greater sin? How can that be?
Sin is anything we permit into our lives that will destroy us spiritually. When we poison ourselves with vengeful feelings, with hate, we distance ourselves from the influence of the Spirit of the Lord. Not only that, but we attempt to assume one of God’s roles—that of determining who is worthy of forgiveness.
How does one forgive? Forgiveness begins by putting three things into perspective. First, acknowledge your pain when you have been wronged. You may not be able to control what you initially feel in response to a situation, but you can control how you act upon those feelings. Are you going to allow your pain or anger to fester? The person may have offended you once. But each time you replay the situation you are reviving those feelings. Are you going to let a past experience intrude upon your enjoyment of today?
Second, try to understand the other person’s circumstances. Try to see him or her as a person who makes mistakes, as a person who may hurt other people unknowingly or who may have challenges we can’t understand. Forgiveness encourages us to view a person not as some malevolent creature but as a child of God struggling to cope in a confusing, telestial world. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”2
Third, an attitude of forgiveness helps us focus on the situation instead of the person. We can think, “That remark really embarrassed me,” instead of, “Jim embarrassed me.” Or, “It hurts to have my personal integrity questioned,” instead of, “Jane really hurt me.” I am convinced it is possible to separate our feelings about an individual from our feelings about an incident.
One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Love is a daily decision.” Love is a daily decision to behave toward others in a way that is helpful to them in spite of how we may sometimes feel. When we act in loving ways toward people who have offended us, often our actions will lead us to feel more kindly toward them. We tend to love those we serve. Even if the offenses continue and our feelings do not change, forgiveness requires us to keep responding in a loving manner (see Matt. 5:44–48).
I am not saying we should let people take advantage of us. There are times when our most helpful reaction is to be honest with the individual and say, “That remark hurt my feelings,” or, “It hurt me when you did this.” In most cases one should follow the Savior’s injunction to discuss the issue privately with the individual (see D&C 42:88; Matt. 18:15). In serious cases a person may need to be dealt with in the civil courts and sometimes in Church disciplinary councils (see D&C 42:89). Having served as a bishop and on a number of high councils, I have found that Church disciplinary councils are councils of love and forgiveness, even when disciplinary action is taken (see D&C 64:12–13).
Most often I try to file away an incident as just another challenging experience without saying anything. Some questions I use in deciding whether to speak are: “Will this help the individual? Without open resolution, will our relationship continue to decay? Am I being fair to the person by not sharing how I feel in this situation?”
One who is forgiving does not seek revenge but may seek to help a person see the social and spiritual consequences of certain actions. To let someone continually offend you without telling him or her is not fair to that person, especially if it has a negative effect on your relationship. For example, to let someone steal from you without any negative consequences—no matter how much you feel sorry for the person—is just encouraging social and spiritual decay.
Some people say that to completely forgive someone we must forget what transpired. I am not convinced this is possible, short of brain surgery. The forgiving person will remember with sympathy. The offender must suffer the ultimate social and spiritual consequences of his or her behavior. Compassion will help the forgiving person to finally let go of the incident, leave it alone, and with the aid of the Spirit, let days and weeks of life’s other challenges and blessings help it fade into the past.3
William George Jordan said: “We cannot forget by trying intensely to forget—this merely deepens and gives new vitality to the memory. True forgetting really means finer memory; it is displacing one memory by another … so that the first is weakened, neutralized, and faded out like a well-treated ink stain. … Time helps wonderfully.”4
Forgiveness and trust are not synonymous. We are required to forgive everyone (see D&C 64:10) but counseled to be cautious in placing our trust in others (see Matt. 7:6; Prov. 25:19). Trust places a responsibility in people that they may not be ready to handle. Trust must be earned. I can forgive a child’s stealing my money but still limit access to my wallet until I feel he or she can handle the temptation to steal.
A friend of mine is an excellent example of one who forgives. She had been married many years and was deeply in love with her husband when she discovered that for some time he had been committing adultery. He claimed to want to repent, and things smoothed over for a few years until it became clear he had no intention of ending his immorality and other evil habits.
Over time more facts concerning his lifestyle came to light, and after much prayer and counseling this woman decided that divorce was best for her and for the children. It was a tremendous struggle. I saw her rise above the temptation to wallow in feelings of anger and self-pity and determine that her feelings would not dictate her actions.
She has come to see her ex-husband as a potentially good, loving man. She feels sorry for him. She has taught her children to love and respect him for his good qualities but also to see the tragic results of his sinful choices. Her energies are not spent in hateful gossip or revenge.
We are on trial when others wrong us, but the mercy we offer others will also be extended to us. Jesus Christ said, “Forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Often when we forgive others it benefits us far more than the wrongdoer. As we forgive we become more humble, more at peace with ourselves, more receptive to the Spirit of the Lord—indeed, more like Christ.