This week we covered the topic. I won’t claim it’s the most important topic there is, considering that the atonement, faith in Christ, and covenants are awfully important topics (to say the least). But. This topic strikes at the very core of how we see our Father in Heaven, how we see the Savior, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. We cannot live after the manner of happiness if we do not live this principle. We certainly do live after the manner of misery when we don’t live it.
The topic? Forgiveness.
Gordon B. Hinckley said, “A spirit of forgiveness and an attitude of love and compassion toward those who may have wronged us is of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The very essence!
Five forgiveness-related principles clearly taught in the scriptures seem important:
- I must forgive others if I am to be forgiven. This is taught in the Lord’s prayer—and in the next two verses following the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount: “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.” The Savior teaches a wonderful and critical parable in Matthew 18 about the servant who, though readily forgiven by a compassionate king, failed to pay it forward and so was “delivered to the tormentors” by that same compassionate—and just—king. How quickly he went from bondage to freedom and back to bondage again! I cannot hope for much needed forgiveness from the Savior as long as I withhold forgiveness from another.
- I must forgive repeatedly—even the same person, even the same offense. (Note: Forgiving someone does not mean becoming their doormat or tolerating being their victim.) Peter asked plainly, “How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” The Lord’s answer was less plain, but its point is nevertheless clear. Surely “until seventy times seven” means each and every time and does not suggest that we stop after 490. How dangerous of us to forget, when we become frustrated or worse by the repeated failures and offenses of a loved one, that the Savior passed 490 times with us a very, very long time ago. When losing patience with another, we might ask, “How oft shall I sin and need God’s forgiveness in order to live with Him again?”
- I will be judged as harshly—or as mercifully—as I judge. “With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged,” the Savior said. And, paraphrasing Him, “The measuring stick you use for others shall be used to measure you.” On the other hand—and how beautiful this is!—“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Peter, after objecting to the Savior washing his feet and then understanding that it was necessary if Peter were to live again with the Savior, cried, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Similarly, when we come to realize that the merciful obtain mercy and that we need mercy, we should become enthusiastic about extending mercy and the most generous judgment possible to others. Before Moroni exhorts us to pray about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, he instructs us to remember and ponder on the mercy of God. Interesting how the pondering of God’s mercy brings the Spirit into our hearts.
- I commit the bigger sin when I fail to forgive. Really? My spouse cheats on me and I fail to forgive and I have the bigger sin? Somebody abuses my small child and I withhold forgiveness and I have the bigger sin? Do any of us actually believe this principle?! Perhaps it’s easy for me to say I do when I’ve never been offended to those degrees, but what’s the logic behind it? Isn’t failing to forgive someone a rejection of the atonement? Isn’t it a rejection of the idea that the offender can and may very well be forgiven by God? And isn’t it a rejection of the idea that I need forgiveness, myself—that I am the very beggar and unprofitable servant King Benjamin talks about? Am I not even, in a sense, placing myself above God? What could be worse than that?
- I must respond to offense with charity. The “eye for an eye” days are over—and not just for everybody else! Instead… “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Do good to them! Not snarky good. Genuine good. We have heard, even in General Conference, about the exemplary ability of the Amish to forgive. Anabaptists have a long history of loving their enemies and blessing them that curse them. We should all remember the example of Dirk Willems.
Forgiveness benefits the forgiver. President Kimball said, “The essence … of forgiveness is that it brings peace to the previously anxious, restless, frustrated, perhaps tormented soul.” Interesting that words like frustrated and tormented are used here to describe not the offender, but the offended. Such words probably describe both parties. Relief comes through forgiveness, which comes from seeing the offender, myself, and God all accurately: the offender as someone trying and sometimes (perhaps often) failing just like me, myself as someone in infinite need of forgiveness, and God as generous and benevolent toward all his children.
We should remember just how willing the Savior is to forgive. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both.” The phrase “when they had nothing to pay” is notable. I think of it as meaning that their hearts were broken and their spirits contrite. At that point, he forgave them “frankly.” Frankly means (at least according to Webster in 1828) “without reserve or constraint; liberally; freely.” When our hearts are broken, forgiveness comes freely. Yet! “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men,” whether their hearts are broken or not—for “the Lord looketh on the heart”—and sees what I cannot.
Our willingness or unwillingness to forgive says so much about us!
Do I see myself, in spite of my awareness of other people’s shortcomings, as being desperately in need of the grace of God, myself? Do I recognize myself as the servant who truly owes “ten thousand talents”? Do I see those who offend me as owing me much less than that? Do I avoid even taking offense because I see my own shortcomings reflected in those of the person who wrongs me? Or do I respond to others with indignation because of my failure to see both my shortcomings and their pain and disadvantages? Am I adequately generous with other people when I try to explain their behavior to myself? Do I see God as the kind, generous, compassionate father He is? Do I forget in my moments of self-absorption that his kindness, compassion, generosity, and willingness to forgive extend to those I am not forgiving? Or do I sincerely celebrate the fact that they do and let Him deal with whatever justice must be dealt with?
Do I appreciate the fact that other people are trying; that they, too, yearn for happiness; that they, too, regret their repeated shortcomings; and that they have spiritual and emotional scars with which I may lack both awareness and understanding?
The scriptures have some beautiful, touching examples of forgiveness. One of the best is the story of Joseph. After debating killing him, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery where he suffered temptation, ended up in prison, but rose to great power. (You know the story.) Yet when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, his thoughts and feelings are for them. They are not about how he was wronged. Rather, they reveal his anxiousness to provide comfort to them!
“Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God… Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him… thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children, and thy children’s children, and thy flocks, and thy herds, and all that thou hast: And there will I nourish thee; for yet there are five years of famine; lest thou, and thy household, and all that thou hast, come to poverty. And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. Moreover he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them…”
May we be like Joseph. May we reflect the character of Christ, and, at all times, even during the hard moments, turn our thoughts to the other person and have our hearts and minds, inviting compassion.