Whenever I lack the strength to be up and moving, my iPod is my lifeline. In addition to scripture, conference talks, and other uplifting messages, I listen to inspiring novels. In these novels I have noticed a recurring theme: the struggle to forgive. One character named Jackson, brutally abused by his father for many years, said things like, “I know I should forgive, but how? It makes me angry to even think about it. My father doesn’t deserve forgiveness because the things he did to me are unforgivable and I don’t think he even cared how much he hurt me. What sense does it make to say, ‘Just forgive him’?”
When I heard those words, my thoughts turned to a friend named Stan Winchester. For some time I’ve been editing drafts of his remarkable upcoming book His Grace is Sufficient. The subtitle of his book is My Journey of Healing Through the Power of The Atonement, because his story magnificently shows the power of the Lord that freed him from years of emotional and spiritual turmoil caused by his father’s horrific abuse. He vividly brings to life the long process that made the Atonement real in his life. He tells how eventually (after much hard work and healing) he received, through the Lord’s mercy, the ability to forgive his father. With Stan’s permission, I want to share quotes from his book: first summarizing his experience, then his powerful testimony of the freedom through forgiving. I’ll add commentary including my own experience.
Stan said, “As a child, I received beatings for not doing my chores well enough, for not taking the trash out before my father wanted it taken out, for having a certain look on my face, for crying, for breathing, and for just being alive. While other children were playing and laughing in the sun I endured years of cruel physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. As I grew to adulthood, the vast destruction my father had caused with his abuse became more and more evident. I slowly began an eighteen-year span of suffering as I struggled with the systemic effects of the abuse that sought to destroy me.
“ . . . The debilitating pain of repeat offenses were intense beyond my ability to cope. With my many deep emotional wounds it seemed impossible for me to forgive my father. I believed trying to forgive under these circumstances as ridiculous as trying to get on with one's life while unconscious as a patient in an intensive care ward following a major illness, accident, or surgery. . .
“After I realized just how far reaching the damage in my life was I became very angry at my father. One day, I was all alone at his graveside. I was so angry I could have broken his headstone into a pile of rubble. As I stood before his grave I finally let the anger and rage I had been carrying escape my lips. I shouted at him about the struggles I was having in my marriage, in being a father, and in my life, because of his terrible example. I yelled and told him how angry I was for all that he had done to hurt me. When I was finished yelling, stomping, and spitting, I fell to the ground and sobbed and sobbed, but this experience brought no relief. The pain and anger was still there. . .
“When I was confronted with the opinions of fellow church members that I must forgive now, or when I was confronted with scriptures like D&C 64:10 commanding me to forgive or be worse than the offender, I felt troubled and heavy, as if I was wearing heavy chains that I could not shake off. I often felt verses like this were used as weapons by others to try to force me to forgive my father. I knew forgiveness was going to take me a long time and that I would need to do a lot of personal healing first.
“Many years later, I heard Elder Richard G. Scott’s words, ‘If the thought of forgiveness causes you yet more pain, set that step aside until you have more experience with the Savior’s healing power in your own life’ (Richard G. Scott, To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse, General Conference, April 2008) I realized t I had not been wrong about the forgiveness process and that I had to do a lot of healing first.
Forgiveness Is a Process, Not an Event
Stan continues, “I do not believe forgiveness was ever meant to be a crushing burden placed on us by others. Especially those of us who have wrongfully suffered abuse at the hands of others. With all the horrendous emotional pain I was enduring, getting to the point where I could offer forgiveness to my father for the deep wrongs he inflicted upon me was a long process. Although, I would have liked it to have been a one-time event, it was not.”
Each time we use our will to make the choice to forgive, the Lord trades the misery of anger and resentment for a taste of charity, the pure love of Christ. The more we make that choice, the more the heart is freed. But it IS an ongoing process.
Trust God to Help
I’ve thought long and hard on this subject of forgiveness as I’ve worked with Stan, as well as many other times in my life. Still, I admit that sometimes I’ve looked at the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 64: 10, “I the Lord God will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men,” and thought: “How can God require us to forgive even those He is not going to forgive? And how can we, as such imperfect mortals possibly do it?”I know that, as Nephi said “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them”(1 Nephi 3:7). But what is the way He has prepared for us to be able to forgive? And why does it sometimes seem so hard to find?
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, “After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165-66).
Stan and I both learned that we do not have the power in ourselves, apart from God to forgive or access the Atonement. Only dependence on the Lord makes it all possible. When I counseled with my bishop after my son’s tragic death by suicide, he reminded me of the story of Corrie ten Boom who had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Decades later, Corrie came face to face with one of her former guards. He thrust his hand out to her, asking for her forgiveness. Corrie, a devoted Christian, knew in her heart she must forgive him, yet she could not. And here is a vital message: Corrie herself often taught that forgiveness is not an emotion, but an act of the will, a choice one can make regardless of the temperature of the heart.