Two months ago I was called to visit teach a sweet and amazing lady in our ward whose six-year-old daughter was brutally murdered last summer. She’s doing amazingly well, and is a shining example of faith to all who know her. However, when she sees the perpetrator of this unthinkable crime as she and her husband follow the legal proceedings leading up to his trial, she struggles to forgive, as anyone would.
This experience has brought front and center a question I’ve had for some time. What does that mean, really, to forgive? Also I’ve edited a book that brought the same question to the foreground. All through his childhood the author was severely abused by a father he hated and feared. He joined the Church in his late teens, but struggled for years with the doctrine that he must forgive his father. Again, what does “I forgive you” really mean? What it doesn’t mean is that I am somehow freeing the perpetrator from accountability or discounting the seriousness of their sin. Their personal forgiveness can only come from God on condition of their sincere repentance. What it does mean is that I am willing to turn the perpetrator over to the Lord, trusting that He alone knows how best to deal with them.
In Luke 6:37 we read, “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” I have to ask myself: have I really forgiven every person who has wronged me? I feel the need to internalize the truth that my forgiveness of the wrongdoing of others opens the windows of heaven to forgiveness of my own sins, not theirs.
What is the process I must follow in order to make the words “I forgive you” come from my heart and not just from my lips? What must I do to make it real?
What Is My Part?
In his book Falling into Heaven, James Farrell indicates that to “forgive” someone sounds like such a gallant act-a favor dispensed upon another despite his or her despicable mistreatment or thoughtlessness, but it is really just a vital kind of repenting: repenting of the desire to withhold the love and mercy of the Savior from someone we judge undeserving. It can also mean repenting of withholding love.
My part, my need to “forgive,” then, is to ask the Lord to cleanse my heart of malice toward the offender. It is vital because not only my peace of mind depends on it, but because it is the very key that unlocks the door to forgiveness of my own sins.
The concept that keeps shining out to me lately is that forgiving simply means “I’m willing to repent of bad feelings toward you and leave the matter between you and God.”
If I have an unforgiving spirit, I harbor anger, bitterness, resentment, even hate. Do those bad feelings hurt the perpetrator or make it any more likely he will repent? They don’t necessarily affect him at all! He may be totally oblivious to my torment. Who is hurting? Me! Who is continuing to sin? Me! All those feelings are opposite from the love that typifies a true disciple of Christ. All those feelings keep me in Satan’s territory. All those feelings hold me in bondage. Only when the perpetrator of a wrong repents and receives God’s forgiveness will he be truly free. But when I repent and the Lord helps me to have a forgiving heart, the prisoner that is set free is me. Instead of hanging down my head when I realize my need to repent of bad feelings, I can rejoice that the Lord constantly invites me to walk that path to freedom and will take my hand and show me the way.
We all want to be free. Why then, can forgiving be such a struggle?
The Greater Sin
Part of the struggle is to let go of the seriousness of the sin against us in order to concentrate on the seriousness of our own sin of not forgiving. In D&C 64:9 we read, “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.”
What? The greater sin? How can that be? How can this sweet mother’s unforgiving heart be a greater sin than rape and murder? How could this man’s hatred toward his father be a greater sin than to torment and abuse children for more than a decade?
Perhaps unforgiveness is the “greater” sin for us (not a worse sin) because it is the only one we are accountable for, the only one we can do anything about, and because our sin, not the perpetrator’s, is the one that can distance us from God. No matter how heinous, no one’s sin against us can keep us from returning to our Father or can form a barrier between us and the Atonement: only our own sin. Also, we can’t repent of someone else’s sin against us, but we can repent of the hardness of heart that may result from our lack of forgiveness. When all is said and done, our sin against those who hurt us is the sin that hurts us most (and consequently could be called the “greater” sin) because it can cause us to lose the Spirit and can stop our spiritual progress.
Let me give you a personal example where the wrong done to me is mild compared to the ones I’ve cited, and should be no problem at all to forgive. But the fact is, to me it has been. Here’s my situation: although my husband is wonderful in many ways, believe it or not he is not perfect. (One of his virtues is that he’d be the first to admit it!) Many times I have been tempted to the greater sin by focusing on his shortcomings. My own lack of charity can be the beam in my eye blinding me to the bounteous good in him, while his problems are little motes in comparison. Every time I’ve decided I needed to call him to repentance, if I’ve humbled myself and asked for help, the Lord has taught me that the greater need for repentance was mine! I told the following story about one such time in my book, Trust God No Matter What.1
I remember clearly the Saturday night conference meeting when our visiting Authority addressed the subject of marriage; we were so close to him that I could clearly see the earnestness on his face.
He counseled us to be kind in our dealings with our spouse. Then, he seemed to look right at me, and his words went right to my heart. The message was that only the Savior knows our spouse’s great potential. We personally offend Him when we judge our spouse harshly.
Just that week I’d been in a judgmental, self-righteous mindset, fearful of the future, certain that the problems in our marriage could never be resolved unless he changed. I sat in tears realizing my own need to change. Later that evening I was so grateful for my husband’s kind response when I asked his forgiveness.
Looking back, the contrast is amazing between the misery I feel whenever I self-righteously judge others, contrasted with the sweetness of the Spirit when I can see my own need to repent and ask for forgiveness.
That night when I responded to a church leader’s inspired words, a surrender of sorts, I felt the rest of the Lord. The adversary can only keep me miserable if I forget to apply the sweetness of repentance and forgiving, the sweetness of resting in His way.
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) and this repentance of bad feelings that we call forgiving, opens the conduit to the Lord’s mercy to us. We can’t receive it unless we are willing to give it. Refusal to forgive (repent of bad feelings) is refusal to accept forgiveness. My participation in the Savior’s sacrifice requires a much smaller sacrifice: giving up my enmity towards others. (See my note below in regard to upcoming help to answer the question of how to do this.)
Abigail: Life-Changing Symbol
I’ve read and heard the Old Testament story of Abigail’s offering to David many times over the years. (See 1 Samuel 25.) Still, I’d totally missed the deeper meaning that James L. Ferrell pointed out in his book The Peacegiver.2 You remember the story: David, who had recently done a great service to Nabal by securing his flocks, sent some of his men to request sustenance. Nabal “rails on them” and turns them away. David and his men, seething at the injustice, determine to march against his household and slay all the males. Abigail, Nabal’s wife, becomes privy to the plot, gathers great stores of food, and hastens to intervene. She approaches David, offering to make up for her husband’s affront to the men.
I always thought Abigail was being a really brave and loving wife to intercede with David in hopes of securing her husband’s safety. But there is so much more to it than that. Ferrell explains the symbolism as Abigail kneels before David and his men, and says, “Upon me let this iniquity be,” offering, as Christ does, to take another’s sin upon herself and, in her case, atone for it by offering many times the goods David had requested of her husband. But here is the kicker: Abigail’s concern is not only to save her husband and the men of her household, but to save David from doing this great wrong, to keep his previously unsullied soul safe. She said, “Please accept of my offering, that this shall be no grief unto thee.”
Inexplicably, she says, “forgive my trespass,” claiming the sin as her own. Abigail asked David’s forgiveness not because she needed it (she, like Jesus, had done nothing wrong) but because David needed to forgive instead of multiplying Nabal’s sin with his own. Through her merciful act Abigail created the most forgiveness-friendly environment possible. She offered to compensate for the sin David was raging against, full measure, running over-much more than he had originally asked for.
As Abigail Did for David, So Jesus Does for Us
Farrell explains that Jesus does the same with us in every situation where we are wronged by another; thus Abigail is the perfect “type” of the Savior’s merciful dealings with his children.
We can see many applications of this story in daily life scenarios. Sometimes, the offense against us may be huge, like the two I referred to earlier, sometimes small, like my example with my husband, but the temptation is the same: to allow the wrong done to us to justify feelings and actions that may cause us to lose the Spirit, or in the worst case scenario, our souls.
I recently heard a man relate a personal experience that illustrates this principle in a mundane situation, one we can all relate to. He was going to Home Depot on a Saturday morning to get a new disposal to replace the one that was leaking under his sink. He couldn’t afford a plumber and was loathing the idea of spending Saturday doing this task. He wanted very much to get it done as quickly as possible. When he pulled into the parking lot it was completely full. He saw a man return to his car and positioned his car to take his spot when he pulled out. He tried to be patient while the man got into his car and fumbled with a map because the parking place was close to the entrance. Just as the man pulled out, another car pulled around him and screeched into the empty stall taking the place he had clearly been in line for. He was livid, and his response was not polite! He raged at the man the whole time it took to find another spot, make his purchase and come back to his car. He was sorely tempted to key the person’s car who had done him wrong or slash his tires (as some punk had done to his own car recently), but resisted. As he pulled out of the parking lot he realized that his rage had caused him to lose the Spirit and he prayed repeatedly for forgiveness and that he might regain the Spirit. Finally he was given a glimpse into this other man’s heart-that he, too, was facing an unwanted project that would eat up a lot of his precious time on his only day off, and almost in desperation had gone for the only possible parking place he had seen. He recognized this was a brother, and had compassion for him. When he was able to forgive him and ask forgiveness for his own unrighteous reaction, the Spirit flowed back into his heart.
How many times has my reaction to being wronged been a far more serious transgression that the one I was reacting to? How many times have I lost the Spirit because of it? Why am I tempted to think that a wrong done to me by someone else justifies resentment, anger, or unkind feelings? Every time that happens, Satan laughs because He has accomplished his purpose of making me miserable.
Digging Deeper into the Forgiveness Principle
This story brings me back Into Farrell’s book, The Peacegiver. Farrell teaches great lessons through the grandpa’s words to his grandson, Rick, who was bitter and unforgiving toward his wife. Grandpa explained that when we withhold forgiveness from others, we are in effect saying that the Atonement alone is insufficient to pay for their sins. We are holding out for more. The Lord is right there, kneeling before us, assuring us of His total ability to recompense us for the hurt of their sins because His Atonement is never lacking. But we are finding fault with the Lord’s offering. We are in essence demanding that the Lord repent of an insufficient Atonement. So when we fail to forgive another it is as if we are failing to forgive the Lord-who needs no forgiveness.3
Applying the Abigail Principle
The Savior, in absolute humility, kneels before us offering the bounteous blessings of the Atonement to give us recompense for the hurtful choices of others. The Atonement Jesus offers promises to “make up” for the hurts and affronts and wrongs done to us by others-even when they are grievous.
He promises to heal us and restore us and make our lives even better than before. Like Abigail the Savior offers much more than what we originally wanted from the person who wronged us (sometimes through the great life lessons we learn from the experience). Like Abigail, His great concern is to keep our souls safe from anger, revenge, and from withholding forgiveness. His concern is to open heaven’s windows to us, to make the Atonement available, to save us from the “greater sin” of lack of forgiveness of others that can place a barrier between us and the Lord’s forgiveness.
When Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive our trespassers,” He was teaching us an inescapable fact, a law. If we are holding anger, malice, or resentment in our hearts for anyone, withholding forgiveness for any reason, those feelings close or harden our hearts to the love and forgiveness of God. And we are the ones who have shut the door, not Him. It is something like the law of the harvest–there is no receiving without giving. Dead-sea hearts that want to receive without giving are themselves damming their capacity to receive. As we give, it is given unto us. That is the law of life.
The Lord said, in D& C 82:1, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, my servants, that inasmuch as you have forgiven one another your trespasses, even so I, the Lord forgive you.”
May the symbol of Abigail’s offering, of her humbly kneeling, of her compassionate desire to save David from “the greater sin,” inspire and bless us daily. May we remember that the Savior’s Atonement is great enough to cover every wrong done to us as well as every wrong that we commit. May we open our hearts to His compensating blessings by being willing to take advantage of the Atonement’s grand key to freedom and peace of mind: the opportunity to forgive by repenting.
Author’s Note: I have recently been editing a short book called How to Forgive, written by my friend Lorie Davis, that will be invaluable for those of us who want with all our hearts to forgive, but simply don’t know how to do it. As soon as it is finished, I will ask her permission to share its principles with you.
Also, both of my books deal with the subject of forgiving. Visit my website to learn more about them: www.darlaisackson.com