Forgiveness: A How-To Guide
Forgiveness, do we really understand it? Sure, we’ve heard it addressed countless times in lessons, Sacrament talks and General Conference talks. We’ve read articles about it in the Ensign. Those born in the church have heard about it all their lives. And yet, recently as I have engaged other people in discussions about it and explored my own feelings and thoughts, I’ve found that people have different ideas about what it is, how long it should take, and how we really do it.
I believe that in order to really understand forgiveness, there are some guidelines we should consider.
Forgiveness is not “one size fits all”. A manner of forgiving or time line of forgiving that works for one person may not work for another. This is true not only because the offenses that need forgiveness vary, but because those of us doing the forgiving vary so much as well.
Forgiveness has no time limits, and no expiration dates. Almost always when I hear a talk or lesson about forgiveness, I feel a sense of urgency as if some unseen clock is ticking and my time is running out. And yet, when I take the time to think it through with reason rather just surrendering to my emotion, I know that the Lord will be patient with me while I work through it.
We don’t have to do it alone. The Savior is not standing on the side lines waiting for us to get with the program and forgive, but rather He wants to be with us and guide us through the process if we let Him.
Now that we have some initial guidelines, let’s take time to discuss each one more thoroughly.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is not one-size-fits-all. In order to better understand what I mean by that, let’s consider the dictionary definition as a starting point. :
- To excuse for a fault or offense, give up resentment of or claim to requital
- To renounce anger to cease to feel resentment against an offender
- To absolve from payment of a debt, grant relief of payment
In my mind the first two are closely related and so I will treat them together. It is not difficult to note that offenses needing forgiveness vary in severity from smaller issues like your boss not giving you the day off you asked for, to more painful issues such as unkind remarks made by a family member, or much more serious issues relating to abuse, injuries and death.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse I really struggled with the first two definitions in relation to forgiving my abuser. In my mind, to excuse him, meant to say, “It’s ok that you did this.” How could I ever say that? I could say it to my boss, who made a mistake and didn’t give the day off I asked for well in advance. With some time I could say it to my family member that said some really hurtful things, but say it to the person who abused me for years? No, I can’t imagine ever saying that to him or about him.
Recently I asked on a LDS message board “what does forgiveness mean to you?” I specifically addressed my concern with the “it’s ok” issue. One of the answers gave me an epiphany.
The missing link that helped me see clearly what I could not see before was forgiving someone does not mean saying, “It’s ok that you did this”; It means “Your offense doesn’t hurt me any more. “ That is an enormous difference. Again we can see that it is much easier to say, “It doesn’t bother me any more mother-in-law, that you said those hurtful things. I’m over it” than to say that years of abuse don’t hurt you anymore. Is it even possible to say that about abuse?
I believe it is. I’m not there yet but something that gives me hope is Marilyn Van Derbur, a former Miss America and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In her book, Miss America by Day, she offers hope to other survivors. She says, “The good news is that pain can end. The bad news is that recovery is an indescribably agonizing process.”
It is important to note here. As Marilyn said, getting over the pain of abuse is possible, but it is an agonizing process to get there. Telling a survivor to forgive is not only unhelpful, but can be actually slow their healing for many reasons which are beyond the scope of this article. If you know someone in this situation, the best thing you can do is listen and validate their feelings.
The next definition is trickier. Absolve from a debt. Is this applicable to every situation? Absolve from the debt could mean a variety of things. For example, it could be literal as in the wonderful scene in Les Miserables when the Bishop says, “You forgot the candlesticks.” Jon Valjean had actually stolen silver from the Bishop, and so the Bishop had a right to prosecute. He chose instead to forgive, thus changing Jon Valjean’s life. While we all love that story, we have to ask ourselves if that is applicable to every situation. Clearly it is not. There are some cases in which justice is necessary. I’m sure no one would argue that Jerry Sandusky should not be in jail for the crimes he committed. Not simply as punishment, but because if he were free, there is a high likelihood he would continue his heinous behavior.
“Absolve from a debt” for a husband and wife could mean not bringing it up again in future arguments which is perfectly reasonable. This is a form of reconciliation. Sometimes we do let things grow and fester that need to be let go and forgiven. I will never forget a reconciliation story I read years ago on an ER doctor’s blog.
He had a patient come in that had been in a terrible accident. She had very severe burns, and yet she felt no pain. The lack of pain was a sign to the medical staff that In spite of their efforts, death was imminent. When they told her, and asked if there was a family member they could call, she said she had only one relative, her daughter. They had been estranged for years. The daughter was called, and they shared a few moments of tearful conversation and reconciliation. The daughter lived five hours away. She arrived at the hospital a few hours after her mother’s death.
In some circumstances though, reconciliation is not healthy or advisable. Abuse is a good example. We are all familiar with stories of women who return to abusive husbands. Husbands who said they were sorry, only to be beaten again. Some relationships need to be severed.
No Time Limits—No expiration dates
Sometimes we hear beautiful and powerful stories in the news of people who not only forgive grievous offenses, but forgive very quickly. A good example of this is Chris Williams’ story. As you may know, Chris Williams and his family were involved in a terrible car accident caused by a teenage drunk driver. Bro. Williams lost his pregnant wife and three of his five children. His story is known to most, if not all, of us because he did something beautiful and amazing; he forgave the drunk driver. Not only did he forgive, but he was able to do so amazingly quickly. You can watch a short video of his story below.
I have a great admiration for Bro. Williams. Every time I watch this video it makes me cry. And yet, I don’t believe that his message “let it go” applies to every situation. While it is true, as in the example above about the woman who was burned, people sometimes hold on to resentments that they need to let go of.
However, it is not the right path for everyone. For example, when I first heard of Bro. Williams tragedy, my heart also went out to that teenage driver. Teenagers can be so impulsive and make mistakes like getting behind the wheel drunk that impact the rest of their lives. Though I would have understood, if Bro. Williams chose to be angry, at least for a time, part of the beauty of this story is that I am so relieved about his forgiveness that hopefully will bring some healing not only to himself and his family, but to this young man. But forgiving a teenager for making a horrible mistake is different than forgiving someone who harmed you intentionally.
While there are beautiful stories of people who forgive those who intentionally commit murder, I don’t think that is the norm, nor should everyone be held to that standard. Cheiko Okasaki, in her classic talk Healing From Sexual Abuse, counsels survivors not to rush the forgiveness process. While she was speaking about abuse, her advice may be applicable to other situations as well. In her article she quotes LDS Psychologist Wendy Ulrich, “To forgive prematurely can close doors to the important realities that pain can open.”
Sister Okasaki also mentioned a study, that included LDS women, which found “being able to reach the ultimate step of forgiving the perpetrator and moving on took an average of fifteen years.” Fortunately, when the Savior commanded us to forgive, but he did not give us any time limits or expiration dates.
We don’t have to do it alone
When we teach forgiveness in lessons or talks, the following scripture is commonly used.
“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. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” D&C 64:9-10
Perhaps those words are a needed rebuke for some; however, what about those who want to follow the counsel to forgive, but find it difficult? Imagine how powerful it could be if we included in our messages about forgiveness, Nephi’s wonderful insight:
“. . . 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.
Recently, I came to understand better an Old Testament story that illustrates ow the Lord can help us forgive. I first encountered this story of David, Nabal and Abigail, years ago in James Ferrell’s book, The Peacegiver.
The story in 2 Kings tells us that David, the killer of giants, had gone into hiding because of King Saul’s jealousy. During that time he acquired a following and they made their living by guarding sheep for a wealthy man named Naman. Apparently sheep theft was a big problem in that time period. Everything went as planned until it came time for Naman to pay them. Naman pretended not to know them and refused payment.
When David heard the news, he was furious and gathered his man to exact their revenge. They planned to kill every single man in Naman’s household. Along the road, however, Abigail met the men. She apologized and asked David to forgive her. She offered David everything that Naman should have paid. David accepted Abigail’s offering and turned away from his plans to kill Naman and his household.
James Ferrel points out that Abigail was a type of Christ, a foreshadowing. In the same way that she came to David, gave him everything that he had been promised our Savior comes to us. Through the Atonement He gives us everything that we should have received or restores that which was lost by the one who sinned against us.
When I read this story before, I, somehow, missed one of the main points. Previously I was more focused on the fact that Naman was not repentant, but it didn’t matter because Abigail gave David what was due. So the matter was now between Abigail and Naman. That is an important message, but for me right now, the more important point is that David was still angry when Abigail came to him. In other words, the Savior is not telling us, forgive and then I will bless you and heal you. Rather he comes to us ready to help us through the process of healing so that we can find the peace which will then help us to forgive.
The difference may seem subtle but it is so very important. Christ is not waiting at the finish line with a reward, if only we can humble ourselves and forgive. Rather he is ready to run the race with us, to lift us when we fall, and ultimately to carry us across the finish line if needed.