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.
I seem to find it easy to forgive others and move on. I also forgiven others even though I have not continued the prior relationship/friendship…but have forgiven.
This might need to be for another blog post: My hardest is being unable to forgive myself. I think we set our selves up to some really high unrealistic expectations. I seem to keep beating myself down when I don’t meet these. Like living in pain when not forgiving others.
Steph, I think you are right. I would guess that forgiving ourselves is something a lot of people, but particularly, women in the church,struggle with. (But that is just my untested hypothesis. :)) Thanks for reading and for your comment!
Yeah, but to be fair, the real reason the priest forgave
WolverineJean Valjean is because he was afraid he’d have to face his adamantium claws.
No doubt Trevor, no doubt
LOL, Trevor, why didn’t I think of that? 😉
refrshingly glorious article 🙂
Kathy, thanks so much for your kind words!
Sunday was a bad day for me (Sunday’s often are because so many well-intended comments at church are painful and even triggering for me). Then I saw your comment (and the others as well, thanks everyone) and that really helped. Thanks for reading and taking time to respond!!!
Beautifully written. Thank you for your courage and willingness to share. Very good point: There are as many ways to forgive as there are things that need to be forgiven. And thank you for the reminder/insights about Abigail and David. I love that.
I have come to believe that crimes against heaven – such as child sexual abuse/incest/pre-meditated murder – fall far outside any other experience of hurt or harm that warrants forgiving. In the case of incest, the perpetrator rarely if ever admits to the crime; rarely if ever attempts to repent or accept consequences for the destruction caused. For me, the usual, simplistic forgiveness ideals that people try to apply in the face of such unspeakable horror don’t hold up. We are not capable of “forgiving” a crime against heaven, only God can do that. We cannot offer the sinner “forgiveness.” The nature of the crime took this possibility right out of our hands and placed it squarely at the feet of the Savior.
But we are capable of nurturing, nourishing, raging and grieving for the innumerable lossess resulting from such crimes. In freeing ourselves (as survivors) or assisting others (as a support community) we accept that part for which we are accountable. “Forgiveness” – if that is the right word for it, which I don’t feel it is – is a natural outcropping of the healing process. I think this is what you’re referring to with Marilyn Van Durbur’s story. Thanks again for writing.
Melody, thanks so much for your comments. My two favorite words are “listen” and “validate”. Your comment was so validating to me. I can’t thank you enough. Really.
I found this article fantastically written. Very helpful. I have found really great nuggets over at http://www.hallelujahspewed.blogspot.com as well.
Michelle, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I look forward to reading that link you suggested.
This scripture is not often referenced in the typical RS lessons on forgiveness. It refers to the ideas I tried to articulate in my comment. “… as oft as thine enemy repenteth” is treated differently than “if he do not this.”
D&C Section 98
39 And again, verily I say unto you, if after thine enemy has come upon thee the first time, he repent and come unto thee praying thy forgiveness, thou shalt forgive him, and shalt hold it no more as a testimony against thine enemy—
40 And so on unto the second and third time; and as oft as thine enemy repenteth of the trespass wherewith he has trespassed against thee, thou shalt aforgive him, until seventy times seven.
41 And if he trespass against thee and repent not the first time, nevertheless thou shalt forgive him.
42 And if he trespass against thee the second time, and repent not, nevertheless thou shalt forgive him.
43 And if he trespass against thee the third time, and repent not, thou shalt also forgive him.
44 But if he trespass against thee the fourth time thou shalt not forgive him, but shalt bring these testimonies before the Lord; and they shall not be blotted out until he repent and reward thee four-fold in all things wherewith he has trespassed against thee.
45 And if he do this, thou shalt forgive him with all thine heart; and if he do not this, I, the Lord, will avenge thee of thine enemy an hundred-fold;
This is where Wolverine comes in.
Melody, I am almost speechless (in a good way). I love the scripture you shared–I am memorizing that reference now!
It speaks to me in a powerul way. Not so much as some might think, in a “oh good I don’t have to forgive him after all!!!” Though that does make me smile.
What I really love about this scripture is the validation. When people tell survivors to forgive, it feels to me like they are saying, “your pain is irrelevant, move on.” This scripture shows me that the Lord validates my pain. He’s not telling me to move on, He is saying if necessary he will avenge my enemy hundred-fold. Since I grew up in an abusive home the thought of someone defending me is amazing to me.
I really can’t thank you enough for bringing this to my attention.
You’re welcome, Leslie. And I’m glad this was helpful. Like you, I love the beauty and blessing of forgiveness. The scripture is not an excuse to withhold forgiveness, it’s a tretise on how to respond to intractible evil. For many Latter-day Saints (and people of other faiths) “forgive” becomes code for denial and avoidance of dealing with hard realities.
Okay, I’m done now. God bless you.
So I am a little confused…maybe as I attempt to sort it out in my response, some of you can jump in and affirm or correct my interpretation!
It is interesting the Lord is not just making a suggestion that we not forgive after the fourth unrepentant trespass–he actually COMMANDS us NOT to do so. (“…thou shalt NOT forgive him…”).
It is as though He is saying: “Give’em a few chances to change their behavior, but don’t expose yourself to further damage by remaining in a vulnerable position. Take control of the situation and protect yourself…”
This statement seems to say that it is unhealthy to extend forgiveness to those who repeatedly cause harm—and God actually commands us NOT to do so..
What does this mean in practice?
That we can get away from a bad situation and work on recuperating from the personal damage–but don’t have to figure out how to extend forgiveness to a person who is not repentant?
If this is actually true—most of the difficulty is gone for me!
If someone admits their wrong, feels badly for their part in the situation, is striving to make personal changes and restitution for loss–I feel a natural outpouring of generosity and love toward them. Their admission of wrongdoing causes a healing process to begin within me. When someone apologizes for causing harm, I think it is a form of ‘validation’ to the injured person, which can release a generosity of spirit toward the attempt to change. It is a type of forgiveness that feels really good—is that because it is sort of “balanced”–with both sides giving to each other?
Of course, I would definitely struggle with a person who constantly asks for forgiveness, while continuing to attempt behavior change with little success—thus the “seventy times seven”–but at least they can ADMIT their shortcomings! That could maybe seem like a ‘cop-out’ when things don’t seem to change—but there is the struggle most of us have before the Lord! Our change is slow, but we admit our problem and ever-so-slowly try to improve. This is why he wants us to forgive those who ADMIT and TRY!
I do not get that same feeling when endeavoring to forgive those who DON”T have repentant attitudes…
All of my life I have been told by various leaders, friends and family–that we are OBLIGATED to forgive those who do not ask forgiveness or acknowledge they have caused damage. (That it is commanded of us to forgive “seventy times seven” per each DIFFERING type of violation—ESPECIALLY if the person is NOT repentant…no matter if they continually and deliberately cause pain–we must get to the point that we can forgive them–that if we want the Lord to forgive us, we HAVE to forgive others, no matter what. That only the Lord can “…forgive whom He will forgive–of us it is expected to forgive ALL men…”
This interpretation also works in favor of those who are CAUSING such pain—it gives them reason to believe they are entitled to forgiveness from others without behavior change. I was recently informed by a person that I HAD to forgive them or my eternal salvation was at risk.
I have no words yet to describe my emotions.
But this scripture says we are NOT to forgive the unrepentant…
I disagree with the definition of forgiveness here on some points. I looked at the blog michelle referred to and agree with some points there as well. forgiveness like in the book falling to heaven is defined as failure to love the person that hurt us. I too am a victim of sexual abuse and forgiving the people is my way of saying i’m sorry i didn’t have compassion towards your weakness and i’m not letting you control me by keeping me in hate and anger. instead i’m choosing to increase my love and empathy for you as one of my brothers and not excuse the act but excuse the person and love them more. just my two cents. thanks for blog reference michelle because i read that book as well. this is the post i liked…http://hallelujahspewed.blogspot.com/2012/12/withholding-forgiveness.html
I am not saying i am good at forgiving but have a goal to be able to forgive like this. after all, it’s how i want to be forgiven of my many screw ups.
Becky, thanks for reading and taking time to share your thoughts. I will definately take a look at the link you shared.
Leslie, Fantastic summation of what forgiveness is and isn’t. I am grateful that I have days where the offenses do not haunt me, but that isn’t every day. I continue to pray for forgiveness and that the other people involved can have their hearts softened. Life is a challenging course in learning Christlike behavior, but if we are going to recognize Him, we need to be like Him.
I love what you said about becoming like the Savior so we will recognize Him. That made me think about meeting people I have met on the internet for the first time. Almost always they look different than I imagined, and yet after talking to them for a short time, I feel the connection that made us decided to meet in the first place. I wonder if it will be the same when I see the Savior again…at first the visual might be jarring, but then our Spirits will connect and oh the joy.
At least that is my hope… 🙂
As I re-read my comments and questions above, I feel like I came across as a harsh, legalistic and unforgiving person. I hope I am not. I had never before heard this scripture and interpretation of the process of forgiveness. It sort of turned my brain inside-out with the attempt to comprehend the implications of that command to NOT forgive an unrepentant person.
I still do not know how to fit it into the more loving-sounding attitudes that I hear and read.
I have often shared with others something I read in a non-LDS source many years ago, which became an ideal I strive for every day. In order to become like the Lord, we must learn to “FORE-give” others–to forgive people BEFORE they give offense… I really do love that viewpoint.
He was able to forgive people BEFORE they did anything to him. Our job in this life, is to learn to make the “ lag time” between being hurt and extending forgiveness shorter and shorter–until at last, we no longer struggle to extend forgiveness because we feel only love.
We already experience that in some of our relationships—for example, when our small child is rude or hateful to us, we automatically “cover their sin” with our love. We don’t struggle with the emotional gymnastics of trying to give up our resentment toward them. That may become more difficult at that child grows older and learns where to hit us where it hurts, but it is still easier than forgiving those who strike in our most vulnerable places—spouses can be very difficult to forgive when they know right where to sink the dagger…