Dr. Gary G. Taylor
Forgiveness--the Magic Medicine
Forgiveness is one of the most beneficial principles taught in scripture, yet one we often have trouble applying. It’s certainly a principle that missionaries have many opportunities to practice. Some have major offenses to forgive; but for most, it’s the little frustrations, the minor offenses that come up almost every day which require forgiving. For instance, your companion makes a critical comment about you. A ward member fails to follow through on something important that was promised. Your companion left a mess for you to clean up. The Zone Leader is putting pressure on you to do better when you are already doing the best you can. A false rumor has been circulated about you among the missionaries. A member complains about your language skills in spite of your great effort to learn his difficult language. And on and on it goes. Often in cases of minor offense, we feel justified in our feelings and actions and don’t even see the need to forgive. Yet, forgiving is still required. It’s the quickest, and often the only way to insure peace of mind, and to avoid damaging our relationships with others. It’s often a requirement if we are to handle even routine life events effectively.
Whether the offense is great or small, taking the high road and forgiving an offense is always in our best interest. This can be stated emphatically because we have the word of the Lord on it. One of the many references in scripture regarding the need to forgive others is the powerful statement made by the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants.
“My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.
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 64:8-10).
It’s interesting to note that the Savior in this scripture is describing disciples. These were early missionaries and people of faith, who were committed to him; yet who found reasons to be upset with each other, and who failed to forgive. It’s also worth noting that they failed to forgive one another “in their hearts”. Perhaps they were able to forgive intellectually, but emotionally (in their hearts) they were still holding a grudge. Finally, because of this they were afflicted and sorely chastened.
It’s probable that this chastening didn’t come from God in any direct way, but rather represented the natural consequences of failing to forgive. As most of us well know, failing to forgive leads to uncomfortable and unproductive emotions within ourselves, and it leads to significant pain interpersonally. It can also have eternal implications. As the Lord said, “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses (Matthew 6:15). Likely, this is because failing to forgive reveals a personal callousness; and in effect, a denial of the atonement--neither of which can be tolerated in the Celestial World. As President Uchtdorf has taught, “Because we all depend on mercy from God, how can we deny to others any measure of the grace we so desperately desire for ourselves?” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy”, Ensign, May 2012).
In the last verse of the scripture quoted above, the Lord indicates that we are to forgive all men; which includes even those who don’t deserve our forgiveness. Among this group are those who are not repentant, and those who seem to glory in our suffering. It also includes those who keep repeating the same offense over and over. In those cases, it may be wise to limit contact with the offender where possible; but the need to forgive remains. Offenders will face the judgments of heaven, and God will forgive who He will. We, however, must forgive everyone. Why? Again, most likely because doing so is in our best interest. It is good medicine in the here and now as well as an eternal requirement. Perhaps it isn’t so much a test of faith, or some hurdle we must jump over to prove ourselves to God. But rather, like all commandments, it may be a rule given for our protection and advantage—both here and in the hereafter. Also, our ability to forgive depends on virtues such as tolerance, patience, and charity that are essential in a celestial person. Unforgiving individuals who have not developed these qualities will not be able to abide a celestial glory.
As suggested above, most missionaries understand the need to forgive others when major offense is involved; but they may not see the need when the problem involves minor, everyday offenses. It is also quite possible to believe that we have forgiven someone when we still have work to do. Here is a brief list of indicators of the need to forgive:
1. When we say or do hurtful things directed toward someone who has offended us. For example, gossiping about someone who has offended us, treating them rudely, or undermining them in any way.
2. When we can’t feel at ease thinking about, or when in the presence of someone who has offended us. It’s an unnecessary complication in our life when our emotions are under the control of someone else. If we can’t be at peace when we think about someone who has offended us, or if we can’t be comfortable in their presence, they are in effect, controlling our emotions—which is solid evidence that we have still not completely forgiven them.
3. When we can’t look past offensive behavior for fear of reinforcing or appearing to condone it. Doing the right thing may appear to let other people get away with bad behavior. According to the Lord, it is still in everyone’s best interest if we do the right thing, no matter the apparent consequences.
4. When we require justice or demand fairness. We can seek for fairness and justice by confronting an offender privately in the case of more minor offenses and through outside authorities in the case of serious matters. But we will likely frustrate ourselves and make everything worse if we demand justice and fairness. In other words, it’s reasonable to seek justice, but a problem if we need it. After basic and reasonable effort on our part to secure justice, justice needs to be left in the hands of the Lord. Forgiveness needs to be with absolutely no strings attached on our part.
Also as mentioned above, and as most of us know from experience, forgiving others is generally much easier said than done. Following are a few ideas that can make the process a little easier:
1. Take offense at face value rather than reading major issues into it. The offenses we need to forgive are hard enough to deal with even if we don’t read unwarranted conclusions into the situation. For instance, it does no good to exaggerate the consequences of the offense (“This ruins my mission/life”--which is never true unless we make it so). It doesn’t help to take the offense personally (“He/she must not like/respect me.” Even if it’s true, so what? But the truth is that offences we experience are hardly ever related to our worth or respectability. Likewise, it doesn’t help either us or the offender if we take responsibility for the offender’s problems; as if it was our responsibility to get the offender to see the light or mend his ways. We are responsible for how we treat offenders; but not for their thoughts or behavior.
2. Decide to do the right thing even if the other person seems to be getting away with something they shouldn’t. We need to stay committed to doing the right thing—even if doing so seems to reinforce the offender’s behavior. This requires faith that doing the right thing will always work best in the long run.
3. Do the right thing and leave justice to God. It sometimes makes sense to confront those who offend us; but no good ever comes from thinking how unfair the situation is, lecturing or attacking those who offend us, or requiring justice. All of that needs to be left to the Lord.
4. Look for the good in whoever offends us. This doesn’t mean to naively overlook the bad and continue to expose ourselves to abuse. It just means to recognize the good in a way that will help us have a forgiving attitude.
5. Call on God for help. Forgiving another, especially if they are unrepentant, can be a challenge; and we often need spiritual help to pull it off. Some who need to forgive report a long and unsuccessful struggle until they finally humble themselves and call on God in faith and sincerity for help. In many cases they are then gifted with a cleansing of their heart that they were unable to accomplish on their own.