Friday, May 06, 2011

Forgiving Self and Others

Several months ago I was asked to speak during the main services of my Church.  In software development Bjarne Stroustrup stated "Starting a major project 'completely from scratch' can be exhilarating.  However, often more accurate description is 'intoxicating' and the result is a drunkard's walk through the design alternatives".  I tend to agree with that and is a something I would like to improve on.  Similar to the challenge of starting new software projects from scratch is to chose one of a myriad of topics related to the Gospel and Jesus Christ and narrowing down a focus in that topic.  So I kindly asked for a topic and was given "Forgiving Self and Others".

Someone had asked for some of material I used in my comments and I decided to go ahead and turn what I said into a post on the subject (and not just a transcript).

President Spencer W. Kimball described forgiveness as “purging of our feelings and thoughts and bitternesses” (Miracle of Forgiveness Ch 18).  I believe these feelings that we need to purge are an impediment to our living the two great commandments.  How can we "love the Lord our God" if we deny the efficacy of the atonement in the lives of ourself and others, rejecting that great sacrifice that the Christ made for us?  How can we "love thy neighbor as thyself" if we don't love ourself, if we can't forgive ourself?  How can we love our neighbor if bear a grudge against our neighbor?

Forgiving Self

I contemplated reasons we might not forgive ourself.  The ones I was able to come up with include
  • Incomplete Repentance
  • Needing increased faith and trust that we can be forgiven by Christ through the Atonement
  • Being too concerned with our perception of other's perception of ourself
To me it seems like we are in self-denial if we try to forgive ourselves without complete repentance.  I worry how much we are desensitizing ourselves to the influence of the Holy Ghost if we are trying to ignore the Holy Ghost's prodding for us to repent.

On the other hand it can seem overwhelming to look at our vast array of imperfections and to think of trying to repent of them all.    An analogy comes to mind for how to handle this.

If we were in a car accident and taken to the ER, what wounds would the doctors worry about first?  Scratches?  Your persisting foot infection you've never resolved?  A broken leg?  A pierced lung?  They would work on the life threatening injuries and as they are stabilized focus on the more debilitating damage.  They probably wouldn't even worry about the scratches until they are trying to clean everything off afterwards.  They also wouldn't focus solely on the what was initially the worst injury until it was completely healed, ignoring all others.

What sins keep us furthest from God?  Sometimes it can be quite surprising. For me an issue is "cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated." (D&C 88:124).  If I repeatedly stay up I am too tired to wake up on time in the morning.  In my rush to leave for work I then neglect caring for my body through exercise, have less alert and sincere prayers, and I cut my scripture study short.

I'll leave it to President Lee for his words on forgiving self and the atonement:
Some years ago President Romney and I were sitting in my office. The door opened and a fine young man came in with a troubled look on his face, and he said, "Brethren, I am going to the temple for the first time tomorrow. I have made some mistakes in the past, and I have gone to my bishop and my stake president, and I have made a clean disclosure of it all; and after a period of repentance and assurance that I have not returned again to those mistakes, they have now adjudged me ready to go to the temple. But, brethren, that is not enough. I want to know, and how can I know, that the Lord has forgiven me also." 
What would you answer one who would come to you asking that question? As we pondered for a moment, we remembered King Benjamin's address contained in the book of Mosiah. Here was a group of people who now were asking for baptism, and they said they viewed themselves in their carnal state: 
"And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified. ... 
"After they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience" (Mosiah 4:2-3). 
There was the answer. 
If the time comes when you have done all that you can to repent of your sins, whoever you are, wherever you are, and have made amends and restitution to the best of your ability; if it be something that will affect your standing in the Church and you have gone to the proper authorities, then you will want that confirming answer as to whether or not the Lord has accepted of you. In your soul-searching, if you seek for and you find that peace of conscience, by that token you may know that the Lord has accepted of your repentance. Satan would have you think otherwise and sometimes persuade you that now having made one mistake, you might go on and on with no turning back. That is one of the great falsehoods. The miracle of forgiveness is available to all of those who turn from their evil doings and return no more, because the Lord has said in a revelation to us in our day: "Go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth [meaning again] shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God" (D&C 82:7). Have that in mind, all of you who may be troubled with a burden of sin. 
Harold B Lee
Ensign, Oct 2008, 44-49, Stand Ye in Holy Places

If the barrier to forgiving ourself is worry over how people perceive us that sounds like some pride there.  Does the forgiveness of sins come from men or from God?  If we don't forgive ourselves due to how other's people perceive us, whose forgiveness are we considering more important?  Now don't get me wrong, repentance does involve repairing wrongs.  We should love and strengthen our fellow men.  What I am talking about is when these things are done and we are not letting go of the fact that we sinned because of this.

Forgiving Others

23 Therefore, if ye shall come unto me, or shall desire to come unto me, and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee—
24 Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you.
3 Nephi 12:23-24

This last time I read these verses I thought about how it really would apply both to the person needing forgiveness and for person forgiving.  As I said in the beginning, how are we loving our neighbor if we haven't forgiven him?  Then if you wish to come unto the Lord and remember that you have not forgiven your brother but hold harsh feelings towards him rather than love, can you really come unto the Lord with full purpose of heart and be received by him?

Sometimes it feels like we talk of one person repenting and another forgiving as if these are strictly ordered and coupled affairs.  I'd say that these are not coupled events but are orthogonal to each other to the point where one might forgive another when that person has no sin to repent of.

First, I'll look at the ordering when both are needed.  President Kimball taught that we must be willing to make the first move. “we must forgive, and we must do so without regard to whether or not our antagonist repents, or how sincere is his transformation, or whether or not he asks our forgiveness” (Miracle of Forgiveness).  Our forgiving of another is an expression of love that can help elevate that person even to repentance.

This idea of love elevating another is expressed by Dr Victor Frankl in the following powerful but dry language
By the spiritual act of love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, that which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.
Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

This same concept was expressed by Goethe when he said "Treat a man is he is and he will remain as he is.  Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be".  The musical Man of La Mancha (which I sadly can't recommend) also expresses this idea.  Don Quixote saw the beautiful virtuous Dulcinea when the reality was a women named Aldonza but this has a transforming affect on her.  As Don Quixote is dying, Aldonza comes and pleads for him to see her as he did before.  "Won't you please bring back \ The dream of Dulcinea... \ Won't you bring me back \ The bright and shining glory \ Of Dulcinea... Dulcinea...".

Now on to my second point about needing to forgive a person when there might not be need of repentance.  Is sometimes the offense we are forgiving really in our self, that we judged them harshly and took offense where none was meant?

A great example of this is the correspondences between Moroni and Pahoran.  Moroni's armies had not been receiving the needed supplies to defend and retake lost territory.  His first letter to Pahoran receives no response.  After losing even more territory and lives, he writes again and accuses Pahoran of joining in with others in their effort to overthrow their republic with a monarchy.  Pahoran responds humbly that such a overthrow did happen but that he was a victim of it and was gathering strength to retake the kingdom if it be right to turn against their own people.  When sending the letter Moroni probably expected himself to be needing to forgive Pahoran to only find out there was no offense in Pahoran.

Regarding this concept, President Spencer W Kimball quotes the following in Miracle of Forgiveness:
"There is but one quality necessary for the perfect understanding of character, one quality that, if man have it, he may judge-that is, omniscience. Most people study character as a proofreader pores over a great poem: his ears are dulled to the majesty and music of the lines, his eyes are darkened to the magic imagination of the genius of the author; that proofreader is busy watching for an inverted comma, a misspacing, or a wrong font letter. He has an eye trained for the imperfections, the weaknesses. …
"We do not need to judge nearly so much as we think we do. This is the age of snap judgments. … [We need] the courage to say, 'I don't know. I am waiting further evidence. I must hear both sides of the question.' It is this suspended judgment that is the supreme form of charity"
William George Jordan

Orson Scott Card in the Ender series has a societal role called "Speaker for the Dead" who seeks to understand a person's life and correct the misunderstanding of us proof readers.  The idea that we see through a glass darkly lit is and can come to understand and love others is a powerful running concept in that series.

Forgiving someone does not mean that they not face the consequences of their actions.  Going through the consequences, paying the price for their actions, is a portion of what need to go through as part of repentance.
President Kimball speaks of a son talking to his father’s murderer “Tom, you made a mistake for which you owe a debt to society for which I feel you must continue to pay, just the same as I must continue to pay the price for having been reared without a father”.

Just as King Mosiah guarded his kingdom against his sons falling back to sin (See Moshiah 29:6-7), we need not put ourselves back in a position to be hurt.  It is a tough balance to meet, forgiving someone and recognizing they can repent and be a different person while not putting oneself in the path of their destruction while they are still in error or at risk to return to their errors.

Whether we properly administer mercy these two above cases comes down to whether we are loving the person as Christ does.  In addition to the son forgiving his murderer, another great example of these principles is the Nephites protecting themselves, both passively and actively, against the Lamanites without seeking for revenge.  When the Nephites act out of revenge is when their nation is on decline and on the verge of destruction.
Recompense to no man evil for evil … Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Romans 12:17, 19

The most important element I have left for last, the healing power of Christ's Atonement.  Christ's Atonement does not just offer us a healing balm for our sins but for our heart.  Elder Featherstone has provided one of my favorite descriptions of this and I will leave it to him.
Lately I have decided that I need to talk more about justice. We don't understand justice completely, and there is so much out in the world that seems unjust and unfair that it is probably a good time to discuss this.
Who suffers most, the guilty or the innocent? The adulterer can go see the bishop. If he or she has truly repented, the bishop can say, on behalf of the Church, "You are forgiven." And they leave the office and that burden is lifted. What about the innocent? Who suffers most, the adulterer or the mother and father with a wayward son or daughter?
When will that hurt and suffering go away? It won't--not until the straying son or daughter comes back home. Should the innocent suffer? The parents quite often are innocent; and they hurt and they ache and they pray, and the pain will not go away.
Who suffers most, the incest perpetrator or the incest victim? Little ones are sometimes violated at a very tender age.
Who suffers most--the fornicator? the thief? those involved in drugs, homosexuality, and other perversions--or the innocent? Or do sometimes the innocent suffer more--the paraplegic, the quadriplegic, those with debilitating diseases, the "innocent" man or woman who has been involved in divorce, and dozens of others?
I believe sometimes the innocent suffer far, far more than the guilty--and that would not be justice, would it? It wouldn't be fair.
Now then, if the sinful one can go in and sit down with the bishop and have the burden relieved, then why should not the innocent? There are those who watch a spouse slowly die with cancer--a husband eventually becomes a widower or, if a man dies, a wife will be left alone. There are those who have other kinds of debilitating diseases--for instance, the quadriplegic who goes through a difficult life that way--isn't it only just that somehow the Atonement cover that kind of suffering? The innocent must be able to find the same relief as the guilty; that would only be just.
In Alma 7 we discover that the Lord suffered not only for the transgressions and sins of the world but for our afflictions and our illnesses and the sicknesses of the world. That is the part of the Atonement that I have missed somehow, and I want to suggest to you it is not left undone. Justice according to the supreme goodness of God will be satisfied. When we have a heart like unto God's own heart, we know justice will take place. Now, the innocent ones must do the same thing that the guilty do; that is, they must go to him who has a right to lift that off of their hearts.
President Harold B. Lee said, "I came to a night, some years ago, when on my bed, I realized that before I could be worthy of the high place to which I had been called, I must love and forgive every soul that walked the earth" (CR, October 1946, p. 146). If you have been violated, if you have been abused as a child or as an adult, or if you are later on in this life, would you remember that we must forgive the offending one? Justice "according to the supreme goodness of God" means that we do turn it over to him. It will not be left undone. We can have that absolute assurance. That would only be just. We must take it off of our hearts. Some modern psychiatrists might say, "Well, you don't get healed that way," but you do. You do get healed by turning justice over to God and forgiving the offender. We must be merciful if we would obtain mercy. The Lord can lift all burdens from us. Once we turn it over to him and simply say, "It is between that person and God. I forgive," then the burden will be lifted quietly and easily. If you are sitting here today and have had those problems in the past and can in your heart forgive and simply turn justice over to the Savior, then through his Atonement those sicknesses and illnesses and the abuses will be lifted from you. That would only be just.
The innocent must forgive the perpetrator, then transfer the burden to the Savior; and that is justice. That, again, does not mean that it is left undone; it just means that we have turned it over to the Savior.
Vaughn J Featherstone, “A Man After God’s Own Heart”