by Wendy Ulrich
Think of someone you might need to forgive. It could be something recent or long past, serious or trivial, that happened over and over again or only once.
Sometimes, forgiving is straightforward and relatively easy.
Sometimes, forgiving eludes us despite good intentions and persistent effort.
Sometimes, we don’t even want to forgive and can’t imagine why or how we would.
Given just how much some offenses cost us, the Lord’s teaching about forgiveness in Doctrine and Covenants 64:8-10 can feel pretty harsh:
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 is 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.
Wait a minute, we may think. Someone did this horrible thing to me, but I’m the bigger sinner if I don’t forgive? How can that be fair!
I have come to trust that forgiving is an empowering blessing, a pearl of great price worth a lot of effort to acquire. I am learning to be grateful the Lord does not mince words in these verses, inviting me to clarity about the value of forgiving. In fact, when I take a step back, I see the world laboring under the burden of unforgiveness: nations not forgiving enemies leads to war; family members or friends not forgiving one another leads to broken bonds; strangers not forgiving even the passing rudeness of strangers leads to giving away our peace and happiness for a mess of pottage. And for these evils we are afflicted, our lives diminished.
We know the world would be better off if all these people found a way to forgive. But when we are “these people,” it isn’t always that easy. Yet I have come to believe that the Lord invites us to repent for our sakes, not for the sake of those who do us wrong. Forgiving strengthens our spiritual hardiness and deepens our inner peace. And choosing to be on the path toward forgiveness “counts,” even when we have not yet reached the end.
It helps me to remember Adam and Eve, leaving the Garden of Eden to face existence in a fallen world where they were no longer perfect, their spouse was no longer perfect, and their children would not be perfect. Did they look back wistfully at the garden they left, just as I look back wistfully to a time before I saw my own and others’ capacity for self-deceit, pride, laziness, greed, faithlessness, dishonesty, or addiction? Or did they, and can I, look hopefully to the future, courageously facing their educating experience with humanity squarely with hope in God’s unfailing will and power to redeem it all?
The original meaning of the word forgive refers to canceling a debt. If I take someone’s $100-bill and tear it up or spend it I may be able to earn the money and pay back my debt, presumably with interest. But many sins can create debts no person can completely repay: stolen peace of mind, trust in the world’s a good place, physical health, or emotional well- being. So why would someone forgive such huge debts? What would canceling them even mean?
Let’s be clear about what forgiveness does not mean. It does not mean letting people continue to abuse you, saying the other person was right and you were wrong, or pretending there is no debt to be paid. In fact, these approaches generally make it harder, not easier to forgive. According to the prophet Alma “mercy cannot rob justice” (Alma 42:25). The first step of truly forgiving sometimes to make a clear accounting of exactly what we lost.
I once wanted to forgive someone I also loved. I just wanted to get it over with, but the debt was large, and my forgiveness stalled. I didn’t really want to make this accounting, was not sure I even could, and doubted I would learn much from trying. But remembering the importance of justice, I began. It took two hours to list 22 things I had lost, including my image of myself as a good parent, the good will of a friend, my sense of equality in an important relationship, trust in God’s direction or interest in my life, and confidence in my own judgment. I kept at it until the part of me that was holding the grudge felt heard and satisfied with its accuracy.
After I had made this list, I decided to also look at each thing I lost to see if there was any good that had come or could potentially come out of that loss. Had any good, however inadequate, come from the loss? Yes. My list included the opportunity to accept more fully that I cannot fix all problems in my children’s lives; a reminder to develop a relationship with my nieces and nephews; letting go of the illusion that I cannot tolerate being betrayed or that I should always foresee problems; appreciating the good friends who care for me and listen to me; claiming my right to hold on to good memories despite hard ones; the chance to practice skills and values that are important to me; increased compassion and empathy for others, and realizing that I can protect and be honest with myself without holding a grudge I no longer want or need.
When I got done, the books felt much more balanced. However, there were some losses that were just losses for which I saw no redeeming value – debts this person could not repay and that I could not see a way to recoup. Someone had taken some precious things away from me, and although I might choose to see that as an opportunity to practice humility or develop a sense of humor, I kind of wanted what I had lost more than I wanted humility or humor!
The old seminary film called The Mediator portrays a young man who borrows money to buy a little farmhouse and land. He makes token payments, but he also wastes time with his friends when he should be working, the weather doesn’t cooperate with his farming, and when the due date comes to repay the loan he does not have close to enough. His creditor consigns him to a debtor’s prison. The young man begs for mercy, but the creditor insists, “Mercy would serve only you!” The young man concedes that when he contracted the debt he believed in justice and counted on it to protect him, but now justice feels cruel and harsh.
Then the young man’s friend steps in. He pays the creditor. The young man is freed from his shackles as the original creditor walks away disgruntled, but with his payment in hand. And the Mediator, the Christ figure who has assumed the debt, arranges for the young man to now repay him on terms he can handle.
I must confess that I used to dislike this film. I thought the creditor was supposed to represent God, demanding justice, while Christ pleaded for mercy. Then it dawned on me that the creditor was not God. The creditor was me. We are the ones who demand justice, and whose rights to it God also promises to uphold. We are the ones whose goods have been squandered by the foolishness or deliberate sins of others. We deserve to be repaid.
The Mediator steps in, not just for the benefit of the person who has wronged us, but for our benefit as well. He steps in to offer to repay us what we have lost, knowing that the one who sinned against us cannot. He says to us, “This guy cannot pay you, even though his debt is real and significant. Will you trust me to assume his debt, and to repay you in full?”
When we sign a debt over to Christ, we can trust Him to deal with the debtor on His terms and according to His greater knowledge. He will take into account how much the debtor really understood what she was doing, what debts she was owed that may have left her destitute in ways we cannot guess, or what would help her change. But we don’t have to cancel the debt and walk away empty when we say to the person who wronged us, “You don’t owe me anymore.” We are now free to turn to the One who can repay us, the One who has promised not only what was taken from us, but promises it “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). In this life and in the next, we will be paid in full.
What’s more, as we become generous forgivers, He will assume our debts as well. No matter how rich we feel, we have debts we can never repay. This is the nature of life. He can pay what we cannot. We owe Him all that we have for this merciful gift.
Sometimes our anger is an important signal that something not right needs to be stopped. Sometimes when our anger lingers too long it is simply a way of holding on to a false hope that we can somehow turn back the clock and have the perfect childhood we deserved, the perfect spouse we dreamed of, the perfect child who would justify us as the perfect parents we so wanted to be, the perfect friend who would reflect back our goodness and never have needs we could not fill, or the perfect contestant who would always win. Sometimes our anger is a way to insist that the only way we can be happy is to go back to Eden, to get back to the innocence of not knowing that the world is a difficult place where we will surely fail and get deeply hurt and die.
But the tree of life and hope we seek is no longer in Eden. It is here in the lonely, dark, dreary world to which our Savior descends with us, purchasing at great cost the right to mercifully repay all our debts. It is an act of great faith to stop looking longingly back at Eden and walk forward into the real world where we are all hurt and betrayed and where we will all fail ourselves and others. But we can trust in God’s will and power to both repay us and to repay those we owe, even when we have been subject to, and made, more messes than we can count. In our pride we would sometimes rather believe we are hopeless than trust ourselves to a being whose love and mercy seem too good to be true, or whose promised repayments require our patience and trust. But in the words of Elder Boyd K. Packer to both sinner and sinned against:
Restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ. When your desire is firm and you are willing to pay the uttermost farthing, the law of restitution is suspended. Your obligation is transferred to the Lord. He will settle your accounts. I repeat, save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. This is the promise of the atonement of Christ. . .
The Lord [also] provides ways to pay our debts to Him. In one sense we ourselves may participate in an atonement. When we are willing to restore to others that which we have not taken, or heal wounds that we did not inflict, or pay a debt that we did not incur, we are emulating His part in the Atonement. . .
That great morning of forgiveness may not come at once. Do not give up if at first you fail. Often the most difficult part … is to forgive yourself. Discouragement is part of that test. Do not give up. That brilliant morning will come. (Ensign Nov, 1995, pp. 19-20)
When I consider both my grudges and my sins, I am still inclined to look back wistfully at Eden, longing for the days when I did not really know by my own experience my own or others’ capacity for evil. But the promise of the Atonement of Christ, even while I long to not need it, brings gratitude, healing, and hope.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., M.B.A., has been a psychologist in private practice, president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, and a visiting professor at Brigham Young University-Provo. She founded Sixteen Stones Center for Growth, which offers seminar-retreats for Latter-day Saint women and their loved ones (see sixteenstones.net). Her books include Let God Love You; Weakness Is Not Sin; Habits of Happiness; The Temple Experience; Forgiving Ourselves; and national best-seller The Why of Work, coauthored with her husband, Dave Ulrich. Wendy’s newest book is Live Up to our Privileges: Women, Power, and Priesthood, published by Deseret Book.