I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about bullying. A reader sent in a letter to the editor that was forwarded on to me. The man was very complimentary and polite and his response was well-written. His discussion of our behavior as adults shifted a little bit from bullying to forgiveness. He made a statement that I may have agreed with in the past. In fact, I may have agreed with him as little as three months ago. But not today.
The statement was this: "The problem with forgiveness is that you can't forgive until the other person stops offending."
I'm writing this because I've been feeling a compelling need to share with the world what I know about forgiveness. And so I say to this man and to everyone else that's listening that yes, actually you can.
Forgiveness is more complex than a definition. I know that. But I want to share a definition with you anyway. Merriam-Webster says that forgiveness is "to give up resentment of or claim to requital for." It also says that forgiveness is "to cease to feel resentment against (an offender); pardon."
Nowhere in any definition that I've read does it say that forgiveness has anything to do with the offense or the offender. Nowhere. Not in a dictionary. Not in the scriptures. Not anywhere.
Forgiveness has everything to do with the state of your own heart and not a thing to do with anyone else's. In fact, I'd go as a far as to say that your situation or whatever issue is at hand is deeply and profoundly irrelevant. Where you are emotionally has nothing to do with your battle or the guilty party in relation to your distress.
This is easy to say, I know.
I find it relatively easy to forgive most people. Casual acquaintances, relative strangers and even good friends can receive my instant forgiveness for almost anything. And it's sincere. Whether they apologize or not, I see no need to hang onto petty offenses and trivial things. I just don't. I tend to value kindness more than I do vindication.
It's been a completely different story when it's a person who's close to me; a person who I feel should know better. I hold those who are close to me to a very high standard when it comes to their relationship with me. Maybe it's because the people closest to us are the ones we trust with our hearts. Maybe it's because they are the only ones to whom we are emotionally vulnerable. Maybe the fact that they're a member of our family or one of our dearest friends makes the blow go that much deeper. Maybe it's because the pain they're capable of inflicting is severe and the cost is steep.
What I'm saying is, if you're inflicted with deep wounds, wounds that seem irreparable, wounds that were caused by someone who took emotional advantage of your relationship, you have my sincerest empathy. I know how brutal it is. I know that your parents, siblings, spouses, children, or other relatives aren't supposed to inflict that kind of harm. I know that your best friends should never cross that line.
I've been there. In fact, I am there. I have a person in a my life that has caused offense for years. And that harm has continued unrelenting. I have a firm grasp on my own self-worth and so the result of these offenses was hard to come to terms with. I initially felt really betrayed and hurt. That continued for awhile until I decided that feeling that way was uncomfortable and I'd rather fight instead. So I spent years fighting and felt justified in doing so. They deserved what they got and I was just defending myself, after all.
But here's the thing: we don't get to take on the supreme role of deciding what someone else deserves. It doesn't matter if their guilt is obvious and it certainly doesn't matter if they ever correct it. They will be dealt with by a just and merciful God who knows and sees and understands all. And so will we, leaving with us zero justification for withholding forgiveness.
My feelings towards this person became toxic. I went from feeling hurt by them all the way to basically loathing their existence. I even found myself inwardly smirking over the judgments I knew they were sure to face.
Situations like this wreak havoc. This is where withholding forgiveness will lead. You wind up with people estranged from parents or siblings. You see relationships ending in divorce. You witness children who don't come home for 20 years because of the damage that was done. You see valued friendships tossed by the wayside.
I don't want to focus on any of that because that's what emotional hardness does to individuals and families and society. Instead I want to share with you what forgiveness can do. My attitude towards this person put me in an equally ugly place. What kind of person glories in the punishment another is sure to face? What kind of person feels justified in perpetuating meanness and cruelty? The unforgiving kind.
My situation with this other person hasn't changed much. They still cause offense more times than I can count. But something has changed that has altered the course of the entire situation . . . at least for me, personally. I've learned to forgive someone who hasn't stopped offending me.
I've changed. Me. The one who didn't cause this problem and the one who is powerless to stop it.
As my relationship with my Savior has improved, as I've come to understand Him better, I've learned an important secret. And it may not be the secret to life, but it is most certainly one of the secrets to happiness. I am not in a position to demand change before I willingly extend mercy to others. I am required to act with grace and dignity. I am required to forgive. It's not a suggestion. It's a requirement for becoming better acquainted with Him.
I used to think it was impossible. I'd find myself right in the middle of things. I'd find myself the recipient of the doled out offense and think, "How can I possibly forgive this person when they won't stop!?" Or, "If they'd just stop, I could let this go." I would even find myself wondering how a loving Father in Heaven could love this person as much as He loved me considering what they were doing.
I don't know if I'd call myself a seasoned mother yet, but I am a mother nonetheless. And I imagine that our Heavenly Father can love us equally regardless of our behavior, just as I love my own children regardless. I don't love my son any less when he hits his sister. And that's not because I don't love his sister. I adore them both and it hurts me that she's hurt, but it doesn't stop me from taking the opportunity to teach him. And it most certainly doesn't stop me from hoping that my love for him will somehow help to teach him right from wrong.
I've always felt bad for people who think of God as some far-off "concept" rather than the Father of us all. How much easier it is to understand Him and His requirements for us when we understand His role as a parent. And how much easier it is to understand His Son, the Savior of mankind, when we understand His role as our older brother, a brother with the ability and willingness to save us from ourselves.
So I began to pray that I could see my offender in the way that my Father in Heaven sees them. I began to hope that I would be able to love them again. I prayed that I'd be able to let go of the offenses that just keep on rolling in.
My testament to you is that God answers prayers. Every single one. He has given me eyes that see and a heart that understands. A heart that understands that my relationship with Him is all that I need. I don't need vindication or a reprieve or anything really. I can trust Him to handle whatever judgments are required. It's not my job. He doesn't need my help with that.
He needs my help to extend His love to all around me, whether family or friends or strangers. He needs me to be His hands. He needs me to serve and to love and to respect all of His children . . . even when they don't respect and love and serve me. He needs me to grant forgiveness under every circumstance and to leave the judgment to Him.
This knowledge has changed my heart. It hasn't changed my circumstances, but it's changed my attitude towards them. I've been able to learn to love a person who may or may not deserve it. This knowledge has changed the way that my situation use to nag at and torture my soul. I feel peace and contentment and happiness, not necessarily because of the treatment I receive, but because of my attitude toward it.
Forgiveness is powerful in every way. It unleashes a strength that I couldn't have comprehended. It frees us from worry and misery because our understanding reaches a completely elevated level.
I'm not perfect, lest anyone misinterpret what I'm saying. Occasionally I really have to fight with myself to let it go. But each time that I'm successful, each time that I come out victorious, I am that much stronger and that much more at peace.
So I just need you to know that you're not alone. In your darkest hour, in your moment of sincerest need, please know and understand that you are a child of the Most High God. He loves you. He loves your offender. He only wants you to see them the way that He sees them. He promises peace and contentment and a sweet relationship with Him and His Son if you can pull it off. And He'll take care of the rest. Let Him do His job while you concentrate on your own. You're perfectly suited and capable of completing the task.
God lives. His reality is not in question, regardless of how many say that it is. The Savior lives, and His Atonement has rendered us all able to spiritually overcome all. Without Him we would have been hopeless, but He is the Light and the Life and the Hope of the world. Use that gift. Draw from it the power that you need.