This is a guest post from Jacob Baker. Jacob is a doctoral student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University and an instructor at BYU and UVU. And he still finds time to post funny things about Mormon life on Facebook.
I remember the first ward my wife and I moved into after we were married. One Sunday in Sacrament Meeting the bishop (a man who was as plain-spoken as any bishop I’ve ever seen) got up and pleaded for us to be less judgmental of one another, to have compassion on each other, for there were many dealing with heavy burdens in our ward. He said that within our ward boundaries alone there were people dealing with illegal drugs, adultery, pornography, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and many other problems. He was especially terribly saddened at having to counsel and try to provide help for women who were victims of rape, one within her own marriage. He then stated that statistically speaking, for other wards and branches about the same size as our ward anywhere in the country, the same sorts of problems were occurring at the same or greater rate, but the problems and violations of a sexual nature were both more widespread and more damaging. Studies, of course, have generally long borne this out. One recent study shows that nearly 1/5 of boys and nearly 1/3 of girls in the United States have had a sexual encounter of some kind with an adult by the time they reach high school. The rates are much higher in less developed countries.
Discussions regarding sexuality in the Bloggernacle probably number in the hundreds or maybe even the thousands by this point. In a way, there is a sense that this topic has been discussed, talked about, screamed at, and wept over pretty much to the point of a terminal blogging coma. Yet, misunderstandings and problems regarding sexuality in virtually every community (Mormon communities included) persist unabated. These additional meditations, then, (unlikely to be very original in the end) may be received in a pre-packaged vegetative state; nevertheless, the topic, it seems to me, remains a consistently urgent and crucial one, because “many hearts [continue] to die, pierced with deep wounds,” not women and children only, but men as well.
There are many, many potential reasons for why problems, misunderstandings, and violations of a sexual nature continue to plague us, but I will suggest that, more than any other problem we deal with in the church, we deal with problems of sexuality alone, and this an important reason why, for those of us who have willfully and knowingly engaged in any sort of illicit sexual behavior, they stalk us, almost unimpeded. Even where others might be involved as confidantes or counselors, we often feel isolated and forsaken, because we have committed a sin that is considered, essentially, to be unbearable by our families and church community. Alma tells us that because of the law of justice when we sin we feel estranged. We feel estranged from God, from other people, and, perhaps most significantly, from ourselves. So before anyone else in our family or in our ward has knowledge of what we’ve done, we feel already that we are cut off from everyone. The atonement is meant, in part, to provide us a space by which we can stop being cut off from everyone, from God, from our community and family, and ourselves. But the ways we have been taught to think and act about sexuality have created walls of humiliation and shame between us and other people. And in our loneliness we seek to destroy ourselves, to extinguish our lives so we don’t have to feel alone anymore, and so that the shame will stop crushing us. The shame, guilt and embarrassment associated with sexual transgression have effectively cut so many of us off from the rest of our brothers and sisters.
Looked at in this way, our sins, sexual and otherwise, are not isolated acts we commit outside of our relationships with our families, friends, and church communities, but sins precisely because we live with others. The sin that is in fact most damaging is the severing of these connections, cutting ourselves off or being cut off by others from those we love and who should love us. Sin is ultimately the damaging of relationships. When we as a community heap shame and humiliation on someone because of their behavior, we contribute to the same estrangeness and isolation that they experienced as a result of their sin. Consequently, that person’s individual sin and our sin as a community in not loving that person amount to exactly the same thing: we are cut off from one another, or better, we are bound to one another in shame, embarrassment, isolation, and misery.
We need one another in every moment. We are beings who are in constant need of practicing forgiveness of ourselves and others, who unfortunately often heap shame and guilt on others because we do not understand, and so are afraid, of sins and transgressions of a sexual nature. We need to learn better how to talk with one another about these problems, so that we do not contribute to the loneliness and forsakenness of those who already find themselves hurt and bleeding from something they’ve done or someone they’ve hurt. We are losing too many of our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, not always because they have cut themselves off from us because of their behavior, but usually because we have cut ourselves off from them because of their behavior. Forgiveness because of the atonement means that Christ has given himself in advance to us, as he who will never abandon us, as he who wishes always to be at one with and in a relationship with us. The grace of the atonement is that because Christ has given himself to us in advance, he has always already extended himself to us in forgiveness. We are always already forgiven because of his pure love extended to us unconditionally. Christ’s love is not dependent on what we do, and therefore forgiveness means that Christ gives himself to us before anything we do. Fore-giveness.  “We love him,” the scripture says, “because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). His love is not contingent on what we do but is grounded in who we are. The punishment of sin comes when we refuse to accept this forgiveness, refuse to accept this mercy, and instead choose to remain cut off and unforgiven, after which the temptation to continue in sin, to continue to be isolated and alone becomes greater. Unforgiveness means that we refuse to accept that Christ gave himself to us before anything we did, to believe that his love is contingent on what we do, how well we obey, how well we behave. When we accept his forgiveness, when we embrace his love and mercy, we feel the sincere and powerful desire to stop doing those things that damage our relationships with God, ourselves, and others and instead do those things that deepen and strengthen our relationships with others. When we are aware that his love was there before those sins we committed and it remains afterward, the most powerful ever-present force in the universe, everything changes for us and we are newly born in his image. Being newly born means, in fact, that the entire world takes on a newness of life, a pristine texture of hope and possibility. Repentance in this context means to accept Christ’s forgiveness and mercy, always already given to us before anything we’ve done. When the gospel becomes a matter of everything we do and not a matter of accepting the love offered to us in the atonement, then we despair and continue in sin, because not only is our attention diverted from the atoning work of the Savior, but we realize we can never do enough, or even do it right. Our good works are only possible when we become aware of the healing, loving power of the atonement, which has always already forgiven us and loved us.
To be a community of Zion will mean that we are constantly in relationships of forgiveness of one another, that we always already give ourselves to each other, before and regardless of what we do, that we are serious about dwelling together in love. This decidedly does not mean that violations of divine and social boundaries are meaningless and anything goes as long as we love one another; on the contrary, it means that such standards are imbued with substantive meaning and context for the first time because we love one another and have covenanted to give ourselves to one another. When both our sins and our love are given a background and a frame (instead of being isolated acts which are violations of abstract metaphysical laws), we see one another with new eyes. To see with new eyes is to see through Christ’s eyes, eyes of faith, hope, and love. When we are bound to each other in relationships of unforgiveness we are saying that we are waiting to give ourselves to each other until we see what the other does, and if it’s acceptable. In other words–to see with our own, old eyes, eyes of distrust, despair, and fear. “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Whose sins? Not our own. Charity is a love of others, not ourselves. Or maybe better said: it is the true and pure love of ourselves that allows us to freely love others and see them as they really are. Peter teaches here that to have charity, to love others, is to hide their sins from our own eyes. This is why, in the end, we are the ones that become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), and all things become new to us. To this end we must plead, pray, and work to become a community of forgiveness, a community for which all things and all people have become new. This, I believe, is the kind of community that Enoch’s city was, the kind of community that the Lord is trying to help us create, and the kind of community, I think, we all ultimately would like to live in.
Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other. And there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion.
 As far as etymology is concerned, the Latin root of “forgive” is perdonare, or “to give completely.” My use of forgive as foregive is thus more of a theological gloss, but nevertheless describes, I think, what is happening when Christ, through grace, forgives and when we forgive in emulation of Christ.