The Burden of Forgiving

Our EQ lesson yesterday was taught by a friend of mine, Kevin.  Kevin’s topic was "Forgiving Others."   This sounds like an innocuous topic, but true to form, our Manhattan 1st Ward soon unearthed controversy in even this most benign of ideas.  We all agreed that we’re commanded to forgive others.  But there was real disagreement on the substance of forgiveness and the nature of post-forgiveness relationships.  It was a fun lesson…

My roommate Scott started off the controversy with the old chestnut that if you lend someone money and they rob you, you’d be a fool to lend again, and that forgiveness doesn’t require us to open ourselves up to being wronged repeatedly.  Oops!  Wait, said others, what about turning the other cheek, or giving your cloak?  Doesn’t Christ imply that yes, we should in fact be willing to set ourselves up again?

This let some in the class to postulate a test for forgiveness: the behavioral modification test.  Under the BMT, you can tell that you’ve truly forgiven someone if your behavior towards them is as if the event never occurred.  If you lend, and someone robs you, you know you’ve forgiven them when you are willing to lend to them again.  In cynic’s terms, the gospel of forgiveness requires us to be forgetful… or suckers.  We avoided the sub-discussion of whether social justice (i.e., prosecution under the law) should still be required under this model of forgiveness, although that’s a hotbed too.

I and others argued (well, this was EQ, so maybe "suggested" is a better term) that the BMT fails — or that it has to fail — at extremes of behavior or where others are involved.  For example, if someone murders your spouse or other relative, you can’t forget that the event occurred.  You can’t stop missing the deceased, and you can’t forget what happened.  So what form can the forgiveness take?  Alternatively, there’s the extreme scenario of a child molester that abuses your children — the BMT would imply that you let the molester babysit your children again, although that’s clearly unacceptable.

Ultimately, the emotional consequences of sin and the forgiveness process appear to be largely unexplored and difficult to analyze.  The directive to forgive others is as clear and direct as any commandment.  But we are at a loss to deal with the topic in any but the most simplistic of terms.  I’m not sure why that need be so; perhaps the context of forgiveness is a prime example of how the Spirit needs to guide our actions.  Maybe it’s just another example of how little we understand about the workings of the Atonement, and we need to just hold on to a child’s faith that we can forgive and be forgiven, without understanding how.


  1. My first marriage was not a good one. My ex was a compulsive liar, and emotionally abusive. I have forgiven him. But that forgiveness came only with detachment. Forgiveness does not require us to blind ourselves to someone’s true nature. Absent repentence by the offender, forgiveness is best accompanied by a healthy dose of self-preservation.

    When we forgive someone, we don’t put a sign on our head, saying “doormat.”

  2. I don’t accept the BMT for the reasons mentioned. I believe that forgiveness means that our behavior toward that person is motivated by charity, and is not influenced by hate, anger, bitterness or revenge. However, our behavior should still be influenced by what he have learned about that person, and if that person is a serial killer or a pedophile, that knowledge should surely guide our future behavior. Charity does not require us to put ourselves or our loved ones in danger by subjecting them or us to abuse at the hands of somebody who is likely to reoffend.

  3. Gary, I agree with your position but I don’t think there’s any scriptural foundation for it. On the contrary, the doctrinal basis for the BMT seems a lot more secure…

  4. perhaps the BMT could be used to accomodate both poles. For example, we should treat the person as though they had not wronged us. However, we can use that experience as if it happened to a third person. For example, if a babysitter abused my son I should forgive them and act as though it had not happened. However, I don’t think this means forgetting entirely. I can treat this event as if it happened to another child.
    I would not likely entrust my son to someone convicted of molesting / harming another child, so I can use this to protect myself.

    This allows the use of the BMT test as a gauge of repentance, while still allowing for protection of ourselves.

    Perhaps not the most finely put, but I hope I get my point across.

  5. Ahh, the BMT.

    You know, true love is the greatest thing in the world . . . except for a nice BMT — a bacon, mutton, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is lean and the tomato is ripe . . .

  6. The BMT is a fair place to begin. We are commanded to forgive an endless number of times. As often as we are offended should we forgive. I haven’t had the chance to review scripture on this but shooting from the hip this is what I remember:

    As we seek repentance we must forsake the sin, make ammends to those we have wronged and all that good stuff. We are also commanded to forget the sin in our past and move on. Heavenly Father will also forgive and forget.

    I don’t know of any specific scripture that commands me to forget the sin of others only my own. I’m sure there is probably one out there somewhere. But this is where I think we can apply this.

    If we show a willingness to forget the sins of others as part of our forgiveness then I think we genuinely will, but it may not be until the next world.

    From a practical point of view I feel that we can temper our forgiveness with the offender’s repentance. If the offender has not repented, righted the wrongs done, made penance, repaid us the theft several times over as commanded and all, then we can still forgive them but not forget until they show a true repentant heart. Again this may not come to fruition until the next life when our perfected bodies can more easily be controlled by our emotions.

  7. You see Kaimi, forgiving you would mean forgetting that comment, which I just can’t do. Its smell remaineth.

    inqydesu, that’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure the scriptures afford us the ability to swap lenses in that way. Clearly there’s a friction point between forgiveness and responsibilities under a given stewardship, and so we can justify not rehiring the child molester under that view. But in terms of personal forgiveness: let’s say you’ve been abused, personally. The BMT suggests that to show true forgiveness, you can/should leave yourself open to further abuse. What scriptures or doctrine do we have that can save us from this evil?

  8. Steve: I assume that the scriptural foundation you have in mind consists of passages such as “turn the other cheek” and go the second mile. I don’t think pithy statements such as these and others that we find in scripture should be interpreted as codes of conduct to be applied in all situations. These statements don’t mean much in a vacuum because correct conduct is always determined by the facts of each particular case. I think that these kinds of statements are better interpreted as expressions of the principle that we should be patient and long suffering but are not to be taken too literally. I don’t really believe that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get to heaven, but this statement serves an important purpose in teaching the importance of humility. I put “turn the other cheek” into a similar category.

  9. I’m not really sure there are many scriptures or any scriptures that actually instruct a person to forget something that has been done wrong to them. Forgiveness is mentioned often but not forgetting. The emphasis in the scriptures seems to be on remembering things. I’m trying to think of any scripture that actually instructs forgetting.

    We do have a scripture where God says he will “remember them no more” (“them” referring to sins repented of). But I don’t think that means an omniscient God truly loses knowledge of a sin that was committed in the past. I would guess this simply means that God would no longer remind the sinner of the former sin or mention the former sin to the sinner.

    There is a story where Spencer W. Kimball relates that he was approached by a woman who had confessed sins to him … and she was gladdened that he had forgotten what they had discussed. I believe that story is in the book “Miracle of Forgiveness.”

    But it seems to me that when a person suffers the results of someone else’s serious transgression, that forgetting would be foolishness.

    In fact there is at least one scripture, in reference to adultery, that seems to suggest that the first infraction should not be forgotten, in case it is repeated. The first infraction will be forgiven (but not forgotten) but further infractions will not be forgiven. At least that’s how I understand it:

    Doctrine and Covenants 42:25-26
    25 But he that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive;
    26 But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out.

    Two strikes you’re out? That’s what it sounds like to me. I would imagine with other similarly vicious offenses that the instruction would be similar.

    So obviously there are cases where the 70×7 instruction does not hold.

  10. Interesting that our institutional level of forgiveness should differ from our personal level. I wonder what the reasons are for that differentiation — I certainly wouldn’t take from it a lesson that we should have personal ‘two strike’ policies.

  11. Gary, you’re right that it’s a pithy statement, but I think you might be a little quick to write it all off as a camel-type metaphor…. what of the 70×7 concept? Also just an example?

  12. Steve: I don’t think I am “writing it all off” at all. I think there are important principles that are being taught by both metaphors. However, I think proponents of the BMT are taking a passage out of context, and giving it a meaning that it is unwarranted, and is in fact inconsistent with other scriptural principles. For example, surely a father who would knowingly put his child in the care of a known pedophile is violating the supreme law of love for that child by exposing that child to the risk of abuse by a sexual predator.

    As for the 70×7 concept–yes, just an example not to be taken literally. I think the point is to keep on forgiving endlessly. Don’t stop at 490.

  13. I think the 70×7 instruction is useful and significant. But I think the verse about forgiving or not forgiving adultery helps give some added perspective to the verse.

    The Lord will not command a man or woman to forgive an unrepentant and chronically unfaithful spouse. It seems to me that there are even some sins that are so vicious in their nature (more so than adultery) that we would not forgive them after a single offence.

    Unfortunately a lot of these worst kinds of sins don’t get brought to justice until the seventieth time around anyway. As a social worker my sister dealt with sex offenders at the Utah State prison and many of these weren’t caught and judged until the seventieth (or more) time around had already passed. From what little I’ve observed in history and the newspapers, most human predators aren’t stopped at the first or second offence anyway.

  14. We can find swaths of examples in the scriptures where those offended modified their behavior so that the offenders wouldn’t offend again (any war chapter will provide handfuls, Nephi & Co. leaving his brothers, JS forgiving repentant apostate apostles but not restoring responsibility, etc.) I feel a bit more inclined to agree with Gary, that the “turn the other cheek” statement doesn’t necessarily mean forgiveness.

  15. I don’t agree that we can write off Jesus’ admonitions to turn the other cheek and to give our cloak and walk an extra mile as pithy statements and mere guidance. However, I can also see that following Jesus in this view can lead to some evil consequences, particularly in the cliched extreme example of abuse.

    But I’d like to see how exactly we can justify watering down Christ’s teachings in this respect, so that I understand how we get from Christ’s ideal to our practical, workable solutions, since those appear to me to be unjustifiable.

  16. Steve,
    I’m failing to understand how you equate “turn the other cheek” with forgiveness. I think they are in the same boat, but not the same thing.

  17. D. Fletcher says:

    I think that the teaching “turn the other cheek” of Jesus is unique to Him — it exists in no other spiritual philosophy. And in its uniqueness, it sounds like it promotes great humility, one of the great aspects of Christianity. And yet, I don’t believe it has ever been taken seriously by any Christian leader, not Augustine, not Constantine, and even Joseph Smith shot into the “mob” who martyred him.

  18. Steve: I think you may have gone a long way to answering your own question. If you believe, as you apparently do, that a literal application of the statements in question to all circumstances leads to evil consequences, then why would you suggest that this literal interpretation represents Christ’s ideal? The evil consequences should be our first clue that maybe that is not what Christ really meant and the BMT does not represent his ideal at all. If we also consider how the Gospels were originally conceived and written, it becomes even more clear to me that we should not adopt a rigidly fundamentalist and literal reading of these kinds of staments. Like so many pronouncements of grand principles, some context is required in order to find their true intent.

  19. Steve,

    If a solution is “practical” and “workable”, isn’t it then (at least to some extent) justifiable?

  20. Dan, not in the gospel — we need a doctrinal path. Otherwise practical=concessionary.

  21. I’m with Rusty in that I don’t think that “turn the other cheek” necessarily has to do with forgiveness. It has to do more with restraint in our initial response to an offense. That is, our initial reaction to offense is to retaliate–Christ here isn’t telling us we have to immediately forgive, but rather that we should restrain our initial (natural?) impulse pay violence with violence.

  22. My feeling is that forgiveness consists of the loss of desire to judge the person who has wronged you, that you have to completely let go of your feelings of revenge, of any eagerness to see the other person suffer for what he or she has done. You simply (as if it’s all that simple) have to get to the point where you’re completely content (grateful, even) that it’ll be the Lord who will affix any necessary punishment. If everything works out the way it ought to in an ideal universe, the other person will truly repent, and the Lord will forgive him or her and remember the sin no more. If the Lord is willing to forgive another where I am not, I’m clearly in the wrong on the matter.

    Nothing is a bigger hindrance to repentance than knowing that the person you offended will not forgive you. Of course, that’s the wrong attitude to take, too: I’ll repent if you’ll forgive me, but otherwise, no dice.

    I think if we concentrate less on how much we need to forgive, and worry more about how much we have to be forgiven of, we’re closer to understanding what forgiveness is all about.

  23. Steve,

    I do get your point. This may be a semantic issue only and we may not really disagree at all — it just seems to me that the doctrinal path is ultimately practical and workable. To me it is the non-gospel approaches that are disproportinal and impractical in their responses to aggression or violence or injustice.

  24. I have to agree with Mark N. As a practical matter, it seems that forgiveness is achieved when the party who is wronged can replace their feelings of bitterness, anger, hurt etc. for feelings of pity, charity, love etc. To suggest that someone who has achieved this change of heart (an important doctrinal concept from the BofM), but is still unwilling to place themselves or their loved ones in harms way, has not really practiced true forgiveness, is to place an untenable burden on the victim of the situation.

  25. Rosalynde says:

    I like where Mark N. is going. We often think about God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others as symmetrical processes: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But examined more closely, I’m not sure we really *do* understand them to be symmetrical: when God forgives us, presumably, we are the ones that benefit; but when we forgive others, we tend to emphasize the benefits that accrue to us (peace of mind, “closure,” charity, etc) rather than to the offending party. Furthermore, God’s forgiveness is conditional (or at least the efficacy of his forgiveness is conditional) upon our forgiveness, whereas our forgiveness of others must be unconditional, whether or not the offender repents.

    The point is that perhaps we err when we assume that the post-forgiveness relationships between God-sinner and between us-offender must be symmetrical: God clearly passes the BMT, making scarlet as snow and dealing with us as if we had never sinned; it’s less clear to me, however, that we must pass the same test.

  26. Rosalynde Welch says:

    erp… should be “God’s forgiveness is conditional (…) upon our REPENTANCE,” not forgiveness.

  27. “God clearly passes the BMT, making scarlet as snow and dealing with us as if we had never sinned; it’s less clear to me, however, that we must pass the same test.”

    Aren’t we obligated to try and pass the BMT then by association? I thought we were supposed to try and be like Him.

    Now here’s an interesting question: if God does really pass the BMT test, how then can we say he acts ethically?

  28. Does God pass the BMT?

    In some cases, he clearly seems to. Lamanites who repent lose the curse of darkness.

    In other cases, it’s less clear.

    Adam wasn’t re-introduced into the garden of Eden. Thomas Marsh lost his place. King David also permanently lost his status and his exaltation.

    It seems that there are unescapable consequences, dictated by the laws of the universe, that prevent the BMT from being fully operational.

  29. Mark, Karen, Rosalynde et al: Although I agree with you, are we just making up our own definition of forgiveness because it makes sense to us? Is there scriptural support for this concept of what it means to forgive?

  30. Gary, that’s my central problem — though I agree with you & Mark & Rosalynde on how we should practically approach the matter, I don’t find a lot of scriptures that help us know this. Nor are there many G.A. talks that concretely address the issue, to my knowledge.

  31. What interests me about this discussion is that it has occurred to me that the whole “forgive and forget” concept doesn’t seem to a strong scriptural basis. Forgiveness is definitely a commandment (with certain limitations that have already been discussed) but where do scriptures really teach that we are required to forget what people have done against us? My feeling is that this teaching of forgetting is more of a cultural belief than a scriptural one. I can’t think of anywhere where the words “forget” and “forgetting” are used in a positive manner. Forgetting, from a scriptural vantage-point, seems to be a human fault and flaw. The scriptural command is to remember and not forget.

  32. The best non-scriptural example of true forgiveness I can think of is the Priest in the early pages of “Les Miserables”. When he’s robbed, he gives the silver away to the thief. He wasn’t concerned about being “set up” to be robbed again. He wasn’t even concerned if the thief was going to use the money from the silver wrongly. He turned “theft” into “gift”.


  33. Mark H, that’s a great, and challenging, example of forgiveness.

  34. Delli Strummer is a Holocaust survivor and, as of October of 1997, she was living in Baltimore. I attended the rededication of the Baltimore Holocaust memorial which had recently been renovated. During the ceremony Governor Paris Glendening read from her book titled “A Personal Refelction on the Holocaust.” The book is her life story with focus on the 6 years she spent in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. In the final pages she has this to say, “I have spoken so much about the bitter times. I wish now to speak of happier times and let my readers know that I truly am at peace. I will never forget but I have tried to forgive and I have learned that only by forgiving can you find peace.”

    Her words have stuck with me these past 7 years and I know from personal experience that when we fail to forgive we only hurt ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we leave ourselves vulnerable to further abuse but carrying hatred in our hearts is not the right answer.

  35. OK, here’s the problem. We have finite resources. I can spend time with Ted, or with Steve, or with Mary. But not all three. At some level, our resources have to be allocated in the way that they would do the most good.

    I think the BMT is cool to the extent that, given an open heart and a willing soul, you would be willing to help someone that offended or hurt you if that was the best use of what you have to offer. So, since being nice or being compassionate is a good that you have an essentially infinite amount of, you should pretty much always allocate those. But, in the case of the money, your choice isn’t to give a thief money or to keep it for yourself and use it greedily. There are lots of other things you could do with it. Would it then be an unforgiving action to say, “Ted, I like you, but you can’t be trusted as much as the fast offering, and your inability to use the money well makes me think that it’s better spent on my kid’s education or even on a nice dinner”? I think not. You don’t have to pretend to be stupid (or actually be stupid) in order to be exalted. Also, since forgiveness is a commandment, it can’t mean to do stuff that’s contrary to other commandments. I suppose that it can, but then you’ve got to choose, and there’s no reason to think that you’d always pick forgiveness. For example, if you’re a woman with kids in an abusive relationship, I don’t think her obligation to forgive her abuser has anything to do with her decision to leave the home and not to trust that man with the safety of her and her children.

    Just a thought.

  36. One other thing I forgot to mention. If I fornicate, and the bishop finds out about it, what does he do about my temple recommend? If he forgives me under a BMT standard, doesn’t he have to let me keep it or give it back? I mean, if he’s forgiven, he has to treat me as if I never fornicated, right? I can’t think that forgiveness works differently for bishops than for everyone else.

  37. Brandon, you’re right that the Church as an institution doesn’t use the straight-up BMT. I can think of some straightforward institutional reasons why that would be, but it’s not very satisfying.

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