How to Forgive?

Today’s guest post is by Eric Hachenberger.

When the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement took off last May, the US started to tear itself apart over one of its most fundamental conflicts again. At about the same time, church filmmaker Brian Faye gave us a sublime and personal message of reconnecting and forgiveness. In his vulnerable story, he tells us how after years of estrangement he was finally able to forgive and reconnect to his mother when she broke down in tears before him. 

The stark contrast between these two messages got me thinking. Why is it often so hard for us to forgive? 

In conflict, our first reactions to others are often violent retaliation or simply ending the relationship. Reconciliation is most often forgotten.

While protesters take quotes from Martin Luther King out of context, we can still remember that this man used the principles of Christianity to solve a huge conflict in a peaceful manner. And so can we in our homes, families, and communities – by forgiving.

Why we hold back forgiveness

When my dad sued my mum for financial reasons after their divorce, I broke with him. I refused to talk to him for weeks, then months, then years.

Before leaving on my mission, the former stake patriarch reminded me that walking the path of Christ required us to have “a love … of all men” (2. Nephi 31:20, emphasis added).

I didn’t think much of it at that time. Actually, I thought that my father wasn’t part of ‘all men.’ That somehow his actions had disqualified him from being worthy of my forgiveness. On some days, my thoughts brought me so far as to think forgiving him would somehow condone his mistakes.

How we misunderstand forgiveness

As I nevertheless struggled to build a new bridge to my father, I realized that Jesus’ statement to us “to forgive all men” is not a suggestion (D&C 64:10). It’s an imperative. And it’s a requirement to gain his forgiveness – without which, we should remember, we are utterly and eternally lost.

We struggle to forgive others because here we are on the other side of the atonement than usual. 

We are pretty well versed when it comes to the ‘steps of repentance’. We repeat it often at church because we know in how dire need we are of a Savior.

Sadly, we haven’t developed an equally rich vocabulary for forgiveness.

When we have to forgive, we stand as if with Christ, having to allow and help others to repent. And we need to have faith that Christ can also heal the damage done to us.

The sin of the other person doesn’t disqualify them from Christ’s atonement.

But by thinking that it does and holding back forgiveness, we deny what Christ can do. We want to limit his power and therefore ‘remaineth in [us] the greater sin” (D&C 64:9).

How we may forgive

Forgiveness is hard. No doubt. The tension in my family is still palpable at times. But since my father and I rebuilt our relationship, I feel less burdened by the past.

So how can we do this?

Sometimes we are struck (like in Brian’s case) by the humanity of others. Their reality and divine nature sometimes break through the walls we have erected to keep them out.

But when we don’t want to wait for years and decades for these moments to happen, we have to become more proactive.

A lot of times we need to change our hearts before we can forgive. Therein lies the challenge and the opportunity. A challenge, because changing our hearts is difficult, but an opportunity, because it is all within our power. 

We can start by seeing not only the other person’s weaknesses but also their virtues. These people are not only their worst decisions. They are complex and often blind to the pain they inflict. And they might not be the easiest to love. Yet we are commanded to love them. Distance makes it easier to hate. So we have to get closer again.

And we have to acknowledge that we have made it harder for them, too. That there surely are things we have done that have added to their pain. That they too are struggling and hurting.

Then we have to take that courageous step to be there for them. First by stopping to hate them and seeing only their worst sides. Then by serving them. And then, when we care for them, our hearts can transform. And theirs might too.

Strength to Love in Christ

The pivotal story in the conflict between Nephites and Lamanites is found in the mission of the Sons of Mosiah.

Instead of seeking the Lamanites’ destruction, they desired their salvation (Mosiah 28:3, Alma 26:25).

This desire didn’t come before they were deeply converted unto the Lord. And once they put it into action, it transformed lives (e.g. Alma 18:5). 

As a result, half a nation reached out to their enemies with love (Alma 24).

It is by this love that we cure hatred (Mosiah 28:2, Alma 24:24,25).

And as Mormon admonishes, we should “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that [we] may be filled with this love,” for it is the love of Christ (Moroni 7:48).

Comments

  1. Whether it be a spouse, parent, or sibling, a family member seems to be the hardest to forgive. Thank you for the example of living the higher law. Forgiveness is required of all who desire Eternal Life. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the only power I know that can heal and change broken and hardened hearts.

  2. Boundaries aid forgiveness.

  3. Sounds good. I may have given more than one sermon along these lines. But long life (and some would argue a trend away from pure Christianity) has me thinking two qualifications:
    1. I’m wary of too casually conflating forgiving past harm and building a future relationship. They are not the same thing and one does not dictate the other.
    2. Neither Christ nor the Atonement nor the idea of repentance and forgiveness heals the break. There can be changes in perception and felt severity and long term relationships, but divorces stay divorced, trust remains shattered, lost fingers remain lost.

  4. Reading Brian Faye’s personal account and watching his video was life-changing for me. I guess that was his point. Brian’s video and post have been the best part of my day. Thank you.

  5. Survivor, I agree. I was financially abused. My trust was shattered. It helps me to remember the words of T.D. Jakes “Forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift to give yourself.
    And then I try over and over again.

  6. I sort of disagree with the ideas you are expressing that in order to forgive we need to serve the other, love the other, reconcile with the other. In cases of abuse especially, it is often most Christlike to stop “turning the other cheek” and to actually forgive from a l-o-n-g ways away. You can forgive without ever reconciling. In fact, with abusers it is often the only way. If you stay in relationship with an unrepentant abuser, they will continue to abuse, and you will continue to be angry, over and over. The only solution is to get away and protect yourself from further abuse, and then forgive. Forgiving them while they are actively abusing you doesn’t help them repent and it doesn’t allow you to heal.

    Often with child abuse and spouse abuse the victim blames themselves or feels that they somehow deserve to be treated that way. They have to get angry enough at the abuser to really understand that they deserve to be treated as a child of God, only after getting angry can they eventually put the anger away and move onto forgiveness. When forced to forgive before getting good and angry, they simply blame themselves and never get to forgiveness because they are unable to be angry. If “God” doesn’t want me to be angry, then it must be because I deserve to be treated that way, because God is just and fair. People can be stuck for years, unable to forgive because they are shamed out of being angry. Organized religion really likes to shame people out of getting angry, so religion often stands between the person and the eventual forgiveness that religion requires. In order to forgive, you have to really recognize what was done, and that takes getting angry about it.

    Most people take the ability to get angry for granted and assume the person is “choosing to stay angry.“ But I found through my social work with abuse victims that most of them who were unable to get over it, were actually terrified to get as angry as they actually felt. So they would start to feel anger, then panic at the amount of anger, or blame themselves for the abuse or for being “unforgiving” and back away from the anger. So they stayed stuck at the beginnings of the anger stage unwilling to go all the way through the anger stage.

  7. Yes, Anna, so usefully articulated. Often the most frightening thing for us to imagine in a situation of abuse is the withdrawal of connection with the abuser if the abuse is named, this stops the anger that we need in order to empower our movement away from the abuse into safety. First comes safety from abuse, later forgiveness may come. In the first instance the crime must stop.

  8. Geoff - Aus says:

    You start with Black Lives Matter. Who do you think should forgive who. Black Americans, are discriminated against in so many ways, in the past and at present. If they were no longer discriminated against, perhaps you could ask them to forgive previous discrimination?
    If you wish to forgive BLM for protesting; it would be more helpfull to work to remove the problem.

  9. Forgiveness is often misinterpreted to mean reestablish bonds with someone who has wronged us. We can hold someone accountable and severe ties and still forgive. A better understanding of forgiveness is not to let past wrongs keep you from finding joy and pleasure in life and from loving others. For instance I can forgive someone who murdered a loved one of mine by not holding on to rage and anger. I don’t need to say that that person shouldn’t face charges and a sentence. I don’t need to communicate with that person or have any sort of relationship with them.

  10. I worry that we spend so much time trying to figure out how a doctrine does not apply, that we tend to disregard how overwhelmingly it does apply in our lives and relationships. My observation is that people would benefit more by figuring out how the atonement, both repentance and forgiveness, applies to them, than by scrutinizing the abuses they have received and figuring out how it does not apply to them.

    And believe those statements are not at odds w/ principles of boundaries and self respect.

  11. pconnor says, I’m not sure anyone trying to figure out how forgiveness does not apply. But perhaps I’m reading in some comments the difficulty I had for decades of inadequate church teaching. That is, the question what human forgiveness means and how to do it. Forgiveness should not be confused with reconciliation. The first requires action (inward action) only of the forgiver. The second requires action by both parties. Forgiveness should also not be confused with forgetting. I began to succeed consciously with some necessary forgiveness only after reading Louis Smedes’ “The Art of Forgiving”. Being reminded of the commandment to forgive without explanation of how to do it or what it means was no help at all.
    But, frankly neither was anger. Anger may be the form in which some recognize of a wrong to be forgiven, but for some it is a different cogitation and emotion.
    For me, lectures on the commandment and church lessons were totally useless as were lectures about anger.
    YMMV

  12. Pconnor, as an abuse victim myself, I could not figure out how forgiveness applied to me until after I figured out how the usual talk about forgiveness DID NOT apply to me. I was hung up on the way people normally talk about forgiveness means you are no longer angry. Well, until I figured out that God was fine with me being angry, in fact was angry at my abuser too, I couldn’t get to anger, let alone through the anger to forgiveness. Some things about how most people talk about forgiveness as if it is all little stuff needs to change. Forgiving the “unforgivable” is different than forgiving the normal bumps and bruises of life. I needed to figure out that 99% of church member don’t know what the heck they are talking about and stop listening to them. When I stopped listening to the advice at church and listened directly to God, then I was able to move through the stages I needed to because I was no longer shamed into pretending that abuse was hunky dory. The normal talk at church was actually harmful to me.

  13. The master sermon giver, had a small audience at the cross. The words he spoke were profound. Sermons could be given expounding on each utterance. They are all timely. Consider them carefully along with the circumstances they were given when you have time.

    “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

  14. As I approach forgiveness, I often struggle to realize that forgiveness is not reconciliation. It is not relationship renewal. It is a cessation of vengeance. It is relying on justice. And in the case of the failure of society’s justice, resolving to rely on God’s justice. It is not a pardoning of sin, because only God can do that. It is not connected with the perpetrator’s repentance and desire for reconciliation.

    I know that one can seek justice without seeking vengeance. Vengeance is inflicting damage without the benefit of ethical or legal restraints. I know one can forgive and testify in court. I know one can forgive and establish distance from the perpetrator or sever relationships. Forgiveness does not require the sacrifice of ourselves emotionally or physically to a perpetrator in the name of mercy. It does not require setting ourselves and others up for further damage.

  15. Eric Lucas Hachenberger says:

    I do agree that forgiveness and reconciliation are different, but I think it is not good to separate them too much. One can forgive without reconciling, but often forgiveness feels incomplete from the side of the victim if he/she is unable to enter into a certain relationship with the perpetrator again.

    I agree that distance is crucial, especially when abuse happened. The Lord counseled the Anti-Nephi-Lehites to leave, so their abusers couldn’t hurt them anymore.

    But we see that they already had forgiven their former brethren completely by rather dying than harming them. Their love for their enemies was dangerous, yes, but also necessary for their own peace. And the effect it had on people ready to murder them was more than profound.

  16. Eric Lucas Hachenberger says:

    Also, thank you so much for all your comments. I really appreciate all your thoughts and ideas. I know that this is a hard topic, but I do believe that such discussions can help us all understand this crucial doctrine better. I definitely have learned much from all of you :D

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    What I find most difficult is that while I find the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation to be useful, and even necessary, those to whom it is directed usually don’t make that distinction and disagree. In other words, they expect me to forgive (and cite the counsel to do so) and to reconcile and are upset that I won’t re-engage with them. There are always comments such as “Why can’t you forgive me?”, or “You need to let this go, so we can move past it and have a good relationship.” Telling them that I forgive them, but still am not comfortable letting them back into my life just seems to have its own set of problems that I now have to manage.

  18. I believe the purpose of the post is to help us forgive imperfect people; people who have weaknesses but are doing their best. Abuse is a different subject. I hope my children will forgive me and take Eric’s example. Although I made mistakes, I tried.

  19. I agree with the various commenters who explain the important role of anger, the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, and the pressure we and others sometimes experience to reconcile. I agree that forgiveness is a gift to the self. Two quotes by Byron Katie that I love are, “Forgiveness is just another name for freedom,” and, “Forgiveness is realizing that what you thought happened, didn’t.” I know this is very delicate ground, because, of course people really are abused and mistreated. It deeply matters, and being angry at perpetrators is often a critical step in recognizing that such treatment is wrong and never deserved. I believe that the more we are convinced of our unassailable worth and establish what boundaries we can, though, the less we need anger to remind us that mistreatment is not okay, not our fault, and not defining of our selves or lives.

    I think there is something deeply true about the idea that forgiveness is less about forgiving other people for their violence (of whatever kind) and more about forgiving the self for believing that any form of violence could fundamentally change or damage one’s core identity and value. I am about to read “The Choice: Embrace the Possible” by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a holocaust survivor who is now a psychologist and asserts that forgiveness of the self is what is needed to release residual suffering inflicted by abuse: “I have no time to hate because if I would hate, I would still be a prisoner.”

  20. Hi dear

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