Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Miracle of Forgiving Others

“Obsessing on grudges keeps them alive; forgiveness forces them to die. Moving on gets you back to business.” –Jon Huntsman, Sr., Billionaire and Philanthropist

One of my mentors shared the following story about a group of teenagers who went for a picnic in the desert outside of Phoenix. While they were playing, a rattlesnake bit one of the girls on the ankle. The girl and her friends pursued the snake and after about 20 minutes were able to find the snake and kill it. Once the snake was destroyed, they headed to the emergency room. A couple days later her foot and leg had swollen almost beyond recognition. The tissues in her limb had been destroyed by the poison, and a few days later it was found her leg would have to be amputated below the knee. It was a senseless sacrifice, the price of revenge. How much better it would have been if after the young women had been bitten, there had been an extraction of the venom. (H. Burke Peterson, “Removing the Poison of an Unforgiving Spirit,” Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 59)

It is difficult for us to forgive those who have injured us. Dwelling on the evil done to us becomes an erosive and destructive poison. Nelson Mandela wrote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Holding a grudge has the power to pull us to the depths of hell while forgiveness exalts us to the heights of heaven. The Lord directs us to forgive those who injure us but that does not mean that feelings of resentment, anger, and injustice are ignored or eliminated. We must learn to respond to the feelings of resentment, anger, and injustice with forgiveness, and guard against the natural tendency to respond with the sins of bitterness, hate, and revenge.

In reference to the sermon “Upon Resentment” given in 1726 by the English Bishop Joseph Butler, Jeffrie Murphy writes, “In that sermon, Butler started to make a case for the legitimacy of resentment and other vindictive passions—arguing that a just and loving God would not have universally implanted these passions within his creatures unless the passions served some valuable purpose. The danger of resentment, Butler argued, lies not in having it, but rather in being dominated and consumed by it to such a degree that one can never overcome it and acts irresponsibly on the basis of it. As the initial response to being wrong, however, the passion stands in defense of important values—values that might be compromised by immediate and uncritical forgiveness of wrongs.” (Jeffrie G. Murphy, Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 18–19)

Although we forgive our neighbors of their wrongs against us we still work to prevent the injury from being repeated. People who are abused should forgive their abuser, but also work to hold the abuser accountable for their actions and prevent further abuse. A person who was the victim of a dishonest businessperson should not seek revenge or hate the offender but could take action to remedy the wrong. We must fight against sin but not allow bitterness, hatred, and revenge to control our thoughts and actions. As the apostle Paul taught, “Be ye angry, and sin not.” (Ephesians 4:26, King James Version)

From Bitterness to Love
The abuse of children, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, is one of the most serious problems society faces. The emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical damage of abuse is very real. I know this first-hand because when I was a little boy, I was sexually abused over many years by a close relative. I pray that no child will ever have to experience the hell I have gone through as a boy and as an adult as I have overcome and conquered the harmful effects of abuse. Initially, my reaction to the abuse were feelings of anger, hatred, bitterness, and vindictiveness. I prayed for help in dealing with these emotions and felt directed to forgive and let go. As I forgave my offender, the Spirit filled my heart and soul. The feelings I had of hate and revenge were replaced by feelings of love and concern. It is hard to describe the emotions that resulted from forgiving. Initially, I felt there was no way I could love someone who was guilty of such horrendous crimes against me, but through the power of Christ and forgiveness it was made possible. That is one of the miracles of forgiveness—it not only removes hate, bitterness, and vindictiveness, but it also replaces it with love, peace, and concern.

In January 2001, I was talking to my mom on the phone, and we began talking about the abuse of my childhood. My mom asked, “Have you forgiven him?” I said, “Yes, I have. I forgave him years ago.” Tears came to my eyes and pain filled my heart as my mom described the pain and struggles she experienced as a result of her son being abused by someone she trusted—someone she loved. My mom then said, “I can’t forgive him.” Although she is one of the kindest, most caring Christians in the world, she could not forgive him for hurting her son.

In the fall 2005, I got a call from my mom to tell me she had forgiven the relative responsible for the abuse. She related the experience to me over the phone, and I asked that she write it down and send it to me. Below is my wonderful mother’s experience with forgiveness:

I had known for a long time that I needed to forgive Henry [name has been changed] for sexually abusing my son. I kept postponing it because I felt that if I forgave him, then I would be condoning it somehow. One morning I felt prompted that I needed to go through the process of forgiving him and letting go of all the hurt and anger.

I felt prompted to go the cemetery where he was buried and prayed for the help of the Lord to take away this burden that I had carried with me for so many years. I began to share my feelings and told the Lord that I was really ready to let it all go. I knew that holding onto it was keeping me from progressing spiritually.

I went to the cemetery where Henry was buried. After spending some time at Henry’s grave site, I felt prompted to go and run around the track at the high school. I thought that was strange because I am definitely not a runner. I usually walk for exercise but cannot run very far. As I was thinking about this, the story of the leper Naaman who went to Elisha to be healed came to my mind. Elisha told Naaman, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” (II Kings 5:10, New King James Version) But Naaman rejected the counsel for he expected a mighty miracle. “Naaman became furious . . . and went away in a rage.” (II Kings 5:11-12, New King James Version) Naaman’s servant then spoke to him saying, “If the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (II Kings 5:13, New King James Version) Naaman then went and washed seven times in the Jordon and was healed.

I figured I better follow the prompting, so I went to the track and thought maybe I could run around one time. As I began to run and my heart began to beat faster, I felt a burden being lifted off of me. My heart felt good, and I knew that the Lord was blessing me with the ability to forgive. I then felt a great remorse for being unforgiving for so long. I asked the Lord for forgiveness for not acting upon this sooner. I felt a peace come over me that was so wonderful and I actually felt changed physically and spiritually. I walked around the track another lap and said a prayer of gratitude to Heavenly Father for His great love for me and expressed appreciation for the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ, which heals what we cannot heal on our own. Just as Naaman’s leprosy was healed by washing in the Jordon, my hurt and anger were healed by forgiving.

Blame and grudges keep wounds open and allow the wrongs of others to control our lives. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is the balm that heals our wounds and frees us to choose our destiny.