I have been blogging here for two years, and throughout this time, I have been chiefly interested in the quest for community. I understand community to be something that is achieved when we find “unity with” (as the word implies) others, be they family and friends, strangers and foreigners or even enemies, as well as unity, or at least harmony, with place and within our ecological context. Unity is achieved when we overcome selfishness and enmity, when anger is replaced with love in our hearts for everyone and every thing.
Since unity is never inevitable and almost always vulnerable to erosion or collapse, it is important to consider what we do when we feel the indifference of others or, worse, when we feel attacked or harmed by those within our sphere of contact and influence. How do we respond when our best efforts to create community are rejected or demonized or ignored? Or when our will and dreams feel crushed or at least marginalized by the will of the majority? I am not asking anything new. I am asking, how can we forgive? Especially when we feel it is our best efforts to live up to our most cherished principles that have been attacked?
While the traditional approach to forgiveness focuses on its importance to our individual moral worthiness, an approach I wholly subscribe to, I would also like to consider what forgiveness can do to build community. I believe that President Gordon B. Hinkely was right when he said that forgiveness “may be the greatest virtue on earth, and certainly the most needed.” It seems to be that no community is possible without it. Indeed, a strong family, a strong neighborhood, ward, or even nation is not defined by the level of agreement and warmth among the like-minded but by the level of forbearance, good will, and civility that exists among our many vital and inevitable differences. Families, neighborhoods, and wards should not only tolerate but learn to benefit from differences in nationality, political beliefs, religious conviction, ethnicity, and class. If we aren’t in the practice of associating with those different from us, we are perhaps more vulnerable to the temptation to feel betrayed, threatened, or personally attacked by differences instead of seeing them as opportunities for growth and deeper understanding.
When we are forgiving, we do more than simply try to forget or suppress the discomfort that we feel with someone else’s behavior or words. Such efforts are not forgiving but instead are acts of repression. In order to forgive, we must start by fully confronting the hurt, examining its roots, and doing all that we can to own our own part in the wound. In other words, since it is true that the same act or the same words might deeply offend one person and not even mildly irritate another, we have to ask ourselves what is it about us that makes us vulnerable to so much pain. Are we prone to parade this pain? To act as if it were inevitable rather than a function of our own personality? This is important because it is perfectly possible under many circumstances that the great harm we perceive might not in reality exist, that it might in fact be far less an insult than we had thought, or that it was at least not intended. This is to say that we must take responsibility for our own feelings. We must consider, in other words, the possibility that our suffering is a state of mind. This would mean that relief of suffering will not come by convincing someone else of their error or by criticizing, shaming, or pushing them away but by a change of heart. Even necessary distance from someone who is genuinely dangerous to us or to those we love still requires this change.
We all know the various ways we can reason with ourselves to try to avoid the trap of anger. We can remind ourselves that we have our own sins to worry about, that for all we know we would be capable of the same mistakes if we were in another’s shoes, that perhaps we have misinterpreted or misattributed the act. We all know these strategies but we rarely use them. That’s because we would rather be right than be good. We would rather expend our energy arguing or fighting over the nature of reality with someone else than figure out a way to live in peace with our enemies. It doesn’t even really seem to matter if these fights happen in actuality or just in our hearts and minds. We might be perfectly civil in public but seethe in private. Either way, in reality or in virtuality, the fight is all consuming and it saps our will to love. And this urge to be right is strong enough that we willingly create illusions, imagine intentions, and fantasize about conspiracies rather than believe empirical reality when it is staring at us in the face. So precisely because of the way our strong egos cling to the need to be right, these are important mental practices.
However, in my experience, these mental habits don’t take us as far as we need to go. And this is for two reasons. The first is that perhaps our judgments are correct. Perhaps our sins are not comparable to someone else’s, perhaps we aren’t capable of the same mistakes, and perhaps we have understood the intent accurately. These are far less likely and less common scenarios, but they are not beyond the realm of possibility. The second is that reason alone cannot free us from anger. We might be wise enough to acknowledge that we can’t understand another’s behavior well enough to judge it, and we might even be able to understand with compassion why someone did what they did to hurt us, but that won’t necessarily relieve us of the burden of our anger. The only really true source of relief, I believe, is Christ’s pure love. We can want to be forgiving. We can even use the language of forgiveness, but unless it is grounded in sincere, authentic feeling, we are only kidding ourselves and we probably aren’t very convincing of others either. True forgiveness begins not with reactive anger but proactive repentance. It means we have to bring our sins to the altar, fully acknowledge our portion of responsibility, and plead with the Lord to change our hearts. When such love comes into our hearts, we can know with certainty that Christ’s atonement is real because it yields real power. That is the rock of my own testimony of the reality of Christ’s great gift.
After a long discourse about the reality of miracles, Mormon tells us that “if ye have not charity, ye are nothing” (Moroni 7:46). No amount of right thinking, correct information and knowledge, no amount of evidence on your side can compensate for a failure to feel sincere love for others. This should remind every one of us where our primary focus should be: it must not be on garnering the evidence in your corner and convincing others of their errors. It must be on finding the strength and will to persist in love. God is not interested to know if that person is lovable or not, good or not, right or not. He is only interested in the anger and critical feelings you allow to fester in your heart and what kind of courage and desire you have to overcome anger through faith on Christ. Among its various properties, charity, as the pure love of Christ, “suffereth long” and “beareth all things” and “is not easily provoked.” I suppose the easiest litmus test I know of to verify if I enjoy the companionship of God’s spirit is to see if I am impatient or not or if I am easily offended or provoked or not. Do I rejoice in the truth, even if it is spoken to me with words of harshness or spoken to me by someone who I believe has harmed me? Can I be corrected, even if it means being corrected by my enemy?
No amount of willpower and sound reasoning can give us this love or keep it in our hearts. It can only come from a profound recognition of the limitations of our natural inclinations, sincere repentance, and a plea with the Lord “with all the energy of heart that [we] may be filled with this love.” It comes because we ask, because we finally recognize that we are nothing without it, and that only through faith in Christ’s suffering on our behalf can we gain access to this transcendent love that will weather the storms of insult and injury by which we feel surrounded. When I have prayed in this manner, I have felt a real and transformative power come into my heart, and I can only exclaim, along with Mormon, that God is truly a God of miracles.
In one of his last addresses as President of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley felt impressed to reflect on the supreme value of forgiveness. I need these words as much as anyone:
“Somehow forgiveness, with love and tolerance, accomplishes miracles that can happen in no other way…. May God help us to be a little kinder, showing forth greater forbearance, to be more forgiving, more willing to walk the second mile, to reach down and lift up those who may have sinned but have brought forth the fruits of repentance, to lay aside old grudges and nurture them no more.”