To judge or not to judge: not much of a question


I recently noticed a web article on Facebook which explains, in essence, that idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin” isn’t a good way for Christian to approach such things. Instead, we are supposed to love our neighbor, and hate our own sin.

Now, surely hating our own sins is a good idea. And certainly loving our neighbors is part of the Christian call.

It is not surprising that this approach is superficially appealing. It speaks to the primary “sin” or zeitgeist of the modern, liberal (in the traditional sense of the term, not the politicized variety), secular west. And, that is this: tolerance is the great good, and the only sin that is unpardonable is the sin of intolerance. (I have written about this in detail here.)

Problem #1: Moral Confusion

For starters, though, if this doctrine was really implemented, it leads to moral confusion, if not outright moral paralysis.

If we are only allowed to recognize our own sins, then we become mute in the face of the great evils of the world. I had nothing to do with the murder of six million Jews—thus, under the dictates of “ignore others’ sins,” I’m not either supposed to or required to abhor and resist things like the Holocaust. But, that is absurd.

A double standard?

Now, I’m sure that the author or advocates of this theory don’t really believe the Holocaust or ISIS, or the kidnappings by Boko Haran, or Mao’s murder of millions by famine or Stalin’s in the gulag were of no moral moment; or that we shouldn’t denounce, resist, and even fight and die against such sins and evils.

They simply apply their ideas inconsistently. Thus, they see no irony in denouncing those who notice sin in others—because after all, wouldn’t it then inappropriate for them to point to my supposed sin in recognizing sin in others? Should they be preaching this doctrine at all, save in the chambers of their own hearts? It is logically inconsistent.

But, this doctrine is useful—and thus attractive—if one wishes to silence people who speak against sins that one wants left uncriticized—be it unwarranted divorce, or abortion, or homosexual acts, or whatever.

To speak against these acts is to be intolerant (the great secular sin, remember). So, this “don’t notice others’ sins” claim is a clever method of trying a bit of religious ju-jitsu against the Christian. But, it isn’t likely to be invoked when we are confronted with the sins or evils that the liberal secularist wants to eradicate: like homophobia, or racism, or sexism, or “intolerance.” Those will continue, one suspects, to be fair game for identification. They might even be decried, and those judged guilty of the same might even be persecuted or shamed into silence.

But, either ignoring great evil or selectively focusing only on a certain select class of sins isn’t this doctrine’s only weakness.

Problem #2: Personal evils

Perhaps even more troubling is how this idea eviscerates one of the great beauties and powers of Christianity—the idea that God can liberate us from the effects of others’ sins upon us. This applies not just to the massive, industrial-scale evils of genocide and terror discussed above. It applies to the searing personal ones as well.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (Matthew 18:21)

Under the proffered doctrine, one might expect Jesus to say something like, “Peter, you shouldn’t be noticing the sin at all. Hate your own sins, my man.”

But, that isn’t what Jesus says. Instead, he says:

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:22)

The very idea of forgiveness, the whole doctrine itself, presupposes two things:

  1. The existence and genuine reality of sin and evil; and
  2. The recognition and identification of that sin and evil by the Christian, and the necessity to react to it in a way that will be spiritually helpful, rather than damaging.

But bluntly, one cannot forgive what one does not spot. (I have written elsewhere of the difficulties people encounter when urged to “forgive” before they have counted the cost of a sin upon them.)

Here again, I suspect the author and advocates are not really taking their doctrine fully and seriously. Are we really to tell a victim of rape, or child abuse, or physical violence that they are not to even notice that they have been deeply wounded, violated, and sinned against? One hopes not.

Is someone violates my trust, am I not to have it register? If a sin causes me sorrow, am I to deny the reality of my tears? The beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12) presuppose the recognition that one has been sinned against—and yet Jesus offers freedom from that. He does not, however, start by a denial that such suffering has occurred, or an insistence that we not notice it. (That, if anything, seems more Buddhist than Christian.)

Only among our own, or up the power structure?

Another related idea is that Jesus only intends a critique of his own religion or people, and then only of what we might call “the power elite.”

This likewise isn’t true. Jesus was quite happy to call Jews to account for sin. He did not reserve that right to himself; he clearly instructed his followers to reject the teachings and acts of others (e.g., Matthew 7:6; 16:6; Mark 8:15), which certainly implies that one will notice, assess, and then reject.

But, he was likewise willing to critique pagans (e.g., Matthew 6:7; 18:17; 20:25).

Other Biblical data

Besides the gospels, there’s a great deal of other data that shows that this stance simply isn’t Christian or biblical in any meaningful sense.

At the very beginning of the Christian era, Peter speaks to a large crowd. Presumably he’s putting into practice something of what he learned from Jesus. And his very first remarks address sin:

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:

Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain… (Acts 2:22–23)

Shouldn’t Peter just be forgiving and loving them? Apparently not—he is confronting them with their sinful behavior, and even labels it “wicked.”

But, in a key and more profound sense, Peter is forgiving and loving them. It would be unloving not to speak the truth—to ignore or wink at their sin. And, he is pointing them to the source of forgiveness. His own forgiveness matters little for them (though it matters for Peter, of course). They need God’s forgiveness, and so Peter’s invocation of their sin is prelude to an offer to help solve it.

Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:36–38)

Now, to be sure, they can accept or reject the offer. But, Peter seems duty-bound to make it. And, that offer presupposes the existence of sin. It makes no sense to offer someone the atonement and redemption of Christ if one is unaware that one is a sinner. Notice that some in the crowd “were pricked in their heart”—they had not known (or faced up to) their sin, until Peter called them on it. And, Peter went on at length, saying “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” In other words, he indicted all of sin. Far from never mentioning sin and simply spreading love blossoms around, Peter mentioned everyone’s sin.

He returns to this theme repeatedly:

But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses….And now, brethren, I [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. (Acts 3:14–17)

Notice that Peter is not simply calling the power elite to task—he calls everyone, the lowly Jews up to “your rulers.”

Peter later calls Ananias and Sapphira out for lying to the Lord (Acts 5).

Stephen, the first martyr, is pretty clear about sin (Acts 7:40, 51–53) and gets killed for it.

And, don’t get me started on Paul’s writings, or we’ll be here all night.

“Judge not”

It is common, of course, to invoke Jesus’ command to “Judge not, that ye be not judged” in these circumstances. Yet, as we have seen, Jesus at times seems to have encouraged his followers to do some judging, of both ideas and behavior. Furthermore, he encouraged us to follow his example—and the early Christians did so.

Those who invoke this trope tend to ignore (if they know) that elsewhere Jesus explicitly says, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). So, there are contexts and ways in which judgment must be undertaken.

Judge not and judging righteously

So, how might we reconcile these ideas? We are both not to judge, and yet to judge. Was Jesus really that inconsistent? The early Christians did not think so.

I think the best treatment is by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging.”

I strongly recommend you consult the entire thing. I offer, in conclusion, only a few highlights:

We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final. Thus, our Savior’s teachings contain many commandments we cannot keep without making intermediate judgments of people: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6); ‘Beware of false prophets….Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15-16); and ‘Go ye out from among he wicked’ (D&C 38:42).

We all make judgments in choosing our friends, in choosing how we will spend our time and our money, and, of course, in choosing an eternal companion. Some of these intermediate judgments are surely among those the Savior referred to when he taught that ‘the weightier matters of the law’ include judgment (Matthew 23:23).

I will let Elder Oaks conclude, and again encourage the reader to consult his far better treatment of the issues we’ve raised here:

Let us consider some principles or ingredients that lead to a ‘righteous judgment.’

First of all, a righteous judgment must, by definition, be intermediate. It will refrain from declaring that a person has been assured of exaltation or from dismissing a person as being irrevocably bound for hellfire. It will refrain from declaring that a person has forfeited all opportunity for exaltation or even all opportunity for a useful role in the work of the Lord. The gospel is a gospel of hope, and none of us is authorized to deny the power of the Atonement to bring about a cleansing of individual sins, forgiveness, and a reformation of life on appropriate conditions.

Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest….

Third, to be righteous, an intermediate judgment must be within our stewardship. We should not presume to exercise and act upon judgments that are outside our personal responsibilities….

A fourth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment of a person is that we should, if possible, refrain from judging until we have adequate knowledge of the facts.…

A fifth principle of a righteous intermediate judgment is that whenever possible we will refrain from judging people and only judge situations. This is essential whenever we attempt to act upon different standards than those of others with whom we must associate–at home, at work, or in the community. We can set and act upon high standards for ourselves or our homes without condemning those who do otherwise….

A final ingredient or principle of a righteous judgment is that it will apply righteous standards. If we apply unrighteous standards, our judgment will be unrighteous. By falling short of righteous standards, we place ourselves in jeopardy of being judged by incorrect or unrighteous standards ourselves. The fundamental scripture on the whole subject of not judging contains this warning: ‘For with what judgment je judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ (Matthew 7:2; see also 3 Nephi 14:2)….

A standard can be unrighteous because it is too harsh–the consequences are too severe for the gravity of the wrong and the needs of the wrongdoer…. [1]


Can and do people—including and especially Christians—judge unrighteously? Of course.

But, the mere presence of a judgment is not sufficient evidence that such unrighteous judgment has occurred. To make that judgment, ironically, requires the same approach as any judgment. It requires judging.

So, we all must and will make such judgments. We might as well be honest with ourselves that we are making them.

It is either that, moral nihilism, or self-deception.

Jesus hadn’t much patience with the last two options—you might even say he judged them as wanting.



[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Judge Not and Judging,” address given at BYU on 1 March 1998, reproduced in Brigham Young University 1997–98 Speeches; all citations here are from this address unless otherwise noted.

On Tolerance – Part 3

President Boyd K. Packer has written a great deal about tolerance. I think he summarizes the issue brilliantly and simply:

The word tolerance is also invoked as though it overrules everything else. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it is not the commanding one. There is a difference between what one is and what one does. What one is may deserve unlimited tolerance; what one does, only a measured amount. A virtue when pressed to the extreme may turn into a vice. Unreasonable devotion to an ideal, without considering the practical application of it, can ruin the ideal itself.[1]

In the same vein, Elder Russell M. Nelson cautioned, “An erroneous assumption could be made that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Not so! Overdoses of needed medication can be toxic. Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness.”[2]

Some people believe that they have the right not to be offended, or the right not to be told things they do not wish to hear. This is false, and absurd—if it were true, then I would have the right not to hear that people have a right not to hear things they don’t like, because I don’t like that claim. It offends me!

Contrary to popular belief, “Christian behavior” does not mean never offending anyone or causing them any distress. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed that children who desire to commit serious sin (such as living together without being married) raise serious questions for the parents:

…if an adult child is living in cohabitation, does the seriousness of sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage require that this child feel the full weight of family disapproval by being excluded from any family contacts, or does parental love require that the fact of cohabitation be ignored? I have seen both of these extremes, and I believe that both are inappropriate.

Where do parents draw the line? That is a matter for parental wisdom, guided by the inspiration of the Lord.[3]

He notes, however, that our dedication to the truth—which must be our highest allegiance—may cause some difficulties with the wayward person.

Wherever the line is drawn between the power of love and the force of law, the breaking of commandments is certain to impact loving family relationships. Jesus taught:

“Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:

“For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.

“The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother” (Luke 12:51–53).

This sobering teaching reminds us that when family members are not united in striving to keep the commandments of God, there will be divisions. We do all that we can to avoid impairing loving relationships, but sometimes it happens after all we can do.

In the midst of such stress, we must endure the reality that the straying of our loved ones will detract from our happiness, but it should not detract from our love for one another or our patient efforts to be united in understanding God’s love and God’s laws.[4]

Thus, while we must be kind and not seek to give unintentional or unnecessary offense, we ought to consider that Jesus and the prophets did not and do not spend a lot of time making sure that no one is troubled by their words. Sometimes, if no one is at all uncomfortable, it means we are not doing our job to stand as witnesses of God and Christ “at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even unto death” (Mosiah 18:9). As President Packer observed:

I had the privilege of teaching an institute class for the students at Harvard University, These students finally discovered that when they had a conversation on the gospel and came away having irritated or agitated or discomforted somebody, they probably had accomplished a good deal more than if everybody had agreed with them. And considering the frame of mind of many with whom they conversed, if the Latter–day Saint agreed with all they said that was some indication that he was wrong.[5]

A good rule of thumb, I think, is not to focus on people but to focus on principles and doctrines. Do not say, “You are wrong to live in a same-sex relationship.” That can be construed as attacking the person. Instead, say, “Same-sex behavior is forbidden by ancient and modern prophets. I know that it will not bring lasting happiness, and it would be wrong of me to encourage it. People can choose for themselves, but I will not endorse something I believe to be wrong. Why would you ask me to betray my principles and promises to God?”

As Elder Oaks summarized:

Tolerance obviously requires a noncontentious manner of relating toward one another’s differences. But tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.[6]

You will note that one is not necessarily being contentious just because you refuse to stop expressing your opinion, or remain quiet about standards or matters of public importance. All disagreement is not contention. Some members of the Church who want us to wink at their behavior, or accept their views, try to paint those who disagree as stirring up “contention.”[7] Don’t fall for the trick.

[To be continued]

[1] Boyd K. Packer, “Covenants,” general conference, October 1990; reprinted in The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 83.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Teach Us Tolerance and Love ,” general conference, April 1994.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks, “Love and Law,” general conference, October 2009.

[5] Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 150.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “Weightier Matters,” Liahona (Mar 2000): 15; from a BYU Devotional Address on 9 Feb 1999.

[7] I described a notable example of exactly this behavior in: “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 61–85.

Comraderie in the great and spacious building

In some of us there is such a deep need for comraderie and acceptance that, insincerely, we throw in with prevailing opinions or groups. We may think we are only setting aside a small principle for a small moment. But almost always it turns out to be much more.

– Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will But Thine (Bookcraft, 1988).

I think the greatest attraction of the great and spacious building is the esprit de corps one enjoys from being part of the crowd with their pointing fingers. It’s as lovely a in-group, out-group image as you’d ever wish to see.

After all, what is the fun of being informed, enlightened, wise, and sophisticated if one cannot point it out and have it acknowledged?

This is the only explanation (aside from pure sociopathy) that makes sense of some of what I’ve seen.

Not, of course, that I’m ruling out sociopathy in all cases.

But, as with all such observations, we are quickly turned back on ourselves: ‘Lord, is it I?’

Was Jesus ‘unchristian’?

I hope they, our children, will not be eccentric. Please, my beloved brethren, teach our children and youth to be humble even in their righteousness. May they never become “holier than thou” or speak their own goodness or outstanding qualities. We remember the two who went up into the temple to pray.

–      Spencer W. Kimball, “What I Hope You Will Teach My Grandchildren and All Others of the Youth of Zion,” (July 1966).

Beware the person who tells you how humble they are, how Christian, or how virtuous.

And, watch out for those who tell people with whom they disagree that they aren’t “doing what Jesus would do.” To be sure, this may well be true, after all.

Then again, who can ever be said to wholly do what Jesus would do? Everyone fails that test and standard. And, to reply by arguing that one really is doing what Jesus would do—even if true—is a losing proposition from the start, since Jesus never felt the need to insist upon his own righteousness.

This is something of a rhetorical nuclear option—when faced with it, one either:

a)      Becomes angry at the charge one is not behaving as a Christian—clearly an unchristian act, and an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy; or

b)      Becomes side-tracked in an effort to calmly demonstrate that the charge is false—again, almost certainly an unchristian response, always a losing battle because of our perpetual inadequacy in the face of Jesus’ perfection, and certainly a distraction from the real issue; or

c)       Refuses to be baited, and presses on with the important truth at issue.

Such a charge is, at any rate, hypocritical. If the one making it is a Christian (or has pretensions to be so) he or she ought to be exceedingly cautious, lest this blade cut him as he wields it.

If he or she is not a Christian, then this makes the critic particularly ill-suited to judge precisely what Jesus would do or require in the situation. Most people—especially most moderns, and particularly most modern non-Christians—have a gentled, somewhat anemic view of Jesus.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft put it this way:

Why have we reduced him to “meek and gentle Jesus”? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals. But why have we reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals? Because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics is rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern world view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter.[1]

And, more often than not, the charge of being “unchristian” will turn around making someone uncomfortable—declaring an act to be wrong, declaring an opinion to be literal and absolute truth (rather than “one perspective among many”), or insisting that someone is mistaken. Such things are just not done in polite company.

Still, rather than this “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” Jesus the Messiah in the Bible and Book of Mormon is both a rebuke and a terror to the complacent and self-satisfied—and so ought to be to us, most of the time. Jesus and his way of life—The Way, as the early old world Christians called it—can really only be understood in the living of it, or trying to do so.

To put the matter more personally: on the one hand, however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible.[2]

Jesus’ is not a system of philosophy or a set of axioms that we can somehow simply assent to, and therefore grasp in the abstract. “The sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of 19th century skepticism,” noted C.S. Lewis, “produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could.”[3] Instead,

…only discipleship—”follow me”—connects beliefs and behavior, focusing on what we are becoming as well as what we are thinking and doing. Thus, discipleship cannot be merely intellectual. Did not Jesus prescribe and describe this convergence by saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me?” (Matthew 11:29). Moreover, the deepest development of discipleship occurs only in this particular manner, small though our yokes may be compared to His.[4]

No one, then, who has not sought and borne that yoke can truly speak of what Jesus requires—because, quite frankly, he often requires things we would much rather not, and have hardly dared think. Small wonder we don’t always measure up fully.

And, none who have borne that yoke for even a few paces would then presume to use someone’s inadequacy as a verbal killing stroke.

Besides, Jesus himself was rarely appreciated for what he said. Just because someone does not violently disagree with us does not make us right or Christian—but, if no one is violently disagreeing, we are almost certainly failing to measure up. And, those who disagree are always most likely to be those most concerned with publicly demonstrating and publicly broadcasting their own rectitude, while quick to marginalize those who do not toe “the party line” to their satisfaction. They care what others think, especially those the world regards as important, impressive, or necessary to placate.

As a crowing irony in a life filled with ironies, I suspect that if Jesus were here today, many people would label him as “unchristian.”

[1] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (Ignatius Press, 1992), 32.

[2] D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), kindle location 799-804.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan, 26 March 1940; cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 67; also in Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1991), 35; citing Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, Ltd., 1966), 181.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), preamble.

Critics’ casinos and clubs for cloakholders

Why are a few members who somewhat resemble the ancient Athenians, so eager to hear some new doubt or criticism? (see Acts 17:21). Just as some weak members slip across a state line to gamble, a few go out of their way to have their doubts titillated. Instead of nourishing their faith, they are gambling ‘offshore’ with their fragile faith. To the question ‘Will ye also go away?’ these few would reply, ‘Oh, no, we merely want a weekend pass in order to go to a casino for critics or a clubhouse for cloakholders.’ Such easily diverted members are not disciples but fair–weather followers. Instead, true disciples are rightly described as steadfast and immovable, pressing forward with ‘a perfect brightness of hope’ (2 Nephi 31:20; see also D&C 49:23).

–          Neal A. Maxwell, “Answer Me,” Ensign, November 1988

Some too claim that those who cannot bear such titillation are weak or irrelevant to their concerns.

They may believe their own faith can withstand it, and perhaps it can.

But, the reckless disregard they manifest for others suggests that their own faith and discipleship cannot resist the desire to be included in that exclusive and novelty-seeking clubhouse. They are diverted from being their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. It is, however, by our treatment of “the least of these, my brethren,” that we will ultimately be called to account (Matthew 25:40).

True, they may retain intellectual assent for certain propositions of the faith—shaded, to be sure, with the subtlety and soothing slogans necessitated by their sophistication. But, they abandon and belittle those with neither the means nor inclination to count cards in the casino.

And, because their patronage does not discomfort those who staff the casino or operate the cloakcheck room at the clubhouse—indeed, they sit down to meat together—they fancy themselves both more mature and more Christian.

In like manner, Neville Chamberlain fancied himself a statesman, disdaining Churchillian warmongering. Such illusions could last until the blitzkrieg, and then millions of Chamberlain’s fellows would pay.

Intellectual doubt such fair-weather disciples may weather, while succumbing to the more deadly temptation toward intellectual arrogance and contempt for others.

They, like Chamberlain, may have opportunity to one day learn regret at the price of others’ lives and freedoms.

On our duties to those we forgive

Someone asked me recently about duties toward those who harm us seriously–the profound betrayals of trust, the abusers, and so forth.

To be sure, we are to forgive them. But, does this forgiveness necessarily involve a restoration of our previous relationship, in all its dimensions?

I do not think so. We must forgive everyone, but everyone is not entitled to our faith, our trust, or our intimacy. (They may regain it, of course, but that depends upon them and their actions, not upon us or our forgiveness.)

To use a well-worn example, Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross, but upon his resurrection he did not visit those same soldiers and sit down to a meal of fish and honeycomb with them. They had not demonstrated themselves ready or worthy of such an association.

Surely the Lord does not expect us to expose ourselves again to repeated abuse or manipulation by a parent or spouse, for example. We have moral agency, and need not acquiesce in our own abuse or mistreatment. We forgive everyone; we would likely only trust or have confidence in someone who had repented and changed—and, sadly, not everyone does or will.

Joseph F. Smith illustrated the proper way between two extremes:

I feel in my heart to forgive all men in the broad sense that God requires of me to forgive all men, and I desire to love my neighbor as myself; and to this extent I bear no malice toward any of the children of my Father…

Some of our good Latter–day Saints have become so exceedingly good that they cannot tell the difference between a Saint of God, an honest man, and a son of Beelzebub, who has yielded himself absolutely to sin and wickedness. And they call that liberality, broadness of mind, exceeding love. I do not want to become so blinded with love for my enemies that I cannot discern between light and darkness, between truth and error, between good and evil, but I hope to live so that I shall have sufficient light in me to discern between error and truth, and to cast my lot on the side of truth and not on the side of error and darkness. The Lord bless the Latter–day Saints. If I am too narrow with reference to these matters, I hope that the wisdom of my brethren and the Spirit of Light from the Lord may broaden my soul…

There are those —and they abound largely in our midst —who will shut their eyes to every virtue and to every good thing connected with this latter–day work, and will pour out floods of falsehood and misrepresentation against the people of God. I forgive them for this. I leave them in the hands of the just Judge. Let him deal with them as seemeth him good, but they are not and cannot become my bosom companions. I cannot condescend to that. While I would not harm a hair of their heads, while I would not throw a straw in their path, to hinder them from turning from the error of their way to the light of truth; I would as soon think of taking a centipede or a scorpion, or any poisonous reptile, and putting it into my bosom, as I would think of becoming a companion or an associate of such men.

– President Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report (October 1907): 5–6; also in Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986), 337.

The mistake against which he speaks is that of a false, or we might say “wicked,” tolerance. We need not accept or endorse anything and everything simply to be thought “tolerant.” This kind of tolerance is dishonest–we pretend that certain actions do not bother us, when they do (or ought to). Additionally, it also winks at sin and may encourage it. It denies that serious matters are truly serious. It minimizes or denies sin, instead of recognizing its depth.

This is not forgiveness, so much as it is a denial that there is anything much to forgive.

If we are not careful, our supposed broadness of mind can lead us into the broad roads and wide gate that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13; 1 Nephi 12:17; 3 Nephi 14:13).

The Abuse of ‘Forgiveness’ – Part 1

… the mantle of charity must not be stretched so widely, in our desire to protect our erring friends, as to reflect dishonor on the work of God, or contempt for the principles of the everlasting Gospel. There is an unfortunate tendency in the natures of many to palliate sins by which they are not personally injured, but we must not forget that such palliation frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer; in other words, to save the feelings of our friends we are willing to crucify afresh the Lord of life and glory.

–          John Taylor[1]

In my medical practice and Church service, I often encounter people who have been sinned against—often grievously. Such cases usually involve both incredible cruelty, as well as deep betrayals of trust. This includes such evils as child abuse, spouse abuse, adultery, introduction of pornography into the marriage, business partners who defraud, and so forth.

To have peace, such victims need to (ultimately) forgive. We are, after all, commanded to forgive up to seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22; D&C 98:40), since “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).

But, that is a post for another time. Victims know all this, and most struggle nobly at it. I want here to discuss something far more common, and about which people worry far less than they ought. And, I’m convinced, this error actually impedes those who need to forgive from being able to do so. (As I noted in an earlier post, the ability to forgive such things is a gift of grace, every bit as miraculous as receiving forgiveness from God.)

As John Taylor notes , victims’ friends and acquaintances often mistake the process. They encourage or even push the person: “You need to forgive.” While true in a long-term sense, this is rarely helpful. This often results—either in fact or in perception—as a “palliation [that] frequently increases the original wrong, and brings discredit on the Church and dishonor to the name and work of our blessed Redeemer.” Such on-lookers are often uncomfortable with the obvious pain and distress of the victim. They want to “fix it,” and cannot. Thus, they urge the victim to forgive, because if they have forgiven the problem is solved and (often not coincidentally) the bystander will not have to hear about it any more.

Even more insidious is the invocation of these doctrines by the abuser or sinner. They urge the victim of their evil acts to “get over it,” “move on,” and so forth. Such efforts ring rather hollow—they represent nothing but the evil-doer’s desire to be absolved. The perpetrator does not want to be called to account (or, at the least, wants to do so once in a superficial way and be done with it). He or she certainly does not want to suffer the consequences of the sin—they do not want to be confronted with the on-going pain they have caused. They often hope to minimize what they have done, argue that it is “all in the past” and the relationship simply needs to “move on.” They avoid, in essence, the making of amends and providing restitution.

This is a cheat. Restitution is key to repentance, and the process is stalled until efforts are made. And, no restitution can really be contemplated or even begun until the sinner and victim have “counted the cost.” Victimizers are understandably keen to avoid this painful, often drawn-out process. It takes time, new “hidden” costs are forever appearing from serious sin, and the perpetrator finds to his dismay or distaste that his own discomfort goes on and on, just as the victim’s suffering does. And, it may be that true restitution would mean the loss of gains—in power, material resources, prestige, self-image—which prompted the original sin. True restitution means the loss of any ill-gotten gains and then some: small wonder that wrong-doers want to invoke forgiveness, because it means that all debts are settled. There is no need or expectation that we need even try to return to the status quo ante. To even bring the matter up is gauche, “unchristian.”

By contrast, any truly repentant person would not be worried at all about the victim’s readiness to forgive, so wrapped up would he be in trying to repair the wrong which had been done. But, too many perpetrators or onlookers are focused on making themselves feel better, and see forgiveness as the ticket. (God’s forgiveness, of course, will make us feel better—but it is not contingent upon the victim’s state of mind at all.)

“You need to forgive” thus becomes, in many hands, merely a gospel club with which to beat the victim anew from a stance of moral superiority and high-mindedness. We remember the parable of the unjust servant who, having been forgiven, took his fellow by the throat, demanding “pay me that thou owest” (Matthew 18:28).

Those who seek easy, quick, and convenient forgiveness for grave wrongs do him one better—they take their victim by the throat, and demand (in oh-so-loving tones), “Why haven’t you forgiven me yet?”

No true penitent would think to ask such a question. And, no one who was forgiven by God would feel the need to.

[To be continued]

[1] John Taylor and George Q. Cannon [First Presidency], “Epistle to Saints in Semi-Annual Conference, October 6, 1886,” from pamphlet in Church Historian’s Library, Salt Lake City; reproduced in James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1966), 3:88.

The Eucatastrophe of Easter

J.R.R. Tolkien spoke about the need in stories for a “eucatastrophe” (eu means “happy” or “good” in Greek). A eucatastrophe is, then, a “good” catastrophe–the sudden eruption of triumph and joy into a dark and near-tragedy. In this, more than perhaps anything else, can he be seen as a quintessentially Christian writer.

One of the best descriptions of the primordial eucatastrophe is orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s:

Nietzsche, the quixotic champion of the old standards, thought jesting Pilate’s “What is truth?” to be the only moment of actual nobility in the New Testament, the wry taunt of an acerbic ironist unimpressed by the pathetic fantasies of a deranged peasant. But one need not share Nietzsche’s sympathies to take his point; one can certainly see what is at stake when Christ, scourged and mocked, is brought before Pilate a second time: the latter’s “Whence art thou?” has about it something of a demand for a pedigree, which might at least lend some credibility to the claims Christ makes for himself; for want of which, Pilate can do little other than pronounce his truth: “I have power to crucify thee” (which, to be fair, would under most circumstances be an incontrovertible argument).

It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.

This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled.

– From “Christ and Nothing,” First Things 136 (October 2003): 47-57.

As Hart goes on to demonstrate, however, the eucatastrophe leaves us–the moderns who live post-Easter–with a more limited set of choices than the past:

With Christ came judgment into the world, a light of discrimination from which there is neither retreat nor sanctuary. And this means that, as a quite concrete historical condition, the only choice that remains for the children of post-Christian culture is not whom to serve, but whether to serve Him whom Christ has revealed or to serve nothing — the nothing. No third way lies open for us now, because — as all of us now know, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not — all things have been made subject to Him, all the thrones and dominions of the high places have been put beneath His feet, until the very end of the world, and — simply said — there is no other god.

Catastrophe we will have. Whether it is happy or not rests upon our individual choices. For, Christ is risen indeed.