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.