[This is the fourth in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The first three installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings]
Now knowing a portion of my background, you can probably guess I’ve had opportunity to give a fair amount of consideration to the concepts of personal responsibility, repentance, and forgiveness. Please take this post as exactly that, my own considerations on these topics, long thought out, studied, prayed about, discussed, and applied, but still open to question/ suggestion/ correction/ reinterpretation. This is also about individual, rather than institutional forgiveness, though I’d love to hear insights from any who have served/ are serving as church leaders where their judgments about people are required in their church work.
We’ve talked a bit about accountability in relation to mental illness. I want to start by saying I don’t think repentance and forgiveness are necessary where there is no accountability for error. Learning, yes. And sometimes even apology and explanation. But repentance, no.
While acknowledging that someone who has hurt or offended us did not or may not have intended nor be aware of the harm done can allow us to keep moving forward without getting wrapped up in judgment or a desire for vindication, it is not the same as forgiving. When we forgive, we refrain from judging or retaliating against an individual, refuse to lose hope in the Savior as a result of what they have done, and hope and pray for them ESPECIALLY when their wrong or hurtful behavior is or seems intentional, malicious, or unchanging.
Love may be blind, but forgiveness is not. Forgiveness requires at least some recognition and acknowledgement that a particular action or behavior is spiritually destructive–how it differentiates or separates us from each other and from God. It’s not saying something that is hurtful is not (woe unto those who call evil good and good evil). But even further, forgiveness recognizes that even those who knowingly sin (that means all of us in some ways) have been atoned for, conditional on our individual repentance.
Forgiveness perceives that mercy does not, cannot, and will not rob justice. Everyone who reaps an eternal reward will have been changed from a carnal, sensual, and devilish self to a glorified, righteous, and benevolent being. This knowledge gives us confidence that God’s judgments are just (as well as merciful) and that we can have full confidence in God (rather than having to “fix” things–or anyone else–ourselves).
Forgiveness is not manipulative or pitiful. It is not about changing or reforming anyone but ourselves, nor about assuming that anyone else CAN’T change. Forgiveness completely respects the free will of both the offender and the offended.
Forgiveness is also not contingent on, nor does it always require reconciliation with the offending party (though reconciliation is often contingent on forgiveness). The scriptures make it clear that reconciliation only happens “IF” the offender hears the offended and repents (D&C 42:88). That can take a lifetime or longer in serious cases. Of course there are situations where it is not possible or safe to address an offender directly, or to reconcile or resume having a relationship with them once an offense is addressed, and in these cases, the Lord is our recourse. That’s okay, because forgiveness is not contingent on the attitude, motives, or even future intentions of the offender, but rather on the recognition that we, too, sin and need forgiveness for those things we knowingly do wrong, and that ALL have the promise of perfect mercy, and perfect justice and eventual safety from all harm in the kingdom of God.
Forgiveness does not mean removing safeguards. Where there is weakness, it is not charity to subject a repentant individual to repeated temptation. For example, you don’t have an alcoholic work at a bar to prove she has repented, and you don’t give a former child abuser responsibility over children in their church calling. It’s just not charitable or responsible. Not to mention a fate worse than millstones at the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6)–a fate a wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
It’s important to recognize that the forgiveness we extend to others and the forgiveness that the Lord applies to whom He will (all of us if we turn to Him/ ask/ repent) are qualitatively different. The scriptures define our forgiveness as turning judgment over to God (“The Lord judge between me and thee”) rather than absolution (saying “you will not be held accountable”).
Forgiveness does not mean that we do not hold people accountable for their behavior. (D&C 64:7-14, also 44:83-90) We are guilty of “the greater sin” when we do not forgive because the greatest sin is denial of the Holy Spirit, the only means we have of assessing our own need for reconciliation with God.1 If we deny that help, we will never make it. We are spiritually lost because we are unable to accept the atonement for ourselves. All other sins, even murder and sexual sin, can be forgiven. But there is no repentance without the guidance of the Holy Spirit to show us the error of our own paths and the whispered confirmation of redemption and exaltation.
Getting accountability straight is essential to teaching the basic principles of the gospel of salvation, and providing hope to all of us in our varying degrees of understanding and accountability! It’s also essential to the work we do in church classes, activities, counsels, and courts to help one another along the path.
Whether offenses and hurts are intentional or not, accountable or not, recognition and disclosure and instruction and learning are still needed. The scriptures direct us to go to those we’ve offended and those who have offended us in preparation for the sacrament each week, because it gives BOTH parties an opportunity for recognition, resolution, and growth. (Matthew 5:24) Some people are good at this people portion (all the supposed “R”s of repentance), but then fail to take it to the Savior, who is the only intercessor able to absolve us of sin and wipe our slate clean.
Julie, you straighten me out if need be here, but I’m going to conclude with a couple ideas attributed to Paul. They may not be his, but I think they’re beautiful:
2 Corinthians 2:10-11: “If I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”
Romans 8:31-39: “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
1. It does NOT mean we take upon ourselves responsibility for the sin of the offender. We are each accountable only for our own sins. Even where scriptures discuss sin being on the heads of parents who do not teach their children truth, the sin on the parents’ heads is failure to pass on knowledge of salvation rather than whatever errant behavior the child then pursues. When we replicate the behavior of an offender, paying it forward to someone else (even to the 4th and 5th generation), only then are we accountable for that particular behavior, and only when we have been brought to awareness that it is ungodly/ harmful.
*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts