God the Mother
by Janice Allred
If Thy Brother Sin Against Thee
[p.185]”Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22).
If Peter had asked, “Till eight times?” Jesus might have answered, “Not until eight times, but until eighty times eight,” and his answer would have been the same, a paradoxical expression of the principle of forgiveness, for numbers ate antithetical to forgiveness, the essence of which is to do away with a strict accounting, to go beyond the calculations necessitated by justice.
Jesus’ answer is not a strategy to get us to always forgive based on the assumption that most of us are likely to lose count before we reach 490. A really clever and vindictive person would not have too much trouble tallying up the required number against his enemy. One good argument alone could conceivably contain dozens of offenses. And who hasn’t committed at least 490 sins? (Sins of omission add up particularly rapidly.) The insight that should be obtained is the realization of the absurdity of counting offenses. What should count as an offense?
If we try to formulate Jesus’ words into a straightforward commandment, it seems that the rule “Always forgive your neighbor’s sins” will do justice to the principle. The “always” simplifies understanding the commandment, though it may make it more difficult to apply. If we were commanded to sometimes forgive our neighbor, then we would have to deliberate as to which occasions were covered by the commandment. The “always” seems to make deliberation unnecessary; we have been commanded and need only to do.
[p.186]But still the commandment to always forgive is not absolute because the imperative contains a condition; in fact, it might be restated as a condi, tional, “Whenever (or if) someone sins against you, forgive her.” So deliberation is required to determine if the antecedent obtains. Of course, we don’t usually respond to offenses by asking ourselves, “Did she sin against me,!! and then, if we decide she did, by reminding ourselves that we are required to forgive her. We respond with our own particular patterns of self-defense: retaliation or withdrawal, a frontal attack or subversion, confrontation or sulking, accusations or excuses. If we are ever to forgive, then we must have the commandment well enough entrenched in our minds to cause us to question our normal unforgiving habits. Perhaps this is why the Lord included an invitation to reflect upon whether or not we are forgiving those who trespass against us in his pattern for daily prayer. Those who do this often find that a serious attempt to apply the rule “always forgive” to all situations gives rise to serious questions.
Does forgiving wrongs mean not defending rights? Does turning the other cheek mean submitting to whatever maltreatment is imposed? Does it mean teaching our children to let the boy down the block bully them? Does forgiving our neighbor mean letting him use us because he knows we won’t retaliate? Does “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” mean that a Christian society should forgive criminals rather than punish them?
In these cases forgiving seems not merely difficult; it may even be wrong. If forgiveness is always good, there must be some confusion in our understanding of forgiveness. Some deliberation will lead to the insight that what is involved in forgiving in each of these cases is not exactly the same; thus it might be profitable to separate out the different senses in which forgive is sometimes used and ask ourselves what is involved in forgiving or not forgiving in each sense. There seem to be three distinct meanings of forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness means not imposing a punishment. God forgives us of our sins if we repent. What is the meaning of forgiveness in this sense? Involved here is the concept of justice. To sin is to disobey God’s laws, for which punishment must be exacted. When the Lord forgives, he revokes through mercy the punishment which justice requires. Mercy does not rob justice because Christ himself paid the penalty for those who believe in him and repent. To forgive in this sense means to pardon. Another example of “forgive” being used similarly is “She forgave me of my debt of $200.” Something is owed but not required; the punishment or debt is canceled [p.185]without being paid by the debtor. To forgive in this sense, a person must be in a position of authority, in a government, institution, family, or society that gives him the prerogative of judgment and/or exacting punishment or pardoning offenses.
Does God want us to always forgive in this sense? We have a clear indication that he does not; Peter’s question concerned forgiveness of his brother’s sins against him. We know of God’s great respect for justice, law, and order. As Alma wrote to Corianton, “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42: 13), and Joseph Smith wrote, “And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions” (D&C 88:38).
To be orderly, and perhaps even to exist at all, governments, societies, institutions, and families must have laws and rules, and for these to be meaningful they must prescribe punishments and penalties for those who disobey them. In Mosiah 26 the Lord explains to Alma the procedure the church should use in judging and punishing transgressors. They should be forgiven if they repented, and they should be cast out of the church if they did not. In Section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants some rules and principles for rendering judgment in church affairs are given. These instructions would not be necessary if we were to always pardon those who transgress the law.
Does Jesus’ statement “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” proclaim a contrary concept—that those breaking constituted laws should not receive the prescribed punishment? It is important to understand the circumstances of the utterance. The scribes and Phatisees were seeking to trap Jesus into either defending the strict Mosaic law requiring that adulteresses (and adulterers) be put to death, thereby defying the existing Roman authorities, who retained the power of capital punishment, or dishonoring the Mosaic law by not adhering strictly to its demands. Jesus avoided both alternatives, focusing instead on the hypocrisy of the questioners. They were not seeking to understand criminal justice, and Je sus did not answer the question they put to him. They claimed that the woman had been taken in adultery, but, if so, where was her partner in crime, whom the law also condemned? That he was not brought forward casts doubt on the integrity of her accusers. Jesus’ words “He that is without sin” should not be taken to mean (as those to whom they were addressed obviously did not take them to mean) that judges and accusers must be totally without sin. For that requirement would make a travesty of legal justice. But it is reasonable to request that judges and accusers not be involved [p.188]in the particular crime they are judging. It was Jesus’ revelation of their hypocrisy, not only in misrepresenting their motives in questioning him, but also in being themselves guilty of setting up the crime of which they accused another, which caused them to slink silently away.
It also seems clear that Jesus is not asking us to release all those in debt to us through contractual obligation. This would effectively negate the concept of contract for Christian societies.
All of which is to say that justice is as important a principle as mercy; indeed mercy has no meaning unless justice is established, and a mercy that eradicates it willy-nilly is of no benefit.
2. Forgiveness means not retaliating. When Jesus tells us, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek turn to him the other also,” he is commanding us to forgive by not seeking revenge. This is the second sense of “to forgive” that we will consider.
To forgive in this sense is not to retaliate. To retaliate is to return like for like, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blow for blow, angry word for angry word, insult for insult, lie for lie. A concept of justice is also involved here. An injury is inflicted and a like injury is returned. This is sensed to even the score, to reestablish equality, to reconcile or right a wrong. The victim owes something (which happens to be negative) to the offender and comes into an equal relationship with her by returning something similar. A symbol for this principle is the slap on the cheek which is returned. The justice of this seems to be axiomatic and universally intuitively grasped. Children playing together seem to observe it naturally, with no prior instruction on the nature of justice.
More complicated offenses make the principle difficult to apply. A parent who has attempted to establish justice in the seemingly simple affairs of two fighting children can appreciate the difficulties. The question “Who hit first?” is an appropriate one but not always simply a factual one. The first blow is usually viewed by the one giving it as a return for an injury (the other’s playing with something he had his eye upon or knocking over his tower) so that he feels the return of the blow as a new offense to which he must, to restore justice, respond. Motives and knowledge are important and such questions as “What is or should qualify as an offense? Is it always possible to return like for like? Is the victim always capable of doing so? What was the first offense?” need to be considered.
One purpose for government is to answer these questions and thereby establish laws that govern justice in human relationships. The laws define offenses, specify punishments, and set up a machinery for calling offenders [p.189]to account, determining their guilt, and exacting punishment. Obviously justice cannot be institutionalized on all levels. The distinction between institutionalized justice and non,institutionalized justice marks out the areas in which each of the two senses of “forgive” which I have been discussing is appropriate, although, of course, it is possible for someone to blur the distinction by trying to “take the law into her own hands,” seeking revenge through extra-legal means. Comparing these two senses of forgive clarifies the distinction.
Basically it can be seen that the two meanings are the same: both concern the breaking of the law and the administration of justice. They differ, however, in their application and in the position of the one administering justice or exonerating the offender. In the first sense the individual exacting punishment is one in a position of authority requiring him to see that the law is honored. In the second meaning she is the one who has received the injury. In the first sense the laws broken are institutionalized; in the second they are moral or ethical principles governing the relationships of individuals.
Now we are ready to ask ourselves, “Does ‘always forgive’ mean ‘never retaliate’?” Is there anything good about retaliation? It does restore justice, and it can enable the offender to see the nature of his offense. However, the victim is not disinterested. What she perceives as offense depends on her sensitivity, cultural conditioning, moods, modes of comprehension, reason, ing power, ability to empathize, and ideas about right and wrong. Will her retaliation be just? How will it be perceived and reacted to by the offender? Probably not as “simple justice.” The offender’s perception of his own actions usually does not match that of the injured. Maybe he thought he was retaliating or maybe he didn’t know his actions were perceived as injury by the other. If he was being deliberately aggressive in injuring the other, it is likely that he has little respect for justice but will react with retaliative force against his victim’s efforts to bring him to it. When individuals try to work out their own difficulties by retaliating, reconciliation becomes impossible, and injuries and offenses proliferate and escalate.
Another defect of retaliation is its effect on the individual who retaliates. Usually she herself becomes caught up in the very evil she is protesting and is caught up in cycles of violence, evil,speaking, manipulations, lies, and malicious neglect. If the initial offense is evil, then retaliatory acts, though morally less culpable, share the form of the evil act.
If we were all perfect reflectors of evil, returning that which is inflicted upon us without loss of energy, the initial impulse of evil in the world would [p.190]never die. How are we then to live at peace? The solution might seem to lie in government, which sets up judges to serve as impartial arbiters, using the law as a guide to judge between the combatants. But this is only a partial solution for no government or authority has the time or resources to settle all conflicts. Someone must be willing to absorb the pain and suffering which the evil causes without transmitting it to others, of, in other words, forgive rather than retaliate.
Some feel that the only alternative to retaliation is submission, letting ourselves be injured again and again or waiting abjectly for the other to apologize for his conduct toward us and restore good feeling between us. Other responses are possible. We can actively seek reconciliation. We can confront our enemy—tell him of our grievances against him and give him an opportunity to explain his point of view, air his grievances against us, apologize, or perhaps even repeat the offense. This confrontation should be made in a spirit of seeking understanding, rather than of defensiveness or retaliation.
Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants explains the principles of self-defense the Lord gives his people. These are for nations, groups, and individuals and apply to situations where institutional justice does not extend. Of course, we are always justified in seeking legal remedies for crimes committed against us. If we retaliate when our enemy smites us, we will be left to ourselves in establishing justice. We should bear the injuries inflicted upon us by our enemies patiently, at the same time actively seeking peace. If our enemy does not repent and escapes the vengeance of the Lord, after we have borne his trespasses patiently three times, we are to warn him that ifhe again smites us we are justified in rewarding him according to his works or the Lord will avenge us a hundredfold. But whenever our enemy repents, we are not to count that trespass as a testimony against him.
This gives the answer to our question “Does ‘always forgive’ mean ‘never retaliate?'” The answer is, “Yes, except under very special circumstances.” The reasons for this become clear as we practice forgiveness. God loves the sinner as well as the one sinned against, the guilty as well as the innocent. The principle of forgiveness shows care for the enemy. She offends, inflicts injuries, and commits crimes in certain ways because she is invalved in those kinds of traditions, systems, “games,” habits; perhaps she doesn’t know that there are other ways of interacting with her fellow beings. When we refrain from retaliating, we can help him break out of these cycles and find the laws of celestial living.
It may take a lot of patience and, for some, evidence that our response [p.191]is from strength rather than weakness. Finally, if he refuses to repent, to see the nature of his offense and recoil from it, we are justified in retaliating against him, but more blessed if we leave his punishment and restraint to God and the courts rather than undertaking it ourselves. Restraint and patience also have important effects on the one who forgives. He does not be, come involved in cycles of wrongdoing and avoids unrighteous judgment.
3. Forgiveness means overcoming ill-will and loving our enemy. The Doctrine and Covenants suggests a third sense of forgive as it explains when we should not forgive in the first sense:
And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation.
And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver (D&C 64: 12- 13).
The third sense of “forgive” involves our emotions, while the other two involve our actions. When we are offended, emotions of anger, resentment, hate, bitterness, indignation, and envy (aren’t we sometimes offended by the goodness, achievements, or good fortune of another?) arise. This is part of the logic of perceiving that we have been offended.
Recognizing that these emotions are not Christlike, we sometimes think that the way to become more like Christ is to deny them. But the principle of forgiveness recognizes our mortal nature; it doesn’t require us not to feel injuries but to overcome with love the emotions of ill-will they arouse in us. There is no exception to the commandment to love, and it is in this sense that we must always forgive. Whether in positions of authority in which we must impose punishments or in circumstances in which the principles given in Doctrine and Covenants 98 justify us in retaliating, we must overcome any feelings of hatred, anger, and resentment toward the offender. (If we hope that he won’t repent so that he’ll get what’s coming to him, we haven’t succeeded.)
“Love thy enemy” is really the commandment to forgive, for to perceive an offense is to judge the offender as our enemy—one who is seeking to injure us in some way (even if we at the moment recognize it as probably temporary). This is the key to the principle offorgiveness: love toward those who offend us. Love seeks the good of the beloved. Sometimes that good is to be punished, to be chastised, to receive what he deserves. If we truly love [p.192]our enemy we will not suffer his trespasses in silence but seek a loving way to show him the nature of his offenses.
Sometimes the question is asked, “When two people are at odds, who should make the first move toward reconciliation?” It seems fair that the one at fault ought to go to the other, seeking forgiveness. But often each thinks the other is at fault, so reconciliation will probably never be effected. Forgiveness is a principle of mercy, not fairness. If we say, “I will forgive him when he repents,” we operate on the level of justice, not mercy. In Section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ teaches that the one who is offended should go to the one who gave offense. This makes sense, too, because it is certainly possible to offend without knowing it.
How do we approach our enemy or estranged neighbor? How can we replace our anger, hatred, resentment, or envy with love? We should begin by examining ourselves and seeking through prayer and honest self-analysis to understand where we are at fault. Then, having sought the Lord’s forgiveness, we can approach our enemy asking that he forgive us (even if only for our ill feelings toward him). Then, freed from the responsibility of defending himself against our assumed self-righteousness, he will find it easier to examine his own actions, feelings, and intentions and be honest about them. If we can lay our faults before him, he will not be obliged to do it for us, and he will find it easier to admit his own offenses.
Of course, it’s also necessary to explain how and why we were offended and to be honest about the pain, anger, and other feelings we may have felt. Before approaching the one who has offended us, we may honestly be unable to see any fault on our side. In that case, if we are truly seeking to forgive her, we should at least admit that our perception of the problem is limited.
Talking things over, ttying to understand another’s point of view, what she thought happened, what she felt, and what she meant to say and communicate is one of the best ways of overcoming angry, resentful feelings. We usually think that what happened in a given situation is simply a matter of fact, and that if we were there, we know what happened. But what we think happened depends on our moods, desires, purposes, health, and even habits of perception. Forgiveness requires the humility not to judge, but to be willing to learn to empathize with the other’s point of view.
Following these principles can enable us to forgive many of the offenses that we experience in our relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances. However, there are some injuries in which we (or someone we love) are truly victimized, when, through no fault of our own, someone deliberately harms us and shows no desire and makes no effort to admit his guilt [p.193]or make restitution. Such injuries include child abuse, sexual abuse, rape, murder, fraud, character assassination, and others. How can we forgive such injuries? Up to this point I have been considering forgiveness as a commandment, as an obligation, as something Jesus requires of his disciples. As love, forgiveness is a feeling. Can we simply change our feelings because we have been commanded to? Feelings are related to many types of judgments, and I have suggested some ways that re-examining our judgment about an offense committed against us can help change our feelings. But how can we forgive when re-examining our judgment reaffirms our sense of deep injury, when it re-awakens our pain, when it renews our demand for justice? Why should we love our enemy? How can we love him when he has hurt us so deeply? Forgiveness is not natural. It requires more of us than we can do.
To forgive is difficult; to even begin the endeavor we must be convinced of its importance. There is a statement in the Doctrine and Covenants which puts failing to forgive in a class of sin by itself. “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:9). This says that failing to forgive is a greater sin than whatever sin has been committed against us. Why is failing to forgive such a great sin? We need to remember that Jesus addresses the commandment to forgive to those who believe in him. “For if ye forgive men their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-151/3 Ne. 13:14-15). Being able to forgive depends on our relationship to Jesus Christ.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant we find portrayed the essence of the unforgiving spirit. As we ponder its meaning we can begin to understand what the failure to forgive reaIly means to our relationship with Christ. A servant was called before his king to pay a debt of ten thousand talents which he owed him. The servant pleaded for mercy, and the king had compassion on him and forgave him his debt. Then the servant went to a fellow servant who owed him a small amount and, refusing the second servant’s pleas for mercy when he discovered he could not pay, had him cast into jail. When the king learned of the first servant’s lack of mercy, he was angry with him and had him delivered to the tormentors until he had paid all that he owed the king.
In accepting his lord’s mercy, the servant should have himself become merciful. That he did not showed his hypocrisy. He accepted mercy, but its meaning did not penetrate his heart; he accepted it, not as a gift which is [p.194]offered to all, but simply as something which benefitted himself in a particular situation. When it came to a situation in which mercy didn’t benefit him (according to his own carnal, material viewpoint) he rejected it.
If we regard the ruler as Christ and his pardoning the servant of the debt as the Atonement, in which Christ himself pays our debts, we can begin to see what is involved in not forgiving our neighbor his sins. When someone who has himself believed in Christ and accepted his atonement to free him from his sins refuses to forgive another his sins, he refuses to acknowledge the atonement of Christ in regard to that person.
It is as if he said, “Your offenses are not paid for,” thus usurping judgment, which belongs to him who paid the price. To refuse to forgive is to not accept the suffering of Christ as substitute payment for the offenses of others; it is setting at naught the Atonement. If we demand justice, we, like the unmerciful servant, shall receive it. “For if ye forgive men their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6: 14- 15//Ne.13:14-15).
In the Atonement Christ does more than pay for our sins. He offers us his unconditional love. This unconditional love gives us the power to forgive. When we receive God’s love and it fills our being, we will be able to love others. Forgiveness requires unconditional love because it asks us to love those who hate us and hurt us; it asks us to love even when there is no natural reason for doing so, even when there is good reason not to. If we must always love others, then there is no condition which excuses us from loving; our love must be unconditional.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:44-45).
Understanding that our ability to forgive depends on our relationship to Jesus can help us see some other reasons why failing to forgive is such a serious sin. Failing to forgive involves judging unrighteously: “But of you it is required to forgive all men. And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds” (D&C 64: 11). If we do not forgive from our hearts, we judge ourselves to be righteous, or at least right in a certain situation, and the other person wrong. We  are not in a position, we do not have the knowledge, to do this without error, and even if it seems fairly certain that our enemy has sinned and is unrepentant, we do not know whether or not he will repent in the future. If he does, then Christ’s atonement will pay for his sins. Judging another person unrighteously means that we are judging her relationship to Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can do this. When we accept Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins through the Atonement, then we must also allow him to forgive others’ sins. There are some ways that we can fail to forgive that are usually not recognized as forms of this sin. We must forgive not only the sins against us, but all sins. This is illustrated in two of Jesus’ parables. In the parable of the prodigal son the elder son resents his father’s mercy toward the younger. If he fails to overcome this, he cannot enter into the joy of the feast, which represents Christ’s kingdom. In the parable of the unequal wages those laborers who worked long are angry at those who worked but a short while and yet received the same wages. The master asks, “Are you envious be; cause I am good?”
Both these parables show an attitude which the “righteous,” those who have spent most of their lives committed to Christ and serving in his kingdom, might feel toward a repentant sinner. When they accuse their master of injustice, of unfairly offering the same reward to those who labor but a short time, these lifelong workers have failed to understand their own relationship to the Master. They have not asked themselves if their own labors were sufficient to earn their rewards. They have failed to realize that they are as dependent upon the goodness of the Lord as are their brethren with whom they are angry.
These parables teach us that it is not easy for us to forgive others unless we recognize our own sins. Jesus taught this lesson to Simon the Pharisee. While Jesus was eating dinner with Simon in his home, a woman who was known as a sinner found out that Jesus was in Simon’s home. She went in, bringing an alabaster box of ointment with her and began to wash Jesus’ feet. She washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair and anointed them with the oil. When Simon saw this, he thought to himself that Jesus must not be a prophet or he would have known that the woman washing his feet was a sinner and therefore would not have allowed her to touch him.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.
There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed him five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
[p.196]And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Ten me therefore, which of them will love him most?
Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
And he turned unto the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gayest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
Wherefore, I say unto thee, her sins, which were many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little (Luke 7:40-47).
The story should not be taken too literally. We cannot quantify sins, but we are all sinners; we all stand condemned under the law because none of us is able to keep the law perfectly. We all stand condemned because of our unrighteous judgment, our failure to forgive, our lack of love. Recognizing our dependence on Christ, accepting his unconditional love through faith, and repenting of our own sins, we receive forgiveness through his atonement. If we then fail to extend this forgiveness to all others, we reject the efficacy of the Atonement for them. We cannot accept the Atonement for ourselves unless we give the unconditional love we receive to all others. If, by failing to forgive, we reject the Atonement, all our sins will return to us. Thus failing to forgive is the greatest sin because it cannot be forgiven. It cannot be forgiven until we recognize that the anger, resent, ment, and hate in our hearts can only be overcome by giving them up to Jesus and allowing ourselves to be healed by his infinite love.