Johnny was bad, even as a child, everybody could tell…
- Opening line to Only a Lad by Oingo Boingo
I gave the priesthood lesson today in my ward. It was based on President Hinckley’s recent talk on forgiveness. You remember the story he related about the generous woman that was so forgiving to the young man that had foolishly and carelessly heaved a frozen turkey through her windshield and disfigured her face in the process. It is a touching story of repentance and forgiveness – I highly recommend it.
But it dawned on me that the tale is mostly moving because the boy in that story seemed genuinely sorrowful and repentant. The woman’s generous pleading for mercy and a lesser charge fit because the boy was redeemable due to his reported change of heart.
But how would the story have been different if the same reduced sentence and mercy was given to a remorseless young man like “Johnny” in that classic Oingo Boingo song? Is that kind of forgiveness equally desirable and commendable? Would this forgiveness and mercy story be at all touching if this woman let a dangerous sociopath back on the streets?
I think not.
Then what of forgiveness?
I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
(D&C 64: 10)
We are to forgive everyone all the time. But what does that mean? What is forgiveness?
I decided that we too often conflate the idea of shielding others from the demands of justice with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not necessarily about suspending the law of the harvest. In other words, I think that if someone mugs and pistol whips you, you can completely forgive them and still press full charges.
It seems to me that charity (also known as the pure love of Christ) and forgiveness are inextricable intertwined. Forgiveness is letting go of hatred and malice for someone and wishing the best for them in the long run. It is the essence of charity. It means you can look at the person who has injured you through the eyes of Christ. But this does not mean that you wish them happiness in their wickedness. Wickedness never was happiness after all. Rather, it means you wish for them to have a mighty change of heart, to feel genuine remorse, and to repent and in the process find the healing balm of Christ in their own life. Sure, you know that process will be painful for them but your desire for that person becomes the same desire that God has for that person.
For those of us with a grasp of the gospel, failure to forgive is to hope the person never sees the light. In a sense it means we feel so much malice for a person that we truly hope the person does not repent and thus fails to take advantage of the atonement. Whether we recognize it or not, it means we really do want the person to “go to hell” after this life rather than be racked with necessary (but shortened) remorse in this life and experience a mighty change of heart here and now.
So when we forgive, we want for our offender that which God wants for them. Sometimes God wants the person to pay the natural or prescribed consequence of the offense; other times God may wish for the penalty to be reduced because a major change of heart already occurred and the full penalty is no longer required to bring that change of heart about.
In any case, knowing how to act requires communication with God on our part. And that is the beauty of it all. Praying to God and receiving answers back contains incredible healing balm for our wounds to begin with. The Holy Ghost is not called The Comforter for nothing after all. Revelation from God can also deliver to us the gift of charity (which I suspect is largely the gift of discerning how God feels about others). That charity then will inform our decisions on how to best help the offender repent and find the joy that comes from truly changing ones heart.
If there is one thing that I am sure of, it is that when it comes to motivating and directing our decisions, charity never faileth. This principle certainly applies as we forgive others in our hearts and then decide how to act from there.