Only a Lad

November 27, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 9:16 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,PH/RS Lessons,Scriptures,Theology

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.


  1. I love that you opened this post with Boingo. :-D

    Comment by RCH — November 27, 2005 @ 10:23 pm

  2. While we as individuals are to forgive (cf. D&C 64:10), the Church or society we live in is required to hold individuals culpable for their actions (cf. D&C 64:11-14).

    Comment by Kurt — November 28, 2005 @ 5:34 am

  3. I saw Oingo Boingo as a teenager, they were awesome.

    I remember thinking when I heard President Hinckley’s talk that it was really a talk about repentance, but rather than heap guilt, he concentrated on how wonderful it feels to be forgiven.

    Another point I like to make when talking about forgiveness: if our goal is to become as Heavenly Father, we’d better know how to forgive.

    Comment by Susan M — November 28, 2005 @ 7:58 am

  4. Hhhmmm…Interesting post. Lately I’ve been struggling with this whole forgiveness thing. One of my struggles has been trying to forgive when the offender has no remorse for the pain they have caused. The way you put it in your post makes it easier for me to come to a more forgiving place.

    Comment by Kristen J — November 28, 2005 @ 10:23 am

  5. You’ve done it again Geoff. I agree with Kristen, your explaination is very helpful. This one will get cut out and I’ll use it in the future…probably claiming it as my own!

    Comment by don — November 28, 2005 @ 11:13 am

  6. Forgiveness can take a lifetime, even longer than that. I think forgiveness is a very personal thing that we cannot and should not dictate to one another about.

    Sometimes before you forgive, you must detach. That can also take awhile. It’s a process, not a destination.

    Comment by annegb — November 28, 2005 @ 11:31 am

  7. Don – Very nice. I would consider such thievery an honor.

    Anne – I think that regaining trust after it has been severely broken can and does take a long time. In this post I am trying to separate and isolate forgiveness from all of the other parts of the larger equation like trust, though. I think that we can forgive someone long before we trust them again.

    The definition I am using of pure forgiveness is very close to the definition of charity. That is, we have forgiven when we no longer have hate or malice for the offender but rather we hope for the person’s repentance, change of heart, and long-term joy through the merits of Jesus Christ. I think that can happen quickly. Trust is another thing entirely and it must be earned by the offender over time.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 12:22 pm

  8. I should add that perhaps the best way we know if we really want the spiritual best for the offender is that we are willing to turn to God about about it and sincerely pray for the spiritual welfare of the offender. Sometimes I think God can even then give us guidance on how to help the offender on the path to repentance. That seems to be the basic plot of the frozen turkey story President Hinckley retold.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 12:25 pm

  9. I wrote a post on forgiveness back in July. It had the same general idea to it (I think). My point was that, when God forgives us, He is saying that, despite everything we’ve done, He wants us to have the fullest and happiest (eternal) life possible. Forgiveness of others may be similar.

    If this is true, I can imagine prosecuting someone whom you forgive. Your motive needn’t be for them to suffer in exchange for what they’ve done. Forgiveness may just be a sincere desire to see someone’s ultimate happiness go unimpeded regardless of poor choices made in the past. Prosecuting them may be the best way to bring about that necessary change of heart.

    Comment by Benny K — November 28, 2005 @ 1:08 pm

  10. Thanks for the tip, Benny. It looks like we are indeed very much on the same wavelength regarding forgiveness. (Here is the link to that post.)

    I liked this quote:

    Rather than focusing on the bad behavior of those we need to forgive, we can focus on our hope for them. We can sincerely hope and pray in our hearts that their imperfections will be done away with, and that they too can become someone glorious and loving, as we ourselves hope to become.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 1:43 pm

  11. So what if I want someone to be truly happy in their life or existence (I want them to have light in their life) but I still feel anger at something they’ve done or the way that they’ve treated me? I have I not forgiven them?

    Comment by Kristen J — November 28, 2005 @ 3:28 pm

  12. Hmmm, good question Kristen.

    Well, I think the first step is not hating the offender. From there suppose we sometimes may have to move on to loving them enough to try to help them change and improve if possible. The lingering anger we feel is usually because we are still recovering from our injury (whether it be physical, emotional, social, financial, etc.) Sometimes frank advice is what the offender needs. Sometimes it is something else. I suppose that if the pure love of Christ is motivating our actions we can’t go wrong though. We will do for that person whatever is in their long-term best interests (within the limits of our own abilities of course).

    I think this often leads to “tough love”, where we act in their best interests even when they are not thrilled with the idea. I suppose in criminal cases that sometimes means pressing charges and following through. In social or family cases that might mean “reproving with sharpness” as guided by the spirit. Perhaps through the Spirit we will see things in a new light on occasion and either empathize with the offender or find sympathy for them.

    The course of action after we internally forgive and refuse to have deep personal malice for the offender often requires revelation and inspiration I think. And it is often real work or even uncomfortable for us — as “tough love” usually is. It may be that this “tough love” portion is extending beyond the pure forgiveness phase but I think sometimes it might be the only path to escaping the ongoing anger and resentment we might harbor.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 4:14 pm

  13. I am a HUGE Boingo fan! Seen them at least 15 times. I continue to see almost any film just because Danny Elfman scores the music for it. “Forgive” me this tangent!

    We also studied Pres. Hinckley’s talk in Priesthood. In our lesson we focused on the idea that forgiveness was a blessing to the one offended, in that he doesn’t have to carry the burden of a grudge around for the rest of his life. Forgiveness is more for the forgiver, than for the forgiven. Someone brought up the example of one who was offended by his brother and for seven years they didn’t speak to each other. It was affecting their whole family. But when the first brother wanted to reconcile, he reached out to his brother, but the brother didn’t want to respond. We all agreed in class that the one who reached out did what the Lord wanted him to. So even if the other brother didn’t respond, the first brother was OK in God’s eyes.

    I’m sure that doesn’t help in the other situations presented here, but I think it helps to focus less on what the other person does, and more on what our state of being is when we can forgive. But I also think that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you pretend it never happened. You may forgive a person, but that doesn’t mean you will have the same level of trust in them right away. I think it just means that you don’t wish them to go to hell, as Geoff said above. We can forgive someone, but recognize that for the person to show true repentence, he may have to go through the complete consequences of his actions, like maybe being held accountable by the laws of the land, if he’s committed some crime, or by making restitution either by directly restoring what may have been taken, if that’s the case, or by some other substitute for restitution, if direct restitution isn’t possible. (I’m thinking about the long thread over at BCC on the recent decision in the Washington state court.)

    Comment by Timburriaquito — November 28, 2005 @ 4:43 pm

  14. I just realized I may not have answered your question, Kristen…

    If the question is whether is one can be agry at someone and still meet the requirements of forgiveness… I think up to a point the answer is yes. While the injury is fresh feeling some frustration/anger is likely.

    For instance, if your brother intentionally pokes you in the eye and laughs at your pain, I think you can forgive him in the strict sense of loving him and wanting the best for him but still being mad at and disappointed with him.

    But the question is what will you do next? Your eye and feelings will heal but will you love him enough to show a little tough love? To frankly help him learn that such behavior will hurt him in the long run? Knowing how to do that and getting the nerve to do so is what requires inspiration/revelation I guess.

    Perhaps another difficult question is whether we truly forgive if we do or say nothing to help the offender change for the better…


    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 4:49 pm

  15. Good additions Timburriaquito.

    The example you gave of the two brothers shows that forgiveness often must be extended in both directions between parties where both are injured and both have been offenders. All we can do is control our own forgiveness though.

    I think the Lord shows the best example where he says regardless of our offenses against Him, his “hand is stretched out still“. He is always there for us but he has conditions for our behavior if we want to have a relationship with him. I think we can do the same as long as the conditions we set are just and righteous. It sounds like the brother that forgave in your story at least put the ball in the court of the unforgiving brother. The forgiving one could theoretically carry on with a clear conscience while the unforgiving brother had to deal with the burden of malice and a vengeful heart.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 5:03 pm

  16. Just as a sidenote, the phrase “his hand is stretched out still” is not one of forgiveness in any of those passages, but rather one of God’s continued smiting. “In spite of all this smiting and destruction, God’s anger has not abated, and so his smiting hand is still stretched out, smiting.” That’s a paraphrase, but an accurate one.

    I thought I knew of one passage in which God’s outstretched hand represented mercy, but I can’t find it anywhere.

    Comment by Ben S. — November 28, 2005 @ 5:46 pm

  17. Uh oh. Good point Ben. Let me replace that with:

    how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.

    That sort of shows that Christ has an open door policy for us…

    Comment by Geoff J — November 28, 2005 @ 6:09 pm

  18. One more thought…

    It is dawning on me that forgiveness is about relationship more than anything else. Not about a relationship with no rules or standards though. When we fail to forgive we essentially say “I refuse to have a relationship with you under any circumstance.” In other words, we are saying that no matter how much remorse or change or repentance that person goes through — no matter how much better or Christ-like they become — we refuse to have a relationship with them. (This type of unforgiveness is beautifully illustrated in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with the French attitude toward the innocent Charles Darnay).

    But imagine what would become of us if God treated us that way. We have all offended God. If he had the attitude that he would not accept us back under any circumstance then we would indeed be cast off forever regardless of any and all repentance. That is why it is so scary when he tells us that we will be given the same type of forgiveness we give others. He will accept us back into a loving relationship with him upon our repentance — but only if we extend the same conditions to those that offend us.

    So forgiveness is not pretending we were never injured. It is a willingness to enter a relationship with with our offender — even though we can (and must) have conditions for entering that relationship.

    And I think this can happen in degrees as well. The least we can do is sit back and silently expect the offender to read our mind and know what our conditions for a relationship are. Or we can actively (although perhaps cautiously) reach out to the offender and tell them what needs to be done if they wish to have a relationship with us. Of course we hope that God will do the latter for us when we offend him so it probably behooves us to do the same for our enemies/offenders.

    In a real sense, we are practicing being like God when we reach out to those that have injured us and show a willingness to help them meet the conditions of a renewed relationship with us. (And it is not only ok to set standards for a renewed relationship, it is God-like…)

    Comment by Geoff J — November 29, 2005 @ 10:56 am

  19. Geoff,

    This is totally off topic, but I just came across a brilliant essay which made me think of you immediately upon reading it. I obviously won’t expect you to go in for all of what is said in it, for that’s not really the intent behind it, but some of the ideas I think you will find absolutely wonderful. Here it is:

    Is God a Taoist?

    I would love to here what you have to say about it.

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — November 29, 2005 @ 1:34 pm

  20. BTW Jeff,

    I enjoyed the link, but I’m not sure what I want to do with it. The guy hits on some great ideas but there are a lot of absolutists and ex nihilo assumptions mixed in too… I’ll figure out if I can work it into a post some how…

    Comment by Geoff J — November 30, 2005 @ 3:52 pm

  21. Right on. I didn’t think it would be too hard for you to see the good from the bad in it. I especially thought his account of spiritual progression was interesting. What did you think of his compatibilist view at the end there?

    Comment by Jeffrey Giliam — December 1, 2005 @ 10:22 am

  22. Well I thought it was pretty standard compatibilist fair. The idea being that we always do what we want even though what we want happens to be determined by bigger forces. It just doesn’t work in Mormon doctrine in my opinion. If we really have the potential to be like God then we )and He) cannot be entirely determined by larger external forces (IMO).

    He also pushed an Orson Pratt-like panpsychism where God is actually The Process of the universe rather that a person. I found that to be an interesting direction from his philosophy.

    I sort of appreciated his reasons for pushing reincarnation too (even though we Mormons clearly would reject his take on it.)

    Comment by Geoff J — December 1, 2005 @ 11:01 am