What Does It Mean to Forgive?

Last Sunday in church, we had a discussion in Sunday School around forgiveness, and it’s still been kicking around in my head. It centered around this scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 64: 9-10:

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.

10 I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.

The part that I really stumbled over this time was the bit about the person who isn’t forgiving having the greater sin. That works totally fine when the act you’re supposed to forgive is something minor. Someone said something mean to you. Someone got in a fight with you. Forgiving something like that seems doable, and I could see that if the person who said or did something to you is there asking for forgiveness, and you decide to be angry at them for forever anyway, how you might be the person with the bigger issue there.

But what if it’s something bigger? What if it’s someone who killed your dog by accident? What if they killed your dog on purpose? Or something worse? Or what if they aren’t even asking for forgiveness. Do you still have to forgive them then? And does the “greater sin” still rest with you?

As I’ve continued to think about it, it’s helped for me to look at this transaction in economic terms. The action of the person who hurt you is a sunk cost. It’s done damage to you, and that damage is already inflicted. At this point, what you choose to do in response to that damage might make things better for you or worse for you. If you choose to harbor a grudge permanently, who is that hurting more. You, or them? If the definition of sin is knowing the will of God and not doing it, which action is bringing you further away from God? Perhaps the “greater sin” is focused on you, not on them. On the impact that action will have on you.

That angle of thinking helped somewhat with my conundrum, but it led to another question: What does it mean to forgive? Are you supposed to forget about the harm that person caused you? You shouldn’t have to put yourself back into the position where you were harmed before, should you? You don’t have to be BFFs with that person anymore, right?

To answer this, it helped me to think about the contractor who walked off with $3,500 of my money, never to be seen again. I was most definitely angry with him for months. Denisa and I had a private investigator track the guy down in hopes of getting our money back. We discovered he was in prison for possession of heroin, and we had to decide what we wanted to do. We could push forward, trying to get some of our money out of him, but it would take a lot of time and effort, with no guarantee that it would work.

In the end, I decided to just forgive him the debt. What did that mean? I never talked to him. I never had this big scene where I said, “I forgive you,” and the music swelled, and we all hugged. I most definitely would never hire him for another job, and I would warn anyone I heard of who might be thinking of hiring him to stay well away. Instead, it meant that I stopped wanted to get back at him. I decided to forget about the urge for retribution. I went from thinking about what he’d done to us often, to not thinking about it at all. Five years later(!), I still remember everything that happened, but I no longer feel much of anything but pity for the contractor. He was in a bad spot. His marriage crumbled around him. He went to prison. Googling him just now, I see he’s been up to no good since then as well. Illegal fires, more drugs, forgery, and more. It looks like someone’s getting money from him, and good luck with that.

But in the end, I felt like the grudge I was harboring against him was doing me far more harm than it was doing him. He never asked for forgiveness, and I doubt he would if he saw me. (I have no desire to see him again, if for no other reason than I know he’s perpetually doing things I don’t want to be around.)

In the grand scheme of things, $3,500 is still not a whole lot of damage, compared with some of the things people do to each other. I don’t know how I’d navigate worse things, and I pretend to be in a position to advise others how to do that. But it makes sense to me to do what we can to minimize the damage terrible things can have on us, and making the conscious effort to move forward is often the best way to do that.

After all this thinking, I still believe that scripture is a whole lot deeper than the surface level it seems at first glance, and discussion of forgiveness and what it means likely changes depending on each circumstance. It’s much more nuanced than you can get with a group discussion of thirty people, especially when you never know what sort of “sins” each person in the room is thinking about in the discussion.

What does forgiveness mean to you?


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