Arising from darkness – the miracle of forgiveness

This is the talk (with very slight modifications) I gave in Sacrament Meeting today. Much of it is found in other posts on this blog but I edited, arranged, and added the material. It was an almost 30 minute talk (I’m grateful I had prepared enough material, although I had plenty of backup prepared as well that I did not have the use).

With the strike of an automobile, one year ago tragedy struck our family. As I have shared a number of times on this site, my 11 year old niece Allison was riding her bicycle when she was hit by an automobile. She died instantly. It has been a challenging year for my sister and her family. It has been a difficult year for all of us. But who we are as people is defined by how we respond in the face of tragedy. Do we respond with faith or do we answer with bitterness? Do we forgive or do we allow the cankering cancer of hate to grow inside ourselves? I believe tragedy is a time to turn towards others, particularly our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. The healing waters of Christ cannot wash away our hurt and grief if we keep them locked up within the stony tables of our hearts instead of offering them up to Him. Christ’s suffering – His Atonement – not only helps us overcome sin and death, it helps us overcome sorrow, suffering, and pain. Sorrow, suffering, and pain are not removed from our lives but their effects can be lessened in our lives. We can even find joy amidst the hardship as we turn towards Christ. Then one day, we have been promised that “every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude” (Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, Nov. 2008 Ensign).

Jesus offers hope and healing to all who mourn. Isaiah tells us that the Savior: “bind[s] up the brokenhearted [and] proclaim[s] liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…. [He] comfort[s] all that mourn; [and] appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion [and] give[s] unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:1-3). In these tender verses we learn of Christ’s role as healer. He pours forth the olive oil of mercy unto those in need and He comforts those who mourn: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

God shall wipe tears from our eyes – what a touching, beautiful, and miraculous experience that will be! This is a miracle we can perform for others. Pres. Harold B. Lee said of this miracle – the miracle of healing those who sorrow and who suffer with spiritual sickness: “The greatest miracles I see today are not necessarily the healing of sick bodies, but the greatest miracles I see are the healing of sick souls, those who are sick in soul and spirit and are downhearted and distraught, on the verge of nervous breakdowns. We are reaching out to all such because they are precious in the sight of the Lord and we want no one to feel that they are forgotten.” (Lee, April 1973 General Conference). The Lord came to heal the sick – in body and spirit. We are commanded to follow Christ; we must to do as He did and reach out to and heal those who are dejected and sick in spirit.

Even in times of our own suffering we can help heal others. In the days before Allison’s funeral, my sister and her husband took time to visit and comfort the boy who was driving the car. Allison died because of his mistake but he was going to have to live with her death. They wanted to let him know that they forgave him for what happened. “There was hurt but no hate.” (Faust, April 2007 General Conference). They exemplified one of the greatest miracles in life – the gift of forgiveness. This is a gift given to us by Christ and one we can give to others. Those who Pres. Lee said are “sick in soul and spirit and downhearted and distraught” might be aching for one thing from us – the healing that comes from us offering the gift of forgiveness.

We are approaching the time when we celebrate Christ’s birth. As Christmas day nears some of us might be worried about getting presents planned, organized, finished, purchased, packed, wrapped, and shipped. We might wonder how we are going to pay for presents. In this bustle it can be easy to feel overwhelmed; it can be easy to forget that the greatest gifts are gifts of ourselves. Whether we can afford to buy and give expensive presents or not, we can all afford to give one gift – the gift of forgiveness. We can forgive others for any real or perceived wrongs they did to us or loved ones and in turn we can be forgiven by God.

Pres. Henry B. Eyring said of forgiveness,

“Many of us have lost loved ones to death. We may be surrounded by individuals who seek to destroy our faith in the gospel and the Lord’s promises of eternal life. Some of us are troubled with illness and with poverty. Others may have contention in the family or no family at all. Yet we can invite the Light of Christ to shine on us and let us see and feel some of the promised joys that lie before us…. [Christ] came into the world to be the Lamb of God, to pay the price of all of the sins of His Father’s children in mortality so that all might be forgiven. In the Christmas season we feel a greater desire to remember and ponder the Savior’s words. He warned us that we cannot be forgiven unless we forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15). That is often hard to do, so you will need to pray for help. This help to forgive will come most often when you are allowed to see that you have given as much or more hurt than you have received. When you act on that answer to your prayer for strength to forgive, you will feel a burden lifted from your shoulders. Carrying a grudge is a heavy burden. As you forgive, you will feel the joy of being forgiven. At this [time] you can give and receive the gift of forgiveness.” (Ensign, December 2009).

Some people are quick to forgive others. There is a story of told of George Albert Smith, who was president of the church from 1945 to 1951. The story goes as follows,

“George Albert Smith had an old 1936 Ford with a very precious blanket on the front seat made by Navajo Indians; they had sewn the names of all the Twelve into the blanket, along with his own name. The car wasn’t locked because it was in a guarded Church parking lot. But the blanket was stolen anyway. George Albert walked out from his meetings and found the blanket was gone. He could have called the mayor of Salt Lake City and said, ‘What kind of city are you running? [I want] that blanket back.’ Or he could have called the chief of police and said the same thing. Or he might have said to the guard, probably a Latter-day Saint, ‘Are you blind?’ [Instead], What did he do? He said simply, ‘I wish we knew who it was so that we could give him the blanket…for he must have been cold; and some food also, for he must have been hungry.’” (Madsen, Presidents of the Church, p.224).

Now that is forgiveness! Pres. Smith’s response showed his forgiveness and love for others, especially those who wronged him. We are commanded to forgive one another in part because the Lord is so willing to forgive us; we need to follow His example. “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. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C: 64:9-10). My sister and her family were able to forgive the young man who struck Allison. We are required to forgive all people – without condition. It does not matter what they did to us, the only thing that matters is forgiving. This does not mean that we sanction people’s misdeeds or sins. It also does not mean that we cannot seek appropriate recompense when necessary, but we should always forgive. There is little more damaging to a person than the festering disease of an unforgiving heart. When we refuse to forgive others, we give them control over us; we let others determine our happiness. In our unforgiving, we do more harm to ourselves than to those whom we do not forgive. While we need to forgive others, sometimes that forgiveness needs to be directed inwardly.

Elder Holland stated: “There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life—either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes—our own or other people’s—is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist….”

“When something is over and done with, when it has been repented of as fully as it can be repented of, when life has moved on as it should and a lot of other wonderfully good things have happened since then, it is not right to go back and open up some ancient wound that the Son of God Himself died trying to heal….”

“Faith is for the future. Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us and that Christ truly is the ‘high priest of good things to come.’” (Remember Lot’s Wife)

Forgiveness is such an central principle and commandment that when Jesus taught His disciples how to pray He included the following phrase: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Again, the lesson is that we are required to forgive others if we want to be forgiven. After Jesus ended His prayer He said, “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). That seems like a strong case for the importance of forgiving others! It is a simple condition for forgiveness – forgive others to have our sins forgiven. There can be more to being forgiven, but forgiving others is a necessary step.

Others might wrong us but sometimes we are the ones who have wronged others. In these instances we must ask for forgiveness and repent. There is a story of a man who snapped in anger at his children. They started to cry. Realizing his error, he went to their room and asked for forgiveness. They quickly jumped into his arms and kissed him, forgiving him for any wrong. This man stated:

“I learned a lot of lessons from that. But the one that sticks with me the most, because I’m a father, is that it’s a father’s job to repent first. That’s what is means to me to be a father – to be the first one to repent and heal the relationship. My children were anxious and willing to forgive and be friends with me. But I had to start it. It seems to me that that’s the way relationships are healed. It’s no more complicated than that. It may take longer in some cases, but there isn’t much more to it than simply yielding your heart to what you know is the truth and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’” (Warner, Bonds that make us free, p. 261).

I’ve made my share of mistakes in parenting. Parenting is hard work; it takes effort and patience. But it also takes more than that; it takes love and selflessness. As a parent it is especially important to be the first one to repent and ask for forgiveness. Repentance is often a necessary step to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is precisely what Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were about. 2000 years ago a baby was born in humble circumstances. His birth came without much earthly adulation but the heavens were resplendent with signs and wonders for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Angels appeared to shepherds, wise men followed a gleaming star, and the righteous and wicked alike went without night in the New World. That tiny baby was the Son of God – the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He who showed his spirit body to the brother of Jared now had a body of flesh. He who will return as Christ the Conquering King came first as a lowly Babe in Bethlehem. There is little we know about His early life; we do know Jesus was born in Bethlehem, dwelt in Egypt, and grew up in Nazareth. He was visited by wise men some time in his first few years of life. He grew up learning from Joseph and Mary. At age 12 He spent time teaching the priests in the temple – they marveled at His knowledge: How does the son of a carpenter, a 12 year old boy know so much about the scriptures?! At age 30 Jesus started His ministry full-time. Over the next three years He lived without a home, spending most of His days walking the dusty roads of Galilee and Jerusalem. He called men to be apostles. He taught, healed, and performed many miracles. The greatest miracles He performed were forgiving sin. Jesus then instituted the sacrament, atoned for all the sins, sicknesses, and pain of humankind, stood trial, and died upon the cross. But that was not the end! On the 3rd day Jesus rose from the dead, bringing everlasting life to all people. He rose triumphant from the grave, victorious over death and hell.

Jesus accomplished all this to bring the possibility of eternal life to humankind. He did this because He loves us. Because of this love and His power we can be forgiven of our sins. We all make mistakes. We all sin and fall short of God’s laws. But we can be forgiven. God said of Joseph Smith (and to each of us, for we all sin), “Nevertheless, he has sinned; but verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death.” (D&C: 64:7).

We can be forgiven but sometimes before we repent the darkness of sin can be overwhelming. We might cry out with the fearful sailor:

It darkens. I have lost the ford.

There is a change on all things made.

The rocks have evil faces, Lord,

And I am [sore] afraid. (Source).

Sin leads to a hellish darkness of separation from God – poignant and painful – a pain that feels endless. This separation from God is spiritual death. However, there is help available there is a way that we can be born anew, free from this type of death. This help comes through faith in Christ’s Atonement and through repentance. These are like radiant rays of the sun bursting through the dark clouds that burn away the dreary mists of life. Through Christ’s suffering, we are provided solace for sin. Jesus is our song in the darkness of night. He is our pillar of fire. He stabilizes the rudderless and calms the stormy seas of sin. This is the true miracle of forgiveness – that the turmoil of our suffering can turn to peace.

Alma, the great Book of Mormon prophet, shared his experience in overcoming his sins. He rebelled in his youth; he led people away from the church and from God. His family prayed and fasted for him and through a great miracle, he was able to repent of his sins. He described his repentance to his son:

“13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities…I saw that I had rebelled against my God…

16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:13,16-20).

This light and joy from Christ can replace the darkness and sorrow. The Lord is willing to forgive us as we repent. Alma did some terrible things but he was able to repent.

Elder Holland said recently, “Whoever you are and whatever you have done, you can be forgiven. Every one of you…can leave behind any transgression with which you may struggle. It is the miracle of forgiveness; it is the miracle of the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. But you cannot do it without an active commitment to the gospel, and you cannot do it without repentance where it is needed.” (Holland, Oct. 2011 General Conference). I testify that this is true. I’ve been blessed with the miracle of forgiveness in my life; I’ve seen this miracle work wonders in the lives of others. One of Satan’s most insidious lies is that we are not good enough to repent; that we could never be forgiven. We are good enough and we can be forgiven. The miracle of forgiveness is a manifestation of Christ’s mercy.

In what is one of the most moving descriptions of the Lord’s mercy, the prophet Micah described the Lord’s feelings for the House of Israel – for all of us. Micah expressed his hope for redemption; he said: “Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness” (Micah 7:7-9). The Savior pleads our cause. He is our court-appointed defense; what better defense can we have than someone who truly, completely, and perfectly understands and loves us? Christ can bring us out of darkness into the light. Micah later continues with another moving and loving description of the Lord: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19). The Lord executes justice but he delights in mercy and is compassionate. He loves each of us dearly.

The Savior’s life was filled with many acts of mercy. He gave sight to the blind; He cured all manners of infirmities; He cast out devils; He took time to bless children even when He was tired and hungry; He brought the dead to life. However, His greatest act of mercy was the Atonement. “And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam. And he suffereth this that the resurrection might pass upon all men, that all might stand before him at the great and judgment day” (2 Ne. 9:21-22). This single act made it possible for all to live again and for all to receive forgiveness of sins as they repent and have faith in the Lord. The way is prepared. “Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (2 Ne. 9:50). The Savior’s mercy, His forgiveness, is offered freely to us as we repent.

As we repent, the Lord’s Spirit cleanses us and the Savior’s Atonement sanctifies us. The great prophet Enoch was taught these truths: “Ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified” (Moses 6:59-60).

This is a three part path to sanctification. First, when we sin, we need to repent. An important part of that process is baptism. Second, through confirmation and the re-confirmation that comes when the Holy Ghost burns in our hearts, we can have our sins forgiven; we are absolved of guilt and brought back into alignment – we are justified – with Christ. Lastly comes the greatest miracle – through the blood of Christ we can be sanctified. This means we are not only forgiven, it means that our very nature is changed so that we no longer have desires to do wrong. It means that we become holy as God is holy.

I have been speaking about our need to forgive others as well as our need for forgiveness. In a hymn we learn more about forgiveness.

“As now our minds review the past,

We know we must repent;

The way to thee is righteousness—

The way thy life was spent.

Forgiveness is a gift from thee

We seek with pure intent.

With hands now pledged to do thy work,

We take the sacrament.” (As Now We Take the Sacrament)

“Forgiveness is a gift” from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ gift to each of us as we repent. Forgiveness is the gift that each of us, no matter how rich or poor we may be, can afford to give to others. No matter who we are or what we own, forgiveness is the greatest gift we can receive. None of us can return to or Father without the Savior’s mercy.

Mercy is a major component of forgiveness. In order to receive mercy, we must be merciful. We are commanded to be merciful: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Mercy is a beautiful doctrine but one eternal principle seems at odds with mercy – justice. Justice and mercy are usually mentioned together even though many times they seem like they are mutually exclusive of each other. On the surface, it does not seem possible for someone to be both just and merciful.

In the book of Alma we find one of the clearest descriptions of the interplay between justice and mercy. We learn that justice must be served – it is an eternal law that cannot be broken: “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God…. Do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:13,25). However, we know that God is both just and merciful. Justice must be fulfilled but God provided a way for justice and mercy to be served: “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15). The Great Lawgiver, even the Lord Jesus Christ, offered himself as a merciful sacrifice so that justice would be fulfilled. The great Book of Mormon teacher, Jacob, younger brother to Nephi, called the Plan of Salvation the “merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Ne. 9:6). The Plan of Salvation is a Plan of Mercy.

Mercy is such an important principle that it is one of the main messages of the Book of Mormon. In the first chapter of the first book in the Book of Mormon Nephi writes, “Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Ne. 1:20). Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. Lehi had had a vision and started preaching the impending destruction of Jerusalem. It was not a popular message. However, the Lord was mindful of Lehi and his family. Lehi had a special calling to leave Jerusalem and work his way to a promised land. That is the Lord’s mercy; He delivered Lehi’s family from destruction. Their path was not easy but the Lord was merciful. Nephi explained how to obtain mercy – simply have faith in the Lord. The Lord has merciful feelings for all people. However, He can only be as merciful as people allow Him to be: “Thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him” (Mosiah 29:20). He cannot fully bless us with His mercy if we do not have faith in Him and if we do not pull all our trust in Him. To receive a fullness of mercy we must repent of our sins.

We can trace the Lord’s mercy throughout the Book of Mormon as people are freed from bondage – physical and spiritual. Even though much of the tone of the Book of Mormon is negative – it is after all, a chronicle of civilizations that destroyed themselves – there is always the underlying message of hope and mercy that things will work out in the end. This is the message for our lives – there is repentance and forgiveness. There is mercy to be found. This is a promise given to those who return to live with God again. This is one of the great miracles in life – that we can be forgiven of our sins and be able to return to live with God. Heavenly Father is willing to forgive us because He loves us. As we repent, we can have the pain and hurt of sin washed from our wounded hearts. We can be made whole and pure.

Forgiveness is a precious gift we must give others and one that we can receive ourselves. It can be a gift of peace to others and a blessing of joy to ourselves.

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