Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson recently passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.
Whenever I lack the strength to be up and moving, my iPod is my lifeline. In addition to scripture, conference talks, and other uplifting messages, I listen to inspiring novels. In these novels I have noticed a recurring theme: the struggle to forgive. One character named Jackson, brutally abused by his father for many years, said things like, “I know I should forgive, but how? It makes me angry to even think about it. My father doesn’t deserve forgiveness because the things he did to me are unforgivable and I don’t think he even cared how much he hurt me. What sense does it make to say, Just forgive him’?”
When I heard those words, my thoughts turned to a friend named Stan Winchester. For some time I’ve been editing drafts of his remarkable upcoming book His Grace is Sufficient. The subtitle of his book is My Journey of Healing Through the Power of The Atonement, because his story magnificently shows the power of the Lord that freed him from years of emotional and spiritual turmoil caused by his father’s horrific abuse. He vividly brings to life the long process that made the Atonement real in his life. He tells how eventually (after much hard work and healing) he received, through the Lord’s mercy, the ability to forgive his father. With Stan’s permission, I want to share quotes from his book: first summarizing his experience, then his powerful testimony of the freedom through forgiving. I’ll add commentary including my own experience.
Stan said, “As a child, I received beatings for not doing my chores well enough, for not taking the trash out before my father wanted it taken out, for having a certain look on my face, for crying, for breathing, and for just being alive. While other children were playing and laughing in the sun I endured years of cruel physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. As I grew to adulthood, the vast destruction my father had caused with his abuse became more and more evident. I slowly began an eighteen-year span of suffering as I struggled with the systemic effects of the abuse that sought to destroy me.
” . . . The debilitating pain of repeat offenses were intense beyond my ability to cope. With my many deep emotional wounds it seemed impossible for me to forgive my father. I believed trying to forgive under these circumstances as ridiculous as trying to get on with one’s life while unconscious as a patient in an intensive care ward following a major illness, accident, or surgery. . .
“After I realized just how far reaching the damage in my life was I became very angry at my father. One day, I was all alone at his graveside. I was so angry I could have broken his headstone into a pile of rubble. As I stood before his grave I finally let the anger and rage I had been carrying escape my lips. I shouted at him about the struggles I was having in my marriage, in being a father, and in my life, because of his terrible example. I yelled and told him how angry I was for all that he had done to hurt me. When I was finished yelling, stomping, and spitting, I fell to the ground and sobbed and sobbed, but this experience brought no relief. The pain and anger was still there. . .
“When I was confronted with the opinions of fellow church members that I must forgive now, or when I was confronted with scriptures like D&C 64:10 commanding me to forgive or be worse than the offender, I felt troubled and heavy, as if I was wearing heavy chains that I could not shake off. I often felt verses like this were used as weapons by others to try to force me to forgive my father. I knew forgiveness was going to take me a long time and that I would need to do a lot of personal healing first.
“Many years later, I heard Elder Richard G. Scott’s words, If the thought of forgiveness causes you yet more pain, set that step aside until you have more experience with the Savior’s healing power in your own life’ (Richard G. Scott, To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse, General Conference, April 2008) I realized t I had not been wrong about the forgiveness process and that I had to do a lot of healing first.
Forgiveness Is a Process, Not an Event
Stan continues, “I do not believe forgiveness was ever meant to be a crushing burden placed on us by others. Especially those of us who have wrongfully suffered abuse at the hands of others. With all the horrendous emotional pain I was enduring, getting to the point where I could offer forgiveness to my father for the deep wrongs he inflicted upon me was a long process. Although, I would have liked it to have been a one-time event, it was not.”
Each time we use our will to make the choice to forgive, the Lord trades the misery of anger and resentment for a taste of charity, the pure love of Christ. The more we make that choice, the more the heart is freed. But it IS an ongoing process.
Trust God to Help
I’ve thought long and hard on this subject of forgiveness as I’ve worked with Stan, as well as many other times in my life. Still, I admit that sometimes I’ve looked at the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 64: 10, “I the Lord God will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men,” and thought: “How can God require us to forgive even those He is not going to forgive? And how can we, as such imperfect mortals possibly do it?”I know that, as Nephi said “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them”(1 Nephi 3:7). But what is the way He has prepared for us to be able to forgive? And why does it sometimes seem so hard to find?
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, “After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 165-66).
Stan and I both learned that we do not have the power in ourselves, apart from God to forgive or access the Atonement. Only dependence on the Lord makes it all possible. When I counseled with my bishop after my son’s tragic death by suicide, he reminded me of the story of Corrie ten Boom who had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Decades later, Corrie came face to face with one of her former guards. He thrust his hand out to her, asking for her forgiveness. Corrie, a devoted Christian, knew in her heart she must forgive him, yet she could not. And here is a vital message: Corrie herself often taught that forgiveness is not an emotion, but an act of the will, a choice one can make regardless of the temperature of the heart.
So Corrie made the decision to set her will to forgive the guard, regardless of how impossible it seemed. She prayed silently, with faith, “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
Woodenly, mechanically, she made the decision to thrust her hand into the one stretched out to her. And as she did, an incredible thing happened. Here’s how she describes it:
“The current started in my shoulder, seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. I forgive you, brother,’ I cried. With all my heart.’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hand, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” (Corrie ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook, 92. Corrie also told this story in some of her other books.)
My bishop counseled me, “Tell the Lord that you, like Corrie, are willing to forgive and let go of the bad feelings, but acknowledge that only He has the power to complete the healing process of forgiveness. Expect that angry feelings and grief feelings will continue to surface now and then. Healing is a long-term process. Just feel the hurt, feel the anger. Then give it all to the Lord.” He said to ask the Lord in any moment of pain to apply the healing blood of the Savior, then move on. He counseled me to ask the Lord to help me forgive and to feel His forgiveness every time bad feelings come up.
When I choose to surrender my anger, blame, or unforgiving feelings I open the door for love to flow in. My heart is not big enough for both. Deliberately or stubbornly holding on to grief and pain impedes my healing.
Stan says, “We can have the power to forgive when we have partnered with the Lord. He supplies what we don’t have. However, the feeling of forgiveness does not always come as quickly as it did for Corrie.”
Why Is It So Hard to Forgive?
I doubt many of us live very long without coming face to face with the need to forgive, and the difficulty of doing so. The wrongs done to us may run the gamut from horrendous (as in Stan’s example) to the seemingly inconsequential, but the principle is the same. It is so easy to take offense and hang onto anger, even for things that aren’t even direct affronts to us.
For example, 23 plus years ago I remarried and moved into Doug’s home, almost new, with an unfinished basement. Doug, who is an amazing craftsman with every skill imaginable, took years to finish downstairs bedrooms for my teenage sons; meanwhile they slept in what we called “the cement dungeon.” I realized recently that I still harbored resentment about that. It was as though I considered not quickly finishing the basement a sin I refused to forgive. What purpose did my resentment serve? Why would I hang onto it all these years? Why do I “hold out” on forgiving for any supposed offense?
Elder Holland said, “We consume such precious emotional and spiritual capital clinging tenaciously to . . . something a spouse said or did 20 years ago that we are determined to hold over his or her head for another 20 . . . ” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” April 2012 General Conference.)
Anger and resentment flowing from wells of un-forgiveness are opposite from feelings that flow from Christ’s well of Living Waters. You will see, as you continue to read, that both Stan and I are finding freedom from the bad feelings that were holding us captive, and so can you. The gospel teaches us specific steps to follow, and the Savior sets the example.
Applying Jesus’ words: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”
After Brian died, I recorded lessons I learned about forgiveness. The following quote is from my book, After My Son’s Suicide:
The jaws of temptation were open wide to dwell on the slights, the hurts, and especially to cast blame on all who may have let Brian down, especially myself. Hurt is often expressed as anger. . . . Because of all I’d read, I knew the only way to sidestep these temptations was to learn to truly forgive, but I wasn’t sure how to do that.
A few months after Brian’s death I attended the temple, pondering the whole principle of forgiveness. My heart was full of the desire to forgive and be forgiven, but I still felt the need to understand more deeply how to accomplish it moment by moment. I silently admitted my angry feelings to the Lord and prayed for His help. I told Him how much I wanted to let go, but what a hard time I was having doing it. I knew that God’s promises of forgiveness are sure, yet conditional on our forgiving one another . . . I pondered those persons I needed to forgive and asked, “How can I fully forgive others? . . .
I sat for a long time in the celestial room, wrestling spiritually with this dilemma, pleading with the Lord for understanding and guidance.Finally the same scripture came into my mind that the bishop quoted in Brian’s memorial service: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Just thinking those words brought greater peace than I’d had for a while. The Spirit whispered convincingly that these words apply to almost any hurtful word or action in mortality and could help me let go. Does any weak mortal-limited in perspective and knowledge, blinded by false traditions and painful past experiences-really know what he is doing? How much awareness is really possible of the pain we might be causing in another human heart, or the negative consequences we might be contributing to?
Isn’t that an important part of what the Atonement is really about-to make up the difference for our ignorance, poor judgment, lack of understanding? In his wonderful article “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Elder Boyd K. Packer reassured us that the very purpose of the Atonement is to restore the things we cannot restore, heal the wounds we cannot heal by ourselves, and fix that which we broke and have no way of fixing. (See Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 18.) There was so much in this situation I could not restore, so much I could not fix-nor could anybody else but God.
I envisioned each person on my list, and said, “Father, forgive them; for they did not know the hurt they were causing.” I felt my heart relax, and a sweet and welcome peace enter in. I turned the healing phrase to myself and said, “Father, forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing that may have hurt Brian, and I knew not how to do any better than I did.” I sensed that the Lord was mindful of the false traditions that had kept me in bondage, and that he would free me.
I had a vision in my mind of all of us on the other side, now having the Savior’s help to understand, to recognize any injury we had caused. In my mind’s eye, we asked each other’s forgiveness in utter humility, gratefully acknowledging the Savior’s forgiveness through the Atonement, and peacefully reconciling.
I received a fresh view that day in the temple. I felt an assurance that reconciliation will someday come to pass, and that in the meantime I can trust God in all things. It was a healing, freeing process; one I need to remind myself of often.
So often the things we need to forgive have resulted from false traditions of the fathers handed down through generations. That was a recurring theme in the books I listened to, and Stan learned that was the case in regard to his father’s bad behavior. He said:
“The Lord has a perfect knowledge of all factors or influences in my father’s life that affected the growth and development of his personality and his beliefs. The Lord knows my father’s background, the intergenerational teachings he was infused with, his disappointments, his pain, and his fears. The Lord knows all thoughts and intents of my father’s heart and exactly what was going on behind my father’s choices and why he did what he did. I have come to learn how the Atonement of the Lord blesses each of us as we allow it to work in us-and this includes my father. This understanding of the Atonement helped me let go of the fear, pain, and anger I felt as a result of the childhood abuse I suffered and allowed me to prepare to forgive my father.”
I believe we are all part of the pivotal generation-the generation that has been given sufficient truth to stop destructive cycles and heal families. Forgiveness is necessary for that. Elijah has come, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. As we turn to the Lord our hearts will be turned, and we will be given the power to forgive and heal our families, rather than continue to pass on false and hurtful traditions.
Stan did that. He said, “Many years ago, I presented a talk titled, “Personal and Family Worthiness” in a local stake priesthood meeting, I talked, in part, of how I changed the direction of our family from my abusive childhood. Our son also was asked to speak on his home life. He shared how he had never been abused, except with too many peanut butter sandwiches. My future stake president told me later that I was what Elder Packer had called, “a chain breaker,” breaking the chains (traditions) of abuse handed down to me by my father.”
Through forgiving we can be “chain breakers” in our families.
Forgiveness and the Atonement
If I refuse to forgive I shut myself off from the blessings of the Atonement. Not forgiving shows I don’t really understand or believe in the application of the Atonement to every one of God’s children. Especially it shows that I’m not accepting the redemptive love of the Savior for those whose wrong choices have hurt me personally, that I want them to suffer rather that to accept the Savior’s suffering for them. I’m not picturing them accepting the Savior, repenting, and being given the mercy of the Atonement here or hereafter. I just want them to pay and to justify my bad feelings by remembering how bad their actions were. In addition, I may want to keep the offenses of others toward me prominent in my mind, pointing to them as reasons others should feel sorry for how much I have suffered because of those offenses.
I think of the Parable of the Laborers, and Elder Holland’s talk in April 2012 General Conference, “The Laborers in the Vineyard.” Do I ever withhold forgiveness because I don’t think it would be “fair” for the perpetrator to receive equal “wages” (freedom from suffering for past wrongs?) when it may take them so long to come to the “field” to work? Am I ever offended at the possibility of God’s mercy and forgiveness to those who have offended me or those I love? Forgiveness of others and joy in the Lord’s forgiveness of others is the very key to receiving the fruits of the Atonement in my own life. (As I forgive, I am forgiven.)
Stan said, “Forgiving my father was something that had initially seemed impossible, and yet when the miracle of healing happened it was a fairly natural progression. Healing helped me progress by developing and strengthening my faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ and expanding my knowledge and testimony of His Atonement. I came to understand that the Lord literally suffered all He did during the Atonement so He could have perfect knowledge and be the perfect judge for all mankind. With His great sacrifice the Lord truly gained access to the thoughts and the intents of every heart. He stands as the perfect judge. Only He is qualified to be the keeper of the gate. (SeeMosiah 3:7-10; 2 Nephi 9:41.)
“At a certain point in my healing and as my faith in the Atonement grew, I was able to let go and forgive my father, realizing Christ knows my father intimately. He will administer justice when it is required and dispense mercy when it is warranted-He will balance them perfectly. I do not want to judge him. It is not up to me to decide what is best for my father; only the Lord can decide that. In fact, I have progressed to a place where I only wish for mercy and forgiveness for my father, because the poison and bitterness are gone from my heart. I now look forward to the day when I can see him again, to talk to him, and give him a hug and kiss. I am the beneficiary of forgiving my father. I have peace.” Stan was finally free!
We Can Forgive; Truth Can Make Us Free
In John 8:32 we read, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Truth from God brings forgiveness and freedom. One of those truths is that we can’t expect someone in kindergarten to act like a college student. Anger, resentment, and un-forgiveness can only stay in our hearts when we don’t know the truth. Negatively judging the motives of others shows ignorance of their background, limitations, or inability to act differently. The only way any person can change and act differently is to be freed by the truth.
Stan continues, “I now believe I needed to forgive my father because the Lord knew it was the only path to true peace and healing for me.Whether I forgave him or not may not affect him-the Lord will administer the same amount of justice and mercy regardless-but whether I forgave him or not affected me. By forgiving my father I purged myself of the poison of ill will towards him that was causing me distress.
If I had continued to choose not to forgive him because “he did not deserve it” I would have continued to re-circulate the poison through me. In that case, I would have been the victim of my own ill will. However, through the grace of the Atonement the Lord helped and guided me until I was able to forgive him, and then I was filled with the most incredible peace.”
The truth truly frees us. The Lord does not suffer from the misery of resentment at others because He knows the truth about them; He knows the truth of every factor of genetics, pre-mortal choices, mortal programming, inexperience, ignorance, limitations, physical problems such as pain and mental illness that might affect a person’s behavior. He also knows the truth of their true identity, who they were before they came to this earth, and who they will become in the eternities. When we seek the Spirit, He gives us glimpses of how He sees others, and those glimpses can free us.
“All Your Losses Will Be Made Up to You”
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “I am glad I have the privilege of communicating to you some things which, if grasped closely, will be a help to you when earthquakes bellow, the clouds gather, the lightnings flash, and the storms are ready to burst upon you like peals of thunder.. . What can [these disasters] do? Nothing. All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007) 51.)
Here is the best assurance we can receive that can free us from anger and resentment and help us to forgive. Most of the things we are trying to forgive are about LOSS. Most of our anger is about LOSS. And here, we find the Lord’s promise that He will make up all our losses. Not just physical losses, but spiritual losses from storms of the soul caused by the wrong choices of others. We don’t need to hang onto anger. We don’t need to forever mourn. Because of Him-all that we’ve lost will be restored. And because of the promise of the Atonement we can forgive and be forgiven. Because of the Savior we can know the truth, forgive, and be free!
Stan Winchester offers his witness of the truth of these principles: “Forgiving the unforgivable is a part of my real story, and the last thing I felt my dad deserved. Surprisingly for me, my journey of emotional healing was complete only when I was able to forgive him; it was then I was finally free and at peace with him. I know that Jesus can help us forgive the unforgivable, because He helped me forgive my dad. When I was able to forgive my dad I was released from the prison that held me bound.I have come to know through the divine power of the Atonement that offering forgiveness is a healing balm that removes our pain and restores peace.”
In Luke 4:18 Jesus likened the following scripture to Himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recoveringof sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
No wonder the Lord wants me to forgive; no wonder He promises to give me the power to do it! Nothing keeps me captive more than un-forgiveness. Nothing bruises me more than stored anger and resentment. Nothing keeps me blind more certainly than refusing to see the truth of the Lord’s desire to free us all. That’s what the Atonement is all about: to open the way for us all to be free, to be redeemed, to be saved. When I refuse to forgive, I’m saying that I know better than the Lord how His plan of justice and mercy should work, and that while I am pleading for mercy for myself, I want only justice for those who have wronged me! When we choose freedom for ourselves, we also start the process of freeing others.
Stan concludes, “The Lord blessed me as I forgave my dad, which happened only because Christ forgave and healed me first. A strange thing happened to me when I was far into this process and had been given the power through Christ to truly forgive my dad. It was something I never expected. One day I found myself having loving feelings for my dad, and hoped the very best for him in the spirit world. It took a lot of time, but my heart became filled with charity for my dad. Today, I look forward to the day I can give him a loving embrace and share all I can with him. I now see we are commanded to forgive so we can love, as God loves.” Amen.