Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson recently passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.
Since writing of my son’s suicide, in addition to responses from those who have also lost children this way, I have received e-mails from many parents of troubled children – children languishing in prison, children addicted to drugs and alcohol who have threatened and even tried to commit suicide, children who have left the gospel path or are wavering. Although the experience I relate in regard to forgiving has come about because of my specific trial, I believe it will help anyone hurting because of the choices of others.
The Surprise Emotion: Anger
As my healing journey continues, a friend asked me what I am feeling at this stage. I feel intense gratitude for my knowledge of the gospel, and I feel that my deep sorrow is precious somehow – because it is genuine. I feel alive more than depressed, and involved in the important process of being human and experiencing the full range of feelings the Lord must have intended his children to experience in mortality. There is much to be learned here and I am determined to learn it.
I feel my life issues and unhealed hurts surfacing. I feel a great need to reassess, repent, and apply the Atonement in my life, and to more deeply internalize every gospel principle. (Especially forgiveness, the topic of this article.) And, I have been feeling something I didn’t expect – anger!
I know that Brian suffered from some kind of chemical imbalance or mental illness; still I had a week when I was angry at everything and everybody that could have contributed to his problems. I was angry at myself, my former spouse, and my other children for not being able to give Brian more of what he needed. Angry that despite all my righteous desires I was still so lacking in regard to relationships in general. I was angry at Brian’s school friends, church friends, cousins who used to tease Brian. Angry at the person who recently stole Brian’s prized guitar, at business associates who took advantage of him, friends who didn’t honor their agreements. Angry at Brian for closing his mind to the possibility that the biggest thing he was missing in his life was the gospel, and for not telling anyone how bad he was feeling. Even angry at the Lord for placing Brian in this particular set of conditions and for not somehow prompting one of us who loved Brian to go rescue him.
My anger, while it does offer clues of what I need to work on, also opens wide the jaws of temptation to cast blame on all who may have let Brian down, and even to counsel the Lord. Also, since I was raised in a home where all anger was labeled “bad,” anger tempts me to feel rotten about myself just for feeling angry. I came to the conclusion that the only way to sidestep these temptations is to learn to truly forgive.
The Principle of Letting Go
I went and talked to my bishop, Jeffrey Edwards. His counsel feels so inspired, so simple, so right. He said to look forward – not back. He counseled me to recognize that the feelings of anger and hurt I’m having are normal, and that I should not beat myself up for them. Instead, I should express my willingness in prayer to let the Lord take them from me. He told me the Corrie Ten Boom story – one I have often used in talks, but sorely needed to be reminded of.
Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for the “crime” of harboring Jews. Her sister died there. Years later Corrie told a powerful experience she had with a former captor. She said, “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, working his way forward against the others leaving after a meeting where I had just spoken with the message that God forgives. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next a blue uniform and visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent . . .
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out. ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard in there.’ No, he did not remember me. ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,’ – again the hand came out – ‘will you forgive me?’ And I stood there – I whose sins had every day to be forgiven – and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?” She reminded herself of Jesus’ words, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” She knew she must forgive him, yet she said, “Still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently, ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’ And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. 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 others’ hand, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” (Clippings from My Notebook, p. 92)
Bishop Edwards said something like, “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. 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.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains why this process is so important: “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. (pp. 165-66) I do not have the power in myself, apart from God, to forgive or access the Atonement – only my dependence on the Lord makes it all possible.
Grief along the Path of Healing
As I began working to apply all this, I was drawn to visit Brian’s grave site for the first time since his burial. It was much harder than I anticipated.
I was so overcome with grief as the reality of his death hit me all over again that I could not hold myself upright. First I kneeled, then collapsed on the grass by his grave and sobbed – grateful that no one else was around. The day had been stormy and it began to sprinkle, and the cold rain seemed fitting somehow. I lay there and sobbed my heart out, saying, “Oh Brian, I’m so sorry. I wish I could have given you more emotional support, could have understood you more. Please forgive me. Father, please forgive me, and help Brian find the healing love and support there that he never felt here. Please help me understand and feel the reality of the Atonement and how it applies to me – and to Brian. Please help me to forgive. Help me remember that the most important thing I can do is follow my bishop’s counsel to turn to Thee moment by moment; to feel the power of the Atonement each time I hurt. I want to forgive, really forgive, and to know, really know that I am forgiven for any sin of commission or omission that may have contributed to Brian’s problems.”
“Father, Forgive Them, for They Know Not What They Do”
I attended the temple the same day, 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 was reminded of the scripture,“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).
I pondered those persons I needed to forgive and asked, “How can I fully forgive others? Is forgiveness something you can finish or do you have to keep doing it over and over?” (I’d thought so many times that I had accomplished it – yet here I was again.) 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.” 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 and let God.” Does any weak mortal limited in perspective and knowledge, blinded by false traditions and painful past experiences, really know what he is doing? I wondered. 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 one thing the Atonement is really about – to make up the difference for our ignorance, poor judgment, lack of understanding? 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 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 utter humility asking each other’s forgiveness, gratefully acknowledging the Savior’s forgiveness through the Atonement, and peacefully reconciling.
The definition of repentance in the Bible dictionary, page 760 is: “A change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world . . . A turning of the heart and will to God and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined.” I received a fresh view that day in the temple; I received an assurance that that reconciliation will all some day come to pass, and that in the meantime I can trust God in all things. It was a healing process; one I enjoy repeating in my mind’s eye, one I need to remind myself of daily, even moment by moment.
Forgiveness Is a Process
I must not fall into the trap of believing that forgiving is a one-time event – that I accomplished it and it is finished. It is, instead, a continuing process. In chapter 7 of a yet unpublished book, author Rod W. Jeppsen said: “If we look for one huge experience that will allow us to forgive, we may never find forgiveness. Forgiveness, for the most part, is made up of little changes we make over time until one day we find ourselves at peace. We have to be willing to give up the hurt and pain so forgiveness can take its place. That’s right – forgiveness replaces the hurt and pain. We do not have room in our hearts for both. At some point we either let forgiveness in or we choose to hold onto the hurt and pain. It really is our choice. We don’t have to rush it. We don’t have to work on someone’s schedule, and forgiveness really does not have much to do with the person who offended us. It’s between us and the Lord. Forgiving is what we can do only when we have the Lord’s Spirit in our lives and hearts. Like all other gospel principles, the Lord has not asked us to forgive others without preparing a way for us to forgive ….”
Rod concluded, “At times we may think we have forgiven and then we are hit again with resentment and anger. When we feel confused by our tendency to revisit those feelings, it’s important to realize that forgiveness is an ongoing process that takes time. We must apply patience to this process and give ourselves credit for every small degree of success, knowing we’ll have more later on. Over time we come to realize that an unforgiving heart hurts us more than it hurts the person who may have offended us. We learn that forgiveness is not about them, it’s about us!”
I’ve learned that I cannot change the past but that I can change the way I perceive the whole situation in order to get unstuck from the past. For me, writing is an amazing tool in that process; I find it especially beneficial in the quiet morning hours. As I write, the Holy Ghost often reveals to me truths I had not suspected – or had forgotten. Writing about a situation often softens my heart toward others, and helps me see the hurt they were carrying, and helps me see that my judgment of them is often the thing that needs to be changed.
I often find through writing that I have dropped the hurt and anger and have allowed myself to move on. In so doing I am in that moment accessing the Atonement in my own life and showing my faith in the Atonement in the lives of others as well.
The height and depth and breadth of the Atonement are breath-taking. Boyd K. Packer gave this assurance: “I repeat, save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.” (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 20).
In his book The Broken Heart, Bruce Hafen said, “While it is true that we can achieve no other success that will in fact compensate for our failures within or outside our homes, there is a success that compensates when we cannot – after all we can do in good faith. That success is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, whose influence can mend what for us is beyond repair.
“The Atonement compensates not only for our sins, but for our errors in judgment, our mistakes made through ignorance, and the hurtful effects of others’ poor choices in our lives.” Oh, how my heart resonates to the assurance and peace in those words!
President James E. Faust said, “All of us benefit from the transcendent blessings of the Atonement and the Resurrection, through which the divine healing process can work in our lives. The hurt can be replaced by the joy the Savior promised … Through faith and righteousness all of the inequities, injuries, and pains of this life can be fully compensated for and made right.” (Ensign, Nov. 1996, 52)
Elder Orson F. Whitney said: “You parents of the wilful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours – long before he entrusted them to your care – and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fulness of knowledge brings the fulness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend …
“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared … ‘Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.’” (Conference Report, Apr. 1929, p. 110.)
Peace Tiptoes into Our Souls and Hope Prevails
I suspect that the adversities and unfulfilled expectations of my life may be the very expectations He had for me in order to teach me what I most need to learn. In D&C 111:11, the Savior promised, “I will order all things for your good … as fast as ye are able to receive them.” I need to place my faith and trust in His will and in His timetable. No matter how short or long the time required, as long as I am sincerely trying to do the best I can with my limited ability I will eventually be able to fully forgive, and feel forgiven. I will overcome through Christ. I have the promise of our Good Shepherd that He will stay by my side through it all. The pain of my lost dreams – for myself and for Brian – is not necessarily evidence of injustice or that I am irreparably flawed, but evidence that the Lord has much to teach me, that His will is different from my will. The Savior doesn’t want me to beat myself up when I recognize these things; he wants me to turn and live! He wants me to feel His love and to know I am his beloved child, to know that all righteous desires that are His will can yet be filled.
I know the Lord understands and will help me overcome every pattern that is not for my best good and growth. He will help me fight my inner battles. He will make up the difference between what I lack and what is required, until the victory is complete and I am fully His.
A dear friend e-mailed: “I know that you will find peace of heart as your armor of faith girds you up. The wonderful knowledge is that peace of heart does come. We don’t know when it comes. But it tiptoes quietly into our souls and whispers to us that all will be well. God has the plan and it has not all been revealed to us. Our job is to trust in Him. It is a journey in learning how to trust and accept that all will be well.”
I love these words from “How Firm a Foundation” (Hymn 85)
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow.
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall by thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
The Lord’s grace, through His Atonement, is all sufficient. Through His power we can forgive and be forgiven. Through his mercy we can give and receive Christlike love. Through His refining fire we – and our errant children – can become gold.