Another Church Talk

Hey Guys, Marci and I were asked to speak in Church last week. Here is what I said.

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“Forgiveness may be the greatest virtue on earth…” (Gordon B. Hinckley, 175th Semiannual General Conference)

When I first read this it gave me pause. After all there is a lot of competition in the field for greatest virtue. Why forgiveness? What of Charity, Patience, Chastity, or Honesty?

When I thought about it more, I came to the conclusion that forgiveness brings about healing, both for the offended and the offender. When we are able to forgive, we open up our heart and our mind to the influence of the Holy Spirit and we allow Christ’s Atonement to wash away our hurt and our sorrow as well as our sins. So really forgiveness is so important because it is so closely tied to the central mission of the Savior. Indeed in that same talk Gordon B. Hinckley goes on to say:

“The great Atonement was the supreme act of forgiveness.”

But it is not enough to just forgive and forget. As the savior told us on the Sermon on the Mount:

Mathew 5:43&44 – Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

So, as my wife pointed out earlier, we must replace our negative feelings with something. To fully forgive we must replace our hurt and our anger with love.

But what keeps us from forgiving others? Well I think that that pride is the number one reason why we sometimes have difficulty forgiving other people. The funny thing is that when it comes to forgiving ourselves the opposite emotion is the source of the problem. Shame or feelings of guilt can be the biggest stumbling block for those of us that struggle to forgive ourselves. For this reason I think that the ability to forgive yourself can be the most challenging aspect of forgiveness, and this is what I would like to spend the remainder of my talk on.

I served my mission in Norway and in one of my areas I worked with a woman named Sarah. Sarah was really struggling to obey one of the commandments. She tried and tried to change but she kept giving into temptation. This happened so much that she decided that she was not worthy to partake of the sacrament. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the sacrament, the bread and water which were just passed around the congregation, is an ordinance in which we renew our covenants we made at baptism. Each week we promise to obey the law of the Lord and he promises to give us the strength and power of His Holy Spirit.

One day while sitting behind the sacrament table of the ward, I couldn’t help but notice as the tray was passed to Sarah. She waved it off, but the old woman by her side didn’t understand what Sarah was trying to communicate and the woman quietly insisted that she take it. I could see the panic in Sarah’s eyes as she gave into the woman’s persistence and took the bread. Afterward, she was almost in tears. I could see her inaudibly mouthing the words of a distraught conversation. She was speaking to God, apologizing and explaining the situation. At that moment I wanted to rush down from that stand and comfort her and let her know that it was alright. I’m sure that that is what Christ wanted to do too. But Sarah was not letting that happen. There she was, she had taken the sacrament but her own guilty feelings were preventing her from reaping the blessings that she was most certainly entitled to.

Sarah was not perfect and she knew it. She gave into temptation on occasion and recognized her weakness to an addiction. But, despite her actions, Sarah had a heart with pure intents and a penitent attitude. The Lord does not require perfection for a person to take the sacrament; he only requires a broken heart and a contrite spirit. These are the qualifications laid out in 2 Nephi 2:7. “Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, … unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit…”

Indeed the Atonement was not wrought for the perfected, but for the sinner to become perfected.

This can be hard to keep in mind as we sit in a meeting hall like this surrounded by so many obviously perfect people. But that’s when I like to remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man”. Or the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:9 where he says that the same temptations that afflict you afflict the rest of the world too.

What these two prophets are trying to get across to us is that we are not alone. Our sins are not unique. The person sitting next to you likely struggles with the same things that you do. I’m sure if we were to all line up outside of Paul and Peter’s office and confess all our sins to them, by the end they would be bored from all the repetition.

In one of my favorite books, Gilead, Marilyn Robinson illustrates this point through the views of an old preacher who muses:

“So often people tell me about some wickedness they’ve been up to, or they’ve suffered from, and I think, Oh, that again! I’ve heard of churches in the South that oblige people to make a public confession of their graver sins to the whole congregation. I think sometimes there might be an advantage in making people aware how worn and stale these old transgressions are. It might take some of the shine off them. “

So getting back to the story of Sarah, we have clearly identified that shame and guilt can keep us from forgiving ourselves and enjoying the healing powers of the Atonement. But the funny thing is that shame and guilt can also be good things which motivate us to draw closer to God. This phenomenon can be so confusing that we have actually come up with a different name for the good kind of guilt. We call it Godly Sorrow, and Paul teaches us about it in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10:

8 …I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.

9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.

10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.

So how do we determine when the guilt we are feeling is the bad kind or the good kind? Well I wish I had a clear answer for you but I don’t. Like so many things in the gospel we are not given explicit instruction on how to tell exactly which type of guilt you are feeling in any given situation. Rather we must evaluate our feelings and learn for ourselves how to discern between worldly sorrow and Godly sorrow. We are given some direction on the topic though. ELDER D. CHAD RICHARDSON told us in the April 2007 General Conference:

“A main difference between these two forms of sorrow is their source. Worldly sorrow is promoted by Satan. It is the sorrow of being caught, of not being able to continue sinning, or of turning against oneself with self-loathing or disdain.

Godly sorrow, on the other hand, is sorrow given as a gift from God to those who are willing to receive it. Godly sorrow leads us to a full recognition of the magnitude of our sins but with the knowledge that we can become free of them. It leads us to fully recognize the wrongs we have committed without giving in to the temptation to see ourselves as worthless or beyond God’s love. “ (Forgiving Oneself, March 2007 Ensign.)

So the two different types of sorrow come from different sources. But the difficult thing is that Satan’s guilt and Godly sorrow feel exactly the same. It is only the results of each emotion which makes it different, and as Mathew says, “by their fruits ye shal know them.”

A good indicator as to which kind of guilt we are feeling can be found in one of my favorite scriptures – John 12: 32. “And I, if I be lifted up [on the cross], will draw all men unto me.”

This is a short statement but is also a pretty profound promise. The Lord is promising here that he is always trying to draw us closer to Him. So if our guilt points us toward Christ. If we find ourselves directing our sorrow outwards toward him, seeking to unload our burden upon Him, we know it is Godly sorrow. However, if we find ourselves focusing our guilt inward, upon ourselves only to be compounded in an ever-worsening cycle, then we know that that guilt is not coming from God.

Perhaps the best advice on this topic we have already heard from my wife. If you are earnestly trying to live the commandments, then it is best not to let your thoughts dwell on the negative. Forgive yourself. Let it go.

This is perhaps easier done if we look at how a prophet did it. Enos is a great example of a man who felt Godly sorrow directing him toward Christ and was able to forgive himself. And not only that, but he replaced those feelings with love toward his brethren and his enemies.

In Enos we read:

4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

5 And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

6 And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away

Obviously Enos was feeling guilt – enough guilt to compel him to pray all day and all night for his soul. That action is evidence of the Godly sorrow Enos was feeling.

But something had to happen before the guilt was swept away. You’ll notice that the forgiveness came in verse 5, but the next thing to happen was not Enos’ guilt getting washed away. It says in verse 6 “And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away”

Before Enos could open his heart to allow the Spirit of God to wipe away his guilt, he had to do something. He had to accept the forgiveness which was already available to him. He used his thoughts. He thought about how God could not lie. He understood the nature of God and understanding that was an act of faith and a way of directing his thoughts toward God. Only after he thought about the forthrightness of God could he be in a position to let His guilt be washed away.

So if we are to expect our guilt to lead us to the same place we must do as Enos did. We must exercise faith. We must call upon God and direct our thoughts to Him and then through the Atonement of Christ, all of our guilt and shame and sorrow will be gladly washed away.

In the name of Jesus Christ Amen.

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