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The Great Presumption



A bright, sensitive young man told me about his recent battle with his brother. Harsh words and threats were traded. The young man told me, “If he apologizes sincerely, I will forgive him. But I rather like being estranged. It is nice not to have him around.” It seems that all of us enjoy some occasional recreational resentment. We love to nurture our grudges and culture our complaints.

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” (D&C 64:9).

Sometimes we’re tempted to accuse God of hyperbole. He couldn’t possibly mean that, if someone commits a grievous sin against us—perhaps murder, rape, theft—that we will be guilty of a still greater sin if we do not fully forgive that person. Maybe He is exaggerating for effect.

There is another possibility. Maybe unforgivingness is a presumption of epic proportions. Maybe the failure to forgive suggests that we think we should be able to regulate the flow of His grace. “No one should be redeemed unless we approve.”

Perhaps God is telling us in that remarkable scripture that we do not have veto power on His acts of redemption. When we presume to declare someone undeserving, we show our pettiness and ingratitude. We clearly do not understand our own dependence on His grace.

Thus, when brilliant Jesus teaches about a debtor who was forgiven a vast debt (estimated to be billions of dollars in today’s money) who would not forgive a puny debt (estimated to be pocket change), the ungracious man incurred divine wrath.

And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:34–35).

Lately the Lord has blessed me with opportunities to view the significance of forgiveness. In one case, a young couple found themselves divided, resentful, and at the brink of divorce. The young man revealed that his attitude toward his bride had been severely damaged when she revealed a past indiscretion. He punished her for months with sullenness, harshness, and absence. To his eternal credit, he finally recognized the error of his ways. He admitted, “I need to fill myself with the gospel to change my attitude and behavior.” It was marvelous to see the transformation as he turned toward the light.

In another case, my sweet companion was asking me about making copies of the tape of our daughter’s mission report. Not having taken time to understand her request, I misunderstood her need. We swapped misunderstandings until I reacted impatiently. It is amazing to me that I can so quickly become impatient with the kindest, most considerate person I have ever known. I am sorry, Nancy.

We all have just cause for resenting each other. In a telestial world, we are all offenders. Whether we do or don’t resent the offenders around us is the measure of our conversion. Loving the undeserving is the evidence of our change of heart.

When our view of life is limited to our own puny needs and peevish complaints, we begrudge others any good fortune or heavenly grace. But when we understand the great gift that has been given us, the gift of His loving sacrifice, we are filled with love and patience for the entire human race. Judgment is transformed into charity.

It is popular for us to soften the boundaries of the commandment “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1; 3 Nephi 14:1) by invoking the seemingly more liberal Joseph Smith translation “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment” (JST Matthew 7:2). Apparently we are free to judge if we do it righteously. And so humans from the beginning of time have smote one another with the commandments: “He is a sinner.” “She falls short.” “They are no good.” (What an irony that we smite each other with the commandments that God designed to bless us!)

The trouble with the broadening interpretation of the judging commandment is that it does not account for several other scriptures, including these two:

Behold what the scripture says–man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay (Mormon 8:20).

Leave judgment alone with me, for it is mine and I will repay (D&C 82:23).

How does one reconcile the different counsel on judging? There is actually no discrepancy between the seemingly more restrictive (“Do not judge”) and the more liberal commandments (“Judge only righteously”) if we understand them rightly. None of us is righteous (see Romans 3:10). Our telestial minds are not capable of righteous judgment.

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But when we are filled with He who is truly righteous, we can see rightly. When our only judgment of others is His assessment of them, then we “pass righteous judgment.” In the final analysis, only One who knows everything and loves perfectly has the right to judge.

It is supremely appropriate that we are judged on the same principle that we judge. “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2).

If we see others through the lens of His love and compassion, we will be seen in that same way. If we apply our shriveled, shrewish judgments to others, we will be judged in that way. If the grace and goodness of Christ is not our standard as we measure, it will not be the standard when we are measured.

It is not hard to tell when we are imposing our own miserable sentences on one another and when we see with the “mind of Christ”(I Corinthians 2:16). The indicator Joseph Smith gave us is compassion: “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.241).

There is one scene in literature that still haunts my weak efforts at charity—the bishop’s candlesticks from Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. The kindly Catholic bishop of Digne gives shelter to an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, much to the dismay of his housekeeper and sister. He feeds and gives a bed to the brooding man. In the dark of the night, the troubled Valjean rises, makes his way to the silver, fills his bag, and departs. On the morrow, gendarmes drag Valjean and the silver back to the bishop.

The bishop has every reason to be indignant that his kindness has been repaid with thievery. His word would send the man back to prison. He might have thought it gracious to recover his silver, deliver a lecture, and send the man on his way. But he holds a higher standard.

He greets the sullen thief: “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?”

Valjean was thunderstruck. He had only known a world of cruel legalism. He could not comprehend a man who heaped goodness on his tortured and undeserving head. That act of grace transformed Jean Valjean’s life and rippled through the balance of his years.

If we think of God’s commandments as a ruler, they are intended to chart our course back to Him. They were never intended to whack fellow travelers on the head. In the press of daily commerce, how often do we rap heads with the ruler of our legal judgments when we could change history by following the perfect example of one who taught forgiveness? He invites us to the highest standard.

“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” (Matthew 5:43–4).

God invites us to join Him in the sweet process of blessing His children.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Mark Matheson January 31, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Thank you for publicly sharing your beautiful apology to Nancy and reminding us of the magnificent Jean ValJean story. It’s high standard haunts my soul also.

    Now, back to the pettiness of the real world.
    I read an article on forgiveness that asserted that we humans are “hard-wired for revenge.” What do you think?

    Also, if we are too quick to forgive before the transgressor feels remorse for his error, are we helping them to possibly “short-cut” and minimize their understanding of what they have done?

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