Not too long ago, I read Hawthorn's book, The Scarlet Letter. Set in the 17th century Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, it's the story of Hester Prynne, a woman caught in adultery, condemned to forever wear a large, scarlet A on her dress in penance. Shunned by society, both for her sin and for her refusal to name her child's father, Hester's trials and her struggles to raise her daughter work together to make her beautiful and gentle. Her husband, presumed lost at sea, returns to discover her shame and secretly takes his revenge on her lover. The story shows the dignity of repentance -- and it shows the poisonous effect of withholding forgiveness. Near the end of the book she urges her husband to accept the heavenly healing in forgiving his enemy:
Forgive, and leave his further retribution to the Power that claims it! ... There might be good for thee, and thee alone, since thou hast been deeply wronged and hast it at thy will to pardon. Wilt thou give up that only privilege? Wilt thou reject that priceless benefit?
-The Scarlett Letter (emphasis added)
It took me a long time to understand why forgiveness is so essential for the person who has been wronged. That always struck me as backwards, as if the one who has done wrong was getting away with something, particularly if they are still unrepentant when they are forgiven. I had it all wrong: forgiveness is at least as much for the person that's been injured, as it is for the one who made the mistake.
When I was in Seminary, we would have these monthly "Super Saturday" activities with other teens from all over the stake, where we would get together and have a lesson in the morning, then do an activity or a service project in the afternoon. I generally enjoyed Seminary, even though it was pretty early in the morning, and these Super Saturdays were some of the best activities they planned for us. As part of the seminary course, we were asked to read the scriptures every day, which I did, only missing a few days in the whole four years' time I attended.
At one of these Super Saturday lessons, the teacher asked those students who had not read every single day to please stand. She then proceeded to tell us how terrible it was, how unfaithful, and lacking in testimony we were, because we had not done our reading the way we were supposed to. I'm sure she meant well, but it was not her best moment. I found it particularly humiliating, because I worked hard to read every day, but there had been a day just that past week where I'd woken up and thought, "Oh. I forgot to read yesterday." And my streak was over and gone. By the time I realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. And so, because I had a moment of forgetfulness, this teacher was including me in her ill-advised public shaming of those kids who were struggling. I was completely humiliated, and I was angry.
I left the class.
We lived in a semi-rural area of Wisconsin, and there were not a lot of members around, so our Stake was geographically large, and these activities were planned first in this town, then in another, so you could end up driving two to three hours to get there, but it happened that that month, the activity was in my hometown, and the church was only a mile or two from my home.
I left that class hurt and angry and humiliated, and the first thing I saw when I got out into the hallway was the building's exit. It was a beautiful day, and it was not a long walk home.
I very seriously considered walking out. Walking out of the class, and of the building... and of the Church. It would have been so easy. Push open the glass door and walk out into the sunshine, and away from the whole thing.
Instead I fled down the hall to the library, which was about as far away from the class as it was possible to be and still be in the building. I cried, and my friend's dad heard me and came to see what was wrong. When I told him what had happened, he gave me a hug, and then he offered me a priesthood blessing. In that blessing, the Lord instructed me that I needed to learn to say in my heart, "Let God judge between me and thee." And I should let Him handle it.
I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
-Doctrine and Covenants 64:10
It took me a long time to understand that, had I left that day the person who would have suffered most was me. Christ's counsel against anger isn't an unobtainable, unreasonable expectation: it's a tender mercy, designed first and foremost for our own protection. Had I left, I would have been cutting myself off from the ordinances of the gospel, from teaching and learning about Christ in the community of saints that make up the body of the church. It wasn't going to bother her if I left - I never knew if she even realized there had been an incident. I believe that she had the best of intentions, in spite of her poor execution that day. But leaving would have had a huge impact on me, and none of it good.
Forgiveness was key, and letting Christ handle it.
I am grateful that I don't have to figure out all the consequences, all the penalties, I don't have to somehow determine what is just, and what ought to happen, and when mercy should be applied: I'm not wise enough to always figure that stuff out in my own home, among my own children -- and that is, literally, just kid stuff! In His compassion, Christ bears that burden, and all we need to find peace is to let Him be the judge; our part is to forgive and be healed.
"Wilt thou reject that priceless benefit?" That's what Hester Prynne asked her husband -- and when he did reject it, it killed him. The anger, the revenge, the bitterness, they consumed him and he died of it. But we need not suffer that fate: Christ is able to save us from it.
My experience is that we can sometimes forget that the Atonement has two sides. Usually, when we think about the Atonement we focus on how mercy can satisfy the demands that justice would impose upon us. We are typically quicker to accept the idea that when we sin and make mistakes the Atonement is available to pay our debts. Forgiveness requires us to consider the other side of the Atonement—a side that we don’t think about as often but that is equally critical. That side is the Atonement’s power to satisfy our demands of justice against others, to fulfill our rights to restitution and being made whole. We often don’t quite see how the Atonement satisfies our own demands for justice. Yet it does so. It heals us not only from the guilt we suffer when we sin, but it also heals us from the sins and hurts of others.
-James R. Rasband, Faith to Forgive Grievous Harms (emphasis added)